Relics of Jesus: The Nails

This is a long post with multiple parts. When I’ve done these things in the past, I’ve broken them up into several posts spread over days. This time I’m going to put it all here and provide an active Table of Contents so you can jump around.

Was Jesus Nailed to the Cross?
The Cross and the Nails
The Witness of the Church
How Many Nails Were Used?
The Archaeological Evidence
The Relics

Was Jesus Nailed to the Cross?

It seems like an easy question to answer, but the Gospels are silent on this moment of the crucifixion.

If you look at the four Gospel accounts of the crucifixion itself, nowhere do they specify that Jesus was nailed to his cross. We have such specific images in our minds of this scene that this may come as a shock to some, but let’s look at the passages.

Mark says simply “And they crucify him” (15:24); Matthew, “And when they had crucified him” (27:35); Luke, “And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him” (23:33); and John, “There they crucified him” (19:18).

There are some interesting things to note about the way the evangelists handled the actual crucifixion. First, there is Mark’s use of the present tense, which is usually translated incorrectly to smooth over his refreshingly vigorous and sometimes rough style. Next, there is the lack of detail. Various evangelists give more attention to those crucified with him (Luke and John) or the place (John) or the division of clothes (Matthew) in the relevant lines than to the act of crucifixion.

There are also no words dedicated to reactions or pain, or specific recollections of scripture passages. Since each gospel details the particulars of the passion more than any other moment of the life of Christ, this laconic approach has the paradoxical effects of resounding like a gong through the community of the faithful. Anyone who has experienced a Palm Sunday or Good Friday mass knows that these few words are like a thunderclap.

How does the New Testament indicate that Jesus was nailed to the cross?

The Greek word for nail (“helos”) appears only once. In John 20:25, St. Thomas says: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

In Luke 24:39 Jesus says “See my hands and my feet,” and its fair to assume that he’s drawing his attention to his wounds. Later in John, when he tells Thomas “Put your finger here, and see my hands,” (20:27), it’s also obvious that he’s telling Thomas to probe his wounds.

The other place we find a reference to the act of nailing (Greek: “proseloo”) is in Colossians 2:14, where St. Paul writes that Jesus set aside the demands of the law, “nailing it to the cross.”

The Old Testament also makes a point about piercing hands and feet. The Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament that would have been familiar to the early church) has the reading of Psalm 22:16 which is now used in most modern Christian translations. It includes the line “they have pierced my hands and feet.”  This translation is controversial and the issue is too complex to engage here. In brief, the sentence has no verb in the Hebrew Masoretic text. The Greek verb in the Septuagint (“oxyran”) is vague and means something like “bored through.” Naturally, since the rest of the passage is heavily evocative of the passion narrative, it’s reasonable to read this Psalm as we do: “they have pierced my hands and feet.” This would obviously be a reference to nailing in crucifixion.

The Cross and the Nails

There’s something else to note about these passages. None of them mention the kind of cross that is used. The Greek historian Heroditus tells us that Policrates was killed and then crucified on a pole as a form of humiliation, while Artayctes was taken by people who “nailed him to boards and hanged him [suggesting a crosspiece]. As for his son, they stoned him to death before his father’s eyes.” Heroditus finds this unbearably barbaric, as did other ancient writers, including Seneca, Varro, Cicero, and Plautus, as well as Josephus.

And the practice was not confined to Rome. Josephus tells us that 800 Pharisees were crucified while their wives and children were slaughtered in front of them under Sadducean high priest Alexander Janneus (2nd century BC). This form of punishment was meant to evoke Deuteronomy 21:22–23 to prove that the executed were cursed by God. Thus, in the time of Jesus, crucifixion was as cruel and despicable as a punishment could be. No other means of killing Jesus would have sent quite the same message of brutality and damnation.

Rabbula Gospels (Syria, 6th c.)

The cross itself varied throughout Rome. Sometimes it was just a vertical stake planted in the ground, but it was more common to affix the arms of the victim to a horizontal piece (patibulum). This was placed either at the top to create a capital “T” (crux commissa, now familiar as a Franciscan cross or Tau) or slightly lower down to create a lowercase “T”  (crux immissa).  The condemned carried either the entire cross or the just the horizontal piece. They were stripped naked, tied or nailed to the cross, and sometimes seated on a kind of peg (called a sedile) on the vertical post.

