Where Were His Legs?
“VICTIM Twisted on Cross, Unearthed Remains Show.” Did you see such a headline in January 1971? Quite possibly, for there were many newspaper articles on some new “evidence” about death on a cross.
After the above title, the article began: “Jerusalem, Jan. 3 (Reuter)—Israeli archaeologists, having unearthed the first material evidence of a crucifixion, said today it could indicate that Jesus Christ might have been crucified in a position different from that shown on the traditional cross.”
Did this new evidence actually reveal how Jews in Jesus’ time were executed on a cross or a stake? What did archaeologists determine as to the body position of the victim? Did this have a bearing on Jesus’ death? And how solid, you may ask, was the evidence?
A Nail in the Heels
Back in 1968 some burial caves were accidentally discovered near Jerusalem. Inside, among the reburied bones, was what seemed to be an outstanding find—heel bones pierced by a rusty spike. Dr. Nico Haas, anatomist and anthropologist of Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School, led an investigation of these particular bones. The respected Israel Exploration Journal (1970, Volume 20, pages 38-59) published his conclusions, which led to some sensational newspaper articles. What were those conclusions?
He reported that what was discovered was nothing less than the remains of a man executed on a cross in the first century. It seemed, basically, that the victim’s two heels were nailed together to an upright stake, but the nail bent at the tip when it hit a knot in the wood. After the Jewish victim was dead, relatives had trouble pulling the nail free, so it was left in his heels at burial. Since one nail pierced both heel bones and since it seemed that the leg bones had cut at an angle, Dr. Haas reported that the victim likely was executed in the position shown below. (Dr. Haas also felt that a scratch on an arm bone indicated that the man’s arms were nailed to a crossbeam.) You may have seen such a drawing in a newspaper or magazine article. Many were excited about the implications as to how Jesus had died.
Again, though, you do well to ask: Was the evidence reliable, and did it really bear on the manner of Jesus’ death?
Reappraising the Heels
In the next few years, some noted scholars, such as Professor Yigal Yadin, began to question conclusions that Haas had reached. Finally, Israel Exploration Journal (1985, Volume 35, pages 22-7) published “A Reappraisal,” by anthropologist Joseph Zias (Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums) and Eliezer Sekeles (Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School). They had studied the original evidence, photographs, casts, and radiographs of the bones. You may be surprised at some of their findings:
The nail was shorter than Haas had reported and thus would not have been long enough to pierce two heel bones and the wood. Pieces of bone had been misidentified. There was no bone from a second heel; the nail pierced only one heel. Some bone fragments were from another individual altogether. The scratched arm bone “was not convincing” evidence of nailing to a crossbeam; ‘in fact, two similar marks were observed on a leg bone; neither are connected with the crucifixion.’
What conclusions did this new analysis lead to? “Both the initial and final reconstruction of the crucifixion [by Haas] are technically and anatomically impossible when one considers the new evidence . . . We found no evidence of the left heel bone and calculated that the nail was sufficient for affixing only one heel bone . . . The lack of traumatic injury to the forearm and metacarpals of the hand seems to suggest that the arms of the condemned were tied rather than nailed.” You see on this page how Zias and Sekeles imagine the man was positioned for execution.
What About Jesus?
So, what does this indicate about how Jesus was executed? Really, not much at all! For instance, as we discussed on page 23, Jesus most likely was executed on an upright stake without any crossbeam. No man today can know with certainty even how many nails were used in Jesus’ case. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1979, Volume 1, page 826) comments: “The exact number of nails used . . . has been the subject of considerable speculation. In the earliest depictions of the crucifixion Jesus’ feet are shown separately nailed, but in later ones they are crossed and affixed to the upright with one nail.”
We do know that his hands or arms were not simply bound, for Thomas later said: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails.” (John 20:25) That could have meant a nail through each hand, or the plural “nails” might have reference to nail prints in ‘his hands and his feet.’ (See Luke 24:39.) We cannot know precisely where the nails pierced him, though it obviously was in the area of his hands. The Scriptural account simply does not provide exact details, nor does it need to. And if scholars who have directly examined the bones found near Jerusalem in 1968 cannot even be sure how that corpse was positioned, it certainly does not prove how Jesus was positioned.
We thus recognize that depictions of Jesus’ death in our publications, such as you see on page 24, are merely reasonable artistic renderings of the scene, not statements of anatomic absolutes. Such depictions need not reflect the changing and conflicting opinions of scholars, and the drawings definitely avoid religious symbols that stem from ancient paganism.