Roman Crucifixion Methods Reveal the History of Crucifixion

Crucifixion in Antiquity

What do we know about the history of crucifixion? In the following article, “New Analysis of the Crucified Man,” Hershel Shanks looks at evidence of Roman crucifixion methods as analyzed from the remains found in Jerusalem of a young man crucified in the first century A.D. The remains included a heel bone pierced by a large nail, giving archaeologists, osteologists and anthropologists evidence of crucifixion in antiquity.

Roman Crucifixion Methods Reveal the History of Crucifixion

Crucifixion in antiquity was a gruesome execution, not really understood until a skeletal discovery in the 1980s that gave new insight into the history of crucifixion. Photo: Courtesy Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1985)

What do these bones tell us about the history of crucifixion? The excavator of the crucified man, Vassilios Tzaferis, followed the analysis of Nico Haas of Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem suggesting Roman crucifixion methods: a contorted position: arms nailed to the crossbeam; legs bent, twisted to one side, and held in place by a single nail that passed through a wooden plaque, through both left and right heel bones, and then into the upright of the cross.

However, when Joseph Zias and Eliezer Sekeles reexamined the remains, looking for evidence of Roman crucifixion methods, they found no evidence that nails had penetrated the victim’s arms; moreover, the nail in the foot was not long enough to have penetrated the plaque, both feet, and the cross. And, indeed, what were previously thought to be fragments of two heel bones through which the nail passed were shown to be fragments of only one heel bone and a long bone. On the basis of this evidence, Zias and Sekeles suggest that the man’s legs straddled the cross and that his arms were tied to the crossbeam with ropes, signifying the method of crucifixion in antiquity.

Literary sources giving insight into the history of crucifixion indicate that Roman crucifixion methods had the condemned person carry to the execution site only the crossbar. Wood was scarce and the vertical pole was kept stationary and used repeatedly. Below, in “New Analysis of the Crucified Man,” Hershel Shanks concludes that crucifixion in antiquity involved death by asphyxiation, not death by nail piercing.



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Scholars’ Corner: New Analysis of the Crucified Man

By Hershel Shanks

Roman Crucifixion Methods Reveal the History of Crucifixion

Drawing of the contorted crucifixion position proposed by Vassilios Tzaferis, based on the analysis of Nico Haas, which has since been challenged by Joseph Zias and Eliezer Sekeles. For full caption, see drawing from Israel Exploration Journal 35:1. Photo: Courtesy Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1–2 (1970)

In our January/February 1985 issue, we published an article about the only remains of a crucified man to be recovered from antiquity (“Crucifixion—The Archaeological Evidence,BAR 11:01). Vassilios Tzaferis, the author of the article and the excavator of the crucified man, based much of his analysis of the victim’s position on the cross and other aspects of the method of crucifixion on the work of a medical team from Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School headed by Nico Haas, who had analyzed the crucified man’s bones. In a recent article in the Israel Exploration Journal, however, Joseph Zias, an anthropologist with the Israel Department of Antiquities, and Eliezer Sekeles of Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem question many of Haas’s conclusions concerning the bones of the crucified man.a The questions Zias and Sekeles raise affect many of the conclusions about the man’s position during crucifixion.

According to Haas, the nail in the crucified man penetrated both his right and left heel bones, piercing the right heel bone (calcaneum) first, then the left. Haas found a fragment of bone attached to the right heel that he thought was part of the left heel bone (sustentaculum tali). If Haas’s analysis is correct, the two heel bones must have been penetrated by the same nail, and the victim’s legs must have been in a closed position on the cross.

But according to the new analysis of the bones just published in the Israel Exploration Journal, the bone fragment Haas identified as part of the left heel bone was incorrectly identified. “The shape and structure of this bony fragment is of a long bone; it cannot therefore be the left [heel bone],” say the most recent investigators. Their conclusions are confirmed by x-rays, which reveal the varying density, structure and direction of the bones.

