It is almost universally understood among Christians and those familiar with the stories of the New Testament that Jesus of Nazareth was executed by being nailed to a cross.
Like most other people, this is a fact of history that I have never really questioned. I still do not question whether Jesus was executed by means of crucifixion, but lately I have begun investigating the historical basis for assuming his crucifixion actually entailed being nailed to the cross.
It is a known fact that the vast majority of Roman crucifixions did not actually involve nails or spikes. The condemned were simply tied to a cross and left to the elements, where they would slowly suffocate due to the position of the body. The whole purpose of crucifixion was to make the victim suffer a slow, agonizing death, not otherwise involving bodily violence. Driving spikes through the wrists or feet could have hastened death and therefore reduced the severity of the penalty. Perhaps more importantly, nails or spikes would have been a costly extravagance, and the Romans were nothing if not practical. With the tens of thousands of criminals and prisoners-of-war that the Romans are said to have crucified, it would have been cost-prohibitive to use anything other than ropes. This is why the historical data shows that most crucifixion victims were bound to the cross, not nailed.
With this in mind, we turn to the stories from the Bible. Readers may be surprised to discover that not a single account of Jesus’ crucifixion from the four Gospels says that Jesus was nailed to the cross. Instead, the writers simply note that Jesus was “crucified.” The images we have of Jesus’ executioners painstakingly affixing him with spikes to the cross come to us from art and film, not from the stories of the Gospels.
In fact, in our modern English-language Bibles, the word “nail” only appears three times in the New Testament. In at least two of these spots – Acts 2:23 and Colossians 2:14b – and possibly in the third – John 20:25b – the word is actually mistranslated.
Acts 2:23 (NIV) – “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”
In this passage, the phrase translated as “nailing him to the cross” was based on the single Greek word prospegnymi, which does not mean “nailing to a cross,” but rather simply “to fasten.” In other words, wicked men put Jesus to death by fastening him to a cross. The method of this fastening, whether by nails, ropes, or some other method, is not implied. We know, however, that the same person who wrote Acts also wrote the Gospel of Luke, and as already noted, neither Luke nor any other Gospel writer, when describing the crucifixion, mentions that Jesus was actually nailed to his cross.
The second passage in question, Colossians 2:14b, says: “…he took [our sin] away, nailing it to the cross.”
This passage comes from a letter that may have been written by Paul, but was more likely written much later by someone writing in Paul’s name. Either way, the image provided by this translation is metaphorical – the writer is saying that our sin was “nailed to the cross” with Jesus. However, the Greek word used here – proseloo – simply means, as in the passage in Acts, “to fasten.” So again there is no implication in the original Greek whether this fastening involved nailing, tying, or some other method.
The final passage in question comes to us from the Gospel of John. However, it does not appear in the crucifixion scenes. Instead, it occurs in the resurrection scenes, specifically the famous account of “Doubting Thomas.” In 20:25b, Thomas says: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
The Greek word used here is helos. This is a very obscure word that is not attested in very many ancient Greek sources outside the New Testament – and its only occurrence in the New Testament is in this one passage. This means that the meaning of the word must be inferred from the context in which it is used. Most ancient Greek dictionaries suggest that it probably meant “spike” or “stud,” but some sources translate it as “talon,” “claw,” or “fingernail.” It is notable to point out that in the few ancient sources outside the New Testament where the word is used, the context seems to point more strongly to the latter group than the former, meaning it may have more likely referred to a fingernail than a spike.
If you read this passage in John as though the “nail” marks referred to were fingernail marks, it still makes sense in context. A crucifixion victim would no doubt have been tensing and squeezing his hands in pain and suffering, potentially digging his fingernails into his palms. Perhaps John’s Thomas was referring to this when he talked about “nail marks.”
Of course, that seems far-fetched, but even if we assume that John did, in fact, mean spikes, it is still notable to point out that the one and only reference to Jesus being nailed to his cross comes in the last of the Gospels, one of the last overall books to be written in the New Testament, composed somewhere around 100 C.E., or 70 years after Jesus’ death. And even then it comes in a resurrection account, not in the actual description of the crucifixion.
This rather late appearance in the Biblical texts of actual nails being used in Jesus’ execution is made even more significant when we consider the historical context. I have already noted that crucifixion in ancient Rome involved tying the victim to a cross, not nailing them. However, there is at least one account in secular records of the Romans actually nailing victims to crosses. This comes to us from the historian Josephus, who chronicles the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 C.E. This war, of course, culminated in the final destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and sent the Jews into political exile for the next two millennia. Josephus tells us that the Romans, during their siege of Jerusalem, executed numerous Jewish rebels by crucifixion, and Josephus notes with horror and shock that many of these people were actually nailed to their crosses. The obvious implication in the tone Josephus uses is that this was an especially vicious and unusual anomaly.
This siege of Jerusalem, of course, had a dramatic impact on the texts of the New Testament, because many of them were written during, or just after, these world-changing events within Jewish history. If Josephus’ impression is anything to go by, it is safe to assume that Jews everywhere would have been aware of how the Romans not only crucified a large number of Jewish rebels, but even nailed them to their crosses. It would be easy to see, then, how the idea of Jesus being nailed to his cross might have crept into some of the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion – such as the Doubting Thomas story in the Gospel of John. The fact that the Romans of the early 1st century – in the time of Jesus – did not tend to crucify people with nails would have been lost on the writer of John, who was writing after the horrific events of 70 C.E. when the Romans actually did crucify people with nails. John’s account, then, may very well be a clear and obvious case of a Gospel writer writing modern perspectives back into the story of Jesus.
Whether Jesus was crucified with nails, or simply tied to his cross, does not, of course, really change anything for Christianity, theologically speaking. For those with a peculiar obsession with Jesus’ physical suffering (something that seems to be a hallmark of many conservative Catholics), this may be problematic, but otherwise it should not have any significant bearing on one’s faith.
More than anything else, this is simply an interesting tidbit that can help to illumine the difference between what many Christians commonly believe about Jesus and what the Bible actually says.