While millions of Christians worldwide believe that Jesus was nailed to a cross as depicted in popular art representations of the crucifixion, scholars have recently questioned assumptions about the method of the crucifixion, pointing out that evidence from antiquity is ambiguous. But facts presented by an independent researcher, Edward Miessner, in 2011 suggest that the debate over whether Jesus was nailed to the cross pales in comparison with evidence that the ancient Romans did not crucify Jesus the way Christians think they did.
There are more fundamental issues about the methods and procedures that the Romans adopted for executing criminals by crucifixion than the question about whether he was nailed to the cross or not. And the facts are unspeakable, terrifying, and horrifying.
Recently, Meredith Warren, a professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Sheffield University, argued in an article published in the Conversation that the popular depiction of Jesus as a man nailed to a cross may have arisen from tradition rather than from verifiable facts of historical recollection.
According to Warren, the evidence from antiquity that Jesus was actually nailed to a cross is conflicting.
Scholars point out that none of the synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — mention that Jesus was nailed to the cross. But despite this observation, it seems clear that the Christian tradition that Jesus was nailed to the cross originated in the Gospel of John, which refers to wounds in Jesus’ hands as where he was “nailed” to the cross.
“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”(John 20:25)
It is possible that scholars raise questions about the belief that Jesus was nailed to the cross despite the testimony of the Gospel of John because of doubts about its authorship and questions about the reliability of its narrative, which deviates significantly from the synoptic gospels.
In addition, the earliest known representations of the crucifixion of Jesus appear to contradict the suggestion in the Gospel of John that Jesus was nailed to the cross and support, instead, the thesis that he was only tied to the cross.
While it is possible that the Romans used different methods of crucifixion, with some victims tied to the cross and others nailed to it, there is no direct evidence that victims were nailed to the cross. Scholars have recently refuted claims that “Jehohanan, son of Hagkol,” a first century CE victim of crucifixion whose remains were found in 1968, had been nailed to a cross.
And despite claims by researchers and scholars that criminal victims of Roman crucifixion were suspended on a large cross and allowed to die gradually from asphyxiation, there is little evidence to back the claim that the commonly used methods of execution by crucifixion depended on asphyxiation.
For instance, it is unclear from the earliest known depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, the so-called Alexamenos Graffito (see below), how the victim was expected to die by asphyxiation, as Warren suggests in her article published in the Conversation.
The Alexamenos Graffito shows the victim with his arms outstretched below the level of his head, and attached to the ends of a crosspiece, and his feet resting on a pedestal.
Other earliest known depictions of the crucifixion, such as the second century carving on a piece of jasper and the fourth century carving on a carnelian gemstone, all show (see below) a method of crucifixion clearly identical with the Alexamenos Graffito.
And the carvings show no evidence that the victims’ hands were nailed to the crosspiece. In the carnelian gemstone carving, also known to scholars as the Constanza gemstone (see below), the hands are clearly not nailed to the cross “since they fall naturally, as if he is tied at the wrists,” Warren observes.
The victims’ arms in all three depictions are also clearly not suspended above the head and the feet are shown resting “comfortably” on a pedestal, meaning that the arms did not have to support his entire body weight in a manner that would readily induce asphyxiation.
This raises the question about what caused the death of victims crucified in the manner shown in these early depictions of the crucifixion.
Incidentally, the representation of the crucifixion in the jasper gemstone gives the first clue about the terrible and unspeakable method the Romans used to induce death in crucified criminals.
The victim in the jasper carving appears to sit with his feet spread on a piece of the cross known as the sedile.
Edward Miessner, an independent researcher who researched Latin sources for evidence of how the ancient Romans induced death in criminal victims of crucifixion, found that the ancient Romans induced death in victims by mounting a stake in place of the “sedile” and forcing the victim to impale himself on it.
Miessner’s conclusion, corroborated by several other independent sources, is based partly on the critical distinction between what the ancient Romans termed a tropaeum (Greek: Tropaion) — a cross nearly identical with the Christian cross, carried in triumphal processions as a victory trophy — and the crux (Greek: stauros), an instrument modeled crudely after the fertility daemon Priapus, which included an outrigged stout and blunt stake, or in some cases, a sharpened stake that impales the victim through the anus when, due to exhaustion, he is forced to support his weight by sitting.
We shall not delve into the grisly details of the mechanisms of torture on a crux or stauros fitted with a stake in place of a sedile. The interested reader may consult the blog A Day At the Games: Roman Torture And Executions: A Brief Study of Roman Popular Culture.
Warning: The writer has not linked to the blog because it contains realistic and extremely graphic images of nudity and torture that many readers will find disturbing.
The second piece of evidence supporting Miessner’s conclusion comes from the representation of the victim on the cross in the Alexamenos Graffito as a donkey.
The crude graffito, which shows a man with a donkey’s head on a crucifix, with the words in Greek, “Alexamenos worships his god,” was meant, obviously, to spoof a Christian called Alexamenos.
It is significant that the Alexamenos Graffito is the oldest known representation of Jesus on the cross.
The representation of Jesus on the cross with a donkey’s head actually recalls a Greek myth about the nymph Lotis, who fell into a drunken sleep at a midnight orgy. The mischievous Priapus, seeing an opportunity to have his way with the nymph, advanced on her from behind with his impaling phallus brandished. But before he could force himself on her, a donkey brayed raucously, woke Lotis up, and frustrated Priapus’s plan.
To punish the donkey, the enraged Priapus, according to the legend, impaled it on his giant phallus.
This legend, according to the ancient Greeks and Romans, explains why donkeys are sacrificed to Priapus.
A chilling allusion to the commonly adopted procedure for impaling criminals in ancient Rome comes from Horatius Flaccus (65-68 BCE) in his Satyrarum libri (1.8.1-7), where he quotes a statement by the daemon Priapus, represented by a crux torture stake.
“When the artificer, in doubt whether he should make a stool or a Priapus of me, determined that I should be a God. Henceforward I became a God, the greatest terror of thieves and birds: for my right hand restrains thieves, and a bloody looking pole on my frightful middle…”
The unspeakable shame of the “Priapus-crux” manner of death explains why the Christian tradition forgot about it very quickly and replaced the crux with the tropaeum, a victory trophy.
[Image via Herrad von Landsberg/Wikimedia/Public Domain]