Just got this in. So they only scraped a little DNA from two ossuaries, the ones labelled Joshua ben Yosef and Mariamene e Mara (supposedly belonging to Jesus and Magdalene). Why the heck didn’t they compare the supposedly Jesus one to the supposedly Mother Mary one — or the one who is supposed to be Jesus’s son?? Because, I think, they wanted to be able to say, “we’ve got DNA evidence!” and were afraid the answers would be no, no, no. The only no answer that would be provocative and thus permitted, would be a no to whether Jesus and Magdalene were biologically related. Some science this is. At the end, I include a Laurence Gardner reaction to it all.
SAYS SCHOLAR WHOSE WORK WAS USED IN THE UPCOMING JESUS TOMB DOCUMENTARY: “I THINK IT’S COMPLETELY MISHANDLED. I AM ANGRY.”
By Christopher Mims, Scientific American
March 2, 2007
In researching our special report on the upcoming Jesus Tomb documentary, fronted by James Cameron (of Titanic fame), I encountered more than a few angry scholars and archaeologists.
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.
You’d be forgiven for finding such claims far-fetched, and with the exception of the historian, James Tabor, who was consulted for the film, the professionals in the field appear to find these claims no less incredible.
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:
“Let me tell you what I think. So first of all if you’re writing for Scientific American, so it’s important to point out that this debate is taking place in a most unscientific of manners.
“Archaeology is a scientific and academic discipline and there are proper fora for these discussions — if you’re a scholar and you have something you want to present to the larger world, there are proper ways of doing that, specifically publishing papers in peer reviewed journals or at meetings, so your colleagues can respond to it.
“If after that you can go ahead and announce that and people can say ‘Well I’ve responded to this,’ then that’s fine. But I’ve been slammed with [interviews for] this now — it was announced in the public media.
“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.”
I also spoke to James Tabor, the biblical historian who consulted on the documentary who has, by his own account, excavated over five hundred tombs in Jerusalem. He was very sure of himself and was quite knowledgeable, even though some of what he said is obviously still up for debate, judging by how many of his peers have directly contradicted some of the things he has said publicly.
In Tabor’s defense, I will say that though he is in many respects the nexus of the debate on this documentary, at least scientifically, the credit (or blame) probably can’t be laid at his feet. This project was put together by Simcha Jacobovici, a filmmaker and investigative journalist. The reason all this data was ever synthesized at all is probably largely, or even entirely, due to his efforts.
When I asked Tabor why this was brought into the public eye in the form of a documentary and not in peer-reviewed journals, he said this:
“I could publish something on the names and someone else on the stats and the DNA and over four or five years you could finally have enough scholarly articles to see what’s going on. I couldn’t do that myself, I could do something on the names and the history, one article, then I would need someone else to do the statistics article and a DNA report and on and on.
“Now that it’s come out, Gibson (Shimon) and I are going to write a comprehensive academic article on the question. It’s like the dead sea scrolls and so much came out and over fifty years, and people sorted it out slowly.
“Another thing I’d say in Simcha’s defense, he felt for ten years this was important (it surfaced in 1996) everyone said it’s not important. He felt if anyone was going to do it, then they should do it, but they were all dismissing it.
“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 it all 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 four other people were brought in as consultants — Shimon Gibson for archaeology, me for history etc. Nobody was paid — they paid our expenses, but no stipends and we have no stake in the film.”
Finally, Carney Matheson, whose titles include everything from mortuary archaeologist to forensic examiner, conducted the DNA examination the film cites. Basically, the filmmakers scraped a tiny amount of biological material out of the ossuary (or bone box) labeled Jesus, and a tiny amount out of the one that they think belonged to Mary Magdalene. Matheson then sequenced the mitochondrial DNA in both samples in order to establish that whoever those two boxes once contained was not related on their mother’s side–in other words, they’re not family. It’s a negative result that doesn’t say much (and it begs the question – if you were gathering material for testing, why not test the boxes that you believed belonged to related people, such as Jesus and his mother, as well?)
Matheson had this to say:
“The only conclusions we made was that these two sets were not maternally related. To me it sounds like absolutely nothing.”
So the experts have weighed in — but don’t expect that to end the spotlight on this controversy any time soon. Even if scholars conclude the whole thing is bunk, I have a feeling this will become a permanent part of the our culture’s conspiracy lore, like the JFK conspiracy, the staging of the moon landing, the Turin Shroud, and all the rest before it.
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What Gardner may not have realized when he posted the above is that they didn’t use bones for their DNA testing but rather scrapings of human organic deposits from the insides of the ossuary box. Such deposits they say, form during decomposition.
I did hear Simcha say on television, “We have the bones.” Does he mean bone residue? He needs to be less sensationalist, but that’s asking a bit much, they are having such a good time with this.