Haas also incorrectly assumed that the nail is seven inches (17–18 cm) long. In fact, the total length of the nail from head to tip is only 4.5 inches (11.5 cm). A wooden plaque less than an inch thick (2 cm) had been punctured by the nail before it passed through the right heel bone. After exiting from the bone, the nail penetrated the cross itself and then bent, probably because it hit a knot. As the new investigators observe, given the length of the nail, “There simply was not enough room for both heel bones and a two centimeter wooden plaque to have been pierced by the nail and affixed to the vertical shaft of the cross. … The nail was sufficient for affixing only one heel bone to the cross.”

In short, only the right heel bone was penetrated—laterally, or sidewise—by the nail. Accordingly, the victim’s position on the cross must have been different from that portrayed by Haas.

The new investigators also dispute Haas’s conclusion that a scratch on the bone of the right forearm (radius) of the victim, just above the wrist, represents the penetration of a nail between the two bones of the forearm. According to Zias and Sekeles, such scratches and indentations are commonly found on ancient skeletal material, including on the right leg bone (fibula) of this man. Such scratches and indentations have nothing to do with crucifixion.

How then was the crucified man attached to the cross?

As the new investigators observe:

“The literary sources for the Roman period contain numerous descriptions of crucifixion but few exact details as to how the condemned were affixed to the cross. Unfortunately, the direct physical evidence here is also limited to one right calcaneum (heel bone) pierced by an 11.5 cm iron nail with traces of wood at both ends.”

According to the literary sources, those condemned to crucifixion never carried the complete cross, despite the common belief to the contrary and despite the many modern reenactments of Jesus’ walk to Golgotha. Instead, only the crossbar was carried, while the upright was set in a permanent place where it was used for subsequent executions. As the first-century Jewish historian Josephus noted, wood was so scarce in Jerusalem during the first century A.D. that the Romans were forced to travel ten miles from Jerusalem to secure timber for their siege machinery.

According to Zias and Sekeles:

“One can reasonably assume that the scarcity of wood may have been expressed in the economics of crucifixion in that the crossbar as well as the upright would be used repeatedly. Thus, 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 to the cross. There is ample literary and artistic evidence for the use of ropes rather than nails to secure the condemned to the cross.”

According to Zias and Sekeles, the victim’s legs straddled the vertical shaft of the cross, one leg on either side, with the nails penetrating the heel bones. The plaque or plate under the head of the nail, they say, was intended to secure the nail and prevent the condemned man from pulling his feet free.

As Haas correctly suggested, the nail probably hit a knot which bent the nail. However, as Zias and Sekeles reconstruct the removal of the dead man from the cross:

“Once the body was removed from the cross, albeit with some difficulty in removing the right leg, the condemned man’s family would now find it impossible to remove the bent nail without completely destroying the heel bone. This reluctance to inflict further damage to the heel led [to his burial with the nail still in his bone, and this in turn led] to the eventual discovery of the crucifixion.”

Whether the victim’s arms were tied, rather than nailed to the cross is irrelevant to the manner of his dying. As Zias and Sekeles point out:

“Death by crucifixion was the result of the manner in which the condemned man hung from the cross and not the traumatic injury caused by nailing. Hanging from the cross resulted in a painful process of asphyxiation, in which the two sets of muscles used for breathing, the intercostal [chest] muscles and the diaphragm, became progressively weakened. In time, the condemned man expired, due to the inability to continue breathing properly.”

 


 

Notes

a. “The Crucified Man from Giv‘at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal,” Israel Exploration Journal Vol. 35, No. 1 (1985), pp. 22–27.

Zias and Sekeles also note a number of other errors in Haas’s report:

1. The victim’s legs were not broken as a final coup de grâce. The break so identified by Haas was postmortem.

2. The victim did not have a cleft palate. The upper right canine was not missing, despite Haas’s report to the contrary.

3. The wood from which the plaque under the nail head was made was olive wood, not acacia or pistacia, as Hans suggested.

4. The wood fragments attached to the end of the nail were too minute to be analyzed. Haas suggested the vertical shaft of the cross was olive wood. This is possible, but unlikely.

