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Discovered Crucifixion Nails

I have mentioned a couple of times that at the end of this thread I will be discussing the two arguments that Craig Evans marshals that strike me as interesting and to be taken seriously.  These are (1) the general claims in a couple of passages of Josephus and (2) the discovery of the skeletal remains of a crucified victim.  Even though these are, in my opinion, good arguments, I will explain why I do not find them persuasive.   Up till now I have been dealing with the arguments that Craig advances that I do not find at all convincing  — for example, that Roman governors on rare occasions showed clemency for lower level crimes and that Pilate was not the kind of person to offend Jewish sensitivities.   I have one more argument of this sort to deal with.  It is one that may sound highly convincing to someone who has only Craig’s summary at hand but who does not know the facts of case.

This argument does not involve historical literary sources (Philo or Josephus, e.g.) but archaeology.  Craig points out that we have evidence of crucified victims from the Roman period in Judea, and this evidence shows that victims were given decent burials.   The evidence is that archaeologists have discovered, in Craig’s words,

dozens, perhaps more than one hundred, nails that have been recovered from tombs and ossuaries, some of which bear traces of human calcium.  These nails, especially those with traces of calcium, were used in crucifixion and, strangely, were viewed as talismans” (p. 86)

Well, this certainly sounds intriguing, important, and virtually definitive – right?  If dozens of victims were buried with the nails that had been used to crucify them, this would show beyond any reasonable doubt that crucified victims in Judea were granted decent burials.

But I’m afraid Craig begins to unravel his own case himself, somewhat unwittingly.  As it turns out,

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  1. Avatar
    achase79  July 21, 2014

    When I read How God Became Jesus, I thought Evans’ chapter was pretty much the only one worth taking seriously. This post reminds me of how difficult it is for an outsider to assess discipline-specific evidence. Unfortunately I have a long history of reading books by Christian apologists and Evangelical biblical scholars (e.g Blomberg, Block, Witherigton, Wright, Wallace), and I’ve learned how easy it is to present a conving case to someone who is not familiar with the field as a whole. This strikes me as another example of that phenomena.

  2. Avatar
    lbehrendt  July 21, 2014

    Bart, sorry, I’m not following you. You say that crucifixion nails might be kept as a kind of “good luck charm,” and that nails would be discarded if they were used to make an inscription on an ossuary. So, are you saying that a person who made an inscription in an ossuary might use their “good luck charm” crucifixion nail to make the inscription, then toss the nail into the burial site because they could no longer carry the thing around with them? That doesn’t make much sense — if they had to discard the tool they used to make the inscription, why not choose something that wasn’t a lucky charm? Why not use an ordinary nail, or a chisel?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 22, 2014

      Apparently some of the nails were just regular nails (no calcium on them); it looks like, in fact, this is most of them. They were discarded because they were “contaminated” in the process of making the inscription. Some of them with calcium on them (according to Zias, the expert) were not crucifixion nails, but over the years absorbed some of the calcium from the ossuary skeletons. Others (possibly not always connected with tombs) survive because they had been used as talismans.

      • Bethany
        Bethany  July 22, 2014

        I’m confused, too. Wouldn’t they be impure from having been used in a crucifixion, because of contact with a corpse? Why would they be used as talismans if they were impure? Or were these Gentiles using them that way, not Jews?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 23, 2014

          I would guess that some Jews (as is well attested) did not care much about being ceremonially unclean.

  3. Avatar
    Matilda  July 21, 2014

    This has nothing to do with this topic directly, but I often wish I could go back in time and see what really happened. My guess is it would be as you describe, Bart. Then I think, hell no. I would never want to see something so horrible as a crucifixion. I think it would sicken me to my very core. I have looked at my crucifix for a long time now and realize how inured we are to the idea of crucifixion. We have de-sensitized ourselves to it. But the reality of what we are looking at or talking about when we don’t intellectualize it is just beyond belief.
    I guess the lesson in Christianity should not be about Jesus or God or dogma, but about human compassion. Thanks for letting me ramble, Bart. Your books and articles always get me thinking.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 21, 2014

    I’d never heard about any of this, and it’s fascinating! But Craig Evans seems to have done very shoddy research.

