How the Experts Were Used in the Special: A Discussion with Dr. Darrell Bock Regarding Discovery’s The Lost Tomb of Jesus

By: Dr. John Ankerberg , Dillon Burroughs; ©2007
Discovery’s program claims that the statistical evidence that the ossuaries contain Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene is 600 to 1. How were the statistics compiled to make such claims?

How the Experts Were Used in the Special:
A Discussion with Dr. Darrell Bock Regarding Discovery’s The Lost Tomb of Jesus

Dr. Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary has become a much sought-after man. In the past week, he has served as an expert panelist for Ted Koppel’s response to “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” broadcast in Washington, DC, interviewed with Anderson Cooper for CNN, provided phone interviews around the country or major magazines and print publications, including a major story for the Dallas Observer, and is currently on his way to Israel to evaluate the archaeological evidence used in “The Last Tomb of Jesus” special while lecturing at Ben Gurion University on the issue of the missing gospels. He also just happens to serve as a New Testament professor and bestselling author in his “spare” time.

Despite his flurry of activities ranging from prime time news to cutting edge scholarship, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Bock, a close personal friend of mine, shortly after his ABC interview with Ted Koppel. We shared together about some of the inside information taking place “behind the scenes” that literally shatters the foundational evidence used in “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” program. I wanted to take some of the information shared in our time together as well as from his blog in a question and answer format I believe you will find useful in discussing this critical controversy with those in your sphere of influence.[1]

Question: Discovery’s program claims that the statistical evidence that the ossuaries contain Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene is 600 to 1. How were the statistics compiled to make such claims?

Answer: This is one of the most exaggerated portions of the program. The individual compiling the statistics, Andrey Feuerverger, has gone on record to state:

It is not in the purview of statistics to conclude whether or not this tombsite is that of the New Testament family. Any such conclusion much more rightfully belongs to the purview of biblical historical scholars who are in a much better position to assess the assumptions entering into the computations. The role of statistics here is primarily to attempt to assess the odds of an equally (or more) `compelling’ cluster of names arising purely by chance under certain random sampling assumptions and under certain historical assumptions. In this respect I now believe that I should not assert any conclusions connecting this tomb with any hypothetical one of the NT family. The interpretation of the computation should be that it is estimating the probability of there having been another family at the time whose tomb this might be, under certain specified assumptions.

In addition, he cites the assumptions he is working with (which impact the numbers greatly). In his words, “The results of any such computations are highly dependent on the assumptions that enter into it. Here are some of the more importantones:

  • We assume that the physical facts of the case are as stated.(Note that the inscriptions on these ossuaries and the fact thatthey were provenanced properly do not appear to be under dispute.)
  • We assume that the available onomasticon data is adequatelyrelevant to the study at hand and that, on a time-cross-sectionalbasis, the assignment of names is, for practical purposes,adequately modelled by assuming independence.
  • We assume that `Marianemou e Mara’ is a singularly highlyappropriate appellation for Mary Magdalene. Note that thisimportant assumption is contentious and furthermore thatstatistically this assumption drives the outcome of thecomputations substantially.
  • We assume that Yose/Yosa is a highly appropriate appellationfor the brother of Jesus who is referred to as Joses inMark 6:3 of the NT.
  • We assume that the Latinized version Marya is a highly appropriateappellation for Mary of the NT.
  • It is assumed that Yose/Yosa is not the same person as thefather Yosef who is referred to on the ossuary of Yeshua.
  • We assume that the presence of Matya does not invalidate thefind but we assign no evidentiary value to it (other thanfactoring in its combinatorial role). We also assume thatthe Yehuda son of Yeshua ossuary does not invalidate the findbut we ignore it in the computations. This last assumption iscontentious.
  • We assume that this tombsite observation represents the ‘best’of many ‘trials’. It is estimated that there are approximately4000 inscribed male ossuaries and somewhat fewer than half asmany inscribed female ossuaries in existence. The number of`trials’ is then taken as being approximately 1000.The computations do not take into account families who couldnot afford ossuary burials or who did not have sufficientliteracy to have their ossuaries inscribed.”

The remark on the Magdalene name is key, of course, in this entire production. If it falls, so do the statistics. In the end, the stats are only as good as the assumptions used to construct them.

Question: Where did this statistical information originate?

Answer: One of the key people interviewed on this special is Tal Ilan. She has written a catalog of names for the centuries in question that is at the root of the statistical work.

