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The Nails of the Cross:

A Response to the Criticisms of the Film

Part Five


The Jesus Nails 

By: Director/Producer Simcha Jacobovici


We now come to the final point. If we accept that the nails are important, and that in both Jewish and pagan traditions they are associated with crucifixion and used as amulets for the afterlife; if we accept that this is a tomb of heterodox Jews that are Hellenized and obsessed with covering their “forever after” bases, this still does not mean that the nails in question were used to crucify Jesus? Or does it?

Let’s start with the Jewish sources. Here we discover something incredible. Working with Eldad Keynan, I’ve come to the conclusion, that the Mishna itself may be preserving a reference to the nails of the cross, and to subsequent knockoffs, which were used for the purpose of healing.

The passage in the Mishna that discusses crucifixion nails and their amuletic/healing powers has been often mistranslated and wrongly cited. In his criticism of me, Cargill quotes Neusner’s translation, which refers to crucifixion as “impaling” and references “nails” in general (Cargill op. cit. p. 8). The fact is that, as Eldad Keynan has pointed out, Neusner mistranslates and Cargill, an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls, should have picked this up. At least he should have noticed that impaling does not require nails. This is what the Hebrew original literally says: “[Jews] are going about carrying the egg of a locust or a fox’s tooth, or the nail of the crucified one, for the purpose of healing, R. Meir said [allowed]. But other sages forbid this even on weekdays because it is considered the conduct of Amorites [i.e., gentiles].” In other words, in the Mishna, the earliest stratum of the Talmud, it’s the nail of “the crucified one” that has healing powers, not the nails of any crucified individual.

The Hebrew word that I have translated as “the crucified one” is “Ha Zaluv.” In the Talmud it appears some 18 times. It is clear that sometimes it means “the cross,” and sometimes it refers to the person on the cross, as in “Ve Zaluv al Ha Zaluv” i.e., “the crucified one on the cross” (Jerusalem Talmud Masechet Yebmot 9:7, row 3). In other instances, such as the one in question, which is referring to the healing powers of nails, it can be translated either way.

Since the Hebrew is ambiguous one can translate “a nail of the cross” instead of “a nail of the crucified one.” And one could assume that “a nail of the cross” simply means “a nail of a crucified person.” But the fact is that the Hebrew is unambiguous about the word “the,” and that the other objects on this list i.e., an egg and a tooth, come from living creatures, namely, a locust and a fox. It stands to reason, therefore, that the nail in question would have been associated not with an inanimate object but a human being. Is it possible, therefore, that the rabbis are recording the use of nails associated with Jesus’ crucifixion? Have we discovered a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus that was lost in translation? If so, it shouldn’t surprise us. There are at least two parallel stories in the Mishnaic literature explicitly referencing Jesus.

In one Tosefta, for example, we have an incident explicitly involving a healing associated with Jesus, and a warning not to engage in the “conduct of gentiles,” for fear of idolatry. The Tosefta (Hullim 2.22-23) relates how Rabbi Eleazor ben Dama gets bit by a poisonous snake. He then wants Jacob from a village called Sachnia, who heals in the name of Jesus, to save him. But before Jacob can do his work, ben Dama’s more famous father-in-law, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, stops him. He rules that, according to Jewish law, it is forbidden. Rabbi Ishmael accepts the fact that Jacob is an effective healer. That seems to be a given. He argues, however, that ben Dama should prefer to die rather than be healed in the name of Jesus, a practice the sages consider idolatry.

The same thing comes up again in Masechet Avoda Zara (2:2, 40d) where Rabbi Yeheshua Levi’ grandson chokes on some food. He’s then saved by someone who heals the child “in the name of Jesus.” Whereupon Rabbi Levi says; “dying was better for him,” and the child dies. The Talmud concludes that “…everything may be used to heal, except for idolatry.”

Structurally, all three stories follow the exact same pattern. First, someone is in need of healing. Second, it is acknowledged that somebody healing in the name of Jesus, or in the name of “the crucified one,” can help the stricken person. Third, there is a rabbi that permits the healing e.g., Rabbi Meir. Finally, he is overruled by another rabbi, or rabbis, who do not question the efficacy of the healing but associate it with idolatry. In other words, given the parallels, it is clear that “the crucified one” in the Mishna, when referring to nails and healing, is none other than Jesus. More than this, as Keynan has suggested, it seems to be the original model on which the ben Dama and Rabbi Levi stories are patterned. (In their reference to the nail of “the crucified one,” the rabbis seem to refer to Jesus by a pseudonym. The use of such a pseudonym would not be unprecedented. For example, the Mishna, when referring to the infamous, first century heretic, Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah calls him “Acher” or “the Other One,” refusing to mention his real name. Similarly, it seems that at the time of the magical healing reference, Jesus is not explicitly mentioned by the rabbis, but in the subsequent two episodes - as his following grew - he is referred to explicitly by name.)

