A new study of a pair of unprovenanced Roman-period nails that surfaced at a Tel Aviv University anthropology lab is offering new evidence that resurrects a decade-old theory linking these artifacts to nothing less than the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The Israeli geologist who led the research says the chemical and physical analysis of the nails proves they came from the burial cave in Jerusalem of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest whom the Gospels say played a key role in sending Jesus to his death. The researchers also found microscopic traces of wood and bone embedded in the metal spikes, which they say strongly indicates that these 2,000-year-old nails were at least involved in “a” crucifixion – though not necessarily in that of the Christian messiah.
Other scholars interviewed by Haaretz dismissed the study as highly speculative and said there is not enough evidence to connect the unprovenanced nails to a specific site or to claim they were used to crucify anyone – let alone Jesus.
The study published in August in the peer-reviewed journal Archaeological Discovery presents scientific backing for a theory first proposed in a 2011 documentary by journalist Simcha Jacobovici, which raised a storm of controversy and was loudly denounced by leading archaeologists.
Burial of a high priest?
This story begins in 1990, when archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated a Jewish burial cave from the first century C.E. It had been uncovered during road works in Jerusalem’s Peace Forest, a park in the south of the city. The cave contained 12 ossuaries, limestone boxes in which Jews of this period traditionally placed the bones of the deceased once the bodies had decomposed.
What set apart this burial from the many similar tombs from the Roman period that have been found in Jerusalem is that one of the ossuaries was inscribed with the name “Caiaphas” (Kayafa in Hebrew) and another with the words “Joseph son of Caiaphas.”
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Many scholars, though not all, have since identified the cave as the family tomb of the high priest whom the Gospels say handed over Jesus to Pontius Pilate and the Romans to be executed.
There is however some question as to which bone box, if either, contained the remains of the priest himself. While the New Testament calls him simply Caiaphas, the Jewish historian Josephus identifies the high priest during Pilate’s time as Joseph Caiaphas.
Hence the ossuary labeled Joseph son of Caiaphas, now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, is more likely to be the final resting place of the high priest, especially since this box, unlike the others found in the tomb, was ornately decorated with elaborate geometric motifs.
Be that as it may – the center of this controversy is not the ossuaries themselves, but two nails that the archaeologists found in the tomb. One was discovered inside an ossuary (not one of those labeled with the Caiaphas name) and one was unearthed on the floor near the putative bone box of Joseph Caiaphas.
IAA archaeologist Zvi Greenhut, who led the dig, speculated in his preliminary report that the nails may have been used to inscribe the names of the deceased on the limestone ossuaries. Why someone would carve names into the limestone boxes and reopen one of them to place a nail inside was not explained.
But the find was quickly forgotten – literally. The nails from the Caiaphas cave were never photographed and the artifacts themselves were lost. The IAA has always maintained that the nails at the center of this investigation were not from the Caiaphas tomb and that it doesn’t know where the artifacts from that burial are.
Some two decades after the tomb was excavated (and paved over), the story was picked up by Jacobovici for his documentary, “Nails of the Cross.”
The film, which made international headlines, was based on an explosive and wildly speculative theory. Jacobovici suggested that Caiaphas, possibly out of remorse over his role in Jesus’ execution, may have kept at least two of the nails from the crucifixion, and that these had been passed on to his relatives as amulets until they ended up in the family tomb. The fact that the nails had been lost by the archaeologists added an aura of conspiratorial mystery to the story, with Jacobovici intimating that the discovery had somehow been covered up. The investigative journalist also claimed to have tracked the missing nails: they were apparently shipped by the IAA in the early 1990s in an unmarked box to the Tel Aviv University physical anthropology lab, headed by Prof. Israel Hershkovitz.
In the documentary, Hershkovitz discusses the length of the nails, which is just around five centimeters, saying it would be sufficient to fix a victim’s hands to a crossbeam. He also comments on the fact that the nails held at the lab have bent ends, which he says could be compatible with crucifixion, as a way to prevent the condemned man from freeing himself.
Back then, scholars angrily dismissed the documentary’s conclusions, and the IAA denied that the nails sent to Hershkovitz’s lab were those found in the Caiaphas tomb. It claimed the nails in Tel Aviv came from a much earlier dig – though it is unknown which one. Nails are a common find in Jewish burials in Jerusalem from the Second Temple period and the two found in the Caiaphas tomb were likely lost or misplaced in the shuffle of cataloguing the many discoveries from the dig, IAA officials said at the time.
