A Crucified Man from 1st century Jerusalem

Archaeologists find the body of a crucified man in an elaborate tomb dating to the first century AD, or Roman period in Jerusalem ... crucifixion was traditionally the way the poor were killed, and the man best known as having been buried in the tomb of a rich man was Jesus Christ. In the movie The Body (incidentally brilliant, and a must-watch) this causes shock-horror reactions and the Israel Antiquities Authority lets the Vatican to send a priest to investigate, the PLO steal the bones in an attempt to blackmail the Vatican into supporting their cause, the Haredi force the body to be re-buried ... That's the movie version.

But truth is often just as interesting. I've discussed this find and crucifixion before, but it fascinates me as much as readers, so I'm going to go into more details.

In 1968 a tomb was excavated at the French Hill, Jerusalem, better known now as Givat ha-Mivtar. Because of pressure from religious Jews, all the bones found in the tomb were re-buried soon after. A right calcaneus or heel with evidence of crucifixion was found there. The nail is made of iron and was 4.5 inches long - it's not clear if it bent when Jehohanan was being crucified, or when his family were trying to remove the nails from his body. Givat ha-Mivtar turned out to be a rich Jewish burial ground in use from the second century BC until AD 70.

What tends to be illustrated less often are the other bones from the same man. The first photograph shows the right heel when it was found, from a third angle:

We know from traces left on the nail that the stake we was nailed to was made of olive wood, and the wood plaque under the nail head, to hold the leg to the stake, was of acacia or pistachio. It seems that when Yehohanan was taken off the cross his right foot was stuck to the cross because of the bent nail - so it was hacked off (Josephus tells us of the shortage of wood for crucifixion, so stakes were re-used).

This is the distal end of the right radius (the bit by the wrist), possibly showing a nick from a nail. This is interesting as it could prove that victims were crucified through the arm (just above the wrist) and not the palm as shown in Medieval art and since then - the hand bones and flesh of the palm are too weak to support the weight of a human body, so would tear and the body fall down. Elsewhere rope was used, but the Esquiline tomb of Atilio Calatino, a detail of which is at the top of the post, shows that the Romans used a similar nail / wood combination (see here).

And the last photo shows the left heel, which was found without the nail - the photo is taken from the lateral side, and shows the damage the nail had inflicted.

The rest of the remains show that he was 167 cm, possibly had a slight cleft palate, more pronounced on the right side, but not necessarily visible when he was alive. He had been struck just above the ankles, and his two tibias and one fibia were fractured, possibly to stop him supporting his weight on his feet, and to speed up his death, as described in the New Testament. He was in his mid 20s when he died, with good teeth, no signs of disease or trauma, and was not overly muscled from manual labour, which suggests a more affluent member of society rather than a slave or peasant. Jehohanan came from a 'good' family, so was probably executed for treason as a political victim.

This is the ossuary in which these bones were found. He would first have been lain out in a shroud, and once his bones were de-fleshed they were transferred into the ossuary. Because of the form of the tomb, the ossuary and the pottery found with him we can date the burial to the first century, and more specifically the Hasmonean period (which ended in 37BC). So we know he was not one of the many killed as a result of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, most of whom were hurriedly buried at best. And he is probably too late to be one of the 8,000 crucified under Alexander Jannaeus in 88 BC.

The tomb, Number 1 at Givat ha-Mivtar, had a forecourt outside and two chambers carved into the limestone hillside. The front room had benches on three sides, and two doors on the other wall leading to the second chamber. Both rooms were lined with sealed loculi or smaller five foot chambers.

A young child who died of starvation was buried in the floor of the second room, perhaps a quick burial in AD 70. Of the twelve loculi in the two chambers, eight held ossuaries, some with multiple skeletons, the others bones without a box - a total of seventeen people. Sometimes the lack of an ossuary is a sign that the family could not afford one, but they were also something not recorded before the reign of Herod (from 37 BC onwards) or used much after the Second Jewish War. Three of the ossuaries were in their niches and the others in the centre of the floor in the second chamber. Yehohanan was not the only one to die a violent death: one woman was killed when something crushed her skull.

The burials seem to cover two generations of a wealthy family living and dying under Herod and his successors. An ossuary from the same Giv’at ha-Mivtar tomb is interesting as it has two Aramaic inscriptions with slight variations, which read "Simon the Temple Builder" suggesting that he was involved in the construction of Herod's Temple (source). The ossuary is quite simple, but this need not indicate a 'simple' status, and contained a woman as well as Simon:

Another ossuary was inscribed "Yehonathan the potter" and contained him, a woman and a child:

This ossuary contained Martha, whose skull had been crushed by some sort of heavy weapon:

Yehohanan was found in the second chamber B, in ossuary number 4 of tomb1 at Giv'at ha-Mivtar with a child aged three or four. His name was scratched several times into the relatively simple limestone box.

The first line of the inscription is only lightly inscribed but clear - Yehohanan or Jehohanan, depending on how one wishes to transcribed this. Studies of ostraka at Masada show that it was one of the five most popular names there, along with Shimeon, Yehudah, Yehosef, and Eleazar.

The second line is deeper and was first read as "ben (son of) Hagkol" but it makes more sense if one amends the reading to
Or "ben (son of) Ezekial" which was a common name, since Hagkol was not otherwise known (see here).