This analysis, based on a correct translation and a comparison with identical healing passages elsewhere in the Talmudic literature, leads to a further and related insight. We begin with a simple question: since any crucifixion nail would have hhave had the “tuma” i.e., the “impurity” of death attached to it, how could any observant Jew handle it? More than this, no “Cohen” or member of the priestly cast could even be in the same room with such a nail. How then does the Mishna discuss their use as healing amulets? Why do the rabbis ban their use on the basis of idolatry and not impurity?

The answer that Keynan has suggested to me is as powerful as it is explosive. It seems that the rabbis of the Mishna did not associate the “nail of the crucified one” with death! Did they believe in Jesus’ resurrection? We know they didn’t but, even if they did, that would not change the impurity status of the crucifixion nails if Jesus had died on the cross. After all, according to the Gospels, the nails were removed from Jesus’ body while he was still dead. In other words, even Judeo-Christians – unless they were more heterodox than we realize – would not have handled any nails involved in anyone’s crucifixion because such nails would have had the “tuma” of death associated with them. Unless, of course, they didn’t believe that “the crucified one” had died on the cross. It seems that the rabbis are hinting that - absent a body - the nails making the rounds as Jesus related healing amulets were removed from Jesus while he was still very much alive.

At this time, this subject is too complicated for a comprehensive investigation. For now, suffice it to say, that the Talmud preserves the opinion that Jesus related healings – which June 22, 2011 39 included the use of crucifixion nails – did not involve “tuma” and were effective, but had to be shunned because they were regarded as idolatrous. (See note 1 below.)

In sum, the rabbinic traditions demonstrate that for hundreds of years after Jesus’ crucifixion, there were Jews who were still healing in his name. If we put the reference to the nail “of the crucified one” in the context of the Ben Dama story and the Rabbi Levi story, it seems that some of the followers of Jesus were using nails “of the crucified one” as healing aids, while other Jews were continuing to associate the practice with idolatry. Simply put, based on the Jewish sources, if we find a nail in Caiaphas’s tomb – especially in an ossuary - we have no reason to associate it with anything but crucifixion and with anyone but Jesus.

If we turn to the Gospels and the Book of Acts the same story unfolds i.e., that Jesus’ disciples, as well as Paul, were healing in Jesus’ name. In later centuries, the common practice of building churches to house holy relics such as slivers of wood from the “true cross” and nails allegedly from the crucifixion continued the tradition of healing using Jesus related artifacts. The crucifixion nails found in the Caiaphas tomb should, therefore, be seen as part of this entire Greco-Roman, Jewish, and subsequently Christian fascination with the magical and the superstitious - more specifically, the notion of amuletic objects and healing in Jesus’ name.

But some might insist that even if we accept all this, the nails found in the Caiaphas tomb may still have belonged to someone other than Jesus. Besides Jesus, maybe Caiaphas was associated with other people’s crucifixion. I think not. The Talmud says that any Jewish high court that sent one person in 70 years to their death was called a “murderous court” i.e., a “hanging court” (Mishna Makot, 1:10 J. Talmud Makot, 1:8, 30d B. Talmud Makot, 7a). This indicates that in this period the death penalty was a rare event. Consequently, we have no reason to imagine that Caiaphas’ court was turning Jews over to the Romans on a regular basis. The fact is that Caiaphas is not associated with the death of anyone other than Jesus. Simply put, there is no need to invent an anonymous crucified individual when we already know that Caiaphas was somehow associated with the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

In summary, what can we conclude? The fact is that most scholars agree that the Caiaphas tomb has been identified and excavated. Furthermore, it is a fact and a matter of public record that two nails were found in that tomb. It is also a fact that at the time of their disappearance, two nails in an unmarked package were sent by Joe Zias to the anatomy lab of Tel Aviv University. It is also a fact that for some 20 years, Professor Israel Hershkovitz, who is in charge of that lab, has been using these very nails to illustrate his lectures on crucifixion. Furthermore, it is a fact that crucifixion nails – in both Jewish and pagan traditions – were deemed to have amuletic powers and have been found in burial contexts. Finally, it is a fact that according to the Gospels, Caiaphas had the opportunity to get the nails that were used to crucify Jesus. Perhaps he even had the motivation.

Note 1: The association of Jesus’ healings with idolatry are recorded in the Gospels themselves e.g., when Jesus is confronted by his critics who claim that he is healing in the name of “Ba’al Zebub” i.e., the “Lord of the Flies,” an idol connected with paganism (see Mark 3:22; Matthew 12:24-27; Luke 11:15, 18-19. See also Matthew 10:25, where Jesus is accused of healing in the name of “Ba’al Zebub.” Interestingly, this is the same pagan god that King Ahazia turned to (2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, 16) when he was admonished by the prophet Elijah. Meaning, even in Jesus’ time, his critics were acknowledging his healing powers, but attributing them to specific magical pagan rites already condemned by the prophets.

Read Part 6: Epliogue crucifixion_nails_part_five.html

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