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How Were People Crucified?

I have always said that people were crucified by being nailed through their *wrists* instead of their hands.  I had heard that in college when I was maybe 18, and I’ve been saying it ever since.  And I still say it because it’s apparently true.  But I never knew how we knew.  Was it simply common sense that a nail/stake through the hand would rip out, and needed to go between two strong bones?  Or did we have some evidence?  And if it’s true that the nail/stake went through the wrist, why do virtually *all* the artistic representations show the holes in the hands?

There are entire books on crucifixion in antiquity – I don’t mean books about the significant of Jesus’ death, but on what crucifixion actually involved.   When I was in grad school I read Martin Hengel’s brief study; in more recent days John Granger Cook has written a massive tome, which I’ve looked at but haven’t read cover-to-cover (it’s amazing what I haven’t read….).   I’m sure it is the drop -dead authoritative account.  And he probably covers the topic.   But it’s never been an issue pressing enough for me to read around about.

Until today, by complete serendipity.

Let me give a *bit* of background to set the stage, to deal with a couple of points that will immediately be raised in the minds of some of you.

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  • We have no literary description from the ancient world explaining how it was actually *done*. Ancient authors appear simply to assume that everyone knew, just as today most authors who talk about someone driving a car don’t explain how the car is constructed.  Readers in the distant future, if they don’t have pictures or car manuals etc, may just have to figure it out.
  • We also don’t have archaeological evidence that answers the question: hands or wrists.
    • We have the remains of only *one* crucified victim from antiquity, and it has provided us with some important clues about some aspects of the procedure. If you want to see more about it, just search for “nails” on the blog, and you’ll  find a number of posts.  Here’s one of them: https://ehrmanblog.org/the-skeletal-remains-of-yehohanan-and-their-significance/?highlight=nails    Yehohanan’s case is vitally important, but doesn’t answer definitively: hands or wrists.
    • Archaeologists have discovered a number of crucifixion nails (known to be such because of the organic material still on them that can be tested), but again it doesn’t answer the question of where the nails were placed.
  • I regularly get asked if we are talking about a “cross” (that is, two pieces of woods joined together somehow in perpendicular, to form a kind of “T” or even an “X”) or a “stake,” as some religious groups insist, that is, a simply upright, a kind of pole. The answer is almost certainly “cross.”  When ancient people talk about the shape of the STAUROS (as it’s called in Greek) — for example, the epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr — they liken it to a person standing upright with arms stretched out, or to the mast of a ship.

With preliminaries out of the way, how do we know that it was wrists instead of hands?   It turns out, we’ve known only since the 1930s.  At least that’s what I’ve read today, by complete accident.  If someone has more knowledge about this, let me know.

I obviously read a lot — it’s part of what I get paid for — and, naturally, almost everything is connected with my research, books and articles on antiquity and especially early Christianity.  But I also like to read outside of my work, and so I do so a bit every day.  Mainly novels, especially, not only, nineteenth century.   I’m just returning to Frankenstein (which I’ve always found rather immature and preachy, but interesting; Mary Shelley started it when she was 19!!).  I’m reading it in part because of my next book on coming Armageddon – fears that we are bringing the end upon ourselves – but also because I want to read Jeanette Winterson’s apparently brilliant new novel Frankisstein: A Love Story.

But that’s not where I learned about crucifixion (though it would be a sensible guess).  I also have some kind of non-fiction thing going, but I spend far less time on it, since reading non-fiction is more or less my day job.  A busman’s holiday.  Still, I’ve been long fascinated by issues of anatomy, and so when Bill Bryson’s new book came out, I jumped all over it.  All his books are amazing (and some hilarious:  Walk in the Woods!).   But this one is right up my alley:  The Body: A Guide for Occupants.  Fantastic.

And out of the blue I learned something.  About crucifixion.

In talking about the skeleton and the various skeletal parts, Bryson, as is his wont, breaks into an anecdote.  A lot about what modern folk know about the comparative strength of the hand and the wrist is because of some strange work done in the 1930s by a French physician named Pierre Barbet, who became obsessed with the question of how crucifixion worked.

As a scientist, he knew it would take some actual experiments to figure out how the process is done  But he couldn’t very well crucify people to find out.  So he did the next best thing.  As a surgeon he had access to cadavers.  And so he nailed a number of them in various ways to wooden crosses, to see what “worked.”   If nails went through the hands, the weight of the body would be too much, and, in Bryson’s words “the hands would literally tear apart.”  Doesn’t work.  But if through the wrist?  Yup that works fine.

