Easter must be approaching: last Monday, James Cameron, director of the movie Titanic, held a news conference to publicize his documentary (showing this weekend) about the discovery of a tomb in Jerusalem with ossuaries (bone boxes) bearing names like “Jesus Son of Joseph”, “Judas son of Jesus”, Mary, etc. No doubt it will be full of dramatic music and probing questions: “could this be …”, “is it possible that …”, and so forth. The controversial allegation that they hope will draw in viewers, which they characterize as “what may be the most explosive archaeological discovery of all time”, is the claim that this could be the burial tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, a woman whose name can be connected to Mary Magdelene, and even members of his family.

Here’s the thing: this archaeological discovery is more than 25 years old, and the interest in it from Biblical scholars since then has been, well, less than explosive. Ben Witherington has a good summary of the issues, and my colleague Mike Heiser has been following it closely: there’s also a collection of links at the Countercult Apologetics blog.

What’s almost as annoying as the annual pre-Easter attempt to cash in on controversial religious claims is their strategy of alleging scientific respectability, rather than actually presenting evidence. That includes DNA tests (sounds scientific, right?) which demonstrate that the remains in the “Jesus” box aren’t genetically related to those in the “Mariamene e Mara” box. What else would you expect, if the remains are of a husband and a wife? There’s nothing the least bit interesting about that, unless you first accept the unsupported claim that this may actually be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.
They go on with some statistical analysis about the names in the tomb, and how unlikely it is that the names found would match names of Jesus’ alleged family. Their website cites a study by Andrey Feuerverger, a professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Toronto with a strong publication record: not the kind of guy to go off spouting nonsense. According to the Discovery Channel website, “he recently conducted a study addressing the probabilities that will soon be published in a leading statistical journal.” Without a careful reading of that yet-unavailable work (not releasing the study prior to airing of the documentary does seem a bit suspicious), it’s not possible to form a final judgement. But the statements on the website about the statistical analysis range from uncautious to downright misleading. Here’s their bottom line:

The study concludes that the odds are at least 600 to 1 in favor of the Talpiot Tomb being the Jesus Family Tomb. (emphasis mine)

That’s just plain wrong. If Feuerverger’s statistical analysis is correct (more about that below), what it shows is the odds of finding five ossuaries in the same tomb with these particular names. The leap to “and therefore it’s highly likely that this is the family of Jesus of Nazareth” is simply that, an unsupported leap of fancy (or, more likely, sensationalism). Just because you found a tomb with the names John, Paul, and Gregory, that doesn’t mean they’re the Beatles, even if you concoct a story about how Gregory is really a variant of George. You need evidence (beyond the likelihood of names) to support that: merely alleging it doesn’t shift the burden to others to disprove their hypothesis. (More details here about the names by Richard Bauckham, a bona fide Biblical scholar, and why they argue against, rather than in favor of, the hypothesis).