Real Evidence From Real Archaeology

Matti Friedman’s latest contribution to his continuing series on objects in the Israel Museum is grand!

The heel bone and nail from the ossuary of Yehohanan. (photo credit: Courtesy the Israel Museum, photographer: Ilan Shtulman)

In Jerusalem around 2,000 years ago a Jew named Yehohanan, who was in his mid-twenties, committed a crime against Roman authority. The nature of his transgression has been lost to time, but his punishment is known — he was crucified.

Convicts were executed by crucifixion in the Roman Empire as a matter of course, and histories of the time regularly describe the practice, which was designed to make death prolonged, painful and public. After the famous slave uprising led by Spartacus was crushed in 71 BCE, for example, an estimated 6,000 rebels were crucified along a highway leading to the capital as an illustration of Roman power.

It is therefore an odd fact that archaeological evidence of this punishment — crosses, for example, or perforated skeletons — has never been found anywhere in the world, with one exception: the stone box containing Yehohanan’s remains.

After Yehohanan’s body was removed from the cross, it would have been laid out in a burial cave. After the flesh had decomposed a year or so later, leaving only the skeleton, his bones were gathered in a simple stone box, an ossuary, in keeping with the Jewish practice of that time. Today, the box is displayed in a gallery at the Israel Museum alongside other artifacts from the period of Roman rule in Judea.

His name is inscribed in simple letters on one side: Yehohanan, son of Hagakol. (Some scholars, interpreting the letters differently, believe the second name is Hezkil.)

Inside the box, archaeologists found a heel bone with an iron stake driven through it, indicating that the occupant of the ossuary had been nailed to a cross.

Read it all!

About Jim

I am a Pastor, and Lecturer in Church History and Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.
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