In the literal sense, the fastening of a victim either dead or alive to a stake, or pole. The execution of Jesus Christ is the best-known case. (Lu 24:20; Joh 19:14-16; Ac 2:23, 36) Impalements by nations in ancient times were carried out in a variety of ways.
The Assyrians, noted for their savage warfare, impaled captives by hanging their nude bodies atop pointed stakes that were run up through the abdomens into the chest cavities of the victims. Several reliefs have been found on monuments, one such depicting the Assyrian assault and conquest of Lachish, on which this method of impalement is shown.
The Persians also used impalement as a form of punishment. Some say the Persians customarily first beheaded or flayed those they impaled. Darius the Great forbade interference with the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, and any violator of that decree was to be impaled on a timber pulled out of his own house. (Ezr 6:11) During the reign of Darius’ son, Ahasuerus (Xerxes I), two of the palace doorkeepers were hanged, or impaled, on a stake, the usual punishment meted out to traitors by the Persians. (Es 2:21-23) Haman and his ten sons were similarly hanged on a stake. (Es 5:14; 6:4; 7:9, 10; 9:10, 13, 14, 25) Herodotus (III, 125, 159; IV, 43) also cites other examples of Persian impalements.
It was Jewish law that those guilty of such heinous crimes as blasphemy or idolatry were first killed by stoning, or by some other method, and then their dead bodies were exposed on stakes, or trees, as warning examples to others. (De 21:22, 23; Jos 8:29; 10:26; 2Sa 21:6, 9) The Egyptians may also have first killed their criminals before fastening them to stakes, as is indicated by Joseph’s prophetic words to Pharaoh’s chief baker: “Pharaoh will lift up your head from off you and will certainly hang you upon a stake.”
The Greeks and Romans, it is said, adopted the practice of impalement from the Phoenicians, and not until the days of Constantine was it abolished in the empire. Very seldom was a Roman citizen impaled, for this was a punishment usually given slaves and criminals of the lowest sort. Impalement was looked upon by both Jews and Romans as a symbol of humiliation and shame, reserved for those accursed.
In the first century, if the Jews had the right to impale a person for religious reasons (a point on which there is some doubt), it is quite certain they could not do so for civil offenses; only a Roman official like Pontius Pilate had such authority. (Joh 18:31; 19:10) Nevertheless, the Jews, and especially their chief priests and rulers, bore the prime responsibility for Christ’s impalement.
The Romans sometimes tied the victim to the stake, in which case he might live for several days before his physical endurance was overcome by the torture of pain, thirst, hunger, and exposure to the sun. As in the case of Jesus, nailing the hands (and likely the feet also) of the accused to a stake was customary among the Romans. (Joh 20:25, 27; Lu 24:39; Ps 22:16, ftn; Col 2:14) Since the wrists have always been considered by anatomists as part of the hands, some medical men think the nails were driven between the small bones of the wrists to prevent the stripping out that could have occurred if they had been driven through the palms. (See The Journal of the American Medical Association, March 21, 1986, p. 1460.) This would be consistent with the Bible’s own use of the word “hand” to include the wrist in such texts as Genesis 24:47, where bracelets are said to be worn on the “hands,” and Judges 15:14, where reference is made to fetters that were on Samson’s “hands.”
The record does not say whether the evildoers impaled alongside Jesus were nailed or simply tied to the stakes. If only tied, this might explain why, when Jesus was found dead, they were still alive and had to have their legs broken. (Joh 19:32, 33) Death by suffocation soon followed the breaking of their legs, since, as some think, this would have prevented the raising of the body to ease tension of chest muscles. Of course, this is not a conclusive point on why the evildoers outlived Jesus, for they had not experienced the mental and physical torture inflicted on Jesus. He had previously undergone an all-night ordeal at the hands of his enemies, in addition to being beaten by the Roman soldiers, perhaps to the point that he could not carry his own torture stake, as was the custom.
What does the original Greek reveal as to the shape of the instrument on which Jesus was put to death?
