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June 22, 2011 

The Nails of the Cross:

A Response to the Criticisms of the Film

Part One of Six

The Argument

By: Director/Producer Simcha Jacobovici

As many people know, my colleagues and I recently made world headlines by claiming that we may have identified two of the nails used in Jesus’ crucifixion. My documentary film “Nails of the Cross” and coverage of it, generated by a press conference in Jerusalem (April 12, 2011), caused a firestorm of media and especially internet criticism, some of it vicious.

Although I have never responded to ad hominem criticisms, I’ve decided to make an exception this time. My decision is based on two factors: first, most people are confused about the facts of the case. Second, as far as I’m concerned, the tone of the debate has slipped into the pseudo-science of anti-Jewish caricature of 1930’s Germany, and I feel it is my duty as a Jew, a journalist and a human being to stand up and expose the culprits.

I will divide my comments into matters of substance and matters of style. First, let's look at the substance.

The essence of the thesis presented in my film is as follows:

1. In 1990, a tomb was found in east Jerusalem that most – but not all – scholars agree is the burial cave of the High Priest Caiaphas who, according to the Gospels, was implicated (around 30/31 C.E.) in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

2. In the tomb, archaeologists identified 12 ossuaries, or bone boxes, some pottery, a glass perfume bottle, a coin in one of the skulls and two Roman nails.

3. According to the Mishna (Mishna Shabbat 6.10; see also J. Talmud Shabbat 6:9, 7c-d, B. Talmud Shabbat, 67a), people were using nails that had been involved in crucifixion as amulets and for the purpose of magical healings.

4. Since Caiaphas is known to history for one thing and one thing only i.e., his involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus, and since crucifixion nails were regarded as amulets, it seems reasonable to connect the nails found in the Caiaphas tomb with two of the nails used to crucify Jesus.

I think the above, at least as a starting hypothesis, is pretty straightforward. Based on this thesis, I asked the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) for access to the “Caiaphas nails.” They informed me that the nails had gone missing. They had not been photographed, measured, drawn or properly documented. Also, to this day, the IAA has no knowledge as to their whereabouts.

As shown in my film, I believe that I have located them.

My thesis, however, is not affected by my claim to have rediscovered the nails in an anthropology laboratory at Tel Aviv University. So let’s return to the thesis and the criticisms leveled against it:

1. To my first point i.e., that the tomb in question belonged to the High Priest Caiaphas, there are objections, but there is no real controversy. It’s true that some people say that the tomb may not have been associated with the notorious High Priest. Of course, no one can say with absolute certainty that it is his tomb. There is rarely, if ever, absolute certainty in archaeology. Nonetheless, there is general agreement amongst the experts that the tomb in question did belong to the High Priest mentioned in the Gospels.

For example, Israel Museum curator David Mevorach says on camera that he believes that the “Caiaphas” who was buried in the tomb, and whose ossuary is marked with the inscription “Joseph son of Caiaphas” (Yoseph bar Caiapha in Hebrew) is the High Priest of Christian Bible infamy. Mevorach gives several reasons. First, out of some 3,000 ossuaries thus far excavated in Israel, the name “Caiaphas” appears only in this tomb. In other words, it is a very, very rare name. Second, there was a very elaborate ossuary found in the tomb. That ossuary is now on display at the Israel Museum where it is presented as Caiaphas’ ossuary. It is very ornate, and this is befitting a High Priest. Third, a coin found in the tomb is dated to 42/43 C.E., the reign of Herod Agrippa I, so the tomb is right for both date and location. 

The recently published Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae by Hannah Cotton et. al. (De Gruyter, 2010) sums up the discussion this way: “… the present ossuary and the entire tomb could be associated with Joseph Caiaphas, the High Priest 18-36 C.E. known from Josephus and the New Testament” (p. 483, italics in the original).

The words “the entire tomb” are very significant and I will refer to them later. For now, suffice it to say, that some of the people who are most critical of me with respect to my thesis on the nails are the very same people who identified this tomb as the probable, or possible, tomb of the High Priest Caiaphas. For example, Greenhut, the lead archaeologist on this excavation, now publicly fudges the connection between the tomb and Caiaphas. But he had this to say in the official IAA Hebrew report published in 1991: “it is almost certainly the name of the family of the High Priest ‘Caiaphas,’ from whose home the arrested Jesus was transferred to Pontius Pilate” (Hadashot Archiologiot Tsadi/Zayin [97], IAA, 1991, p. 72, emphasis added, my translation). Even Mr. Joe Zias, the former anthropologist at the IAA, and my most intemperate critic, in 1992 stated that this cave “appears to be the tomb of the high priestly family Caiaphas” (‘Atiqot 21, 1992, p. 79).