 


 
New Analysis of the Crucified Man” by Hershel Shanks first appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 1985, 20-21.

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  1. Jude says

    How high above the ground would it be to the top of the head of the cricified?

  2. Richard says

    If victims were crucified naked (as part of the intended humiliation), how did Jesus rank a loincloth — or was that subsequent artistic license premised in prudery?

  3. Loy says

    I think there are two types of Roman crucifixion: Nailing to a cross and being tied to a cross.

    Nailing to a cross is “less severe” and “less humiliating” as the condemned dies within a day from loss of blood.

    Tying to a cross is the most severe form of punishment usually reserved for robbers. Insects invited by the stench from the body fluid crawl in and out of the condemned’s crevices. Birds will perch and take a bite on the face and body. Lower abdomen will bulge because of the falling internal organs. The condemned goes mentally-ill shouting, laughing, pleading to be killed but death comes after several days to a week.

    As to the vertical pole, whatever was available, an existing one from previous execution or a tree. The body examined was probably of a condemned thief.

  4. sejanus says

    This article is incorrect.
    It neglects to mention the use of a sedile and cornu that both supported and penetrated the victim.
    The sedile would not allow a victim to slum far enough to die of aspyxiation…

  5. Krzysztof says

    To make the statement clear: The book The Non-Christian Cross, by John Denham Parsons, states: “There is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross. . . . it is not a little misleading upon the part of our teachers to translate the word stauros as ‘cross’ when rendering the Greek documents of the Church into our native tongue, and to support that action by putting ‘cross’ in our lexicons as the meaning of stauros without carefully explaining that that was at any rate not the primary meaning of the word in the days of the Apostles, did not become its primary signification till long afterwards, and became so then, if at all, only because, despite the absence of corroborative evidence, it was for some reason or other assumed that the particular stauros upon which Jesus was executed had that particular shape.”—London, 1896, pp. 23, 24.

  6. Fr. says

    Finding a few remains that indicate that the Romans did not always crucify people as described in Christian tradition does not invalidate Christian traditions about the crucifixion of Christ. There is no reason to assume that all Roman crucifixions were done the same way.

  7. Robert says

    Given that it’s based on the remains of one victim. this seems like an awful lot of conclusions about a punishment widely used by the Romans and others over a course of centuries.

  8. JAllan says

    There is a practice in the devoutly Catholic nation of the Philippines by which some pious Christians practice penance by having themselves partially crucified in the manner by which Jesus was traditionally crucified. They have found it necessary to support the arms with ropes, using the more modern, smoother, straighter and thinner nails only to provide the additional pain. Of course, they are cut down before irreparable damage is done. There have been medical tests done on (donated) cadavers which show that attempting to hold the weight of the body up solely by nails in the palms merely tears the palms open; while doing so with nails just above the wrists, between the arm bones, just barely holds up the body.

    From a humanitarian viewpoint alone, we should be thankful that we know so little about the process. While no country with Christianity as its primary heritage would revive the practice, non-Christian as well as Christian countries are either more humane than ancient Rome (admittedly a very low bar) or would not give up the efficiency of shooting, hanging or beheading for such a slow process, except possibly as a means of interrogation. I am not sure whether the Nazis experimented with crucifixion; I doubt it, because even though there was an “inside the SS” movement to revive Norse paganism, the majority of Germans, even of the Nazis, believed themselves to be, theologically at least, Christians.

  9. salvatore says

    The Bible’s answer
    Many view the cross as the most common symbol of Christianity. However, the Bible does not describe the instrument of Jesus’ death, so no one can know its shape with absolute certainty. Still, the Bible provides evidence that Jesus died, not on a cross, but on an upright stake.

    The Bible generally uses the Greek word stau·ros′ when referring to the instrument of Jesus’ execution. (Matthew 27:40; John 19:17) Although translations often render this word “cross,” many scholars agree that its basic meaning is actually “upright stake.” * According to A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, stau·ros′ “never means two pieces of wood joining each other at any angle.”

