Have the nails used to pin Jesus to the cross been found?

The two nails and a medieval painting of Jesus on the cross.
The two nails and a medieval painting of Jesus on the cross. Photo credit: Archaeological Discovery/Getty

Two nails reportedly discovered in a Jerusalem tomb which some have claimed were used in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ were probably used in a crucifixion, a new study has found.

But doubts remain whether they were actually the ones used in the killing of the historical figure billions worship to this day. 

The nails were found three decades ago in a burial cave dating to the first century, believed to belong to Caiaphas - the Jewish priest who oversaw Jesus' trial - but went missing. Investigative journalist and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici found two nails in the artefacts collection at Tel Aviv University, which he believes are the same as those found in Caiaphas' tomb.

Officials have dismissed Jacobovici's claims, but a new study has found they showed "distinct physical and chemical signatures" of having been in Caiaphas' tomb for nearly 2000 years, as well as "fine slivers of wood accreted within the iron oxide rust of the nails" and "a number of microscopic fragments of bone".

"I believe that the scientific evidence that the nails were used to crucify somebody is indeed powerful," Aryeh Shimron, a geologist involved in the study, told media.

Crucifixions in Rome were relatively rare, and to date, the remains of only two undisputed crucifixion victims have ever been found. This is a problem - Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports the wood found on the nails was cedar, which didn't grow in Israel at the time.

"It is very unlikely that the Romans would use this rare and expensive material to crucify someone they considered a rebel and enemy of the state," the paper says. 

Dr Shimron said perhaps cedar was used because Jesus was an "out of the ordinary" case, or the nails were simply pulled out of something else before being slammed through Jesus' wrists into the cross. 

Jacobovici has previously claimed the nails were from Jesus' crucifixion.

The more scientifically-minded Dr Shimron isn't so sure.

"The only evidence we have that they were used to crucify the Jesus of the Gospels is that they were found in the tomb of Caiaphas. Does our evidence suffice? I really cannot say, I choose to rely on good science rather than speculation.

"Perhaps a reader of the full manuscript should rely on his or her own judgment."

The Israel Antiquities Authority told Haaretz the study was "interesting and thought-provoking", but didn't prove anything. 

Not all Roman crucifixions involved nails, and the Bible doesn't mention exactly what method was used. There is archaeological evidence he was perhaps just tied to the cross.