But maybe Greenhut, Mevorach, Cotton et al. are wrong. Maybe the tomb has nothing to do with the High Priest mentioned in the Gospels. One of the arguments against the identification of this “Caiaphas clan” with the Caiaphas clan is that the priestly or “Sadducee” class, to which the High Priest Caiaphas belonged, did not believe in the afterlife. Consequently, the critics say, the Caiaphas family would not have used tombs that involved “secondary burial,” since this practice is associated with the afterlife (see Cotton et. al. p. 484). An unrelated argument is that it’s simply a mistake to associate names in tombs with well-known characters from history. These arguments do not stand up.

Specifically, the ossuary catalogued in Cotton et. al. as #534, which is presently in the Hecht Museum in Haifa undermines both of the above objections: First, it clearly belongs to a granddaughter of a High Priest as attested by the Hebrew inscription on the box. This demonstrates that at least some priestly families did believe in the afterlife. Second, the High Priest is a man called “Theophilos.” This individual is acknowledged to be the brother-in-law of Caiaphas, whom he replaced in the office of the High Priesthood (see D. Barag and D. Flusser in Israel Exploration Journal 36, 1986, pp. 39-44 and Cotton et. al. pp. 550-51). (Could he also be the man to whom Luke dedicates his Gospel (1:3)? We should be open to the possibility that the early Jesus movement had friends in high places.) My point; if the High Priest Theophilos has been positively identified, why not his brother-in-law Caiaphas?

Other objectors point to the relative plainness of the cave and the poor quality of the inscriptions. But if we look at the ossuary of Shimon Boton (#76 in Cotton et. al.), we see a plain ossuary found in a plain tomb with a graffiti like inscription that, nonetheless, has been identified with the high priestly family mentioned by Josephus (Antiquities 19.297).

Put simply, there are no serious objections to the identification of the Caiaphas tomb with the High Priest of the Gospels, and a majority of scholars support it. In fact, for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of visitors to the Israel Museum, the association between the tomb and the historical Caiaphas has been made by the museum itself.

2. With respect to my second point i.e., my report on the various artifacts found in the tomb; here, too, there is no controversy of any kind. The artifacts are a matter of public record and the report is not contested by anyone. Nor does anyone challenge the fact that the two Roman nails found in the tomb have been lost. In his latest press and internet attacks on me, Mr. Joe Zias not only confirms the disappearance of the nails but - remarkably - takes responsibility for the loss by stating that it was he - and no one else - who was in charge of them (See Zias, Joe, http://www.scribd.com/doc/53330573/Zias- Nails).

3. The third point in my thesis is that the nails in the tomb are important. And here is where the controversy seems to gather momentum. Before pursuing this, let’s clarify the facts so far; the idea that the tomb in question belongs to the historical Caiaphas is not mine, it’s how the Israel Museum labels the tomb. Also, the idea that Roman nails were found in the tomb is not mine; it’s part of the archaeological record. The idea, however, that these particular nails are important is indeed mine. And if I’m right, the archaeologists involved lost what might be some of the most important artifacts ever found in tombs of this period. You can see why my thesis might upset them.

In their defense, hiding behind an official statement by the IAA released at my press conference (see http://www.antiquities.org.il/article_Item_eng.asp?sec_id=25&subj_id=240&id=1825&module_id=#as0,  the archaeologists in question said that nails in Israeli archaeological digs are both “common” and “forgettable.” This statement has been seized upon by my critics and quoted with gusto. In fact, Robert R. Cargill, an ordained minister with a Ph.D., has made up a new rule for excavators that he ascribes to Israeli archaeologists: “…only those [nails] of significant size, shape, or those found in peculiar locations are considered significant” (A Critique of Simcha Jacobovici’s Secrets of Christianity: Nails of the Cross, May, 2011, Bibleinterp.com, p.3, emphasis added). For brevity, we’ll call this “Cargill’s Law” of archaeology. But let’s examine the IAA statement and Cargill’s Law and see if a single bona fide archaeologist agrees with them.

To begin with, there is not a single archaeologist, including the ones who excavated the Caiaphas tomb that would not say in an introductory lecture to a first year archaeology class: “In archaeology, every find is important. Not only the find but the precise location i.e., the context of the find.”

