by Gordon Franz
On Tuesday, April 12, 2011, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici held a news conference in Jerusalem. In it, he claimed that two nails, excavated more than 20 years ago, were the ones hammered into the hands of Jesus at His crucifixion. The nails, which had “disappeared” soon after the excavations, were recently rediscovered in the labs of Tel Aviv University and are now in his possession. In an interview with Bloomberg News (April 12, 2011), he claimed: “Do I know 100 percent that these nails were used to crucify Jesus? No, I think we have a very compelling case to say: these are them.”
Jacobovici also believes that Caiaphas, the high priest responsible for turning Jesus over to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, converted to the Judeo-Christian movement that believed Jesus was the messiah, but not God. After Caiaphas’ death, his family wanted the nails buried with him because they thought the nails possessed talismanic powers and would give him divine protection in the afterlife!
The show, “The Nails of the Cross” aired on the History Channel on Wednesday night, April 20, 2011. Did Simcha Jacobovici produce any compelling evidence for these sensational claims?
Who Is Simcha Jacobovici?
First, we need to ask the question, “Who is Simcha Jacobovici?” He is a very colorful movie producer and is famous for his sensationalist television program, The Naked Archaeologist. Having watched the program, I can attest to the fact that he does not appear naked in the show, and it is equally obvious that he is not an archaeologist! He should not be taken seriously, but because of his sensationalistic approach, the news media loves his programming.
In 2007, he released a video and book that alleged that the family tomb of Jesus was found in the East Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem and that the tomb included an ossuary containing the bones of Jesus. This program was a misguided attack on the deity of the Lord Jesus and His bodily resurrection. The allegations have been thoroughly refuted by a number of people.
The Tomb of the House of Caiaphas
Jacobovici’s current “discovery” concerns a burial cave that workmen accidently discovered while making a water park in the Peace Forest in the southern part of Jerusalem during November/December 1990. The burial cave was a simple, single burial chamber with four loculi (called kokhim in Hebrew) typical of the Second Temple period. Three kokhim were on the western wall of the cave (labeled Kokhim I, II, and III) and one was on the southern wall (labeled Kokh IV). There was a central depression that was filled with debris, including broken ossuaries (Greenhut 1991a: 6-12; 1991b: 140-141; 1992a: 63-71; 1992b: 28-36, 76; 1994: 219-222).
Six intact ossuaries (bone boxes used for secondary burial) were found in the burial cave. Two ossuaries (Ossuaries 5 and 6) were found in situ in Kokh IV. The other four ossuaries had been removed from their original positions in Kokhim I-III by the workmen. Six other broken ossuaries and three lids were found scattered throughout the cave (Greenhut 1992a: 67).
Five of the ossuaries had inscriptions on them, with two ossuaries having inscriptions relating to the House of Caiaphas (Reich 1991: 13-21; 1992a: 72-77; 1992b: 38-44, 76; 1994:223-225). Of these two: Ossuary 3 contained the skeletal remains of “five individuals – an adult female, a juvenile, two seven year old children and a newborn” (Zias 1992: 78-79). It is into this ossuary that Jacobovici suggests the bones of the high priest were placed. According to the anthropological report, however, there were no adult male bones in this ossuary. Thus, Jacobovici is incorrect in asserting that the high priest Caiaphas’ bones were placed in this ossuary.
Ossuary 6, a very ornate box, had the name “Joseph bar [son of] Caiaphas” on it twice (Reich 1991: 15-17; 1992a: 72-73, Figs. 5 and 6) and contained the partial skeletal “remains of six individuals, including a male c. 60 years old” (Zias 1992: 78-79). It is this 60-year-old male that some have suggested is the high priest who served in the Temple from AD 18-36 and is mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 26:3, 57; Luke 3:2; John 11:49; 18:13, 14, 24, 28; Acts 4:6). Reich suggests that the name Caiaphas was a nickname and the inscription would mean “Joseph of the family of Caiaphas” (1991: 16; see also Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.35 and 95; LCL 9:31, 69). Scholarly debate continues as to whether the “Joseph bar Caiaphas” on Ossuary 6 was the high priest from the time of Jesus or his grandfather or grandson, as both would also have been named Joseph.
How Long Were the Nails?
At the press conference it was reported that the nails were about three inches long (8 centimeters). Unfortunately, there is no measuring scale next to the nails in the photographs that were released at the press conference (see the Ha’aretz website). Placing a scale next to an object is standard practice in archaeology. Due to the lack of a measuring scale, verification of this measurement is not possible.
Only one archaeological example of a man who was crucified has been found in Jerusalem. In June 1968, a burial cave was found in the Giv’at ha-Mivtar neighborhood of Jerusalem. An ossuary in the cave contained the bones of a man who had a large iron nail still pierced through his calcanei (heel) and into some wood (Tzaferis 1970: 18-32; Haas 1970: 42, 49-59). The nail was 11.5 centimeteers (4 ½ inches) long (Zias and Sekeles 1985: 23).
The nails that are in Jacobovici’s possession are 3 inches or less and, therefore, could not have held a man to a cross beam. The sheer weight of the man would have pulled the nails out of the wood. Thus, the nails in question could not have been used in any crucifixion, much less Jesus’!
Where Were the Nails Found?
The excavator, Zvi Greenhut, describes the two nails from the 1990 excavation in his final archaeological report. Unfortunately, he did not include a photograph of them so scholars are unable to compare the ones found in the Tomb of the House of Caiaphas with the ones that are in Jacobovici’s possession and to verify that they are the same nails. Greenhut reports: “Two iron nails were found in this cave. One was found inside one of the ossuaries and the other in Kokh 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” (1992a: 68). Elsewhere, Greenhut identified Ossuary 1 as the ossuary in which the nail was found (Greenhut 1991:11).
