Thursday, January 12, 2012

Returning to the Talpiot Tomb

There is a new article over on Bible and Interpretation about the Talpiot Tomb, the tomb alleged by Simcha Jacobovici and others to have been Jesus' family's own tomb, widely discussed in the media and here in the blogs back in 2007.  I was sceptical and have remained sceptical (see NT Blog: Talpiot Tomb for some of my many posts on the topic).  The new article is by Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott, Regarding Magness and Talpiot and it provides an answer to comments made by my colleague down the road at UNC Chapel Hill, Jodi Magness.  The article is attracting some comment among the blogs and over on the Biblical Studies e-list, as well as in the comments section over on Bible and Interpretation.

I enjoyed reading the new article, and I appreciate the even-handed and careful nature of Kilty's and Elliott's response.  The article continues in a series of articles that they have written on the topic over the last three or four years.  I am particularly pleased to see Kilty and Elliott playing down one of the most egregiously problematic elements in Jacobovici's case, the notion that "Mariamne" was an especially appropriate way of designating Mary Magdalene, a claim that Jacobovici regarded as the lynchpin of the  case.

Nevertheless, there are still a couple of major problems, as I see it, with the way that Kilty and Elliott are presenting the case for the identification:

(1) They claim that "Yoseh" is significant because it is rare, a claim that does not take the New Testament evidence seriously.

(2) They do not regard "Judas son of Jesus" as contradictory evidence for the identification with the Jesus family.

The difficulty over (1) is that the names Joses and Joseph are clearly regarded as similar or the same in the New Testament. Mark 6.3 calls Jesus' brother "Joses" while the parallel in Matt. 13.55 calls him "Joseph".  Matthew clearly regards Joseph as an alternative, preferable way of saying "Joses".  Likewise, the character who appears in Mark 15.40 and 15.47 is called Joses in Mark and Joseph the Matthean parallel (Matt. 27.56).  Moreover, the fact that this character may be a different character than the brother of Jesus also witnesses against the alleged extraordinary nature of the name. The same Joseph / Joses variation is found in the texts too, and not just here in Matthew but also in Acts 4.36, Joses / Joseph Barnabas.

The difficulty with (2) is that there is simply no evidence that Jesus had a son called Judas. (As a commenter on this blog once facetiously said, "How likely is it that Jesus would have named his son Judas?!"). This might sound like a simple point, but I am afraid that it needs to be taken seriously. The whole case for the identity of the Talpiot Tomb with Jesus' family is based on the idea of an extraordinary positive correlation between clusters of names. It is unacceptable when calculating probabilities to ignore contradictory evidence like this.

The difficulty over Judas son of Jesus is already clear in the Jacobovici presentation.  On the page Judah son of Jesus, we read:
The most controversial ossuary pulled from the Tomb of the Ten Ossuaries was undoubtedly the one inscribed “Judah, son of Jesus,” the ossuary of a child. If indeed the tomb uncovered in East Talpiot in 1980 is that of Jesus and his family, and if indeed Jesus of Nazareth had a son, this ossuary contradicts dramatically nearly 2000 years of Christian tradition.
The difficulty ought to be immediately apparent.  The whole case is based on the idea of an extraordinary correlation between the names in the tomb, but here there is an admission that in fact one of the ossuaries "contradicts dramatically nearly 2000 years of Christian tradition" (emphasis added).  In a case that requires extraordinary correlation, extraordinary contradiction simply will not do.

Update (Friday, 7.03): James McGrath has a helpful round up of links to recent discussion.


Steven Carr said...

'The difficulty with (2) is that there is simply no evidence that Jesus had a son called Judas. '

Isn't this an argument from silence?

'but here there is an admission that in fact one of the ossuaries "contradicts dramatically nearly 2000 years of Christian tradition" .

So if we found the bones of Jesus, believers would still believe he was resurrected, because the new find would have to be rejected, as it contradicts nearly 2000 years of Christian tradition?

