Crucifixion: History, Evidence of it and How it Was Done

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Christ on the Cross by Rubens

Professor Allen D. Callahan told PBS: “The Romans had a genius for brutality. They were good at building bridges and they were good at killing people, and they were better at it than anybody in the Mediterranean basin had ever seen before.... [Source: Allen D. Callahan: Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“Crucifixion was considered such a humiliating form of punishment that if you were a Roman citizen, of course, you couldn't be crucified, no matter what the offense. It was usually the execution of choice... for slaves and people considered beneath the dignity of Roman citizenship. It was a form of public terrorism.... You would be punished by being hung out publicly, naked until you died. And this sent a very powerful message to everybody else in those quarters that if you do or even think about doing what this guy's accused of having done, you, too, can wind up this way and it was very effective; excruciating, perhaps the most excruciating form of capital punishment that we know.

“It was a Roman job, there's no mistake about that. There has been some examination of the question of whether Jews... actually crucified people in any circumstances. There's some evidence that crucifixion did take place; members of the Pharisee party at one point were crucified, maybe a century and a half before Jesus. But that's disputed. It's a Roman form of execution and it was a public execution on a political charge.”

Evidence of Crucifixion

In December 2021, a skeleton in England was found with a nail through its foot — rare evidence of Roman crucifixion. Researchers in Cambridgeshire were analyzing findings from a dig of an ancient Roman settlement, when they discovered bones and nail with evidence of crucifixion. According to Business Insider: While crucifixion was thought to be relatively common for the Roman era, few pieces of evidence for it exist. The find is just the fourth known crucifixion in the world, with it ranking as the best-preserved one. [Source: Bethany Dawson, Business Insider, January 2, 2022]

In 2018, a team of scientists led by Emanuela Gualdi and Ursula Thun Hohenstein of the University of Ferrara revealed that they had excavated a 2,000-year-old corpse from an isolated tomb in Gavello, near Venice, in Northern Italy, that showed signs of having been crucified. The heel of the skeleton has a hole through it consistent with the kind of injury that would have been sustained during crucifixion. Gualdi told Italian paper Estense that “in [this case] despite the poorly preserved conditions, we could demonstrate the presence of signs on the skeleton that indicate a violence similar to crucifixion.” The fact that the man was buried directly into the ground (instead of a tomb) and without any kinds of grave goods (items that the deceased might need in the hereafter) suggests that the burial was performed without ceremony. It was, in other words, the kind of burial reserved for slaves and criminals. The finding was published in the Journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, June 9, 2018]

In 1968, archaeologists found the remains of a crucified man in a Roman-era burial box outside Jerusalem whose wounds were remarkable similar to those described in the Bible as possessed by Jesus. Although it was known that the Romans crucified thousands of alleged criminals and traitors; this was the first crucifixion victim ever found. Greek archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis found a heel bone through which a 17-centimeter (7-inch) nail had been hammered. The nail was still lodged in the heel and was attached to a small piece of olive wood, presumably the wood from which the cross had been made. While the Romans might have preferred to retrieve and reuse the nail, it was so deeply embedded in the man’s ankle and, as a result it stayed in the victim’s foot.

Discovery of Jehohannan — the Crucified Victim in Jerusalem

Michael Symmons Roberts wrote for the BBC: In 1968, a team of builders was hard at work laying foundations for some new houses and roads in Giv'at Ha'mivtar, a suburb of north Jerusalem. At the time, the whole area was a wasteland, and the builders were digging it up in preparation for this new development. One morning they stumbled across something unusual. They suspected it might be important, so they called in experts to advise them. The experts confirmed that they had found an ancient tomb. [Source: Michael Symmons Roberts, BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

“But the most amazing discovery was yet to come. When they looked inside the tomb, archaeologists discovered an ossuary - a stone box - containing bones from the time of Jesus. It was the custom in Jesus' time for the bones of the dead to be removed from their tomb after six to twenty-four months, and placed in an ossuary to make the tomb available for other corpses. |In this particular ossuary, the archaeologists found one bone that particularly caught their attention. What made this bone distinctive was the rusty nail still lodged in it. After further investigation, they established that these were the remains of a crucified man called Jehohannan. For the archaeologists, it was a breakthrough moment. Jehohannan was the first victim of crucifixion ever found in Israel. Experts at the time believed he would be the first of many, because the records showed that the Romans had crucified thousands of Jewish rebels.

