Tuesday, March 13, 2007

WWJB? (Where Would Jesus be Buried?)

Jay Cost of RealClearPolitics fame has weighed in on the "Jesus Tomb" debate on the side of the skeptics. His principal target is the argument from statistics and probability. It differs from Randy Ingermanson's argument in significant respects (I like Randy's better) but others will have to assess its merits. His case includes, however, some historical claims that I think are problematic. Like,
Few scholars - including those who think Jesus was not bodily resurrected - believe that he was buried at all.
Actually, almost all scholars think he was buried. A few (e.g., J. D. Crossan) suggest the Romans might have denied Jesus' body a proper burial, but most believe his body was buried either in a shallow trench grave or (more likely) in a tomb, as indicated by the Gospels.
Even if we assume that Jesus was buried, it is exceedingly unlikely that he would be buried in or around Jerusalem. . . . One would expect the Jesus family tomb, if it did exist, to be either in the north (the family's first century A.D. home), or in the south (the family's ancestral home). There is no reason to expect it to be in or near Jerusalem.
First, all four N.T. Gospels agree that Jesus was buried immediately just outside of Jerusalem. John (19:41) adds that the tomb was near the place of execution. The Gospels give no indication that Jesus' family and friends intended to move his body, certainly not to Galilee or down to Bethlehem. I can picture a regal procession bearing Herod the Great's body south to the Herodion (near Bethlehem), but surely his was the exception to the rule that people in Jesus' day were buried more or less where they died. (I'll happily stand corrected on this one.)

Second, the N. T. (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; Gal 1:19) seems to indicate that James, Jesus' brother, remained in Jerusalem after Jesus' death. It seems quite plausible that others in Jesus family would have settled there as well. The "Jesus tomb" folks like to point out that there is no ossuary for Joseph in the Talpiot tomb--only one for Jesus-son-of-Joseph. So, the theory goes, Joseph died earlier in Galilee and was buried there. Thereafter the clan moved south.
Everybody had an interest in finding his body. It would have been a prize "get" for early Christian opponents - who were of course centered in Jerusalem - to produce it. How did they miss it when it was so close by?
This may well be right (cf. Mt 27:64; 28:11-15). Charlesworth makes a similar point. But we need to keep in mind that the "Jesus tomb" hypothesis proceeds by challenging the reliability of the Gospels' testimony. That is, the Gospels preserve later traditions and pious embellishments rather than (or mixed with) authentic history. In the aftermath of Jesus' death, says Tabor, none of Jesus' followers was claiming that Jesus' physical body had risen. That all came later, after 70, when the whereabouts of the Jesus family tomb were unknown. So the important historical question is: how soon after the crucifixion were Jesus' followers publicly proclaiming his resurrection?
Jesus' was a lower-class family from Galilee. Where did they acquire the resources to purchase what the original investigators call a tomb for a middle-class family?
The claim that Jesus' family could not have owned the Talpiot tomb may well be correct, though two of James Tabor's claims (here or here) weigh against it: (a) that the tomb itself is rather plain and (b) that Jesus had friends and supporters whose means could have made up for his lack (cf. Luke 8:3; 23:50; John 11:38; ).

Jay Cost's statistical argument may ultimately be persuasive, but some of its historical pillars need shoring up.


TheGodFearinFiddler said...

I'm not a statistician but I work with statistics in my profession and I understand them well enough to know that his statistical argument is bogus.

First of all, its an entirely false principle that we can discover historical truth by statistical methods. Statistics predict the future, not the past (though in certain circumstances, they may help shed some light on things if used properly).

Example; Historical question: Did Jane win the lottery in 2006? The odds of winning are 1 in 10 million, therefore no she didn't.

This argument doesnt amount to historical research. In fact, there was a woman who won over a million dollars in the lottery two years in a row (and thats not the first time it's happened). So the point is, that extremely uncommon things happen constantly.

Now secondly, unless you had a fairly exhaustive census record from 1st century Palestine, there's no way to quantify the likelihood of any given name at that time.

You'd have a tough time doing that for the early 1700s forget about 1st century.

Even though we have samples in written literature of various names, any statistician would tell you that those numbers do not represent an unbiased sample of the population.

He says 599/600 and I'm saying he pulled that number out of his ass.

Bruce Fisk said...

Thanks, fiddler. A few further thoughts:

1. I'm not quite sure Tabor or Feuerveger would want to say they "can discover historical truth by statistical methods." They are, rather, attempting to recover lost history through all the standard means: archaeology, epigraphy, historical inquiry, analysis, etc. Surely there is some role for statistics to play. Most people aren't rejecting their appeal to statistics outright; they are, rather, disputing the particular way they are running the numbers and/or challenging the historical assumptions on which their statistical analysis is based.

2. As for your second point, you may be right: there are far too many unknowns and too many unexcavated tombs. And our catalogue of ossuary inscriptions probably skews the data toward the upper echelons of society.

But if I have a class of 50 freshmen in which there are, say, 4 girls named Alison, I'd feel fairly confident suggesting that 8% of all freshman females in the college had that name. Is that really so irrational a move to make? How far off might I be? I'm not saying it is that easy--and remember, I do not think the Talpiot tomb belonged to Jesus' family--but I don't think we need an "exhaustive census record" to make qualified, responsible judgments about the first century.

3. Regarding where the numbers were "pulled" from, I'd say they came from the careful (but flawed) tables of a trained statistician.