For centuries the secrets of the Roman crucifixion nails were hidden. Assumptions were made, but not until archaeologist found the first-ever Roman crucifixion nail did a greater understanding come to light. Below we will answer questions that are commonly asked about the Crucifixion Nails.
“In 1968 a significant archaeological discovery was made in a suburb of Jerusalem: an ossuary with the skeletal remains of a man named Yehochanan who had been crucified. Yehochanan had been nailed to an upright beam of wood through the ankle, but the nail hit a knot in the wood and bent, making it difficult to be removed after his death. And so a chunk of the wood was broken off, and Yehochanan was buried with wood and nail still attached to the ankle bone.” – Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 3rd Edition, Oxford, 2004, p. 156.
Why did Roman crucifixion nails have two heads?
In the photo, notice the double head on the nails. This would allow the soldiers to more easily remove the nails and the victim from the cross once he had died. The first head would stop at the victim’s skin allowing enough room for the soldiers to use something like a crowbar to pull it out. This would allow an easy removal without the soldiers having to dig into the wrists and feet to remove the nails.
How long were crucifixion nails?
According the archaeological find outside of Jerusalem, the crucifixion nail that was used for the feet was roughly 7 inches long and with a diameter of about 3/8 of an inch. It is possible that either 7 or 5 inch nails were used for the hands.
Where were the nails driven?
The nails would be placed between the bones of the forearm (the radius and ulna). Studies have shown that nails were probably driven through the wrist bones, since nails in the palms of the hand could not support the weight of a body. If a person was nailed through the palms, they would have to be bound or tied to the cross, meaning that the use of nails would have been unnecessary. Furthermore, in ancient times, the wrist was considered to be part of the hand, so historical references of nails through the hands can just as easily, in the ancient mind, mean the wrist as well.
What damage did the nails cause?
The nails through the wrist would most likely severe the median nerve, which is largest nerve in the hand, and would cause a severe burning pain as well as permanent paralysis of the hand. Severing this nerve would also cause shocks of pain to radiate through the arms. The nails would not, however, fractures or break any bones.
In addition, within minutes of being lifted up on the cross, the wrists would have dislocated, then the elbows and then the shoulders. This is the reason that Psalms 22:14, in prophecy of the Jesus, says, “All my bones are out of joint.”
How did a person die during crucifixion?
The Persians created crucifixion but the Romans perfected it as a slow and painful means of execution. In fact, our English word, “excruciating” comes from the word “crucifixion.” The positioning of the feet was one of the most critical part of the mechanics of crucifixion. First the knees were flexed at about a 45 degree angle and the feet were flexed (bent downward) an additional 45 degrees until they were parallel with the vertical pole. An iron nail about 7 inches long was driven through the feet between the 2nd and 3rd metatarsal bones. In this position the nail would sever the dorsal pedal artery of the foot, but the resulting bleeding would be insufficient to cause death. Sometimes, as in the photo above, a nail was driven through each ankle to the outside of the cross post. Regardless of which way the feet were put, the resulting position on the cross, sets up a horrific sequence of events which results in a slow and extremely painful death.
Having been pinned to the cross, the victim now has an impossible position to maintain, pulling up his entire body weight on nails for every breath to allow his lungs the ability to expand and exhale. Because of the position on the cross, his ribs would be unable to relax stopping him from completely exhaling. Breathing would become more difficult as carbon dioxide would begin to build up in the blood stream. The heart would begin to race, trying to process oxygen more quickly. After several hours the heart would begin to fail and the lungs would begin to collapse and to fill with fluid. The blood loss (especially concerning Jesus from the scourging and crown of thorns as well as the crucifixion) and hyperventilation would have cause severe dehydration. That’s why Jesus said, “I thirst.”
The arm muscles would begin to paralyze due to extreme fatigue and would eventually stop working. Historians mentioned the spasming of the muscles in the chest because the strain. The victim, at this point, while still slowly suffocating would stay alive by pushing up on the nail through the feet and if he lived too long, the Roman soldiers would break his legs, stopping all ability to breathe. Of course, Jesus is perfect in every way, without any broken bones, but for six hours Jesus endured the shame and pain of the cross because of His love for us.
“I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:14-15).
Read more about Jesus’ suffering on the cross HERE.
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