A Grain of Salt

Here are a couple of observations about a passage in the Gospel of John about the Apostle Thomas.

The only time that the word nail (ἧλος) is used in the Gospels in connection with the crucifixion is in the Gospel of John

20.25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

This is the only evidence that crucified people in Rome were nailed to a cross. The logical thing would be to tie people to a cross with a rope. This would make it easy to untie the person, either because they had died or been pardoned. Also bleeding from the nail would quicken death, while the point of crucifixion was for the person to die slowly.

I suggest that there has been a mistranslation here. Instead of the word ἧλος, I suggest the word ἁλός (grain of salt) was originally here.

Basically it would mean that the translation should be

Unless I see the grains of salt in his hands and touch the grains of salt and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.

Thomas is trying to say that unless he touches his hand to feel the smallest particle (a grain of salt) he won’t believe. “Place my hand in his side” would just mean something like giving him a bearhug or perhaps just touching his side the way you would a close friend.

Probably, when John (or an editor) combined this floating story text with the text describing the piercing of Jesus’ side, he decided to change the term “grain of salt” to “nail” to try and link the two disparate passages together.

The change of ἁλός to ἧλος led to the perverse interpretation of this passage that we currently have and the mistaken idea that the Romans drove nails through the hands of the slaves they crucified.

According to Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:

ἅλς (A), ἁλός [α^], ὁ: dat. pl. ἅλασιν (v. infr.):—
A. salt, “πάσσε δ᾽ ἁλὸς θείοιο” Il.9.214, cf. Od.17.455; ἁλὸς μέταλλον a salt-mine, Hdt.4.185; ἁλὸς χόνδροι lumps of rock-salt, ib.181 : sg. also Ar.Ach.835, Philyll.28, Axionic.8: more freq. in pl., Od.11.123, Hdt.4.53, al., etc.:—prov. phrases: “οὐ σύ γ᾽ ἂν . . σῷ ἐπιστάτη οὐδ᾽ ἅλα δοίης” Od.17.455; “φῄς μοι πάντα δόμεν: τάχα δ᾽ . . οὐδ᾽ ἅλα δοίης” Theoc.27.61; ἅλας συναναλῶσαι, i.e. to be bound by ties of hospitality, Arist.EN1156b27; τῶν ἁλῶν συγκατεδηδοκέναι μέδιμνον to have eaten a bushel of salt together, i.e. to be old friends, Com.Adesp.176; οἱ περὶ ἅλα καὶ κύαμον, of friends, Plu.2.684e

Thus proverbs involving salt is often associated with old friendships. The term might have been referencing this concept also.

I would also add this corollary thought. In the original context, Thomas must have been saying the opposite of what he now says. He must have been saying that he would not believe that Jesus was dead unless he touched his hand and side. Remember, Thomas and none of the apostles had seen Jesus dead. Therefore, in the earlier version of the tale, Thomas would have doubted that Jesus was dead. Unless he touched the grains of salt in his hands and touched his side, he would not believe that Jesus was actually dead.