Science Replays the Crucifixion

by Alan Boyle

TV show blends Bible and biomechanics

Biblical archaeologist Jonathan Reed says he has undergone something of a conversion. Maybe that’s what staging a crucifixion does to you.

For “Quest for Truth: The Crucifixion,” a TV documentary premiering on Easter Sunday on the National Geographic Channel, Reed conducted an experiment with a volunteer tied to an actual cross. Reed even took a turn on it himself.

No one was actually hurt. The researchers stopped short of pounding nails into feet, and monitored their volunteer victims closely for any signs of stress. But Reed, a religion professor at the University of La Verne in California, said spending time on the cross was nevertheless a “dark” experience that gave him a new appreciation for Roman cruelty.

It also changed his mind on some of the central historical questions surrounding the practice. Going into the experiment, Reed fully believed that crucifixion victims couldn’t have been nailed by the palms of the hands, and that they had to have died of asphyxiation. But now he thinks the Romans could well have targeted the palms to maximize their victims’ agony, and that death was more likely due to heart failure, brought on by shock, pain and exposure.

“I tried to have an open mind and let the experiment guide me to a conclusion,” he told

In addition to tracing Reed’s experiment, National Geographic’s “Quest for Truth” (9 p.m. ET/PT Sunday) reviews other archaeological and forensic studies that have been sparked by the biblical accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday.

Archaeological mysteries
For Christians, the crucifixion represents the ultimate sacrifice, setting the stage for the mystery of Jesus’ resurrection and humanity’s redemption. For archaeologists, however, the phenomenon raises mysteries of a different, grislier sort.

How could Roman soldiers conduct hundreds of crucifixions in the course of a day, as recorded in 1st-century accounts? Did the cross match the pictures portrayed in artwork over the centuries? And if crucifixion was such a widely used instrument of terror in Roman times, why is there such scant evidence left behind?

University of Texas biblical scholar L. Michael White, who also participated in “Quest for Truth,” has a sensible answer for that last puzzle: “Most people who would have been executed by crucifixion would not have had people who were concerned about them after death,” he told Their remains would have been scattered, White said. In fact, that was all part of the terror. Based on the Gospels, Jesus was an exception, in that he was carefully entombed after being taken down from the cross.

Another exception was discovered in 1968, when construction workers came across a 1st-century funerary box inscribed with the name “Jehohanan.” Inside, researchers found the man’s bones — including a heel bone that had a curled nail sticking through it.

Apparently, the man had been crucified, with his heel nailed to the side of the cross. The nail probably hit a knot in the wood and couldn’t be removed when Jehohanan was taken down, so it was buried right along with the bone.

The case of Jehohanan told archaeologists several things: The feet of crucifixion victims really were nailed to crosses, and the fact that the hand bones showed no similar signs of damage indicated that the victims’ hands were not necessarily nailed.

Reed’s experiment built on such findings, as well as the assumption that the Romans would have gone for maximum efficiency and maximum pain in conducting crucifixions. The re-creation of Jesus’ crucifixion led Reed and his colleagues to conclude that the reality was almost certainly different from the portrayals in Renaissance masterworks…


Science replays the crucifixion  – Science –

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