This post is a continuation of our Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology series. To see the complete series please click here.
Crucifixion was a painful execution method used primarily from the 6th century BC until the 4th century AD. During these 1,000 years crucifixion was used mainly by three empires: the Seleucid Empire (312-63BC), Carthaginian Empire (800-146BC), and Roman Empire (753BC-1453AD). It is believed these empires developed crucifixion from the earlier Assyrian Empire.
The Assyrians were masters of psychological warfare. They would impale their victims, or just their heads, on wooden poles for the public to see. This barbarity would bring terror to those around them. People would tremble at the thought of the Assyrian Army. Crucifixion was developed / perfected for similar psychological power. Crucifixion was often performed to terrorize onlookers into submission. Victims were left on display after death as warnings. Crucifixion was usually intended to provide a death that was particularly slow, painful (hence the term excruciating, literally “out of crucifying”), gruesome (hence dissuading against the crimes punishable by it), humiliating, and public, using whatever means were most expedient for that goal.
The word crucifixion comes from the Latin crucifixio (“fixed to a cross”, from the prefix cruci-, “cross”, + verb figere, “fix or bind fast”.) At its simplest definition the act of crucifixion entails someone being “fixed to a cross.”
What made crucifixion so painful? First, a person being crucified was often put through physical and psychological distress before being fixed to a cross. The biblical account of Jesus’ crucifixion includes him being beaten by a group of soldiers and then the horrendous act of flogging. Flogging involved stripping the prisoner and tying his hands to an upright post. A soldier stepped forward with the flagrum in his hand. This was a whip with a short wooden handle and leather thongs with small pieces of metal attached to the end of each thong. The whip repeatedly struck the condemned person’s head, shoulders and body.
Second, we know the process of just getting on the cross was made additionally painful. From the biblical account of Jesus we know at least a portion of the cross (probably the crossbeam) was carried for some distance. After this tiring ordeal (Jesus was unable to carry his cross the entire distance) the person would then be finally bound naked to a cross of wood. The way someone was attached to the cross varied. Some people were attached with nails through the flesh while others were attached with ropes. Some people were attached with a combination of ropes and nails. Ropes would be less painful but would take the person longer to die.
Third, the person would experience pain through the agony of hanging on the cross. Ancient historian Josephus called crucifixion ‘the most wretched of deaths’ (Wars of the Jews VII 202), and records that some victims survived even after several days on the cross (Josephus, Vita 75). Scholars believe the ultimate cause of death for a crucified person to be asphyxiation. Since the person was in effect hanging by his arms, his chest muscles began to go into cramp. He could breathe in, but it became increasingly difficult to breathe out. If the person had their feet nailed to the cross they would have to stand up on the nail in order to exhale. Carbon dioxide would eventually build up in the lungs and then enter into the blood stream.
The Romans also came to describe crucifixion as “broken legs.” In order to hasten death the crucified individual would have their legs broken, preventing them from standing up to exhale. Sometimes a person would still live after having their legs broken, adding to the slow agony of the cross. One of Rome’s greatest orators, Cicero (106-43BC), mentions ‘that it is quite impossible for Plancus to die unless his legs are broken (he is crucified as a slave). They are broken, and still he lives.’ (Cicero Philippicae XIII 12 (27). Cicero could have been one of the early proponents of abolishing crucifixion when he described crucifixion as, “a most cruel and disgusting punishment”, and suggested that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.”
Significance of the Cross
The significance of the cross cannot be overstated for a person who believes the collective sin of the world was nailed to a single cross in Jerusalem during the first century AD. The Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus, was executed by crucifixion. Perhaps the worst form of death ever devised was the choice for the perfect Son of God. The heinous act of the cross is mentioned in the New Testament and by many other ancient writers. Few archaeological items exist to additionally support and develop our understanding of the cross. One discovery in 1968, #5 on our Top Ten list, brought the first century form of crucifixion to our present-day lives.
In 1968 construction workers were working on a project in a suburb north of Jerusalem called Giv’at ha-Mivtar. To their surprise they accidentally uncovered a Jewish tomb dating to the first century. Inside the tomb was a stone ossuary (bone box) bearing the Hebrew name John. Inside the ossuary were found the skeletal remains of a man in his twenties who had been crucified. How did they know the young man had been crucified? The man, stunningly, still had a nail driven through his right heel. The iron nail measured 11.5 centimeters (4.53 inches) in length. Why was the nail still in his heel? The end of the nail was bent. It looks like what happened is while the nail was being driven into the cross the nail hit a knot in the wood. With the tip of the nail bent it would have been difficult to pull the nail out of the wood. The people burying the man just left the nail in place.
Remains of olive wood, additionally, were found between the head of the nail and the heel bone. This suggests that prior to penetrating the heel bone the nail was driven through a wooden plaque so as to increase the head of the nail thus making it difficult for the victim to free his legs from the upright cross.
The bones found outside Jerusalem, amazingly, can be dated to a time very close to the time of Jesus. This young man was crucified in a way slightly different from Jesus. His feet were nailed individually to the outside of the cross. His arms appear to have been tied by ropes. His arms wouldn’t have experienced the same pain Jesus experienced, yet it probably took him much longer to die.
Significance of the Discovery
The bones of this young man from Jerusalem have no “Top Ten” significance apart from the death of Jesus by crucifixion. This man helps us put the form of death by crucifixion in the exact city at the exact time mentioned in the New Testament. As we gaze upon the nail driven into this foot we can only imagine if the same man swung the hammer placing nails in the arms and feet of Jesus. Were the nails forged by the same blacksmith? We will never know. The discovery does give us more confidence toward the historical reliability of Jesus death on the cross. The discovery can never prove the theological significance of Jesus’ crucifixion. Faith is required.
This discovery helps to shed light on what many claim to be the climactic event of humanity. The Son of God became the Son of Man so the Sons of Man could become Sons of God.
What do you think of this discovery? Please join the conversation by posting a comment below.