I will let Tim Challies fill you in on all the excitement about the so-called “Jesus Tomb,” as he has a good post with some helpful links. Perhaps the most helpful page I have found comes from Pulpit Magazine on “Jesus’ Tomb,” but Ben Witherington on the “Tomb of Jesus” and Michael Spencer’s post which lists lots of resources on the so-called tomb of Jesus are also well worth a look. Justin Taylor as always is great at supplying links and was where I first learnt about the “Jesus Family Tomb“. What I want to do is point out what, to me, is a fundamental error in all the discussion about this. In my reading, no one has really raised this in quite these terms.
One of the reasons for the interest in this is that statisticians have “proven” that the chances of a set of names — Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and Jude — occurring together are very low. I’m sure that the calculations will have worked on an estimate of the frequency of the names. Now, if the frequency of a name is as high as 25% of the population, and it is found together with another name that has a frequency of 10%, then — the argument goes — the likelihood of this occurring is 0.25 times 0.1 which is 0.025 or 2.5%. Thus, in this hypothetical example, the chances would be 2.5 in 100.
There is a major flaw in this argument when we apply it to some tombs in Israel, which we presumably cannot date with accuracy greater than say twenty or thirty years. (Interestingly, the reports I have seen do not mention the dates of the caskets.) This is because it assumes that the occurrence of each name is by chance, and that the choice of name is unrelated to each other — or in other words it is an “independent” risk.
Let me illustrate this with a concrete example. I looked at a website to discover the frequency of certain names in the American population. What we can “deduce” using the logic above is very interesting.
The frequency of the name “George” is 0.00927, whilst the surname Bush has a frequency of 0.0036. Put another way, George appears in 9 out of every 1000 people in the USA and Bush in 3 in 1000. The likelihood of these two names being together is 0.0036 times 0.00927. This gives a likely frequency of the name “George Bush” as only 3 in every 100,000. The likelihood of finding two George Bushes together would therefore be only one in one billion (i.e. the likelihood of one GB squared). Do we therefore conclude as future historians reading the Internet archives in 2000 years’ time that there cannot possibly have been TWO George Bushes who were both presidents? Of course not. The choice of the name George Bush for George W. was in no way “independent” of that of his father — he was obviously named after his father.
Now, imagine our future historian stumbled across this article stating that there was also a George Bush in Iraq. What are the odds of three George Bushes coexisting according to this flawed logic? Well, it drops to only 3 in 100,000 billion! Now we know, therefore, that the chances of three George Bushes coexisting due to chance is infinitesimally small, but they DO exist and they are not the same person. Why is this? Well, it is because these events are not independent of each other – so our statistics become meaningless. The George Bush in Iraq was named after the president who had toppled Sadaam Hussein.
Names are often chosen because of a family member, or because of a famous person or couple with that name, or because they sound nice together. None of these reasons are by chance. Thus, any number of reasons could apply for why these names all appeared together. Could these be relatives of Mary and Joseph named after them? Could they be early Christians who had taken the names in honor of Jesus and his family? Could there have been another famous “Mary and Joseph” who had inspired both the Nazareth and Jerusalem couple to be called by those names and seek each other out? There are just so many unknowns that to allow this finding — even before it has been validated by other researchers — to be seen as debunking the resurrection is just ludicrous. We are told that there have been several other “Jesus son of Joseph” ossuaries found previously anyway. I suspect these remains may either turn out to be a fake or be an early Christian family.