Was Jesus Crucified in the Manner Shown in Paintings and Movies?

Written by Bert Gary

Roman Crucifixion Methodology.

Was Jesus crucified in the manner shown in paintings and movies?

In a word, No.

By Bert Gary.

Please allow me to show you why he couldn’t have been crucified as portrayed in art and in the media, and allow me to show you how he was likely crucified based on real historical and archaeological evidence.

Notice how that in traditional art and film Jesus is nailed to the front of the cross. This introduces a physically impossibility. A person nailed to the front of the cross could not rest his back against it. He would be forced forward, leaning out away from the cross. Have you noticed how in movies and paintings Jesus is usually upright with his back and buttocks touching the cross upright? Impossible. It’s only possible to simulate that position (his back and buttocks touching the front of the cross) by having your “Jesus” standing with all of his weight on a foot-platform. If you don’t do that, you’ll have to use a harness hidden beneath his loin cloth to literally strap his buttocks to the upright (as they did in what was actually an otherwise great movie—The Gospel of John), because without it “Jesus” will lean out away from the cross dramatically. They discovered this accidentally in the making of the movie. They must have been surprised when the Jesus character leaned outward. They filmed him like this, as is shown in the companion DVD. But in the movie, they wrapped a strap beneath his loin cloth to keep his buttocks against the cross “fix” this, as you can see in the photo from the film (pictured below). I wonder if the filmmakers realize that they stumbled across the problem I’m addressing here, that Jesus couldn’t have been crucified like in old paintings and movies. Nailed to the front of the cross, a crucified man’s pelvis and chest will lunge forward away from the vertical post.

From the movie, “The Gospel of John”

Herein lies a new problem. Leaning out like that puts a lot of pressure on those nails through the flesh of the palms and tops of the feet. The result? A person nailed to the front of a cross like this would pretty quickly tear free and fall off.

Frederick T. Zugibe, M.D., Ph.D., Chief Medical Examiner in Rockland County, N.Y. and Adjunct Associate Professor of Pathology Columbia University College of Physician’s and Surgeons, N.Y. “crucified” both fresh cadavers (or body parts) and living students (using only straps, we hope) to test and study the practice of crucifixion. He proved with cadavers that if a man was nailed to the front of a cross (nailed in the palms and the top of the feet as in paintings and movies), the nail tore through the skin with only about 45 pounds of pressure. A man crucified in this manner could pull free of the cross from sheer body weight alone. But remember a living man could use gravity plus his own strength to pull loose. (I’m not a body builder. I’m a 50-year-old man in good general health. The other day at the gym I arm curled fifty pounds twenty times. Young athletes can do more than twice that. Pulling free from the cross if nailed to the front of it would be easy.) If you nail a man in a couple of places in the wrist instead of the palm, however, it’s more secure. Why? Because if the nail is in the palm, it’s in unsupported flesh that can tear. But a nail through a couple of easy to find spots in the wrist could more securely anchor it in place. This, however, still leaves three problems. 1) Where do you nail the feet so that they don’t pull free, 2) how do you stop a person nailed to the front of a cross from lurching dramatically forward, and 3), given that the head of crucifixion nails is small, how would you stop a man from yanking and causing the nail to pass clean through even his wrists as he tries to escape?

Based on the above evidence alone, it seems to me, the artists and movie makers who show Jesus nailed to the front of the cross are wrong. Their method just won’t work. You can’t nail the full weight of a man to the front of a cross without his body weight and his own muscle strength easily pulling him free. But, just in case you need it, there’s more evidence discovered in the laboratory that show Jesus couldn’t (and wouldn’t) have been nailed to the front of the cross. Zugibe (pictured above in his lab) found that his students “crucified” (with straps) in this manner began having serious difficulties almost immediately. When they lurched forward, as in Zugibe’s lab photo, their chests, shoulders, and arms began cramping in ten to twenty minutes. Only his strongest student was able to stand it for forty-five minutes. Death would come quickly crucified like this, if you didn’t pull free and fall off first! That’s the problem. Roman records indicate that people survived for days on the cross. These victims must have been in a different position, a more comfortable position (relatively speaking), in order to survive that long. But what position did they use?

