Though my blog deals with mainly political subjects, my medical curiousity does drive me to write on other subjects. The following is an edited version of an article that has been submitted for publication:
Could the Catholic gesture known as the “Hand of Benediction” (Figure 1) provide anatomical insight into the crucifixion of Jesus?
A common symbol of both piety and blessing is known as the “Hand of Benediction”. It occurs when lateral digits of the hand (4 and 5) are flexed at the IP (interphalangeal) joints as noted in Figure 1. Though still seen today, the Christian origin of this gesture has been lost to history but may relate back to the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross.
Crucifixion was utilized by the ancient Romans as a slow, demoralizing means of death meant to both punish the guilty, dissuade others from committing the same crime or just to set an example. The cause of death from such torture has been conjectured to be due asphyxiation. However, blood loss, dehydration, infection or shock have also been suspected contributing factors.
There has been ongoing speculation as to where Jesus’s hands were nailed to the cross. Anatomically, a nail piercing the ulnar nerve at the wrist, possibly at Guyan’s canal (Figure 3), could not only explain the origin of the “Hand of Benediction” but also possibly elucidate ancient Roman crucifixion techniques. The ulnar nerve passing through the canal innervates the third and fourth lumbricals, dorsal interossei, palmar interossei, hypothenar muscles and the adductor pollicis. As result of a traumatic lesion to the nerve at this site the most noticeable outcome would be the flexion of digits 4 and 5 at the IP joints of the effected hand due to lack of innervation of their corresponding lumbrical muscles. Did those who witnessed Jesus’s crucifixion see this physiologic hand gesture while he was on the cross and interpret it as a holy sign? Is this final gesture of Jesus what the Catholic clergy of today are emulating with the “Hand of Benediction” gesture?
Plus, a nail piercing Guyan’s canal and securing a person’s hand to the wooden crossbeam of a cross may also be anatomically logical. Because the carpal bones are held firmly together by a dense and interlocking array of ligaments, this anatomical area may be able to provide enough structural integrity for a nail to secure the crucified person’s hand tightly against the wooden beam. Plus, it may also provide enough support to keep the crucified person’s arms elevated throughout the entirety of their agonizing ordeal.
Crucifixion has been shrouded in mystery for many centuries. However, by reexamining the possible origin of the “Hand of Benediction” both an anatomical explanation for this gesture and insight into the methodology of Roman crucifixions emerge.