Right Side Up or Right Side Down? Doubts Cast on Jesus' Crucifixion

Was Christ crucified upside down with his feet nailed to the top of the cross, his head toward the ground?

Or was he not even nailed, but instead lashed to the cross with cords, perhaps to the side, rather than the front of the cross?

These gruesome questions have suddenly been raised by scientists in a new study published by Britain's Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

"Based on the evidence, we simply do not know how people died during crucifixion," said one of the authors, Dr. Piers Mitchell of Imperial College London, in a prepared statement.

"While there are a number of theories, most have been developed to fit religious beliefs rather than the evidence."

Imagination or Fact?

The new review of the causes of death in crucifixion has challenged established medical theories and the leading hypotheses of how Jesus died.

The authors, Mitchell and Matthew Masien, believe that the image of Christ on the cross -- the way he is portrayed with arms nailed to the side -- has never been substantiated as fact.

They do not attempt to dispute whether the crucifixion actually occurred, but they question whether subsequent drawings of Christ on the cross have been accurate.

Christ, according to the report, could have been crucified in any number of ways, all of which would have affected the causes of his death.

"Of the one case we are aware of, the heels of the male victim were nailed to the sides of the cross and there was no evidence of nail insertion through the wrist or forearm," Mitchell said. "Based on the evidence, we don't even know if the victim was upright, facing down, or in any other position."

They note that the few eyewitness descriptions available today of crucifixions in the first century A.D. show that the Romans had a broad and cruel imagination.

Hung By?

Mitchell and Masien believe crucifixion methods probably evolved over time and depended on the social status of the victim, and on the crime committed.

Sometimes a victim was nailed to the cross by his genitals, according to the authors. Although the study does not allege that this is what happened to Christ, it poses that possibility.

The study says that there has been an automatic assumption of how Christ has died based on the many paintings that have depicted the scene over the years, but as far as is known, none of those has been based on eyewitness accounts.

The drawings and paintings came much later.

In addition, the scientists say that the four Gospels of the Bible -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John -- never give a detailed account of the method of Jesus' crucifixion.

Archaeological evidence for crucifixion is rare, as most people were not buried following death," Mitchell said.

The authors also point out that only one piece of archaeological evidence of a crucifixion exists from Jesus' time period.

"Of the one case we are aware of, the heels of the male victim were nailed to the sides of the cross and there was no evidence of nail insertion through the wrist or forearm."

Where does all that leave us?

It leaves us with a caution by two medical experts to not automatically assume that something happened in a certain way just because it is shown that way in a drawing.

The Vatican seldom comments on studies like this, and it is unlikely to cause much of a stir there.