Structure of the Cross
What exactly do they mean when Christians teach that Jesus died on a cross? The answer requires a full understanding of Roman crucifixion. Modern scholarship and archaeology have brought to light much new information about this practice, and many traditional conceptions have proved to be inaccurate. We now know that Roman crucifixion was far more brutal and hideous than Christians of past centuries ever imagined. The victim suffered harrowing pain for hours, even days, before the rigors of the cross finally snuffed out his life.
In its most common form, the cross consisted of two pieces of wood. The upright, called the stipes, was permanently fixed in the ground (1). The crosspiece, called the patibulum, was carried to the site of execution by the condemned man (2). This task was in itself an ordeal, since the patibulum was a stout beam like the one used to bar the door of a fortified building (3). Estimates of its weight range from fifty pounds (4) to more than a hundred pounds (5). After the crucifixion, the crosspiece was taken down and removed from the site, perhaps as a precaution against thievery.
Literary sources suggest that the familiar picture of Jesus' cross is erroneous (6). It is likely that the crosspiece rested on the upright, instead of being fastened to it at some distance below the top. The ancient writer Lucian compared the shape of the cross to a capital tau, identical to our letter T (7). How were the two pieces put together? One modern guess is that the top of the upright was sharpened to a point, tapered to fit perfectly into a conical hole cut into the bottom of the crosspiece (8). But then the crosspiece would have had a tendency to swivel. It is more likely that the joint was firm. Perhaps the easiest solution was to chisel the top of the stipes to a sharp edge that would slip into a wedge-shaped hole in the patibulum (9). The overall height of the cross was probably about seven and a half feet (10).
Some ancient sources suggest that a typical cross granted the victim a partial seat, called the sedile, which was nailed to the upright. It would be well to quote these sources, since many writers on crucifixion have drawn implausible conclusions from them. The Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC? to AD 65) twice described the victim as a man seated. His fuller wording was, "You may nail me up and set my seat upon the piercing cross" (11). The clear testimony of several early Christian writers leaves no doubt that, at least in the second century, providing the victim with a seat was standard procedure. The earliest of these sources is Justin Martyr (AD 100? to AD 165?). In his commentary on Deuteronomy 33:17, which he understood as prefiguring the crucifixion, he spoke of the victim being supported by a hornlike structure jutting out from the face of the stipes.
Now, no one could say or prove that the horns of a unicorn represent any other fact or figure than the type which portrays the cross. For the one beam is placed upright, from which the highest extremity is raised up into a horn, when the other beam is fitted on to it, and the ends appear on both sides as horns joined on to the one horn. And the part which is fixed in the center, on which are suspended those who are crucified, also stands out like a horn; and it also looks like a horn conjoined and fixed with the other horns (12).
Irenaeus (AD 120?-AD 202?) was even more explicit.
The very form of the cross, too, has five extremities, two in length, two in breadth, and one in the middle, on which [last] the person rests who is fixed by the nails (13).
A slightly later church father, Tertullian (AD 160? –AD 230), corroborates this picture.
Every piece of timber which is fixed in the ground in an erect position is a part of a cross, and indeed the greater portion of its mass. But an entire cross is attributed to us [that is, Christians], with its transverse beam, of course, and its projecting seat [sedilis excessu] (14).
Justin’s comparison of the sedile to a horn has led some to imagine that the victim sat on a hornlike projection, perhaps with its outward end curving upward to a point (15). But notice that Justin saw the two blunt ends of the patibulum as no less hornlike. Any projection from the cross was, in his view, consistent with the prophet’s imagery. The comparison to a horn is therefore useless for reconstructing the seat’s appearance. It was probably something easy to assemble, such as a board nailed sideways to the upright or a board projecting outward with a nailed support underneath.
When the Romans prepared crosses for Jesus and the two thieves who were crucified alongside Him, they may have omitted a sedile, because, by affording some rest to the victim, it had the effect of prolonging life (16). The Romans viewed it as imperative to finish off the condemned men before evening, marking the beginning of a new day. The next day after Jesus was put on the cross was not only a Sabbath, but also the beginning of a feast, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Romans did not like to offend Jewish sensibilities to the extent of conducting an execution on a day considered holy.
