In the literal sense, the fastening of a victim either dead or alive to a stake. The execution of Jesus Christ is the best-known case. (Luke 24:20; John 19:14-16; Acts 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 monumental reliefs have been found, one such depicting the Assyrian assault and conquest of Lachish, on which this method of impalement is shown.—2 Ki. 19:8.
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. (Ezra 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. (Esther 2:21-23) Haman and his ten sons were similarly hanged on a stake. (Esther 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, beheading or by some other method, then their dead bodies were exposed on stakes or trees as warning examples to others. (Deut. 21:22, 23; Josh. 8:29; 10:26; 2 Sam. 21:6, 9) The Egyptians may also have first killed their criminals before fastening them to stakes, as 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.”—Gen. 40:19, 22; 41:13.
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.—Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13; Phil. 2:8.
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. (John 18:31; 19:10) Nevertheless, the Jews, and especially their chief priests and rulers, bore the prime responsibility for Christ’s impalement.—Mark 15:1-15; Acts 2:36; 4:10; 5:30; 1 Cor. 2:8.
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. (John 20:25, 27; Luke 24:39; Ps. 22:16, NW, 1957 ed., 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 driven through the palms.—See Arizona Medicine, March, 1965, p. 184.
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. (John 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 in 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.—Mark 14:32–15:21; Luke 22:39–23:26.
IMPALEMENT OF JESUS
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 a third of a mile (.5 kilometer) from the Castle of Antonia to Golgotha.
Yet, what did the Bible writers themselves say about these matters? They used the Greek noun stau·rosʹ twenty-seven times and the verbs stau·roʹo forty-four times, sy·stau·roʹo (the prefix sy, meaning “with”) five times, and a·na·stau·roʹo (a·naʹ, meaning “again”) once. They also used the Greek word xyʹlon, meaning wood, five times to refer to the torture instrument upon which Jesus was nailed.
Stau·rosʹ in both the classical and koi·neʹ Greek 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 1962 under “Cross,” page 279: “The Gk. word for ‘cross’ (stauros, verb stauroō) 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. (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 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 six inches (15 centimeters) in diameter and twelve feet (3.6 meters) long, it probably weighed little more than a hundred pounds (45 kilograms).—Mark 15:21.
Note what W. E. Vine says on this subject: “STAUROS (====) 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.” 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.—A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Original Greek Words with their Precise Meanings for English Readers, 1948, Vol. I, pp. 256, 257.
Not only do the Scriptures bear thorough witness concerning the physical impalement of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:13, 23; 2:2; 2 Cor. 13:4; Rev. 11:8); they also speak of impalement in a figurative, metaphorical sense, as at Galatians 2:20. Christians have had their old personality put to death through Christ’s impalement. (Rom. 6:6) “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.”—Gal. 5:24; 6:14.
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.—Heb. 6:4-6.