After the outlandish names made about the Talpiot Tomb, based on the appearance of some rather common names on its ossuaries, I would rather be careful about making any claims based on prosopography. I will simply point out a few uses of the name Yehohanan, who appears as the High Priest amongst the Elephantine papyri in the Bagoshi Letter; he would be the second High Priest of that name. Yehohanan is the Hebrew equivalent of John Hyrcanus, and is the name he uses when he identifies himself as the High Priest on coins - these coins may date to John Hyrcanus I or John Hycanus II (JSTOR).

During the Second Temple period we know that boys were named after their grand-fathers, to solidify family connections. Hyrcanus II was allowed to live on and remain as High Priest after he had been de-throned, and we know from Josephus that he had sons. We also know that he was killed by Herod in 30 BC, and that after the very brief High Priestship of the Hasmonean Aristobulus III, brother of Mariamne, the office passed to a line of Herodian men who were mostly Sudducees. There were various attempts to rebel against Herod and his heirs by the pro-Hasmonean factions and so, given his name, I suggest that Yehohanan was one of these rebels, though probably not a Hasmonean himself.

Crucifixion was according to Cicero "a cruel, horrific punishment" and for this reason people think it was for slaves not Roman citizens. The truth is that it could be applied even to Consuls as a punishment for treason, and this is why so many losers in Civil Wars chose to suicide or exile instead. The most famous victims of Roman crucifixion were the slaves after Spartacus' Revolt, although it had been used earlier in Sicily after the Servile Wars. In Israel it was nothing new at the time of Jesus' crucifixion, and thousands were killed in this manner after the Jewish Wars.

Because of the prohibition in Deuteronomy 21:22, and from the commentaries to Deuteronomy 28.66 some think that Jews were against crucifixion and used stoning as their preferred means of execution. In fact, in Israel it was reserved for treason, as in Rome. This was clarified by the Temple Scroll found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q Temple LXIV, 6–13):
If a man slanders his people and delivers his people to a foreign nation and does evil to his people, you shall hang him on a tree and he shall die. On the testimony of two witnesses and on the testimony of three witnesses he shall be put to death and they shall hang him on the tree. If a man is guilty of a capital crime and flees to other nations, and curses his people, the children of Israel, you shall hang him also on the tree, and he shall die. But his body shall not stay overnight on the tree. Indeed you shall bury him on the same day.
The Mishnah of Sanhedrin vi.4ff confirms that the body should be buried normally, in the family tomb, and not left overnight.

Given how many tens even hundreds of thousands of people we know were crucified, it's perhaps surprising more archaeological evidence of them has not been found. There are two sensible reasons for this - some were crucified using rope rather than nails, and many of those crucified under the Romans were the poor or slaves, whose bodies were then tossed onto rubbish heaps rather than buried.

One other reason is that both Christians and Jews assigned magical healing properties to nails used in crucifixions. In fact they were one of the few items Jews were allowed to carry on the Sabbath (Mishnah Shabbat 6.10):
[On the Sabbath] it is permitted to go out with eggs of locusts or with the tooth of a fox or a nail of an impaled convict, as medical purposes. Such is the decision of Rabbi Yose.
Rabbi Meir prohibits the use of these things even on week days, for fear of imitating the Amorites.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 6.9 [7c-d; 8c], it is clarified that "whatever is used to heal is not imitating the Amorites" and that "the nail of an impaled convict is good against a spider's bite" and could be carried on the Sabbath. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 67a) pretty much says the same thing, except that the nail is good against inflammation. Nails from crucifixions were so important that they could be carried on the Sabbath - and were much sought after, hence the lack of them in the archaeological record. Just take a look at how many Catholic churches have relics of nails from the cross or crowns made out of them.


  1. Dorothy -

    Really interesting post: I learned lots of interesting things! Thx.


  2. I shall expect to hear all about it in a sermon soon - might even come to Essex for that ;-)

    Honestly, I blogged it as find the material fascinating, and am surprised it's not available to people more easily give that Jesus' Crucifixion is so important in Christianity

  3. Very interesting post. But it's HEEL (part of the foot), not heal (as in "to cure"). Really....

  4. Good point! I've corrected it - and worse, I'd used both spellings ...

  5. Hello,

    Nice post! I have argued in an article on Jesus' crucifixion and the Gospel of John (SBL 2010) that the absence of nails in archaeological discoveries is due to the use of ropes. Even if nails were used, and taken subsequently for magical purposes, the bones would still show signs of the trauma. Also, Josephus begins to use the distinct term "proselow" (to nail) regarding crucifixion in the years leading up to the Revolt, whereas prior he consistently employs "avastaurow". This seems to indicate some shift in practice.


  6. Very interesting and informative post! Just one small error in the paragraph beginning "This is the ossuary ..." You state that the Hasmonean period ended AD 37. I'm certain you meant 37 BC.

  7. A very informative article i had read about the find in 1968 but adds more to the story great report thanks in spite so errors well done.

  8. Very informative, Dorothy! But there is one thing you left out. According to Y. Yadin (IEJ 23: 18-22), both the young adult man and the small child whose bones were found in the ossuary were named Jehohanan and the child is "ben HGQWL." He interprets "ben HGQWL" as "son of the one hanged with knees apart."

    It seems to me that not only did the Romans designed crucifixion not only to subject the condemned to the maximum amount of brutal torture, but also the absolute height of shame and humiliation.

  9. Shalom from Jerusalem, very, very well done, written and up to date. someone just brought it to my attention and I will cite it with your permission in any further work on the subject. Have you seen the work of the American Grange, if not definitely worth a look,.


  10. If the post is any good, that is because it is based on the work of a certain Joe Zias ;-)


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