How Were People Crucified?

How Were People Crucified? January 30, 2020

Editor’s Note: Having just seen the 1960 movie Spartacus, I’m suddenly interested in crucifixion.  Spartacus was a Roman slave who staged an uprising, which ended with him and 6,000 other slaves being crucified by the Roman victors. This diminishes the impact of Jesus getting crucified, because others suffered just as much, without the opportunity to “rise again.” 

I, and millions of other Catholics, don’t remember the first time we saw the depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, because there it was, front and center, whenever we went to church.  I didn’t think much about it; nor could I get worked up over Jesus’s willingness to die for our sins. Perhaps these were signs of my coming apostasy.  I also never thought about the location of Jesus’s wounds, though, so the discussion below, by a New Testament scholar/Clergy Project member, fills in a lot of gaps. [Warning: quite interesting, but occasionally gory.] /Linda LaScola, Editor

========================

By Bart Ehrman

I have always said that people were crucified by being nailed through their *wrists* instead of their hands.  I had heard that in college when I was maybe 18, and I’ve been saying it ever since.  And I still say it because it’s apparently true.  But I never knew how we knew.  Was it simply common sense that a nail/stake through the hand would rip out, and needed to go between two strong bones?  Or did we have some evidence?  And if it’s true that the nail/stake went through the wrist, why do virtually *all* the artistic representations show the holes in the hands?

There are entire books on crucifixion in antiquity – I don’t mean books about the significant of Jesus’ death, but on what crucifixion actually involved.   When I was in grad school I read Martin Hengel’s brief study; in more recent days John Granger Cook has written a massive tome, which I’ve looked at but haven’t read cover-to-cover (it’s amazing what I haven’t read….).   I’m sure it is the drop -dead authoritative account.  And he probably covers the topic.   But it’s never been an issue pressing enough for me to read around about.

Until today, by complete serendipity.

Let me give a *bit* of background to set the stage, to deal with a couple of points that will immediately be raised in the minds of some of you.

  • We have no literary description from the ancient world explaining how it was actually *done*. Ancient authors appear simply to assume that everyone knew, just as today most authors who talk about someone driving a car don’t explain how the car is constructed.  Readers in the distant future, if they don’t have pictures or car manuals etc, may just have to figure it out.
  • We also don’t have archaeological evidence that answers the question: hands or wrists.
    • We have the remains of only *one* crucified victim from antiquity, and it has provided us with some important clues about some aspects of the procedure. If you want to see more about it, just search for “nails” on the blog, and you’ll find a number of posts.  Here’s one of them: https://ehrmanblog.org/the-skeletal-remains-of-yehohanan-and-their-significance/?highlight=nailsYehohanan’s case is vitally important, but doesn’t answer definitively: hands or wrists.
    • Archaeologists have discovered a number of crucifixion nails (known to be such because of the organic material still on them that can be tested), but again it doesn’t answer the question of where the nails were placed.
  • I regularly get asked if we are talking about a “cross” (that is, two pieces of woods joined together somehow in perpendicular, to form a kind of “T” or even an “X”) or a “stake,” as some religious groups insist, that is, a simply upright, a kind of pole. The answer is almost certainly “cross.”  When ancient people talk about the shape of the STAUROS (as it’s called in Greek) — for example, the epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr — they liken it to a person standing upright with arms stretched out, or to the mast of a ship.

With preliminaries out of the way, how do we know that it was wrists instead of hands?   It turns out, we’ve known only since the 1930s.  At least that’s what I’ve read today, by complete accident.  If someone has more knowledge about this, let me know.

I obviously read a lot — it’s part of what I get paid for — and, naturally, almost everything is connected with my research, books and articles on antiquity and especially early Christianity.  But I also like to read outside of my work, and so I do so a bit every day.  Mainly novels, especially, not only, nineteenth century.   I’m just returning to Frankenstein (which I’ve always found rather immature and preachy, but interesting; Mary Shelley started it when she was 19!!).  I’m reading it in part because of my next book on coming Armageddon – fears that we are bringing the end upon ourselves – but also because I want to read Jeanette Winterson’s apparently brilliant new novel Frankenstein: A Love Story.

