Were Nails From Caiaphas' Tomb Used to Crucify Jesus?

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“We’re not saying these are the nails,” says Simcha Jacobovici, holding aloft a pair of smallish iron spikes with the tips hammered to one side. “We’re saying these could be the nails.”

The case for the possible rests on a specific combination of research, surmising, guesswork and either the ineptitude or the skittishness of Israeli archeologists who inventoried the tomb thought to contain the bones of the Jewish high priest who ordered Christ’s arrest. The tomb, found in 1990, appeared to contain the ossuary, or bone box, of Caiaphas, the jurist who paved the way for the crucifixion. Researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) listed everything found in the cave, including two Roman nails. But unlike everything else in the grave, the nails were otherwise unaccounted for. They were not measured, sketched or photographed, and nowhere to be found in the IAA’s vast collection.

At about the same time, a pair of nails showed up at the Tel Aviv University laboratory of Professor Israel Hershkowitz, a forensic expert. His lab already had the only known nail unassailably used in a crucifixion — it was found still embedded in the human heel bone it had been driven through. The mystery nails were smaller but similar: clearly ancient and with the tips hammered sideways, probably to secure them to the surface they’ve been pounded through. In The Nails of the Cross, the documentary Jacobovici made for Israeli TV and the History Channel, Hershkowitz says the two appear long enough to have been driven through a hand, but that’s as far as he’ll go. 

The producer doesn’t blame him. “When you raise the question of Jesus’ crucifixion nails,” Jacobovici says, “there should be a lot of skepticism.”

Indeed the case arrives with no shortage of loose ends. The IAA’s inventory states that one nail was found on the floor of the tomb, or cave, and another was found inside an ossuary. But there were 12 ossuaries in the tomb, and there is no record of which one it was in.

Nor is it clear which box most likely contained the bones of the priest the Gospels say pushed Jesus toward death. Caiaphas is an unusual name, not found in any of the other 2,000 ossuaries recovered so far around Jerusalem from roughly the time of Christ. But in this tomb, the name shows up twice. Scholars have focused on an ornate box labeled “Joseph, son of Caiaphas,” but Jacobovici suggests the priest’s bones were gathered in a simpler one labeled only “Caiaphas.”

Also unclear: Why would a priest be buried with a nail? Jacobovici points to scholarship indicating crucifixion nails were regarded by contemporary Jews as holding special healing powers. The bit of paganism was apparently tolerated, even in priestly circles: a woman’s skull found in the same tomb contained a Roman coin, presumably included to pay the boatman steering souls across the River Styx.

Gaby Barkay, a professor at Bar Ilan University and probably the most prominent archeologist in Israel, offers another explanation. Jews at the time of Christ “were impurity freaks,” Barkay says. Anything in the vicinity of a corpse was thought to be contaminated by death, even a nail stuck in a nearby wall. “Therefore it would probably be removed and put into the grave,” he says.

The professor quibbles with other assumptions as well, but notes that “nails in general are a rare thing in tombs of the Second Temple Period,” and his presence at a crowded news conference has added weight to Jacobovici’s effort. The documentary’s producer has won three Emmys and an Overseas Press Club Award, and clearly has earned the respect of scholars willing to tolerate a bit of show business in the bargain. As Barkay puts it, “This is not the way to draw conclusions in science, but it is nonetheless interesting.”

Most interesting of all, perhaps, is that 20 years passed before anyone brought attention to the nails in the tomb of the man history knows only for his key role in Christ’s crucifixion. The implication, never stated quite out loud in the documentary, is that Jewish archeologists in charge of the dig had little stomach for drawing attention to the Jewish official the Gospels cast as the main villain in the Passion play. Jacobovici notes that Caiaphas may be the only figure named in the Bible whose tomb most scholars agree has been discovered, and the producer spends half the documentary trying to locate it and get a peek inside. The site, uncovered during construction of a park, ends up beneath a stretch of road near a playground.

“Two thousand years of anti-Semitism has been built on this man,” says Jacobovici, who promotes an alternative view of the priest. The Nails of the Cross dwells on 1st century non-Gospel writings that portray Caiaphas as an eventual follower of Christ. It’s a view that not only softens tensions between Christianity and Judaism, but also offers a possible reason for the presence of the nails in the family tomb: veneration. “I don’t think anybody’s going to say, ‘Crucifixion Nails’ exclamation point,” Jacobovici says. “I think they’re going to write, ‘Crucifixion Nails’ question mark.”

Both headlines summon associations with pieces of the “one true cross” peddled to holy pilgrims at least since Emperor Constantine’s mother journeyed to Jerusalem 300 years after the event — and claimed to find it. But at least, the producer tells TIME, the suggestion rises at least in part from the archeological record. “Entire churches have been built around nails that have a lot less going for them than these do,” he says.

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