In a story posted about her reaction to the special, she is quoted saying:

Here are some points of the piece called—Says Scholar Whose Work Was Used in the Upcoming Jesus Tomb Documentary: “I think it’s completely mishandled. I am angry”:

“Of special note was Tal Ilan, whose Lexicon of Jewish Names was essential to the statistical calculation made by Andrey Feuerverger, the U. of Toronto professor of statistics and mathematics who is quoted in the documentary as saying that the odds that any family other than that of the historical Jesus family would have the same names as that family, and be buried in the Tomb the documentary covers, are 600 to 1. In other words, that number argues, the odds are slim that this isn’t the tomb of Jesus.”…

In an interview I conducted this morning, the scholar Tal Ilan, without whose work these calculations would have been impossible, expressed outrage over the film and its use of her work–she’s the source of the quotation in the headline of this post….

Jodi Magness, a professor of archaeology and Jewish history of that period at UNC Chapel Hill, had this to say in an interview conducted yesterday:

‘I’m reacting to something that has not been published or peer reviewed and I haven’t even seen the film – the entire way this has been done has been an injustice to the entire discipline and also to the public.

I think it’s a very important point to make—that this is almost a wikipedia form of scholarship. They’re presenting it or setting it up as though we have a discovery and you can react and it’s all legitimate and valid which it’s not.’

Question: Would Jesus’ family have been buried in Jerusalem? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for them to have been buried in Nazareth?

Answer: I would like to respond by asking, how did his family have the time in the aftermath of his death to buy the tomb space, while also pulling off a stealing of the body and continue to preach that Jesus was raised BODILY, not merely spiritually?

The bodily part of this resurrection is key because in Judaism when there was a belief in resurrection it was a belief in a bodily resurrection, a redemption that redeemed the full scope of what God had created. If one reads 2 Maccabees 7, one will see the martyrdom of the third son of seven executed who declares that they can mutilate his tongue and hands for defending the law, because God will give them back to him one day.

“To lack a bodily resurrection teaching is to teach in distinction from what the earliest church had received as a key element of the hope that Jesus left his followers, a hope that itself was rooted in Jewish precedent. Paul, our earliest witness to testify to this in writings we possess, was a former Pharisee who held to a physical resurrection as 1 Corinthians 15 also makes clear. Paul matches the Maccabean picture noted above. He explicitly denies an approach that accepts only a spiritual resurrection.”

Question: If this is really the family tomb of Jesus, why does it contain non-family members?

Answer: The Israeli archeologist who actually discovered the ancient burial caves 27 years ago says there is absolutely no proof to Cameron’s outlandish claims. What’s more, the archeologist says that Cameron and his team are merely trying to profit by attacking a central tenet of the Christian faith that Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day and that his body has never been discovered.

In Amos Kloner’s words, “The claim that the burial site [of Jesus] has been found is not based on any proof, and is only an attempt to sell,” He added, “I refute all their claims and efforts to waken a renewed interest in the findings. With all due respect, they are not archeologists.”

Question: What about the DNA evidence? Does it really suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene are married?

Answer: The only DNA work that occurred was a sample of the tombs for the supposed Jesus and Mary. What it concluded was that the two individuals were not related. What does this mean? Nothing, except that they were not blood relatives.

In the same story regarding Tal Ilan mentioned above, it was noted regarding the DNA evidence:

Jim Tabor: He’s a facilitator—no one had ever contacted a statistician or a DNA person. There’s a sense in which one reason he did this is that I wasn’t thinking of doing this, and the DNA guy wasn’t thinking about it—it almost needed a single person to say “This is what I want to do.” Then it just began to skyrocket because Cameron came in and it became high profile and that gave us the budget. If we were just talking about one subject, the names, then I think it would be correct that we would not say let’s have a documentary on that – we’d publish first.

The publicity of its all then was then picked up by Discovery, but that’s their decision—they’ve taken a lot of heat for it. I don’t want to be critical of that—I’m not paid by them in any way. I and about 4 other people were brought in as consultants – shimon gibson for archaeolgoy, me for history etc. Nobody was paid – they paid our expenses, but no stipends and we have no stake in the film.’

Finally one of the forensic experts on the DNA, Carney Matheson, and what was the significance of their find:

‘The only conclusions we made was that these two sets were not maternally related. To me it sounds like absolutely nothing.