But that’s not where I learned about crucifixion (though it would be a sensible guess).  I also have some kind of non-fiction thing going, but I spend far less time on it, since reading non-fiction is more or less my day job.  A busman’s holiday.  Still, I’ve been long fascinated by issues of anatomy, and so when Bill Bryson’s new book came out, I jumped all over it.  All his books are amazing (and some hilarious:  Walk in the Woods!).   But this one is right up my alley:  The Body: A Guide for Occupants.  Fantastic.

And out of the blue I learned something.  About crucifixion.

In talking about the skeleton and the various skeletal parts, Bryson, as is his wont, breaks into an anecdote.  A lot about what modern folk know about the comparative strength of the hand and the wrist is because of some strange work done in the 1930s by a French physician named Pierre Barbet, who became obsessed with the question of how crucifixion worked.

As a scientist, he knew it would take some actual experiments to figure out how the process is done.  But he couldn’t very well crucify people to find out.  So he did the next best thing.  As a surgeon he had access to cadavers.  And so he nailed a number of them in various ways to wooden crosses, to see what “worked.”   If nails went through the hands, the weight of the body would be too much, and, in Bryson’s words “the hands would literally tear apart.”  Doesn’t work.  But if through the wrist?  Yup that works fine.

So they must have done it that way.   Jesus and many thousands of others were nailed through the wrists (unless they were tied, which is also widely considered to have been one of the options.)

Two questions that Bryson doesn’t address, since his book isn’t about crucifixion per se:

  • Why do descriptions of Jesus’ wounds in ancient texts refer to his hands instead of his wrists?  Ancients apparently understood the wrist to be part of the hand.
  • Why do artistic representations show the wounds in the hands instead of the wrists? Possibly because virtually paintings were all done after crucifixion had been abolished (fourth century) and no one *knew* how it was done, since it was so long ago and there were no descriptions available.  The Gospels speak of the “hands” and so artists assume it meant the hand rather than the wrist.  BUT, it is interesting that one of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion, on an ivory panel of the fourth century in the British Museum clearly shows the nails in middle of the hands.  For a photo, see my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, p. 116 (in both 6th and 7th editions).  Is this artists also influenced by the Gospels instead of historical reality?

Those are my guesses.  But as to wrists vs. hands: it’s nice to learn something without looking for it!

**Editor’s Question** So what do you think?  hands or wrists?

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Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.  Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project.  He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs from The Bart Ehrman Blog, including this one.

>>>>>>Photo Credits:  By Bronzino – Œuvre appartenant au Musée des beaux-arts de Nice, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11949765 ; By Dan Sears – UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400


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  • Jim Jones

    You wouldn’t want to nail them up over and over. Wrists.

  • Carstonio

    Surprised that Ehrman didn’t address the translation factor. I’ve read that the Greek word for hand at the time could also include the wrist and forearm. Apparently something similarly happened to “star” when the original text meant “comet.”

  • viaten

    Well, if stigmata images have any divine authority, I’d have to go with hands. I wonder what an apologist’s or the Catholic church’s explanation would be.
    I also wonder about the feet. Was there always something the feet rested on?

  • Erik1986

    And I know I read somewhere, but I can’t tell you where, that the majority of crucifixions were by tying the victim to the cross, not nailing. Also…apparently the visions and saints went along with the artistic representations rather than “reality” when they appeared with stigmata?

  • Tawreos

    I would go with wrists because they are stronger. As for artists depictions, these are the same artists that always give Adam and Eve belly buttons, so I wouldn’t get too wrapped up in the accuracy of their work.

  • otrame

    Blood loss when one is nailed through the wrist, would have been substantially worse.

    The weight wasn’t mostly on the hands until near the end, anyway. The victim was forced to push up on the nails in their feet because that is the only way they could breathe. That’s why it was a cross, to spread the arms wide because that would cause muscles in the chest tighten and in that position it would suffocate the victim pretty quickly. So they would be forced to push up on their mangled feet in order to take a breath. As they got weaker from blood loss and pain they would slowly suffocate.

    That’s why it was traditional when the torturers were bored with the whole thing, they’d break the legs. Once the victim couldn’t push up any more the end came quickly. In Jesus’ case, it is said he was stabbed in the side (probably the liver) so that he bled out pretty quickly after that.

    Assuming there was a Jesus that was actually crucified, about which I remain agnostic.

  • otrame

    Yes. It would end too quickly if the victim couldn’t get their weight off their arms. The muscles of the arms and shoulder would suffocate them within a fairly short time otherwise.

