Jesus nailed to cross? Researcher says 'no'

by Gregory Tomlin |

(REUTERS/Tony Gentile)Pope Francis leads a mass for Catholic faithful in the city of Holguin, Cuba, September 21, 2015. The image of the crucified Christ, a staple of Catholic iconography, includes Jesus crucified with nails. A British researcher, however, argues Jesus may have been tied to the cross.

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – Just in time for Good Friday, a researcher in England has published an article claiming Jesus may not have been nailed to a Roman cross.

Meredith J.C. Warren, a lecturer in biblical and religious studies at the University of Sheffield in England, is not arguing that Jesus wasn't crucified, but only that the method of crucifixion may not have included him being nailed to a cross – in spite of the Gospel of John's clarity that Jesus's hands and feet were pierced.

Warren argues in an article in The Conversation that the Romans carried out crucifixion in numerous ways.

"In Christian tradition, nailing the limbs to the wood of the cross is assumed, with debate centering on whether nails would pierce hands or the more structurally sound wrists. But Romans did not always nail crucifixion victims to their crosses, and instead sometimes tied them in place with rope," Warren argues.

"Suspended from a large cross, a victim would eventually die from asphyxiation or exhaustion – it was a long, drawn-out, and painful. It was used to publicly humiliate slaves and criminals (not always kill them), and as an execution method was usually reserved for individuals of very low status or those whose crime was against the state."

None of the Gospels in the New Testament mentions whether Jesus was nailed or tied to the cross. However, the Gospel of John reports wounds in the risen Jesus's hands. It is this passage, perhaps, that has led to the overwhelming tradition that Jesus's hands and feet were nailed to the cross, rather than tied to it.
- Meredith J.C. Warren, University of Sheffield

Warren's questioning of the biblical account is based on the fact that no early depictions of Christ crucified with nails have survived the ravages of time. The earliest crude carvings of Christ on the cross show the figure with limp wrists, indicating that his hands may have been tied to the cross beams, Warren claims.

One such depiction is the earliest drawing of Christ's crucifixion known as the Alexamenos Graffito. The drawing, carved on a wall in Rome, depicts a donkey-headed human figure on a cross being worshipped by a man. The tag under the picture reads, "Alexamenos worships his God." Referring to Christ as a donkey was a common Roman insult for the Christians of the late second and early third centuries.

Others include a second of third century carving of a crucified man on jasper and a carving of the crucified Christ surrounded by the apostles on a carnelian gemstone. That gemstone, dating to the fourth century, also doesn't show Jesus with his hands fixed to the beam.

Importantly, neither the Alexamenos Graffito nor the jasper carving or the carnelian gemstone show ropes being used in the crucifixion either. Warren's work, then, relies mostly on the position of the hands in the carvings.

"Some early Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, don't include the narrative of Jesus's crucifixion, choosing instead to focus on his teaching. But Jesus's death by crucifixion is one of the things that all four canonical Gospels agree on. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all include the crucifixion event in their own slightly different ways.

"None of the Gospels in the New Testament mentions whether Jesus was nailed or tied to the cross. However, the Gospel of John reports wounds in the risen Jesus's hands. It is this passage, perhaps, that has led to the overwhelming tradition that Jesus's hands and feet were nailed to the cross, rather than tied to it," Warren writes.

While there are no extra-biblical Roman references to the manner in which Jesus was crucified – or for that manner, the way in which any specific person was crucified – that the Romans used nails in crucifixion is without question.

In 1968, archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis uncovered the tomb of Yehohanan ben Hagkol at a site known as Giv'at ha-Mivtar in Jerusalem. The stone ossuary in the tomb, into which the deceased person's bones were placed after excarnation – after the flesh had rotted away – contained a heel bone with a nail through it. A piece of wood was fixed between the bone and the head of the nail (likely to prevent the foot from sliding off the nail of the heel bone was broken).

Another second-century piece of graffiti depicts such a crucifixion. In the carving, uncovered at Puteoli, Italy, a figure is seen fixed to a Roman cross (shaped like a Greek tau letter, or a Latin "T"). That figure also has what appears to be cuts from a whipping and nails in the heels.

To this day, the Yehohanan heel bone remains the only physical, skeletal evidence of nails used in crucifixion. Christian art, which popularized images of Jesus on the cross, rose to prominence after the six century – or after such time as the papacy of Gregory the Great in 590, the pontiff who centralized the power of the Roman church at the dawn of the Middle Ages. All depict Jesus with nails in his hands and feet. 

The nailing of Christ to the cross is central to Christian theology. In Colossians 2:14, the Apostle Paul wrote that God forgave the sin debt of Christ's followers by "nailing it to the cross." In a sermon in Acts 2:23, Peter accused the religious leaders of Jerusalem of crucifying Jesus "by nailing him to the cross."