The Straight Dope

In your recent column regarding stigmata [February 19] you failed to mention one very important fact. In most cases the stigmata displayed by "stigmatists" manifest on the palms and the feet. It's well known that the Romans discovered very early that nails through the hands and feet (especially the hands) would not support the weight of the body and would rip through the hands very quickly. Anyone with stigmata of the palms, therefore, would definitely be bogus. Seems to me that would be the quickest and easiest way to debunk these quacks. Whaddaya think?

-- Jeff A., Ashburn, Virginia

Jeff, you're absolutely right. I can't believe I overlooked an opportunity to describe nails ripping out of flesh. But I should tell you, the facts are more complicated than you think.

The Romans crucified people by the boatload, but exactly how they went about it is unclear, since crucifixion was not the kind of thing you wrote instruction manuals for. The gospels describe wounds in Jesus' hands, and most people (including most artists depicting the Crucifixion) have assumed the nails went through the center of his palms.

But some modern researchers have disputed this. The most enterprising was the French surgeon Pierre Barbet, who nailed up freshly amputated arms through the palms and tied weights to the other ends. He found that the nail tore through when the weight was increased to 88 pounds and the arm was given a good jerk. (Hey, anything for science.) Since a human body would exert substantially more force, he concluded that nailing through the palm was impractical.

Barbet believed the wrist was a more likely location. After more experiments with nails and amputated arms he found that a nail could be driven readily through an anatomical area known as Destot's space, located near where the base of the hand joins the wrist. Because Destot's space is surrounded by the wrist bones, a nail there could easily support the weight of the body.

To buttress his thesis, Barbet cited the Shroud of Turin, which appeared to have blood marks at the wrist. Shroud advocates were quite taken with this notion and gave it wide currency. Barbet summarized his findings in his book A Doctor at Calvary, published in 1953.

Barbet's hypothesis seemed to get a boost in 1968 when archaeologists in Jerusalem unearthed the first known skeleton of a crucifixion victim. The guy's feet had been nailed to the cross sideways, through the heel rather than the arch, as is commonly depicted. More to the point, there was a scratch on one of the bones of the right forearm (the radius), as though from a nail. In the minds of many people this cinched the wrist-crucifixion hypothesis.

In the biblical archaeology game, however, nobody ever gets the last word. Among the objections raised:

(1) In the Jerusalem crucifixion victim, the nail didn't go through Destot's space in the wrist bones, it went between the two bones of the forearm.

(2) There might not have been a nail at all. Two later researchers claim that scratches and indentations are commonly found on ancient bones and have nothing to do with crucifixion (Zias and Sekeles, Israel Exploration Journal, 1985). They think the Jerusalem victim was tied to the cross with ropes.

(3) Destot's space, and for that matter the bones of the forearm, aren't the only places you can nail a guy to make him stand up. In a 1989 issue of Bible Review, Frederick Zugibe, a medical examiner for Rockland County, New York, claims that there are at least two other possible nailing locations, one of which is on the palm. (It's in the "thenar furrow," the deep fold where the base of the thumb joins the hand -- touch your thumb to the tip of your little finger to see it.)

In short, we have no idea how Jesus was crucified, other than the fact that they nailed him somewhere. Even if we did, it wouldn't prove anything. Remember Father Bruse, the stigmatic Catholic priest who could make statues weep, heal the sick, et cetera? His stigmata -- you can see this coming -- were on the wrist.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver "The Straight Dope" on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago, IL 60611; e-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit "The Straight Dope" area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

 
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