Controversial Israeli filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici reopens the crucifixion debate with his new documentary ‘Nails of the Cross’

Simcha Jacobovici 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Simcha Jacobovici 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Few phrases in English are as loaded as “Nails of the Cross.” To many Christians, the words represent the sacred, long-sought-after relics that pierced the body of their crucified messiah. To many Jews, they ring with associations of deicide, the damning “Christ-killer” indictment that laid the foundation for millennia of faith-based hatred.
Yet these four short, freighted syllables are the name of a new film by a polarizing Israeli journalist who says he has discovered two long-lost Roman nails that may have been buried with the Jewish high priest who sent Jesus to the cross.
Simcha Jacobovici, the director of several controversial films on biblical archeology, says the iron nails were uncovered – then inexplicably lost – in the 1990 excavation of a first-century tomb in Jerusalem’s East Talpiot area.
Though mentioned in the dig report, the nails were not catalogued and have since been unaccounted for. After a three-year search, Jacobovici claims to have found two Roman iron nails in a Tel Aviv University lab that he believes could be those with which Jesus was crucified.
Upon its discovery, the tomb made headlines worldwide due to the presence of an elaborate, highly wrought limestone ossuary, or bone box, inscribed with the words “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” Scholars generally agreed that the name referred to the high priest (named in the Gospels simply as “Caiaphas”) vilified for rendering Jesus to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
Pilate famously “washed his hands” of the act, leaving Caiaphas – and Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus – as symbols of supposed Jewish perfidy for the next 2,000 years.
“This is the best archeological, historical argument ever made, for any nails, that they could be two of the four nails used in the crucifixion,” Jacobovici says. “Caiaphas is known for one thing in history. He’s known for arresting Jesus and turning him over to Pilate, who then crucifies him. So you find two Roman nails in his tomb, and you don’t even mention it?” Nails of the Cross is the first segment in the six-part documentary miniseries Jewish Secrets of Christianity. The first episode of the series airs May 15 on Channel 1 (the series debuts in the US next week on The History Channel).
The Channel 1 broadcast, the filmmaker says, marks the first time a series on the origins of Christianity has aired on Israeli television.
JACOBOVICI was born in 1953 to Romanian Holocaust survivors in Petah Tikva, and at age nine moved with his family to Canada. Now married with five children, he and his family returned to Israel three years ago and now live in the Sharon region. The journalist-cum-filmmaker holds a BA in philosophy from McGill University and an MA in international relations from the University of Toronto.
The 58-year-old cuts an imposing figure – bear-like and blue-eyed, with long brown hair peeking out from an oversized knit kippa (his extensive work on early Christianity n o t w i t h s t a n d i n g , Jacobovici is a practicing Orthodox Jew). The combined effect resembles a cross between biblical mystic and Indiana Jones.
Jacobovici says Jewish Secrets of Christianity could serve a vital purpose in educating Israelis about Christianity’s roots.
“Jesus wasn’t Polish. He was a Galilean; he was crucified in Jerusalem. This is part of the history here,” he says.
“Christianity has been a black hole in the Jewish space for understandable reasons – we couldn’t get into it, or we would be crucified ourselves,” he adds with a chuckle. “With the search for the historical Jesus on for more than 100 years, and with the birth of modern Israel, it’s time we said, ‘Wait a minute, who are these people and what do they mean in the context of history and archeology, rather than theology?’” The nails found in the 1990 dig were found not in the ornate ossuary widely presumed to be that of Caiaphas, but in the vicinity of one of the tomb’s other 11 ossuaries – a humbler vessel that Jacobovici says may have been the high priest’s actual resting place. And while the ostentatious bone box was inscribed with the words “Joseph son of Caiaphas,” the more austere vessel bears the single word “Caiaphas,” exactly as the priest is described in the Gospels.
History’s view of the high priest is based almost entirely on the Gospels’ damning portrayal of him as Jesus’s willing executioner. In the Infancy Gospel – an apocryphal second-century text that survives only in Arabic – the high priest is depicted as remorseful for sending Jesus to his death.