Reverend Dr. J. H. Charlesworth wrote: “At the beginning of the summer of 1968 a team of archaeologists under the direction of V. Tzaferis discovered four cave-tombs at Giv'at ha-Mivtar (Ras el-Masaref), which is just north of Jerusalem near Mount Scopus and immediately west of the road to Nablus. The date of the tombs, revealed by the pottery in situ, ranged from the late second century B.C. until A.D. 70. These family tombs with branching chambers, which had been hewn out of soft limestone, belong to the Jewish cemetery of Jesus' time that extends from Mount Scopus in the east to the Sanhedriya tombs in the north west. [Source:Reverend Dr. J. H. Charlesworth from Expository Times, February 1973]

“Within the caves were found fifteen limestone ossuaries which contained the bones of thirty-five individuals. These skeletons reveal under the examination of specialists a startling tale of the turbulence and agony that confronted the Jews during the century in which Jesus lived. Nine of the thirty-five individuals had met violent death. Three children, ranging in ages from eight months to eight years, died from starvation. A child of almost four expired after much suffering from an arrow wound that penetrated the left of his skull (the occipital bone). A young man of about seventeen years burned to death cruelly bound upon a rack, as inferred by the grey and white alternate lines on his left fibula. A slightly older female also died from conflagration. An old women of nearly sixty probably collapsed from the crushing blow of a weapon like a mace; her atlas, axis vertebrae and occipital bone were shattered. A woman in her early thirties died in childbirth, she still retained a fetus in her pelvis.

Finally, and most importantly for this note, a man between twenty-four and twenty-eight years of age was crucified. “The name of the man was incised on his ossuary in letters 2 cm high:Jehohanan. Jehohanan’s open arms had been nailed to a crossbar; his knees had been doubled and turned sideways; his legs were nailed on either side of the cross (not together as is often depicted in paintings) with a large iron spike driven horizontally through both heels. The anklebones had broken in a way that called to mind the passages in John.

How Crucifixion Was Done

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Crucifixion is arguably the best known form of ancient execution. The Romans, who utilized it regularly when punishing slaves and those guilty of sedition, adopted the practiced from the ancient Carthaginians (modern-day Tunisia). Crucifixion was fairly broadly practiced in the ancient world, but the Romans used this particularly brutal form of execution as a means of producing social conformity. It was, the Roman politician Cicero says, the “most cruel and hideous of tortures.” The bodies of the condemned would remain on crosses for days. One legend describes a case in 213 C.E. in which a husband and wife lasted 10 days on the cross. By comparison, Jesus died remarkably quickly. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, June 9, 2018]

Once dead, some were allowed rot in public, others were taken down and thrown to wild animals, while others — like the Italian skeleton — were buried. By maximizing the public display of torture the message to onlookers was quite clear: undermine the empire and the same thing could happen to you. Nor were the Romans particularly reserved in their application of crucifixion: after the uprising of slaves led by Spartacus, 6,000 crosses lined the highway to Rome. The practice endured until it was outlawed by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century,

