'Jesus crucifiction image may be wrong'
The image of the crucifiction, one of the most powerful emblems of Christianity, may be quite erroneous, according to a study which says there is no evidence to prove Jesus was crucified in this manner.
Around the world, in churches, on the walls of Christian homes, on crucifixes worn as pendants, in innumerable books, paintings and movies, Jesus Christ is seen nailed to the cross by his hands and feet, with his head upwards and arms outstretched.
But a paper published by Britain's prestigious Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) says this image has never been substantiated in fact.
Christ could have been crucified in any one of many ways, all of which would have affected the causes of his death, it says.
"The evidence available demonstrates that people were crucified in different postures and affixed to crosses using a variety of means," said one of the authors, Piers Mitchell of Imperial College London.
"Victims were not necessarily positioned head up and nailed through the feet from front to back, as is the imagery in Christian churches."
The authors do not express any doubt on the act of Jesus' crucifixion itself.
But they note that the few eyewitness descriptions available today of crucifixions in the 1st century AD show the Romans had a broad and cruel imagination.
Their crucifictiion methods probably evolved over time and depended on the social status of the victim and on the crime he allegedly committed, says the paper in April's issue of the RSM journal.
The cross could be erected "in any one of a range of orientations", with the victim sometimes head-up, sometimes head-down or in different postures.
Sometimes he was nailed to the cross by his genitals, sometimes the hands and feet were attached to the side of the cross and not the front, or affixed with cords rather than nails.
"If crucified head-up, the victim's weight may also have been supported on a small seat. This was believed to prolong the time it took a man to die," says the study, co-authored by Matthew Masien, also of Imperial College London's medicine faculty.
Crucifiction was widely practised by the Romans to punish criminals and rebels, but if the empire ever circulated instructions for the soldiers who carried out the gruesome task, none has survived today.
Nor is there any detailed account of the method of Jesus' crucifiction in the four Gospels of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) which are believed to be near contemporary accounts of the life of Christ.
And only one piece of archaeological evidence has ever been found about a crucifiction, mainly because crucified people were not formally buried but left on a rubbish dump to be eaten by wild dogs and hyenas, say Masien and Mitchell.
This case entails a young Jewish man, whose inscription on an ossuary, found near Giv'at ha-Mivtar in Israel, suggests his name was probably Yehonanan ben Hagkol.
The clue to his demise comes from an 11.5-centimetre (4.8-inch) iron nail that had been hammered through one of his heels, attaching it to the side of the cross. But there are no signs of any nail holes in the bones of the wrist or the forearm.
Over the past 150 years, there have been at least 10 books and studies to try to understand the physical causes of Jesus' death, and one US attempt, in 2005, even featured a "humane re-enactment" in which volunteers were attached to a cross in safe and temporary way, using gloves and belts.
These explorations have yielded a wide range of hypotheses, from heart failure and pulmonary embolism to asphyxia and shock induced by falling blood pressure.
Excruciating pain endured over the six hours between crucifixion and death, loss of blood, dehydration and the weight of the body on the lungs are cited as contributing factors.
But, the study says, these efforts have all been prejudiced by the automatic assumption, derived from religious images, that Jesus was crucified head-up.
Given the uncertainty as to exactly how he was crucified, the answer may only ever come if some new archaeological evidence or piece of writing emerges from the shadows of the past, it says.