Cross or Stake
Jehovah's Witnesses are adamant Jesus died on a stake and that the cross is a pagan, idolatrous symbol. This article proves the Watchtower reasoning wrong, highlighting the abundant evidence that Jesus died on a cross; including Scriptural, linguistic, historical, medical and archaeological.
Although the shape of Jesus instrument of death is not critical in most peoples minds, the Watchtower makes it so through the claim that anyone using the cross will shortly be executed by Jehovah.
"There are also inanimate objects that if venerated may lead to breaking God's commandments. Among the most prominent is the cross. For centuries it has been used by people in Christendom as part of their worship. … Soon God will execute his judgments against all false religions. Those who cling to them will suffer their fate." Watchtower 1989 May 1 p.23
This article discusses the Watchtower reasoning and why it is wrong.
Current Watchtower Reasoning
The Watchtower claim that Jesus died on a stake is solely supported by the simple linguistic argument that the Greek terms stauros did not mean "cross" in the first century. Reasoning From the Scriptures p.89 claims "this word [stauros] meant merely an upright stake, or pale. Later it also came to be used for an execution stake having a crosspiece", but makes no attempt to prove when 'later' actually was.
The main support for this is a statement from the 1948 book Vine's An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.
"But what did stau·ros´ mean in the first century when the Greek Scriptures were written? An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vine, says: "Stauros . . . denotes, primarily, an upright pale or stake. On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun [stau·ros´] and the verb stauro?, 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." Vine goes on to say: "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."" Watchtower 1989 May 1 pp.23-24
Quite simply, Vine's is wrong. Stauros was being used to signify a cross for at least 100 years prior to the time of Jesus.
Pre-Christian references show the cross was being used prior to the time of Jesus and that it was a common practice for the victim to carry to crossbeam, or patibulum to their execution. There is explicit reference to patibulum-bearing in works written prior to Jesus by Plautus, Plutarch and Clodius Licinus. In the first century Before Christ Dionysius of Halicarnassus described the Roman practice of tying the patibulum across the victims back:
"A Roman citizen of no obscure station, having ordered one of his slaves to be put to death, delivered him to his fellow-slaves to be led away, and in order that his punishment might be witnessed by all, directed them to drag him through the Forum and every other conspicuous part of the city as they whipped him, and that he should go ahead of the procession which the Romans were at the time conducting in honour of the god. The men ordered to lead the slave to his punishment, having stretched out both hands and fastened them to a piece of wood (tas kheiras apoteinantes amphoteras kai xuló prosdésantes) which extended across his chest and shoulders as far as his wrists, followed him, tearing his naked body with whips" (Roman Antiquities, 7.69.1-2).
At jewishencyclopedia.com, Kaufmann Kohler describes crucifixion and shows this practice was used 100 years before the death of Jesus;
"The crosses used were of different shapes. Some were in the form of a T, others in that of a St. Andrew's cross, X, while others again were in four parts, +. The more common kind consisted of a stake ("palus") firmly embedded in the ground ("crucem figere") before the condemned arrived at the place of execution (Cicero, "Verr." v. 12; Josephus, "B. J." vii. 6, § 4) and a cross-beam ("patibulum"), bearing the "titulus"-the inscription naming the crime (Matt. xxvii. 37; Luke xxiii. 38; Suetonius, "Cal." 38). It was this cross-beam, not the heavy stake, which the condemned was compelled to carry to the scene of execution ... The execution was always preceded by flagellation (Livy, xxxiv. 26; Josephus, "B. J." ii. 14, § 9; v. 11, § 1); and on his way to his doom, led through the most populous streets, the delinquent was exposed to insult and injury. ... During the times of unrest which preceded the rise in open rebellion against Rome (about 30-66 B.C.), "rebels" met with short shrift at the hands of the oppressor. They were crucified as traitors."