    The Bible also uses the Greek word xy′lon as a synonym for stau·ros′. (Acts 5:30; 1 Peter 2:24) This word means “wood,” “timber,” “stake,” or “tree.” * The Companion Bible thus concludes: “There is nothing in the Greek of the N[ew] T[estament] even to imply two pieces of timber.”

    Is using the cross in worship acceptable to God?

    A crux simplex—the Latin term for a single stake used for impalement of a criminal

    Regardless of the shape of the instrument on which Jesus died, the following facts and Bible verses indicate that we should not use the cross in worship.

    God rejects worship that uses images or symbols, including the cross. God commanded the Israelites not to use “the form of any symbol” in their worship, and Christians are likewise told to “flee from idolatry.”—⁠Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 1 Corinthians 10:14.
    First-century Christians did not use the cross in worship. * The teachings and example of the apostles set a pattern that all Christians should adhere to.—⁠2 Thessalonians 2:15.
    Use of the cross in worship has a pagan origin. * Hundreds of years after the death of Jesus, when the churches had deviated from his teachings, new church members “were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols,” including the cross. (The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words) However, the Bible does not condone adopting pagan symbols to help make new converts.—⁠2 Corinthians 6:17.

  10. Ergoeime says

    If Roman executioners used crucifixion on a regular basis, it would require reusable tools for the task. Wooden beams with pre drilled holes, iron fortified wooden dowels, ordinary rope, and fixed post holes make up for an efficient method to get the job done. Securing the victim to the beam or cross would be a method to insure the body would be supported until the public execution was completed. The body would be removed and most of the cross would be used again for the next execution. Nothing suggests the description in the Bible is inaccurate as to the piercing of the hands and feet. The fastening to the beam or “prospegnumi” (Greek), indicative of fastening with a “peg”, carries the idea of both rope and dowels used in fastening to a wooden beam. The nine times the word phrase “nailed to a cross” is used in Christian Scripture can be compared with similar usage in the LXX and contemporary sources. No conclusive evidence exists to state as Bill O’Reilly does in his book “Killing Jesus”, that Christ was not nailed to a cross. That opinion assumes much more about the Roman method of execution than actual facts support. Jesus was likely attached to a wooden beam by use of both ropes and pegs.

  11. Nettie says

    What type of Wood was used in the Roman’s crucifixions? during the time of Jesus?

  12. Keefa says

    So was it a upright pole stake or a cross?

  13. Stephen says

    This article unfortunately continues the tradition of the “cross” when Romans routinely simple nailed people to a POST, hands above the head, with no cross beam. The word used does NOT mean cross and was just a mistranslation by people who had fortunately never seen a crucifixion. Indeed, try to imagine Roman soldiers wasting all the time needed to create the kind of jointed cross that is usually seen in artworks while they banged up 500 to 1000 people along a road. Incidentally, the fact that the word means a large piece of wood and could be better translated post or staff depending on context makes the comment of Jesus sending out his disciples the last time, when he predicted troubles a lot more sensible. Take a big stick or staff along. NOT a “Cross” for ******** sake. Forgive me thinking of the word which fit’s best there. Let’s just say for “Pete’s” sake.

  14. John says

    Saying that the crucifixion of Jesus was God the Father’s idea to endure the painful sequence that the sentence of crucifixion inflicts on a person just to die for other men’s sins goes beyond logic. Makes no sense what so ever, thus “senseless” Not suggesting this did not take place, rather this particular execution did… in fact, just as countless others by the hand of Roman rules & law. This account has been embellished on so many times that facts are buried under the writings of those who wish to promote their ideologies .

  15. Phil says

    I’m curious as to why it is assumed that the arms were roped to the beam. With both heels nailed in place, the crucified man would hold on to the beam with no need for other support.

  16. Daniel says

    Archaeology is a fine science, however, interpretation is often very subjective. For certain Christ was nailed to the tree, whatever the form. John (Lazarus) writes in the gospel of John: John 20:25
    So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

    In the Old Testament, the book of Psalms says Psalm 22:16
    Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet—

    As much as this archaeological note says about crucifixion, it also ignores the biblical account of Christ’s wounds, implying in a deliberate way that the historical and prophetic accounts were in error or hyperbole. This is very bad hermeneutics and poorer historical regards for the text of the Bible.