Not only is it nothing, it’s incomplete. No comparative DNA testing has taken place on any of the other ossuaries.

Question: What is the evidence that the name Jesus is Jesus of Nazareth?

The name Jesus was a popular first century name, discovered on 121 other tombs and ossuaries during this time period. According to the details in a famous catalogue of ossuary names that has been out since 2002 with the information known about this locale since c. 1980, we find:

Out of a total number of 2,625 males, these are the figures for the ten most popular male names among Palestinian Jews. The first figure is the total number of occurrences, while the second is the number of occurrences specifically on ossuraries.


1 Simon/Simeon 243 59
2 Joseph 218 45
3 Eleazar 166 29
4 Judah 164 44
5 John/Yohanan 122 25
6 Jesus 99 22
7 Hananiah 82 18
8 Jonathan 71 14
9 Matthew 62 17
10 Manaen/Menahem 42 4

This indicates that of all existing tombs and ossuaries of the period, that there is nearly a 1 in 20 (4.6%) chance that any male tomb would have the name Jesus on it.

Question: What is the evidence that the Mary inscription is Mary Magdalene?

Answer: I am involved in an internal blog for scholars and one of the questions that came up was how certain experts were involved. Here is the answer I posted for them:

François Bovon of Harvard was brought in to make the critical link between the name Mariamne and Mary Magdalene. This link is made possible by the Acts of Philip and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, as this is a variant Greek name for Mary.

Now, in fact, things are more complicated. The inscription actually reads Mariaamnou, a diminutive of Mariamnon. It is the only inscription in Greek out of the six found in the cave. All he did was to verify that such a link exists between the fourth century text and Mary Magdalene. The way the special used experts was to ask them to verify points of fact to lay the ground work for the speculation but did not follow up to ask them what they thought of the actual hypothesis. This was done with Frank Moore Cross of Harvard, who simply confirms the inscriptions read the now well publicized names on the ossuaries.

This is important because some few have questioned the reading of Yeshua (Jesus) on that ossuary. The inscription is one of the sloppiest I have ever seen on such a find. Let me give you a reply Cross gave a reporter about what he thinks about the actual thesis. This appeared in the National Reviewarticle by John Miller. here is his quote: “I am skeptical about Jacobovici’s claims, not because of a faulty reading of the ossuary which reads yeshua’ bar yosep [Jesus son of Joseph] I believe, but because the onomasticon [list of proper names] in his period in Jerusalem is exceedingly narrow. Patriarchal names and biblical names repeat ad nauseam. It has been reckoned that 25% of feminine names in this period were Maria/Miryam, etc., that is variants of Mary. So the cited statistics are unpersuasive. You know the saying: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

I have been in email contact with some folks who also know this area. The fact the Mariamne/Mariamnou/Mara name is written in Greek (not Hebrew or Aramaic) is potentially significant and raises a variety of scenarios that seem to tell against the Mary Magdalene connection. Martin Hengel, Professor emeritus at the University of Tübingen in Germany and one of the top scholars on the Judaism of this period in the world, simply says the view is “pure nonsense.”

This entire experience has been a case of public vetting over the internet, a rather new process for handling information sociologically and academically. I am getting images sent to my Blackberry that I can download and look at of the ossuaries as I travel. Our world is changing as to how it engages and processes information. Academics are going to have to adjust. The day of peer vetting in a calm scholarly process is disappearing. While in Israel I hope to speak with some of the key folks over

Question: What about the supposed connections with the James Ossuary, a bone box that some claim belongs to James the brother of Jesus?

Answer: One of the suggestions of the special is that a missing ossuary in the tomb is the James Ossuary about which there was so much discussion a few years ago. Two points here: The keeper of the warehouse where these ossuaries are stored has said tomb number 10 is not lost but is housed outside the warehouse in a distinct locale. Second, despite the claim in the television special, the catalogued tomb sizes do not match, being 10 centimeters off in one of the key dimensions. So that element appears to be off as well. James Tabor has suggested the measurements match, but the evidence is far from conclusive. I hope to analyze this myself during my trip to Israel.

As we have seen, Christians have no reason to fear the so-called evidence presented in this latest attempt on Christianity. Our challenge should be to know the truth of God’s Word and to continue to communicate it to others through our actions and words. As Dr. Bock has noted, “Hopefully our times have not slid to the point where we can no longer tell the difference between Jerusalem and Hollywood.”

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