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Reason and Revelation Volume 19 #11

Did Peter’s Chains Fall Off His Hands or His Wrists?

by  Trevor Major, M.Sc., M.A.

Q. In Acts 12:7, it says that Peter’s “chains fell off his hands.” Would it not make more sense to say that the chains fell off his wrists (assuming that “chains” refers to the whole restraining device, i.e., chains attached to bands secured around the wrist)? Skeptics allege that this must be a mistake. How can we respond?

A. This is another example of skepticism run amok and, once again, there is a failure to appreciate the historical context of Scripture. In this particular case, the skeptics are ignoring the way in which word usage has changed over thousands of years. By this I am not referring to the difference in Greek and English languages. Rather, a Greek word, and a valid translation of that word, may mean something different to ancient and modern speakers. A classic example is apologia. This word entered the English language as “apology” in the 16th century but means something quite different to us today. Modern speakers tend to use the word as an expression of regret for having done something wrong, whereas for the people of New Testament times apologia meant a defense or well-reasoned argument. Also, people of many cultures and times have used different modes or styles of speech for different occasions. For instance, we do not always operate on the level of scientific accuracy in everyday life (e.g., we look in the vegetable section of the supermarket for tomatoes—even though, technically speaking, the tomato is a fruit).

Although the Greeks had a word for wrist (karpos), we find it only in the Greek Septuagint, not in the New Testament. This may reflect a conscious effort to preserve the Semitic character of someone like Peter (who would have preached on this great rescue story many times), rather than to provide a sanitized version for Greek speakers outside Palestine. Indeed, the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, which is quite closely allied to Peter’s native Aramaic, seems to lack a specific term for this particular part of the body. For instance, Genesis 24:22 indicates that Abraham’s servant gave Rebekah bracelets for her “hands” (KJV, ASV). This translation of the word is quite valid lexically, although we would understand bracelets as going around her wrists (NASV, NKJV). Interestingly, the NIV does not translate the anatomical reference at all, but simply takes it for granted that rings were for fingers and bracelets were for wrists. The Jewish Talmud has a word for “juncture” that refers to the hand/arm joint and the foot/leg joint, but this degree of accuracy probably was necessary only for legal purposes (and the Talmud was written much later than the Old Testament).

Thus, the reference to “hands” in Acts 12:7 can be taken as wrists. Not only is this implied by the way in which the word “chains” is used (just as it is implied in the word “bracelets”), but there is a strong Semitic influence to consider. We could apply the same understanding to Luke 24:39, in which the resurrected Christ said, “Behold my hands.” According to medical evidence, the hand bones could not have supported much weight during crucifixion, and so it is likely that the large iron nails were driven through the wrists. As a physician, Luke could have put a more accurate Greek term in Christ’s mouth, but he was dedicated to reporting these incidents as they had been delivered to him (Luke 1:1-4). This richness of God’s inspired Word stands in stark contrast to the poverty of most skeptical charges against it.

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