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Crucifixion was something very, very real. There are too many ancient sources that talk about it. Josephus himself describes a number of crucifixions that took place in Judea at about this time. So we can be fairly confident [of the crucifixion] as a historical event because it was a very commonplace affair in those days and very gruesome. Now different medical historians and other archaeological kinds of research have given us several different ways of understanding the actual practice of crucifixion. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“In all probability the feet were nailed either directly through the ankles or through the heel bone to the lower post of the cross. The hands or the arms might be tied rather than nailed. It depends but it suggests really that crucifixion was a very slow and agonizing form of death. It's not from bleeding. It's not from the wounds themselves that the death occurs. It's rather a suffocation because one can't hold oneself up enough to breathe properly, and so over time really it's really the exposure to the elements and the gradual loss of breath that produces death. It's an agonizing death at that....what apparently happened" to the victim whose bone was found in 1968 "was the nail that had been used to put him on the cross by being placed through his heel bone had stuck against a knot or bent in some way and so they couldn't pull it out without really causing massive tearing of the tissue and so they left it in, and as a result we have one of those few pieces of evidence that show us what the practice was really like.”

What Was Learned from Jehohannan — the Real-Life Crucifixion Victim

crucifixion of Spartacus pictured here probably didn't happen

Reverend Dr. J. H. Charlesworth wrote: Jehohanan “was crucified probably between A.D. 7, the time of the census revolt, and 66, the beginning of the war against Rome.... According to Dr. N. Haas of the Department of Anatomy, Hebrew University--Hadassah Medical School, Jehohanan experienced three traumatic episodes. The cleft palate on the right side and the associated asymmetries of his face likely resulted from the deterioration of his mother's diet during the first few weeks of pregnancy. The disproportion of his cerebral cranium (pladiocephaly) were caused by difficulties during birth. All the marks of violence on the skeleton resulted directly or indirectly from crucifixion. [Source:Reverend Dr. J. H. Charlesworth from Expository Times, February 1973]

“A description of Jehohanan's death would be helpful toward imaging Jesus' suffering since both were crucified by the Romans in the same century and not far from the walls of Jerusalem. The lower third of his right radial bone contains a groove that was probably caused by the friction between a nail and the bone. Hence, his arms were nailed to the patibulum through the forearms and not through the wrists, the bones of which 'were found undamaged.' It is logical to infer, therefore, that, contrary to the customary portrayal in paintings and biographies,' Jesus had his arms pierced and not his hands. We should probably translate the only two passages in the Gospels that mention of the crucified Jesus (Lk 24, Jn 20) not as 'hands', but with Hesiod, Rufus Medicus, and others as 'arms'. Hence, according to Jn 20, Jesus said to Thomas, 'place your finger here and observe my arms...'

“The legs had been pressed together, bent, and twisted to that the calves were parallel to the patibulum. The feet were secured to the cross by one iron nail driven simultaneously through both heels (tuber calcanei). The iron nail contains after its round head the following: sediment, fragments of wood (Pistacia or Acacia), a limy crust, a portion of the right heel bone, a smaller piece of the left heel bone, and a fragment of olive wood. It is apparent that Jehohanan had been nailed to the olive wood cross with the right foot above the left. Dr. Haas is undoubtedly correct, furthermore, in concluding that the iron nail bent approximately 2 cm because it hit a knot necessitating the amputation of the feet to remove the corpse from the cross.

Hogarth drawing of Roman crucifixion

“While Jehohanan was on the cross, presumably after an interval of some time, his legs were fractured. Once forcible blow from a massive weapon delivered the coup de grace, shattering the right shins into slivers, and fracturing the left ones, that were contiguous with the cross (simplex), in a simple, oblique line. The above discoveries throw some light on the manner in which Jesus died, but the question with which we began has not been adequately answered. How could Jesus have died so soon?

“Christian art has continuously portrayed Jesus as attached to the cross with his extremities fully extended. Jehohanan's torso was forced into a twisted position with his calves and thighs bent and unnaturally twisted. Since the bent nail did not secure the legs to the cross, a plank (sedecula) was probably fastened to the simplex, providing sufficient support for the buttocks and prolonging torture. If Jesus had been crucified in a similar fashion, and we cannot be certain of this although it is probable, his contorted muscles probably would have generated spasmodic contractions (tetanizations) and rigid cramps would eventually permeate the diaphragm and lungs so as to prohibit inhalation and exhalation. Jesus could have died after six hours.