Feet and heels were tied or nailed to the upright. The victim may also have been tied by the arms, legs, or torso. Seneca the Younger describes variations, including crucifying people upside down and impaling the genitals. Josephus recalls the blood-maddened troops of Titus during the Siege of Jerusalem nailing Jews to crosses in myriad grotesque poses “by way of jest” until they could find no more places to nail them.

Thus we can see that nailing was not uncommon in crucifixion. Given how it was practiced at the Fall of Jerusalem (only four decades after the death of Jesus), we might fairly assume nailing was a norm at this time. Therefore, an evangelist wouldn’t need to specify the nails. The audience would already know.

The Witness of the Church

References to the crucifixion in the early Church Father sometimes indicate different types of cross and often refer to the nails. In describing the cross, the Epistle of Barnabas suggests a crux commissa (“T”), while St. Irenaeus depicts not only a crux immissa (“t”) but the sedile (middle peg) and the nails. In his Against Heresies, Irenaes writes “The very form of the cross, too, has five extremities, two in length, two in breadth, and one in the middle, on which the person rests who is fixed by the nails.”

With few exceptions, crux immissa (“t”) has been the favored shape of the cross because the titulus is described as being placed above the head of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, and there is no “above” in a crux commissa.

Nails appear in other early sources. The non-canonical Gospel of Peter (c. 150 AD) says “And then they plucked the nails from the hands of the Lord” (6:21). In a reference to Jesus, the Letter of Barnabus (possibly as early as 70AD) misquotes a passage from Isaiah as “Nail my flesh, for the congregations of evil-doers have risen against me.” In Dialogue With Trypho (c. 150AD), St. Justin Martyr writes “For when they crucified Him, driving in the nails, they pierced His hands and feet.”

St. Ignatius says in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans (written prior to 108AD) that he was “truly nailed to a tree in the flesh for our sakes under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch.” In his Letter to the Romans Ignatius writes “desire within me has been nailed to the cross,” but the word translated as “desire” (eros) may mean “my beloved,” Jesus.

These are just a few examples that show the consistent belief that Jesus was nailed to the cross. Although gospel passages concerning the crucifixion are silent, the Church herself sings out the fact that He was pierced for our transgressions, and by those wounds we are healed.

How Many Nails?

Another issue to be settled is how many nails were used in the crucifixion. St. Ambrose, in the earliest written mention of the relics of the crucifixion, only accounts for two:

“[St. Helen] sought the nails with which the Lord was crucified, and found them. From one nail she ordered a bridle to be made, from the other she wove a diadem. [Emphasis added] She turned the one to an ornamental, the other to a devotional, use. Mary was visited to liberate Eve; Helena was visited that emperors might be redeemed. So she sent to her son Constantine a diadem adorned with jewels which were interwoven with the iron of the Cross and enclosed the more precious jewel of divine redemption. She sent the bridle, also. Constantine used both, and transmitted his faith to later kings. And so the beginning of the faith of the emperors is the holy relic which is upon the bridle. From that came the faith whereby persecution ended and devotion to God took its place.” (Funeral Oration on The Death of Theodosius, 47)

Some have taken this to mean there was an early belief that only two nails pierced The Lord, with the feet attached without being nailed. As you can see, the text doesn’t support this. Ambrose only accounts for the recovery and use of nails in creating two things, but that doesn’t mean there were only two nails. The belief may have been widespread, however, since two of the earliest depictions in art seem to show only the hands nailed.

When Rufinus wrote his continuation of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, he writes “The nails too, with which the Lord’s body had been fastened, she brought to her son. He made of some of them a bridle to use in battle, and with others he is said to have equipped himself with a helmet no less useful in battle.” This is a confusing passage, since it reads like the nails are multiplying. Rufinus was probably just expanding upon Ambrose, badly.

The earliest surviving depiction of the crucifixion is on a panel from c. 420 currently located in the British Museum. It shows the cross as well as Judas hanging from a tree with a money bag at his feet, Mary and John, and Longinus. It was originally part of a casket, with four ivory panels, one for each side. The others show Christ carrying the cross, the empty tomb, and St. Thomas the Apostle. Jesus’s feet are not nailed.

