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Sticky Statistics

The starting point for the supposed scientific investigation of a tomb in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot neighborhood is an amazing claim that the viewer must accept a 600 to 1 probability that it is the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. This statement is based upon a number of fallacies and a general misuse of statistics.

First, what database serves as the basis for establishing the probability of this claim? The names of Jesus’ family members have been preserved in the Gospels, but no other complete family lists from first century Judea or Galilee have survived for comparison. (The Census of Quirinius would have been useful with regard to this, but has not come down to us)

Even the records of who and how many individuals were actually buried in any given family tomb in 1st century Judea and Galilee are usually incomplete. This is due to the following circumstances:

a) Most tombs have already been visited and looted in antiquity or in recent times.

b) Not all ossuaries are saved during the excavations so as to be stored and registered. Oftentimes, only ossuaries with inscriptions, decorations or both are kept.

c) Only 25.2% of the 917 ossuaries in the collections of the State of Israel are inscribed with names. The East Talpiot tomb is unusual in that 6 of its 9 registered ossuaries (66%) were actually inscribed with names.

d) Those ossuaries which bear names have often contained the remains of more than one individual. The names of these individuals will never be known. (For example, the Caiaphas’ ossuary contained the remains of several individuals, including one middle aged man.)

Thus, the most one can hope to do in establishing a working database upon which to base a statistical probability, is to make a general overall survey of inscribed ossuaries.

Because some ossuaries contain two or three names in the formula “x son of y,” 286 personal names are found on the 231 inscribed ossuaries. Listing specific names together with their shortened forms or Greek or Latin equivalents brings the total down to only 72 unique Jewish names.

What does this mean? Compared with the large pool of individual personal names in use today in North America and Europe, a very small pool of personal names was normally used when naming a child in first century Judea and Galilee. In fact, a mere 16 personal names account for 75% of the inscribed names.

All of the names that are ascribed in the Gospels to Jesus of Nazareth’s father (Joseph), mother (Mary) and brothers (Jacob/”James”, Joseph/Joseh, Simon, and Judas) are found in the list of the 16 most commonly inscribed names. In fact, four of these names (Simon, Mary, Joseph and Judas) are among the top five most frequently used names.

Of the four names belonging to Jesus’ brothers, only one – Joseph/Joseh – can be identified on the inscribed ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb. (And unlike the nearby “Jesus” ossuary, his ossuary is not labeled as belonging to a son of Joseph, as one would expect in a “Jesus family tomb.”) All of the other siblings’ names, including “James”/Jacob, are lacking.

The names that are found in the Talpiot tomb: Mary/Mariame (2x), Joseph/Joseh (2x), Judas and even Jesus, should well be expected there (or in almost any other tomb in the area, for that matter). These are simply the most common names of the day. The Talpiot tomb is unique only because it has so many names preserved among its ossuaries!

There very well could be numerous tombs which could claim the title “a Jesus’ family tomb.” However in all cases, as in this, there would be no compelling reason to connect them with Jesus of Nazareth!

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