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The Crucifixion of Our Lord: Where Were His Nails?

Zech. 13:6 And they shall say to him: What are these wounds in the midst of thy hands? And he shall say: With these I was wounded in the house of them that loved me. (Douay-Rheims) 

[et dicetur ei quid sunt plagae istae in medio manuum tuarum et dicet his plagatus sum in domo eorum qui diligebant me] (Latin vulgate)

Ps. 21 (22):16: [A] company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet[.]1  

Luke 24:39–40: See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see[.] … And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet.

John 20:20: When he had said this, he showed them his hands[.]

John 20:27: Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands[.]”

Old Testament prophecies.

New Testament eyewitnesses.

Oral tradition.

Historical records.

Fifteen hundred years of Christian art.

All testify to the crucified Messiah’s nails being placed in His hands.  But now, for the first time since the Crucifixion, there has arisen an ongoing and often rancorous debate, dating back a mere eighty years, based almost entirely on one well intentioned doctor’s assumptions.  The debate remains confusing because it is based on parroted misinformation.  The truth, however, is not to be found in assumptions, simple experiments, or even in the parsing ancient words (whether “hand” could mean “wrist”2,3) but in historical evidence and in medical science, properly understood.

There is no evidence in the first few centuries of Church history which documents, or even implies, that Christ was nailed through the wrists.  Outside of the New Testament witness accounts mentioned above, the early Church is largely silent on the subject, which is not unexpected in a world where public manifestations of Christian belief were considered capital offences.  After Constantine, however, that fear abated, and representations of the Crucifixion became widespread.   In the British Museum today, there is an ivory crucifix dating back to AD 420 which is believed to be the oldest extant depiction of the Crucifixion.  The wooden door of Santa Sabena in Rome also portrays the Crucifixion, and dates to AD 430–432.  Both of these representations place the nails within the palms, not the wrists.  Combined with these historical representations are the historical records themselves.  Historians such as Justus Lipsius,4 John Hewitt,5 and John Robison6 all attested to the nails being placed in the hands.  Martin Hengel emphasized the regularity of the practice: “It should be noted that in Roman times [it was] the rule to nail the victim by both hands and feet[.]”7  Such was the consensus — for 1,900 years.

It was not until the 1930s, following an exposition of the Shroud of Turin, that Pierre Barbet, M.D. (1884–1961) a French physician and World War I battlefield surgeon, first proposed the theory that Christ was nailed through the wrists, not the hands, based on experiments he performed on cadavers and his interpretation of the Shroud.  His landmark work, A Doctor at Calvary (1950), was a detailed account of the many medical aspects of the Crucifixion, addressing the placement of the nails, Christ’s position on the Cross, asphyxiation as the cause of death, and many others, and was the first such study of its kind.  His conclusions were taken by many to be definitive because he claimed he had the medical evidence to support his theories.  With regard to the placement of the nails, he performed a brief experiment which consisted of placing a nail into the central, soft tissue portion of the palm of a cadaver arm, and then observing that when a weight was applied to the arm, as would occur when Christ hung on the cross, the nail would simply rip out of the hand through the gap between the fingers.  Inexplicably, he made no other attempts to place the nail elsewhere in the palm, but simply assumed the nail could not be placed anywhere in the palm and would, in fact, have to be placed in the wrist.  He settled on a point in the central aspect near the wrist crease, toward the small finger side (Figures 1a and 1b), which would penetrate a gap between four bones of the wrist, known as Destot’s space8 (Figure 2).  Barbet demonstrated that a nail through this space could support the weight of a crucified man and felt this location would comport with St. Bridget’s revelation from the Virgin Mary that “the hands of my Son were pierced in that part where the bone was most solid.”  He claimed the nail would penetrate the back of the hand corresponding to the wound on the Shroud, but he also mistakenly claimed that the nail would damage the median nerve, the nerve to the thumb muscles, causing them to spasm, which he believed would explain the lack of thumb visibility on the Shroud.