British Museum

The door panels of the Santa Sabina (5th century) in Rome show only the hands nailed, but the image is highly stylized, with Christ in a kind of orans position, so this isn’t a useful data point.

Santa Sabina

Of course, there is the third, and technically earliest, depiction of a crucifixion to be considered, but as it’s of lesser use to us. The Palentine, or Alexamenos, graffito was discovered in the 19th century scratched on the wall of a building unearthed on the Palatine Hill. The structure had once belonged to the Emperor Caligula, and then became a school for pageboys. The graffiti only survived because it was sealed behind another wall erected for support. Dating is very difficult, but it may have been made any time between the 1st and 3rd centuries.

Alexamenos graffito

It’s a typically crude example of mockery, showing someone worshipping a donkey-headed man on a cross. A caption in very rough Greek says something like, “Alexamenos worships his god.” Clearly, one person was being mocked by being compared to a Christian, or for actually being one. The Alexamenos graffito appears to show Christ standing with only his hands nailed, but since it was made by a non-Christian as an act of mockery, it can tell us little about the early thoughts of the pious about the number of nails used.

In artwork from the early middle ages, Jesus is nailed with four nails, but in the later middle ages we start seeing him nailed with only three. One foot is placed over the other and a single nail pierces them both. The tradition of three nails dates at least to the fourth century, where we find it in the writing of Nonnus of Panopolis and St. Gregory Nazianzus.

Four nails (Ramsey psalter, 10th c.)

The Archaeological Evidence

The question of nails was given some archaeological evidence in 1968, with the discovery of three tombs in an area called Givʿat ha-Mivtar (or Ras el-Masaref). Excavated by V. Tzaferis, of the Israeli Department of Antiquities and Museums, Tomb I included an ossuary for a young man named Yehohanan ben ḤGQWL (Yehoḥanan son of Hagkol).  Inside were the bones of an adult male, age 24-28, and a child. The adult’s tibiae and fibulae had been intentionally broken, and both calcanei (heel bones) were pierced by a nail that was still in place. Following forensic examination of the remains, Tzaferis called it “undoubtedly a case of crucifixion.” Based on other evidence, he speculated that it was either a rebel executed during the census revolt of 7AD, or some other first century crucifixion.

Courtesy of the Israel Museum. Photographer: Ilan Shtulman

Dr. N. Haas, of the department of anatomy of the Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical School, concluded that the nail had been driven through a small plaque of acacia or pistacia wood, then through the heels, through the upright of the cross, and then bent on the opposite side of the upright. Haas wrote:

The feet were joined almost parallel, both transfixed by the same nail at the heels, with the legs adjacent; the knees were doubled, the right one overlapping the left; the trunk was contorted; the upper limbs were stretched out, each stabbed by a nail in the forearm. A study of the nail itself, and of the situation of the calcanean bones between the head and the top of this nail, shows that the feet had not been securely fastened to the cross. This assumption requires the addition of the traditional “sedecula” … intended to provide a secure seating for the buttocks of the victim, to prevent collapse and to prolong agony. (From Israeli Exploration Journal 20, quoted in Joseph A. Fitzmyer, To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies)

Haas noted that the fracture of the right tibia was by a “single, strong blow”: ““The percussion, passing the already crushed right calf bones, was a harsh and severing blow for the left ones, attached as they were to the sharp-edged wooden cross.”

The damage to the body was such that the nail could not be withdrawn, requiring the amputation of the feet.

The importance of this find should be obvious, since it adds concrete archaeological and forensic evidence to written accounts for first century Roman crucifixion in Palestine.

It also gives us an actual nail that was used in a crucifixion: an iron carpenter’s nail about 16 centimeters long with four sides.

The Relics

There are perhaps 36 nails in various Churches with claims to be the real deal. Obviously, they can’t all be, but it’s possible that they’re not all blatant frauds either. There is a middle ground.

There is also the question of whether Helena did, in fact, recover the genuine nails in the Holy Land, or whether helpful locals simply passed off some old nails as the genuine article. That some of the nails are similar to the Yehohanan is suggestive but not conclusive. I think we can determine, however, that the nails in Rome, Siena, and Milan have fair claims to being the nails of Helena. Whether those are in fact the nails of the crucifixion is more than we can say for sure.

