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Israeli Anthropologist Is a Cross-Examiner : Leading Crucifixion Expert Unearths New Facts About Victims of Cruel Execution Method

December 25, 1985|BRAD LEMLEY | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Joseph Zias, 43, an anthropologist with the Israel Department of Antiquities, has become one of the world's leading experts on crucifixion. He spends endless hours exhuming small bone fragments and studying them for the tales they tell about the diseases, medical treatments and religious practices of their previous owners.

Recently, his investigations have centered on the only remains yet discovered of a crucified man: Yehohanan, a Jew in his late 20s, from a wealthy family, who may have been convicted of a political crime and was crucified some time in the 1st Century. His bones, complete with a heel bone pierced by an iron spike, were discovered in 1968 and recently given exhaustive analysis by Zias and Eliezer Sekeles of Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem. Their investigation provides a new vista on this cruel method of execution that lies at the heart of Christian history.

Gives Up Accounting

Originally from Ypsilanti, Mich., Zias worked as an accountant for three years before going to Israel in 1966 as a volunteer on a kibbutz. The numerous archeological digs in the area made him "see the light"--he painlessly renounced accounting, returned to the United States and earned a master's degree in anthropology from Wayne State University. He later studied anatomy for a year at the Hebrew University medical school in Jerusalem.

In 1972 he became curator of antiquities for the Israel Department of Antiquities. In the last 10 years he has become one of the leading physical anthropologists in the Middle East, specializing in studying skeletons, many of which are unearthed randomly by bulldozers during construction work. His work is cut out for him--Israel continuously has been inhabited for more than 1 million years and the amount of available skeletal material can be measured in tons.

Zias, now an Israeli citizen, lives his with his wife, Sandy, and their two children in Jerusalem.

Here are excerpts from a recent interview:

Question: You give a speech called "The Crucified Man." A lot of people would assume that that was a talk about Christ. But this is a crucified man who was found in a tomb in Jerusalem.

Answer: He was one of thousands. They were crucifying people not by the thousands--by the tens of thousands. In one day in Rome, Crassius, as part of a victory celebration, crucified 6,000 people. It was something generally reserved for slaves, but everybody did it. The fact that everybody was doing it and there's no physical evidence whatsoever, I think, calls into question how they were doing it. I think most people got tied to the cross because it makes no difference whether you're tied (or) nailed; what's important is that the body hangs. It's a slow form of asphyxiation.

Q: Of all those people who were killed by crucifixion, only one has been found, right?

A: Exactly. There's no evidence whatsoever in the world, except for this unique case. During this period, some time between 50 BC and 70 AD perhaps, (during) one of the wars of the Jews against the Romans, (Jewish historian) Josephus tells us that people were being crucified in very cruel and unusual manners. Perhaps this was one of the fellows that Josephus was talking about. Perhaps somebody who led a revolt against the Romans. And because of this he was crucified with the nails.

Q: The remains were found in 1968?

A: Yes. On a hill a half mile from Jerusalem, one of the suburbs today.

Q: How could they tell from the remains that he had been crucified?

A: Passing from the outside medially to the inside laterally we found a nail that was about 11 1/2 centimeters long and this nail pierced the right heel bone. Nothing could be told from the left heel bone, but I think there's some assumptions that have to be made. First of all is that crucifying people was not something which was done in an ad hoc manner. The Romans had a trial. The man was sentenced, just like today, and it then was carried out. And there's no evidence whatsoever on the arms.

One thing we have to realize is that it's impossible to crucify a person through the hands. It's completely impossible. Some experiments were done by a physician in France in 1952 in which he took cadavers from medical school, crucified the people and found out that if you're nailed through the hands the maximum that the body can support is 40 kilos. Anything over 40 kilos with nails through the hands, they'd simply rip out.

So we're talking about two possibilities. Either the nails have to go through the wrist--you have two strong bones here. The wrists can support the body, but the hands can't. Or else he was tied with ropes.

There is no trauma. In the original report, the physician felt that there were signs of trauma, but I think one needs an awful lot of experience for looking at dried bone to tell whether things are post-mortem or antemortem.

Q: So this man asphyxiated?

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