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On Tuesday, April 12, 2011, a news conference was held in Jerusalem by filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici. In it, he claimed that two nails that were excavated more than 20 years ago were hammered into the hands of Jesus at His crucifixion. They had 'disappeared' soon after the excavations but were recently rediscovered in the labs of Tel Aviv University and are now in his possession. In an interview with Bloomberg News (April 12, 2011), he claimed: 'Do I know 100 percent that these nails were used to crucify Jesus? No, I think we have a very compelling case to say: these are them.' 

Jacobovici also believes that Caiaphas, the high priest responsible for turning Jesus over to the Roman governor of Judea, Pontus Pilate, converted to the Judeo-Christian movement that believed Jesus was the messiah, but not God. After he died, the family of Caiaphas wanted the nails buried with him because they thought the nails possessed talismanic powers and would give him divine protection in the afterlife!

Is there any evidence for these sensational claims by Simcha Jacobovici?

Who is Simcha Jacobovici?

Jacobovici is a very colorful movie producer. He is famous for his sensationalist television program, the “Naked Archaeologist.” Having watched the program, I can attest to the fact that he does not appear naked in the show, and it is equally obvious that he is not an archaeologist! He has been labeled by archaeologists working in Israel as a con man, charlatan, scam artist, publicity hound, and even worse. He should not be taken seriously, but because of his sensationalistic approach, the news media loves his programming.

In 2007 he released a video and book that alleged the family tomb of Jesus was found in the East Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem and it included an ossuary with the bones of Jesus. This program was a misguided attack on the deity of the Lord Jesus and His bodily resurrection. It has, however, been thoroughly refuted by a number of people. See: The So-Called Jesus Family Tomb Rediscovered in Jerusalem 

The Tomb of the House of Caiaphas

Jacobovici’s current “discovery” concerns a burial cave that workmen accidently discovered while making a water park in the Peace Forest in the southern part of Jerusalem during November / December 1990. It was a simple, single burial chamber with four loculi (called kokhim in Hebrew) typical of the Second Temple period. Three kokhim were on the western wall of the cave (labeled Kokhim I, II, and III) and one was on the southern wall (labeled Kokhim IV). There was a central depression that was filled with debris, including broken ossuaries (Greenhut 1991: 6-12; 1992a: 63-71; 1992b: 28-36, 76).

There were six intact ossuaries (bone boxes used for secondary burial) found in the burial cave. Two (Ossuaries 5 and 6) were found in situ in Kokhim IV. The other four had been removed from their original positions in Kokhim I-III by the workmen. Six other broken ossuaries and three lids were found scattered throughout the cave (Greenhut 1992a: 67).

Five of the ossuaries had inscriptions on them, with two ossuaries having inscriptions relating to the House of Caiaphas (Reich 1991: 13-21; 1992a: 72-77; 1992b: 38-44, 76). Of these two: Ossuary 3 contained the skeletal remains of “five individuals – an adult female, a juvenile, two seven year old children and a newborn” (Zias 1992: 78-79). It is into this ossuary that Jacobovici suggests the bones of the high priest were placed. According to the anthropological report, however, there were no adult male bones in this ossuary.

Ossuary 6, a very ornate box, had the name “Joseph bar (son of) Caiaphas” on it twice (Reich 1991: 15-17; 1992: 72-73, Fig. 5 and 6) and contained the partial skeletal “remains of six individuals, including a male c. 60 years old” (Zias 1992: 78-79). It is this 60-year-old male that some have suggested is the high priest who served in the Temple from AD 18-36 and is mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 26:3, 57; Luke 3:2; John 11:49; 18:13, 14, 24, 28; Acts 4:6). Reich suggests that the name Caiaphas was a nickname and the inscription would mean, “Joseph of the family of Caiaphas” (1991: 16; see also Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.35 and 95; LCL 9:31, 69). There is still a scholarly debate as to whether the “Joseph bar Caiaphas” in Ossuary 6 is the high priest from the time of Jesus, or it belonged to his grandfather or grandson, as both would also have the name Joseph.

How Long Were the Nails?

