The Orthodox Monk-Archaeologist who Discovered a Crucified Man
As a follow-up to my recent article “Where are the Orthodox Biblical Archaeologists?” it seems timely to present the fascinating story of the single greatest exception to the rule: Vassilios Tzaferis, the Greek Orthodox monk-turned-archaeologist who discovered the material remains of the only crucified man ever found.
Tzaferis was born to a rural peasant family on April 1, 1936, on the island of Samos, Greece. His childhood coincided with the Axis occupation during WWII, followed by the Greek civil war. In 1950, encouraged by his father and the village priest, fourteen-year old Vassilios traveled to the East Jerusalem to study theology at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He was ordained a deacon six years later, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and assigned to the Greek Orthodox community of Nazareth, in the newly established state of Israel.
Two years later, Tzaferis was ordained a priest, but his thirst for learning compelled him to seek permission to study in Athens. His request was denied, but he decided to go anyway. Unwilling to lose such a gifted young priest, Patriarch Benedictos persuaded him to stay, permitting him to enroll in a degree program in history and archaeology at Hebrew University. In a 2010 newspaper interview, Tzaferis mused how students stared in wonder at his monastic garb, a sight so out of the ordinary that even David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s foremost founder and its first prime minister, asked to see the monk who was studying archaeology (Haaretz, Oct. 29, 2010).
While pursuing his studies, Tzaferis taught Greek at the Community School in Jerusalem. There he met Eftychia, a young woman with whom he fell in love. In 1964, he relinquished his vows in order to marry her. As one might expect, the renegade monk faced wholesale rejection from his fellows so that he was unable to find a priest willing to perform his marriage. He was finally able to persuade the priest in Nazareth, who happened to be his uncle, to unite them.
Once officials of the Greek government discovered that Tzaferis was no longer a monk, they summoned him to return to Greece in order to serve in the army. Unwilling to give up his life in Israel, which now included the impending birth of a daughter, Tzaferis relinquished his Greek passport. He continued his studies in Hebrew University’s graduate program in classical archaeology, and began his new professional career as a field archaeologist for the Department of Antiquities and Museums.
Ironically, of the hundreds of Christian biblical archaeologists working in the Holy Land over the previous century, it would fall to a former Orthodox monk to make one of the most extraordinary discoveries of modern times, second only to the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1968, while leading an archaeological rescue operation in response to construction work taking place at Giv’at Ha-Mivtar, a neighborhood on the northern edge of East Jerusalem, Tzaferis uncovered a first-century limestone ossuary that contained the skeletal remains of a crucified man. The discovery provided the only material evidence ever recovered witnessing to the brutality of the Romans’ preferred method of public execution. Although the skeleton was incomplete, it was determined that the man was in his twenties at the time of his death and that his legs had been broken, a practice known as crurifragium. An iron nail pierced his fragmented heel bone. Moreover, the ossuary bore an inscription attesting to the name “Yehohanan bar Hagkol.”
Lacking sufficient evidence, Tzaferis interpreted Yehohanan’s torturous execution in terms of traditional depictions of the crucifixion of Yeshua of Nazareth, or Jesus the Christ. However, a forensic investigation carried out in 1985 by Israeli anthropologist Joe Zias, curator of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, assisted by local professor of medicine Dr. Eliezer Sekeles, determined that Yehohanan’s crucifixion varied somewhat from the traditional understanding of Jesus’s crucifixion. Zias supplemented the paucity of material evidence with first-century textual references to the practice of crucifixion. For example, on the basis of Flavius Josephus’s witness to the local scarcity of wood, Zias suggested that the condemned man was likely forced to carry only the heavy wooden crossbar (patibulum), upon which he would be tied and hoisted upon a vertical, permanently-placed wooden post (stipes). In Yehohanan’s case, the post to which his foot was nailed was made of olive wood, as trace amounts were found wedged between the head of the nail and the bone. Only one heel bone had been found, but the length of the nail in Yehohanan’s heel measured only 11.5 cm—too short to have passed through both feet as Tzaferis had surmised. As Zias writes:
. . . [T]he lack of traumatic injury to the forearm and metacarpals of the hand seems to suggest that the arms of the condemned were tied rather than nailed to the cross. There is ample literary and artistic evidence for the use of ropes rather than nails to secure the condemned to the cross. . . . It is important to remember that death by crucifixion was the result of the manner in which the condemned man hung from the cross and not the traumatic injury caused by nailing. Hanging from the cross resulted in a painful process of asphyxiation, in which the two sets of muscles used for breathing, the intercostal muscles and the diaphragm, became progressively weakened. In time, the condemned man expired, due to the inability to continue breathing properly. . . . Regarding the positioning of the lower limbs and their relation to the upright, the evidence suggests that the most logical reconstruction would have the condemned straddling the upright with each foot nailed laterally to the cross (Joseph Zias and Eliezer Sekeles. “The Crucified Man from Giv’at Ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal,” Israel Exploration Journal 35, 1 : 22-27).
There was no prescribed uniformity in the use of nails to affix a body to the cross. Josephus writes of enraged Roman soldiers nailing first-century Jewish rebels to crosses in different ways “by way of jest” (Jewish War, Book 5, 11). Nailing extremities would likely have been a secondary measure that not only restricted voluntary and involuntary movement, but would have added an element of greater horror to the public spectacle. At any rate, even without nails crucifixion was unimaginably painful and cruelly prolonged.
Tzaferis’s archaeological discovery of a lifetime occurred just as his new career was beginning. Three years later, in 1971, he completed his PhD and was appointed deputy director of the Division for Surveys and Excavations. In addition to excavating at various places in and around Jerusalem, he also dug at Ashkelon, Beth Shean, Caesarea Philippi (Banias), Capernaum, Kursi, and Tel Dan. Despite having renounced his vows, he remained true to the faith and practices of the Greek Orthodox Church and enjoyed the esteem of his fellow Greeks. Beginning in 1984, he officially presided over the Greek community in Jerusalem and was appointed curator of the Patriarchal Museum, a post he occupied until 2002. His professional responsibilities continued uninterrupted through the establishment of the Israel Antiquities Authority in 1991, beyond his promotion to director of the Department of Surveys and Excavations in 1999, and until his retirement in 2001. Vassilios Tzaferis spent his retirement traveling back and forth between homes. He passed away on his Name’s Day (January 1), 2015, at the age of 78, survived by his wife and two children.
Nicolae Roddy is Professor of Old Testament at Creighton University, a Jesuit institution in Omaha, Nebraska, and Visiting Professor of Archaeology at the University of Bucharest. For twenty years he served as co-director and area supervisor for the Bethsaida Archaeology Project at the foot of the Golan Heights, near the Sea of Galilee. He welcomes comments and conversation at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.