“The two crucified with Jesus, however, did not die so quickly--could this have been because they had not been previously tortured, or because they had been crucified in another manner? Perhaps it is logical to assume that because Jesus had been the centre of attention for at least the preceding week he might have received more of the executioners' attention prior to the final acts of crucifixion. Especially would this be the situation if the other two were crucified because they had been judged to be robbers or criminals (cf. Km 15, Mt 27, and Lk 23) but Jesus condemned for insurrection against Rome. These speculations are not wild but they do extend beyond all the available data: we can only wonder why Jehohanan was crucified, why his legs were broken, and if there were a particularly torturous crucifixion for one charged with insurrection. As we search for these answers we must remember Jesus' particular circumstance: the torture could not last more than seven hours because the approaching Sabbath must not be violated, especially near conservative Jerusalem.

“In conclusion, we now have empirical evidence of a crucifixion. Death on a cross could be prolonged or swift. The crucifixion of Josephus' acquaintance who survived should not be projected to the crucifixion of Jesus. The major extrabiblical paradigm for crucifixion is no longer Josephus; it is the archaeological data summarized above. The crucifixion of Jesus, who did not possess a gladiator's physique and stamina, did not commence but culminated when he was nailed to the cross. After the brutal, all night scourging by Roman soldiers, who would have relished an opportunity to vent their hatred of the Jews and disgust for Palestinian life, Jesus was practically dead. I see not reason why the Synoptic account does not contain one of the few bruta facta from his life when it reports that, as he began to stagger from Herod's palace to Golgotha, he was too weak to carry the cross; Simon of Cyrene carried it for him. Metaphors should not be confused with actualities nor faith with history. It is not a confession of faith to affirm that Jesus died on Golgotha that Friday afternoon; it is a probability obtained by the highest canons of scientific historical research. The humanists' and rationalists' facile answer to the question why Jesus died so quickly is no longer acceptable in critical circles; note, for example, the concluding remark in the most recent 'biography' of Jesus by a Jewish scholar: 'Others thought that he called out in despair: "My God, my God (Eli, Eli), why hast thou forsaken me?" And Jesus died."

Why So Little Physical Evidence of Crucifixion?

It is surprising that so little physical evidence of crucifixion has been found. One reason for this is that Romans executed most criminals by tying them to the wooden crosses. There is no or little physical evidence for those who were bound during crucifixion — being tied to a cross does not leave marks on the skeleton.

Peter by Caravaggio

Michael Symmons Roberts wrote for the BBC: After nearly four more decades of digging, no more victims of crucifixion have ever been found. Why not? In Tel Aviv, curators at the Israel Antiquities Authority museum had a unique opportunity to find out. They have access to an extensive collection of Jewish ossuaries from the time of Jesus. Surely among all these examples there must be a clue as to what became of all the crucifixion victims. But despite combing through every ossuary, the Tel Aviv experts did not find any bones that suggested the victim had been crucified. [Source: Michael Symmons Roberts, BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

“The implications of this lack of evidence were unsettling. One of the central tenets of Christian history was under threat, and the case for the resurrection of Jesus potentially undermined. The logic was clear. If the bones of crucified rebels were not ending up in ossuaries, then perhaps it was because the original victims were not being placed in tombs in the first place. And if that were true then was it possible that the body of Jesus was never placed in a tomb? Perhaps his tomb was found to be empty by his followers simply because it was never occupied at all? |::|