Let’s start from scratch. I think that I’ve demonstrated that the movies and paintings are probably wrong. Where can we find clues to how it was done? Where can we get information about Roman crucifixion in Jesus’ day? While the Bible offers some details involved in crucifixion, as you will see, it offers us nothing about the shape of the cross or the method the soldiers used to attach Jesus to it, other than they used nails to pierced his hands and feet. Fortunately, we have two additional sources. One is Roman literature from that time. Then, most fortunately, there is the one and only crucified remains ever found. Let’s take a quick look at the literature first.

The sentence of death was described by Romans as sitting on the cross. They attached a peg or seat called a sedile (meaning seat) to the upright post (called the stipes), that the victim could sit on. (Forget the suppedaneum — a foot platform to stand on as pictured — at the bottom of the upright post which helps in passion plays, but was not used by the Romans.)

The peg (sedile) solves a lot of logistical problems. Sitting on the peg makes you more comfortable, so you will suffer longer. That was, after all, the point of crucifixion: prolong death so as to suffer for as long as possible. Roman records refer to a man who was taken off the cross after three days and recuperated. Another man lasted a full week before he died—seven days alive and suffering on the cross. Using a peg for the victim to sit on would make these scenarios possible. And another thing: sitting on a peg would prevent you from lurching forward. The seat would enable you to rest your weight on it, killing gravity’s pull forward away from the cross.

The Roman literature also shows that the crucified weren’t buried. That was part of the horror of it. When they crucified you, you knew up front that you were going to suffer for a long time, eventually dying, and that your body would hang there until it was eaten and your bones scattered by crows, vultures, hyenas, and dogs. The dignity of burial was disallowed everywhere but one place, however. You guessed it. Jerusalem. Because of the Jews religious sensibilities concerning corpses and defilement, the Romans in Jerusalem made exceptions to the rules. Jews would not tolerate dying men or corpses on crosses during Sabbaths and other holy festivals like Passover. This explains two important details from the biblical description of Jesus’ execution: 1) leg-breaking and spearing, and 2) removal and burial.

Leg-breaking and spearing: At about 3:00 p.m. they began breaking the three victims legs. Why? It hastened death. Why did they want to hasten death when the point of crucifixion was to prolong suffering and death? Because it was the eve of both the Jewish Sabbath (Friday) and the annual Passover. They wanted them dead and off the crosses by sunset (about 6 p.m.) that Friday. This is the way John put it:

Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.

John 19:31-34

Breaking the legs of victims to hasten death would have only been done on the eve of a holiday in Jerusalem, and nowhere else. Spearing the torso of a victim to confirm his death would have only been done in Jerusalem, and nowhere else. How do we know? Because only in Jerusalem are you going to take a man off the cross. Scavengers removed men from crosses everywhere else in the Roman world. And since the soldiers had to take Jesus off the cross, they had to make doubly sure he was dead first. How did they know he was already dead? A dead man on a cross would look very different from a struggling, suffering man. He’s collapsed, limp, and motionless. No breathing. Eyes are fixed and lifeless. His color very different. So, if it’s your job make sure he’s dead, then what’s the quickest and easiest way to make doubly sure? It’s what John records that a soldier did. He ran Jesus through with his spear.

Removal and burial: Pilate approved the removal of Jesus’ body from the cross for burial, a practice done in Jerusalem, and nowhere else.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away.

Matthew 27:57-60 (See also Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50-54, and John 19:38-40)

So breaking the legs and spearing of crucified men was not common practice anywhere but in Jerusalem, because the removal of the bodies from the cross for burial was not common practice anywhere but Jerusalem. This brings us to the archaeological evidence of crucifixion.

