February 26, 2007

James Cameron and the "Lost Tomb of Jesus"

From a news story:
The Talpiot Tomb could be soon the most famous holy relic in the Christian empire. Canadian Titanic director James Cameron and filmmaker archeologist Simcha Jacobovici have set to prove that it once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The evidence and interpretations of the artifacts will be presented in a documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” on the Discovery Channel March 4th on the Discovery Channel at 9 p.m. ET/PT. According to a Discovery Channel press release, “scientific evidence, including DNA analysis conducted at one of the world’s foremost molecular genetics laboratories, as well as studies by leading scholars, suggests a 2,000-year-old Jerusalem tomb could have once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The findings also suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have produced a son named Judah.”The tomb was unearthed for the third time in 1980 as construction crews blasted for new apartments in the town of Talpiot, a suburb south of Jerusalem.
I have no idea how the DNA analysis will support the claims of the documentary, but this will certainly be interesting, since it is the first, as far as I know, DNA analysis on ancient human remains from the region.

Cinemablend makes plain why DNA analysis is irrelevant for the authors' thesis.
Except the whole thing seems kind of pointless. DNA comparison only works if you have something to compare the bones to. Last I checked, no one had a Jesus hair follicle in their bathroom hair brush. Sure, someone might claim to have DNA that definitely belonged to the Christ, but there’s no way to prove it. And without absolutely proof positive Jesus DNA to compare those bones to, I don’t see how Cameron can prove anything.
I suspect that the DNA evidence could at most establish a genetic relationship between the individuals buried in the tomb, something which is not surprising, but does not connect the tomb to a particular person.

More interesting would be the correlation of the ancient DNA with types of DNA we suspect may have been present in ancient Israelites, but once again this would not tie the remains with a particular person.

The Discovery Channel article has more information.
The human remains were analyzed by Carney Matheson, a scientist at the Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada. Mitochondrial DNA examination determined the individual in the Jesus ossuary and the person in the ossuary linked to Mary Magdalene were not related.

Since tombs normally contain either blood relations or spouses, Jacobovici and his team suggest it is possible Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a couple. "Judah," whom they indicate may have been their son, could have been the "lad" described in the Gospel of John as sleeping in Jesus' lap at the Last Supper.
And more interestingly:
But Andrey Feuerverger, professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Toronto, recently conducted a study addressing the probabilities that will soon be published in a leading statistical journal.

Feuerverger multiplied the instances that each name appeared during the tomb's time period with the instances of every other name. He initially found "Jesus Son of Joseph" appeared once out of 190 times, Mariamne appeared once out of 160 times and so on.

To be conservative, he next divided the resulting numbers by 25 percent, a statistical standard, and further divided the results by 1,000 to attempt to account for all tombs — even those that have not been uncovered — that could have existed in first century Jerusalem.

The study concludes that the odds are at least 600 to 1 in favor of the Talpiot Tomb being the Jesus Family Tomb. In other words, the conclusion works 599 times out of 600.
I suspect that this whole deal will inspire a new Da Vinci Code-style controversy. Unfortunately though, according to the Da Vinci Code Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a daughter and not a son, so it seems that the two theories are incompatible with each other.

In any case, it's nice to see a really interdisciplinary approach being applied to a concrete historical question, and I would bet that whatever the final scientific verdict, we'll soon see Mary mtDNA tests coming to market.

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