This question was raised last Saturday during a day conference on biblical archaeology at Tyndale House in Cambridge. Put simply the problem was stated as follows:
Crucifixion normally involved nailing the victim to a horizontal beam through the wrist between the radius and the ulna (the two bones of the forearm). The nail was then firmly trapped by the carpals from ripping out of the hand between the fingers. If the victim were nailed through the palm of the hand the weight of the suspended body would simply cause the nail to pull through the flesh between the metacarpals (see here for an illustration of the bones involved). That much seems clear. However, in John 20:27 Jesus commands Thomas to:
“…See my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” [Italics mine]
Surely, the argument goes, if the nail marks where in Jesus’ wrists then he would have told Thomas to look there for them and not in his hands?
I think the answer to the problem is fairly straightforward, once we look at the Greek text. The Greek word for hand – χειρ – which is used twice in the passage cited above means “A hand or any relevant portion of the hands, including, for example, the fingers.” (Nida & Louw, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Vol. 1, p. 98.). The question is whether the word “hand” in Greek also included the wrist. The word “wrist” or “wrists” appears only in Acts 12:7 in the NIV New Testament. In the Old Testament it appears twice in the Genesis 38:27 & 30, in Jeremiah 40:4 and Ezekiel 13:18. In Acts 12:7 and in the Septuagint of the OT verses the “wrist” is a translation of χειρ. So, it would seem that “wrist” was included within the semantic range of χειρ and so the problem seems to be solved. John 20:27 could quite accurately be translated: “…See my wrists. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
Nida & Louw note that there is a precedent for using a specific body part in place of the general term “hand”. Luke 15:22 reads “…Put a ring on his χειρ…” χειρ here is to be translated finger, not hand.
(by Rob Bradshaw)
Note: Frederick Huchel expressed the following in an email:
In this connection, some might wish to revisit the article with which most if not all of us once read, from the Journal of the American Medical Association, by three physicians, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” (www.stpaulsirvine.org/html/deathjesus.pdf). There are also the works cited in the footnotes of the Meridian Magazine article “The Search for the Physical Cause of Jesus’ Death” (http://www.meridianmagazine.com/byustudies/050325cause.html)
John Tvedtnes, also in an email, made the following important point:
In biblical Hebrew, the word zeroa’ (usually rendered “arm’) referred to the upper arm (shoulder to elbow), while the word yad (usually rendered “hand”) referred to the lower arm (elbow to fingertip). To specify what we call the hand, one would have to use kaph (most often thought of as the “palm” of the hand). I suspect that the problem lies in the translation from Aramaic to Greek.