Crucifixion nails, Noah’s Ark, and the Jesus Tomb

by Jeff Boyer

How should we respond to sensational archaeological claims?

Every few years, it seems, a spectacular Bible-related archaeological claim catches media attention. Such claims dominate news websites for a few weeks and then tend to fade quickly from public attention, revealed as fakes—or at the very least shown to be less compelling than originally claimed. In recent years we’ve seen flurries of hype and interest over the Jesus tomb and Noah’s Ark. The latest claim—suspiciously timed for Easter—is by a journalist who claims to have (maybe) found the nails used to crucify Jesus.

You don’t have to read very far down that Time article to realize that this is less spectacular than the hype suggests; even the journalist making the claim admits that it’s a possibility, not a certainty. Not knowing anything more about this particular claim, I won’t comment on its merits, but this seems a good opportunity to talk about how to approach sensational claims like this.

It’s understandable that Bible readers and believers would be excited at the discovery of a possible artifact mentioned in the text of Scripture. (And by contrast, an atheist might be excited by an archaeological find that appears to contradict the Bible.) But how can we—most of us not archaeologists, and only dimly aware of the scholarship and context behind archaeological claims—evaluate these claims? Here are a few thoughts to consider.

2000+ years is a very long time for an artifact to have survived. While it’s certainly not impossible for artifacts like nails or pottery or a piece of architecture to survive through history, it’s statistically unlikely that a specific artifact would survive without some kind of special preservation—especially when the artifact in question is something easily destructible. 2,000 years is also a very long time for an artifact to have gone undiscovered, given that there were organized “relic hunting” expeditions in the Holy Land as early as the fourth century.

Many of the “artifacts” mentioned in the Bible were everyday items. Consider the significant objects mentioned in the Easter account: wood and nails (from the cross), cloth (from Jesus’ burial), a tomb. When we find an ancient example of one of these objects, it’s understandably tempting to link them to the ones specifically mentioned in the Bible… but remember that were were a lot of pieces of wood, nails, cloth, and tombs in the vicinity of Jerusalem in Jesus’ day…

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