Christian Hand Signals

I am teaching a college class on the Catholic Epistles this semester, and right now we are working our way through the book of James. I found a modern icon to use for a PowerPoint slide that had James making a hand gesture that has always intrigued me. I had often read that this was the “sign of blessing” or the “sign of wisdom,” but that seemed inadequate to me.

I think I found a plausible explanation in several places. This is using the right hand to form Greek letters. This is seen from the perspective of the one making the gesture. The pointer finger is straight. The middle finger is curved. The ring finger touches the thumb, making a crossed figure. The pinky is curved (not much in this icon). In alphabet letters this might look like this: ICXC. If we separate these into IC XC, we can see they are Greek letters that signify two words. In the style of Greek we call “uncial,” what looks like our capital “C” is the way they write the letter Sigma (Σ). So the IC XC could also be written IΣ XΣ. This is a way of abbreviating ΙΗΣΟΥΣ  ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, the Greek way of spelling Iesous Christos, Jesus Christ. This sort of abbreviation appears frequently in the ancient Greek manuscripts, usually for names associated with members of the Trinity. In the manuscripts, they are marked with a solid line above the letters, “overlining.” Those who study the Greek manuscripts of the Bible refer to this system of abbreviation as nomina sacra.

So if you show this hand gesture to someone, you are flashing “Jesus Christ.” I guess that makes you part of the Christian gang, the church. And for my former students reading this, aren’t you glad you paid attention in Greek class. (You did pay attention, didn’t you? Please tell me you paid attention.)

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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6 thoughts on “Christian Hand Signals

  1. When I worked in a chapel at a divinity school that featured a lot of art which imitated ancient Christian art, there was a representation of John Chrysostom, and the issue came up. Although your interpretation is possible (and scholars are divided), another interpretation is that it is IXOU (sorry this laptop doesn’t have greek fonts, but that’s iota, chi, theta (not o), upsilon) for Jesus Christ God’s Son. In either case it is meant to represent Jesus and was used in blessings over the people. It is a version of a “Christogram” (symbolic representation of Jesus using letters) done with the hands that were somewhat common in the first several centuries of the Church.

  2. Love the idea of flashing a new Christian gang symbol – who knows maybe we could create a new piece of popular culture.

  3. Yes Dr. Krause, we paid attention! I don’t think I’ll ever forget you threatening us with bodily harm if we mentioned the aorist tense in a sermon!

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