At the press conference it was reported that the nails were about three inches long (8 centimeters). Unfortunately the pictures of the nails that were released at the press conference (see the Ha’aretz website) do not have a measuring scale next to them in order to verify this measurement. Scales next to objects is standard practice by archaeologists.

There is only one archaeological example of a crucified man that has been found in Jerusalem. In June 1968 a burial cave was found in the Giv’at ha-Mivtar neighborhood of Jerusalem. In it was found an ossuary that contained the bones of a crucified man with a large iron nail still pierced through his calcanei (heel) and into some wood (Tzaferis 1970: 18-32; Haas 1970: 42, 49-59). The nail measured 11.5 cm (4 ½ inches) long (Zias and Sekeles 1985: 23).

The nails that are in Jacobovici’s possession are 3 inches or less and could not hold a crucified man to a cross beam. The sheer weight of the man would pull the nails right out of the wood. Thus these nails could not have been used in any crucifixion, much less Jesus’!

Where Were the Nails Found?

The excavator, Zvi Greenhut, describes the two nails from the 1990 excavation in his final archaeological report. Unfortunately he does not include a photograph of them so scholars can compare the ones found in the Tomb of the House of Caiaphas with the ones that are in Jacobovici’s possession and to verify that they are the same nails. Greenhut reports: “Two iron nails were found in this cave. One was found inside one of the ossuaries and the other in Kokh IV. It is possible that these nails were used to inscribe the ossuaries after the bones had been deposited in them, possibly even after some of the ossuaries were placed inside the kokhim” (1992a: 68). Elsewhere, Greenhut identified which ossuary the nail was found in: Ossuary 1 (Greenhut 1991:11).

Ossuary 1 is a nondescript bone box with a flat lid and no decorations or inscriptions on it (Greenhut 1992a: 67). It contained the “poorly preserved remains of four individuals – two adults and two children” (Zias 1992: 78-79). This ossuary was apparently from one of the kokhim on the western wall of the cave (Greenhut 1992a: 63). It is clear that at least one of the nails was found in an ossuary other than the one with the bones of “Caiaphas.”

The physical anthropologist from Tel Aviv University, whose control the nails were under, has repeatedly told the news media that the origin of the nails that Jacobovici is showing is unknown and they have nothing whatsoever to do with crucifixion. Dr. Joe Zias, under whose curatorship those nails were under when he worked at the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the nails that Jacobovici is showing did not come from the Caiaphas tomb.

What Were the Nails Used For?

Dr. Levi Rahmani (1994), an expert on Jewish ossuaries, has suggested two possible uses for nails that were found in tombs. The first use is for fixing the lid of an ossuary to the bone box. Rahmani cites one example where there were still traces of iron in the hole (1961: 102, no. 9). The second use is for “scratching the name of the deceased on an ossuary” (1961: 100).

The excavator states that these two nails were used for scratching “the inscriptions on the ossuaries in the cave after the bones had been collected and placed in them and even after some of the ossuaries had been placed in their loculi. This is evident from the fact that some of the inscriptions were written perpendicularly, from the bottom to the top of the ossuary” (Greenhut 1992b: 36).

It is highly probable that the nail found in Kokhim IV was used for scratching the names of Caiaphas on Ossuary 6, but it is important to note that it was not found inside the ossuary of Caiaphas and thus not a talisman with divine power to protect Caiaphas in the afterlife as Jacobovici would like to claim.

Nails from a crucified person have healing powers according to the Mishnah. Tractate Shabbath 6:10 describes some of the things that can be carried on Shabbat, including nails. “Men may go out with a locust’s egg or a jackal’s tooth or with a nail of [the gallow of] one that was crucified, as a means of healing. So R. Meir. But the Sages say: Even on ordinary days this is forbidden as following in the ways of the Amorites (heathen superstition).”

What is Simcha Trying to Do?

Although it is difficult to tell what Jacobovici is trying to do, it seems he is trying to exonerate Caiaphas and absolve him of all responsibility of the death of Jesus. This might be Jacobovici’s way of improving the Jewish-Christian dialog concerning the responsibility of the death of Jesus.