  5. gmatthews
    gmatthews  July 21, 2014

    Interesting that you bring up Joe Zias. I was just reading a story this weekend linked from Robert Cargill’s blog about how Zias (retired anthropologist by the way, not archaeologist) is being sued by Simcha Jacobovici on trumped up libel accusations. All groundless in my opinion. Jacobovici in turn, for those who don’t know, is the whack job who produced and starred in the History Channel show “The Nails of the Cross” starring this very same ankle bone and nail from today’s blog. I better watch what I say, Simcha might sue me too.

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  July 21, 2014

      Forgot to mention that from what I recall, in a moment of unusual magnanimity, Simcha’s documentary (I think) does mention someone (Joe Zias or Israel Hershkowitz?) saying that nails were used for etching ossuaries. So, this theory is not unknown and Craig Evans should have been aware of it I would think,

  6. Avatar
    whicks1  July 22, 2014

    I hope you cover this in the next post, but if not can you give us a sense/estimate for the numbers of individuals crucified by Rome in a given place/time.

  7. Avatar
    Joseph  July 22, 2014

    Very interesting. So there no evidence that the nails were used as lucky charms? Where does that idea come from?
    I guess they have evidence, forensically, that the nails were used for the inscriptions? I’m imagining someone taking a nail found at the site and matching it to the inscription at that same site. I’m just curious of the methods used. If anyone knows, can you fill us in?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 22, 2014

      I don’t have all the details! I think the circumstantial evidence has to do with nails being found in or beside ossuaries that have inscriptions scratched on them by some kind of sharp object — like a nail! On the talisman argument, I’m not sure offhand what the evidence is; on the other hand, I don’t know that it’s much disputed. I’ll look into it!

  8. Avatar
    fishician  July 22, 2014

    Really interesting stuff, but I always wonder about the big questions that apologists ignore: if God loved the world so much that He was willing to sacrifice His son in order to save us, why did He leave us to dissect and quibble over these details, like nails with calcium, and ossuaries? Did He really expect us all to be historical detectives and archaeologists? Or did He just expect us to accept ancient stories without question, which makes Christians no different than Muslims or Hindus? Does God want thoughtful devotion or just blind obedience, i.e., gullibility?

    • Avatar
      Matilda  July 22, 2014

      Maybe there is no God- at least not a man made God as described in the Bible. I think any God worth its salt would not need or want devotion or blind obedience. Time to re-think God.

    • Avatar
      shakespeare66  August 26, 2015

      If we were made in the image of God–imago dei–and the fact is, we are curious and thoughtful, I’d say he wanted us to explore our past and understand as much of the truth of it as we can. I believe we are living the unveiling of that truth right here on the blog.

  9. Avatar
    jebib  July 22, 2014

    I always learn new and interesting things reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your many insights with me/us,

  10. Avatar
    Hana1080  July 22, 2014

    From just reading what little I have I am also wondering what the gospels would read like when written strictly from the historical perspective that Dr. Erhman espouses including data that meets the various tests: dissimilarities etc. On a personal anecdotal level, I was watching the BBC Father Brown detective series today and when he started quoting scripture, I startled myself by automatically editing from what I’ve learned reading these blogs to date.

    • Avatar
      Hana1080  July 22, 2014

      I’ve just started reading Forged.

    • cheriq
      cheriq  July 28, 2014

      I have such a book- at least with commentary by Asimov. It is well worth owning: Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (Old and New Testaments).

  11. Avatar
    toejam  July 22, 2014

    Mr. Ehrman, do you know if Craig Evans is reading these posts?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 22, 2014

      I’d be surprised if they weren’t finding their way to him!

      • Avatar
        Rosekeister  July 23, 2014

        It would be interesting to know in what context he is receiving your posts. I suspect it would be you “trashing” him but maybe that would lead him to read the actual posts. Unfortunately he still wouldn’t agree with you. When you debate very conservative scholars what is the usual audience like? Is it like Liberty University where presumably no one agrees with you or ever will or are there more neutral sites and audiences?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 24, 2014

          I debate in front of a range of audiences, although I’d say the *majority* tend to be conservative evangelicals. Others scholars don’t have that much to argue about!

