I was reminded of these discussions today when listening to the podcast for the BBC Radio 4 maths show "More or Less". Towards the end they discuss the probability of five people meeting whose fathers all had the first names John Charles. The initial calculation comes out to be one in several billion billions, but what's significant in this case is that this is not theoretical, "but" as the narrator says in Magnolia "it did happen".
The team however quickly whittle down this astounding statistic down to something much more reasonable, and you can hear their reasoning about 23 minutes into the podcast (actual file here).
A number of these reasons are also relevant to the Talpiot Tomb question. Firstly it was an actual discovery, so that changes the statistical calculations altogether, secondly the location appears significant, but various other locations would have given rise to a similarly apparent significance. Thirdly, the smaller and smaller the probabilities get the more likely it that a reality blip changes everything.
Coincidentally I was also musing on a related point again this weekend, how we tend to find names cluster together rather than occur at random. I once commented on Mark Goodacre's blog that a modern day example might be the cluster of names Seumas, Mary and Patrick. Individually the probability wouldn't be that high, purely on the basis of their popularity in the population as a whole. But in reality because they are all Catholic names the likelihood of finding such a cluster would be much higher than this simple basis for the calculation. If you searched for it in a Catholic part of Belfast you'd get a much higher number of families than if you searched in Kent, or a Protestant part of Belfast. Given how sectarian Judaism was at the time, it's reasonable to want to know about these names relate to each other before assuming the probabilities are all independent.
Which leads me onto another question. During the Radio 4 podcast the expert says that looking at the 40s and 50s he had difficulty finding "the distribution" even though they had the rankings. So if we're lacking this key piece of data for just 60 years ago, how accurate is the data that was used to calculate the probability regarding the Jesus Tomb? If I remember rightly, the overall figure was calculated my multiplying the assumed probability for each name individually. Now the probability for each name was drawn from other ossuaries found in the region from around the same period of time. The problem with this is that it's not representative of the whole, at best its representative of those rich enough to have a bone box. But Jesus and his family were not rich. Were this to be their tomb then it would only exist because Jesus' life had elected their status. We have no reliable information of the distribution and occurrence of names of people within Jesus' social class and so this is another flaw (amongst many) that the programme makes.
Labels: Jesus Tomb