Crucifixion nails found in Israel? Probably not.

Crucifixions, nail, Roman, Roman nailThere’s been a shocking archaeological discovery in Israel. Nails from the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ have been found!

Well, no, probably not.

The claim comes from Israeli Canadian documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, the Washington Post reports. Jacobovici has done several documentaries on Christian subjects and came across an archaeological report from 1990 mentioning the discovery of nails in the tomb of a man named Caiaphas. For those who know their Bible, this is the same name as the Jewish high priest who plotted to arrest Jesus and then gave him to the Romans. The name is right, the date of the tomb is right, so the nails must be those from the Crucifixion, right?

The Post quotes Jacobovici as saying, “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.”

Actually neither of these statements is true. The Post quotes an Israeli archaeologist as saying that the inscriptions in the tomb aren’t clear as to the occupant’s identity, and I myself have seen Roman nails turn up in tombs. They were pretty common objects, after all.

The timing of this announcement just before Easter and just before Jacobovici’s next documentary comes out (titled “Nails of the Cross” to air Wednesday on the History Channel), adds to the suspicion that Jacobovici is fooling either himself or us.

There’s also the question of why a Jewish high priest would take the nails of someone who he thought was a false prophet to the grave with him, or even how he got them in the first place since it was Jesus’ family and followers who removed Jesus from the Cross.

In the view of this former archaeologist, this story is more of the usual sensationalism masking as science that fills so much of the media. A bit like the spurious discovery of Caligula’s tomb.

Never fear. There are plenty are saints’ relics in Rome, including enough nails for a dozen Crucifixions. Gadling’s own David Farley has even written a book about the Holy Foreskin, which you can also visit in Italy. Actually there’s more than one relic claiming to be the Holy Foreskin, but that’s another story. . .

[Image of Roman nails courtesy user Takkk via Wikimedia Commons. These are not the same nails that came from the tomb mentioned in this article.]

The triumph of Death: the mummified monks of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt


Vertebrae rosettes. A crown of thorns made from finger bones. An arch of skulls.

Three skeletons of children lean huddled in a group as if to comfort one another. Behind them hangs an hourglass made of pelvis bones. Above soars the skeleton of a youth bearing a scythe of clavicles and scales made of kneecaps. Dirt and gravestones cover the floor. Mummified bodies wearing the cowled robes of Capuchin friars lie, sit, or even stand in alcoves. The mummies each have a label bearing, I suppose, the name they used in life. All are illegible.

I am in the Capuchin Crypt, a few minute’s walk from the famous Spanish Steps where hundreds of tourists are laughing and eating McDonalds while enjoying a sweeping view over the sun-soaked city. I am not with them, but rather in a dank vault, crouching to stare into the eye sockets of an anonymous skull. The Sumerians called the eyes the windows of the soul, but now those windows are shattered, the glass ground up and blown away as dust.

I actually waited in line to do this. The Capuchin Crypt runs on limited hours, and when the doors finally open I and a small crowd file in past a stressed-out woman at the front desk who repeats, “No cameras, no cell phones, postcards five euros” in a harassed monotone. Beyond her are five vaults filled with bones and a sixth filled with tablets bearing inscriptions in Italian and Latin. I don’t try to puzzle them out; the message of this place is all too clear.
The bones are arranged in decorative patterns reminiscent of the Baroque interior of some 17th century stately home. Ornate chandeliers made from finger- and jawbones hang so low I almost knock my head on them. The passages are narrow, the vaults small, and the mortal remains of hundreds of Capuchin friars crowd in on me. The crypt was started in the 17th century and has been added to ever since. It now houses an estimated 4,000 friars.

So how does it make me feel? I want to be sick. I want to kiss every living girl in here. I want to tell the woman at the front counter to lock up early and take the rest of the day off. I want to hug my son knowing one day I won’t be able to. I want to know the life history, dreams, loves, and favorite jokes of every one of these poor bastards arranged so meticulously for our edification. I can’t. They are no longer individuals, simply part of the decor. All in all you’re just another skull in the wall.

Four vaults away I can still hear the attendant repeating the rules to newcomers. No photography, but you can buy an overpriced postcard. What arrogance to think they own the dead! Nobody has the least claim over the dead; it’s their one advantage over the living.

