New Theories on the Crucifixion

With Easter upon us, I wanted to talk a bit about the death of Christ.  Traditional images of the Crucifixion look similar to this one (pictured on the left.)  National Geographic has put together 10 videos in a 3-DVD set called Science of the Bible that looks into various aspects of the life of Jesus.  Episode 7 called “The Crucifixion” explores the death of Christ, and comes to some different conclusions than are traditional.

Most paintings (such as this one) depict Jesus with nails in his palms, but some have questioned whether these nails would have been strong enough to hold the body of Jesus.  Many Mormons believe that another nail was added to Jesus’ wrists because of the fear that the weight of Jesus would tear through the hands.  Experts on the video discuss this traditional theory.

In the 1930’s, French doctor Pierre Barbet performed some macabre experiments.  He nailed corpses to a cross.  Most artists portray Jesus nailed to the cross through the palms, but Barbet found this method problematic.  Nails through the palms could not support the weight of the body.  The only way to keep the corpse on the cross was to nail it through the wrists.

Frederick Zugibe, M.D., Author, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry, “Barbet did that experiment with a freshly amputated arm, suspended weights on it, drove a nail through the palm, and said that the nail would pull through at 80 pounds with 10 minutes of shaking.”

Many have accepted this theory, but there is some evidence that the palms did not need to support the entire weight of the body.

Is the cross really a T?

The most ancient image of the crucifixion dates to the 2nd century.  Dr Michael White, Professor of Classics, University of Texas describes the image.

This piece of grafiti is the oldest archaeological find related to the crucifixion of Jesus.  It is thought to date back to the 2nd century.

White, “This picture shows a crucified man, but with the head of a donkey facing away from us on the cross.”

This crude sketch in plaster written by a Greek slave in Rome was meant to ridicule an early follower of Christ.

White, “The man on the lower left is making a gesture of worship toward the man on the cross, and the inscription, which is in Greek says, ‘Aleximinos worships his God.'”

But it’s the cross itself which is most intriguing.  It’s low to the ground, it has a footrest, and it’s shaped like a flat-top T.  The T-shaped cross can have a vertical post permanently fixed to the ground, ideally suited for routine executions.”

The DVD then goes on to build both a traditionally shaped cross, as well as a T-shaped cross of materials that would have been available to Romans in Jesus’s day.  The “normal” cross would have weighed about 340 pounds, and would have been nearly impossible for Jesus to carry through the streets on the way to his execution.  However, if Jesus was carrying just the top part of the cross, it would have been much more manageable for him to carry.

White, “Jesus would have been made to carry the cross beam himself, probably over his shoulders, kind of like a yoke, maybe already even tied to it with ropes.”

Arriving at the place of execution just outside the city walls, he is then fixed to the cross.  Jesus’s rapid death strongly suggests he is not just tied but nailed.  But where do the nails go, and how many are there?  The icons overwhelmingly show three nails, one in each palm, and one passing through both feet.  This is not likely to be historically accurate.

Zias, “The reason they have three nails is that it represents theology: the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost.  It doesn’t say whether Jesus was nailed with two nails, three nails, or four nails.”


But it’s the cross itself which is most intriguing.  It’s low to the ground, it has a foot rest, and it’s shaped like a flat-top T.  The T-shaped cross can have a vertical post permanently fixed in the ground, ideal for routine executions.

[Workers lift T on top of vertical pole]  Hicks , “Ok, one, two, three.  Let’s go.”

The Romans could have designed the patibulum with a hole in it so that it would slip snugly on top of the support beam.  This mortise and tenon joint would have provided a simple and efficient process to get Jesus onto the cross.

Hicks, “As we’ve been exploring the evidence of how the cross was used and formed, we have realized the practicality of this joint.  It’s easy on and easy off.”

A slip-fit joint means that there is no need for nails and .  And the cross can be re-used easily.

What of this footrest, or nails? Unlike the painting above, a crucifixion victim probably would have been straddling the vertical post.  Victims were often tied to the cross, but a startling discovery in 1968 found a crucifixion victim with a nail through the heel of his foot, rather than the top of the foot as shown in the painting above.

In 1968, archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis [Head of Excavations, Israel Antiquities Authority] made an astounding discovery.  In tombs cut into the soft limestone, human bones can be found in stone boxes called ossuaries.

Tzaferis , “I was told one day to clean up 4 tombs.  Inside there were the skeletons and in the lower chamber was an ossurary, a simple one with no decoration with a simple inscription in Hebrew: Yehoanan, John the son of Hagkol.”

In this box of bones was something that was not bone. It was a nail.

Tzaferis , “This person was actually crucified.  We know thousands of people were crucified and the great one was of course Jesus.  But it’s the first time we have an archaeological evidence of a crucifixion.”

