Friday, 2 April 2010

Nailing an anomaly

A few weeks ago I was writing about St Francis of Assisi, a man of such outstanding goodness that towards the end of his life the stigmata appeared on his palms, insteps and side. (The stigmata are the scars of the wounds made by the nails that held Jesus to the cross and of the gash made in his side by the centurion's spear.)

A stimulating scholarly debate followed. Crucifixion was a common method of execution in the ancient Roman world. (The 19-year-old Julius Caesar, captured for ransom by Eastern Mediterranean pirates, promised to crucify every one of them. And eventually he did.) Experts in anatomy and ancient history claim that to prevent a condemned man falling off the cross, he would have to have been nailed to the wood through the wrists and ankles. Nailing through the palm wouldn't support the weight of the body.

But the stigmata have been traditionally depicted on the palms. Palms or wrists? Dave and I went to the earliest existing account of the crucifixion, in the Greek of the New Testament. Would there be a distinction between the Greek for 'hands' and for 'wrists'? Certain that scholars would have discovered it if there was, all the same I thought I'd found something significant.

The Greek for 'hands' appears several times as χειρας, cheiras. But once or twice we get χερσιν, chersin. Aha. Could χερσιν possibly mean 'wrists'?

In our bookshelves few books gather more dust than Abbott and Mansfield's Primer of Greek Grammar, a relic of several year's worth of Greek at school. The dust blown off - I took it outside - it became my bedside browsing for several nights. I didn't get very far, because I usually fall asleep after a page or two, but eventually I found what I was looking for in an obscure footnote.

χερσιν, Mr Abbott and Mr Mansfield told me, was an irregular form of χειρας. (For grammarians, the dative plural form.) So, 'hands' after all. No mention of 'wrists'.

Perhaps I shouldn't meddle in these things.

9 comments:

I, Like The View said...

I'll take your word on it

(wv: boss)

Dave said...

I've just checked my G Abbott-Smith's Manual Greek Lexicon, and Liddell and Scott's one of 1868 and find I have nothing to add.

zIggI said...

i's all Greek to me

zIggI said...

standing by waiting for Rog to come and ask what's a Greek Urn . . .

Rog said...

I'm not that shallow and obvious Ziggi. I won't lower the tone of this aruldite debate. UhU!

Although I was under the impression that Stig Mata was the bass player in the Rutles.

Christopher said...

I/J: *flattered*

Dave: Good for you. Just tidying something up that had niggled me since the matter was first raised in January.

Zigs: See above comment. My Greek is really pretty feeble.

Zigs: He'll come in right on glue - erm, I mean cue...

...and yes, there he is:

Rog: Hardly Evostuk for a pun, are you?

Z said...

Next, are you going to test the supposition that nailed palms aren't able to support the weight of the body? This is quite an important point - it has long been said that the wrists would have been used, but I don't know of any specific research on the subject.

Christopher said...

Yes, Z, it was exactly this notion that set me looking for a distinction between 'hands' and 'wrists' in the original Greek, and I was very excited when, prompted by Dave, I did in fact find the apparent difference I wrote about in this post. A false one, however, which I expect I would have picked up at once if I'd paid more attention in Greek at school and not wasted so much time pretending to be the young Werther and wondering when the next opportunity for a smoke would offer itself.

Z said...

Golly, I'm both excited and anxious about this. Are you going to be the volunteer yourself, or have you got someone in mind? I really think a few minutes is ample to test the supposition, please don't take it too far. I think Jesus must have had great inner strength to bear the pain. Whatever you do, don't take any analgesic beforehand - it may ease the pain slightly but it lessens the willpower and strength of will.

When I was at school, being caught smoking meant expulsion (or, as it's known now, permanent exclusion). But maybe at your school one was merely rusticated for a term? I didn't smoke, myself. It was too fashionable for my taste.