By: Mark Goodacre, Dept of Religion, Duke University
The current discussion of Talpiot Tomb B, the “patio tomb”, has largely centered on the interpretation of the picture on one of the ossuaries. But Tabor’s and Jacobovici’s argument that this tomb is linked with Jesus and his disciples is related to their earlier claims about Talpiot Tomb A, the “garden tomb”. The case that this is the Jesus family tomb was made in 2007 in a book, a film and a website.[i] It was largely based on a claim about statistics — this cluster of names, bearing so close a relationship to the names of members of Jesus’ family, was most unlikely to have occurred by accident.
At the time, I and many others were sceptical of the claim. It appeared to rely on a dubious identification between the name “Mariamēnē” and Mary Magdalene, who was identified as Jesus’ wife, and it failed to take seriously the non-matches in the tomb, especially “Judas son of Jesus”.
In a bid to explain the difficulties, I turned to an analogy that Jacobovici liked to use, an analogy based on the Beatles.[ii] It worked by saying that if in two thousand years a tomb was discovered in Liverpool that featured the names John, Paul and George, we would not immediately conclude that we had found the tomb of the Beatles. But if we also found so distinctive a name as Ringo, then we would indeed be interested. Jacobovici claimed that the “Ringo” in this tomb is Mariamēnē, whom he interpreted as Mary Magdalene and as Jesus’s wife.
I thought the analogy to be without merit and wrote:
What we actually have is the equivalent of a tomb with the names John, Paul, George, Martin, Alan and Ziggy. We might well say, “Perhaps the ‘Martin’ is George Martin, and so this is a match!” or “Perhaps John Lennon had a son called Ziggy we have not previously heard about” but this would be special pleading and we would rightly reject such claims. A cluster of names is only impressive when it is a cluster that is uncontaminated by non-matches and contradictory evidence.[iii]
My concern was the same then as it is now, that you cannot cherry pick the data that you use in your statistical analysis. The difficulty is clear when one pays attention to the comments made about “Judas son of Jesus”:
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.[iv]
The difficulty ought to be 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”. In a case that requires extraordinary correlation, extraordinary contradiction simply will not do.
In their new book The Jesus Discovery,[v] Jacobovici and Tabor return to the question of the name-correlations and again attempt to apply the analogy from the Beatles, though now with some modification. Here they add that John is the son of an Alfred, and we find out that this is indeed John’s father’s name. They go on:
Then a fourth grave turns up with the name Ringo. Finally, not two hundred feet away we find a burial monument dedicated to the memory of the Beatles and all they contributed to pop music in their long career together. We believe that this is essentially what we have in the case of our two Talpiot tombs. We in fact have our “Ringo” in the Jesus tomb, as we will see — and what’s more, we believe that we have a “Yoko” as well — and the Patio tomb now provides us with a new context in which we can better understand the resurrection faith of Jesus’ first followers.
The difficulty with this modified version of the analogy is not only the lack of a Ringo or a Yoko in the Talpiot tomb A,[vi] but also the suggestion that the circumstantial evidence provided by Talpiot tomb B amounts to something like “a burial monument dedicated to the memory of the Beatles and all they contributed”. However one interprets the markings in Talpiot tomb B, there is no explicit link there to Jesus, his followers or early Christianity.
The Beatles analogy helps us to reflect on the nature of the case for the association of the Talpiot tombs with Jesus’ family and disciples. If a filmmaker were to find a tomb in Liverpool in two thousand years’ time featuring names like John, Paul and George, he would not have found the Beatles. John died in New York in 1980, he was cremated and no one knows for certain where his ashes are. Some speculate that Yoko Ono still has them. They are certainly not in Liverpool. George died in Los Angeles in 2001, he was cremated and no one knows for certain where his ashes are. Some say that they were scattered on the River Ganges. They are certainly not in Liverpool.
The filmmaker of the future might imagine that the right way to find the historical Beatles would be to look for tombs in Liverpool, but he would be wrong. He might imagine that John, Paul, George and Ringo all lived together in the same street, as they did in the film Help! He might speculate that they all died and were buried together too, along with members of their family. It would all make for an enjoyable fiction, no doubt, and some might find it reassuring, but it would tell the scholars of the future very little about the historical Beatles. The study of ancient history is more often about coming to terms with the missing pieces than it is about drawing lines between unrelated phenomena.