Nailing Down the Facts:
Questions to Ask Before Saying the Crucifixion Nails are Identified
James David Audlin
The following text is not part of any of Audlin’s published writings. However the publisher does wish to direct your attention to the definitive edition of The Gospel of John Restored and Translated, Volumes I and II, published 23 December 2014 by Editores Volcán Barú.
For more information: http://audlinbooks.com/about-james-david-audlin/nonfiction-james-david-audlin/
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Documentary maker Simcha Jacobovici made the following promotional claim in advance of a documentary that aired recently on television in the United States and other countries:
Here’s a scoop you won’t read anywhere else: According to a new study and a documentary (“Biblical Conspiracies: Nails of the Cross”) that is getting broadcast exclusively on the Science Channel in the US, the nails of Jesus’ crucifixion have been identified – and there’s still bone residue and slivers of ironized wood adhering to the nails!
In the documentary SJ backs away from this promotional claim; he says, quote: “We’re not saying these are the nails. We’re saying these could be the nails.”
Well, yes. They could also be nails from Noah’s Ark. They could be nails from Abraham Lincoln’s first log cabin. But the proving of any such claim is what we need to look at carefully.
I have been asked for my response to the above claim that Jesus’s crucifixion nails have been identified. I am not an expert in archæology, nor in forensics, but I do have a number of questions.
True and proper scholars in all fields follow, as best they can, the standard procedures of scholarly inquiry, including the “scientific method”. They study the evidence from all perspectives. They construct a hypothesis, and then they test it very, very hard, actually trying to find the faults and weaknesses in that hypothesis. They do not arrive at a conclusion, and announce it to the world as fact, until they and other scholars have universally concluded that it is fact.
True and proper scholars in all fields start with the evidence. They analyze it carefully, considering all possibilities. They construct a hypothesis that explains the evidence. And then they themselves “throw darts at it”, to see if they can find weaknesses in the hypothesis. If they do, they change it. They invite and welcome the criticisms of their fellow scholars to the same purpose. And, if necessary, they abandon their hypothesis and, if possible, derive another from the evidence.
True and proper scholars always prefer the most “elegant” hypothesis. That term comes from philosophical logic: the elegant theory is the simplest. When theories get overly complex, like a Rube Goldberg invention, the complexity brings in ever more statistical weight against them. The simplest theory is statistically the likeliest. This “elegance” is a vital “razor” – which is another term in philosophical logic: a “razor” (think of Occam’s Razor) is a means by which a good scholar can decide which hypothesis is the best.
In this light, I am asking questions. The following are some questions that I think need to be asked before any statement of vaunted fact is made about the nails to which Simcha Jacobovici was referring:
How are we to know these nails in Jacobovici’s possession were found, so he says, in Ossuary Three? I understand that Gordon Franz says they came from a collection that was known and catalogued before the Caiaphas tomb was even discovered. We do not have clear photographs of the nails as found in the tomb, nor of Jacobovici’s nails. Without carefully calibrated measurements and photographs it is certainly going to be very hard to say if these are the same nails. What is the pedigree of Jacobovici’s nails? How did they come into his possession? I agree with SJ (and others) that it is unconscionable that the nails were “lost” by the IAA for a period of time, and moreover that they were never properly photographed and catalogued. Still, I remain unsure on the identity of SJ’s nails with those from the Caiaphas tomb. Joe Zias (quoted in Haaretz) says the nails in SJ’s possession went from his laboratory when it was shut down to Dr. Herschkowitz’s laboratory. But Zias also says that these are not the “Caiaphas” nails. Zias and Jacobovici have a long history of mutual antipathy, and so, until the story is cleared up, it’s one man’s word against the other. I am in no position to judge between them (and certainly don’t want to wind up in the crossfire between them), so I do not know who to believe.
But let us assume for the purpose of discussion, that Jacobovici’s nails do come from the Peace Forest tomb. Greenhut’s final archæological report says:
Two iron nails were found in this cave. One was found inside one of the ossuaries and the other in Kokhim IV. It is possible that these nails were used to inscribe the ossuaries after the bones had been deposited in them, possibly even after some of the ossuaries were placed inside the kokhim.
Greenhut has stated elsewhere that the ossuary in which one of the nails was found was Ossuary One.
Simcha Jacobovici claims that Caiaphas’s remains, plus the nails, were found in Ossuary Three. The Greenhut report specifies that Ossuary Three contains the remains of an adult woman, a juvenile, two seven-year-old children, and an infant – but no adult male. It is Ossuary Six that has scratched into the exterior the name of Joseph bar Caiaphas. It is not Ossuary Three. And it is Ossuary One that contained one of the nails, not Ossuary Three.
