Ancient Jewish Man's Remains Give Clues on Crucifixion

Reuters
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The graphic portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus in Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" has brought the ancient world's execution method of choice in all its horror to the big screen.

Jesus is the best known victim of crucifixion. But thousands of other Jews were put to death on the cross by the Romans, trying to quash Jewish rebellions in the Holy Land in the first century.

Yet, strangely, the remains of only one victim have ever been found. He was Yehohanan Ben Hagkol, a Jewish man whose heel bone, excavated by archaeologists near Jerusalem in 1968, still had a nail embedded in it.

"It is the only case ever found in the world where there is indisputable evidence of crucifixion," said Joe Zias, a physical anthropologist who examined the remains of Yehohanan Ben Hagkol.

"We've looked at thousands of skeletons in Jerusalem. Some were decapitated. Others were mutilated. But we've never found another one that was crucified."

"It has to be one of the most obscene forms of death ever invented by man," said Zias of the execution method practiced between 400 BC and AD 400 also by the Persians, Greeks, Assyrians, Carthaginians and other ancient civilizations.

Professor Martin Hengel, a leading scholar of crucifixions from Tubingen University in Germany, said thousands of captured Jewish rebels were crucified by the Romans around Jerusalem during the first century, when Jesus lived.

Crosses dotted the landscape around the city. Zias said that between AD 66 and 702, the Romans at times crucified as many as 500 Jews a day until they quashed what became known as the first Jewish revolt and destroyed the Second Temple.

"Eventually they ran out of crosses and they ran out of space," he said.

Not much is known about Yehohanan Ben Hagkol, whose name in English means John, son of Hagkol. The name was carved in ancient Hebrew letters on an ossuary containing his bones in a tomb north of Jerusalem's Old City in 1968.

At the time of his death he was between 24 and 28 years old, stood around five feet seven inches tall (170 cm) and was in excellent health - until he was hoisted on to a cross some time between AD 50 and 70.

"He could have been a thief, he could have been a rebel. To his nation he may have been a hero," said archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferias, who discovered Ben Hagkol's remains during the excavation of an ancient Jewish family tomb.

The state of the skeletons in the tomb bore testimony to the turbulent times in which the Jews of Jerusalem lived in the first century. Nine of the 35 people buried there had met violent deaths. Others had died of starvation.

When Ben Hagkol's remains were examined, archaeologists noticed the nail piercing what remained of the heel bone.

Archaeologists believe they have not uncovered other physical evidence of crucifixion because victims were sometimes tied rather than nailed to the cross and the corpses were often thrown onto garbage dumps where animals would feed off them.

Nails of the crucified were also in high demand. People regarded them as powerful amulets that could ward off evil, so they would remove them from the bodies of victims.

In Ben Hagkol's case, the nail hammered through his heel bone had bent after catching in a knot of wood and relatives who retrieved his body would have been unable to remove it.

Nailed to the cross As shown in graphic detail in Gibson's film, victims were often brutally beaten with whips of leather and metal before being taken to the cross.

Their hands were then either tied or nailed to the horizontal bar of the cross. They were stripped naked, strung up and left, sometimes for days, until they died.

"It was used because it was so appalling. It was very painful and everybody could see the suffering. It must have been very humiliating too, hanging naked at the cross," Hengel said.

Gibson's film shows Jesus being hammered to the cross through his hands, in line with the traditional view depicted in religious icons and paintings since the Middle Ages.

Zias said this reflects theology rather than reality. Jesus, like other victims of crucifixion, would either have had his hands tied to the cross, or been nailed through the wrist.

"You cannot crucify a person through the hands because there is nothing there but skin and muscle. It will tear. It has to be done through the wrists," Zias said.

Death could be relatively quick, within 10 minutes, for those whose hands were tied or nailed directly above their heads and whose feet were restrained too. A person crucified in this position would be unable to exhale, Zias said.

This apparently was not the case with Jesus' crucifixion since the Gospels say it took several hours for him to die, Zias said.

"The body goes into shock and then you die from shock. You can keep a person up there for hours or you can keep a person up there for a few days depending on the method of crucifixion."

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