Ossuary (bone box) of Jehohanan

Let’s go back before 1968. After all the thousands of people the Romans crucified, no crucified remains were ever found—for the obvious reason that the bodies were torn apart by scavengers and never buried. But in 1968 something miraculous happened. A first century Jewish tomb was discovered in Jerusalem. The model foot pictured (below, left) demonstrates the actual heelbone of Jehohanan (below, right). In a first century Jewish tomb that contained a first century Jewish bone box (called and ossuary, above), archaeologists found the remains of a first century Jewish crucified man. As was the custom in that day, the victim’s name was scratched on the back side of the box. His name was Jehohanan. He was in his twenties. And he was not crucified like the traditional paintings and movies. By a sheer stroke of good fortune (for us today), his executioners apparently had a hard time getting Jehohanan off of the cross. How do we know? Because the crucifixion nail was still lodged in his heel bone. That’s right, I said his heel.

A Roman nail imbedded in the heel bone on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The crucified victims’ feet were affixed to the vertical beam of the cross by being nailed either from the sides through the heels as above or through the metatarsals from the front.

The man’s feet were not nailed to the front of the cross with a single nail. His heels were attached to the outsides of the post (stipes) with two nails. (See drawings) He was straddling the upright post, his heels nailed to the left and right sides of the cross. But there’s more. Look at the picture of Jehohanan’s heel bone, the model of his foot, and the drawing of his legs straddling the cross-post.

The nail passed first through a plaque of wood. How do we know? A bit of the plaque was still attached between Jehohanan’s heel and the nail head. What kind of wood was it? Tests showed it was from the Olive Tree. What was the plaque for? It acted like a washer. It broadened the head of the nail. Why? So the victim couldn’t pull free. The heel was secured (tightly sandwiched) between the plaque and the post. After hammering the nail through the plaque of wood it was hammered through the heel bone. Why the heel bone? Because you could tear your skin loose if the nail doesn’t go through bone. The heel bone is the strongest place in the foot to secure the nail. So the nail goes through the plaque/washer, then through the sturdy heel bone, and then into the cross’ upright post.

Jehohanan was nailed to a wooden post. How do we know? When they crucified him, the nail hit a knot in the wood that bent the nail inward creating a hooked tip. (See drawing above) They (Tsafaris, Zias, and others) tested the wood still clinging to the hooked nail-point. It was wood, of course, but the amount was insufficient to determine what kind.

You may be wondering, Why did they leave the nail in Jehohanan’s heel for burial? Apparently they couldn’t get it out! How do we know? After the man died, the soldiers began removing the nails to take him off of the cross for burial. (He, like Jesus and the two who died with him, must have been crucified on the eve of a holy day, since they allowed him to be taken off the cross and buried.) But when they got to the nail in his right heel, they couldn’t get it out. It was hooked in the stubborn knot. So they yanked him free. When they did, the whole apparatus—including a hunk of the knot—came loose with him. There in the bone box, undisturbed for almost two thousand years, archaeologists found a fragment of the hard knot from the post, the nail that had hooked into it, the man’s heel-bone, and the plaque of Olivewood, all still attached (though the wood had decayed significantly) and intact. It was like finding the Holy Grail for those interested in how Jesus died (or how Roman crucifixion was done).

How could Jesus have been nailed through the wrist when the Bible specifically says hands? In the ancient world, the hand begins at the forearm and includes the wrist. In the New Testament, the Greek word for hand is cei,r cheir {pronounced khire}.

He struck Peter on the side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly!” And the chains fell off Peter’s wrists (cheir).

Acts 12:7 tn Grk “the hands,” but the wrist was considered a part of the hand.

As the notes of the New English Version confirm, the wrist is a part of the hand in New Testament Greek. The verse literally says, “and his chains fell from off his hands.” But you don’t chain people’s hands (as we define hands in English). The shackles go on the wrists. But this isn’t a problem since cheir can mean hands, wrist, or forearm. Therefore, the nails could have gone through Jesus’ forearms, wrists, or palms, linguistically speaking. We’ve ruled out the palms because they couldn’t support a man’s body weight without tearing and causing him to fall off the cross. That leaves the forearm and wrist. If the forearm, then you would nail it between the two bones of the forearm, the radius and the ulna. If the wrist, then two spots present themselves, one in particular is easy to find. Press your finger in the indentation in the back of your wrist. Now I’ll show you why Jesus was probably nailed through the back of his wrist instead of the front.