The crypt is getting crowded with the living. People linger. Many laugh to cover their discomfort. Everyone speaks in whispers, but why whisper? The dead can’t hear you, and if you’re doing it out of respect, a better way to show respect would be to learn the lesson of this place. The lesson is, of course, to think about death. Like everyone else I have a natural defense mechanism. I know I’ll die but that horrible fact doesn’t intrude on my day-to-day happiness. Well, it does today, and that’s the point. This place is also meant to make us good Catholics, to embrace an unproveable god and its improbable doctrine. That I cannot do, but I sure do think about death.

Odd thoughts come to me. I should send my son a second postcard. I need to get cracking on my next novel. I still haven’t replied to Ed’s email.

Through a row of open windows shines dim sunlight and the sounds of construction next door. The pounding of hammers and the shouts of workmen. An ambulance wails in the distance, getting closer.

A young American woman cries out, “Ewww, this is gross!”

I don’t say anything because I always try to be kind to strangers, but I say to myself, “Oh, you think they’re disgusting and you’re beautiful? Just. You. Wait.”

So don’t forget death, because it’s probably coming sooner than you think, and certainly sooner than you hope.

Life is short, my friends, live it well.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s sinister side.

[Photo courtesy Magnus Manske]

Saints’ relics in Rome


Everywhere you go in Rome, there are body parts on display.

The churches are full of them, and people travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to see them. They’re the mortal remains of saints and apostles and are venerated as holy relics.

Relics were big business in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Every church wanted some because it meant pilgrims would come visit, and pilgrims meant money. Pilgrims were the original tourists and churches fought to be on the pilgrimage route as much as modern hotels fight to be on the tourist trail. Relics were bought, sold, stolen, and forged so much that it’s almost impossible to say whether a particular bone really came from a particular saint. What’s for certain is that their appeal hasn’t totally died away. People still come to the churches of Rome to see the remnants of their favorite holy person.

Being new to Rome, I recruited the help of two Italy experts, historian Angela K. Nickerson and Gadling’s own relic hunter David Farley. With their help I stumbled into the weird world of saint’s relics, a side of Catholicism that in the present day no longer takes center stage yet is still very much in the minds of modern pilgrims.

The mother of all relic collections can be found in and around St. John Lateran, founded in about the year 314 AD as the first Christian basilica in Rome during the twilight years of paganism. While Constantine seems to have been ambivalent about the new faith, his mother Helena embraced Christianity wholeheartedly. She went to the Holy Land and dug around until she found the True Cross, the Spear of Longinus, various holy corpses, and other relics. Her search proved so fruitful that she later became the patron saint of archaeologists. Helena brought these relics back to Rome, where many can still be seen. Her biggest haul was the Scala Santa, the steps to Pontus Pilate’s palace that Jesus walked up on the way to be condemned to death. These are housed in a building right next to St. John Lateran. The faithful still crawl up it on their knees, deep in prayer. A sign by the bottom of the steps informs visitors in a half dozen languages that it is forbidden to walk up. One must crawl or not go up at all.

%Gallery-102761%Other relics have since disappeared or have been moved. The True Cross was broken up and pieces can be found just about everywhere. Two later additions to St. John Lateran are the heads of Saints Peter and Paul, which rest in a pair of gold caskets above the altar. If you want to see the head of John the Baptist, head on over to San Silvestro in Capite.

Some of Helena’s relics ended up in Santa Croce en Gerusalemme, perhaps the most relic-intensive church in Rome. There are bits of the True Cross, the signboard from the Cross that says “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, part of the crown of thorns, and the finger bone of St. Thomas. This is said to be the same finger he used to probe Christ’s wound, proving Christ was really dead and giving rise to the expression “Doubting Thomas”.

For more bones go to San Ignazio, where a side chapel houses a grandiose baroque altar filled with dozens of skulls, femurs, and other bones are incorporated into the decoration. Like the Scala Santa it attracts a steady group of the faithful. When I was there two ancient Italians were praying to these reminders of their immanent fate..

