Among the chief objections made to filmmaker James Cameron’s claim that he may have located the tomb of Jesus is that the names found on the ossuaries were common in that time and place. I wondered a few days agohow common?

James Dobson’s Focus on the Family cites a Liberty University professor:

But Gary Habermas, a professor at Liberty University who specializes in resurrection research, said finding burial boxes with those names doesn’t establish anything. He told Family News in Focus as many as half of Jewish girls at that time were named Mary, and Jesus was a common name as well.

Half!? Wow!

Professor Ben Witherington, of Asbury Theological Seminary, provides some actual numbers. Of 2625 Palestinian males, the top-10 names were distributed thusly:

1 Simon/Simeon 243 (9.3%)
2 Joseph 218 (8.3%)
3 Eleazar 166 (6.3%)
4 Judah 164 (6.25%)
5 John/Yohanan 122 (4.65%)
6 Jesus 99 (3.8%)
7 Hananiah 82 (3.1%)
8 Jonathan 71 (2.7%)
9 Matthew 62 (2.4%)
10 Manaen/Menahem 42 (1.6%)

Of 328 Palestinian females, the top-4 names were distributed this way:

1 Mary/Mariamne 70 (21.3%)
2 Salome 58 (17.7%)
3 Shelamzion 24 (7.32%)
4 Martha 20 (6.1%)

Now, we aren’t interested in calculating the odds of a particular man named Joseph marrying a particular woman named Mary; what we want to know is what is the likelihood of any man named Joseph marrying any woman named Mary. I’m going to neglect that some of the women named Mary are post-menopausal, and unlikely to be the object of Joseph’s interest. I’m going to neglect, also, that some of the men named Joseph are fat, rowdy beer-drinkers that no sweet young thing would be interested in. And, I’m going to make the extremely improbable assumption that everybody marries.

0.083 x 0.21 = 0.0174, or 1.74%.

Slightly less than 2% of the married couples in Palestine have the names Joseph and Mary.

Next, let’s make the improbable assumptions that …

  • All of those marriages yield children, and
  • The distribution of male and female children is exactly equal, e.g., 50 male children born for every 50 female children born.

The likelihood of a married couple with the names Joseph and Mary producing a male child is then

0.0174 x 0.5 = 0.0087, or 0.87%.

Slightly less than 1% of the married couples are named Joseph and Mary and have a male son. Now: What is the likelihood that Joseph and Mary will name their male son Jesus?

0.0087 x 0.038 = 0.00033, or 0.033%

As common as the names Joseph, Mary and Jesus are, no more than about 1 in 3000 families is comprised of a husband named Joseph, a wife named Mary, and a son named Jesus. Now, how likely is the son named Jesus to marry a woman named Mary?

0.00033 x 0.21 = 0.0000693, or 0.00693%

The likelihood of a man named Joseph marrying a woman named Mary, that the marriage yields a son named Jesus, who then marries a woman named Mary, is about 1 in 14,430.

Remember, too, that we made some extremely conservative assumptions. That:

  • Everybody marries, that all of the males named Joseph, and all of the females named Mary, are in the pool of marital candidates. We know that isn’t true. Some of them are sickly, some of them are downright weird, some of them just don’t like the idea of marriage … on and on.
  • That all marriages produce children.

Those assumptions tend to increase the likelihood of a man named Joseph marrying a woman named Mary, that the marriage produces a son named Jesus, and that the son marries a woman named Mary. And we still come up with a likelihood of those names appearing in those relationships of about 1 in 15,000. We know it is actually much smaller.

So I ain’t buying the objection that, Hey!, those names are common.

This doesn’t, I should hasten to add, make Cameron’s case. Are the relationships among the persons in the tomb as Cameron speculates? We don’t know, and too little DNA has been recovered to tell us. Dr. Witherington’s numbers might be wildly wrong. All the analysis does is discount the objection from the professionally-obliged-to-be-critical that the names are common, as if there are probably tombs with that combination of names in those relationships all over the place. No. There are not.

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