For eighty years Barbet’s theories have been repeated endlessly in TV documentaries, magazine articles, book chapters, and internet websites.  But, despite the historical records demonstrating that men were crucified with nails through the hands (even in the absence of support ropes9) as well as extensive experimental work done by others which contradict Barbet’s hypotheses, the debate persists.

Frederic Zugibe, M.D., Ph.D. (1928–2013) was, unlike Barbet, a forensic pathologist (with a Ph.D. in human anatomy) who served as a medical examiner in New York for over 30 years.  As a forensic pathologist (essentially a medical detective who determines causes of death), he was more qualified than Barbet to compare the markings on the Shroud with the medical findings.  In The Cross and the Shroud (1988), Zugibe described much more detailed experiments he performed in the 1970s and ’80s (having at his disposal far more technology than was available to Barbet), which proved many of Barbet’s hypotheses incorrect.

With regard to Barbet’s nails-in-the-wrist theory, Zugibe recognized several errors in Barbet’s thesis:

  1. A nail placed in Destot’s space would be too far toward the small finger side of the hand to correspond to the wound on the Shroud
  2. A nail placed in Destot’s space would not correspond to the wounds of any stigmatists prior to Barbet
  3. A nail placed in Destot’s space would most likely miss the median nerve, so there must be another reason the thumbs are not visible on the Shroud

Zugibe’s contention was that the wound on the Shroud (which represents the exit wound on the back of the hand) was located more toward the thumb side and farther toward the fingers than Barbet’s proposed position would allow, even if Barbet’s nail angled as it passed through the wrist.  Performing much more extensive cadaveric experiments, Zugibe demonstrated that the nail could, in fact, be placed through the palm, in the bony space between the index and middle finger support bones and the smaller bones just beneath those, and without breaking any of the bones.  (Figures 3a, 3b, 3c).  A nail placed in this space would, as it passes from the palm to the back of the hand, exit where the wound is pictured on the Shroud (Figures 3d, 3e, 3f).  Just as Barbet concluded that a nail through a bony space could support the body weight, so too did Zugibe show through further experiments that this bony space would not only support the body10, without support ropes, but would also be consistent with the traditional belief that the nails had been placed through the palms.  Zugibe’s space is also more consistent with the wound on the Shroud, with St. Bridget’s revelation, and with the position in stigmatists such as Padre Pio. (Figure 4)

With regard to the median nerve, Zugibe recognized that Barbet’s nail would not injure it.  The median nerve supplies the palmar muscle belly at the base of the thumb, and its path is marked by the location of a wrist tendon called the palmaris longus (Figure 5).  The median nerve is classically located directly beneath or on the thumb side of that tendon. Barbet’s nail, however, passes on the small finger side of the tendon, which means it would miss the median nerve completely.  More importantly, even if a nail placed elsewhere did damage the median nerve, it would paralyze it and the thumb muscles it supplies, so the thumb would not be pulled in by those (now paralyzed) muscles, but would extend out by the other muscles still operative on the opposite side of the wrist.  Zugibe rightly hypothesized that the only reason the thumbs are not visible on the Shroud is that the thumbs relax when the wrist is bent after death (which he had seen multiple times as a pathologist).  As anyone can demonstrate on their own wrist: if the point of the elbow is placed on a table with the fingers pointing straight toward the ceiling, as the hand and wrist relax and drop in the direction of the palm, the thumbs drop well below the levels of the other fingers, and the Shroud, wrapped over the tops of the hands, would not contact the thumbs. (Figure 6)

It is unfortunate that, despite the Scripture passages and a tradition of almost 2000 years indicating that Our Lord was pierced in the hands, speculation based on one doctor’s brief experiment has resulted in such a persistent controversy.  As well meaning as Dr. Barbet was, his cadaveric experiments were no more rigorously scientific than those done by some medieval artists, who also attempted to nail cadavers to crosses to serve as models (also finding that nails placed too far toward the fingers would pull out), and his assumptions led him to conclusions the medical evidence cannot support.