    Dan Moran.

  17. JAllan says

    Personally, I have no theological interest in the method of crucifixion used in the case of Jesus or any other cases, but it is an interesting question of historical trivia and anatomy. It is fortunate indeed that the Romans abandoned crucifixion when they began to worship someone who had been crucified (not that cruel punishments in general were abandoned; witness the abuses of the Inquisition, or being hanged, drawn, AND quartered). But it is unfortunate for historians that so little contemporary literary or archeological evidence has been found: one heel bone out of all the millions of victims in Roman history!

    One reason may be that most of the victims were Greco-Roman pagans, who generally practiced cremation, not burial, in the case of the few victims returned to a family for funerary rituals. However, many, perhaps the majority, were deliberately left on the cross (or stake) to decompose, adding to the indignity AND the warning to passers-by. Governments have often considered executed criminals to be unworthy of their culture’s usual funeral rituals (see Electra in Greek drama; and even today, while executed criminals in most states are returned to their families for burial, Texas confiscates the bodies and buries them in a prison graveyard with only numbered markers, indexed in the prison archives; and hanged criminals in the Old West and the Caribbean were often allowed to rot on the gallows). Any heel bones or wrist bones with nails would have been scattered over the landscape by scavenging animals in this case.

    The Biblical accounts are not contemporary, since they are based upon recollections, possibly second- or third-hand recollections, and may have been edited for theological reasons (as other parts of the text have been shown to be edited). One possible theological reason may have to do with Constantine’s vision of the cross in the sky before the battle which won him the Imperium. A common optical artifact when looking at an extremely bright point or small disk is a pair of apparent “rays” at 90 degree intervals, so Constantine probably saw a cross when a small meteor passed over some distance away. If the “cross” shape was ONE of the common forms of the execution stake, and the Christians around him pointed out that Jesus was crucified, then as Emperor, Constantine could have influenced the bishops to promote the common impression of a pair of boards at right angles, which MAY or may NOT have been the historical fact of the matter, in order to reinforce his confidence in his vision.

    As for nails in both hands and feet, it is not inconceivable that the single-stake method could have involved nailing (after tying with ropes) the hands above the head on opposite sides of the stake, OR EQUALLY, nailing (after tying) the hands to a crossbar. Both methods would add increased pain (which the Romans obviously wanted), and both would produce four nail wounds. Lacking a theological reason to prefer one over the other (for this PARTICULAR victim), we can leave it up to individual imagination, and artistic license in making paintings or sculptures. It belongs in the same category as what race Jesus was; as the song says, little children (and adults) imagine a Jesus the same race as themselves, to increase their feeling of love and connection to their Savior. Likewise, whatever fits your feeling about how much He suffered for you is appropriate; but watch out if you find yourself imagining more and more gruesome pain, because you may actually be imagining yourself torturing someone ELSE!

    Not the Crucifixion but the Resurrection was the demonstration of His, and although hidden by our doubts, our oneness with the Father.

  18. Bryan says

    Scholarship’s radical swing to looking at everything, but the Bible for its data has become quite ridiculous. Whether one believes the Bible to be a supernatural document is quite different than using it as an historical source when it comes to these things. Obviously, since the writers are familiar with crucifixion in the first century and give some vivid details of Christ’s crucifixion, one might have a look at that as a piece of evidence for what may have occurred in some or all cases. Perhaps, nailing one’s hands/wrists were a way of making sure the criminal did not squirm out of the ropes? Bring the data together. Ignoring major pieces of it because of a bias against usi9ng ANY biblical data is absurd.

  19. Ronald says

    Considering the scarcity of large local timber, why use nails at all. It seems as though nails being continuously driven in and removed would have weakened the vertical timber to such an extent that after a few crucifixions it would no longer sustain the weight of a man. Rope ties would be a better choice. However, in the case of Jesus, nails were used as a means to ridicule his message of his resurrection; a form of mockery.