“How we do know who Caiaphas really was? All we have is the Gospels, which were anti-Caiaphas,” Jacobovici says. “But there’s another ossuary, and it’s modest, and it’s beautiful and mystical.
So maybe Caiaphas has gotten a bad rap for 2,000 years.”
A reexamination of Caiaphas requires a closer look at the historical Jesus. Jacobovici is convinced the charismatic Nazarene was a significant, influential figure even in his own day.
“Was he just the leader of a bunch of hippies, and then suddenly something happened that made him the leader of the biggest religion on the planet?” he asks. “Or was there, even in his day, a substantial movement that thought he was the messiah? I think there’s no question he was important.”
James Tabor, chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, agrees. In the film Tabor says, “You could say, ‘Crucifying Jesus was a small event in Caiaphas’s life – he’s the high priest, he’s got many things to do. Jesus is important to us, but to him he was just one more guy he got rid of.’ I don’t think that’s the case. He might not have known the day it happened, ‘This is going to become the biggest thing in my life – it’s going to haunt me to my grave,’ but I think by the time he died, that act was major.”
Tabor dismisses the idea that the nails were found in the tomb by coincidence.
“It’s an indication of something much bigger,” he concludes.
TO CHRISTIAN believers, Jacobovici’s is a compelling account: Caiaphas is laid to rest with two of the four nails of the cross as a sign of everlasting remorse.
But the filmmaker says the story goes deeper: “This is where we get to Jewish tradition. The Gemara talks about nails that are significant, and the only ones are crucifixion nails. They have magical properties.”
One of the skeletons in the Caiaphas tomb, he says, was found with a coin in its skull – a pagan tradition for paying the departed’s way to the afterlife.
The coin, he says, is a sign the deceased believed in the supernatural power of amulets.
Gabriel Barkay, a Bar-Ilan University archeologist who appears briefly in the film, disagrees.
“People in that period did not bury all kinds of objects with them,” he says. “They believed in resurrection, and the nails would not be resurrected with the bones of the deceased, so there would be no use to put them there.”
Jacobovici notes that one of the nails shows traces of limestone on it, pointing to its possible origin inside the limestone ossuary (one of the nails was found in the more modest ossuary, the other nail outside it). But Israel Hershkovitz, the Tel Aviv University archeologist in whose lab the nails were unceremoniously kept for 20 years, is unimpressed.
“Ninety-nine percent of the Holy Land is limestone,” he says. “It’s everywhere in Israel, especially in Jerusalem.”
Hershkovitz, who also appears in Nails of the Cross, says that though the nails are long enough to have been used in crucifixion, ultimately the film’s arguments can be neither proved nor disproved: “In science, you can’t say it’s impossible. Those who say it’s impossible have no evidence whatsoever for such a radical claim.”
Nor does he consider the nails’ disappearance cause for alarm, as archeologists commonly misplace items of secondary importance when uncovering hundreds or thousands of artifacts under strict time constraints. Even if they had been catalogued, he says, after two millennia, no DNA traces would have survived.
In his lab, Hershkovitz keeps a nailpierced heel bone, the world’s only definitive evidence of crucifixion. He acknowledges that like that nail, the tips of the two undocumented nails are bent in a way that could signal their use in crucifixion. Nonetheless, he says his own impression is that they were not.
“It’s just a gut feeling,” he says. “We know the Romans used nails for crucifixion.
All the rest is a good story, but I can’t estimate its probability.”
JACOBOVICI BOASTS a formidable trophy chest. The films by his production company, Associated Producers, on the Ebola epidemic in Africa and the child sex trade in India won Emmy Awards for outstanding investigative journalism in 1996 and 1997.
His 2007 film Sex Slaves – an investigation into the trafficking of women from the former Soviet Union – won both an Emmy and an Overseas Press Club’s Edward R. Murrow Award.