The question to ask when considering the crucifixion is: What’s the easiest and most efficient way to crucify someone? Or, put it like this: What was the standard method that best secured the man yet maximally prolonged his death?

  1. You have a short post (the stipes) in the ground. The victim carries only the patibulum (the horizontal crossbeam) to the location of the stipes (the upright post). There the crossbeam is attached to the post at approximately eyelevel. Both the post and the crossbeam are notched so as to fit together. They secure them with nails.
  2. Then the victim can be hoisted onto the peg or seat (the sedile) by two men. His waist and chest are roped to keep him from struggling free. Then his arms and legs are roped in place for nailing: His arms are thrown over the top and behind the crossbeam. His legs straddle the post.
  3. They start nails through four small plaques of wood. Two of them are held to the backs of the victim’s wrists on the back side of the crossbeam. The soldier finds the dip in the back of his wrist with his finger. He drives the nail through the plaque, through the back of the wrist, and into the backside of the crossbeam. He does the same with his other wrist. Another soldier meanwhile takes the other two plaques with nails piercing them and holds them over the heel bone, and he drives the nail through the plaque, through the heal, and into the post.
  4. Now they remove all the ropes, though removing them isn’t necessary, and they sit down and eat, talk, taunt the victim, gamble for his belongings, and guard him until he dies. It’s necessary that they stay until he’s dead because it would be easy enough to quickly take him off the cross and escape.

Notice that they crucified men eyeball to eyeball with the soldiers and passersby, not up in the sky. It’s about efficiency and ease. Why go to all the trouble and expense to hoist Jesus way up into the air? Typically Jesus’ feet are at least at eye level to those standing by in paintings. In the movie, “Jesus of Nazareth,” he’s hoisted up with ropes and pullies on a giant scaffolding. But there’s no point to it. Only two soldiers are needed to sit him on the peg to be tied, then nailed. This all begs the question Why? Why in art and movies is he way up in the air? You won’t believe this:

There is only one reason I can think of for a super tall cross. The biblical record says that when Jesus said he was thirsty, a soldier put a sponge on a stick, dipped it in sour wine, and put it to his lips. Artists assumed that the reason that they had to put the sponge on a stick was because he was crucified up high and out of reach. Why else would the soldier have needed a stick but to extend his reach to get the sponge to Jesus’ mouth? But there is a very good reason why this is wrong, and it’s not pleasant. Several studies have proved, I think, beyond doubt how Romans relieved themselves and cleaned themselves afterward. Look at this photo of a typical public toilet found in every Roman city. 

Notice that the men in the drawings are holding sponges on sticks, and note the channel of running water for rinsing the sponge. 

Notice that the rim is not only open on the top where you sit, but the opening is extended to the front as well. And notice the shallow channel running at the foot of the bench. The channel ran with clean water. Lacking toilet paper in those days, persons used a sponge on a short stick (used as a handle). You wet it, pass it through to opening, clean yourself, rinse in the channel, and repeat as needed. At least one of the soldiers who crucified Jesus had such an instrument. The sponge on a stick was the equivalent of first century toilet paper. So, even though the stick was short, the soldier had no problem reaching Jesus’ mouth, since he was crucified at ground level. I’m sorry for the picture I’m painting because it isn’t pretty. But when Jesus said, “I thirst,” one of the soldiers dipped his personal bathroom sponge in sour wine and put it to Jesus’ lips, and it was one of several ways mentioned in the Bible that the soldiers mocked and mistreated Jesus. They made sport of him as he died. But even more remarkable is that he received the drink without complaint. John says he drank it, said “It is finished,” and died. He indeed drank the cup of his own degradation and death.

