March 30, 2006

Crucifixion images 'misleading'?

I read a very short (in fact only a paragraph) story on The Times today about Crucifixion.

Crucifixion images 'misleading'

Traditional images of the method of crucifixion suffered by Jesus are likely to be wrong, researchers from Imperial College, London, said in a study that casts doubt on both the cause of Jesus’s death and on precisely how he was nailed to the cross. Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Dr Piers Mitchell and Matthew Maslen point to evidence that victims were nailed through the heels to the sides of the cross and were not nailed through the wrist or forearm.

So I’m thinking --- that’s pretty sparse info --- so I looked into it further and found a slightly longer article here.
"Based on the evidence, we simply do not know how people died during crucifixion," said Dr Mitchell of Imperial College London.

"While there are a number of theories, most have been developed to fit religious beliefs rather than the evidence," he said.

So basically, the study proved absolutely nothing. We already have written accounts of different means of crucifixion even within the Church Tradition; just compare Jesus’ crucifixion with an account of Peter’s. But this study mostly focused on the cause of death, not the method of crucifixion --- however both articles focused on the “traditional images of the method of crucifixion.” This as quoted above apparently has more to do with “religious beliefs” then “evidence.”

Well wait a second there what does he mean by “evidence” anyhow? I suppose he’s referring to “physical evidence” of crucifixions, but we have plenty of written evidence of crucifixions which fully qualifies as evidence. In case the Doc is tempted to question that sort of evidence, I’d ask if he ever reads other doctor’s papers in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine --- if he does, it seems to me he’s willing to take written accounts and documentation, yes even evidence, seriously. In fact, if he then goes on to take suggestions, or methods entailed in those journal papers without first examining the physical effects, one would have to conclude he takes written accounts very seriously indeed. Why not then take the Gospel account seriously?
"The evidence available demonstrates that people were crucified in different postures and affixed to crosses using a variety of means. Victims were not necessarily positioned head up and nailed through the feet from front to back as is the imagery in Christian churches," said Dr Mitchell.

Again, this is an illogical conclusion. The fact that there are a variety of means of crucifixion does not mean that Jesus’ crucifixion could not, or was not conducted in anyway other then was documented in the Gospels. Not only that but it doesn’t make any sense, why would the Gospel writers have depicted anything but a normal crucifixion in 1st century Palestine? Even if you grant a later date for the Gospels you’re still looking at about 70AD for their composition --- a time rip with Roman crucifixions. People in the Roman world knew how Romans crucified, and would have immediately questioned the Gospel account --- but to my knowledge this never happened.

There were rows of perhaps hundreds of crucified men running the span of roman roads toward Jerusalem. In fact Josephus documents many, many crucifixions. Josephus both confirms, and interestingly conflicts with the part of the paper’s speculation.
The review examined the only published archaeological case of crucifixion.

"Archaeological evidence for crucifixion is rare as most people were not buried following death," said Dr Mitchell.

However, according to Josephus (The Wars Of The Jews, Book IV Chapter 5.2):
Nay, they proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial, although the Jews used to take so much care of the burial of men, that they took down those that were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the going down of the sun.

So indeed victims of crucifixion were rarely buried; that is with the notable exception of Jewish victims, so it is possible the bodies are out there, somewhere.

So, disappointingly this study seems to have been waste of time, it didn’t come to any real, useful conclusions. Therefore, why not play up the “silly Christians think Jesus was crucified like they learned in Sunday School” aspect? It’s all “faith” apparently --- but it’s not, its faith founded on well established historical accounts.

Even with the lack of physical evidence, written evidence of crucifixion does not loose its usefulness, and there is no reason to question it based on the possibility that some crucifixions might not have matched Jesus’ methodology. This was a blatant attempt to hop on the Di Vinci code conspiracy-theory-type bandwagon, and its rubbish.


At April 02, 2006 2:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


As one of the authors of the study I was interested to read your comments. However I feel it is unfortunate that you have made your opinions based on the press release. I don't believe you have read the full article in the prestigous Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine which you can access at

I think you will find that this will deal with some of your misconceptions about our article.

Kind regards,

Matthew Maslen

At April 02, 2006 5:19 PM, Blogger Justin Jenkins said...


Thank you for your comment. Before I comment further on this, and perhaps I will take a look at it in full, to be clear I was more annoyed by the press coverage then actual study --- not to mention I was already in a sour mood that day.

Anyhow, I’m sure you worked hard on this (perhaps 'waste of time' was poor choice of words); I just felt the way it was presented in the press (and the quotes provided) were somewhat exaggerated and clearly beyond the scope the study itself.

As I had said:

But this study mostly focused on the cause of death, not the method of crucifixion --- however both articles focused on the “traditional images of the method of crucifixion.”

That type of presentation was exactly what troubled me.


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