SJ, in a .pdf text titled “The Nails of the Cross”, gives an interesting scenario to explain the lack of an adult male. He says that they “found their way into the [nearby] bone repository”. To my way of thinking, bones in a sealed tomb don’t find their way anywhere but generally stay where they have been put. Jacobovici’s scenario requires that every bone belonging to the putative adult male he believes was Caiaphas would have to have “found its way” to the repository. After a number of years, of course, the remains in an ossuary are no longer distinguishable from each other, making it impossible to remove just this one man’s bones and no other person’s. If this occurred, someone would have had to have removed Caiaphas’s remains very soon after interment. Granted, this is possible, but it is extremely complex, running afoul of the razor of elegance.
The simplest explanation is that the famous Caiaphas, if his remains are present at all, are in Ossuary Six. There are the remains of six people in Ossuary Six, none of which has been definitively identified as Joseph bar Caiaphas; the assumption, by process of elimination, is that the remains of a male of about 60 years of age, are those of Caiaphas. Ossuary Three, as noted above, does not contain an adult male’s remains, and Jacobovici’s theory that the remains were in there but “found their way” elsewhere is overly complex.
Do we know the famous Caiaphas to be in the ossuary? There were others named Joseph bar Caiaphas, including the famous one’s grandfather and also his grandson. And the fathers of all three were named Caiaphas. So, even if we assume there is someone named Caiaphas interred in the ossuary, we cannot be (yet) certain that this is the famous Caiaphas. Also, assuming one of the remains is that of the high priest, how do we know the nails and organic material if any are to be associated with him, and not with one of the five persons whose remains are in the ossuary?
Next, how are we to know these were nails used in crucifixion? My understanding is that the nails used in the Giv’at ha-Mivtar find (“Yehohanan”) are 11.5 cm., where the two in the possession of Simcha Jacobovici appear to measure 4.5 cm. or less. In general, Romans used nails 13 to 18 cm. That raises the question of whether they could have been used in crucifixion. At the hand or wrist, nails that short would have easily been pulled out by the victim. They would moreover be too short by far to secure ankles or feet.
Herschkowitz says in Jacobovici’s documentary that the nails, short as they are, could have been driven through the palms of a crucifixion victim’s hands. But it is pretty well established that that wasn’t customary in crucifixions; for one thing, the body weight of the victim would pull his hands free from such a nailing, between the fingers. Moreover, I am uncomfortable with the logical leap from “could have been” to “were”. These nails “could have been” used to put up the signboard at Pilate’s order saying Jesus was the Jewish king; why doesn’t Jacobovici consider that? They could have been used to nail Martin Luther’s theses to the church door, too. They “could have been” used for lots of things. Only if we work backwards from a desired conclusion and work the evidence to support it do we see “could have been” turn into “were”.
Dr. Rahmani helpfully points out two important uses for nails in Jewish tombs. First, nails were used to scratch names onto ossuaries, and the one nail found in one of the kokhim in this tomb was likely used for that purpose. This theory is elegant: it explains why the nail is there; but, unfortunately for Jacobovici, it would mean the nail has nothing to do with Jesus’s crucifixion. Dr. Rahmani further says nails were used to secure the ossuary lids to the bone boxes inside. That would serve to explain the presence of the other nail in Ossuary One, should a securing nail have inadvertently fallen into the bone box at any point over two thousand years. But bear in mind that the final report does not mention a nail in Ossuary Three (where Jacobovici puts Caiaphas) nor Ossuary Six (where others think Caiaphas may be).
Jacobovici alleges, correctly, that crucifixion nails were believed to have certain magical healing powers (Mishnah Shab. 6.10). He also acknowledges in his .pdf account that the Mishnah goes on immediately to advise faithful Jews not to use such nails for such a purpose, as it is the practice of Amorites (pagans) – but SJ does not ponder fully the import of this statement. Caiaphas was a high priest; presumably he was punctilious about following the mitzvot of the Torah, which would prevent him from touching objects that had been in contact with human corpses. The Mishnah was compiled within a century after Caiaphas’s life, and its precepts likely reflect what was already held as proper in the high priest’s time. The simplest, most elegant explanation does not require a high priest to have in his possession ritually impure objects for the purposes of engaging in pagan magical practices. The simplest explanation is, as Rahmani suggests, that one nail was for scratching names and the other was to secure the bone box and ossuary lid. But, unfortunately for Jacobovici, that explanation does not lead to his desired conclusion, that these are the crucifixion nails of Jesus.
Making yet another for-the-sake-of-discussion assumption that these are crucifixion nails, how are we to know they are Jesus’s crucifixion nails? Quite a few people were crucified around the time of Caiaphas. And, while Jesus is certainly a major world figure in history ever since his lifetime, he was not celebrated during his lifetime, and in fact appears to have been viewed by leaders such as Caiaphas as more of a problem to be scuttled away out of sight than a hero. Indeed, there is little if anything in the literature to cause us to think that Caiaphas thought so highly of Jesus that he (or someone on his behalf) put these nails in the ossuary.