How could any evidence for the real historical Jesus be confirmed if it is presupposed that the Jesus of Christian tradition is the real historical Jesus, and therefore any other Jesus found could not be the historical Jesus?

Why are people so upset that Jacobovici is claiming to have found evidence that Jesus existed?

Steven Carr said...

'The difficulty with (2) is that there is simply no evidence that Jesus had a son called Judas.'

Why would we expect Paul to mention Judas the son of Jesus if he felt no need to mention Judas the betrayer of Jesus?

Mark Goodacre said...

Hi Steve. It's a question of how they are constructing the case. Their case is based on an extraodinary correlation between names in the NT and names in the ossuary. What I am pointing out is that the impact of the correlation is greatly lessened because of a marked contradiction between the ossuary and the NT. It is not an argument from silence. It's an argument about silence,

Steven Carr said...

A bit like if we found a tomb of Muhammad but it mentioned a 13th wife, we should dismiss it as not about *the* Muhammad?

Mark Goodacre said...

The difficulty is in the assumption, "if we found a tomb of Muhammad". We haven't found Jesus' tomb but a tomb with several names in it, on the basis of which a claim has been made to an extraordinary correlation. But the correlation is not extraordinary given that there is an acknowledged extraodinary contradiction.

Steven Carr said...

How high is the correlation between the list of names of women who visited the tomb?

Should those lists be thrown out as contradictory?

Or the correlation between the names of the grandfathers of Jesus given in Luke and Matthew?

Should those lists be thrown out as contradictory?

Why would we expect early Christians to mention Judas the son of Jesus when early Christians like Paul never mention Judas the betrayer of Jesus?

Why is one silence evidence that one Judas never existed while the other silence is not evidence that the other Judas never existed?

Why should we expect new evidence about Jesus of Nazareth not to ever contradict the Gospels?

Mark Goodacre said...

Most of your questions appear to be aimed at some kind of fundamentalist approach to the New Testament and are therefore irrelevant to this particular discussion as well as to other discussions here. Your last question simply draws attention once again to the difficulty that we have here, which is, to repeat, that there is an extraordinary correlation between names in the NT and names in this tomb. The claim for an extraordinary correlation, which is the *basis* of the identification, is significantly weakened by this contradictory evidence.

Jason Leonard said...

Mark, let me see if I can bring this down to Steven's level and simplify it.

Here is the problem:

The Jesus tomb argument relies on the supposedly "high improbability" that all the names in the tomb would match names in the New Testament.

Yet then they turn around and try to use "Judas son of Jesus" as support for their claim, which is not a name or person found in the New Testament.

So it seems this unlikely "correlation" (relation between all the names) is not really as strong as they say it is. But they turn around and say this should be evidence for overturning 2000 years of Christian tradition?

The very thing they try to use to make their point is what breaks it.

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes, that's a good summary of the point, Jason. Thanks.

Steven Carr said...

But is the correlation higher than the correlation between the names of Jesus's grandfathers in the NT?

Or the names of the brothers of Jesus in Luke/Acts compared to Mark?

If those can be accepted, then why not this other correlation?

'Yet then they turn around and try to use "Judas son of Jesus" as support for their claim, which is not a name or person found in the New Testament.'

This is an argument from silence.

If the earliest Christian writer, Paul felt no need to mention Judas the betrayer of Jesus, why should his silence about Judas the son of Jesus be evidence against it?

If Luke/Acts felt no need to state that Jesus had a brother called James, why would he need to mention that Jesus had a brother called Judas?

If Luke and Matthew could fabricate the name of Jesus grandfather, why should we expect them to document any son Jesus might have had?

How can any new evidence about Jesus of Nazareth be accepted if it first has to pass the test of correlating perfectly with the New Testament?

Especially as only a fundamentalist would expect the New Testament to correlate with itself.