Xylon - Xulon
In similar style argument claims that Xylon meant a piece of wood and so could not refer to a cross;
"Arguing in favor of this having been a simple stake or pole is the fact that both the apostle Paul and the apostle Peter speak of Jesus' having been put on a xylon, which simply means a piece of wood…." Awake! 1963 Apr 8 p.28
This is incorrect, by Jesus day xylon had many meanings, including wooden artefacts made out of more than one piece of wood. In classical and Koine Greek xylon was used to refer to "benches". (Demosthenes, 1111.22; Aristophanes, Vespae, 90; Acharnenses, 25)
Furthermore, xylon is not used as a description of Jesus instrument of death in these scriptures, but rather as a midrashic interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:22-23. For example in Galatians 3:13 xylon is used to show a prophetic reference to Deuteronomy when it says; "Christ by purchase released us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse instead of us, because it is written: "Accursed is every man hanged upon a stake (xylon).""
The correct way to interpret this Scripture, as shown by almost interlinear or Bible translation apart from the New World Translationis "Accursed is every man hanged upon a tree."
Scriptural references describing Jesus death show that he died on a cross.
The accounts at Matthew 27:26, 31-37, Mark 15:14-26, Luke 23:26-38, and John 19:1-22 discuss that Jesus was forced to carry the stauros to Golgotha. As shown above, it was Roman practice for the victim to carry the crossbeam, or patibulum to the site of execution. There the patibulum was affixed to an upright stake.
John 19:17 "And, bearing the torture stake for himself, (bastazo autos stauros), he went out to the so-called Skull Place, which is called Gol´go·tha in Hebrew."
A further indication of whether Jesus died on a cross or a stake can be seen from Thomas statement to Jesus at John 20:25 that "unless I see in his hands the print of the nailsand stick my finger into the print of the nails and stick my hand into his side, I will certainly not believe".
Notice in the above depiction from the Watchtower publication Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life there is only a single nail that goes through Jesus wristdue to his being on a stake. Yet Thomas spoke of nails going through the hands. Jesus was crucified with two nails, one in each hand, not a single nail through the wrist. The traditional picture is therefore more accurate in line with Thomas' statement.
Matthew 27:37 also supports the idea of a cross rather than a stake when it says;
"Above his head they had put the charge against him in writing: 'THIS IS JESUS, KING OF THE JEWS' ".
In the picture of the crucifixion the plaque is above Jesus head, whereas in the Watchtower representation it is necessarily above his hands. If Jesus was impaled on a stake it would be stated that the titilus was placed above his hands, not his head.
"Not until the fourth century C.E. did the cross begin coming into noticeable use among professed Christians. The one primarily responsible for this development was Emperor Constantine, a sun worshiper who is said to have accepted Christianity years before submitting to baptism while on his deathbed." Awake!1972 Nov 8 p.27
The Awake! does not provide evidence to support this allegation which is shown to be false by the Awake! 1976 Nov 22 p.27;
"But do not writers early in the Common Era claim that Jesus died on a cross? For example, Justin Martyr (114-167 C.E.) described in this way what he believed to be the type of stake upon which Jesus died: "For the one beam is placed upright, from which the highest extremity is raised up into a horn, when the other beam is fitted on to it, and the ends appear on both sides as horns joined on to the one horn." This indicates that Justin himself believed that Jesus died on a cross. However, Justin was not inspired by God, as were the Bible writers."
From the time of the Apostles Christians were describing Jesus cross. From 100 A.D. the Episite of Barnabas says "…the cross was to express the grace [of our redemption] by the letter ?…."
Tertullian identifies a cross in his writings dating from 190-220 A.D.
"It is on a patibulum that the body of your god is first dedicated" (Apologeticus, 12.3).
"For this same letter TAU of the Greeks, which is our T, has the appearance of the cross (crucis)" (Apologeticus, 3.23.6)
Ireneaus wrote that the implement of Jesus death had five ends: two longitudinal, two latitudinal and a fifth to support the weight of the victim (Adversus Haereses, II, 24, 4).
Biblical Archaeology ReviewJan/Feb 1985.