The most accurate sketch I can find of how Jesus was probably crucified is this one by Charles Pickard. Turn his hands around and use nails instead of ropes and it’s perfect. Notice he’s seated on a peg (sedile).
Am I saying that this is certainly the way Jesus was crucified? No. There are still uncertainties. Was the cross +-shaped or T-shaped? Was the upright a post or a tree trunk?
So what’s certain? It is certain, given the biblical record, that Jesus was not crucified “on a hill far away,” not if by “on a hill far away” you mean atop a hill some distance from the city of Jerusalem. Romans crucified victims on main roads just outside city gates. They wanted people coming in and going out to witness who is in charge, and demonstrate what can happen to you if you intend to make trouble. Is there biblical evidence that Jesus was crucified right outside of a Jerusalem city gate? Absolutely.
That there were passersby indicates that he was crucified at roadside, as was the Roman practice.

Those who passed by derided him . . .

Mark 15:29

Moreover, John specifically records that many passed by as he was crucified near the city.

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city;

John 19:19-20

Do we know the exact spot? I think so, though the evidence isn’t conclusive. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher today is inside the present walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
But in Jesus’ day, the site of the church is just outside the wall at a main gate, and on a main road. Adjacent to that road (north) is an abandoned stone quarry. It had been abandoned because the quarrymen ran out of usable limestone. What was left was a pit of soft limestone. The area was the site for two things in the first century:

1.      An abandoned quarry outside the city is a good place for a cemetery. The soft limestone, of no use for building, can easily be carved out for burial caves of a kind specific to first century, Palestine, Judaism. And that is precisely what is there within the walls of the present-day church. Mere feet behind the shrine locating the spot of Jesus’ burial, in the Syrian Chapel, is a first century Jewish tomb (seen in diagram and picture left), proving that the abandoned quarry was turned into a cemetery by Jews of Jesus’ day. Mere feet from the spot venerated as Jesus’ sepulchre, this is the tomb next door, and his would have been similar before they razed it to build the shrine.

2.      There is also in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a tall outcropping of soft limestone atop which is a chapel marking the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion. In Jesus’ day, the tall outcropping of white rock must have resembled a skull—thus the nickname for the spot: The Place of the Skull. Today all that is left is a tall sliver of this “hill”. But were Jesus and two other men crucified atop this white outcropping? Not likely. It was roadside at city gates that crucifixions were conspicuously displayed as a warning to troublemakers, perhaps where the red X marks the spot in the photos, or somewhere along one of the roads pictured that entered the city gate. The Romans valued ease and efficiency, and therefore would not likely go to all the trouble of hauling themselves and their equipment and their prisoners up the steep slope of “the skull” to squeeze three crucifixions into a tiny area on top. But the Bible doesn’t say that Jesus was crucified on a hill, or on a white, skull-like outcropping of soft limestone. What it does say is that Jesus was crucified at “the Place of the Skull”. Think of Jesus being crucified at roadside in front of the abandoned quarry containing a skull-like outcropping, a garden, and tombs. He wasn’t likely on top of the outcropping but in front of it–at the place of the skull. The outcropping in the quarry was the backdrop of his crucifixion at roadside. (The photo shows a model of the quarry beside the main western road into Jerusalem, likely the Place of the Skull and the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.)

I’ve written too much already for one web log, so I’ll stop here. Maybe I’ll do a Part Two so that I can address who was eligible for crucifixion, what crucified victims wore, what drinks might have been provided, the cause of death, what happens to your family when you have a relative crucified, what Jesus said from the cross and what he meant, other details in the biblical accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul’s theology of the cross, what the non-canonical Gospel of Peter says, why the Garden Tomb is not the spot, the history of the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the best resources on this subject, and more. It’s a broad subject once you start digging.

Let me leave you with a question that haunts me. If we’ve known about how Jehohanan was crucified since 1968—that’s 45 years ago—, then why haven’t you ever heard anything about this before? I’m afraid it’s true that sometimes traditions don’t want to yield to facts.

For more on the subject of Jesus’ crucifixion see my blog Good Friday: Messiah Damned.

