History

Was Jesus Really Nailed To The Cross?

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ could have been carried out in a number of ways, not just with nails.

Jesus's crucifixion is probably one of the most familiar images to emerge from Christianity. Good Friday, one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar, marks the event. But what was crucifixion? And why was Jesus killed that way?

Crucifixion was a Roman method of punishment. Suspended from a large cross, a victim would eventually die from asphyxiation or exhaustion – it was long, drawn-out, and painful. It was used to publicly humiliate slaves and criminals (not always to kill them), and as an execution method was usually reserved for individuals of very low status or those whose crime was against the state. This is the reason given in the Gospels for Jesus's crucifixion: as King of the Jews, Jesus challenged Roman imperial supremacy (Matt 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19–22).

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Crucifixion could be carried out in a number of ways. In Christian tradition, nailing the limbs to the wood of the cross is assumed, with debate centering on whether nails would pierce hands or the more structurally sound wrists. But Romans did not always nail crucifixion victims to their crosses, and instead sometimes tied them in place with rope. In fact, the only archaeological evidence for the practice of nailing crucifixion victims is an ankle bone from the tomb of Jehohanan, a man executed in the first century CE.

So was Jesus nailed to the cross?

Gospel Accounts Some early Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, don't include the narrative of Jesus's crucifixion, choosing instead to focus on his teaching. But Jesus's death by crucifixion is one of the things that all four canonical Gospels agree on. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all include the crucifixion event in their own slightly different ways.

None of the Gospels in the New Testament mentions whether Jesus was nailed or tied to the cross. However, the Gospel of John reports wounds in the risen Jesus's hands. It is this passage, perhaps, that has led to the overwhelming tradition that Jesus's hands and feet were nailed to the cross, rather than tied to it.

"The Incredulity of Saint Thomas," by Caravaggio, 1601. | Wikimedia Commons

The Gospel of Peter, a non-canonical gospel from the first or second century CE, specifically describes in verse 21 how after Jesus had died, the nails were removed from his hands. The Gospel of Peter also famously includes the cross itself as an active character in the Passion narrative. In verses 41-42 the cross speaks, responding with its own voice to God: "And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, ‘Have you made proclamation to the fallen-asleep?' And an obeisance was heard from the cross, ‘Yes.'" Tradition is clearly of paramount importance to this text.

Over the past few years, several people have claimed to have found the actual nails with which Jesus was crucified. Each time, biblical scholars and archaeologists have rightly pointed outthe assumptions and misinterpretations of evidence behind these claims. Curiously, this fixation on the nails persists, despite the fact that the earliest gospels make no mention of Jesus being nailed to the cross.

Depictions Of The Crucifixion It isn't surprising that Christians took a while to embrace the image of Christ on the cross, given that crucifixion was a humiliating way to die. What is surprising is what the earliest image of the crucifixion turns out to be. Rather than the devotional icons with which we are familiar – pictures that glorify Jesus's death – this earliest image appears to be some late second-century graffiti mocking Christians.

Called the Alexamenos Graffito, artist Rodolfo Lanciani shows a figure with the head of a donkey on a cross with the words: "Alexamenos worships his God." | Wikimedia Commons

Called the Alexamenos Graffito, the image shows a figure with the head of a donkey on a cross with the words: "Alexamenos worships his God." This was apparently a common accusation in antiquity, as Minucius Felix(Octavius 9.3; 28.7) and Tertullian (Apology 16.12) both attest. Since the graffito was clearly not made by a Christian, this image suggests that non-Christians were familiar with some core elements of Christian belief as early as the second century.

Gemstones, some used for magical purposes, also provide some of our earliest depictions of the crucified Jesus. This second or third century piece of carved jasper depicts a man on a cross surrounded by magic words.

This second or third century piece of carved jasper depicts a man on a cross surrounded by magic words. | British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Another very early image of the crucifixion is found carved into the face of a carnelian gemstone made into a ring.

Constanza gemstone with the crucified Christ, surrounded by 12 apostles. | British Musem CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Scholars think that the Constanza gemstone, as it is known, dates from the fourth century CE. In this depiction, Jesus's hands do not appear to be nailed to the cross, since they fall naturally, as if he is tied at the wrists.

Since the evidence from antiquity doesn't provide a clear answer as to whether Jesus was nailed or tied to his cross, it's tradition that dictates this common depiction. Those who have seen the film The Passion of the Christ will recall how much time the director, Mel Gibson, devoted just to the act of nailing Jesus onto the cross -- almost five whole minutes.

