Cross or Stake: a response to Watchtower doctrine
The question is: on what did Jesus die? – a stake with, or without, a cross-bar? The Watchtower organization, of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, teaches as doctrine that Jesus was crucified with his arms above his head on a single pole or stake, rather than arms outstretched, as is otherwise universally understood. The matter seems inconsequential, but accuracy matters – it justifies authority. There is sufficient evidence to see which position is sound, and when error is taught as dogma, credibility must be denied. I’ll deal with some of the biblical data, historical evidence, and the question of whether the issue is even important. All references are documented and strictly in context.
A. Biblical Evidence
(Jn — ASV) “The other disciples therefore were saying to him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But [Thomas] said to them, ‘Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.’”
(NWT) “‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails and stick my finger into the print of the nails and stick my hand into his side, I will certainly not believe.’”
(Mt 27:37 — ASV) “And they put up above His head the charge against Him, ‘THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.’”
(NWT) “Also, they posted above his head the charge against him, in writing: ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews.’”
3. Hands outstretched
(Jn — ASV) “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.”
(NWT) “But when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and another (man) will gird you and bear you where you do not wish.”
4. Right/left hand
(Mk — ASV) “And they crucified two robbers with Him, one on His right [dexion] and one on His left [ek euonumon].”
(NWT) “Moreover, they impaled two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left.”
(Lk NWT) “there they impaled him and the evildoers, one on his right [dexion] and one on his left [aristeron].”
Does this prove outstretched hands on the cross? Of course not — these terms (in Mk 15, etc.) could be used to signify ‘right-hand side,’ similar to the English usage. But had ‘side’ specifically been meant rather than ‘hand,’ there were perfectly good Greek words available for the gospel writers: in the noun pleura, meaning side, as in Jn ; and in the adjective peran; or the preposition para; and plesion, ‘near,’ would do, as in Jn 4:5. The point is that the words translated as ‘right’ and ‘left’ have, as cited, the natural implication, and indeed the outright demand, of right and left hand, and it is a fair understanding that the thieves were closest to His hands, as the charges were closest to His head. It does no violence to the text, and indeed is consistent with the usage, to render Mk 15:27 as: “And they crucified two robbers with Him, one at His right hand and one at His left hand.”
(Mt 10:38, 11:29-30 — NKJV) “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
So what's my point? How is a yoke carried, and where are one's arms? The answer is obvious. In like manner, the cross (patibulum, as I will discuss below) was ‘laid on’ Simon of Cyrene (Lk ), so that he ‘carried’ it (Mt 27:32), as did Jesus (Jn ). This, then, is my point: that Jesus was using a metaphor when he referred to His yoke — the similarity between the two images, yoke and cross (patibulum), immediately suggests itself. That stauros (“stake”) is used to indicate the cross-bar is an example of synecdoche — using the whole to represent a part; I will discuss this in depth below.
We know Jesus made this sort of illustration, as with the Herodium, a high fortress built by removing and leveling the top of the mountain — the rubble was carried away and dumped in the sea. Jesus, standing on the
It is in the context (Mt 11:20-30) of His denouncing the cities for their unbelief in Him, of the Father's hiding things from the ‘wise and learned,’ and of Jesus' absolutely unique relationship with the Father, that Jesus all of a sudden starts talking about His yoke. If there is a connection, it must be that the yoke has something to do with belief in, humbleness toward, and the uniqueness of, Jesus Christ. And we know that the cross is the reason Jesus came into the world: “‘Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, "Father, save Me from this hour"? But for this purpose I came to this hour. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.’ But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which he was to die (Jn , 32-33).” The cross is absolutely central to the gospel, as I will later demonstrate scripturally.
So, is a cross — or rather its cross-bar — really like a yoke? Yes, as the discussion below will prove.
B. Historical Evidence
1. Stauros or Crux
Who crucified Jesus, the Greeks or the Romans? Under whose judicial system, using whose methods of execution, did Jesus die? The Romans, of course. So it is immaterial how Greeks executed criminals — the issue is how Romans did. Since both cultures used some sort of ‘lifting up’ and ‘nailing,’ they both had some sort of word to describe their own practices. And even if it were true that the Greeks never used a cross-bar, it is certainly true that the Romans used them. Speaking etymologically, it is not for nothing that the universal derivation of ‘crux’ is ‘something that crosses’; even the expression ‘the crux of the matter’ speaks of the ‘heart’ of the matter, defined by an intersection.
Let's look first at the Greeks, however, and then at the Romans. “Respecting the origin of ... [stauros] there is some diversity of opinion. According to Eustathius and Hesychius, the Greek ‘stauros,’ cross, is so called from its standing erect, or from its standing with its arms horizontal.” Stauros “means properly a stake, and is the tr. not merely of the Lat. ‘crux’ (cross) but of ‘palus’ (stake) as well. As used in NT, however, it refers evidently not to the simple stake used for impaling, for which widespread punishment crucifixion was a refinement, but to the more elaborate cross used by the Romans in the time of Christ. In favour of the latter is not only the testimony of the oldest tradition, which in such a matter is entitled to great weight, but also the statement of the evangelists concerning the title nailed to the cross [above his head]...”