"Both Irenaus and Justin Martyr, early church fathers, describe the cross of Jesus as having five extremities rather than four; the fifth was probably the "sedile"."
In 1856 R. Garrucci discovered a caricature that appears to symbolise the crucified Jesus on the walls of the Paedagogium, on the slopes of Palatine Hill in Rome. According to Jack Finegan, "this crude graffito shows a man's body with an ass's head, on a cross. The feet are supported on a platform and the outstretched arms fastened to the transverse bar of the cross. To the left is a smaller figure of a boy or young man in an attitude of adoration" (Light From the Ancient Past 1959 p.373). This graffiti is thought to date sometime between 161-235 A.D.
Tertullian wrote of a similar cartoon in his Apologeticus:
"A new representation of our god has quite recently been publicized in this city, started by a certain criminal hired to dodge wild beasts in the arena. He displayed a picture with this inscription: 'Onokoites, the god of the Christians'. The figure had the ears of an ass, one foot was cloven, and it was dressed in a toga and carrying a book. We laughed at both the caption and the cartoon" (Apologeticus, 16.12-14).
Recent archaeological finds also show that the cross was a means of death at the time of Jesus.
"The first century catacomb uncovered by archaeologist P. Bagatti on the Mount of Olives contains inscriptions clearly indicating its use, 'by the very first Christians in Jerusalem.' A 'head stone', found near the entrance to the first century catacomb, is inscribed with the sign of the cross." (leaderu.com 3rd Mar 2006)
The length of time Jesus and the two thieves' survived impalement shows they were on a cross and likely supported by a sedile. In Canadian Society of Forensic Science 1984 "Death by Crucifixion" F.T. Zugibe shows that on a cross it could take hours or days for death resulting from hypovolemic shock, whereas a stake results in rapid death from asphyxiation.
In Les Cinq Plaies du Christ 1953 2nd edition P. Barbet showed that death on a stake would be rapid;
"Eye Witness accounts by prisoners of war in Dacchu during WWII reported that victims suspended from beams by their wrist, which were tied, expired within ten minutes if their feet were weighted or tied down and within one hour if their feet were unweighted and the victim was able to raise and lower himself to permit respiration. Death in this manner, which is one form of crucifixion, was the result of suffocation."
Due to the more painful and prolonged death, the cross was favoured over a stake by the Romans to serve as a warning example to others. The JAMA - Journal of the American Medical Association, March 21, 1986, Volume 255 states:
"...Crucifixion probably first began among the Persians. Alexander the Great introduced the practice to Egypt and Carthage, and the Romans appear to have learned of it from the Carthaginans. Although the Romans did not invent crucifixion, they perfected it as a form of torture and capital punishment that was designed to produce a slow death with maximum pain and suffering. It was one of the most disgraceful and cruel methods of execution and usually was reserved only for slaves, foreigners, revolutionaries, and the vilest of criminals."
An indication that there is little support for a stake is the small number of collaborative sources the Watchtower refers to. Of these few sources some are partially quoted and when read in full even these claim Jesus died on a cross.
The Imperial Bible-Dictionaryis partially quoted to show that stauros means a stake.