The above is such a truism that I feel funny stating it. Coins, for example, are much more “common” in Jerusalem tombs than nails. But does anyone suggest that when one finds a coin, it should not be meticulously recorded and preserved? Does anyone suggest that it would be alright to ignore small coins and lose them? In fact, in this very tomb, a “common” coin was found. Not only was it photographed and recorded but, as it turns out, it tells an amazing story. Besides helping to precisely date the tomb, the location of the find was extremely significant. It was discovered inside the skull of one of the females buried in the tomb. This is “common” in pagan burials, but practically unheard of in Jewish ones. Pagans used to put a coin under the tongue of the deceased so that the soul of the departed could pay Charon, the boatman in the Hadean underworld, the price necessary to ferry it across the river Styx, and into the pagan equivalent of paradise. The discovery of the coin in the Caiaphas tomb means that the people buried in this tomb were covering their afterlife bases by engaging in pagan practices. If this, indeed, is the tomb of the Jewish High Priest, then the presence of a coin in any skull in this tomb is significant. It suggests that this family was Hellenized to a degree never before imagined for a High Priest, and that it was extremely superstitious. More than this, it demonstrates that Roman appointed High Priests were heterodox – not orthodox – and, therefore, more likely to be followers of messianic claimants, especially if these messiah figures were also heterodox, which Jesus might have well been (See Peter Schaeffer, Jesus in the Talmud, Princeton University Press, 2007). This evidence fits very nicely with the Gospels where it is stated that at least two members of the Sanhedrin (the high court over which the High Priest Caiaphas presided), namely, Joseph called “of Arimathea” and Nicodemus, were secret followers of Jesus (see John 18:18 and Matthew 27-60). In any event, whatever implications we draw from the coin, it is clear that though coins are “common” they are not “forgettable.” No one lost the coin.

My critics like to quote Professor Gabriel Barkay when he disagrees with me, but they ignore his statements when he agrees with me. At the press conference on the “Caiaphas Nails,” Barkay said that that there are “no such things as ‘common’ artifacts when it comes to archaeology.” He said that the failure to properly document the nails and the subsequent loss of the artifacts was “bad archaeology.” I would venture to say that in his heart, Zvi Greenhut agrees with Professor Barkay.

My response to the IAA press release, therefore, is to state that even if the nails in question were “common” they could still prove to be significant and should have been properly recorded. For example, at the “burnt house” in the Old City of Jerusalem over 12.5 kilos of nails were found in a carpentry workshop. Nonetheless, they were all dutifully catalogued by Hilel Geva (See Hilel, Geva, Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem, conducted by Nachman Avigad, 1969-1982, Volume IV: The Burnt House of Area B in Other Studies, Final Report, 2010, pp. 254-255). But, when it comes to burial caves, the fact is that nails in Jerusalem tombs are not common. Quite the opposite. They are rare. Furthermore, a nail inside an ossuary is almost without precedent. The IAA statement is simply wrong.

No one has to take my word on this point. Anyone can easily survey the evidence by consulting the Bible of Jewish Funerary practices in the Second Temple Period by Professor Rachel Hachlili (Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period, Brill, 2005). Unlike Greenhut, Zias and others who might downplay the significance of such artifacts, Professor Hachlili does not disregard nails found in Second Temple tombs. Quite the contrary, they figure prominently in the tables she provides in her chapter on “Grave Goods” (pp. 401-434).

A cursory look at the tables shows that the only place that a relatively large number of nails were found (100), was the western side of Mt. Scopus in tombs excavated by Amos Kloner (1980). However, here there were no ossuaries involved i.e., no secondary burial. Put differently, if we look at tombs on the western slope of Mt. Scopus where ossuaries were involved then, according to Hachlili’s tables, compared to 301 ossuaries, only 17 nails were found. Compare this to 111 lamps, and 152 unguentaria i.e., vessels such as bottles containing oils or spices used for anointing the body and/or the bones of the deceased.

On the east side of Mt. Scopus, compared to 109 ossuaries, only 2 nails were found! On the Mt. of Olives, 191 ossuaries were found and not a single nail! In fact, in hundreds of tombs containing 1,417 ossuaries, only 39 iron nails were found! Compare this to 600 unguentaria, 433 cups, 191 jugs, 236 glass objects and 114 coins.