So they must have done it that way.   Jesus and many thousands of others were nailed through the wrists (unless they were tied, which is also widely considered to have been one of the options.)

Two questions that Bryson doesn’t address, since his book isn’t about crucifixion per se.

  • Why do descriptions of Jesus’ wounds in ancient texts refer to his hands instead of his wrists?  Ancients apparently understood the wrist to be part of the hand.
  • Why do artistic representations show the wounds in the hands instead of the wrists? Possibly because virtually paintings were all done after crucifixion had been abolished (fourth century) and no one *knew* how it was done, since it was so long ago and there were no descriptions available.  The Gospels speak of the “hands” and so artists assume it meant the hand rather than the wrist.  BUT, it is interesting that one of the earliest depictions of the crucifixion, on an ivory panel of the fourth century in the British Museum clearly shows the nails in middle of the hands.  For a photo, see my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, p. 116 (in both 6th and 7th editions).  Is this artists also influenced by the Gospels instead of historical reality?

Those are my guesses.  But as to wrists vs. hands: it’s nice to learn something without looking for it!

Guest Post by James Tabor: The Historian and the Supernatural
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  1. Avatar
    anthonygale  January 15, 2020

    I don’t know if this is accurate, but I remember reading or hearing that if the feet were also nailed, then nailing through the hands was sufficient. Hands insufficient but hands plus feet sufficient. Did Barbet try more variations than just hands or wrists alone?

    In any case, I don’t think you can expect the artists to get it right. Not their area of expertise. I’ve seen plenty of paintings with the chest wound on the wrong side. Unless the spear went in on the right to get to the heart on the left side. I always thought though the artist picked his left instead of Jesus’ left.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      I don’t know!

    • Avatar
      mwbaugh  January 16, 2020

      The heart isn’t actually on the left side, it’s in the center of the chest. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idkPch61aMw

      But the Gospel of John (the only Gospel that reports the wound) don’t say the spear pierced his heart, only that it pierced his side.

    • Avatar
      AQBill  January 16, 2020

      Anatomically speaking, the heart is almost centered in the chest under the breastbone. So a spear could “get” at the heart from either side.

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  January 15, 2020

    That must have been an interesting conversation.

    – Excuse me Mam, can I crucify your dead husband?
    – But why on Earth would you do that?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Yeah, I don’t think he was asking permission….

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  January 17, 2020

        The good old days before Ethics Review Boards. :o)

  3. Avatar
    ShonaG  January 15, 2020

    ‘As a scientist’ – not much of one, dead body is a dead weight a live body is not. ACTUALLY HISTORIC EVIDENCE IS DIFFERENT METHODS WERE USED. There is tying for a start which seems most common and the point isn’t supporting the weight of the body but breathing. The position restricts breathing when the muscles tire, people literally died of exhaustion. If you wanted to make that suffering greater then a nail through the wrist would do it and if you wanted to inflict the most pain then nails through the hand and median nerve would do it.

  4. Avatar
    Camtimothy  January 15, 2020

    Also possible that they tied his arms to the crossbar, then nailed the hands in order to increase the pain and additional security. The gospel writers then either were not aware of this or simply eliminated the ropes to make the story simpler.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Interesting. What would make you think so?

      • Avatar
        Pattylt  January 24, 2020

        I tend to think no ropes were used. Otherwise, we’d have a lot of relics of rope. As far as I know, we don’t.

  5. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  January 15, 2020

    My goodness! I’ve never heard of even one instance of modern and semi-modern stigmata in which the bleeding came from the wrists! Those who believe in stigmata have some explaining to do. I’ve read about actual nail crucifixion being performed by some Catholics in modern times, as a kind of devotional act on religious holidays, and I believe they use the hands. But, judging by photos I’ve seen, the crosses have a platform for the feet, and the people volunteering for this, are not suspended for very long, obviously. In parochial school, priests and nuns would occasionally “entertain” us kids by describing crucifixion to us in very graphic terms and they always referenced a kind of slanted platform for the victim’s feet. How they got that detail I don’t know. Part of Catholic mythology? The victim would try to push up from the platform, supposedly, in an effort to take stress off of the hands and arms but since the platform was slanted, the effort only caused more discomfort. I have a feeling this was dreamed up by an imaginative inquisitor in medieval times. This sort of thing would have a lot of appeal to an inquisitor, unfortunately.

