In Ten Misconceptions About Jesus #4, we learned that although both the Bible and tradition tells us that Jesus was a carpenter, the word teknon has a larger semantic range than our word ‘carpenter.’ It’s not actually clear what He did during his twenty year working career.
Here is misconception number #5:
During the crucifixion, Jesus was pierced through His hands.
I have been in Museums in Germany, France, Spain, Scotland, and, of course, the United States. One thing is consistent: in all of the depictions of the crucifixion, Jesus’ palms were always pierced and nailed to the upper crossbeam.
This is quite natural since the text even mentions Jesus’ pierced hands. In John 20 Thomas makes his famous statement:
“If I don’t see the mark of the nails in His hands, put my finger into the mark of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will never believe!”” John 20:25 CSB
Jesus, Himself, said this of His own appearance:
“Look at My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself! Touch Me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” Having said this, He showed them His hands and feet.” Luke 24:39-40 CSB
What am I suggesting as an alternative?
He was pierced through His wrists, not His palms.
Here is the evidence:
First, there is a translation difficulty. The word xeiros, which we translate to ‘hand’ has a wider semantic range. Moreover, not all cultures divide anatomy the same way. Both Matthew and Luke use the word xeiros to describe the use of not just the hands, but the arms as well. In both cases it refers to angels lifting up the Son of Man.
“…for it is written, ‘He will give His angels charge concerning You'; and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, Lest You strike Your foot against a stone” Matthew 4:6 NAS
And the parallel account from Luke:
“…and, ‘On their hands they will bear You up, Lest You strike Your foot against a stone.'”” Luke 4:11 NAS
Although we translate xeiros as hand, it does include the wrists, and sometimes the forearms. Therefore, we could just as easily translate Luke 24:39 like this:
“Look at My wrists and My feet” Luke 24:39
The second piece of evidence is anatomical. The bones and tendons of the hand simply do not have the strength to hold the weight of the body without the nail ripping through. The easiest and strongest place to hammer a nail is through the wrist, between the ulna and radius bones.
The third piece of evidence comes from pure pragmatism. According to Quintus Curtius Rufus, a Roman historian of the 1st Century, Alexander the Great once had 2,000 men crucified. It was common in the ancient world to crucify many people at one time. It is unlikely that the soldier would take the time to create some of the more decorative ideas to support the palm piercing.
Why would a soldier take the time to wrap each hand in order to pierce the anatomically weak palm?
Why would a soldier take the time to create a seat to help support the body weight, so that the nails would not rip through the weak tendons and bones of the hand?
No, they would have crucified people as quickly and easily as possible. That fastest way was to use three nails: one in each wrist, and one through the ankle. All it took was a few strikes with a hammer, and it was done. No extras were needed.
Nonetheless, some still support the traditional view.
Here are three arguments that the palms could have been used:
First, the soldiers could have tied or wrapped Jesus’ wrists to the cross beam, and then nailed His palms. This would have successfully alleviated the weight.
But why nail the palms in the first place? To cause pain?
Then why not nail other random areas as well?
In situations like this, pragmatism rules. I work under the assumption that when dealing with multiple criminals, soldiers are going to get the job done the quickest and the most efficient way. Three nails and they’re done. There’s no need for wraps.
Second, Dr. Fred Zugibe’s work The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry suggests that if the nail was driven through the palm at an angle, through some of the more meaty portions of the hand, it may have been able to support the body weight needed. I agree, except that, in order to breathe, a criminal would have to do an occasional pull up. That places more weight on the palm, which would be unlikely to hold. This would work if the criminal were not struggling.
Check out this affiliate link to Dr. Fred Zugibe’s book:
Third, a National Geographic Episode entitled Quest for Truth: Crucifixion, proves that a person’s palms can withstand the weight of the ordeal if a seat is provided at the bottom of the cross. I agree that it is possible, but unlikely.
Why would the soldiers build a seat when they could just nail the wrists?
Furthermore, the seats do not solve the pull up problem. Once again, this works for a calm, unmoving person, but not for someone gasping for air and desperately trying to do a pull up.
We’ll never know actually what happened, but the evidence suggests that the wrists were used rather than the palms.
10 Misconceptions about Jesus #1: Jesus’ appearance
10 Misconceptions about Jesus #2: Jesus is the same as He was
10 Misconceptions about Jesus #3: Jesus would never judge anyone
10 Misconceptions about Jesus #4: Jesus was a carpenter
10 Misconceptions about Jesus #5: Jesus was pierced through His hands