Crucifixion is a punishment as historically notorious as it is religiously significant; however, it continues to be one of the most mysterious methods of execution from antiquity, primarily due to the fact that no physical evidence of the practice had ever been found for millenia after the death of Jesus Christ. In fact, the only descriptions of it were found in art and literature from the era. Where was the physical evidence of crucifixion?
This all changed in 1968, when archaeologists discovered a stone box hidden away in a tomb located in northeastern Jerusalem. Inside the box were the remains of a Jewish man named Yehohanan, but what was particularly astounding about this man was that his heel bone appeared to have a thick nail driven through it – something that could evidence that the man had been crucified. That's right – a single bone is the only existing physical evidence that crucifixion ever took place. Even more curious, perhaps, was that the body of a young boy was also found inside the box.
The fact that the nail was driven through the man's heel suggests that everything we thought we knew about crucifixion was wrong, and, in many ways, this discovery has generated more questions than answers.
A Stone Box Found Outside Of Jerusalem With A Troubling Inscription On It
Back in 1968, an archaeologist by the name of Vassilios Tzaferis had finally gotten around to excavating a group of Jewish tombs from the 1st century CE located at Giv'at ha-Mivtar in northeastern Jerusalem. There, he came across a particular ossuary, or stone box, containing the bones of the dead – essentially a coffin that would prove to be one of the most significant discoveries ever made.
On the outside of the box, a faint inscription can be found, which allegedly reads, "Yehohanan ben Hagkol," or Yehohanan, son of Hagkol. Originally, this was believed to be a reference to the man's full name and family line; however, it would later be revealed that the inscription suggested something far more tragic about the contents of the box.
The Box Contains A Heel Bone With A Nail Driven Through It...And The Bones Of A Child
Upon further investigation, it turned out that there was no record of the surname Hagkol; rather – when compared to linguistic patterns used during the time – the word actually may have meant "crucified." This suggests that the inscription is referring to the remains of the young boy – "son of the crucified one" – who was also found inside the ossuary. The two were buried together.
Then, inside the box, archaeologists came across the first physical evidence of a crucifixion ever found – a heel bone still bearing the nail that had been used to nail it to a cross.
This Evidence Changed Everything We Thought We Knew About Crucifixions
Upon further investigation, researchers found that the nail used to crucify the man still had traces of olive tree wood on it, and it had bent from being nailed in. Perhaps even more significant than the evidence itself is what it tells us about the method of crucifixion: that nails were not, in fact, driven through the palms of hands (as there were no wounds found on this man's hands), and the feet were likely nailed through the heels on either side of the supporting beam.
Biblical Paintings Were Wrong About Crucifixions
In addition to the discovery that a person's heels were nailed onto the sides of the cross, it was determined that – contrary to Biblical paintings and descriptions – criminals who were crucified actually had their wrists bound around the top of the horizontal beam, and that attempting to force nails through an individual's hands in a way that would support the weight of their body would have been nearly impossible.