“If that is the case, then it raises a big question: where, if not in a tomb, did the bodies of Jewish rebels like Jesus finish up? To answer that one, archaeologists began to hunt in the unlikeliest locations. Just south of the city of Jerusalem is one such place. Today it is a park, but from the evidence of chiselling all over the rock face, it is clear to archaeologists that this was once a quarry. At the time of Jesus, quarries had a dual purpose. Not only were they used to cut stone for building, they were also used by the Romans for public executions. Historians now believe that Jesus would have been crucified in just such a quarry. But places like this served other purposes too. The remains of some tombs hewn from the rock suggest that people were not just killed here, they were buried too. Was this the fate of Jesus' body, to be placed in a simple quarry tomb close to the place where he died? |::|

“Well, perhaps not, because quarries like this fulfilled yet another purpose for the people of Jesus' time, and even today the local people use it in the same way. Scavenging stray dogs and birds of prey are drawn here not because it is a park, but because one corner is a rubbish dump. |::|

“Since the first century, quarries have doubled as city rubbish dumps, but two thousand years ago they were places of execution too. The people who nailed Jesus to the cross were Roman soldiers, and crucifixion was the lowest form of punishment they knew. To suffer the ignominy of dying on a cross marked you out as beneath contempt, an outcast. It is hard to see those soldiers bothering to treat the bodies of their crucified victims with honour and respect. Surely the easiest solution would be to take the bodies down and throw them on the garbage dump, to be dealt with by the dogs and birds. |::|

“Maybe that would explain why not a single bone of a crucified rebel was found in all those ossuaries? According to this theory - shocking though it may sound - the body of Jesus never made it to a tomb: it was thrown on a rubbish tip and eaten by dogs. This theory held some sway in the 1990s, but then came the evidence against it - evidence which suggests not only that Jesus' body may not have been thrown to the dogs, but that his body must have made it to the tomb, exactly as depicted in the gospel accounts. The case begins with the nails themselves. |::|

Nails Not Used in Crucifixions Perhaps Because They Were Valuable Talismans?

Roman-era Christian Funerary inscription

Michael Symmons Roberts wrote for the BBC: “The truth is that most rebels were not nailed to their crosses, but tied to them. Some would have been nailed to their crosses - it was a Roman practice - but historians believe there is little chance of finding any of their remains. The reason is simple: the nails of crucified victims were regarded as some of the most powerful charms, or amulets, in the ancient world. Ordinary people prized them very highly, believing that they had healing properties. And apart from their popularity as charms, the crucifixion nails were often reused by the Roman soldiers. So immediately after crucified victims were cut down from their crosses, the nails would be removed from their bodies and pocketed. [Source: Michael Symmons Roberts, BBC, September 18, 2009. Roberts is author the book“The Miracles of Jesus”. |::|]

“No wonder the bones of only one clearly crucified victim have ever been found - not because animals ate the remains off a rubbish tip, but because there is no way for archaeologists to tell if the bones found in tombs were those of crucifixion victims or not. Those tell-tale signs, like nails stuck through bones, are always missing. |::|

“So why was the bone of Jehohannan discovered with a nail still through it? Why didn't looters make off with it, or Roman soldiers reuse it? Well, the answer lies in that particular nail. It has a bent tip. When they took his body down from the cross, they must have found they could not prize it out. When Jehohannan was nailed to his cross, this nail must have hit a knot in the wood and bent, fixing it to the bone for good. So the discovery of this bone does not mean that Jesus' body was thrown to the dogs. In fact, there are strong grounds for thinking that Jesus - like all Jews - would have been given a proper burial. |::|

“Under Jewish law everyone, even the most despised criminal, had to have a proper burial in order to save the land from being defiled. To that end, there were strict procedures for the disposal of bodies, which had to be laid in tombs by sunset on the day of death. All the evidence suggests that the Romans would have respected local religious customs. The strength of their empire was built on adaptability and tolerance of indigenous beliefs, as long as they didn't contradict the aims and beliefs of the Romans themselves. History records that, more than once, Pontius Pilate himself caved in to Jewish demands. |::|

