Physical Evidence Unearthed for First Century Crucifixion

So much of what occurred in the life and times of Jesus was not recorded in detail. As a matter of fact John declared that if everything that Jesus did had been written, perhaps the world could not contain the books and only enough was written "that we might believe" (John 20:30,31).

For more than a hundred years, however, opponents of Biblical inspiration--most notably the liberal German schools of higher criticism, led by men like Julius Wellhausen--have sought to "demythologize" the scriptures. They have argued that much, if not most, of that which is written in the New Testament is merely commentary in which church leaders and theologians read their theologies into the text by inventing stories and words that they placed in the mouths of Jesus and the apostles. These events did not actually occur, these liberal scholars have maintained. With little external corroborating evidence at the turn of this century, the Biblical narratives were vulnerable to the challenges of those who argued that they could not be considered to be accurate historical records and at best were merely documents of faith.

It has remained, therefore, for scholars of many disciplines to search for clues to fill in the gaps and give greater details of people, places, and events of antiquity that have been lost or obscured in the centuries that have passed since Jesus lived the life of an ordinary Jewish man while fulfilling his divine mission as the incarnate Son of God.

The field of archaeology has added much to the understanding of the Bible narratives of ancient events, both those of the Hebrew scriptures and the Apostolic writings (New Testament). Archaeologists' discoveries in recent times have helped destroy many of the higher critics' arguments against the reliability of the historical information contained in Holy Scripture. They have both validated the record of scripture and made it more clearly understood. The books, Jesus Within Judaism and The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha by James H. Charlesworth, along with Archaeology and the New Testament by John McRay, offer much information concerning these recent archaeological discoveries.

One of the assertions of critics was that there was no physical evidence that crucifixion was used by the Romans as capital punishment in the time of the early first century; therefore, the story of the crucifixion of Jesus was probably myth. In l968 however, an ossuary was found in a Herodian tomb that contained the bones of a young man who had been crucified during the first half of the first century. According to McRay, "the man's kokhlim-type tomb was typical of those used by Jews in the Holy Land between the end of the second century B.C. and the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70."

The young man's name was inscribed on the ossuary as "Yehohanan, ben Hagakol." The proof that he had died by crucifixion was unique and absolutely certain. Apparently when the nail had been driven through the man's heel into the cross, it had entered a knot in the wood. When the family attempted to retrieve the body from the cross for interment, the nail could not be removed from the cross. The problem was resolved when the family took the nail and a part of the wooden cross with the body. There are differences of opinion among archaeologists as to the position of this man during his crucifixion. Nico Haas wrote: "The feet were joined almost parallel, both transfixed by the same nail at the heels, with the legs adjacent; the knees were doubled, the right one overlapping the left; the trunk was contorted; the upper limbs were stretched out, each stabbed by a nail in the forearm."

Joseph Zias and Eliezer Kekelas argued that the victim's arms were tied to the crossbeam and that each foot was nailed to a separate side of the vertical part of the cross. Yigael Yadin believed that the victim was crucified "in an open position, with knees apart," a view which he supports by arguing that the inscription should be read as "Son of the one hanged with his knees apart," instead of "Son of Hagakol."

The important thing about this discovery, however, is the fact that there is actually a 2,000 year old nail embedded in a piece of a wooden cross and the victim's foot. And, there is evidence that this crucifixion occurred in the early part of the first century around or before the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. This proves that crucifixion was actually used in Judaea at the time of Christ so that the story of his crucifixion is actual historical fact, not theological speculation. Once again, archaeology has succeeded in digging up the Word, confirming and illuminating the record of Holy Scripture.

Suggested positions for the crucifixion of Yehohanan, ben Haggakol.

A: Open position Crucifixion (Yadin), B: Crucifixon with legs adjacent (Haas, Tsaferis), C: Zias, Sekeles. Sketch: Courtesy of the Israel Exploration Society in Jerusalem.


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