The news media, on the other hand, is always looking for something sensational to report during the Easter season. A quick glance at their track record will clearly demonstrate this. In 1996 the BBC had an Easter Special that claimed that ossuaries from a burial cave in an East Talpiyot neighborhood had the names of Joseph, Mary and Jesus on them and this was the “holy family.” In 2001 and 2002, Rabbi Wolpe from Los Angeles said right before Passover that there was no archaeological evidence for the Exodus from Egypt. In 2003, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was released. In 2006, a double whammy was released: Gospel of Judas and Jesus Dynasty. In 2007, the “Naked Archaeologist” released his so-called “Jesus Family Tomb.” This was a follow-up on the 1996 BBC Easter special. In 2008, the movie “Bloodline“ was released that allegedly had the archaeological “proof” for the Da Vinci Code.

Ho hum, here we go again. The media should be ashamed of itself for promoting such nonsensical pseudo-archaeology. If they must circulate sensational stories, at least they owe it to their readers to investigate the claim by interviewing scholars in the field.

Conclusion of the Matter

It will be interesting to see how Jacobovici tries to “rehabilitate” Caiaphas. For a good background study on the life, personality, and activities of Caiaphas and the Sadducees, sees the two articles by Professor David Flusser (1991; 1992).

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) released this statement: “There is no doubt that the talented director Simcha Jacobovici created an interesting film with a real archaeological find at it’s centre, but the interpretation presented in it has no basis in archaeological findings or research.”

I think Dr. Gabriel Barkay, the leading scholar on the archaeology of Jerusalem and a professor at Bar-Ilan University, sums it up best. He states: “There is no proof whatsoever that those nails came from the cave of Caiaphas. There is no proof that the nails are connected to any bones or any bone residue attached to the nails and no proof from textual data that Caiaphas had the nails for the crucifixion with him after the crucifixion took place and after Jesus was taken down from the cross.”

I will be watching the “documentary” on the History Channel entitled “The Nails of the Cross” on April 20 after which I will give a full report. But if Simcha is consistent with some of his segments of “Naked Archaeologist” that are long on sensationalism and unsubstantiated claims, and short on credible substance, the viewer will be very disappointed with this video. He will present no evidence for his sensationalistic claims.

Bibliography

Danby, Herbert

1985 The Mishnah. Oxford: Oxford University.

Flusser, David

1991  … To Bury Caiaphas, Not to Praise Him. Jerusalem Perspective 4/4-5: 23-28.

1992 Caiaphas in the New Testament. ‘Atiqot 21: 81-87.

Greenhut, Zvi

1991  Discovery of the Caiaphas Family Tomb. Jerusalem Perspective 4/4-5: 6-12.

1992a The ‘Caiaphas’ Tomb in North Talpiyot, Jerusalem. ‘Atiqot 21: 63-71.

1992b Discovered in Jerusalem: Burial Cave of the Caiaphas Family. Biblical Archaeology Review 18/5: 28-36, 76.

Hass, N.

1970 Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar. Israel Exploration Journal 20/1-2: 38-59.

Josephus

1981 Antiquities of the Jews. Books 18-19. Vol. 9. Trans. by L. H. Feldman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard university. Loeb Classical Library 433.

Rahmani, Levi

1961 Jewish Rock-Cut Tombs in Jerusalem. ‘Atiqot 3: 93-120.

1994 A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Reich, Ronny

1991 Ossuary Inscriptions from the Caiaphas Tomb. Jerusalem Perspective 4/4-5: 13-21.

1992a  Ossuary Inscriptions from the ‘Caiaphas’ Tomb. ‘Atiqot 21: 72-77.

1992b Caiaphas Name Inscribed on Bone Boxes. Biblical Archaeology Review 18/5: 38-44, 76.

Tzaferis, V.

1970 Jewish Tombs at and near Giv’at ha-Mivtar, Jerusalem. Israel Exploration Journal 20/1-2: 18-32.

Zias, Joseph

1992 Human Skeletal Remains from the ‘Caiaphas’ Tomb. ‘Atiqot 21: 78-80.

Zias, Joseph; and Sekeles, Eliezer

1985 The Crucified Man from Giv’at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal. Israel Exploration Journal 35/1: 22-27.

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ABRT 28 | 8/1/2019