    • Avatar
      flshrP  January 18, 2020

      Yes. I remember that grade school “entertainment”. Even then I thought the whole idea of nailing a person to the cross was excessively gruesome. Later I learned that the Romans deliberately intended crucifixion to be gruesome. That it was designed to be a deterrent effect on Roman soldiers by making an example of their buddies who cut and run in battle and to keep the conquered hordes in check. Much later I became even more nauseated by this Christian celebration of the crucifixion of an innocent man when I understood that we were celebrating a bloody sacrifice so the believers could obtain eternal salvation for our immortal souls vicariously. My grade school was staffed by the Sisters of the Precious Blood. So much perverted interest in blood lust in Catholicism.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  January 15, 2020

    It’s also been suggested that the wrists would be more painful, since the median nerve runs through there, and torture was part of the goal. Off topic, but I know you teach a course on Jesus in cinema: last night TCM showed the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. Either intentionally or unintentionally it is a Christ parable: an advanced being comes to earth to tell us to straighten up or judgment is coming. He is feared rather than revered. For a while he lives as a human. He visits one of the leading scientists in secret, just like Jesus visiting Nicodemus. Eventually he is killed. Then he is resurrected, to once again warn humanity to shape up. Then he ascends into the heavens. I’m sure your course already has enough films to consider, though. (Do you include Life of Brian?)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      There was a great Twilight Zone twist on that one (or was it Outer Limits?) where the advanced being convinces earthlings to get their act together in 24 hours (or a week?) or they will all be destroyed, and so peace treaties are rapidly signed to bring peace on earth. But when the alien returns he is exasperated and says they didn’t understand. His world needs the worth to be more *warlike*, and since they are so intent on peace, they will have to be annihilated….

      Yup, I do Life of Brian in the class, definitely

  7. Avatar
    Silver  January 15, 2020

    Pierre Barbet’s work is oft cited in books about the Shroud of Turin (I think his own book is called A Doctor at Calvary). Apparently he undertook his investigations because of his interest in this relic since it appears to show nail prints in the wrists. The ‘Shroud’ research was needed to explain the wrist wounds in order to bolster claims that the Shroud is genuine. It was said any forger would obviously conform to the normal artistic site (the hands) for the imprints. Since the marks are in the wrist and that was demonstrated to be the only point which could permit the weight of the body to be supported then the Shroud must be genuine, it was argued.

  8. Robert
    Robert  January 15, 2020

    Pierre Barbet was also instrumental in bringing about the modern popularity of the Shroud of Turin, which he thought confirmed his findings about crucifixion.

  9. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  January 15, 2020

    With all these historical mysteries I believe in asking myself ‘What would we do today?’ as I think human beings are human beings, now and then. So I am sure all your and Cook’s and Bryson’s and everyone’s research is valid – plus this: they would have done what was expedient and so it would have varied. Novices might have nailed through the hands and learnt not to; Nails may have been unobtainable in places and thus rope would have been used etc. Just as today: How do we kill people when for some crazy reason we think we should? In all sorts of different ways.

  10. Avatar
    Mannster  January 15, 2020

    Great post. Funny – I’m readying Bryson’s new book as well, and your post from a couple of days ago on A Revelatory Moment made me think you might be reading it when you talked about killing the microbes when scratching. I’m a huge Bryson fan, but skipped The Mother Tongue which I’ll start after this one.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Ha! but yeah, I’ve thought about those poor microbes for years….

  11. Avatar
    J.J.  January 15, 2020

    Unfortunately, the Alexamenos graffito doesn’t help with the hands issue, but it does further confirm what Epistle of Barnabas indicates about a T-shaped cross.

  12. Avatar
    Michael  January 15, 2020

    I’m led to understand that the Greek word for ‘hand’ also included the wrist? Is this correct?


    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      I actually wasn’t saying that, but was saying that it’s kind of like when you talk about your foot, and most people include the ankle. I think? But it’s a good question if Greek has a separate word for wrist. I can’t recall seeing it. But if someone points it out to me, I suppose I’ll say, Oh yeah, that’s it….

      • Avatar
        Alx87  May 28, 2020

        The greek word for wrist specifically is ‘καρπος’ (karpos).