“To expose the corpse of an executed Jew beyond the interval permitted by the Law, and then to allow it to be mutilated by scavengers just outside the city of Jerusalem, was a recipe for a riot. So, what would have happened to Jesus' body? The normal practice would have been to wash, perfume and bind the body so that it wouldn't smell in the heat at the funeral seven days later. This was a laborious procedure which could take up to twenty-four hours. It was governed by religious custom and by a powerful sense of respect for the body. |::|

“But if Jesus died in the afternoon, as the gospel accounts suggest, then there would not have been sufficient time to prepare the body that day. The women would be forced to leave the body unwashed in the sealed tomb, then come back another day to finish the job. However, the timing was very unfortunate. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus died on a Friday, in which case the women could not return the following day - Saturday - because that day was the Sabbath. The earliest opportunity for the women to attend to the body of Jesus was first light Sunday morning, precisely when the gospels say the women did return to the tomb.

Crucifixion Experiments

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: For Christians of every stripe, crucifixion holds a particular fascination. Christian medics wondered, how does a person die when they are crucified? Christian artists ruminated on what a crucified body — the central focus of Western art — really looked like while it hung on the cross. And so they decided to experiment. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, June 9, 2018]

In 1801 sculptor Thomas Banks and artists Benjamin West and Richard Cosway embarked on a truly morbid experiment. They negotiated access to the corpse of a recently-hung pensioner, 73-year-old James Legg; hung the cadaver on a cross; flayed the skin from the rigid body; and made a cast. To this day, the cast remains the property of the Royal Academy of Arts. Banks’ intent was to produce an accurate image of the crucified body of Jesus, one that would represent the embodied nature of this moment with anatomical accuracy. Banks, West, and Cosway performed their experiment in a period of medical history notorious for its interest in corpses and dissection, but this was not the first period in history in which this sort of thing was attempted.

According to Carpus, the surgeon who helped them gain access to Legg’s remains, they were inspired by the work of the great artist Michelangelo. In an apocryphal story that circulated in the 19th century, Michelangelo tied a model to a wooden cross and stabbed him in the side in order to produce the physical effects of the crucifixion.

In the 1930s, when trying to demonstrate the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, a French doctor named Pierre Barbet, the surgeon general of the Saint Joseph Hospital in Paris, volunteered to help. Barbet nailed an unclaimed cadaver to a makeshift cross in an effort to understand the wound marks on the “hands” of the Turin Shroud. Barbet struggled to understand how the hands could sustain the weight of the body and ended up performing further experiments on 13 more amputated arms. In the end he punctured what is known as “Destot’s space,” a small pea-sized opening bordered by bones. Barbet hypothesized that when crucified in this manner a person could not lift themselves up on the cross and gradually suffocated. His inspiration was a torture technique devised in World War I in which a person is hung with hands bound directly over their head. Barbet had figured out a way in which Jesus could be crucified but, unfortunately for him, the wounds he created did not match the shroud.

In 2001 Rockland County, New York examiner Frederick Zugibe used living volunteers from the local religious group the Third Order of St. Francis to replicate the methods of execution. Over the course of his experiment he strapped (no nailing, thankfully) nearly a hundred people to a cross in his garage. The participants were remarkably eager to experience the death of Jesus. Zugibe told Mary Roach, the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, “Everyone wanted to go up and see what it felt like.”

“They would have paid me,” he added.

His experiment revealed that those strapped to the crosses did not seem to experience much difficulty breathing, but a corpse on his coroner’s table gave him inspiration. A murder victim who had been repeatedly stabbed had a defensive wound in the palm of her hand that travelled at an angle exiting at the back of her wrist. Zugibe concluded that victims of crucifixion died from “hypovolemic shock.”

To this day some penitents in the Philippines volunteer to be crucified on Good Friday. Though the Catholic Church strongly disapproves of the practice, it includes being nailed to a cross on a makeshift Calvary. The process, as you might expect, is brutal, but it is popular enough that the Department of Health issues formal guidelines, suggesting that practitioners receive tetanus shots and use sterilized nails.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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