Most paintings depicting the crucifixion show Jesus’ hands and feet nailed to the cross. For centuries, this was accepted as fact.
Recently, however, this theory has been challenged. Some historians maintain that most crucifixion victims were tied to the cross, rather than nailed. They cite the fact that, with one exception, there is no archaeological evidence of a body with nail marks from crucifixion.
The Lone Exception
The bones of a man crucified at the same time as Jesus were excavated in Jerusalem in 1968.
After his death, the body was brought down for burial. The soldiers were unable to detach his right foot since the nail bent after striking a knot in the wood. As a result, the foot and nail were removed together along with part of the wooden cross.
The nail used by the Roman soldiers in the archaeological discovery did not penetrate the foot from the top like most crucifixion depictions. In traditional paintings and sculptures, Christ’s feet overlap one another and a single nail transverses both via the dorsum pedis.
In this case, the nail was inserted in the side of the heel, below the ankle. In addition, wood was found under the head of the nail, indicating that a piece of wood was inserted so as to increase the size of the nail’s head making it difficult for the condemned to free his foot.
Yehohanan’s hands did not exhibit any puncture wounds; therefore, it is conjectured that he was tied. The illustration below shows the most probable posture he assumed.
To date, this is the only archaeological evidence of crucifixion in the ancient world.
Was Jesus Tied to the Cross?
These scholars suggest that the time it took to drive several iron nails through flesh, dense muscle, tendons, bone and wood would have been excessive.
At times as many as 6,000 prisoners of war were crucified at once, making tying the convicted the more efficient practice. We see this method of affixing the condemned to the cross in most renditions of the good and bad thief who were crucified alongside Jesus.
The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion do not mention nails. The only reference is in John’s Gospel when Thomas declares he must see…
“…the mark of the nails in his hands…’”
Though there is only one place in Scripture that overtly mentions nails in Jesus’ hands, in several post-resurrection appearances, Jesus invites his followers to behold my hands and my feet, to prove his identity. Why would Jesus offer his hands and feet if they had no distinguishing marks?
This logic leads other scholars to conclude that using nails was the norm. The Jewish historian Josephus relays that Roman soldiers:
“…amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures.”
—The Jewish War, 75 AD
Why Then No Evidence?
Then why only one remain with nail marks? There are several possible reasons:
- Iron was costly and the nails were removed.
- Humiliation would continue after death. The body would be thrown in a garbage heap or left on the cross for wild beasts leaving no remains.
- In Palestine, an honorable death required burial. The crucified were not typically allowed to be entombed. With no tomb, the victim was dishonored, the family denied a place to mourn and memory of the dead blotted from existence. Without a grave, no remains were preserved.
If Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross, how were the nails placed?
Some historians claim that a nail placed in the palm of the hand (A) could not support the weight of the human body—the nail would rip the flesh between the metacarpal bones.
Others claim that the transverse ligaments and conjunctive tissue in the hand are quite strong and could support the weight.
Additionally, some crosses had a sedile, a small seat, and footrest which lessened the total weight the nails in the palms of the hands and the feet needed to support.
An alternate location is below the wrist (B). A nail placed between the radius and ulna would fit with the biblical account that no bones were broken. The Greek word translated as hand in John’s Gospel could refer to the arm and hand together.