We know Jesus was not "impaled", because, without appealing to ignorant or illiterate usage, the word properly means: “To pierce with a pale; to torture or punish by fixing on a sharp stake...” It does not mean to fix to, but upon, a stake. Historically, in “impaling (infixio) a long and sharpened piece of wood (‘pale’) was employed, on which the criminal was put as on a spit.” To be explicit, if vulgar, it was stuck up the backside. Seneca, writing circa 45 AD, tells us of current Roman practice: “I see three crosses, not indeed of one sort, but fashioned in different ways; one sort suspending by the head persons bent toward the earth [something like the Puritans' stocks], others transfixing them through their secret parts [impaling], others extending their arms on a patibulum.” After citing this quotation, Fairbairn immediately says, “There can be no doubt, however, that the latter 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.” Notice that Seneca makes no reference to crucifixion with hands above the head — all the historic evidence indicates such was not Roman practice in Seneca's, and Jesus', time.
“The upright post to which alone the name [stauros] properly belongs, was usually a piece of some strong, cheap wood, pine or oak, of such length that when firmly planted in the ground the tip was from 7 1/2 to 9 ft. high. erected on some spot out-side the city, convenient for the execution, and remained there as a permanent fixture, only the cross-bar or ‘patibulum’ being carried to the spot, usually by the person who was to suffer death. This [cross-bar] consisted sometimes of a single piece of wood, more often of two parallel bars joined at one end [like a hair pin], between which the head of the victim passed, and to the ends of which his hands were fastened.” We know this second type was not used on Jesus, because “when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’ And bowing His head, he gave up His spirit.” (Jn 19:30)
“The initial variation in form of the primitive cross was apparently the addition of the cross-beam. This development, in the Roman world at least, may be related to the carrying of the patibulum (a yoke-like instrument of punishment fastened to the neck) by convicted slaves. By the Imperial period crucifixion had become the ‘slaves' punishment’ (‘servile supplicium’...)” A condemned criminal “was made to carry the cross-beam (patibulum) to the scene of his torture and death, always outside the city, while a herald carried in front of him the ‘title,’ the written accusation. It was this patibulum, not the whole cross, which Jesus was too weak to carry...”
“The condemned man was stripped naked, laid on the ground with the cross-beam under his shoulders, and his arms or his hands tied or nailed (Jn ) to it. This cross-bar was then lifted and secured to the upright post, so that the victim's feet, which were then tied or nailed, were just clear of the ground, not high up as so often depicted.”
There is some evidence to suggest that this second, less common method was used with Jesus. Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:14-15.) Practically, Moses would not have lifted up the serpent before it was on the pole, but rather would first have attached it, and then raised it (Num 21:8-9); it was large enough to have been seen from a distance, and was worshiped as an idol (2 K 18:4). And Barnabas says, “In like manner again He defineth concerning the cross in another [oral] prophet, who saith; ‘And when shall these things be accomplished? saith the Lord. Whensoever a tree shall be bended and stand upright, and whensoever blood shall drop from a tree.’ Again thou art taught concerning the cross, and Him that was to be crucified”. This suggests the lowering of an upright post, and then its being raised again, to drip blood. In the absence of more primary evidence, however, this conclusion can only be tentative
2. Earliest Records
“In like manner He [the Lord] points to the cross of Christ.... [Here we] have an intimation concerning the cross, and Him who should be crucified. ...the Spirit saith to the heart of Moses, that he should make a type of the cross and of Him that was to suffer. ...Moses therefore placed one weapon above another in the midst of the hill, and standing upon it, so as to be higher than all the people, he stretched forth his hands, and thus again Israel acquired the mastery. But when again he let down his hands, they were again destroyed. For what reason? That they might know that they could not be saved unless they put their trust in Him [or, as some read, ‘in the cross’]. And in another prophet He declares, ‘All day long I have stretched forth My hands to an unbelieving people, and one that gainsays My righteous ways.’ And again Moses makes a type of Jesus...”
Recall the biblical distinction between "stretched out" and "raised up" hands.
If this were not plain enough, in citing Abraham's circumcising 318 of his household, ‘which act pointed to Jesus,’ Barnabas says:
“In the eighteen ‘I’ stands for ten, ‘H’ [eta] for eight. Here thou hast Jesus (IHSOUS). And because the cross in the ‘T’ [Tau - 300] was [for us] to have grace, He saith also ‘three hundred.’ So He revealeth Jesus in the two letters, and in the remaining one [T] the cross. He who placed within us the innate gift of His covenant knoweth; no man hath ever learnt from me a more genuine word; but I know that ye are worthy.”
b. Josephus, writing in the last third of the first century, tells us of the siege of Jerusalem, that Roman “soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest...” How many ways are there to nail someone to a stake? A proper cross allows for more creativity in their "jests", and frankly better suits Josephus's implications, as well as Roman custom.
c. Ignatius, student of John, Peter, and Paul, and made bishop of
“Shun ye therefore those vile offshoots that gender a deadly fruit, whereof if a man taste, forthwith he dieth. For these men are not the Father's planting: for if they had been, they would have been seen to be branches of the Cross, and their fruit imperishable — the Cross whereby He through His passion inviteth us, being His members.”
