The Bible’s Viewpoint
Did Jesus Really Die on a Cross?
THE cross is one of the most recognizable religious symbols known to man. Millions revere it, considering it to be the sacred instrument on which Jesus was put to death. Roman Catholic writer and archaeologist Adolphe-Napoleon Didron stated: “The cross has received a worship similar, if not equal, to that of Christ; this sacred wood is adored almost equally with God Himself.”
Some say that the cross makes them feel closer to God when they pray. Others use it as an amulet, thinking that it protects them from evil. But should Christians use the cross as an object of veneration? Did Jesus really die on a cross? What does the Bible teach on this subject?
What Does the Cross Symbolize?
Long before the Christian era, crosses were used by the ancient Babylonians as symbols in their worship of the fertility god Tammuz. The use of the cross spread into Egypt, India, Syria, and China. Then, centuries later, the Israelites adulterated their worship of Jehovah with acts of veneration to the false god Tammuz. The Bible refers to this form of worship as a ‘detestable thing.’—Ezekiel 8:13, 14.
The Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John use the Greek word stau·rosʹ when referring to the instrument of execution on which Jesus died. (Matthew 27:40; Mark 15:30; Luke 23:26) The word stau·rosʹ refers to an upright pole, stake, or post. The book The Non-Christian Cross, by J. D. Parsons, explains: “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.”
As recorded at Acts 5:30, the apostle Peter used the word xyʹlon, meaning “tree,” as a synonym for stau·rosʹ, denoting, not a two-beamed cross, but an ordinary piece of upright timber or tree. It was not until about 300 years after Jesus’ death that some professed Christians promoted the idea that Jesus was put to death on a two-beamed cross. However, this view was based on tradition and a misuse of the Greek word stau·rosʹ. It is noteworthy that some ancient drawings depicting Roman executions feature a single wooden pole or tree.
“Guard Yourselves From Idols”
A more important issue for true Christians should be the propriety of venerating the instrument used to kill Jesus. Whether it was an upright single torture stake, a cross, an arrow, a lance, or a knife, should such an instrument be used in worship?
Suppose a loved one of yours was brutally murdered and the weapon was submitted to the court as evidence. Would you try to gain possession of the murder weapon, take photographs of it, and print many copies for distribution? Would you produce replicas of the weapon in various sizes? Would you then fashion some of them into jewelry? Or would you have these reproductions commercially manufactured and sold to friends and relatives to be venerated? Likely you would be repulsed at the idea! Yet, these very things have been done with the cross!
Besides, the use of the cross in worship is no different from the use of images in worship, a practice condemned in the Bible. (Exodus 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 4:25, 26) The apostle John accurately reflected the teachings of true Christianity when he admonished his fellow Christians with the words: “Guard yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21) This they did even when it meant facing death in the Roman arena.
First-century Christians, however, held the sacrificial death of Christ in high esteem. Likewise today, although the instrument used to torture and kill Jesus is not to be worshipped, true Christians commemorate Jesus’ death as the means by which God provides salvation to imperfect humans. (Matthew 20:28) This superlative expression of God’s love will bring untold blessings to lovers of truth, including the prospect of everlasting life.—John 17:3; Revelation 21:3, 4.
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Some ancient drawings depict the use of a single wooden pole in Roman executions
Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations