Thursday, April 20, 2006

Behold my hands

The image of the crucifixion, one of the most powerful emblems of Christianity, may be quite erroneous, according to a study which says there is no evidence to prove Jesus was crucified in this manner.

Around the world, in churches, on the walls of Christian homes, on crucifixes worn as pendants, in innumerable books, paintings and movies, Jesus Christ is seen nailed to the cross by his hands and feet, with his head upwards and arms outstretched.

But a paper published by Britain's prestigious Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) says this image has never been substantiated in fact...

Given the uncertainty as to exactly how he was crucified, the answer may only ever come if some new archaeological evidence or piece of writing emerges from the shadows of the past, it says.
It's rather a funny study, in that they found absolutely nothing. So while it's true that they found that the symbol "may be quite erroneous," they found no evidence that it was quite erroneous. I guess that will demand another government grant.

Actually, the symbol probably *is* erroneous if that symbol contains nails through the hands rather than through the wrists. The argument is often made based on tests done with corpses that a nail through the hand would not support the weight of a crucified body, but that it would tear through the top of the hand causing the person to fall off the cross. The few archaeological finds of historical crucifixions seems to support this conclusion.

This argument is quite correct, in my opinion. Roman executioners, doing multitudes of crucifixions, most certainly had an established way of going about it, and that presumably included proper placement of nails so the victim would stay affixed to the cross or tree.

What are we to then do with John 20:27 (the 'Thomas' verse from last week) which says, Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing,' which seems to claim that in Jesus’ case the crucifixion was done through the hands?

A little word study/comparison is in order.

Acts 12:7 reads (NIV) Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. "Quick, get up!" he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

Which reads in the KJV: And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.

The word translated "hands" (KJV) and "wrists" (NIV) is ‘cheir’, precisely the same used here in John 20:27. In fact, it is used twice in John 20:27, one time unambiguously as ‘hand’ since no one would ‘reach hither thy wrist’.

Now, since in Acts, there is little doubt that the chains were on Peter’s wrists, and in Jn 20:27 there is no doubt that Thomas reached forth his hand, and they use the same word, then the Greek word ‘cheir’ must be used for both wrist and hand (the translators of the KJV used ‘hands’ for both translations, the NIV used ‘hands’ in John and ‘wrists’ in Acts for the same word).

From which it follows that the nail may have been through either Jesus’ wrists or hands, and the Greek word ‘cheir’ would not necessarily make the distinction (we might get the same effect in English when we use the phrase ’my hands are tied’, when in fact we mean our wrists are what is bound).

This verse, then, does not support either hands or wrists, since the Greek upon which it is based does not apparently make a distinction between the two.

A good scientific study might have concluded that Jesus was probably crucified through the wrists, but then there might have been no need for another study, I suppose.

UPDATE: In relation to the study itself, I guess I ought to take a saw out on this limb here and say that the fact that imagery of Jesus on the cross has unanimously pictured Jesus crucified upright on a cross has a certain historical value that the studiers forgot to account for. Since the church was founded by eyewitnesses and peopled originally by individuals who were familiar with crucifixion (both Jews and Romans) it's most likely that the reason Jesus is always pictured upright on a cross is because that's exactly how it happened.

And yes, early Christians knew that the Romans did not always crucify people that way. One tradition of Peter's crucifixion says that he was affixed to his own cross upside down.

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