This is what he found.  It is the ankle bone of a man called Yehoanan who was crucified in Jesus’s time.  It’s the only known physical remnant of a crucifixion victim.

Joe Zias, Former Curator, Israel Antiquities Authority, “This is the right heel bone of a man in his 20’s.  When they nailed the man to the tree or to the cross, what happened you can see here was the soft iron nail probably struck a knot in the wood.  They took him down from the cross and tried to remove the nail, it was impossible, so this individual was buried with the nail in his foot.”

Physical Anthropologist Joe Zias has made the most in-depth study of Yehoanan bones.  He concluded this man could not have been crucified in the way shown in icons of Jesus.  This nail went through the side of the foot, not the front.

Zias, “What we believe happened was that they took a piece of olive wood, perhaps this size.  They took a nail.  The nail went through the olive wood and then once it went through the olive wood it then went through the heel, and then and only then was it attached to the tree.”

Zias next scrutinized the arms and hands of Yehoanan, looking for a tell-tale signs of a nail.

Zias, “Since there were no signs of traumatic change, it became clear evidence to us that this individual like many others had been simply tied to the cross.

Doctor Frederick Zugibe, M.D., Author, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry has put together a special lab to study the crucifixion, and has come to some different conclusions that Pierre Barbet’s experiments of the 1930s.

Zugibe, “He didn’t die of asphyxiation.  The cause of death was cardiac and respiratory arrest due to hypovolemic and traumatic shock.”

Doctor Frederick Zugibe, a medical examiner, has studied crucifixion for over 50 years, and has built the only laboratory in the world that contains a crucifix.  He believes it can show why Jesus died.

Volunteer Steve Mandrogia on the cross, with Dr Zugibe and Dr Jonathan Reed in a special lab to study the crucifixion

Dr. Jonathan Reed, Professor of Religion, University of La Verne,”I think Doctor Zugibe is unique.  He’s really the only person with medical forensic knowledge to talk about the crucifixion.  In that sense, he’s one of a kind.”

Doctor Zugibe’s crucifixion rig monitors a subject’s vital signs, and with the help of an infrared camera he can also see how hard his muscles are working.  Overstrained muscle gets excessively hot, and will appear white on the infrared image. This allows doctor Zugibe to watch what happens inside a victim’s body when he’s on the cross.

The traditional crucifixion position has Jesus’s hands outstretched, and his feet attached to the front of the vertical post.  Doctor Zugibe has asked Steve Mandrogia to simulate being fixed to the cross in this posture.  Thanks to some specially designed quick-release gloves, Steve will not be in any danger.  [Zugibee describes gloves.]  The gloves connect to stress gauges that hang from nails on the cross.  These will help him track how much pull there is on Steve’s arms and shoulders.

Zugibee, “Now he’s polled at the lowest level there, and his feet flush.  This immediately puts most of the weight into this area [points to thighs].  “

Reed, “What’s the stress level now on his arms?”

Zugibe, “It’s in the 90’s.”

The gauges show moderate strain on each of Steve’s arms.  After 10 minutes on the cross, his blood oxygen is holding steady at 97%.

Reed, “Are you having any trouble breathing?”

Mandrogia, “No.”

Steve is in no danger of asphyxiating.

Zugibe, “Of the several hundred individuals we have put up on the cross, nobody ever had a problem breathing.”

And the infrared shows the strain on his upper body is barely causing his muscles to heat up.  A person tied to the cross in this position would not die quickly.  Next Jonathan proposes his theory of how Jesus was nailed to the cross based on the heel bone of Yehoanan who was crucified around the time of Jesus.

Reed, “What would happen if you didn’t have this post but there were two nails driven through the ankle into the beam? [film cuts ahead] Ok so the strain guage shows 20.”

Steve, “There’s almost no pressure on my shoulders right now in comparison to before.”

Steve’s blood oxygen is holding steady at a normal level.  Once again there is absolutely no danger of asphyxiation.”

Reed, “Asphysixation couldn’t have been the cause of death of crucifixion, and specifically with Jesus.  That’s been one of the things that’s been bandied about for almost a century, and I think it’s quite clear that you don’t.”

Doctor Zugibe’s experiments have excluded one cause of death.  Medical reasoning leads him to another.

Dramatization of nail in heel. Note the large washer made of olive wood to ensure the nails stays in place.

Zugibe, “There would be excruciating pain for the weight of the body on the nail.”

Reed, “Do you think the person would try to pull themselves up in this position?”

Zugibe, “They would attempt to, but they would get excruciating pain in the hands so that they could do very little to take the stress off of the feet.  [film cuts ahead] The nailing of the hands and feet are so brutal, it’s one of the worst pains ever experienced by man.”

