Will someone please keep James Tabor away from math?

Dr. Tabor is a New Testament scholar and, judging by my exchanges with him, a very nice guy. He just happens to be the only scholar out there who is still defending the idea that the Talpiot tomb (“Jesus Tomb”) is the tomb of Jesus. One of the defenses for this tomb being the Jesus tomb has been that the mathematical odds of the tomb being that of Jesus and his family are quite favorable. That simply isn’t true, and hasn’t been true from the beginning. The mathematician whose work was part of the Discovery Channel’s Jesus Tomb TV documentary (dubbed a piece of “archaeoporn” by other scholar-bloggers) was Dr. A. Feuerverger. Feuerverger’s work was not submitted to peer review until this past month. It has now been published in a scholarly journal for statistics research (Annals of Applied Statistics). My friend Dr. Randy Ingermanson, a computational physicist with a good grasp of statistics, was one of the referees for Dr. Feuerverger’s article, and contributed an article of his own in the same issue. Randy has been addressing the math issue since the Jesus Tomb special aired, and makes it digestible for people like me who don’t understand math … but apparently I do better than James Tabor.

If you understand professional statistics work (James, if you’re reading this, please don’t follow the links), you can read the abstract of Feuerverger’s article (it isn’t free) or read Randy’s article (this one is free). I’d also advise you to read Randy’s lay-person analysis of Feuerverger’s work (James, I recommend this one). Once you do, you’ll feel the same pain as I did when I read the blog entry below by Dr. April DeConcick — note Tabor’s interpretation of the math. Aarggh!! Feuerverger’s work did not conclude that there was a 48% chance of the Talpiot tomb being the Jesus tomb. That figure comes from earlier work, which Feuerverger’s new work now invalidates. As Randy points out (and he refereed Feuerverger’s article!), Feuerverger concludes that the chance is 1/655. Randy thinks the odds are even worse. PLEASE, someone keep James from the math! In Randy’s own words (at the link above), here is what Andrey Feuerverger’s calculations do:

  1. He first made a list of the persons one should expect to find in a family tomb of Jesus
  2. For each of those persons, he made a list of the “relevant” names that could apply to that person (such as the formal version of the name and any abbreviated forms of that name)
  3. He then estimated how often each of the forms of these names were actually used in first-century Jerusalem, using the frequency of names found in ancient literature and inscriptions
  4. He made a random simulation by populating the ossuaries in the tomb with randomly chosen names from first-century Jerusalem
  5. He tracked how often a randomly chosen tomb was as “relevant and rare” as the Talpiot tomb
  6. He then used the results to estimate a probability that the Talpiot tomb might belong to some family other than the family of Jesus
  7. Finally, he computed the probability that a family tomb as “surprising” as the Talpiot tomb would be found in the vicinity of Jerusalem if the names are chosen at random. This probability was 1/655

April Deconick’s post:

The Globe and Mail just released a story following Andrey Feuerverger’s publication of his statistics article which we learned about at the Talpiot Tomb conference in January.

Excerpts from this story:

In a peer-reviewed article published last month in the prestigious Annals of Applied Statistics, Andrey Feuerverger places the odds of the 2,000-year-old tomb not belonging to the Jesus family at 1 in 1,600.This figure is even more bullish than the 1-in-600 figure that Dr. Feuerverger calculated a year ago, when interviewed for The Lost Tomb of Jesus, a $4-million documentary produced by James Cameron and directed by Toronto’s Simcha Jacobovici…

For years, archeologists attempted to deflect speculation about the tomb, saying that the names inscribed on the Talpiot ossuaries were common to the period. But Dr. Feuerverger’s analysis rejects that argument, noting that while the individual names might have been common, this specific cluster of names so resonant of the New Testament is not. Indeed, in January, at a symposium with about 50 academics in Jerusalem, no one made the case for commonality.Instead, opponents have challenged Dr. Feuerverger’s historical assumptions, notably that the unusual Greek name Mariamne found on one of the ossuaries is an appropriate designation for Mary Magdalene.

But even discounting the Mariamne assumptions, Dr. Feuerverger’s 51-page paper says that the tomb has a 0.48 chance of belonging to Jesus. That means, says James Tabor, head of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, “that if we had two tombs to examine, one of them would be the Jesus tomb. With Feuerverger’s paper in print, a more responsible discussion of the Talpiot tomb name frequencies and statistics can take place.”…

University of Detroit professor Jane Schaberg, one of the world’s ranking experts on Mary Magdalene, says it is “quite possible, even probable,” that the inscription on that ossuary describes Magdalene and adds that the tomb “may very well belong to Jesus and his followers, as opposed to Jesus and his family. My gut tells me it’s a movement site.”