It’s often said that if all of the fragments of wood around the world that are alleged to be pieces of the crucifixion cross of Jesus were collected, a skilled carpenter (ironically) could assemble them into dozens of crosses. A similar statement can be made for the buckets of nails alleged to be use on the same cross. Two more were discovered in 1990 in Jerusalem (qualifier #1) in what appears to be the tomb of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest whom the Gospels say helped sentence Jesus to crucifixion (qualifier #2). The nails are 2,000 years old (qualifier #3), have embedded fragments of wood (qualifier #4) and embedded fragments of bone… is that last one a qualifier, an eliminator or a “This changes everything” discovery? A new study set out to use scientific methods to find out.
As reported in Haaretz, much has happened between the time the nails were discovered in 1990 in a first century CE Jewish burial cave near an ossuary that was inscribed with the name “Caiaphas and this year when Dr. Aryeh Shimron, a retired geologist who worked with Israel's Geological Survey, and his team analyzed them. For one thing, they got lost shortly after it was recorded that one was in the tomb and one was on the floor next to the ossuary of Caiaphas. Then they were allegedly rediscovered in 2011 by journalist Simcha Jacobovici just in time for his documentary. Serendipity or suspicious?
Jacobovici presented the nails as proven by an expert to have been used in a crucifixion, but he offered no definitive proof that they were found in the tomb of Caiaphas or that they were the holy grail of nails. That’s what Shimron, a friend of Jacobovici, set out to prove or disprove. He was allowed to take samples of sediments from the ossuaries found in the Caiaphas tomb and scrapings from the nails, and found that the chemical and physical signatures matched. Case closed? Not yet. For further proof, they analyzed the fungus from the organic remains on the nails and iron fragments on the walls and determined they were found in no other local tombs. Drop the mic? Not yet. Were these the type of nails used in a crucifixion?
“The nails are 8 cm long with a slightly tapered end, they were purposely bent at an angle of 65˚—on Nail 1 and 75˚—on Nail 2, a practice apparently linked to nails used in crucifixions.”
There were also wood fragments embedded in the nails (more to add to the “pieces of the real cross” collection?) and bone fragments – more indications of use in a crucifixion. That sealed the deal for Shimron and his study team (read their study here in Scientific Research).
“Based on the collective evidence we conclude, with considerable confidence, that the unprovenanced nails are the lost nails excavated from the Caiaphas family tomb in 1990 and furthermore that these nails were used in a crucifixion.”
“It follows that the presence of two nails with slivers of accreted cedar wood containing trace remains of bone tissue, present in two different ossuaries in the tomb of Caiaphas, suggests that, although neglected, these rare artifacts were an important issue in the family of the high priest.”
"The evidence that the nails were used in a crucifixion is indeed powerful. But the only evidence we have that they were used to crucify the Jesus of the Gospels is that they were found in the tomb of Caiaphas. Does our evidence suffice? I really cannot say, I choose to rely on good science rather than speculation. Perhaps a reader of the full manuscript should rely on his or her own judgment."
Haaretz found multiple anthropologists who found the research and conclusions interesting but doubtful due to the rarity of actually crucifixion nails to compare them to, doubts that the tomb actually belonged to Caiaphas, and doubts that the nails – especially after being lost – were actually found in that tomb.
We've added "interesting but doubtful" to our meter where the need is pointing. Read the study for yourself and draw your own conclusions.