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 even religious practices of their previous owners. Recently, his investigations have centered on the only remains yet discovered of a crucified man: a Jew named Yehohanan, 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, A.D. 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. 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 randomly unearthed by bulldozers during construction work. His work is cut out for him -- Israel has been continuously inhabited for more than a million years and the amount of skeletal material available can literally be measured in tons. Zias, now an Israeli citizen, lives his with his wife, Sandy, and their two children in Jerusalem. Brad Lemley is a Washington freelance writer.
Q: 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.
A: 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 B.C. and 70 A.D. 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 which was about 111/2 centimeters long and this nail pierced the right heelbone. Nothing could be told from the left heelbone, but I think there's some assumptions which 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 ante mortem.
Q: So this man asphyxiated?
A: Sure. There's two muscles -- the diaphragm and in between the ribs you have what's called intercostals. These progressively weakened over a period of time. You can inhale but you can't exhale so the chest gets bigger and bigger and bigger and you simply choke.
Q: What does this tell us about the method in which Christ might have been crucified?
A: That's a question of theology and I wouldn't like to go into that. I'm not a theologian. The only thing I'm willing to say is that when we look at pictures generally of the Crucifixion, we're looking at theology and not history. For example, why are there three nails? Three nails reflect theology, the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Why is there only one nail for the feet? Because by putting the feet in this position here, using one nail, what do you get? You get another cross. A big change occurs in the 13th century. If we look at the early pictures of the Crucifixion of Christ, we see Christ standing before the cross triumphantly; sometimes, as a matter of fact, you don't even see the nails. It isn't until the 13th century that we got this change and this suffering Christ on the cross.
And how do we see the good thief and the bad thief? The good thief and the bad thief are almost always tied with ropes. Only Jesus is nailed. There are theological reasons for this, so we're looking at something which is really theology and not history. As a matter of fact, the four gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke or John, make no reference whatsoever to Jesus being nailed to the cross. They say Jesus was crucified. There's a reference in Acts, and that's all, where there's a slight reference to nails being used.
Q: I've heard you've made a contribution to dental archeology.
A: In the spring of this year we found a skeleton of a man between the ages of 40 and 50 who died in 200 B.C. What was interesting was his tooth had turned green. When we X-rayed the tooth, we found a piece of wire 21/2 millimeters long going up into the root canal. We just had it analyzed at the Smithsonian, and it turns out that it's bronze and this seems to be the earliest dental filling in the world.
There was earlier dental work done, but it was being done for cosmetic reasons. They were filing down teeth, (and) putting stone inlays in teeth for cosmetic reasons. But this seemed to be part and parcel of the dentistry which was going on. Dentists have been around for 5,000 years. In Egypt we have the names of dentists -- they were called toothers. I think this is the earliest case because they used brass, which they shouldn't have used.
Q: Why not?
A: Because it's toxic, it's corrosive. I think that perhaps this guy was duped, because brass is the same color as (gold) and if this patient were to come to me and if I weren't too ethical and I were to show him the (wire) was gold-colored, what would he know? I've got a feeling that he may have paid for one and got the other.
Q: Do you think it hurt a little more than it might now?
A: It's hard to tell. There's a large abscess at the tip of the tooth. Did they put this wire up there because the guy had an abscess, or did he get an abscess because they put the wire up there?
See, the general theory until 1600 was that the reason that you have tooth decay is because worms crawl up into the tooth. It's what's called the tooth-worm theory of disease. If you take out a vital tooth, you have a ligament there which looks very, very similar to a worm. You can understand in sort of a pre-scientific age the tooth is rotten, food gets rotten, why does it get rotten, it gets rotten because of worms, (like in) apples. What they may have been doing is simply to stop up the canal hoping that most tooth worms wouldn't get up there.
Q: I get the feeling when you talk about these kinds of things that you feel sort of comfortable with this age that you're discussing. You work in antiquities all the time. Do you have a concept of what life was like and sometimes feel a kinship for that time?