Most Bible translations say Christ was “crucified” rather than “impaled.” This is because of the common belief that the torture instrument upon which he was hung was a “cross” made of two pieces of wood instead of a single pale, or stake. Tradition, not the Scriptures, also says that the condemned man carried only the crossbeam of the cross, called the patibulum, or antenna, instead of both parts. In this way some try to avoid the predicament of having too much weight for one man to drag or carry to Golgotha.
Yet, what did the Bible writers themselves say about these matters? They used the Greek noun stau·rosʹ 27 times and the verbs stau·roʹo 46 times, syn·stau·roʹo (the prefix syn, meaning “with”) 5 times, and a·na·stau·roʹo (a·naʹ, meaning “again”) once. They also used the Greek word xyʹlon, meaning “wood,” 5 times to refer to the torture instrument upon which Jesus was nailed.
Stau·rosʹ in both the classical Greek and Koine carries no thought of a “cross” made of two timbers. It means only an upright stake, pale, pile, or pole, as might be used for a fence, stockade, or palisade. Says Douglas’ New Bible Dictionary of 1985 under “Cross,” page 253: “The Gk. word for ‘cross’ (stauros; verb stauroo . . . ) means primarily an upright stake or beam, and secondarily a stake used as an instrument for punishment and execution.”
The fact that Luke, Peter, and Paul also used xyʹlon as a synonym for stau·rosʹ gives added evidence that Jesus was impaled on 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) Xyʹlon also occurs in the Greek Septuagint at Ezra 6:11, where it speaks of a single beam or timber on which a lawbreaker was to be impaled.
The New World Translation, therefore, faithfully conveys to the reader this basic idea of the Greek text by rendering stau·rosʹ as “torture stake,” and the verb stau·roʹo as “impale,” that is, to fasten on a stake, or pole. In this way there is no confusion of stau·rosʹ with the traditional ecclesiastical crosses. (See TORTURE STAKE.) The matter of one man like Simon of Cyrene bearing a torture stake, as the Scriptures say, is perfectly reasonable, for if it was 15 cm (6 in.) in diameter and 3.5 m (11 ft) long, it probably weighed little more than 45 kg (100 lb).
Note what W. E. Vine says on this subject: “STAUROS (σταυρός) denotes, primarily, an upright pale or stake. On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun and the verb stauroo, to fasten to a stake or pale, are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed cross.” Greek scholar Vine then mentions the Chaldean origin of the two-piece cross and how it was adopted from the pagans by Christendom in the third century C.E. as a symbol of Christ’s impalement.
Significant is this comment in the book The Cross in Ritual, Architecture, and Art: “It is strange, yet unquestionably a fact, that in ages long before the birth of Christ, and since then in lands untouched by the teaching of the Church, the Cross has been used as a sacred symbol. . . . The Greek Bacchus, the Tyrian Tammuz, the Chaldean Bel, and the Norse Odin, were all symbolised to their votaries by a cruciform device.”
The book The Non-Christian Cross, by J. D. Parsons (London, 1896), adds: “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. . . . It is not a little misleading upon the part of our teachers to translate the word stauros as ‘cross’ when rendering the Greek documents of the Church into our native tongue, and to support that action by putting ‘cross’ in our lexicons as the meaning of stauros without carefully explaining that that was at any rate not the primary meaning of the word in the days of the Apostles, did not become its primary signification till long afterwards, and became so then, if at all, only because, despite the absence of corroborative evidence, it was for some reason or other assumed that the particular stauros upon which Jesus was executed had that particular shape.”
Figurative Usage. Not only do the Scriptures bear thorough witness concerning the physical impalement of the Lord Jesus Christ (1Co 1:13, 23; 2:2; 2Co 13:4; Re 11:8) but they also speak of impalement in a figurative, metaphoric sense, as at Galatians 2:20. Christians have put their old personality to death through faith in the impaled Christ. (Ro 6:6; Col 3:5, 9, 10) “Moreover, those who belong to Christ Jesus impaled the flesh together with its passions and desires,” Paul writes, adding that through Christ “the world has been impaled to me and I to the world.”
Apostates in effect “impale the Son of God afresh for themselves and expose him to public shame,” doing so by their Judaslike rebellion against God’s arrangement for salvation.