JERUSALEM — An Israeli Canadian journalist thinks he might have tracked down two of the iron nails used to crucify Jesus on the cross.
Or objects that “could be” the long-lost relics.
While researching a segment for the History Channel series “Secrets of Christianity,” host and producer Simcha Jacobovici learned something that startled him: In 1990, Israeli archaeologists excavating a 2,000-year-old burial cave found two nails crafted by Romans but kept the discovery quiet.
They did publicize the discovery of two ossuaries — stone burial boxes filled with human bones — with the inscriptions “Caiaphas” and “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” The latter intricately carved ossuary toured the world and is on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
According to the Gospels, Caiaphas was the Jewish high priest who handed Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion.
“There’s a general scholarly consensus that the tomb where the nails were found likely belonged to Caiaphas. Nails at that time were a dime a dozen, but finding one in a tomb is exceedingly rare,” Jacobovici said outside the high stone walls of the Old City, where Jesus spent his final days.
When Jacobovici found a brief reference to the nails in the official archaeologists’ report, he said his “jaw dropped.”
“It would be as if, 2,000 years from now, archaeologists uncovered the cave of Muhammad Ali but neglected to mention the pair of boxing gloves found there. Sure, boxing gloves are common, but perhaps those particular gloves had special significance to the boxer?”
Jacobovici also hosts the “Naked Archaeologist” series on History International and collaborated with filmmaker James Cameron on the 2007 documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.”
In the segment “Nails of the Cross,” which is to air Wednesday on the History Channel, Jacobovici tries to discover why the researchers thought the nails were unimportant.
“Everything else is so meticulous, yet there are no photos or drawings or measurements of the nails. When I inquired at the Israel Antiquities Authority, I was told they had gone missing.”
“Caiaphas is known for one thing only: the trial and crucifixion of Jesus,” Jacobovici said. “He may have felt compelled to take these nails with him to his grave.”
There was also the belief among some ancient Jews that nails had healing powers “and were a ticket to the afterlife. Other items found in the tomb show that this was a superstitious guy,” he said.
The history detective searched the Israel Antiquities Authority’s warehouses and tried to find the location of the long-sealed tomb, which now lies beneath a public park.
Finally, on a hunch, Jacobovici approached Israel Hershkovitz, a forensic anthropologist at Tel Aviv University who is an expert on crucifixions.
“When I asked Hershkovitz if he’d received two nails about 20 years ago, he knew exactly what I was talking about and located them within minutes,” Jacobovici said.
Hershkovitz could not say where the nails had been found because the original packaging lacked that information. He could not be reached for comment.
Although Hershkovitz knows for certain the nails came from the Israel Antiquities Authority, there’s no conclusive link that they came from the Caiaphas tomb. Israeli archaeologists seem as reluctant to comment this time around as in 1990.
When the anthropologist showed Jacobovici an ancient heel bone impaled with a nail — the only such crucifixion specimen ever unearthed — “I realized that the Caiaphas nails were similar, though shorter. The tips appeared purposely bent to keep them from falling off the wood.”
Jacobovici asked Hershkovitz whether the nails could have been used to attach a person’s hands to a cross. Hershkovitz said yes.
The limestone residue on one of the nails clinched it for Jacobovici, he said, “because one of the nails was found in the ossuary, the other on the ground” of the burial cave, where it would have been exposed to limestone.
Gabriel Barkay, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, said Jacobovici’s investigation was “very challenging, very interesting, very intriguing, but it’s a TV show and not a scholarly study.
“There’s no proof whatsoever that they originate in the tomb of Caiaphas,” he said. “It’s all conjecture.”
Nails were used for “many purposes,” Barkay said, “from fixing iron gates to wooden doors and coffins.”
And for crucifixions.
Ronny Reich, a Haifa University archaeologist who deciphered the writing in the Caiaphas cave, thinks the cave “belongs to a member of the Caiaphas family, but we have no evidence it belongs to the high priest.”
Jacobovici is certain his research will withstand scrutiny, even if it seems circumstantial. “Skepticism is good. As with the Shroud of Turin, you can’t be 100 percent certain, but believers don’t need 100 percent certainty. They need a solid ‘could be,’ and that’s what we’re offering.”