According to Mark’s gospel, death came to Jesus in only six hours.

Mark 15:25, “It was the third hour when they crucified him…

Mark 15:34, “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice”

Were the nails the cause of his rapid death?  Fixing human cadavers to a cross is no longer viable science.  But there is another way to investigate the gruesome anatomy of nailing.  The visible human project is a computer model of the human body that includes over 2000 anatomical structures.  With it, Doctor Vic Spitzer can drive a virtual Roman nail into the ankle bone of a virtual foot, and then track the damage.

Spitzer, “One of the major nerves is coming down the upper side of the ankle.  In order to get into the bone, we have to get into the periosteum, outside covering of the bone.  That’s where the pain receptors are.  The pain would be phenomenal!”

Such nerve damage would lead to traumatic shock which by itself can be fatal.  The slightest movement of the foot would cause immense pain.  And then there’s the hands, if they indeed were nailed.  Pierre Barbet’s cadaver tests argue that nails would rip out of the palms.  Barbet assumed a traditional crucifixion position and placed nearly 90 pounds of force on the arms.  But Doctor Zugibe’s test with the body in the position of Yehoanan showed there would only 20 pounds of weight on each nail.

Doctor Victor Spitzer, Director, Center for Human Simulation, “The hands are tough.  That’s why we’re able to use them the way we do.  Just putting a nail through the metacarpal bones, the long bones of the hand, the fibrous tissue alone ought to be able to support the weight of the arms and foreamrs against a wooden beam.”

The story of doubting Thomas does suggest Jesus was nailed through the palms.

John, 20:25, “Unless I see the nail marks of his hands and put my fingers where the nails were… I will not believe it.”

This would have caused horrific pain to Jesus.

Spitzer, “Severing the medial nerve is a highly likely possibility.  That kind of trauma to the body is hard to keep the body from going into shock.”

And as his hands pulled on the nails, he would begin to bleed, possibly profusely.

Spitzer, “There’s a good chance of having someone bleed to death by piercing an artery in the palm of the hand because that’s where the arteries are the densest, and that’s where the ulnar and radial artery are connecting.”

The medical prognosis for four nails wounds is dire and sure.  Their combined assault on the nerves and blood vessels would cause inexorable shutdown of body functions.  Pain would lead to traumatic shock and exhaustion.  Bleeding would take blood pressure dangerously low; eventually comes cardiac arrest.  This is the final piece of the puzzle.  Now what remains is to place these pieces together and attempt to depict with as much historical accuracy as possible what those final hours were like.

The crucifixion of Jesus; it has been depicted countless times.  What started as a scene from history has evolved into an icon of faith.  As a result of painstaking research, we can now begin to see the death of Jesus the way it really might have been.

Reed, “It’s not just the kind of thing you can read in an ancient book.  You have to experiment with it. You have to talk to experts in carpentry and in medicine and then begin to shape a picture of what happened in antiquity.

Our investigation is now ready to portray the last day of Jesus’s life. What you are about to see is not the absolute truth.  No one knows that for sure, but every single part of this reenactment is historically credible.

What do you make of this?  Do you think it is likely that a nail was added to his wrists?

13 comments on “New Theories on the Crucifixion

  1. The way I imagine the cross of Christ (which is not what you are asking, but that’s what I’m giving anyway) is that Jesus was affixed to the crossbeam by four nails, one through each palm and one through each wrist. His feet are affixed to the vertical beam (not a rest) by two nails, one through each foot. I’ve always imagined this as being at the front of the foot, not the heel. This would have the effect of causing Jesus to have no rest whatsoever upon the cross. If he pushed up on his feet, the nails through them would split the toe bones further apart. If he allowed himself to sink down, the nails in his wrists would pull, causing pain. Whether going up or down the cross, pain would be his lot, especially due to the nerves at the wrists being pierced. (Now, if his feet were affixed at the ankles, through the nerves there, that would just add to the torture.) Also, as the scourging took care of his back, so that it was totally raw and exposed, and perhaps even some of the scourging found its way to the front part, the chest and shoulders, so that even the front was fairly ripped up, anyway…because the back was raw and bloody, going up or down would rub his exposed back into the wooden vertical beam, causing additional pain. The cross in my mind is a ‘t’ shape, not a ‘T’ shape, so that they could affix the message about the king of the Jews at the top. Also, the cross is raised, meaning that Jesus is literally lifted up, or much higher than people walking by, so that he can be seen at a distance.

    I also imagine Christ naked, with the crown of thorns affixed, with much of the beard plucked, so that his head and face are bloody, as well as the six nails areas. Finally, I imagine the bloody spear wounds to the right side of his limp body.

