Did Christ Die on a Cross?
The traditionally shaped cross has long been accepted by many as the symbol of the Christian religion. Is that what the Bible and the facts of history show?
TWO youths, seventeen years old, jumped into New York city’s East River in the dead of winter. Physical culture enthusiasts? No. Temporarily insane? No. They did it to show their veneration of the cross. An Orthodox priest had thrown a crucifix out more than a hundred feet into the river and these youths endeavored to retrieve it as part of a religious rite.—New York Times, January 23, 1956.
In 1956, after fifteen years of strenuous labor, a 700-foot-long sanctuary was completed to serve as a stupendous tomb for Franco and other leaders of Spain’s Falange party. Adorning it is a granite cross five hundred feet high, visible in Madrid some thirty miles distant.
Two years ago United States women’s clubs began gathering millions of dollars to build the world’s largest cross on top of Bald Knob Mountain in southern Illinois.
News items such as these show how highly the cross is esteemed in Christendom.
According to Webster’s dictionary a cross is “a structure, typically an upright supporting a horizontal beam, anciently used in the execution of malefactors.” In the Bible the Greek word usually rendered cross is stauros. Its Latin equivalent is crux. Was the stauros or crux on which Christ died a traditionally shaped cross?
Yes, say spokesmen of Christendom, such as the Signs of the Times, October 23, 1956. It dogmatically states that the stauros on which Christ died was such a cross. In support of this assertion several authorities are cited, secular and religious. But what are the facts?
The facts are that authorities are not agreed that there is “no doubt” about the nature of the stauros on which Christ died and are not agreed that it was the traditionally shaped cross. The Encyclopædia Britannica, 1907 and 1942 editions, under the term “cross” states that Christ is “generally believed” to have died on such a cross, that at best it is only “by general tradition” that the matter is established.
As for religious authorities, one states: “The accounts of the manner of the crucifixion being so meager, any degree of certainty is impossible.”1 And another tells that “no definite data are found in the New Testament concerning the nature of the cross on which Jesus died. It is only the Church writers after Justin Martyr who indicate the composite four-armed cross as Christ’s vehicle of torture.”2
And concerning the terms stauros and crux we are told that ‘stauros properly means merely a stake.’ “In Livy [Roman historian shortly before Christ’s ministry] even, crux means a mere stake.” “The Hebrews have no word for Cross more definite than ‘wood.’”3
WHY NOT A TRADITIONAL CROSS
Certainly in view of the foregoing it cannot honestly be stated that Christ without doubt was nailed on the traditionally shaped cross. And it is of striking interest to note that it is those authorities that lean toward the view that Christ was nailed on such a cross that admit doubt. But those who hold that Christ died on a simple stake or pole are not in doubt. Says one such: “Jesus died on a simple deathstake: 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.”—The Cross and Crucifixion, Hermann Fulda.
That Christ did not die on the traditionally shaped cross is also indicated by the testimony of the catacombs. Thus Dean Burgon, in his Letters from Rome, wrote: “I question whether a cross occurs on any Christian monument of the first four centuries.” Mons Perret, who spent fourteen years doing research in the catacombs of Rome, counted in all a total of 11,000 inscriptions among the millions of tombs. According to him, “not until the latter years of the fourth century does the sign of the cross appear.” Among the signs that do appear are the dove, a symbol of the holy spirit; the lyre, a symbol of joy; the anchor, a symbol of hope and the fish. Why the fish? Because the letters of the word “fish” in Greek are the same as the first letters of “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”4
That Christ did not die on the traditionally shaped cross is also indicated by the Bible itself. It repeatedly tells of his dying on a tree, the Greek word being xylon. (See Luke 23:31; Acts 5:30;10:39.) Xylon simply means “timber,” and “by implication a stick, club or tree or other wooden article or substance.”5 That is why the Gospel writers all use xylon to refer to the staves or clubs that the mob carried when they came to take Jesus. (See Matthew 26:47, 55; Mark 14:43, 48; Luke 22:52.) By saying that Christ died on a xylon these indicated that Christ died on a timber, a piece of wood.
Thus the apostle Paul states that Christ became a curse to those under the law by being fastened to a xylon, since “Accursed is every man hanged upon a stake [xylon].” Paul was there quoting from the law of Moses, which required that the bodies of executed criminals be fastened to a tree or stake as a warning and which meant that they were cursed by God.—Gal. 3:13; Deut. 21:22, 23, NW.
A like example is found relative to one of the decrees of Cyrus, which warned that anyone refusing to obey, “a timber will be pulled out of his house and he will be impaled upon it.” In the Greek Septuagint Version the term for timber here is xylon. Again, not a cross but a simple straight beam.—Ezra 6:11, NW.
