Gr., σταυρός (stau·rosʹ); Lat., crux
“Torture stake” in Mt 27:40 is used in connection with the execution of Jesus at Calvary, that is, Skull Place. There is no evidence that the Greek word stau·rosʹ here meant a cross such as the pagans used as a religious symbol for many centuries before Christ.
In the classical Greek the word stau·rosʹ meant merely an upright stake, or pale, or a pile such as is used for a foundation. The verb stau·roʹo meant to fence with pales, to form a stockade, or palisade, and this is the verb used when the mob called for Jesus to be impaled. It was to such a stake, or pale, that the person to be punished was fastened, just as the popular Greek hero Prometheus was represented as tied to rocks. Whereas the Greek word that the dramatist Aeschylus used to describe this simply means to tie or to fasten, the Greek author Lucian (Prometheus, I) used a·na·stau·roʹo as a synonym for that word. In the Christian Greek Scriptures a·na·stau·roʹo occurs but once, in Heb 6:6. The root verb stau·roʹo occurs more than 40 times, and we have rendered it “impale,” with the footnote: “Or, ‘fasten on a stake (pole).’”
The inspired writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures wrote in the common (koi·neʹ) Greek and used the word stau·rosʹ to mean the same thing as in the classical Greek, namely, a simple stake, or pale, without a crossbeam of any kind at any angle. There is no proof to the contrary. The apostles Peter and Paul also use the word xyʹlon to refer to the torture instrument upon which Jesus was nailed, and this shows that it was an upright stake without a crossbeam, for that is what xyʹlon in this special sense means. (Ac 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Ga 3:13; 1Pe 2:24) In LXX we find xyʹlon in Ezr 6:11 (1 Esdras 6:31), and there it is spoken of as a beam on which the violator of law was to be hanged, the same as in Ac 5:30; 10:39.
The Latin dictionary by Lewis and Short gives as the basic meaning of crux “a tree, frame, or other wooden instruments of execution, on which criminals were impaled or hanged.” In the writings of Livy, a Roman historian of the first century B.C.E., crux means a mere stake. “Cross” is only a later meaning of crux. A single stake for impalement of a criminal was called in Latin crux simʹplex. One such instrument of torture is illustrated by Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) in his book De cruce libri tres, Antwerp, 1629, p. 19. The photograph of the crux simplex on our p. 1578 is an actual reproduction from his book.
The book Das Kreuz und die Kreuzigung (The Cross and the Crucifixion), by Hermann Fulda, Breslau, 1878, p. 109, says: “Trees were not everywhere available at the places chosen for public execution. So a simple beam was sunk into the ground. On this the outlaws, with hands raised upward and often also with their feet, were bound or nailed.” After submitting much proof, Fulda concludes on pp. 219, 220: “Jesus died on a simple death-stake: In support of this there speak (a) the then customary usage of this means of execution in the Orient, (b) indirectly the history itself of Jesus’ sufferings and (c) many expressions of the early church fathers.”
Paul Wilhelm Schmidt, who was a professor at the University of Basel, in his work Die Geschichte Jesu (The History of Jesus), Vol. 2, Tübingen and Leipzig, 1904, pp. 386-394, made a detailed study of the Greek word stau·rosʹ. On p. 386 of his work he said: “σταυρός [stau·rosʹ] means every upright standing pale or tree trunk.” Concerning the execution of punishment upon Jesus, P. W. Schmidt wrote on pp. 387-389: “Beside scourging, according to the gospel accounts, only the simplest form of Roman crucifixion comes into consideration for the infliction of punishment upon Jesus, the hanging of the unclad body on a stake, which, by the way, Jesus had to carry or drag to the execution place to intensify the disgraceful punishment. . . . Anything other than a simple hanging is ruled out by the wholesale manner in which this execution was often carried out: 2000 at once by Varus (Jos. Ant. XVII 10. 10), by Quadratus (Jewish Wars II 12. 6), by the Procurator Felix (Jewish Wars II 15. 2), by Titus (Jewish Wars VII. 1).”
Evidence is, therefore, completely lacking that Jesus Christ was crucified on two pieces of timber placed at right angles. We do not want to add anything to God’s written Word by inserting the pagan cross-concept into the inspired Scriptures, but render stau·rosʹ and xyʹlon according to the simplest meanings. Since Jesus used stau·rosʹ to represent the suffering and shame or torture of his followers (Mt 16:24), we have translated stau·rosʹ as “torture stake,” to distinguish it from xyʹlon, which we have translated “stake,” or, in the footnote, “tree,” as in Ac 5:30.
[Picture on page 1578]
Crux Simplex Illustrated