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The Trial and Crucifixion


That very night, Jesus was seized by messengers of the High Priest Caiaphas, presumably because his references to the destruction of the Temple were perceived as incitement. After his trial, at which witnesses to his remarks testified, Jesus was handed over to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate. (This is the only part of the story that mentions actual historical figures who appear in literary sources outside the New Testament and whose existence has been confirmed by archaeological finds.)

Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion on Friday. Jesus was crucified together with two thieves. Owing to the commencement of the Sabbath that evening at sunset, Pilate allowed Jesus' body to be removed from the cross and buried that very day, and so Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in a cave that he had actually hewn for himself. After the conclusion of the Sabbath, "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary" came to the cave and found that the stone used to seal it had been moved and that the tomb was empty.
According to the accounts, Jesus appeared to his disciples on several occasions after his death and instructed them to disseminate his teachings.

"And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, 'This is Jesus the King of the Jews'." (Matthew 27:37)


Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea


Latin dedicatory inscription of Pontius Pilate
Roman theatre at Caesarea, 26–36 CE
Israel Antiquities Authority, 61-521
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Pontius Pilate, the fifth Roman prefect of Judea, who governed for ten years, presided at the trial of Jesus of Nazareth and sentenced him to death by crucifixion. Both Josephus Flavius and Philo of Alexandria describe Pilate as a cruel, harsh, and unpopular ruler. Unlike his predecessors, he was highly insensitive to the religious sentiments of the local population. On one occasion, Pilate attempted to bring military standards bearing the likeness of the Emperor into Jerusalem, deeply offending the Jews. He even confiscated funds from the Temple treasury in order to construct a large aqueduct for Jerusalem, and then mercilessly suppressed the protest that erupted in response. In the end, this notorious procurator was removed from office for his massacre of the Samaritans.

The inscription exhibited here is the only known artifact bearing Pontius Pilate’s name. It is a dedicatory inscription of a building, probably a temple, constructed in honor of the emperor Tiberius. The inscription was discovered in secondary use in a staircase of the Roman theater at Caesarea, the Roman administrative center for the province of Judea and the seat of the procurators. The procurators visited Jerusalem only on special occasions, or in times of unrest.

Bronze prutot from the days of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate
Provenance unknown, struck in Caesarea
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 3071, 3092
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

The name of Pontius Pilate does not appear on the coins he minted. The inscription from Caesarea exhibited here is the only known artifact that refers to him.

A. Obverse: Roman staff surrounded by the Greek inscription: "Of the Emperor Tiberius." Reverse: The year of minting (30-31 CE) within a wreath.
B. Obverse: Three ears of wheat surrounded by the Greek inscription: "Of Julia, of the Emperor." Reverse: Incense shovel surrounded by a Greek inscription mentioning the name of the Emperor Tiberius and the date of minting: 29-30 CE.

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Ossuary of the Hight Priest Joseph Caiaphas

Jerusalem, North Talpiot, 1st century CE
Israel Antiquities Authority, 91-468
Photo: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Avraham Hay;
Drawing: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Pnina Arad

Joseph Caiaphas, high priest from 18 to 36 CE, was a member of the Caiaphas clan and the son-in-law of the high priest Annas. He is chiefly known for his involvement in the arrest of Jesus, described in detail in the New Testament. The Gospels relate that while Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, he was arrested and brought to the house of Joseph Caiaphas, where he spent the night. The following day, after interrogation, Caiaphas delivered Jesus to the Roman authorities.

The burial cave of the Caiaphas clan was discovered by accident in southeast Jerusalem, near the Sherover Promenade. It is relatively small, and even though it had been plundered in ancient times, it still contained twelve ossuaries, four of which were decorated. The most elaborate of these is on display here. The name “Joseph Caiaphas” is inscribed in Hebrew twice upon this ossuary – once along the short side and once vertically, from bottom to top, along the long side. It seems that this inscription was only written after the ossuary has been placed in the burial niche, and the small space between the ossuary and the wall made it necessary to inscribe the name in this unusual manner. In all probability, inscriptions of this type were simply meant to label the ossuaries, and were therefore rather carelessly done.

If the individual buried in this ossuary was indeed the high priest Joseph Caiaphas, and not another member of his family, this is the first instance in which an ossuary belonging to an historical personage of such consequence has been uncovered in Jerusalem.

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Execution by Crucifixion - the Archaeological Evidence

In the course of excavations of a burial cave in northern Jerusalem, an ossuary was found inscribed with the name of the deceased: Yehohanan ben Hagkol. Examination of the remains preserved within the ossuary revealed that the right heel bone was pierced by a large iron nail, to which fragments of wood were attached at either end. The find attests to the fact that Yehohanan had been put to death by crucifixion. This humiliating and excruciating form of execution was used to punish rebels, thieves and captives. Though many met their fates in this manner, this find represents the sole archaeological evidence for the practice of crucifixion discovered to date.

Ben Hagkol was 24-28 years old at his death. He was not an important historical figure, and we therefore know nothing about his life or the crime that led to his torturous death on the cross.
His bones have enabled us to reconstruct the manner in which he was crucified (historic sources tell of more than one technique): His feet were nailed to the sides of the crucifixion post, and his hands were either tied or nailed to the crossbeam.

After he died, Yehohanan's body was taken down from the cross, presumably by the members of his family, for burial in the family tomb. However, the nail that affixed his right foot to the wooden post had been bent and was difficult to remove. In order to avoid damaging the body, it was necessary to remove part of the post along with it. After a year, Yehohanan’s bones were gathered and deposited in an ossuary, as was customary at that time, and his name was incised on it.

Heel bone pierced by an iron nail
Jerusalem, Givat Hamivtar, 1st century CE
Israel Antiquities Authority, 95-2067/5

Stone ossuary of "Yehohanan son of Hagkol"
Jerusalem, Givat Hamivtar, 1st century CE
Israel Antiquities Authority, 68-679
Photos: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem / by Ilan Sztulman

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