It is hoped that, as the more extensive scientific studies performed by Zugibe and others become better known, the faithful will be edified to know that the Church, and her artists, have been right all along.

  1. Brown, Raymond, ed., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990, p. 530.  Brown gives four different translations of this passage.  In all four, “hands” is used, not “wrist”.
  2. There is no word in Koine Greek corresponding to the English word “wrist.” The literal meaning of the Greek word χεῖράς used in these New Testament passages is “hands” and is translated accordingly.
  3. Barbet, Pierre. Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ As Described by a Surgeon, New York: Image Books, 1963, p. 94. Barbet states, “[T]he sacred texts . . . do not speak of the palms, but of the hands.  It is for anatomists to say what is meant by the word hand.  Those of every age and every country are agreed on this point: the hand consists of the wrist, the metacarpus and the fingers.”  Barbet errs on two counts: a) the biblical writers were not anatomists (Luke’s being a physician notwithstanding) and they would have differentiated the hand from the wrist as everyone else does in common parlance
    b) although there is bony overlap between what medical professionals call the hand and the wrist (invisible to the naked eye), no one, anatomist or otherwise, would call the location of his nail on the Villandre crucifix (Figures 1a and 1b) the “hand.”
  4. Lipsius, Justus, De Cruce, 1594
  5. Hewitt, John, “The Use of Nails in the Crucifixion.” Harvard Theological Review 25 (1932): p. 41
  6. Robison, John, “Crucifixion in the Roman World: The Use of Nails at the Time of Christ.” Studia Antiqua 2, no. 1 (2002). p. 28
  7. Hengel, Martin, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, translated by John Bowden. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977, p. 31.
  8. Barbet, pp. 102–103.
  9. Blinzler, Joseph, The Trial of Jesus: The Jewish and Roman Proceedings against Jesus, translated by Isabel and Florence McHugh, The Newman Press, 1959, p. 264
  10. Zugibe, Frederick T., The Cross and the Shroud: A Medical inquiry into the Crucifixion. Paragon House, New York, 1988, pp. 66–68.

Figure 1a. The Villandre Crucifix, made at Barbet’s request, “according to the precise information I had given him.” (Barbet, p. 101). Note the nails in the wrists, toward the small finger side.

nails wrist

Figure 1b.  Barbet’s proposed position of the nail in the wrist, toward the small finger side.

Figure 2.  Destot’s space (blue dot).  Note the space is in line with the ring and small fingers.

Figure 3a: Zugibe demonstrated a nail placed through a space in line with the index and middle fingers could support the crucified Christ (black arrows).  A nail placed within this space would pass through palm, angle back toward the wrist, and cause an exit wound corresponding to the wound on the Shroud.

Figure 3b: Fluoroscopic image of the palm with a nail through the space marked in Figure 3a.

nails hole thumb

Figure 3c: Actual location of the wound in the palm from a nail through the space marked in Figures 3a and 3b.

Figure 3d: Exit wound produced by a nail through the space marked in Figures 3a and 3b.

nails blood

Figure 3e: Exit wound with blood pooling/rivulets as seen on the Shroud (see Figure 3f, below).

Figure 3f. Hand wound, Shroud of Turin.  Rivulets (black arrows) represent blood oozing after body had been washed.  As the hands were crossed one over the other on his abdomen, the back of the hand would tilt in an index-finger-high to small-finger-low direction.  The original nail wound is that upper region marked in red.  Note how it is not in line with the ring finger (blue arrow).

Figure 4: Padre Pio’s stigmata.   Note they are in line with the index and middle fingers, not the ring finger.

Figure 5: The palmaris longus tendon (arrows).  Note that Barbet’s nail position (blue dot) is too far toward the small finger side to injure the median nerve (red).

Figure 6: Thumbs drop out of view when wrists relax and flex.

Original drawings by Adrienne DePrisco.

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