        • Bart
          Bart  May 29, 2020

          Spelled the same as the for “fruit” but accented differently. And hence “carpal tunnel…. (But my point is that sometimes when someone says “foot” in English they include the “ankle” even though there is a different word for it)

  13. Avatar
    Adam  January 15, 2020

    What do you make of the Doubting Thomas tradition in John? (i.e. “But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      I think he’s thinking what we call the hand includes what we call the wrist.

  14. Avatar
    RedMex_Reason  January 15, 2020

    Interesting read – Thanks for Sharing!
    Since you mentioned “reading alot,” have you by chance read “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross” by John Marco Allegro? What an interesting book – I was really intrigued by the comparison of the sacred mushroom and the virgin birth since a mushroom does not require a ‘seed’ and does not have a root.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Ah, it’s a classic that convinced most scholars in the field that Allegro, a very fine scholar before, had himself been eating too many mushrooms….

  15. Avatar
    chixter  January 15, 2020

    About an inch or so from the distal pulse towards the elbow, the two large bones radial and ulnar tuberosity join the scaphoid process at the wrist joint. These 2 large bones are separated by a gap of about 5/16 to 1/2 an inch. Very strong at the apex ideal for hanging someone by spikes of one is so inclined. Any spike ( or projectile for that matter) forced through the palm area of the hand will shatter the process of small connecting bones and tendons. Don’t ask me how I know the latter.

  16. Avatar
    Fernando Peregrin Gutierrez  January 15, 2020

    For long reasons to count, more than 25 years ago I thoroughly studied the so-called Holy Shroud of Turin. I’ve even seen it in that city two or three times.
    Curiously, on the Shroud of Turin, the marks that correspond to the nails are located in what appear to be Jesus’ wrist rather than the palm of his hand.
    This argument has been one of the main ones used by the “synodologists” to affirm that it is a real relic.
    However, dating by C14 demonstrates without a doubt that the Shroud of Turin is a painting dating from the Middle Ages, between 1260 and 1390 (± 10 years).
    However, it is curious to note how the painter who forged the Shroud placed the nails of Christ on the wrists and not on the palms of the hands.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Yup, I’ve wondered that too. But some people clearly did!

  17. Avatar
    tskorick  January 15, 2020

    Aaaaaand of COURSE I only have the fifth edition of your NT textbook. Is this the image to which you refer? https://www.bmimages.com/preview.asp?image=00034960001

  18. Avatar
    Sixtus  January 15, 2020

    Headline from the satirical The Onion, March 29, 2006:

    Controversial Christian Faction Believes Jesus Was Nailed To Two Parallel Pieces Of Wood

  19. Avatar
    godspell  January 15, 2020

    I got Cook’s book from the stacks, and it didn’t take long to learn there are multiple references there to the bodies of the crucified receiving burial. It doesn’t seem to have been uncommon, though he says many others rotted on the cross, and many bodies taken down would be thrown into a pit (that I tend to doubt was carefully guarded). Bodies might be withheld from families/friends if there was some desire to make the punishment more humiliating (one thinks of stories about the current Chinese government sending families of executed activists a bill for the bullet). But it was by no means an invariant practice, based on Cook’s research, for the body to stay up there indefinitely. Crosses were often re-used, timber being a prized commodity. So you might get evicted to make room for some new tenant.

    I therefore see no compelling evidence that Dominick Crossan was right about the fate of Jesus’ body. He could have been left to rot on the cross. He could have been taken down and buried, and this wouldn’t have been any kind of break with Roman customs (unless he had been deemed a truly dangerous enemy of the state, which seems unlikely, given the general lack of response to his arrest). More than that is difficult to say. The failure to find remains of many crucified people is not proof of anything. We don’t find the remains of most poor people, and as Cook makes clear, crucifixion victims were usually at the very bottom of the social scale. So was Jesus.

  20. Avatar
    veritas  January 15, 2020

    When I was attending different churches, I recall the Mormon church being the only one preaching Jesus was definitely crucified at the wrists. As you mention, in the hands the weight of his body would of teared through his hands thus the wrists were used. Also, as one of your bloggers attested, the breathing may have been very much a crucial serious side-effect of the suffering, being nailed on the wrist would keep you up longer thus incurring more suffering. Nonetheless six hours was long. Good read!.

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