A Response to Kilty and Elliott on the Talpiot Tomb

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The calculations of Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott have an after-the-fact particularity to them that belies their claim to be dealing with probabilities.

Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott have written yet another article arguing that the Talpiot tomb is likely to be the tomb of Jesus’ family.[1] Their new article aims to overturn a number of objections made by Jodi Magness in her book Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). As with their earlier work, Kilty and Elliott’s latest effort displays a faulty understanding of the numbers involved in calculating the odds that the Talpiot tomb is the tomb of Jesus’ family.

In this brief response to Kilty and Elliott, I want to focus on only one part of their article: their handling of the probabilities. I see several significant problems with their procedure. I also want to offer a way forward for those who cannot agree with all the factors that the probabilities must take into consideration, by offering a VisualBasic macro that can reproduce multiple “virtual tombs,” in which the frequency with which these virtual tombs match the names in Jesus’ family can be measured as randomly generated sets of names. At the end, I briefly discuss the scatter of names that this macro produced for me (after allowing it to create 1,000,000 virtual tombs), and briefly outline how readers can produce similar results.

Problems with Kilty’s and Elliott’s Table of “Posterior Probability”

We should begin simply with Kilty’s and Elliott’s attempts to say that the names that obtain in the Talpiot tomb are not really as common as other scholars have claimed. They point out that the most common name found there (“Joseph”) “occurs with a frequency of only 83 times of every one thousand men.” Apparently they think that a name that occurs 8.3% of the time among males in a population is not “common.” This begs the question of Kilty’s and Elliott’s personal experiences. Has either of them ever lived in an area in which a single male name held a higher percentage than 8.3% of the male population? It is possible, of course, but it is hardly likely that their experience justifies their objection to the claim that “Joseph” is a “common” name, as a name occurring 8.3% of the time would indeed be very common in just about any population.

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Second Temple period ossuary of ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ and other ossuaries from Talpiyot in Jerusalem. Photographed by Tamarah courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier is the chair of biblical studies at the newly forming Kingswell Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio (scheduled to open in Fall 2008). Jack earned his doctorate in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he wrote a dissertation…
    [Read more about author]

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