Did this limestone box once hold the bones of Jesus? So goes the claim in a documentary film scheduled to be broadcast by the Discovery Channel March 4th, at 9:00 PM, EST.

Naturally, a press conference held today in New York City has drawn a lot of huff-and-puff. Most scholars appear skeptical, and a good many preachers are adamant that the documentarians must be mistaken and wicked, wicked, wicked, WICKED because, after all, the implications of the discovery contradict the Inerrant Bible and, therefore, can’t possibly be true and they would have known that right off the bat if they weren’t satanic troublemakers.

Oh … ho-hum. It does seem to be the case that the filmmakers rest their case principally upon a statistical argument about the likelihood of those names appearing together in a tomb, and if that’s all they’ve got then a lot of skepticism is probably in order.

The names Joseph, Jesus, Mary, and Judah are said to be among the most common of jewish names at that time. Okay, but … how common? What percentage of the population were known by those names, and how big was the population, anyway? You would have to have that information before commencing a statistical analysis. I doubt very much that anybody actually knows, and think it likely that the analysts simply made some assumptions — maybe good assumptions, maybe bad assumptions, but no better in any case than educated guesses.

The problem is that statistical analysis, like environmental modeling, are often sensitive to small variations in the input. Garbage in, garbage out, and all that.

My name, for example, is Bob. My wife’s name is Dawn. How many married couples named Bob and Dawn are there within 100-miles, say, of Wake Forest, North Carolina? I haven’t a clue. I do know that Bob is quite a common name, but that Dawn is less so, though hardly odd. How many married couples named Bob and Dawn, within 100-miles of Wake Forest, have a son named John? Once again, I don’t know, though the number surely goes down with the added condition.

Obviously, the likelihood of encountering a family comprised of a husband named Bob, a wife named Dawn, and a son named John varies according to the number of families in the study area. If I increase the study area to a circle having a 200-mile radius centered on Wake Forest, the odds go up; if I cut the study area to a 50-mile radius, the odds go down.

Just as obviously, you need some population distribution, too. If nobody else lives within 500-miles of here, it really doesn’t matter whether you use a circle with a 50- or 100- or 200-mile radius; the answer will be … zero.

Is such information available about the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, and the few decades afterward when everybody else was dying off? I don’t know, but I doubt it. We’ll all know more after watching the documentary, but I’m guessing this is destined to end up in the “curiosities” file.

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