  • Milo C

    I’m familiar with one religious group that argues against the ‘t’ shape of the cross; JWs. Just last year they published a pamphlet that had just a few facts and then took some generous leaps of logic regarding the topic. It basically said the Greek word meant post, and they did not include any references that said it resembled a ship’s mast or arms outstretched.

    It also noted that a simple upright post could be used to the same effect, but as you point out this is less effective for torture by suffocation. Other configurations were likely used rarely (upside-down, etc.)

  • Jezebel’sOlderSister

    I remember a television special about the Shroud of Turin and attempts to either authenticate it or debunk it. One of the check marks on the “authentic” side was the crucifixion marks being in the wrists on the shroud. The people doing the documentary at first thought that was an easy debunk (everyone “Knew” that Christ was nailed by his hands), but then they did the experiments on cadavers that showed that crucifixion had to happen through the wrists because, like you stated, the hand would just tear apart. The “researchers” concluded that, as people during the 13th/14th century assumed that crucifixion was through the hands, if this was a fabricated relic, it would have had the marks in the hands. But being hung by the wrists would mean a fairly quick death — blood would flow more heavily through the blood vessels in the wrists as opposed to blood loss through the hands, just look at those who commit suicide by slitting their wrists.

    However, the Japanese also practiced crucifixion (it’s not known where it came from, but it appears to have started in the 12/13th centureis), and in the Japanese model, the person was nailed up spread-eagled — Writs and ankles were bound to the cross pieces, but the nails went through the hands and feet. In the Japanese model, crucifixion was intended to be a slow, painful death, which would argue for nailing through the hands instead of the wrists. Why did I use the Japanese as a model? They practiced crucifixtion through WWII, so the accounts are much more current. Source: https://www.ranker.com/list/history-of-japanese-crucifixion/melissa-sartore (Warning, fairly graphic photographs)

  • Mark Rutledge

    I am agnostic about this matter. It is a factual question to which I wonder if we can know at this stage of the evidence which it was. I admire the question and Bart’s persistence in searching for an answer. Maybe some historian or archeologist of the future will find some new evidence. Meanwhile…

  • Jezebel’sOlderSister

    In the article I reference in my post, it appears that up-side down crucifixion became common in Japan in the mid 16th century, and they add a little water torture into the mix just for giggles. But also, according to Josephus, the Roman soldiers were allowed to get creative with crucifixions. https://books.google.com/books?id=2svcBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA158&dq=upside+down+crucifixion&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjMrqfZmqznAhVLY6wKHQZLB40Q6AEwBnoECAgQAg#v=onepage&q=upside%20down%20crucifixion&f=false

  • Tawreos

    I would have to think that there are several different ways to crucify. If you are in Podunk Rome and are maybe crucifying someone once a month you might do it one way, but doing 6,000 at once will probably require a different method.

  • Tawreos

    I find it horrifying that the soldiers would get bored with regular crucifixions and need to add some variety to them.

  • I’ve also seen mentioned elsewhere that the crosses had a rod just below the groin, and everytime the condemned lowered his body when he got tired fell on said rod causing an excruciating pain and the victim to being forced to go up again.

  • mason

    I leave the sadomasochistic debate to others. I just wonder if the walking on water trick was done with Birkenstock sandals or barefoot? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/68565c119067b413b1e38bcea707ed0bd993e79770b70da1c650c38979594d9d.jpg

  • Linda LaScola

    Fisherman sandals!

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Neither. because the whole story is BEE ESSS.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Almost tempted to see what it would cost in today’s money…
    12,000 peices of wood.
    48,000 nails
    12,000 workers.. (assuming only 2 people per cross, gotta take AT LEAST 2 people)
    Not to mention the LAND needed.. Need at least 6ft x 6 ft per cross (have to lay the thing on ground to hammer the nails and THEN lift.. so at least 6ft x6 ft for working room)

    Yeah, sounds REAL practical and REAL likely…

  • Hilde Stoltz

    Old joke: I don’t care who your father is, you’re not walking on water while I’m fishing!

  • mason
  • bob ingersoll

    Well over 30 years ago, when I was a good Baptist, I remember a particular sermon on the crucifixion, the pastor mentioning the very point about the ancients considered the wrist to be part of the hand, and that likely the nails were thru the wrists. Come on Bart, catch up!

  • Otto

    If the miracles of stigmata’s were true I would expect them to be in the wrist. I assume God would know.

  • Bob Jase

    Biblegod doesn’t know how many legs insects have.