Holy Nail reliquary in the Treasury of Trier Cathedral. (Not genuine.)

The nail of Yehohanan gives us hard evidence, and combined with other factors allows the elimination of certain nails. For example, the nails in Notre Dame is too short, while the one kept in Trier is not old enough and also too short. Others kept in Toul, Cologne, and Essene have weak claims to authenticity. It’s important to note that these may be partial or third class relics. They may contain pieces of the real nails or have been touched to a real nail, and when this detail was lost to history they became “genuine nails.”

The Holy Cross Nail (Rome)

The first place we must turn to is the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme) in Rome, consecrated in 325 with a floor that included soil from the Holy Land. Hence, the name “in Jerusalem” refers not to the Cross, but to the Basilica itself, which is “in Jerusalem” because it sits on soil from Jerusalem. According to tradition, the Basilica was built around St. Helena’s personal palace chapel, which itself had been built on the former site of a temple to Sol Invictus (the Invincible Son). It has been restored and expanded many times over the centuries. A chapel houses various relics of the crucifixion.

Holy Cross Reliquary

The Holy Cross nail is similar in shape to the Yehohanan nail, but, at 11.5cm, significantly shorter. This appears to be because the original head and the point broke off. Other pieces were probably removed over the years as relics. Since some of the nails which claim to be real match the Holy Cross nail, it’s quite possible filings or whole pieces of the original were integrated into replicas. This would mean that some of the many nails may still lay claim to being relics even if they include other material, since in relics a portion stands for the whole.

Given the continuous history of the Basilica, connection to Helena, and its current size and shape, the Holy Cross nail has the best claim to being genuine. That is, if Helena did indeed find the relics of the crucifixion and return with them to Rome, this is where they should be, and they appear to be the right material, shape, and, size. Indeed, the width of the Yehonanan nail and the Holy cross nail (0.9cm) are almost identical.

The Siena Nail

This leaves the two Constantine nails to consider. They were held for many centuries in the Byzantine imperial treasury. In 1354 one was purchased by a Venetian merchant, who sought the opinion of the papal nuncio in Constantinople. Confirmation came from the empress Irene Asanina, who had sold it after the abdication of her husband, Emperor John VI. Since selling relics was forbidden, the nail was signed over as a “gift” to the Santa Maria della Scala Hospital in Siena. It arrived in Siena in procession in 1359, and the Manto Chapel was eventually built to house it.

Reliquary of the Holy Nail, Siena

Is it genuine? Again, the chain of custody is strong. The nail itself is similar in size and shape to both the Holy Cross nail and the nail of Yehohanan, and that’s as much as we can really say.

The Bridle Nail (Milan)

Nails were said to have been forged into a bridle and a helmet for Constantine. Writing in the 5th century, Theodoret of Cyrus wrote that this was a single nail, spit in half, with on embedded in the helmet, and another melted to be made into a bridle.

The bridle of Constantine, containing a nail of the crucifixion? Cathedral of Milan.

Today, Milan and Carpentras both claim the bridle. Milan’s claim is stronger, because it was where emperor Theodosius I died in 395, leaving his imperial insignia to St. Ambrose.

The piece of twisted metal could certainly be a piece of a horse’s bridle. It resided continually in the Church of St. Thecla until 1389, when it was moved in procession to the Cathedral of Milan, where it is kept today. When a plague hit the city in 1567, St. Charles Borromeo processed barefoot through the street with a cross and the reliquary of the nail. The end of the plague was attributed to this act.

The nivola

To celebrate the deliverance, a special canopied lift painted to look like a cloud and festooned with angels, was created. Through an ingenious serious of ropes and pulleys, the basket is raised to the cathedral vault 45 meters above, where the reliquary of the nail is kept most of the year. Every year for the past 400 years it is brought down in the annual Rite of the Nivola. This was on May 3rd (the feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross), until the holy day was dropped from the calendar. It now takes place on September 14th. Locals claim Leonardo designed the lift. He didn’t.

As for the helmet of Constantine, history is silent.