Bert Gary is an adjunct faculty member at the Society for Biblical Studies. He is the author of Jesus Unplugged, and his next book is entitled “Heaven for Skeptics.”

About the author

Bert Gary


  • Ed-M
    Very interesting and informative. I didn’t know about the scat angle (Yeeeeccchhhh!!!) But there is one fact about crucifixion that you haven’t found out yet which explains Seneca’s remarks about crucifixion including “the piercing cross” and the “procedure that disgracefully effeminizes men” (carminis effeminati turpitudo). It also explains Justin Martyr’s description of the fifth extremity the cross being “shaped like a horn and LOOKS like a horn.” Furthermore, it also explains John 19:29 with its mention of placing hyssop on the sponge (NOT vice-versa as KJV would have it) for hyssop was a topical painkiller. What I am getting at is not pleasant in the least to anybody! Yet the sedile needed to be specially designed to prevent the crucified person from sliding forward and falling off the end, once it has become slick with his own perspiration.

  • Ed-M

    I’m completely baffled, too. I believe cold, hard, scientific fact must be used to determine how the Romans really crucified. This means searching for all the archaeological evidence, researching the meanings of words and sifting through the writings of the ancients, both Christian and not. Comparison of the all this evidence and comparing it to the traditional representation of crucifixion has led some people to believe that the Romans never crucified criminals at all! BTW the Romans nailed a wax image of Julius Caesar to a tall Latin Cross. This is the first clue that should tip you off to the fact that the traditional depiction of The Crucifixion is utterly false. The Romans would NEVER lift up their criminals as if they were gods!

    Seeking revelation on this issue won’t cut it for most believers (not to mention unbelievers!) because most consider revelation to have come to an end with the Book of Revelation.

  • “… and then lie down for the nailing. the embarrassment of being naked would be a Great Shame for them – but for the women at Christ’s Passion they made a slight exception and covered his genitals for the women’s eyes.”
    Gee… Wasn’t it nice of the Centurions to also crawl up and cover the penises of the two criminals who were crucified on ether side of Jesus.
    Thanks for a great article.
    It’s possible the crucifixion of Jesus was even an uglier picture than anyone would care to describe.

  • Bert Gary

    On issue one, I don’t know whether John 3:14 played into the iconographic tradition—it may have. It’s reasonable to consider. Your making me reflect on this. Here’s another quote from John with “lifted up” in it:

    John 12:32 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

    As is repeated constantly in John’s G (I have no doubt you know this, but let me lay it out), Jesus’ words have multiple meanings causing people to misunderstand. “Lifted up” could mean exaltation, ascension, or crucifixion. Or all of the above. But the consensus is it means first and foremost the cross.

    If we risk taking the phrase “lifted up” literally, the first thing to notice is that this phrase fits my description of two soldiers lifting up criminals onto the sedile (seat or peg). The phrase does not fit as well with lying the prisoner down on a prone cross to be nailed and then levered to the upright position, or hoisting the prisoner up on a scaffolding. Taken literally, lifted up means lifted up by hand, meaning a couple of soldiers lifted up Jesus onto the sedile to be nailed at eye level. No ladders, hoists, or levering necessary.

    This action of being lifted up on the cross doesn’t just do something to Christians. It does something, according to John, to everyone (all people). Theologically this is God joining humanity in suffering and death. God becomes utterly human, and dying completes this. His death unites heaven and earth, unites humanity and divinity, in life and in death.

    Also, describing crucifixion as being lifted up is not without irony. There was no more degrading, dehumanizing, debasing manner of death. Being” brought low” would be more appropriate language for crucifixion than elevation. But that’s the mystery/paradox. They brought him low by lifting him up onto a cross; he accepted being debased in order to elevate humanity.

    On issue two, I don’t know. I can’t remember reading references to where the titulus was attached, though I do remember reading that they hung the titulus around the neck of the prisoner as he carried his cross to the execution site. They could have hung it or nailed it any spot available on the stipes or patibulum.
    November 10, 2014 at 8:58 PM

Leave a Comment