Some argue that Christ died on a cross because early Christians used the letter “X” as a symbol for Christ. However, the “X” used in this manner does not at all refer to the tree on which Christ died. Rather, it stands for the name “Christ,” it being the first (Greek) letter of the name “Christ,” written “X” and pronounced “ch” or “K.” Thus “X” is an abbreviation, not a symbol.4
Nor does the fact that the Epistle of Barnabas and the Gospel of Nicodemus state that Jesus died on a cross prove anything. Both of these works are recognized by all authorities as forgeries. Obviously both were written after the cross had been adopted as a symbol of Christendom.4
OF PAGAN ORIGIN
Clearly there is no Scriptural support for the traditional cross as a symbol of Christianity. Then how can its adoption by professed Christians be accounted for? It was borrowed from the surrounding pagans. It is another one of the many paganisms that the early apostate Christians adopted so as to appeal to the pagans and to be more like them. In this they followed the example of the Israelites who wanted a king so as to be like the nations round about. Thus Dr. Killen, in his Ancient Church, writes:
“From the most remote antiquity the cross was venerated in Egypt and Syria; it was held in equal honor by the Buddhists of the East; and what is still more extraordinary, when the Spaniards first visited America, the well-known sign was found among the objects of worship in the idol temples of Anáhuac. It is also remarkable that, with the commencement of our era, the pagans were wont to make the sign of the cross upon the forehead in the celebration of some of their sacred mysteries.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia gives similar information about the widespread use of the cross. Dr. Hislop, in The Two Babylons, likewise tells of the pagan origin of the cross and questions that Christ died on one.
The very fact that the cross is one of the most common of all pagan religious symbols should make us doubt that it could also be the symbol of the pure Christian worship of Jehovah God. And so also should the extremes to which some have gone in times past in venerating the cross. Thus the Catholic writer Didron tells that “the cross has received a worship similar, if not equal, to that of Christ; this sacred wood is adored almost equally with God himself.” Once the honoring of the cross began it went to such extremes that the pagans accused professed Christians of being idolaters. “It is plain that the great mass of Christians,” says a religious authority, “attached a magical value to this sign. At all events they used it as a form of exorcism and a means of warding off unclean spirits.” “Soon the cross came to work miracles of itself. People went to the length of marking cattle to protect them from disease.”6
Today the Roman Catholic Church still celebrates the “Invention or Finding of the Holy Cross” on May 3 each year. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains why. (Vol. 5, p. 523) According to it the mother of Emperor Constantine, at the age of about eighty years, determined to go to Jerusalem to “rid the Holy Sepulchre of the mound of earth heaped upon and around it, and to destroy the pagan buildings that profaned its site.” She received revelations, which gave her confidence that she would discover Christ’s tomb and his cross. Jews had hidden the cross, but one Jew, being “touched by Divine inspiration, pointed it out to the excavators.” However, three crosses were found, and since the title that Pilate had decreed to be placed above Jesus was found separately it could not be told which was Christ’s cross. So the three crosses were carried, “one after the other, to the bedside of a worthy woman who was at the point of death. . . . On touching that upon which Christ had died the woman got suddenly well again.” However, according to another tradition Helena had a dead person carried to the spot, who became alive by contact with the true cross. “From yet another tradition, related by St. Ambrose, it would seem that the titulus, or inscription, had remained fastened to the cross.”
While this Catholic authority argues for the genuineness of this miracle, citing the words of various “church fathers” in support of its position, the fact remains that “Eusebius, who carries more weight than all they put together, wholly omits it.”1
The giving of reverent devotion to a creature or thing is disgusting to Jehovah God, for he is “a God exacting exclusive devotion.” That is why King Hezekiah “removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars to pieces and cut down the sacred pole and crushed to pieces the copper serpent that Moses had made, for down to those days the sons of Israel had continually been making sacrificial smoke to it, and it used to be called the copper serpent-idol.” As apostate Israelites worshiped the copper serpent, so the cross has been worshiped by apostate Christians.—Ex. 20:5; 2 Ki. 18:4, NW.
In fact, even to cherish the instrument on which Christ died does not make sense; it is utterly incongruous. Rather than being venerated it should be loathed and abhorred. Who would think of kissing the revolver that had been used by a murderer to kill one’s loved one? It is just as senseless to bestow affection on the instrument on which Jesus met a cruel death. Thus Maimonides, the Jewish scholar of the twelfth century, tells us that the Jews viewed the torture stake as a disgusting thing.7
Thus we see the Scriptures, the facts of history and reason uniting to testify that Christ did not die on a cross but upon an upright pole or stake, a stauros, xylon, crux. Also, that regardless of its form, it is to be abhorred rather than venerated. In keeping with these facts the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures renders stauros as “torture stake” and xylon as “stake,” when it refers to the instrument on which Christ died.8
1 Encyclopaedia Biblica, Vol. 1, p. 957.
2 New Schaff & Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. 3, p. 313.
3 Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Vol. 1, p. 508.
4 The History of the Cross, Ward.
5 The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Strong.
6 Dictionary of the Bible, Hastings, Vol. 3,, p. 328.
7 Exercitationes contra Baronium, I. Casaubon, 16, An. 34, No. 134.
8 New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures, Appendix, p. 768.