What Is the Bible’s View?
Did Jesus Die on a Cross?
WAS it a mistake? Had church leaders erred? Such questions might well have occurred to residents of Cartagena, Spain, not long ago. Why? Because of a Holy Week poster that depicted Jesus Christ impaled, not on a cross, but upon an upright stake that lacked a crossbeam.
For centuries, professing Christians have been taught that Jesus Christ was put to death on a cross. Among many, crucifixes—representations of Jesus nailed to a cross—have special importance. Yet, is it possible that Christ did not die on a cross?
Crosses of various kinds have been common from early times. Says The Encyclopædia Britannica: “From its simplicity of form, the cross has been used both as a religious symbol and as an ornament, from the dawn of man’s civilization. Various objects, dating from periods long anterior to the Christian era, have been found, marked with crosses of different designs, in almost every part of the old world.” (Eleventh Edition, Vol. VII, p. 506) Hence, the cross does not have what some might term a “Christian” origin. Of course, that does not mean that Jesus did not die on a cross.
Some people have been executed by being impaled on crosses. However, the Romans often put individuals to death on posts having no crossbars. Could that have happened in Jesus’ case?
If a contemporary artist had stood before the dying Jesus on Golgotha, he might have left us an authentic portrayal of that highly significant event. But no artwork of this kind is in existence, and certainly later tradition is not conclusive. Nevertheless, we do have the recorded words of an eyewitness. Who was he?
As Jesus looked down from that implement of torture and death, he saw “the disciple whom he loved,” the apostle John. To him Jesus committed the care of his mother, Mary. (John 19:25-30) So, John was there. He knew whether Jesus died on a cross.
To designate the instrument of Christ’s death, John used the Greek word stau·rosʹ, rendered “torture stake” in the New World Translation. (John 19:17, 19, 25) In classical Greek, stau·rosʹ denotes the same thing that it does in the common Greek of the Christian Scriptures—primarily an upright stake or pole with no crossbar. Interestingly, John Denham Parsons wrote in the book The Non-Christian Cross: “There is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross.”
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible states, with reference to stau·rosʹ: “Literally an upright stake, pale, or pole . . . As an instrument of execution, the cross was a stake sunk vertically in the ground. Often, but by no means always, a horizontal piece was attached to the vertical portion.” Another reference work says: “The Greek word for cross, stau·rosʹ, properly signified a stake, an upright pole, or piece of paling, on which anything might be hung, or which might be used in impaling [fencing in] a piece of ground. . . . Even amongst the Romans the crux (from which our cross is derived) appears to have been originally an upright pole, and this always remained the more prominent part.”—The Imperial Bible Dictionary.
In the book The Cross and Crucifixion, by Hermann Fulda, it is said: “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.” Fulda also points out that some of the oldest illustrations of Jesus impaled depict him on a simple pole.
The Christian apostle Paul says: “Christ by purchase released us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse instead of us, because it is written: ‘Accursed is every man hanged upon a stake.’” (Gal. 3:13) His quotation was from Deuteronomy, which mentions placing the corpse of an executed person on a “stake,” then adds: “His dead body should not stay all night on the stake; but you should by all means bury him on that day, because something accursed of God is the one hung up; and you must not defile your soil.”—Deut. 21:22, 23.
Was this “stake” a cross? No. In fact, the Hebrews had no word for the traditional cross. To designate such an implement, they used “warp and woof,” alluding to yarns running lengthwise in a fabric and others going across it on a loom. At Deuteronomy 21:22, 23, the Hebrew word translated “stake” is ‛ets, meaning primarily a tree or wood, specifically a wooden post. Executional crosses were not used by the Hebrews. The Aramaic word ’a‘, corresponding to the Hebrew term ‛ets, appears at Ezra 6:11, where it is said regarding violators of a Persian king’s decree: “A timber will be pulled out of his house and he will be impaled upon it.” Obviously, a single timber would have no crossbeam.
In rendering Deuteronomy 21:22, 23 (“stake”) and Ezra 6:11 (“timber”), translators of the Septuagint Version employed the Greek word xyʹlon, the same term that Paul used at Galatians 3:13. It was also the one employed by Peter, when he said Jesus “bore our sins in his own body upon the stake.” (1 Pet. 2:24) In fact, xyʹlon is used several other times to refer to the “stake” on which Jesus was impaled. (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29) This Greek word has the basic meaning of “wood.” There is nothing to imply that in the case of Jesus’ impalement it meant a stake with a crossbeam.
So, the evidence indicates that Jesus did not die on the traditional cross. Hence, Jehovah’s witnesses, who once had a representation of the cross on the front cover of their journal The Watchtower, no longer use such a symbol. Nor do they give the stake veneration. Surely, the instrument of Jesus’ suffering and death no more merits such reverence than would the gallows on which a beloved one might have died unjustly. Moreover, God’s Word prohibits such veneration, for it says, “flee from idolatry” and “guard yourselves from idols.”—1 Cor. 10:14; 1 John 5:21.
Does this mean that Jehovah’s witnesses care little about the death of Jesus Christ? No. They know that by means of it God provided the ransom that releases believing mankind from bondage to sin and death. (1 Tim. 2:5, 6) These matters often are discussed at their meetings. And, like the early Christians, annually they commemorate Jesus’ death during celebration of the Lord’s evening meal. (1 Cor. 11:23-26) At all of such gatherings in the local Kingdom Hall you will find a hearty welcome.