Monday, October 26, 2009

Talpiot Tomb and Statistics Again

Thanks to Mark Elliott for letting me know about the latest article on Bible and Interpretation, which returns to the issue of the Talpiot Tomb and the statistical case over whether or not this was indeed Jesus' family tomb:

The Talpiot Tomb: What are the odds?
Jerry Lutgen

The article provides a useful reminder that divergent estimates on statistics and the tomb are the result of the prior assumptions that are fed into the calculations. This has always been, for many, the heart of the issue. The weakness of Feuerverger's statistical case was always that the data with which he worked (fed to him by Jacobovici) was, to say the least, highly debatable. It was a theme in the blogging about the Talpiot Tomb affair here and elsewhere from the beginning (see, for example, The Talpiot Tomb and the Bloggers I: An Early Success and links there).

There are a couple of points I would like to make by way of clarification in Lutgen's interesting and useful new article. First, these comments would actually benefit from a little more background:
Before we get into the comparison of the results from the three sources, we first need to discuss the somewhat confusing circumstances surrounding the estimates provided by Feuerverger. Most people first became familiar with the Talpiot Tomb through two related sources, a Discovery Channel special entitled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” and a book by Jacobovici and Pellegrino entitled “The Jesus Family Tomb”[2]. In both of these sources, it was stated that the odds were 600:1 in favor of the proposition. This odds calculation came to be attributed to Feuerverger.

This statement of odds left the impression that from a statistical point of view it was conclusive that the proposition was true and the Talpiot Tomb must be the family tomb of Jesus. Unfortunately, during early 2007, as this statement of odds got circulated in the press, its meaning got increasingly muddied. It was not until Feurerverger published a formal, refereed article in March of 2008 that it became clear that the original result attributed to Feuerverger was preliminary and that its meaning was somewhat distorted in the retelling. Therefore, all references to Feuerverger’s estimates will be from his March 2008 published paper [4].
The decision to focus on the published article is certainly the right thing to do. The difficulty over the earlier stated estimates, however, was the result of Feuerverger's own earlier statements which he changed in the light of errors pointed out here by Joe D'Mello. I chronicled the story recently here in my post The Talpiot Tomb and the Bloggers I: An Early Success, to which I refer you for the details. That post features links to the original posts in which the case developed "in real time", as it were.

The second piece I'd like to offer a clarificatory comment on is at the conclusion of Lutgen's essay:
What then do the content experts believe? Interestingly we can say something about the opinions of this group. In January 2008 Professor James Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary, organized a conference titled “Jewish Views of the After Life and Burial Practices in Second Temple Judaism: Evaluating the Talpiot Tomb in Context”. At this conference, many of the leading authorities on the subject discussed the possibility that the Talpiot tomb was the family tomb of Jesus. Reports from the conference suggest that an important point was backed by the conference attendees; that the proposition, while not proven, was sufficiently likely that further study of this matter is warranted. [+ Note Reference to Michael Posner, "University of Toronto Scientist Puts Odds on Lost Tomb,"Toronto Globe and Mail, April 21, 2008].
Unfortunately, this paragraph misstates "the opinions of this group", or at least many of them. Many who were present felt strongly that their views had been misrepresented in the post-conference publicity and as a result issued the strongly worded statement, The Talpiot Tomb Controversy Revisited, which appeared on the Duke University Religion Department blog, as well as here on the NT Blog, and I think on the SBL site too. The signatories of this statement concluded:
To conclude, we wish to protest the misrepresentation of the conference proceedings in the media, and make it clear that the majority of scholars in attendance – including all of the archaeologists and epigraphers who presented papers relating to the tomb - either reject the identification of the Talpiot tomb as belonging to Jesus’ family or find this claim highly speculative.

No comments: