Was Jesus Really Nailed to the Cross?

Scripture, history, and the early Church Fathers help explain the crucifixion

Christ on the Cross, by Carl Heinrich Bloch
Christ on the Cross, by Carl Heinrich Bloch (photo: Register Files)

It seems like an easy question to answer: were nails used to affix The Lord to his cross? The Gospels are silent on this moment of the crucifixion, so how do we know it was with nails?

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.

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. 

The Nails

But what about the nails and the cross? 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.

Does the New Testament indicate anywhere 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 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, this week above all others, that He was pierced for our transgressions, and by those wounds we are healed.