Of all the articles I planned to write for the Bible Times PhotoMuseum, I figured the article on Crucifixion would be relatively easy. After all, I already had a pretty good idea of who invented the practice (the Romans), how crucifixion was practiced (nails through hands and feet, fully assembled crosses raised to position, etc.), and how it caused death (by asphyxiation as the crucified became too tired to lift himself up to breathe). When I started doing my research, however, I was shocked to discover how little we actually know about crucifixion.
First, I was surprised at the scarcity of evidence for crucifixion. Though crucifixion was widely practiced in the Roman world, ancient writers appear to have seen it as distasteful to discuss in detail. Even the authors of the Christian Gospels, who regarded the crucifixion of Jesus as a pivotal event, offer almost no details about the crucifixion itself. They simply read, "they crucified him" (Matt 27:38; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:33; John 19:18). Even a detail as important as that Jesus was nailed to the cross is omitted, except for the fact that the scars from the nails are mentioned later (John 20:25).
Not only are there few literary descriptions of the practice of crucifixion, there is a shocking lack of archaeological evidence for it. To date, only one set of remains has been discovered which clearly belonged to someone who was crucified. Discovered in a tomb outside Jerusalem in 1968, the remains of a first-century man featured a heel bone with an iron nail driven through it. Such nails were usually pulled out and re-used, but this nail could not be removed because it had become bent.
Even though we now have one crucified skeleton, the question of exactly how that man was nailed to a cross is debated among scholars. Some say he was nailed through the wrists and his legs were twisted so that a single nail was driven through both heels. Others say his arms were tied to the cross and each heel was nailed to opposite sides of the upright beam. The PhotoMuseum article lets you see both reconstructions.
Also debated among scholars is what exactly caused the death of someone who was crucified. Most people have heard that victims of crucifixion died of asphyxiation, but this theory was only proposed in the 1950s and is based on limited evidence. More recently, a forensic pathologist has concluded that crucified people likely died of a very different cause.
So forget what you think you know about crucifixion. Much of what you've heard is less certain than you've been led to believe. If you want to learn what we do know for sure, check out the article on Crucifixion in the PhotoMuseum. There you'll learn that for all the questions surrounding the practice of crucifixion, the ancients who witnessed it were certain of one thing: it was "the most lamentable of deaths" (Josephus).