The Talpiot Tomb - What are the Odds?
Updated April 9, 2012
In 2007, when the Discovery Channel aired its feature “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” it gave significant attention to a
probability estimate for the proposition that the Talpiot Tomb was the family tomb of Jesus. This estimate was given
further prominence in a companion book by Jacobovici .
It was reported that the odds were 600 to 1 in favor of the proposition and that it was a near statistical certainty the
Talpiot Tomb was the family tomb of Jesus. This calculation came to be attributed to a professor of statistics named
This odds estimate received heated scrutiny and frequent criticism from a wide range of commentators. Subsequently
there were several additional estimates of the odds relating to this proposition that were offered by multiple authors,
including a second, much more extensive effort from Feuerverger . Even though many of these estimates were
accomplished using justifiable statistical methods, the published odds estimates ranged along an extreme continuum
from a near certainty that the Talpiot Tomb was the family tomb of Jesus to a near certainty that it was not.
Paradoxically, this diverse set of odds are generally calculated using the same basic statistical method as well as the
same data, the cluster of names found inscribed on the ossuaries taken from the Talpiot Tomb.
Argument for the Proposition
A great deal is known about the family of Jesus. He had four brothers (or perhaps half-brothers); James, Simon, Yose
and Judah and some number of sisters (or perhaps half-sisters). Given what we know about the timing of the deaths of
the brothers of Jesus the most likely candidates for names found in this tomb would be; Jesus, James(brother), Yose
(brother), Mary (mother), and perhaps Joseph(father). Also, given the special relationship between Mary Magdalene
and Jesus, we should also consider her a candidate for the tomb.
The Background Guide shows how the Talpiot Tomb gives rise to a set of names and relationships that powerfully
matches this candidate list. When this data is processed through a Bayesian statistical model it shows that the Talpiot
Tomb is the family tomb of Jesus with a very high probability. To date all of the published models do not consider that
two of the names from the tomb, Judah and Matya should be added into the statistical calculations. However an
argument can be made that these are names should reasonably be considered as potential member of the Jesus
family. While there is no statistical result to reference it is clear that when you consider this possibility it raises the odds
that this is family tomb of the biblical Jesus by a considerable amount.
Another way of looking at this is that even though there are many other common names available from that time period
which would not reasonably be associated with the family of Jesus, we do not find one such name in the tomb.
Argument against the Proposition
The probability estimates provided in support of the proposition are incorrect. These calculations are based on the
incorrect application of several historical and epigraphic assumptions. For example, it is not clear that Marya is a name
we should assign to Mariam the mother of Jesus or that the rare name Yose is the rare name that we should associate
with the brother of Jesus. Furthermore, it is very doubtful that a name appropriate for association with Mary Magdalene
is present in the tomb.
When the appropriate assumptions are applied, using a similar Bayesian model, we see that it is highly improbable that
the Talpiot Tomb is the family tomb of Jesus.
Exaggerated importance has been assigned to odds estimates made for or against the proposition. These estimates
mostly just reflect the long list of non-statistical factual assumptions made by the authors of these statistical studies.
Furthermore, these estimates do not incorporate into their models a large number of potentially relevant, but non-
quantifiable facts. Readers will probably get closer to a personal conclusion on this matter by a direct study of the
historical, archaeological and epigraphic material that is available on this subject.
This body of statistical work has accomplished at least two things of value. First, by casting the problem in formal
statistical language, one can get some idea of the relative importance of various factual assumptions. Second, this
body of work makes it absolutely clear that even if some of the names in the family of Jesus are common, it is still the
case the combination of names found in the tomb are highly uncommon .
See in particular bibliographic references 10 – 13, 30, 32, 41
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