A: What attracted me to this profession is to hold something in your hand, a tool, and realize (it was held) by a man who didn't look like any of us here in the room today. We have tools there which go back over 1.2 million years, and to hold something in your hand and realize that here was a person who was our ancestor 1.2 million years ago, 50,000 years, half a million years. You find these tools and to hold this same thing in your hand and realize that somebody like you or me had to deal with the same problems of life and death which you and I have to deal with. It shows not only the uniqueness of man but the brotherhood of man. The differences which we see today between race, religion, nationality -- these things are completely superficial. And these things are really only the last one percent of our time here on earth because man's been around for over five million years.
In Israel archeology is the national pastime. We have fulltime reporters who deal just with archeology. People are crazy about it. You can't go out and do a dig without feeling some type of a link with the past.
Q: I understand that one of your specialties is ancient diseases. What can you know about disease anthropologically?
A: Many of the diseases which we see today which affect the skeletal system, naturally we can find in the past. It has a lot of practical value as well. For example, we can tell whether or not diseases are evolving. Everything evolves, bacteria as well.
Q: You're in a unique situation in that your anthropology also deals with something in a religious sense. Do you ever think that you might have some impact on the Scriptures or complement the Scriptures through what you do?
A: This is one of the popular misconceptions about what we do. Most people, once they hear the term "biblical archeology" or "biblical anthropology" think that our job is to prove or disprove the Bible. It has nothing to do with proving or disproving. As a matter of fact, we try to be free of any type of religious taint because that obviously could push our facts off into a certain direction. Our job is to simply go and interpret the past, to shed more light on the biblical periods. It will eventually make for a much clearer understanding of these events which do appear in the Bible.
Q: Tell me about the experience of a dig -- how you decide where to go and how does the work go?
A: First of all, archeology is 95 percent patience, 5 percent luck. A hundred years ago the function of the archeologist was to fill up the museums. The museums are now filled. Today there are a lot of problems which are unsolvable or haven't been solved. Our task is to go and define these areas and pick a certain site. We formulate a problem, then we try to find a site which we think will perhaps shed light on this problem.
Q: For example?
A: Trade relations between the Philistines and the Israelites in the time of the Bible. We'll go and pick a site which is in that border area between the country of the Philistines and the country where the Israelites lived, and we'll go and try to look at trade relations vis a vis the types of pottery and other types of goods which we find in the archeological record. This will tell us something about trade relations, whether they were fighting or whether they were trading.
Almost all the work I do is the result of tombs which have been accidentally discovered. And since man's been there for over one million years and he didn't bury in marked cemeteries, they are everywhere, any big city for example, if you're going to be building a road, digging a site, the chances of running into antiquities are very, very high.
Q: Does that ever cause some problems? I mean you've got profit versus knowledge, that's an old fight.
A: It causes tremendous problems. The archeologists are interested in knowledge; the contractors are interested in profit. So it's a real touch-and-go situation.
Q: There's also a lot of fighting going on in that part of the world. Do you ever run into any danger in that regard?
A: Most of it is overrated. The type of fighting which we do over there is (of) a political nature. And even though everyone is armed, interpersonal violence of neighbor killing neighbor or shooting a man in the street because you're drunk or on drugs just doesn't occur. If you take away the conflict which is the result of the war, the amount of interpersonal violence is very, very little. People get the impression that people are getting killed on the streets continually. It's definitely much safer in Jerusalem than any large city in America, I would say.
Q: Is there ever any danger associated with what you do?
A: There are certain diseases -- cave fever for example. Much of my work involves going into caves and there's a cave fever which is very dangerous. I'm sure the day will come that I'll get this cave fever. It's spread by a tick. You come down with a fever and it's very debilitating for a while.
Q: What did you think of the Indiana Jones movie?
A: As a movie, as entertainment, I found it great. But I think it does a lot of damage to the field of archeology because it gives the impression that we are all sort of Indiana- Jones-type people, and we're not. It's an academic discipline! We're not looters, we're not treasure hunters, we are people who have spent years in the universities, years in the medical schools to go and pursue this profession which is probably one of the lowest-paid professions in the world. People go into archeology for the love of archeology.