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.