    A couple of things I’m unsure about in my image are the feet, how exactly they were affixed. Also, I am unsure about how his skin looked, because he bled from every pore in the garden prior to crucifixion, so was his skin stained red by this outpouring of blood? Sometimes I imagine his skin blood-stained, other times I don’t.

    Anyway, this is the image that I use when I always remember him. When I finally get the vision of the Atonement, I’ll modify and correct it accordingly.

  2. LDSA, yes, the 4 nails in his hands/wrists would be what most people would expect, but there is no scriptural evidence for this–that’s what I’m trying to ask. I just wonder how important the nails to the wrist really are or aren’t. I wonder how much of Mormon thought on the nails through the wrist is based on Barbet.

    Christ died quite quickly, so he probably died of shock and exposure to the elements. If the nails went through his heels, the pain and shock associated with it would have hastened his death (to go along with the scourging you mentioned.)

  3. MH, I expect that LDS get the nails through the wrists part from the temple endowment.

    I have been meaning to study the anatomy of the foot, but based upon what you wrote above, if the heels would be the most painful spot to place the nails, then I would say that that is where Christ received them. Which alters significantly the image that I’ve always carried in my head. If the Lord’s feet were nailed to the side of the vertical beam, then he wouldn’t be able to close his legs, meaning that he would have been totally exposed to the viewers, genitals and all, a completely helpless, vulnerable sacrifice. The more I’ve thought about it, the more this sounds right to me.

  4. Anyone who has skinned a few animals (and that would be just about everyone who lived in JS’s day) would know that it’s not very plausible for palms alone to hold that kind of weight.

    The Romans were well experienced in crucifixions by the time they, um, I won’t say it.

  5. I can’t remember were i read it but it was said that the people who were being crucified could linger for days. I’ll try and find the reference and post it.

    Also due to hewish custom of not displaying dead bodies on the sabbath. They had the Romans break the legs of the thiefs that were with jesus on the Cross. Pilot was Suprised to learn that Jesus had died so quickly.

    I have often wondered why the Romans would even care what the jews thought .
    Also how would breaking the legs hasten the death of the criminals. Maybe there were multiple ways of nailing poeple to the cross and it was determined by whoever was doing it at the time.

  6. It is not mentioned here, what the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach about the crucifixion. The New Tetsament is written in Greek. They teach that the word “stauros”, translated cross, only means “stake” or “pole”, when used in the Gospels.
    Later in NT, Paul uses the word “xylov” which the JW believe translates “timber” or “tree”.


  7. Reading this after posting it. It seems like I am a JW. I have have LDSand Lutheran background.

  8. Canute, that link is interesting, and I think it’s worth quoting.

    Jesus Christ did not die on a cross. The Greek word generally translated “cross” is stau·ros′. It basically means “an upright pale or stake.” The Companion Bible points out: “[Stau·ros′] never means two pieces of timber placed across one another at any angle . . . There is nothing in the Greek of the [New Testament] even to imply two pieces of timber.”

    In several texts, Bible writers use another word for the instrument of Jesus’ death. It is the Greek word xy′lon. (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24) This word simply means “timber” or “a stick, club, or tree.”

    Explaining why a simple stake was often used for executions, the book Das Kreuz und die Kreuzigung (The Cross and the Crucifixion), by Hermann Fulda, states: “Trees were not everywhere available at the places chosen for public execution. So a simple beam was sunk into the ground. On this the outlaws, with hands raised upward and often also with their feet, were bound or nailed.”

    My guess is that JW’s wouldn’t know how to refute the grafiti mentioned in the post. Any idea how they would counter that piece of archaeology which predates Constantine?

  9. I can’t officaly say how the JW’s would argue, but I had JW’s coming around to my house weekly for about 2 years. I was interested infinding out about there beliefs. when I used archaeology to challenge there beiefs the standard answer that they would giv me was that science cannot be trusted. They presented me with some articles about errors in C-14 dating. They also expressed on numerous occasions that only the material that was produced by the watchtower organisation was reliable. everything else should be questions as to it reliability and authenticty.

  10. Wow. I guess they are a bit anti-science. Disputing carbon dating is a bad idea.

  11. I’ll stic with the nails in the wrist and the palms, with the wrists being an afterthought. the guys that killed him weren’t engineers or scientists, they were simple executioners…my guess is that they had a few nails to work with and that they typically retrieved the nails ofter the person died. Nails were expensive back then..we call them nails but they were not the smooth 16 penny nails you can buy at home depot…most likely they were jagged, rough spikes and perhaps they had been used before..and the guy with the hammer? Do you think he always hit the nail…or did he miss atime or two? very ugly business indeed

  12. And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed; and he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. (Moses 4:21; also Genesis 3:15)

  13. Are you saying this applies to Jesus and specifically precludes him from having a nail driven through his heel?

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