His most identifiable role is as host (he’s also executive producer) of The Naked Archaeologist, a series now in its third season in the US on History International, sister network of the perennially high-rated History Channel.
The show has, by and large, been a popular success.
“Instead of arid lecturing and endless camera pans of biblical paintings and illustrations, Jacobovici takes an in-your-face approach to his material,” Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper wrote on its premiere in 2005.
“He engages with some of the world’s leading experts, spars playfully, challenges them to defend their theories and occasionally proffers one of his own. Along the way, he explores ancient caves, experiences car trouble, buys falafel, and spray paints his own graffiti signature on a stone wall – all in the good name of archeology.”
But critics charge that the show’s very name is misleading.
“He is not an archeologist, nor does he have any credibility within the profession,” wrote Joe Zias, curator of anthropology and archeology with the Israel Antiquities Authority, in a 2007 website post.
Jacobovici rejects any charge of false advertising.
“I don’t pretend to be an archeologist,” he says. “I’m a journalist, an investigative journalist, and I’ve never presented myself as anything but. Just like there’s the naked chef, there’s naked archeology. I don’t think anyone thinks naked archeology is a discipline you go get a doctorate in.”
His ventures into archeology have been even more contentious. The 2006 History Channel production The Exodus Decoded, directed by Jacobovici and produced by Oscar-winner James Cameron (The Terminator, Titanic) posits that the Exodus may have been a historical event and that the Bible’s description of the plagues of Egypt may have been derived from natural disasters in the Mediterranean and Nile Delta. Ronald Hendel, a UC Berkeley professor of Jewish studies, describes the film as “an expensive infomercial,” and Pepperdine University’s Christopher Heard accused Jacobovici of indulging in logical fallacies.
The following year’s Discovery Channel documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus (also produced by Cameron) examines the so-called Talpiot Tomb, a first-century burial cave containing 10 ossuaries, six of them bearing inscriptions like “Jesus son of Joseph,” “Maria” and “Mariemene” (Mary Magdalene). Tabor wrote on his blog that the odds were one in 250,000 that another family of that period would have the same names as those scrawled on the ossuaries.
But Tabor’s support was drowned out by a chorus of critics who dismissed the idea that the tomb may have held the remains of Jesus, his family members and companions. The eminent biblical archeologist William G. Dever characterized The Lost Tomb of Jesus as “hyped and manipulated,” and Amos Kloner, the tomb’s original excavator, told The Jerusalem Post its conclusions were, in a word, “nonsense.”
BARKAY SAYS the Romans used iron nails for a range of purposes, from construction to affixing horseshoes to carving inscriptions into ossuaries.
While nails aren’t commonly found in burial caves of the era, he says, crucifixion is just one of many functions they could have served.
“It’s a very nice story,” Barkay says.
“TV is for entertainment, and this is very good entertainment. But this is not how conclusions should be drawn in archeology. You need to have a very wide spectrum of factual data to draw this kind of conclusion, and that is missing.”
The Israel Antiquities Authority maintains that the nails found in the tomb were likely used to carve the “Caiaphas” inscription that captivated devout Christians and biblical archeology devotees worldwide. But the IAA says the tomb’s connection to the high priest was never unequivocally proven and should not be referred to as “established fact, as presented in the film.”
“The nails that have become the film’s focus of attention represent a common find in burial tombs of the period. The consensus opinion is that they were used to carve the deceased’s name into the sarcophagus. The view that these nails have another significance are baseless,” the IAA says. “The talented director Simcha Jacobovici has undoubtedly made an interesting film based on a real archeological discovery, but the analysis presented in it has no relation to that find or to the archeological research.”
Jacobovici is undeterred.
“What do I answer to someone who says, ‘You haven’t scientifically proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that these are the nails’? I say, ‘You’re right,’” he concludes. “Do I think we have scientifically proven that these are the nails? No. Do I think this is a story that will capture the imagination of the world? Yes.”