Given the relative silence on the act of crucifixion in the Gospels, this stands out as a graphic expansion. One of the only films that does not assume that crucifixion involved nails is Monty Python's Life of Brian, which shows multiple crucifixion victims, though not Jesus, tied to their crosses.

Eventually, Emperor Constantine put an end to crucifixion as a method of execution, not for ethical reasons, but out of respect for Jesus. But in the end, it is the enduring image of the cross, and not the matter of whether nails or ropes were used, that most firmly evokes the death of Jesus in art and tradition.

Meredith J C Warren, Lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Crucifixion as depicted by German artist Peter Gertner in this 1537 painting.

Crucifixion is often associated with Jesus, yet this atrocious execution method was used long before Jesus's birth. Crucifixion probably originated with the Assyrians and Babylonians and then became common among the Persians in the 6th century B.C. Alexander the Great brought the practice to the eastern Mediterranean countries in the 4th century B.C. According to Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, the Macedonian king crucified 2,000 survivors from his siege of the Phoenician city of Tyre, now Lebanon, in 332 B.C. However, the only archaeological evidence of crucifixion dates to the 1st century A.D. It was uncovered in a cave in Giv'at ha-Mivtar, in northeast Jerusalem, and consisted of the remains of one male individual named Yehohanan. A heel bone had an iron stake driven through it, indicating the man was nailed to a cross.

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The most famous mass crucifixion dates well before Jesus to the slave and gladiator Spartacus, whose story has served as inspiration for book and movies. Between 73 B.C. and 71 B.C., during the Third Servile War, Spartacus led a slave revolt against the Roman republic. The rebellion was crushed and, while Spartacus most likely died in the final battle, over 6,000 of his followers were captured and crucified by the order of Roman general and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus. Their bodies were hung on crosses along the 120-mile long Appian Way between Capua and Rome as a warning to any other who would attempt to rebel.

Was Jesus Really Nailed To The Cross?

Although Yehohanan remains the only archaeologically proven case of crucifixion, historical sources describe other famous victims of this brutal mode of death besides Jesus Christ and the two criminals at his sides. According to tradition, the apostle St. Peter, considered the first pope by the Roman Catholic Church, suffered an even more atrocious death as he was crucified upside-down on Vatican Hill during the reign of Emperor Nero. The apocryphal Acts of Peter report of that Peter was executed that way because he told his executioners he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus.

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According to legend, the apostle St. Andrew deemed himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus. It is said that Andrew was martyred at Patras, Greece, on an X-shaped cross, his arms and legs widely extended.

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Women were crucified as well, though rarely. St.Julia, the patroness of the island of Corsica, is perhaps the best known case. Her martyrdom was made famous in a triptych by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Born in Carthage, Julia was sold to a Syrian merchant named Eusebius who brought her to Corsica. The story goes that the local governor Felix promised to buy her freedom on the condition she made sacrifices to pagan gods. Upon her refusal, Felix tortured and crucified her on a cross around 439 A.D.

In Japan, crucifixion resurfaced as a way to kill Christians in the 16th century. It included raising a cross at low tide so that the victim would be submerged up to the head at high tide, making death more excruciating. In 1597 26 Japanese Christians, later declared martyrs by the Catholic Church, were nailed to crosses at Nagasaki. The executions marked the beginning of a long persecution of Christianity in Japan. By the 17th century, crucifixion began to be used against non-Christians too. In 1651, about 150 people were executed on the cross following a failed uprising against the Shogun.

While rumors abounded that during World War I German soldiers crucified a Canadian soldier on a tree, it is certain the brutal execution was used in World War II by Japanese soldiers. The best documented case is that of three Australian prisoners of war who were bound to trees by the Japanese for killing cattle. One of them, Herbert James "Ringer" Edwards, survived being crucified for 63 hours. Edwards became the inspiration for the character Joe Harman in Nevil Shute's novel, "A Town Like Alice."

Today crucifixion can still be imposed by courts in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. According to Amnesty International, crucifixion takes place after the beheading, when the body is hung in public display as a deterrent. Militants tied to ISIS have reportedly crucified Syrian Christians, including children.

This year on Good Friday, 55-year-old carpenter and sign maker Ruben Enaje will be nailed to a cross for the 30th time in the city of San Fernando, in the the Philippines. Enaje has been nailed to a cross every Good Friday since 1985 as an act of thanks for surviving a fall from a three-story building. Some 20,000 spectators are expected to attend the crucifixion reenactment, which is not encouraged by the Catholic Church for the use of nails, albeit sterilized.