Flooded by the aqueduct
This is where the newly published study by geologist Aryeh Shimron and colleagues comes in. Shimron, a retired expert with Israel’s Geological Survey, is friendly with Jacobovici and has been involved in a separate study that claimed to give scientific support to another of the journalist’s theories. This one was centered on a different Jerusalem tomb which Jacobovici claimed, in a 2007 documentary, was in fact the burial of Jesus and his family.
In the case of the mystery nails, Shimron set out to use scientific methods to check whether the artifacts that had surfaced in Tel Aviv were the lost nails from the Caiaphas tomb and whether they were indeed used in a crucifixion.
Shimron was allowed to take small samples of sediments from the ossuaries found in the tomb and scrapings from the nails. His team found that the chemical and physical signatures from both sets of samples not only match but are also quite unique.
Both the nails and the ossuaries show significant flowstone deposits, layers of calcite carbonate that are left by flowing water in wet caves. The ratios of carbon and oxygen isotopes in the samples were also typical of a more humid environment than one would expect in the hills of southeast Jerusalem, the article reports. The scientists also found the ossuaries and the organic remains on the nails were infested with fungal spores from what appears to be a species of yeast, which also highlighted the humid conditions of the Caiaphas family tomb.
“Over the centuries, some water will seep into any cave, but the Caiaphas tomb appears to have been frequently flooded, and not just from the occasional heavy rain,” Shimron tells Haaretz. This was probably because the Hellenistic-period aqueduct, which continued to provide water to the city until modern times, passed just a few meters from the tomb and due to periodic overflow was likely the cause of the abundance of water and fungi in the cave.
The scientists sampled sediments from some 40 other ossuaries and 25 tombs in Jerusalem, and none of them showed similar chemical and physical fingerprints as those found on the nails and in the bone boxes from the Caiaphas tomb. This led them to conclude that the nails in Tel Aviv did indeed come from that particular cave. They also found that the interior of the “Joseph son of Caiaphas” ossuary contained minute iron fragments, suggesting that the nail that was found on the floor of the cave may have initially been placed in the high priest’s box, only to be removed much later, possibly when the tomb was disturbed by robbers, Shimron suggests.
Okay, so maybe the nails in Hershkovitz’s lab did come from the high priest’s family tomb. But were they used in a crucifixion?
Yes, Shimron and colleagues assert, because electron microscope analyses shows fragments of bone deeply embedded in the rust of the nails, as well as well-preserved slivers of wood. This suggests these spikes were indeed involved in inflicting the most excruciating form of capital punishment used by the Romans, Shimron says.
“I am most certainly not claiming that these are the nails from Jesus’ crucifixion,” he cautions. “I prefer not to suggest whose nails they are. Everyone can decide on their own.”
A very expensive cross
Even without the supposed Jesus link, such a finding would be quite an accomplishment, given that remains from Roman crucifixions are extremely rare. In fact, the first and only undisputed remains of a crucified person ever found were discovered in 1968 in a first-century tomb in Jerusalem. From an ossuary found in that tomb, archaeologists recovered a heelbone with a Roman nail still embedded in it, which, according to the inscription on the box, belonged to a Jewish man named Yehohanan Ben Hagkol. If Shimron is right, the two nails he studied would be only the second and third remains from a crucifixion ever found.
But unlike in the case of poor Yehohanan, the contention that the putative nails from the Caiaphas tomb were used in a crucifixion rests on much shakier ground. In his interview with Haaretz, Shimron acknowledged he could not fully rule out that the bone fragments attached themselves to the nails during the centuries in which they were in close contact with human remains in the ossuaries.
Additionally, according to Werner Schoch, a Swiss expert in ancient wood who participated in the study, the remains of timber on the nails were identified as cedar. This is a problem, because this tree did not grow in ancient Israel and was an expensive import from Lebanon. In fact the Bible makes a big deal about Solomon getting cedar for the construction of the First Temple from the king of Tyre (1 Kings 5). So it is very unlikely that the Romans would use this rare and expensive material to crucify someone they considered a rebel and enemy of the state – the crimes for which one was liable to end up on the cross. This would imply that this crucifixion was “out of the ordinary,” Shimron says. Or maybe, he concedes, it could just mean that Caiaphas removed the nails from an object, perhaps one connected to the Temple, that had been carved out of cedar wood.