Now, if we look at how many nails were found inside ossuaries; besides the one found in the Caiaphas tomb, there was only one. This single nail, found in the ossuary of a crucified male, was discovered in 1968 in Givat Hamivtar. When discovered, that nail was still embedded in the heel of a man. The crucified heel discovery is our only archaeological evidence of crucifixion found anywhere in the world. Can any reasonable person, therefore, please explain to me how Mr. Zias and his colleagues looked inside a Jerusalem ossuary and, upon seeing a Roman era nail in such a context for only the second time in history, concluded that this was a “common” and “forgettable” find – not worthy of documentation or preservation?

As it turns out, when it comes to the Caiaphas tomb, the nails there even meet the criterion set by the “Cargill Law” of archaeology, namely, they were “found in [a] peculiar” location.

In light of all this, we can readily see that the IAA’s “official statement,” as articulated by Dr. Gideon Avni in my film, is somewhat disingenuous. Of course, “nails in archaeological digs in Israel” are “common.” If you find an ancient building site, for example, you will find hundreds, if not thousands, of nails. If you find a boat, for another example, you will find hundreds of nails. But we are not talking about nails at building sites. We are talking about nails in Second Temple Jerusalem tombs. And, as Hachlili clearly records, nails in Second Temple burial tombs are rare, and inside ossuaries they are virtually unheard of!

More than this, as Barkay makes clear; even if Avni was right, he’d be wrong. Meaning, if nails in tombs were common, that wouldn’t change the need to document them and preserve them. In a funerary context, even “common” items might take on a special significance. As Professor Hachlili puts it: “…items of everyday use were placed in the tombs, but in the burial context they might have assumed a funerary significance” (p. 376).

Which brings me to my main point. Namely, nails found in any Second Temple, Jerusalem, Jewish funerary context may be related to crucifixion, while nails found inside ossuaries were most probably used for that purpose.

Shockingly, based on their various statements to the press, press releases and internet blogs, Greenhut, who excavated the Caiaphas tomb, and Zias who now takes responsibility for the nails going missing, seem blissfully unaware of the possible connection between nails found as grave goods and crucifixion. They seem to believe that this is an invented connection made up by me for the purpose of garnering headlines.

The fact is that in both pagan and Jewish traditions, iron nails in general, and crucifixion nails in particular, seem to be endowed with magical, amuletic properties. This is not my idea. This is a documented fact. For example, in the Rabbinic literature (Mishna Shabbat 6.10, J. Talmud Shabbat 6:9, 7c-d, B. Talmud Shabbat, 67a) there is a discussion pertaining to the magical use of crucifixion nails for the purpose of healing. There, the sages say that the nails should not be used to heal people because the practice is associated with idolatry. As late as the 11th century, however, the Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, on his commentary on this tract, argues that they can be used and even carried on a Sabbath, in violation of the prohibition of carrying in a public place, if - and only if - the goal is to heal, and the activity is not associated with idolatry. In other words, in the Jewish tradition, crucifixion nails - nails that had been used to crucify someone - seem to have been associated with both healing and magic.

Unlike Zias and co, Hachlili is well aware of the importance of nails in funerary contexts. In her book, she even has a section called “iron nails.” There she notes that “iron nails….were found inside and outside several tombs in Jerusalem and Jericho, and seem to have been placed there on purpose” (p. 511, emphasis added). But what purpose?

Hachlili offers several options: First, she says, nails may have been used to incise inscriptions. Despite the fact that the Talmud, which is very concerned about these issues, makes no mention of such a practice, this is of course theoretically possible. But with respect to the Caiaphas tomb, it seems highly unlikely that, (as Reich suggested), a nail used for inscribing a name on an ossuary would have been tossed into the ossuary after the inscribing was over. Psychologically speaking, this seems improbable – can one really imagine that a son would toss his engraving tool into the coffin of his father? Besides, this kind of behaviour would have defeated the whole purpose of secondary burial. Let’s not forget, the entire phenomenon of ossuary use involved a process whereby the dead were being purified. According to the Mishnaic view, the “impurity” of the flesh is greater than the “impurity” of the bones, because flesh decays and gets filled by insects and worms in a way that bones do not (Mishna Masechet eduyot 6:3). Secondary burial, therefore, elevated bones from a level of “greater tuma [impurity]” to a level of “lesser tuma.” The idea was to let the flesh decompose and then rebury the “elevated” white bones in an ossuary of their own.

