Biblical Archeaology: Tomb of Jesus?

James Cameron is to release a documentary that claims to reveal the discovery of the tomb of Jesus Christ. He claims the evidence is statistical analysis and DNA… showing the Messiah was buried next to his wife, Mary Magdalene and their son, Judah (the “Grandson of God?”).

Before I read further in the article, my first thought was what were the comparators and controls?

Apparently, construction workers were erecting an apartment complex when they found the 2,000 year old ossuaries in a burial cave on the West Bank in East Talpiot back in 1980. 1980!? The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has been pressuring archaeologists to publish or be punished lately, and there are excavations from the 1980’s that are just now finding their reports in publication, but, surely, such a discovery would have found academic publication far sooner than now!

The article linked above cites the IAA as noting that, of the 10 ossuaries found, 6 had the names Mary, Matthew, Jesua son of Joseph, Mary, Jofa, and Judah son of Jesua. All very common Jewish names unless I’m mistaken. The article goes on to paraphrase the filmmakers as saying that their find in no way implies that Jesus wasn’t actually resurrected 3 days after being killed. They really didn’t need to, since modern medical science informs us in this regard.

What the article doesn’t tell us is what the comparators were in the statistical and DNA analyses James Cameron and his film crew used (or, ostensibly, outsourced to actual researchers). Presumably, one will need to pay $7.50 (not including popcorn and a drink) to find out.

Robert Park‘s list of the Warning Signs of Pseudoscience lists as #1 “the discoverer pitches his claim directly to the media.” I think this fits. As time goes on, perhaps other warning signs will emerge: a powerful establishment (religion? “mainstream” archaeology?) will seek to suppress the claim; the scientific effect at the limits of detection (we’ll have to wait for the statistical/DNA data sets to see); evidence is anecdotal (so far anyway); the discoverer worked in isolation (since 1980!?).

Or… maybe the data is genuine. I’m not holding my breath.

About Carl Feagans 398 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.


  1. I like this quote at the end of the BBC article…

    “It will mean our house prices will go up because Christians will want to live here,” one woman said.

    And of course there will doubtless be huge financial benefits for Cameron et al, regardless of whether the tomb is judged to be real or otherwise.

    And I too don’t understand the claim re the DNA – what statistics were they referring to?

  2. DNA is useful in establishing relationships between occupants of the tomb. If “Jesus” and “Mary” were siblings, then it would disprove the married hypothesis. The claim is that they weren’t related.

    What would really be significant, though, would be if the alleged Jesus DNA had only 23 chromosomes instead of 46! (he was of virgin birth, eh? But, then, I suppose he could have had all 46 of his mother’s -making him a clone)

    With regard to the statistics, the producers of the show are alleging that the chance of finding a tomb with these exact names in this exact place and alleged time period to be 1:600,000.

    As Alun Salt stated in the link below, the origin of the data needed to establish this ratio seems somewhat spurious. He has a link to the .pdf file that discusses the statistics involved. I’ve been thinking of writing a more detailed post about the topic, but just haven’t had the opportunity.

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