The Numbers Behind the "The Lost Tomb of Jesus"
In 1980 a burial tomb was unearthed in Jerusalem containing ossuaries (limestone coffins) bearing inscriptions indicating that it may be Jesus' crypt. Last year, the Discovery Channel aired a documentary entitled "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" describing the find and the recent research performed to authenticate the tomb. The Discovery Channel presented interpretations of the ossuary inscriptions from a number of perspectives. Among these was a statistical calculation attributed to the statistician Andrey Feuerverger, that "the odds that all six names would appear together in one tomb are 1 in 600, calculated conservatively -— or possibly even as much as one in one million."
Andrey Feuerverger, a Professor of Statistics at the University of Toronto, lays out the full statistical analysis of names on the ossuaries in his article entitled, "Statistical Analysis of an Archeological Find" appearing in the March 2008 issue of the Annals of Applied Statistics. The paper is followed by an exchange with a broad array of statistical experts about the statistical conclusions and their interpretation about the New Testament family. The findings are far more nuanced than the quote attributed originally to Feuerverger in the Discovery Channel presentation. The article will be available March 24, 2008 at http://projecteuclid.org/aoas.
Stephen Fienberg, one of the four editors of the Annals of Applied Statistics, notes, "Feuerverger's paper offers a detailed and thoughtful explication of ossuary inscriptions and biblical era names, and exhibits the nuances inherent in first-rate applied statistical work. One might take issue with some assumptions but not with the care with which he has approached them, nor the any of the actual statistical calculations. The paper is a must-read for anyone interested in what we conclude from the inscriptions in the tomb. But, as the discussants make clear, despite the quality of Feuerverger's work, the controversy over the 'Lost Tomb of Jesus' will certainly continue."
The Annals of Applied Statistics is published quarterly by the Institute of Mathematical Statistics (IMS). The IMS has no relationship with the Discovery Channel.
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