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Dispelling Some Myths: Crucifixion


Crucifixion is a method of capital punishment in which the victim is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross or beam and left to hang until eventual death. It was used as a punishment by the ancient Greeks, Persians, Carthaginians and Romans, among others. The Romans were keen practitioners of crucifixion, and that of Jesus in Roman-controlled Judaea became central to Christian beliefs [1]. Without this most gruesome and public death, there could be no subsequent resurrection as the foundation for that faith. For Christians, Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee that all their dead will be resurrected at his second coming so the cross (sometimes depicting Jesus nailed to it) is a significant symbol. Representations of the crucifixion can be found in most Christian churches, but these popular depictions nearly always show Jesus with nails through his feet and the palms of his hands. This is largely because in the description of his wounds, the Greek word ‘χείρ’ used in John 20:25 has been traditionally translated as ‘hand’. Unfortunately, as in so many other words with multiple meanings, χείρ could also refer to the entire forearm below the elbow. It has thus become popular to contend that the nails were inserted just above the wrist, through the soft tissue, between the two bones of the forearm (the radius and the ulna). Yet, despite contemporary Roman authors writing that thousands of victims were crucified in the Roman Iron Age there has been little archaeological evidence to shed light on whether the Christian image is correct.


A little piece of evidence


The small discovery of a nail, just a few millimetres long, hammered through a skeleton’s heel was hailed as both the best evidence yet of Roman crucifixion and the first example of its kind found in Britain [2]. The nail remains embedded in the right heel and ankle of a man who was aged between 25 and 35 at the time of his death.


The remains, dating from between AD 150 and AD 360, were found in a previously unknown settlement in the Cambridgeshire village of Fenstanton. Twelve other nails were also located about the skeleton perhaps indicative of the deceased being carried to his grave on a stretcher-like wooden board. Experts believe this supports the theory that the man had been crucified since the mode of carriage would have been useful in cases where a corpse had been left to decompose on the cross (a sobering thought).


Little is known about the individual, but this method of execution is thought to have been restricted to members of the lower classes, rebels and slaves. It is suggested therefore that the remains may be those of a slave, because at that time crucifixion was banned for citizens but not for slaves (Ingham & Duhig, 2022, 18-29).

The case from archaeology

There are only three other known possible examples of Roman era crucifixion from Jerusalem, Italy and Egypt respectively. Although the ancient historians Josephus and Appian refer to the crucifixion of thousands of Jews by the Romans, there is only a single archaeological discovery of a crucified body of a Jew dating back to the Roman Empire around the time of Jesus. Discovered at Giv’at ha-Mivtar in northeast Jerusalem in 1968 (Tzaferis, 1970, 18-32), the remains included a heel bone (calcaneum) with a nail driven through it (pictured above). This crucial piece of evidence was accidently found in an ossuary which had the crucified man's name inscribed on it: 'Jehohanan, the son of Hagakol' (Haas, 1970, 38-59; Tzaferis, 1985, 44-53; Zias, 1985, 22-27).

Nicu Haas, an anthropologist at the Hebrew University Medical School in Jerusalem, was the first to examine the ossuary and Jehohanan’s remains. The initial account of the length of the nail led Haas and others to believe that it had been driven through both heels, suggesting that the man had been placed in a sort of side-saddle position as shown right. Interestingly, ancient sources mention the sedile, a small seat attached to the front of the cross, about halfway down, which could have served to take the person's weight off the wrists. A footrest (suppedaneum) also attached to the cross, perhaps for a similar purpose, is sometimes included in representations of the crucifixion of Jesus but is not discussed in ancient sources.


The initial measurement of the nail proved inaccurate and its true length, 11.5 cm (4.53 inches), led to a re-examination of the heel bone. This revealed that in this case of crucifixion the two heels were not nailed together, but rather separately to either side of the upright post of the cross (Chapman, 2008, 86-89; Zias, 1985, 22-27; Zias, 2004). Whichever way his feet were secured, to hasten the man’s death, his legs had been broken perimortem.


Further examination determined olive wood fragments were adhered to the point of the nail thus indicating that he was probably crucified on a cross made of olive wood or on an olive tree. The tip of the nail was bent, perhaps because of striking a knot in the wood, which prevented it being extracted from the foot. In addition, a piece of acacia wood was found between the bones and the head of the nail. It is presumed that, where nails were used to crucify the condemned, these pieces of wood prevented the victim or their own body weight pulling the nail through the feet (or wrists).


Haas examination also identified a scratch on the inner surface of the right radius bone of the forearm, close to the wrist. He deduced from the form of the scratch, as well as from the intact wrist bones, that a nail had been driven into the forearm at that position. Along with many of Haas' findings, however, his conclusions have been challenged as it was subsequently determined that the scratches in the wrist area were non-traumatic and, therefore, not definitive evidence of crucifixion.

The end is nigh


Crucifixion was intended to be a gruesome spectacle leading to a painful and humiliating death. It was originally reserved to punish slaves, pirates and enemies of the state, the latter presumably being the category in which Jesus found himself condemned. As a capital punishment crucifixion was not applicable to Roman citizens until it was later extended to those of the lower classes (humiliores) [3].