For something a little more romantic, go to Santa Maria en Cosmodin. This church, sitting atop a pagan cemetery, has the skull of Saint Valentine himself. On Valentine’s Day the church officials open up the catacombs beneath the church for tours, the only day they do so. Other churches have something to offer too. Santa Prassede has the column to which Jesus was chained while he was flogged. San Paolo fuori le Mura has St. Paul’s tomb and part of the chain he wore while under arrest. St. Peter’s, of course, has the bones of St. Peter. In fact, it’s hard to find a church that doesn’t have some little memento, human or otherwise, of the early days of Christianity.

And then there are the mummified monks. . .

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up next: The triumph of death: mummified monks of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt!

The death of paganism: how the Roman Empire converted to Christianity


In the year 300 AD, Christianity was a minority religion in the Roman Empire, practiced by perhaps ten percent of the population. In good years it was discriminated against; in bad years it was persecuted. By 400 AD, a century later, it had become the official religion practiced by pretty much everyone. Evidence of this remarkable transformation can still be seen in Rome’s monuments.

Teachers in Sunday schools like to tell a story about how it happened.

In the year 312 there ruled a Roman Emperor named Maxentius who had taken power illegally. He hated Christians and persecuted them. The proper heir to the throne, Constantine, marched on Rome to save the Empire. Before the two forces met in battle, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the sky and the words “Conquer under this”. Constantine and his army converted to Christianity and painted the cross on their shields. The next day they defeated the pagans and brought Christianity to Rome.

This story is almost entirely wrong, yet it has resonated down the centuries through books, paintings, and films to become part of the Christian legend.

The truth is more complex. Maxentius and Constantine were both sons of emperors and thus equally legitimate. Maxentius did not persecute Christians, and the story of Constantine seeing a cross in the sky doesn’t appear in the texts until years after the battle. Constantine did defeat Maxentius and marched into Rome in triumph, bearing his rival’s severed head as a trophy. After the usual celebrations and gladiator spectacles, he built the Arch of Constantine, which has no Christian symbolism but does depict sacrifices to four pagan gods. In later years he built a number of grandiose churches, including the original St. Peter’s, but didn’t get baptized until his deathbed. Paganism remained legal throughout his reign.

Constantine gave one great boon to the Christians–he legalized their religion. From then on it rapidly gained more followers and began edging out the pagan cults. Soon it was the pagans being persecuted. Rioting monks trashed temples and killed pagan philosophers like Hypatia. In 382 the Altar of Victory was removed from its centuries-old home in the Senate. In 391 paganism was outlawed and temples shut all over the Empire. The old cults hung on for a few generations in rural areas, but Christianity was now the dominant power.

Traces of this incredible transformation are visible in Rome. At the Basilica di San Clemente a 12th century church is built atop a much earlier church. This earlier building was the home of a Roman noble, a secret Christian who invited fellow Christians into his home to worship, a common practice in the days when Christianity was illegal. Underneath his home lies a subterranean temple to the pagan god Mithras.

Entering the medieval church you see the usual grandiose paintings and sculptures. The real interest comes when you descend the stairs into the dank, dark cellar. There you can see the original church much as it was. Descend further and you get back to the days of the pagan Roman Empire. Three rooms survive. One may have been a mint. Another, with a few paintings surviving, was a training room for acolytes in the Mithraic faith. The third is the temple, or mithraeum, for Mithras himself.

%Gallery-102749%Mithras was Christianity’s main rival. As a mystery religion with its deepest teachings revealed only to the initiated, we don’t know much about its inner workings. What we do know shows many similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, such as the belief that Mithras was born on December 25 to a virgin, and died and was resurrected in order to save mankind. The similarities were so numerous that early Christian writers said that the older religion was invented by the Devil as a cheap imitation of Christianity before Jesus was even born!

The mithraeum is a long, rectangular room with benches to either side. Members would sit on these benches and share a communal meal that included bread and wine. At the end of the room stood a plaque showing Mithras in a little-understood ritual of killing a bull. Mithraism was popular, but didn’t have the widespread appeal of Christianity. First off, only men were allowed into the cult. Also, most of the teachings were secret, and while that had a certain mystique, it also turned off many who didn’t want to go through a long period of study and initiation. Despite this more than a dozen mithraea survive in Rome and there were probably hundreds during its heyday.