Since iron nails that had been used as tools had already come into contact with death, they were rendered ritually “impure.” It’s highly unlikely and even contradictory, therefore, that a nail would have been thrown into an ossuary or even made its way there by “mistake,” as Barkay has suggested. To do so would have mixed the “tuma” or “impurity” of the nail with the elevated bones of the deceased. It would have defeated the whole purpose of ossuary use.

According to Hachlili, the second reason that nails may have ended up in a tomb involves the whole issue of ritual impurity. If nails had become “impure” i.e., had come into contact with a dead person, they had to be buried. This is possible. But in Jewish tradition this possibility is mitigated by the fact that not every kind of nail that comes into contact with death becomes impure.

In the Mishna (Masechet Kelim 11:3;12:4,5), there is a discussion with respect to the types of nails that can become impure. Professors Dan Levene and Beno Rothenberg summarize the discussion in this way: “…there are many different types of nails (MSMRYM) mentioned [in the Mishna]. In many cases [these nails] only function as a constituent part of a whole object, and are therefore deemed insusceptible to impurity. There are, however, cases where objects termed as nails might be considered proper tools [and, therefore, susceptible]” (A Metallurgical Gemara: Metals in the Jewish Sources, AMS, 2007, p. 161).

According to the Mishna, therefore, a door nail in a room where someone died would not end up in a tomb, whereas a nail once used as an engraving tool would not be taken out of a tomb. Put differently, the rules of impurity in rabbinic sources state that any nail that forms part of something e.g., a door, a box, a hook for clothes, if it came into contact with death did not have to be buried. While any nail used as a tool, once it became impure, had to be buried. (The Dead Sea Scrolls community, as with many things, was more stringent on this matter. But Jerusalem is not Qumran. See Damascus Document (CD) 12:17-18 for more stringent regulations.)

What all this means is that it is highly unlikely that nails found in Jerusalem tombs are there because they acquired impurity prior to the burial. If they are found in a tomb, they are there because they were used for inscribing something or, most probably, because of their function as amulets. Put simply, if you find nails in tombs they’re not there because they were used as clothes hooks, or to secure horse shoes. They’re probably there because they were regarded as possessing magical or amuletic properties. And, in Jewish tradition, the only nails that were so regarded were crucifixion nails.

Let’s now consider the larger context of the Caiaphas tomb.

Clearly, at least some of the people buried in this tomb engaged in pagan magical practices i.e., the woman buried with a coin under her tongue and the people who buried her. But what does this say about the nails? If we do our homework, instead of just shooting from the lip, we notice that the combination of coins and nails in a tomb indicate one thing only: magical protection in the afterlife. For example, in a 5th century B.C.E. grave at Nicea, a dead man was found clutching his coin for Charon and six nails! At Olynthus nails were found in rows on either side of the upper part of the body of the deceased. Another magical use of nails was to pierce folded lead plaques inscribed with curses. (In this case, although the nails were used for magical purposes, unlike crucifixion nails, these nails in themselves did not acquire magical properties.) All in all, nails buried for magical purposes have been found in Greece, Asia Minor, and Cyprus (see Hachlili, pp. 511-12). There is no doubt that at least some of these must have been associated with crucifixion (see Pliny’s Natural History 28:11). Clearly, then, when it comes to the Caiaphas family tomb, the grave goods found there demonstrate that this was a Hellenized family drawing on Jewish and pagan magical funerary traditions so as to guarantee peace for the deceased in the afterlife.

In conclusion, to say that nails in second temple Jerusalem tombs are “common” is simply false. To say that they are “forgettable” is patently ignorant. The only reasons that nails were placed in Jewish tombs involved their association with “impurity” or “magic.” A similar practice is found all over the Mediterranean pagan world. Barring an unexplained contamination, the only reason that a nail would be found inside an ossuary is because it was still embedded in a bone (as in Givat Hamivtar) and/or because it served as an amulet. Based on the evidence, in the Jewish tradition, the only type of nails with amuletic powers are nails that had been used to crucify someone.

So we return to the original proposition. Given that Caiaphas is known to history for one thing only; the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus, is it possible that the nails found in Caiaphas’s tomb were somehow implicated in the crucifixion of Jesus?

Of course, short of an inscribed plaque stating: “these are the nails that were used to crucify ‘Yeshua bar Yosef’” we can never be entirely sure, but is it “scientific” to refuse to ask the question? Is it “scientific” to misquote the facts, ignore the obvious questions, lose the artifacts and then attack anyone who says that the lost items may be related to Jesus?



Read The Nails of the Cross: Part 2 crucifixion_nails_part_two_html


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