The Tomb that Won't Close: More Reflections on the Talpiot Conference

Some have asked my opinion of the Duke letter that is now circulating with signatures from several scholars who attended the Talpiot conference. Mark Goodacre has posted it on his blog.

First let me say up front that I do not have a dog in this fight. I find the discussion interesting, mostly imaginative, but very contentious. I went to the conference a skeptic and I have returned home a skeptic, although a much more informed one.

What I learned at the conference is that Mary Magdalene is the linchpin. Without the Mariamne inscription factored into the stats, the stats are insignificant statistically. Since the Mariamne inscription should be read, "Mariam(e) kai Mara", this means that the stats as they have been run with Mariamne are not compelling proof.

The statisticians, however, were very clear that a different set of assumptions would mean a different result. What if we were to change the assumptions and run a different set of names, Mariame instead of Mariamne? What if we get rid of Jesus' sisters' names which were part of the original equation? Since we don't actually know his sisters' names (and how they got on the statistician's list is a mystery to me), Joanna and Salome can't be on the list of possibilities for those who might belong in the tomb. So the conference discussion did not result in a definitive dismissal. Rather the suggestion was made by more than one participant, including Stephen Pfann, that the statisticians might try a different range of names as the assumptions for the problem.

The same is true about the DNA tests. They were contaminated. So they are inconclusive. The DNA specialist, however, told us exactly what has to be done to do the tests correctly. But the tests are very expensive and no one at the conference seemed compelled to take up the charge to go and do it right, although it was suggested that this should be something to pursue.

I found the Duke letter arresting because it takes at historical face value the canonical stories, with little appreciation for critical textual methods. The proof that the Talpiot Tomb can't be Jesus' tomb is because the canonical stories relate that Joseph buried him in a new cut tomb of his own?

Finally, and perhaps the most compelling reason that I did not sign this letter is the marginalization of Gat's widow, which I find offensive. Her treatment is appalling to me, especially with no proof given that we shouldn't trust her words. What benefit is there to discredit her memory of her husband and his work? It makes absolutely no difference to the Talpiot Tomb discussion whether or not Professor Gat thought this was or wasn't the Jesus family tomb. So why would a handful of archaeologists feel so compelled to argue that she doesn't know what she is talking about because Gat didn't read the inscriptions? I assume that he could read Hebrew fluently.