How was Jesus crucified?

Crucifixion causes controversy

The BBC drama The Passion has been criticised about the way it portrays the Crucifixion. According to the Daily Mail

The BBC is facing accusations of rewriting the Easter story by claiming Christ was nailed to the cross in a foetal position. The corporation is accused of 'misleading' the public by ditching the traditional image of Jesus with arms outstretched, legs straight and hands nailed.

Daily Mail, March 2008

Among the critics was the Reverend George Curry, chairman of the Church Society, who said:

They are misleading people by distorting the facts. That's a serious and dangerous thing to do, but sadly utterly predictable and regrettable. Jesus's nails went through his hands, not his forearms. We should be true to history and the events that occurred.

Sunday Telegraph, 16 March 2008

The BBC team believe that the way they show the Crucifixion - with Christ's arms above his head, nails through his arms and his knees bent - fits historical evidence.

Production designer Simon Elliott, says that they tried to make it as 'historically accurate' as possible. Quoted in the Daily Telegraph he said:

The Victorian image of Jesus doesn't tie in with the historical evidence. He was probably put on a crude wooden gibbet and made to stand in a loose, foetal position. It was fiendishly designed.

Sunday Telegraph, 16 March 2008

And Mark Goodacre, a professor of religion who advised the production team said:

The Romans used a number of ways to crucify people and this was one of the most common and effective methods.

Sunday Telegraph, 16 March 2008

Evidence is lacking

We'll never know for certain what really happened at the crucifixion of Jesus, since Christians believe that Jesus' bodily resurrection means that his bones can never be found and without that evidence the actual method of his crucifixion cannot be determined.

Nor is there much physical evidence to show how crucifixion was usually carried out. This is partly because those who were crucified were often denied burial and had their remains dumped without ceremony. It's also possible that the nails used in crucifixion were valued as having magical properties and removed. Or perhaps that the cost of nails led the Romans to reuse them.

Many methods of crucifixion

Writing in the April 2006 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine , Piers Mitchell and Matthew Maslen argue there is insufficient evidence to ascertain precisely how people died from crucifixion in Roman times.

The evidence available demonstrates that people were crucified in different postures and affixed to crosses using a variety of means. Victims were not necessarily positioned head up and nailed through the feet from front to back as is the imagery in Christian churches...

... at the place of crucifixion, the hands and feet of the prisoner were fixed to the cross with either nails or cords, and the cross erected in any one of a range of orientations. If crucified head up, the victim's weight may also have been supported on a small seat.

Literary evidence tends to suggest that the Romans used nails far more often than ropes when crucifying.

The traditional Crucifixion

The traditional portrait of Jesus, with the nails through the palms of his hands is probably based on the translation of a verse in John's gospel:

But he said to them, 'Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.'

John 20: 25

This passage is not an eyewitness account of the event itself, but relates the demands of doubting Thomas to see the wounds left by crucifixion.

Some Greek scholars point out that the Greek word used for hands in the original actually means the arm and hand combined (a different phrase is used for the hand alone) and so the text is consistent with the nails having been driven through the wrists or some other part of the arm and hand.

The traditional portrayal of the crucifixion shows the feet nailed together into the front of the cross, but this too seems to be based on little evidence.

Every carving of Jesus' crucifixion that we have ever seen in Catholic or Protestant churches have a nail passing through both feet from front to back. This religious stereotype has influenced the views of many researchers over the years. However, there is no evidence that crucifixion was actually carried out in this way in classical times.

Matthew W Maslen Piers D Mitchell, Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion, J R Soc Med 2006

Evidence for a different Crucifixion

Can the hands take the weight of the body?

In the 1930s a French surgeon called Pierre Barbet performed some macabre experiments which showed that the body's weight would tear it completely free of nails driven through the hands in the way traditionally shown.

Other experts have come to the same conclusion.

But not everyone agrees. Some experiments suggest that the palm of the hands can, if nailed in a certain way, take the weight of the body , while Marcello Craveri writes in The Life of Jesus that the hands would never have had to bear the full body weight:

According to Roman practice, a stout peg was inserted between the victim's thighs and nailed to the upright so that the body would be supported and its weight would not tear the hands.

Craveri, The Life of Jesus

The remains of Jehohanan

The BBC production team based their imagery of the Crucifixion on the discovery in 1968 by a team of archaeologists led by Vassilios Tzaferis, of the remains of a crucified man in cave-tombs at Giv'at ha-Mivtar, north of Jerusalem.

Jehohonan, as he was called, had died around AD 7, and so was a close contemporary of Jesus, and his crucifixion was likely to have been carried out in a similar way.

The key bit of evidence was a heel bone with a curved nail stuck through it.

The nail was driven through the heel bones from the side, indicating to some that Jehohanan had been crucified in 'a sort of sidesaddle position'.

Other experts, however, suggest that the length of the nail is too short for this and establishes that each heel must have been nailed separately to the sides of the cross.

The hand bones had no damage to suggest that nails had been driven through the palms, and the researchers thought, based on literary evidence, that it was possible that the crucified person's upper limbs might have been fastened to the cross with rope rather than nails.

The Jehohonan case provides no positive evidence as to the position of the arms or hands of the crucified man. As Mitchell and Maslen commented:

Of the one case we are aware of, the heels of the male victim were nailed to the sides of the cross and there was no evidence of nail insertion through the wrist or forearm. Based on the evidence, we don't even know if the victim was upright, facing down or in any other position.

Matthew W Maslen Piers D Mitchell, Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion, J R Soc Med 2006

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