Yet we must consider that Jesus was scourged before He was brought to Calvary. The two others executed at the same time were likely scourged as well. Without a sedile, survival on the cross for six or more hours may have exceeded the viability of a man recently beaten almost to death. Also, nailing the feet was probably much easier when the victim was seated. Our best guess therefore is that a sedile was provided for Jesus.
The Remains of the Crucified Man Found near Jerusalem
In 1968, at Giv’at ha-Mivtar near Jerusalem, archaeologists excavated a family tomb from the era of Christ. Inside they found the remains of seventeen individuals, including a young man who had died by crucifixion(17). An inscription on the ossuary identified him as Yehohanan (18). This discovery excited hope of important new insights on Roman crucifixion, but the authorities thwarted careful analysis by demanding that the bones be reburied within four weeks, although they later granted some delay (19). The severe time constraint led to disputed findings.
A scratch on the right radius, a bone of the forearm, suggested to the original investigators, including Nico Haas and Vassilios Tzaferis, that a spike had been driven through each forearm at a point about two inches away from the wrist bones (the carpals) (20). In a reexamination of the evidence, Zias and Sekeles assigned a different cause, arguing that blemishes of this kind are commonplace in decayed skeletal remains. Two similar scratches clearly not due to nails appeared on the right fibula of the same victim (21). Nevertheless, some scholars continue to regard the scratch visible even in photographs as a product of trauma before death (22).
A crude iron spike 11.5 cm (about 5 in) long still penetrated one heel (23). First reports that a portion of the second heel was also attached to the nail (24) have been overturned by a closer look. In fact, according to Zias and Sekeles, the bone fragment clinging to the first heel was not from the second heel, and the true remnants of the second heel were too decayed to determine how that heel was disposed on the cross (25).
One uncontested finding was that before the executioner drove the nail through the heel, he drove it through a board. There were still traces of wood under the head of the nail (26).
The original investigators reported that all three of the calf bones available for study (the right tibia and the left tibia and fibula) had been fractured by heavy blows (27). Zias and Sekeles concluded, however, that the fractures were likely the result of natural deterioration. They noted that the bones were broken at different angles (28). Yet the general absence of similar fractures in other skeletons found at the site seems to belie their interpretation of the evidence. Zugibe proposed instead that the fractures were due to multiple blows (29).
The uncertain testimony of the skeletal remains has fostered conflicting reconstructions of the victim’s crucifixion. Haas, assuming that the nail had pierced not just the one heel but both heels, suggested that the feet had been turned sideways against the cross, with one foot on top of the other. At first he thought that the toes were pointed in opposite directions, so that the man hung with his legs spread apart. Later he decided and others agreed that the toes pointed in the same direction. Thus, when the man hung on the cross, the lower part of his body was twisted grotesquely to one side (30). Zias and Sekeles pointed out that the nail was too short to penetrate more than the one heel (31). Also, as we mentioned, they found no evidence that the second heel was joined to the first. They hypothesized that by means of two nails, one through each heel, the soldiers fastened the feet separately to opposite sides of the cross. Thus, the victim's body faced forward with his feet straddling the upright (32).
Although this archaeological find has yielded less information than originally expected, it has helped resolve some questions about Roman crucifixion. There is no doubt that the Yehohanan’s feet were nailed to the cross. Within a larger margin of error, it appears also that the executioners broke his legs before removing him, presumably to hasten his death. The scratch on one radius is consistent with picturing nails through the wrist, yet the actual cause of the slight anomaly remains uncertain.
It would be a mistake to view Yehohanan’s skeleton as showing an ordinary crucifixion, for the Romans practiced crucifixion in many different forms (33). The executioners liked to kill people in novel ways just as a sadistic sport (34). In his account of the horrors suffered by the Jews when the Romans overthrew Jerusalem in AD 70, Josephus said that the besiegers caught as many 500 per day trying to escape. "The soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another [that is, in different postures], to the crosses, by way of jest" (35).