"The Greek word rendered "cross" in many modern Bible versions ("torture stake" in NW) is stau·ros´. In classical Greek, this word meant merely an upright stake, or pale. Later it also came to be used for an execution stake having a crosspiece. The Imperial Bible-Dictionaryacknowledges this, saying: "The Greek word for cross, [stau·ros´], properly signified a stake, an upright pole, or piece of paling, on which anything might be hung, or which might be used in impaling [fencing in] a piece of ground. . . . Even amongst the Romans the crux (from which our cross is derived) appears to have been originally an upright pole."-Edited by P. Fairbairn (London, 1874), Vol. I, p. 376." Reasoning from the Scriptures p.89
When read in full The Imperial Bible-Dictionaryshows the opposite of what the Watchtower attempts to prove, specifically stating that crosses were the prominent form of execution in Jesus day. Notably it was not Constantine that introduced this symbol to Christianity, but rather he stopped crucifixions out of respect for the well established sacred association the cross held for Christians. What exactly has this quote hidden by use of ellipses (…)? The full quote is: "The Greek word for cross, (stauros), properly signified a stake, an upright pole, or piece of paling, on which anything might be hung, or which might be used in impaling (fencing in) a piece of ground. But a modification was introduced as the dominion and usages of Rome extended themselves through Greek-speaking countries. Even amongst the Romans, the crux (from which the word cross is derived) appears to have been originally an upright pole, and always remained the more prominent part. But from the time that it began to be used as an instrument of punishment, a traverse piece of wood was commonly added: not however always then. … There can be no doubt, however, that the later sort was the more common, and that about the period of the Gospel Age, crucifixion was usually accomplished by suspending the criminal on a cross piece of wood. … It may be added that crucifixion was abolished around the time of Constantine, in consequence of the sacred associations which the cross had now gathered around it."
Another source used by the Watchtower to indicate Jesus died on a stake is the 16th century De Cruce Liber Primus, Secundus, and Tres by Justin Lipsius. The Appendix to the 1950 and 1969 editions of The New World Translationreproduces a woodcut illustration by Lipsius of a stake with the words "This is the manner in which Jesus was impaled" giving the distinct impression that Lipsius supports Jesus death on a stake. What is not mentioned is that Lipsius did a total of 16 such woodcuts, mostly depicting various forms of crucifixion. Under one of the crucifixion woodcuts is inscribed (translated from Latin) "In the Lord's cross there were four pieces of wood, the upright beam, the crossbar, a tree trunk placed below, and the title placed above."
Once again, one of the few references used as support for Jesus death on a stake clearly stated that Jesus died on a cross.
The Watchtower regularly uses the illogical argumentation of paganism, including when preventing Jehovah's Witnesses using a cross.
"The fact that the cross is of pagan origin only makes the matter worse. The veneration of the cross is not Christian. It does not show love for God or Christ but mocks what they stand for. It violates God's commandments against idolatry. It reveres a pagan symbol masquerading as Christian." Watchtower 1989 May 1 p.26
This is fallacious, a form of non sequitur. It does not follow that since pagan religions have used various forms of the cross that the symbol itself is wrong.
If paganism is to be invoked lets look no further than the stake or pole, which has far greater pagan religious and sexual connotations than the cross. Sacred poles are often mentioned disparagingly in the Bible, such as at Exodus 34:13 which says; "But their altars YOU people are to pull down, and their sacred pillars YOU are to shatter, and their sacred poles YOU are to cut down." Death on a stake mimics the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna. Inanna was turned into a corpse and "the corpse was hung from a stake" for three days and nights. After this she was resurrected by the instructions of Enki, the god of fertility. (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, 1973) In Christian times the phallus was represented by the pole shaped Obelisk of the Egyptians and Romans and the Hindu Lingam.
Any symbol or practice can be rejected on the grounds of pagan roots, consider the symbol of the Watchtower Society;
For over 50 years the Watchtower Society taught that Jesus died on a cross and even included it on the cover of the Watch Tower;
Particularly from the late 1920's Rutherford turned the Bible Students into a closed sectarian group by introducing the concept that Jehovah would destroy anyone not associating with the Watchtower Society. To coincide with this the Watchtower became filled with vicious statements against other Christian denominations and introduced claims that common Christian practices and symbols were pagan. This should not prevent Christians from the recognition that Jesus died on a cross as a Ransom sacrifice for the sins of mankind.
The Christian Fathers show that the cross was an important part of early Christianity. Paul shows likewise at 1 Corinthians 1:17-18 when saying "For the speech about the torture stake [cross] is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is God's power." Christians proudly boast about Jesus death on the cross, a symbol that is a constant reminder of the importance of the ransom to our everlasting existence.
Galatians 6:14 "Never may it occur that I should boast, except in the torture stake [cross] of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been impaled [crucified] to me and I to the world."