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 actual nails used to crucify victims with from antiquity.  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, these nails were not buried with the victims of crucifixion.  Start with what Craig himself shows us.   Literally shows us: on p. 87 Craig provides a photograph of pieces of two of these nails, one of which was found, in Craig’s own words, “in or near the Caiaphas ossuary.”

Oops.  What is the Caiaphas ossuary?   An ossuary is a “bone box.”  In ancient Judaism, when a person died, s/he was placed in a tomb (often a ditch in the ground).  A year later, when the flesh had all decayed away, the relatives of the person put the skeletal remains in a special box, usually of stone, in an act of “second burial”.  These boxes are called ossuaries, and lots and lots of them have been uncovered in Israel.

In 1990 a burial cave was discovered with a dozen ossuaries.  On one of them there was an inscription (often the boxes were inscribed to indicate whose remains they contained; many boxes contained more than one set of remains) that identified the person within as Joseph son of Caiaphas.  Caiaphas (Joseph Caiaphas, as Josephus calls him), as you know, was the High Priest at the time of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, the one who handed Jesus over to Pilate for judgment.  It is widely thought that this is the box containing the remains of Caiaphas himself.

But that pretty much shows the problems with Craig’s argument about the nails.  Does anyone –anyone at all (as Craig I’m sure will agree) –suggest that Caiaphas was crucified?  No.  So do these crucifixion nails in his burial place (the burial place of someone who was not crucified) show that victims of crucifixion were properly buried?  No.  Then why were there crucifixion nails in his burial place?

I have recently been in correspondence about the matter with a renowned archaeologist in Israel named Joe Zias.  Joe was the Curator of Archaeology and Anthropology for the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem for twenty-five years.   That’s about as high up as you can get in the archaeology of Israel.  His specialization is called forensic anthropology.   This involves the study of skeletal remains that have been dug up.  Joe is the (or one of the) world expert(s) in this field.  I’m sure Craig will agree.

Joe (unlike Craig or I) has examined literally hundreds of skeletons that have turned up from burial sites in Israel.   And his view about the matter at hand is clear-cut and non-ambiguous.   These nails – not just those connected with Caiaphas, but all of them, even the ones with human calcium – do not provide us with ANY evidence of crucifixion practices.

Part of the reason is the one that Craig alludes to but doesn’t explain, when he says that crucifixion nails were used as “talismans.”   A talisman is an object that is considered to have magical qualities – for example, the power to ward off evil spirits.   If someone could somehow secure a crucifixion nail, that was kind of like a good luck charm.   A bit heftier than a rabbit’s foot – but the same kind of idea.

Why have dozens of these things shown up in tombs?  Joe Zias indicates that it is because nails were used to scratch the inscriptions on the ossuaries.  But once a nail had been used in that way, it was ceremonially impure (having come in contact with a corpse).  And so it was simply discarded at the site.

There is not a shred of evidence, then, that these nails were buried with crucified victims (remember: Caiaphas).  They therefore do not provide any evidence that crucified victims were given decent burials.  Joe Zias, both in private correspondence with me and in his published research, has stated quite emphatically that not only do these nails provide no such evidence, but that there is only ONE piece of archaeological evidence of relevance to the question of whether Jews crucified in Judea were given decent burials.  That’s a piece of evidence that I will be dealing with in a separate post or two at the end of this thread – the remains of a crucified man with a nail still through his ankle.

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2023-08-18T11:30:28-04:00August 12th, 2023|Greco-Roman Religions and Culture, Historical Jesus|

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  1. LFitz.VT January 19, 2024 at 6:14 pm

    I’ve been wondering if any recent archeological discoveries have affected your views about the life and death of Jesus. For example, I read in National Geographic (December 2017 “What Archaeology is Telling Us About the Real Jesus”) that in Jerusalem, a crucifixion nail had been found in the heel bone of a buried Jewish man named Yehohanan. This find at least suggests it wasn’t impossible that Jesus may have been allowed to be buried.
    I’ve read and enjoyed many of your books and learned a lot about how the teachings of Jesus have come down to us through the filters of many people with competing views. I was brought up Catholic and we weren’t taught much about critical reading of scripture in our religious education! It’s just fascinating to me to read about what we can really know about Jesus and what he taught.

    • BDEhrman January 25, 2024 at 5:33 pm

      Ah, sorry, I thought I answered this. Yes, this was an intriguing discovery. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us anything abuot the issue of when Jesus was buried. Every crucified victim eventually had their remains disposed of in one way or another. The issue with Jesus burial is not whether somehow his remains were disposed of, but whether he was buried on the afternoon he died. Discovering a skeleton with a crucifixion nail in the ankle definitely tells us the person was crucified, but it doesn’t tell us when he was buried — that day (we don’t have any record of that happening elsewhere) or days/weeks later when the flesh (not the skeleton) had decomposed either a little or a lot.

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