          • cheriq
            cheriq  July 28, 2014

            I’d like to see you on “Real Time with Bill Maher”!

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 29, 2014

            So would I!

  12. Robertus
    Robertus  July 22, 2014

    Does Zias (still) judge Josephus’ account as probably accurate in saying that the Romans did allow the Jews to bury the victims of crucifixion before sundown?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 22, 2014

      I asked him about that and he said that since he is principally a physical anthropologist, he is unable to provide a definitive answer.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  July 22, 2014

        Well, no one is, but he certainly does seem here inclined to accept the possibility. I don’t know how anyone could say more than that.

  13. Avatar
    Adam0685  July 22, 2014

    Off topic – what scholarly or popular projects or books do you have on the go now?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 22, 2014

      Good idea: I’ll post on that once I’m through with this thread.

      • Avatar
        gabilaranjeira  July 24, 2014

        Any speaking engagements on the east cost?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 24, 2014

          I’m giving a talk at Hollins University in Roanoke VA on November 6 or 7; otherwise there’s just a rather unusual private event in Orlando in early September, in someone’s living room! After that it’s all Midwest and West Coast.

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 23, 2014

    I just read the review of your book by Larry Hurtado in Christian Century. I found it to be Interesting in places, but in other places it was a bit esoteric. Probably the most interesting criticism was his first one that Jews, unlike Romans, did not make their leaders into gods. Another interesting criticism is that ancient Jews may not have made much distinction between exaltation and incarnation. What did you think of his review?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 23, 2014

      I dealt with some of Larry’s criticisms earlier, on the blog. It’s simply not true that Jews never considered their rulers divine. In the Hebrew Bible they are called son of God and even God! And it’s also not true that they did not differentiate between exaltation and incarnation. All one needs to do is read the texts that I cite.

  15. Avatar
    ftbond  August 23, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    I know… it’s another ancient thread… Hope you’ll read this & get back with me….

    Kristina Killgrove writes (regarding other crucifixion victims besides the one mentioned) “It’s not likely that a lot of evidence will be found, though, for a number of reasons: [ NOTE – I’ve shortened some of this ]

    1. Wooden crosses don’t survive, as they degraded long ago or were re-used.
    2. Victims of crucifixion usually criminals and …not formally buried.. just exposed or thrown into a river or trash heap. …difficult to identify bodies,.. scavenging animals would have done further damage to the bones.
    3. Crucifixion nails were believed to have magical or medicinal properties, so they were often taken from a victim. .
    4. …crucifixion [generally] involved soft tissue injuries… can’t be seen on bone. Only if a person had nails driven through his bones or was subject to crurifragium would there be significant bony evidence..”

    I thought of one more. If my brother (for example) was crucified, and I got the opportunity to retrieve the body, I would never *think* of leaving the spikes in his hands and feet. Even the one victim that’s been found had three of four spikes evidently removed, and the remaining single spike was bent so badly it couldn’t be removed, else we’d probably never have known he was a crucifixion victim.

    So – my questions:

    1. How can we conclude that we’ve found only one crucifixion victim? We may have found many, but, just don’t know it, if their “bury-ers” removed the spikes first (for example).

    2. Can you think of a reason why, if someone had the opportunity to bury (for example) a crucified family member, that the family *wouldn’t* remove the spikes?

    I’m asking, because I’ve watched a couple of debates in which you present your view, and you seem “incredulous” (I suppose is the word) that there could be thousands of crucifixion victims, but only one having been found.

    Yet, Killgrove (PhD, bioarchaeologist, science communicator, and author who primarily covers anthropology and archaeology) is not astonished by that at all.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2019

      1. That’s right, technically speaking. But even without the stakes in place, there would be trauma shown to the bones in teh wrists and ankles, and no such survive that we know of. 2. Not really (the one case we have is one in which the spike wouldn’t come out becuase of a knot inthe wood). But we simply don’t know. All we know is that there were many thousands of people crucified by Romans. The ancient sources that speak about it all agree that Romans did not allow such people to be buried. And that despite the numerous remains of buried people that have been discovered, in fact we have only one who appears to have been crucified. That seems significant. But the main point is that the sources are unified in their claim that Romans didn’t allow burial.

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