Ancient Jewish man’s remains give clues on crucifixion
The graphic portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ has brought the ancient world’s execution method of choice in all its horror to the big screen.
Jesus is the best-known victim of crucifixion. But thousands of other Jews were put to death on the cross by the Romans, trying to quash Jewish rebellions in the Holy Land in the first century.
Yet strangely the remains of only one victim have ever been found. He was Yehohanan Ben Hagkol, a Jewish man whose heel bone, excavated by archaeologists near Jerusalem in 1968, still had a nail embedded in it.
“It is the only case ever found in the world where there is indisputable evidence of crucifixion,” said Joe Zias, a physical anthropologist who examined the remains of Yehohanan Ben Hagkol.
“We’ve looked at thousands of skeletons in Jerusalem. Some were decapitated. Others were mutilated. But we’ve never found another one that was crucified.”
“It has to be one of the most obscene forms of death ever invented by man,” said Zias of the execution method practiced between 400 BC and AD 400 also by the Persians, Greeks, Assyrians, Carthaginians and other ancient civilisations.
Professor Martin Hengel, a leading scholar of crucifixions from Tubingen University in Germany, said thousands of captured Jewish rebels were crucified by the Romans around Jerusalem during the first century, when Jesus lived. Crosses dotted the landscape around the city. Zias said that between AD 66 and 702, the Romans at times crucified as many as 500 Jews a day until they quashed what became known as the first Jewish revolt and destroyed the Second Temple.
“Eventually they ran out of crosses and they ran out of space,” he said. Not much is known about Yehohanan Ben Hagkol, whose name in English means John, son of Hagkol. The name was carved in ancient Hebrew letters on an ossuary containing his bones in a tomb north of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1968. At the time of his death he was between 24 and 28 years old, stood around five feet seven inches tall and was in excellent health - until he was hoisted on to a cross some time between AD 50 and 70.
“He could have been a thief, he could have been a rebel. To his nation he may have been a hero,” said archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferias, who discovered Ben Hagkol’s remains during the excavation of an ancient Jewish family tomb. The state of the skeletons in the tomb bore testimony to the turbulent times in which the Jews of Jerusalem lived in the first century. Nine of the 35 people buried there had met violent deaths. Others had died of starvation.
When Ben Hagkol’s remains were examined, archaeologists noticed the nail piercing what remained of the heel bone.
Archaeologists believe they have not uncovered other physical evidence of crucifixion because victims were sometimes tied rather than nailed to the cross and the corpses were often thrown onto garbage dumps where animals would feed off them.
Nails of the crucified were also in high demand. People regarded them as powerful amulets that could ward off evil, so they would remove them from the bodies of victims. —Reuters