Even if the nails were indeed used for a crucifixion, it is important to note that there is no evidence linking them to Jesus’ execution, and they could have been used to kill any of the many unfortunate Jews who died on the cross at the hands of the Romans. It is also pertinent that the nails of a crucified person were considered amulets with powerful healing properties. This protective charm was so important that the Mishnah, the compendium of Jewish oral law, lists it as one of few objects that Jews were allowed to carry during the Sabbath (Shabbat 6.10). So, someone in Caiaphas’ family may have simply been carrying around a couple of these good-luck charms when they died.
Experts not involved in the study remain very unconvinced by the conclusions of Shimron and colleagues.
The study is “interesting and thought-provoking” and does show that the nails may have come from a Jerusalem burial cave of the late Second Temple period, but does not prove the link to the so-called Caiaphas tomb, the IAA says in a statement in response to a query from Haaretz. Additionally, there are questions as to whether that cave was really Caiaphas’ burial, given its considerable simplicity, which does not match the status of the high priest, the statement says. However, the IAA does leave open the possibility that the nails housed in Tel Aviv may have been used to crucify someone.
“To the understanding of the Antiquities Authority, the uncovered nails may have been used to crucify any of the hundreds of people who challenged Roman authority and were executed,” it says.
There is not enough evidence to prove the nails are from Caiaphas’ tomb or that they were involved in a crucifixion, contends Hershkovitz. “Their association with bones proves nothing as all these caves are full of bones scattered all over the floor,” he says. He adds that while it is “very unlikely” the nails were used to crucify someone, “we cannot totally eliminate the possibility.”
Death of an anthropologist
Even more dismissive of the new research is Joe Zias, who was the IAA’s anthropology and archaeology curator at the time of the Caiaphas tomb excavation. Zias is also the person who sent the two nails, as well as other artifacts, to Tel Aviv University, and he insists that they did not come from the burial of the high priest. Instead, they came from the lab of another anthropologist, Nicu Haas, Zias tells Haaretz in an e-mail. Haas was the father of physical anthropology in Israel and the lead researcher in the 1960s and early 1970s on most major human remains from archaeological digs - including Yehohanan’s pierced heelbone.
But in 1975 Haas had an accident that left him in a coma until his death, and Zias was charged with clearing his lab, which is where he says the two nails now in Tel Aviv first surfaced. It is not known where they were found originally, or why they were in an anthropologist’s lab but they could not have come from the Caiaphas tomb, which was excavated more than a decade after Haas’ accident, Zias says. In the 1990s, because of pressure from ultra-Orthodox Jews to bury all human remains from archaeological digs, the IAA had Zias transfer the nails along with other important finds to Hershkovitz’s lab in secular Tel Aviv for safekeeping.
“Evidently, during their transfer, the note regarding their provenance was misplaced and certain ‘wannabe archaeologists’ decided it would be a great story to say they were from the Caiaphas tomb,” Zias tells Haaretz. “There were the usual conspiracy remarks that they were ‘missing’ due to their historical importance and a film or two were made.”
As for the actual pair of nails found in the Caiaphas tomb, they were likely simply misplaced as they were “of little scientific importance,” he says.
If we accept that the nails from the Caiaphas tomb have been lost, we are still left with the puzzle of the two artifacts that were sent to Tel Aviv University, whose complex travails suggest they are anything but irrelevant. Based on Zias’ owns version of events, the nails were initially being analyzed by Israel’s senior physical anthropologist, a researcher who normally studies human remains and not artifacts – unless those artifacts are found with the pointy end sticking into a body part. After Haas’ accident, these particular nails were considered important enough to be quietly shipped to Tel Aviv amid the clamor raised by the ultra-Orthodox.
In fact, Haas’ interest in the nails and the IAA’s fear they could be seized for reburial by religious authorities only make sense if they were originally found in the context of a tomb, and most likely a Jewish one. Which tomb this might be and whether its occupant’s life was ended by those nails is something that may be destined to remain a mystery.