The transition from pagan to Christian isn’t always as obvious as in San Clemente. Sometimes you can see it in the art, such as the image above, a 4th century mosaic from Santa Pudenziana. Here Christ sits enthroned in a pose identical to many statues of the pagan god Jupiter. Saints Peter and Paul sit to either side dressed as Roman senators. The early Christians saw nothing wrong with this. They wanted to win the hearts and minds of the people, and a bit of reworked pagan symbolism was a good way to do that.

At times the Christians reused old buildings or parts of old buildings. San Maria Maggiore, a third century basilica, was originally a secular building before being converted into a house of worship. This is one of the most stunning churches in Rome, with fifth-century mosaics showing Biblical scenes and a ceiling gilded during the Renaissance with the first gold brought back from the New World. So many Roman sites are only foundations with perhaps a few columns standing, but here you can actually stand inside a Roman building.

Christianity would have never caught on so quickly if it didn’t have the Empire’s infrastructure to spread its message. These were the days when trying to cross a border could easily get you killed, and the Empire provided a large, secure area in which to move about. The Catholic Church understood their debt to Rome and wanted to take on its aura of glory and power. Rome went became the capital of the new faith and its art and architecture was incorporated into churches worldwide. The Church was still trying take on a bit of the old Roman magic as late as the 17th century, when the Pope ordered the giant bronze doors from the old Roman Senate installed in the entrance to St. John Lateran.

The name Roman Catholic Church is no accident.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: exploring Rome’s sinister side.

Coming up next: Saints’ relics in Rome!

The tombs of Rome–where art meets death


If you’re going to your eternal rest in the Eternal City, you should go in style.

Sure, you can’t take it with you, but you can show off what you had, and with all the competition in this place you have to do something special to make an impression. Rome is filled with grandiose monuments to the dead. First there are the giant tombs and temples of the Roman emperors. They were worshiped as gods, so they always got a nice sendoff. The most famous is the mausoleum of Hadrian, a giant circular building by the River Tiber. It was so splendid that the Popes preserved it and expanded it with additional stories and fortifications before renaming it the Castel Sant’Angelo. Just a cannon shot away from Vatican City, it proved a convenient bolthole for the pontiff back in the days when he ran the Papal States, an independent nation in central Italy, and warred with his neighbors. It saved Pope Clement VII when Charles V sacked Rome in 1527. Neither Rome nor the Vatican had great defenses, but the Castel Sant’Angelo proved too much for the invaders. It’s not often a mausoleum saves lives! While it’s not one of the ten toughest castles in the world, it is an impressive tomb/fortification all the same.

Then you have the early Christians with their miles of catacombs, and the churches filled with saint’s relics. More on those in two later installments in this series. There are so many tombs and monuments both pagan and Christian that sometimes it seems Rome is dedicated to death. The city even has a Purgatory Museum.

The Renaissance was a golden age of church building. Italy, while still divided into several different nations, was a rich place. Seagoing merchants dominated the lucrative trade in the Mediterranean, and the Pope’s coffers were full from tithes and donations. Much of this money went to sponsor the great architects and artists of the age. These talented men built lavish churches and adorned them with giant paintings. The rich and powerful vied for one another to be buried in the most prestigious churches, and they commissioned tombs to match the glory of the buildings.

Every Renaissance church in Rome is filled with these masterpieces of funerary art. Marble bishops lie in state flanked by angels. The walls are adorned with paintings of noblemen surrounded by reminders of life’s brevity–skulls on wings, hourglasses, and the grim Reaper with his scythe. Even the floors are covered in tombs. Most are smooth flagstones, but on some floor tombs bishops and cardinals had their likenesses carved in bas-relief. While these are not the most impressive of the graves, they’re perhaps the most poignant. Centuries of visitors have walked over them until their features have blurred beyond recognition, and their epitaphs have been lost. These powerful clergymen, respected and feared in their time, have all but melted away.

This is the second in a series about my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side. Tune in tomorrow as we visit Italy’s fallen heroes in the Military Museums of Rome!

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