Further, as to Jacobovici’s claim that there is organic material on the nails. This was established by whom? Analyzed by whom? The DNA was collected and analyzed and determined to be Jesus’s (since Jacobovici implies it is Jesus’s organic material) by whom? How do we know the organic material is not from one of the six people whose remains are in Ossuary Six – or Ossuary Three, or Ossuary One, or the bone repository, given the confusion above? Why and how would Caiaphas preserve not only the “magical talisman” nails, but do so with the care of a modern forensic scientist, such that the organic material was not lost, and ensure that after he had died the people who put his remains in the ossuary also put in the nails with the same care? Much more logical, it seems to me, is the conclusion that, if there is indeed organic material, it belongs to someone’s remains inside the ossuary, not to someone whose remains have nothing to do with the ossuary, and certainly not Jesus, who was crucified many years before Joseph bar Caiaphas’s death, with the likelihood of organic remains coming along with the nails through years of handling rather remote.
I also find it amazing that Simcha Jacobovici handles these nails with his bare hands in the documentary. If they are indeed what he claims, one would think they would be treated with the proverbial “kid gloves”.
Professor Gabriel Barkay has written:
There is no proof whatsoever that those nails came from the cave of Caiaphas. There is no proof that the nails are connected to any bones or any bone residue attached to the nails and no proof from textual data that Caiaphas had the nails for the crucifixion with him after the crucifixion took place and after Jesus was taken down from the cross.
To emphasize again, I am not an expert in the fields that are most relevant to reaching solid fact-based conclusions about the nails in Simcha Jacobovici’s possession. But neither is Simcha Jacobovici. Yet he states clearly in the quotation I give above, “…that the nails of Jesus’s crucifixion have been identified.” Another scholar, defending Jacobovici, characterizes this statement as speculation. Jacobovici, of course, is as entitled to speculate as anyone, expert or not, but this statement is phrased not as mere speculation, but as if it is an established fact. A responsible scholar always clearly labels his or her speculations as speculations, and does not try to characterize them as fact.
Indeed, when it comes to matters revolving around a figure so central to Western history as Jesus, perhaps one should go far more slowly than to go on camera, “playing to the pit”, as it was called in Shakespeare’s time, getting the masses of ordinary people, of relatively credulous television watchers, to swell the parade before experts in the field have really fully done their work, so the experts are made to look like sticks-in-the-mud, suspiciously pinko liberal egghead curmudgeons, who are ashamed of their failures and Jacobovici’s brilliance, and so do not want to accept the latter; characterized thus, the eggheads are easily dismissed in an ad hominem manner. I admire people like Prof. Karen L. King, who to her vast credit has gone ahead with painstaking care on the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” fragment, an item at least as potentially explosive as these nails, and has ignored the scorn and derision aimed at her as she does her job, and as she consults with experts in fields in which she is not well-versed.
Jacobovici’s complex theory does not successfully account for how it is that Caiaphas’s bones aren’t in Ossuary Six, the ornate ossuary that one would expect to be used for the remains of a high priest, but rather in Three, oops, but not in Three but in the bone repository. Nor does it explain satisfactorily how one nail is in Ossuary One and another on the floor elsewhere. Here we have to wonder what happened to the aforementioned “razor” of “elegance” – the philosophical preference for the theory that is simple, not complex, because complexity has too much statistical weight against it.
The simplest explanation is that Caiaphas’s remains are, if anywhere, in Ossuary Six, that a nail used to secure the bone box was in Ossuary One, and that another nail used to scratch names was in one of the kokhim, and thus that they aren’t from Jesus’s or anyone’s crucifixion. The problem with this simple, elegant hypothesis is that it does not lead to Jacobovici’s desired conclusion, that these are the nails from Jesus’s crucifixion.
Clearly Jacobovici is trying to position himself in the role of a scholar, claiming a scientific assessment of these nails. Fine. But if he does so he needs to expect what any decent scholar not just expects, but WELCOMES: the challenges of his or her peers. Any decent scholar takes those challenges seriously, and, if necessary, changes his or her mind as to the summary hypothesis. I ask my questions in this manner.
I hope it is clear that I have no wish to join the many people who, yes, are calling Jacobovici a fraud, an opportunist, and worse in reference to his declarations about the Talpiot/Patio tombs, the ancient Jewish novel Joseph and Aseneth, and now this nail business.
But if anyone at all publicly states that the nails from Jesus’s crucifixion have been identified (the promotional statement above) or may have been identified (the documentary itself), it is right and proper for scholars to question and challenge that assertion. Any good scholar, including the good scholar Jacobovici wants us to believe he is, welcomes such challenges! Therefore, I am not questioning Simcha Jacobovici’s character; I am only questioning his assertion that these are Jesus’s crucifixion nails, and no more.
Simcha Jacobovici is doing his job. His job is making documentaries. But those who are expert in the relevant fields need to do theirs, and he needs to wait for and pay heed to their findings. So should we.