Piercing of the Hands
The most thorough attempt to understand ancient crucifixion has been made by Frederick Zugibe, the American cardiologist and forensic pathologist (36). Zugibe argued that unlike the man whose remains were found in 1968, Jesus was nailed to the cross not through His forearms, but through His palms (37). He built his case on six considerations.
- Most stigmatics in the Roman Catholic tradition have displayed wounds in their palms (38).
Yet in our Protestant tradition we accept no extra-Biblical evidence as authoritative. Furthermore, no stigmatic has ever come under medical observation proving that his marks were of supernatural origin (39).
- The hand wound seen on the Shroud of Turin looks like the result of a nail through the palm, although a lower point of entrance is also possible—not so low as the forearm, however (40).
Yet the authenticity of the Shroud remains an open question, especially since Carbon-14 dating placed its origin between AD 1260 and 1390 (41). The analyzed fibers might have been contaminated with later patchwork, so the results cannot be viewed as decisive (42). But no argument is admissible that uncritically accepts an early date for the Shroud.
- The oft-heard claim that nails through the palms would not have supported the victim's weight is unconvincing (43).
One influential exponent of this claim was the French surgeon Pierre Barbet. He maintained that the tissues between the fingers would not have been strong enough to prevent the nails from tearing loose as gravitational force pulled the hands away from the nails (44). Zugibe replied that the force on the hands has been exaggerated. By conducting safe simulations of crucifixion, he showed that if the feet of the victim rested on supports, as Jesus’ did, the force on the hand when the arm was outstretched 65º from the upright was only about 70 lbs. (45). A force of this magnitude is not enough to rip the hands apart. The flaw in Zugibe’s argument is that he must discount the force on the hands when the body was lifted into position on the cross. His scenario for this stage of the execution is no more than speculation. He proposes that before the soldiers fastened the patibulum to the stipes and nailed the victim’s feet, they raised him to a platform at the base of the cross, whether by lifting him or backing him up steps (46). But it seems doubtful that the soldiers would have taken any trouble to spare the victim more pain. It is more likely that they dragged him upward into position.
- Impalement through the palms does not necessarily contradict the testimony of both Biblical prophecy (Psa. 34:20; Num. 9:12; Ex. 12:46) and Biblical history (John 19:33,36) that none of the Messiah’s bones were broken (47).
It is true that a nail through the palm or even the wrist bones could leave the bones intact, but it was easier to protect the integrity of Jesus’ bones by putting the nail through a point just below the wrist. Indeed, piercing Jesus through the palms or wrist bones would have created uncertainty that He fulfilled the prophecies we have cited. A clear public witness that He did fulfill the prophecies required the nails to be inserted between the bones of the forearm.
- Ancient sources of information concerning the manner of crucifixion indicate nails transfixing the palms (48).
Yet the oldest pieces of art Zugibe can cite date only from the fifth century (49). The literary evidence he offers is not convincing either. He says, "In the ancient literature, Lipsius and other authors, painters, and sculptors related and depicted hands that were transfixed in crucifixion" (50). But he provides no references to support this sweeping generalization. In fact, Lipsius was not an ancient author. He was a Dutch scholar writing in the seventeenth century (51). Zugibe continues, "Crucifixion scholars like Hengel wrote that, in Roman times, it was the rule to nail the crucarius [that is, the victim] through both the hands and feet" (52). But Hengel was merely summarizing the evidence that nails were used. He was not taking a position on the exact placement of the nails (53).
- Scripture, both in prophecy and in the Gospel record, specifically locates the upper nail wounds in the Messiah's hands (54).
The texts referring to wounds and nail prints in His hands are numerous (Zech. 13:6; Psa. 22:16; Luke 24:39; John 20: 20, 25, 27). So, here is Zugibe’s strongest argument by far. The clear testimony of Scripture outweighs all other evidence. Therefore, the debate need center on one question only. What anatomical region does the Bible intend when it uses the words translated “hand”?
