Gr., σταυρός (stau·rosʹ); Lat., crux
“Torture stake” in Matthew 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. 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 used 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. (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24) In LXX we find xyʹlon in Ezra 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 Acts 5:30; 10:39.
Regarding the meaning of stau·rosʹ, W. E. Vine, in his work An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (1966 reprint), Vol. I, p. 256, states: “STAUROS (σταυρός) denotes, primarily, an upright pale or stake. On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun and the verb stauroō, to fasten to a stake or pale, are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed cross. The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt. By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith. In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the cross of Christ.”
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, which we here present.
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 (Matthew 16:24), we have translated stau·rosʹ as “torture stake,” to distinguish it from xyʹlon, which we have translated “stake.”
[Picture on page 1150]
Crux simplex illustrated