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Scholars debate death on the cross

Mel Gibson's film version of the Crucifixion revives a discussion over the grisly details of the ancient Roman means of execution — but surprisingly little is known for certain.
Jim Caviezel, portraying Jesus, is shown nailed to the cross on the set of "The Passion of the Christ" in this publicity photo. The movie reportedly shows Jesus being nailed to the cross, and this photo indicates that the hands were also bound to the crossbar with rope.Philippe Antonello / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The dearth of information about Jesus’ Crucifixion makes it impossible to describe the event in accurate detail, as Mel Gibson attempts to do in his new film, “The Passion of the Christ,” biblical scholars and anthropologists say.

The Crucifixion is the centerpiece of the movie, set to open in U.S. theaters on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday on the Roman Catholic calendar.

People who have seen the movie say it adopts standard Christian imagery in excruciating detail: Jesus being pinioned to a Latin cross — a T-shaped device with a short upper extension — with one nail driven through both feet and one through each palm.

In a December e-mail sent to The Associated Press, Gibson said he did “an immense amount of reading” to supplement the Bible’s relatively unadorned account of the Crucifixion in the four Gospels.

“I consulted a huge number of theologians, scholars, priests, spiritual writers,” Gibson wrote. “The film is faithful to the Gospels but I had to fill in a lot of details — like the way Jesus would have carried His cross, or whether the nails went through the palms of His hands or his wrists ... Since the experts canceled each other out, I was thrown back on my own resources to weigh the different arguments and decide for myself.”

Details open to debate
Some scholars say even the most widely recognized features of the crucifixion, such as the shape of the cross and the use of nails, are open to debate.

James F. Strange, professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said 1st-century historian Josephus provided only general information, probably because crucifixion was so common that details seemed superfluous.

Crucifixion was first used in the 5th century B.C., and was a widely used form of execution in Asia, Europe and Africa for the ensuing eight centuries, said Israeli anthropologist Joe Zias. Depending on technique, death could be swift or take days.

“If you suspended people by their hands and left their feet free you would kill them within an hour,” Zias said. “If you suspended them in a way they couldn’t exhale they’d be dead within minutes.”

Zias said the question of whether Jesus was nailed to the cross or simply tied to it remains a mystery. “The Gospels say he was crucified and leave it at that.”

'Crucifixion 101'
Zias criticized “The Passion of The Christ” for accepting the standard version of three nails being used. He said experiments on cadavers carried out by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages have shown that people hanging with nails through their hands will fall to the ground within a relatively short time, pulled by gravity.

The Gospels suggest it took Jesus three to six hours to die.

“All this is Crucifixion 101,” Zias said. “People who study these things understand them. But Gibson ignored them in his film.”

Photos and film clips released in advance of the movie indicate that Gibson's version of the Crucifixion has Jesus nailed as well as tied to the cross.

John Dominic Crossan, emeritus professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, agrees with Zias that little is known about Jesus’ execution.

“Early Christians believed that Jesus was nailed to the cross,” he said. “But there is absolutely no proof of this. The only skeleton of a crucified person ever recovered indicated that the two arms were tied to a crossbar, and two nails were used in either shinbone. There was no standard procedure in any of this. The only common feature in the different types of crucifixion is intense sadism.”

Shape of the cross
The type of cross in Jesus’ execution is also in question, Crossan said. First-century Romans are known to have used both a T-shaped device, without an upper extension, and the Latin cross that is standard in Christian iconography.

Each of the four Gospels says an inscription mocking Jesus as the “king of the Jews” was affixed to the cross. Crossan said this would have made sense “because the whole point of crucifixion was to warn people through alluding to a specific crime.”

Two of the Gospels say the inscription was mounted above Jesus. This presumably would strengthen the argument for a Latin cross, which would have provided space for writing about the condemned man’s head.

However, the other two Gospels don’t give a locator. “It (the written warning) could just as easily have hung around his neck,” Crossan said.

What did Jesus carry?
Crossan is also uncertain whether the complete cross on which Jesus was crucified was carried to the execution grounds — either by Simon of Cyrene, as three of the Gospels report, or by Jesus himself, according to John’s account.

It is possible that the vertical part of the cross was kept at Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ death, and that the condemned person carried the crossbar, Crossan said.

“The point is we simply don’t know,” he said, “not in general cases and not in the case of Jesus either.”