The Hebrew word is yad, a word distinct from "palm" (kaph). The difference of reference is evident in the phrase "palm of hands" (2 Kings 9:35; Dan. 10:10). Hebrew has no word for either wrist or forearm. In several Old Testament texts, "wrist" is obviously the intended meaning of yad. For example, Abraham’s servant gave Rebekah bracelets for her "hands" (Gen. 24:22, 30, 47). Likewise a scarlet thread was tied onto the "hand" of Zarah when he emerged from the womb (Gen. 38:28), and Samson was bound fast with cords described both as upon his "arms" and upon his "hands" (Judg. 15:13-14). The prophecy in Zechariah (Zech. 13:6) has no bearing on the location of Jesus’ nail wounds. The correct translation is not, "wounds in your hands" but "wounds between your hands" (55), an expression that some authorities say should be understood as pointing to the wounds on Jesus’ chest (56). Yet, other visions of Jesus in His glorified form show His chest clothed (Dan. 10:5-6; Rev. 1:13). Therefore, the true sense of "between" might indicate somewhere else between His hands when outstretched, such as the two upper forearms.
In Greek also there is no word for either wrist or forearm. The word for hand, cheir, is therefore the only recourse when "wrist" is the intended meaning. For example, Luke says that Peter’s chains fell off his "hands" (Acts 12:7).
It is evident that a place in the forearm close enough to the wrist to be viewed as the wrist is not out of harmony with the terms Scripture uses to denote where Jesus was pierced. No evidence can be cited to demand locating the site higher, in the wrist or palm. On balance, the evidence points to the upper forearm instead. Three considerations carry most weight.
- The skeletal remains of a Jew crucified in the same era may show a wound in the upper forearm.
- The need for a secure hold when the victim was raised to the cross favored nailing him through the upper forearms or possibly the wrists proper, but not through the palms.
- Nailing Jesus through the upper forearms and not through the wrists or palms assured public testimony that none of His bones were broken.
Yet in all candor, we must conclude by admitting that the question is far from settled. Greater certainty awaits more evidence.
Piercing of the Feet
On the question concerning where the soldiers pierced Jesus’ feet, Zugibe defends a much stronger position. He believes that Jesus' crucifixion differed in another respect from Yehohanan's. If Yehohanan’s feet were indeed fastened to the sides of the cross by a nail through each heel, the result must have been massive injury to the heel bones. The one surviving heel has a gaping hole in the middle (57). To escape similar injury, Jesus’ feet could not have been held in place by nails through His heels, whether His feet were fixed to the side of the cross or twisted laterally in front. Rather, the nails must been driven through the upper sides of the feet. A spike entering through the top could readily pass between two metatarsals without breaking them. The best reconstruction of the scene therefore supposes that after Jesus was raised into position, His feet were flattened against the face of the cross and attached by nails. Some have imagined that one nail was driven through both feet, with one foot covering the other, but it is unlikely that the soldiers would have gone to so much trouble. The easier way to secure a screaming, struggling victim was to hold and nail his feet separately.
Elevation of the Victim
The Gospels tell us that after Jesus arrived at the hill called Calvary, the soldiers "crucified him" (Matt. 27:35; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:33; John 19:18). This expression specifically refers to the bloody work of fastening His body to a cross. Here we are reduced to speculation. But a reasonable scenario imagines that first, after setting the patibulum on the ground, the soldiers laid Jesus on His back so that His head lay near the center of the patibulum and His body stretched out perpendicular to it. Next, they brought His arms out to the side and draped His wrists over the patibulum. Then they hammered a spike through each wrist into the wood (58).
After fastening Jesus' arms to the cross, the soldiers hoisted the patibulum to the top of the stipes (59). The pain as the whole body was dragged upward by nails through the wrist must have been indescribable. After the patibulum settled into place, the soldiers must have pushed Jesus' torso upward until He was able to support Himself on the sedile. Then they bent His knees to flatten His soles against the uprights, and they nailed both feet to the cross.