Ossuary 1 is a nondescript bone box with a flat lid with no decorations or inscriptions (Greenhut 1992a: 67). The ossuary contained the “poorly preserved remains of four individuals – two adults and two children” (Zias 1992: 78-79). This ossuary was apparently from one of the kokhim on the western wall of the cave (Greenhut 1992a: 63). It is clear that at least one of the nails was found in an ossuary other than the ones with the name “Caiaphas” on them.
The Timeline of Jacobovici’s Nails
Anthropologist Joe Zias, formerly the curator of the Israel Antiquities Authority anthropology collection from 1972 to 1997 and one of the excavators of the House of Caiaphas Burial Cave, has stated definitively that the two nails that Jacobovici is showing did not come from the Caiaphas tomb.
Dr. Nicu Haas, professor of anatomy at the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical Center, had the two nails that Jacobovici is showing in his laboratory collection prior to 1975 when he was in a tragic accident that left him in a coma for 13 years. Prior to his death in 1987, the hospital requested that the Israel Antiquities Authority remove all the anthropological material belonging to the State of Israel from Haas’ laboratory. Zias was the one who removed all the bones and the two collections of iron nails. One of those collections contained the two nails that Jacobovici is claiming came from the Tomb of Caiaphas.
Due to pressure from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Zias was forced to transfer the two collections of nails to the medical lab at Tel Aviv University sometime in the 1990s. The two nails presented by Jacobovici as allegedly coming from the House of Caiaphas Tomb, which was excavated in 1990, were known to have existed in the Haas collection as early as 1975. How these two nails came into Haas’ possession is not known. It is clear, however, that the nails Jacobovici is showing did not come from the House of Caiaphas Tomb.
What Were the Nails Used For?
Dr. Levi Rahmani (1994), an expert on Jewish ossuaries, has suggested two possible uses for nails found in tombs. The first use is fixing the lid of an ossuary to the bone box. Rahmani cites one example in which there were still traces of iron in the hole (1961: 102, no. 9). The second use is “scratching the name of the deceased on an ossuary” (1961: 100).
The excavator, Greenhut, states that the two nails found in the House of Caiaphas Tomb were used for scratching “the inscriptions on the ossuaries in the cave after the bones had been collected and placed in them and even after some of the ossuaries had been placed in their loculi. This is evident from the fact that some of the inscriptions were written perpendicularly, from the bottom to the top of the ossuary” (Greenhut 1992b: 36).
It is highly probable that the nail found in Kokh IV was used for scratching the two inscriptions on Ossuary 6 that referred to Caiaphas, but it is important to note that this nail was not found inside the ossuary of Caiaphas and thus was not used as a talisman as Jacobovici claimed.
According to the Mishnah, nails from a crucified person have healing powers. Tractate Shabbath 6:10 included nails among the items that could be carried on Shabbat. “Men may go out with a locust’s egg or a jackal’s tooth or with a nail of [the gallow of] one that was crucified, as a means of healing. So R. Meir. But the Sages say: Even on ordinary days this is forbidden as following in the ways of the Amorites [heathen superstition].”
What Is Simcha Trying to Do?
I cannot presume to know Jacobovici’s heart or what his motives were for producing this “documentary.” But as has been clearly demonstrated in this article, the two nails Jacobovici is showing and claiming came from the Tomb of the House of Caiaphas did not come from this burial cave because those two nails were already in a known collection prior to 1990. So whatever ideas Jacobovici has about Caiaphas feeling remorseful or even converting to the Messianic Movement is irrelevant to the discussion.
After watching “The Nails of the Cross” on the History Channel, I could find no compelling evidence that the two nails Jacobovici was showing came from the Tomb of the House of Caiaphas. Nor is there any evidence the nails were used to crucify the Lord Jesus!
The news media, on the other hand, is always looking for something sensational to report during the Easter season as a quick glance at their track record will clearly demonstrate. In 1996, the BBC aired an Easter special that claimed that ossuaries from a burial cave in an East Talpiyot neighborhood had the names of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus on them and concluded that the ossuaries belonged to the “holy family.” In 2001 and 2002, right before Passover, Rabbi Wolpe from Los Angeles said that there was no archaeological evidence for the Exodus from Egypt. In 2003, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was released. Three years later, in 2006, there was a double whammy with the released of two books: The Gospel of Judas and The Jesus Dynasty. In 2007, the “Naked Archaeologist” released his so-called The Jesus Family Tomb, which was a follow-up on the 1996 BBC Easter special. In 2008, the movie Bloodline alleged there was archaeological “proof” for The Da Vinci Code.
Ho-hum, here we go again. The media should be ashamed of itself for promoting such nonsensical pseudo-archaeology. If they must circulate sensational stories, at least they owe it to their readers and viewers to investigate the claim by interviewing scholars in the field who can set the record straight.
Conclusion of the Matter
The Israel Antiquities Authority released this statement regarding the nails that Jacobovici claimed were from Caiaphas’ tomb: “There is no doubt that the talented director Simcha Jacobovici created an interesting film with a real archaeological find at its centre, but the interpretation presented in it has no basis in archaeological findings or research.”
I think Dr. Gabriel Barkay, the leading scholar on the archaeology of Jerusalem and a professor at Bar-Ilan University, sums it up best. He states: “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.”
Case closed – end of discussion!
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