  20. john says

    According to Josephus at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD the crosses were as thick as a forest, therefore there was no scarcity of wood as this article suggested.

  21. john says

    Steven your assertion that it was a simple up right post is not born out from early first century records. Seneca [37AD] stated criminals were crucified with arms outstretched, the Way Jesus said that Peter would be Crucified.

  22. Gene R. says

    John-I am strongly inclined to believe that Jesus died on a stake based on evidence presented by other writers above. Roman historian, Seneca the Younger’s words were actually “stretch out your arms on the gibbet”. At times the gibbet was a vertical stake, called in Latin “crux simplex”. This was the simplest available construction for torturing and killing. The Greek words used for Jesus execution in the NT were “stauros” (a stake or pole)or “xy’lon”(tree or stake). So whatever other methods of execution were used in the 1st century, the Bible says Jesus died on a stake. Peter himself said at I Peter 2:24 that Jesus died on a tree (xy’lon, tree or stake). Bibles translations that translate either of these words as “cross” are probably influenced by the adoption of the pagan cross by later apostate Christianity. As already mentioned it has become a thing of idolatrous worship. I shudder to think what people would wear around their neck if Jesus had been hanged.

  23. David says

    From a purely logical perspective that accepts that the Biblical account’s details are accurate and genuine, it HAD to be a crossbeam that was carried to the place of crucifixion. The length and weight of a single beam would have been virtually impossible for any human to carry. Do the math.

  24. Gene R. says

    Since we don’t know the girth, length or type of wood, we most go by the Bible’s statement that it was a stake or pole that Jesus dragged to the place of execution. They eventually had to enlist help for him.

  25. Michael says

    The Roman method of a public hanging was on a post, not a cross.

  26. Shane says

    It’s interesting that the “cross” as a symbol was first used by early Coptic Christians, who initially used the Egyptian Ankh (“life”), and it didn’t originally have anything to do with the crucifixion per se. This subsequently morphed into the Latin cross as we have it today, and the various other cruciform decorations that evolved from that (fairly quickly). Fascinating article – thanks!

  27. joe says

    This article is woefully out of date and reflects my thoughts and research on the topic in the mid 1980′s. In the world of science ‘absolute truth lasts but ca 20 yrs…and I’ve changed over the years.

  28. Richard says

    I see that there are still folks who want to change history and historical evidence to fit their belief system; by that I mean that there is obviously commentary by Jehovah’s Witnesses here who want to make stauros = stake to fit the teaching of the Watchtower Society. The closer to the springhead, the purer the water. A 20th century revision by a religious sect, versus historical evidence all the way back to the 1st century (e.g. cross image on the wall after the Vesuvius eruption, etc) is just wishful thinking or anti-Christian bias.

  29. Gene R. says

    The so-called presence of a cross in the cities destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius, are highly questionable. One such cross is now believed to be traces left by a set of bookshelves, Another looks strangely like the Egyptian ankh worshiped for centuries before Christ or possibly a so-called Staurogram which is a symbol found on a Herodian coin prior to Jesus’s execution. Archaeologists believe the cross didn’t appear till several hundred years later among (apostate) Christians. Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped using the cross in their magazines in the 1920s as outside evidence and improved Bible scholarship suggested strongly that the cross was actually a pole or stake. And most certainly in either case was not to be revered.or worshiped.

  30. John says

    There are a number of images from the first and second centuries of Jesus or others on a cross not a stake. The JWs have this utterly unsupported idea of a stake based entirely on the earlier meaning of the word Stauros. It’s a bit like saying that a cupboard can only ever mean a board for cups! Words grow and expand their meaning. Or have a range of meaning. In this instance there is NO evidence that a stake was used , there is evidence that a cross was used. Thee is no reason to claim that the bible says stake it doesn’t, and that Jesus dieted on a stake …he didn’t. LOOK AT THe EVIDENCE!

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