Are people holding non-Biblical data about the relatives of Jesus to a standard that they would scoff at if fundamentalists applied it to the different traditions in the New Testament about the relatives of Jesus?

royalcanadian said...

What is our source for the life of Jesus, his family and followers?

The Bible and the Church fathers. After them we have have obvious myths and legends of Jesus and Joseph of Arimethea travelling to England, or Mary to France. These are myths. Does Steven consider these stories "evidence"?

An Islamic sect believes that Jesus is buried in Pakistan, while a Japanese sect came to believe that his remains lie in their land. More "data" Steve?

What about Joseph Smith? Here we have "extra-biblical data" about Jesus in America, the Garden of Eden in Missouri and the ancient Israelites in the New World. Are we being prejudice by not including Mormon beliefs in our understanding of the life of Jesus just because they conflict with our traditional beliefs?

It's laughable that professional skeptics and their disciples make their living trying in vain to pull down Christian beliefs by quoting the Bible as fact when it serves their interests, then declaring it false when it conflicts with their thesis.

The New Testament, the Church Fathers and tradition are the only sources for Jesus that we have, beyond scattered references here and their.

Much ink has been spilled and voices made hoarse in debating Christianity. But in the end, its all conjecture.

royalcanadian said...
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royalcanadian said...
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royalcanadian said...

That being said, we should look critically at all claims. Why do we dismiss the claim the Talpiot contained the bones of Christ?

1. Common names. After all is said and done, the names are common and their frequency is only notable because we as non-Hebrews know only a small number of Hebrew names. Those we know together have the illusion of significance because they are unique to our experience, not to the language and society as a whole.

2. The name Yeshua was written sloppily and with a different hand than the Joseph name on the ossuary. Would such an august figure have such a sloppy memorial? All the mathematical strangualtions coming from the name debate reminded me of the Bible Code debate. Both sides claim their math is badder than the others. What's that they say about statistics...?

3. A researcher with Jacobovici stated that he found little evidence of bones in the Yeshua ossuary, purple cloth and knuckle residue. It seems not to have held a full skeleton before.

4. Opposing views: The Jews were quick to downplay the Christhood of Jesus. They spread the story that Jesus was fathered by a Roman soldier and that his followers stole his body from the tomb. Why not tell us about his marriage to the Magdelene or the children that same from that union? If there was event a hint that Jesus was buried in a nice fmaily tomb in Jerusalem with his wife and child, plus family and followers, someone else beside fabled templars and modern camera addicts should have made great hay of the idea.

5. et. al: There are many others. Fill in the blank with your favorite. The more I researched tomb topic, the less it appeared to have anything to do with Jesus Christ.

Why should we change our understanding of Jesus based on such rickety hype and conjecture?
One gets the sense that some in our society will grasp hold of any theory as long as it disagrees with the Christian faith, so matter how absurd or far-fetched.

The bottom line is that like the claims of the Ahmadiyyas or the Mormons, we must use critical thinking and logic in discerning the truth in these issues and parsing the facts from the hype.

JFJoyner3 said...

Professor Goodacre, James Tabor has re-visited the Talpiot tomb issue, so I have now found myself backtracking to this earlier post. I must apologize if you have already covered this question, but I do not recall the discussion at the 2008 conference coordinated by Charlesworth (I was there and introduced the statisticians) or afterwards in print.

I wonder about the explanatory power of the presumed improbability of Jesus having a son named "Jude" or "Judas." I assume the name honors Judas from the Maccabean Revolt (eventually I will go back and re-read Richard Bauckham's old article on names but I lack the time today). If there is any legendary accretion to the Judas Ish-Kerioth tradition in the Gospels, all of which would have been distributed in final form after the putative birth of Jesus' son, can we rely on this presumed improbability of a boy named Jude when we assign the events to tradition timelines.

If you see this comment -- appended to a 2012 discussion thread -- it clearly will be a miracle, so if such a miracle occurs I hope you will embrace it as such and give me your quick reaction! :-)