The length of time it might take for a victim to die could range from hours to days depending on their health, the prevailing environment and which method of crucifixion was used. In 1950, Pierre Barbet theorised that, when the whole body weight was supported by the stretched arms, the typical cause of death was asphyxiation. The victim’s weight would cause hyper-expansion of the chest muscles and lungs making it difficult to breath. The only way to alleviate this would be for the victim to draw himself up by the arms to relieve the pressure, possible aided by his feet being supported by tying or resting on a wood block. Regardless, the effort needed would quickly lead to exhaustion only for the body to sag once more. This cycle might continue until the victim is no longer able to lift himself leading to death within a few minutes. While Babet’s theory has been supported by several scholars (Habermas, Kopel & Shaw, 2021, 748–52), the medical consensus is that asphyxia is unlikely to be the primary cause of death by crucifixion (McGovern, Kaminskas & Fernandes, 2023, 64–79).


Several other possible causes of death (Maslen & Piers, 2006, 185–188) have been mooted. These include heart failure or arrhythmia (an abnormal heart rhythm) (Edwards, Gabel & Hosmer, 1986, 1455–1463; Davis, 1962, 182), hypovolemic shock caused by the loss of too much blood or fluid (Zugibe, 2005), acidosis leading to excess acid in the body fluids (Wijffels, 2000, 52 (3)), dehydration (Retief & Cilliers, 2003, 938–941), and pulmonary embolism, a blocking of an artery in the lungs (Brenner, 2005, 1–2). Any one of these factors or a combination of them, or indeed many other causes will most likely result in death.

 

References:


Arkeonews, (2021), ‘First example of Roman crucifixion in UK discovered in Cambridgeshire village’, Available online (accessed July 13th, 2022).


Brenner, B., (2005), ‘Did Jesus Christ die of pulmonary embolism?’, J Thromb Haemost, 3 (9), pp. 1–2.


Chapman, D.W. (2008), ‘Ancient Jewish and Christian perceptions of crucifixion’, Baker Academic.


Davis, CT (1962). "The Crucifixion of Jesus. The Passion of Christ From a Medical Point of View". Arizona Medicine. 22: 182.


Edwards, W.D., Gabel, W.J. & Hosmer, F.E., (1986), ‘On the physical cause of death of Jesus Christ’, Journal of the American Medical Association, 255 (11), pp. 1455–1463.


Habermas, G., Kopel, J., & Shaw, B.C.F., (2021), ‘Medical views on the death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ’, Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, 34 (6), pp. 748–52.


Gualdi-Russo, E., Thun Hohenstein, U., Onisto, N. et al., (2019), ‘A multidisciplinary study of calcaneal trauma in Roman Italy: a possible case of crucifixion?’, Archaeol Anthropol Sci 11, 1783–1791, Available online (accessed July 13th, 2022).


Haas, N., (1970), ‘Anthropological observations on the skeletal remains from Giv'at ha-Mivtar’, Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1/2, pp. 38-59, Available online (accessed June 23rd, 2023).


Ingham D., Duhig C., (2022), ‘Crucifixion in the Fens: life & death in Roman Fenstanton’. British Archaeology, January-February 2022, Available online (accessed July 13th, 2022).


Maslen, M. & Piers D.M., (2006), ‘Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99 (4), pp. 185–188.


McGovern, T.W., Kaminskas, D.A. & Fernandes, E.S., (2023), ‘Did Jesus Die by Suffocation? An Appraisal of the Evidence’, Linacre Quarterly, 90 (1), pp. 64–79.


Retief, F.P. & Cilliers, L., (2003), ‘The history and pathology of crucifixion’, South African Medical Journal, 93 (12), pp. 938–941.


Tzaferis, V., (1970), ‘Jewish Tombs at and near Giv'at ha-Mivtar’, Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1/2, pp. 18-32, Available online (accessed June 23rd, 2023).


Tzaferis, V., (1985), ‘Crucifixion - The Archaeological Evidence’, Biblical Archaeology Review 11, Available online (accessed June 23rd, 2023).


Wijffels, F., (2000), ‘Death on the cross: did the Turin Shroud once envelop a crucified body?’, Br Soc Turin Shroud Newsletter, 52 (3).


Zias, J. and Sekeles, E., (1985), ‘The Crucified Man from Giv'at Ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal’, Israel Exploration Journal 35 (1), pp. 22-27, Available online (accessed June 23rd, 2023).


Zias, J., (2004), ‘Crucifixion in Antiquity - The Anthropological Evidence’, COJS.org, Available online (accessed July 13th, 2022).


Zugibe, F.T., (2005), ‘The Crucifixion Of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry’, New York: M. Evans and Company.


Endnotes:


1. The crucifixion of Jesus occurred in 1st century Judaea, most likely in AD 30 or AD 33. It is described in the four canonical gospels, referred to in the New Testament epistles, and is attested to by other ancient sources. Consequently, it is considered an established historical event, although there is no consensus among historians on the details.


2. BBC History Magazine (February 2022), ‘History in the News: Evidence of Roman crucifixion found in UK’, p. 8. 


3. The most common punishment for a Roman citizen was a fine (damnum). Thieves would have to pay compensation many times higher than the value of the stolen item(s) and would be deemed infamous (ignominia). Citizens might deny lawbreakers access to fire and water, and anyone legally banished from Roman society (exilium) forfeited all their privileges and property. While citizens could be condemned to a life of slavery (servitus), Roman law determined the death penalty only applied if they had committed treason or patricide. Roman citizens were thus very rarely sentenced to death, and in all instances a citizen could not be crucified. Wealthier persons and the Roman elite guilty of capital crimes were most likely to be executed by the sword, either self-inflicted (suicide) or beheaded by an executioner. 


4. Sepsis, sometimes called septicaemia or blood poisoning, is a life-threatening overreaction by the immune system to an infection that starts to damage your body's own tissues and organs. You cannot catch sepsis from another person. 

 

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