Note that trees, and crosses, have branches.
d. Justin Martyr (b. 100 AD — younger contemporary of Polycarp, and taught by men who had learned from Apostles) says of the cross:
“...Moses first exhibited this seeming curse [of crucifixion] of Christ's by the signs which he made ... stretching out both hands ... (and) if he gave up any part of this sign, which was an imitation of the cross, the people were beaten. ...and he who prevailed, prevailed by the cross ... he himself made the sign of the cross.”
And again, of the cross:
“For the one beam is placed upright, from which the highest extremity is raise 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. And the part [seat] which is fixed in the center, on which are suspended those who are crucified, also stands out like a horn...”
And again, Justin says of the universal importance of “this form” of the cross: “And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals in nothing else then in its being erect and having the hands extended ... and this shows no other form than that of the cross.” And again: “the power of this form is shown by your own [Roman] symbols on what are called ‘vexilla’ (banners) [which shape is a pole with a cross-bar] and trophies, with which all your state possessions [sic — "processions"] are made, using these as the insignia of your power and government, even though you do so unwittingly.”
And again: “the sea is not traversed except that the trophy which is called a sail abide safe in the ship.” (Trophy: “A memorial of a victory... It consisted originally of armor, weapons, etc., of the defeated enemy fixed to the trunk of a tree or to a post on an elevated site, with an inscription, and a dedication to a divinity.”) Romans of this period used “a primitive form of rectangular sail”, utilizing a "yard", which is: “A long spar ... designed to support and extend a square ... sail. A yard of a square sail is usually hung by the center to the mast.” This shape describes the traditional cross.
Justin considers prophecy to be decisive on the manner of crucifixion: “‘the government shall be upon His shoulders’; which is significant of the power of the cross, for to it, when He was crucified, He applied His shoulders, as shall be more clearly made out in the ensuing discourse. And again the same prophet Isaiah, being inspired by the prophetic Spirit, said, ‘I have spread out my hands to a disobedient age gainsaying people...’ And again in other words, through another prophet, He says, ‘They pierced My hands and My feet, and for My vesture they cast lots.’”
e. Minucius Felix, writing perhaps as early as 166 AD, in his ‘Octavius’ refers to standards, banners, flags, trophies, masts, yokes, and prayer with outstretched arms, as representing the cross, and adds, “Thus the sign of the cross either is sustained by a natural reason, or your own religion is formed with respect to it.”
f. Irenaeus (c. AD 130-200 — student of Polycarp, student of John) indicates that it is on the familiar ‘immissa’ that Christ died: “The very form of the cross, too, has five extremities, two in length, two in breadth, and one in the middle, [a seat] on which the person rests who is fixed by the nails.” Elsewhere, he says:
“For as we lost it [or Him — the word or Word] by means of a tree [in Eden], by means of a tree again was [He] made manifest to all, showing the height, the length, the breadth, the depth in [Himself]; and, as a certain man among our predecessors observed, ‘Through the extension of the hands of a divine person, gathering together the two peoples to one God.’ For these were two hands, because there were two peoples scattered to the ends of the earth; but there was one head [Jesus Christ] in the middle...”
Notice that by means of the tree His breadth is shown, and that the hands nailed to the tree are not "in the middle". We are not given the name of the "predecessor", but Irenaeus consistently uses the term for those most elder of elders who learned from the Apostles, or who saw the Lord in the flesh.
g. Tertullian says, in speaking of the need for prayer, that “birds too, rising out of the nest, upraise themselves heaven-ward, and, instead of hands, expand the cross of their wings, and say somewhat to seem like prayer.” He says, of the Romans: “But you also worship victories, for in your trophies the cross is the heart of the trophy. The camp religion of the Romans is all through a worship of the standards, a setting [of] the standards above all gods. Well, as those images decking out the standards are ornaments of crosses ... [so all] those hangings of your standards and banners are robes of crosses. I praise your zeal; you would not consecrate crosses unclothed and unadorned.”
In the same place he says: “And yet how far does the Athenian Pallas differ from the stock of the cross, or the Pharian Ceres as she is put up uncarved to sale, a mere rough stake and piece of shapeless wood? Every stake fixed in an upright position is a portion of the cross...” Using similar reasoning in his ‘Ad Nationes,’ he adds, “Every piece of timber which is fixed in the ground in an erect position is a part of a cross, and indeed the greater portion of its mass. But an entire cross is attributed to us, with its transverse beam, of course, and its projecting seat.” And speaking of Christian “ancient practice”, which “custom — which without doubt flowed from tradition — has confirmed”, Tertullian refers to “all the ordinary actions of daily life, [in which] we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross].”
Again, Tertullian says:
“For Joseph is withal blest by his father [sic — Moses] after this form: ‘His glory is that of a bull; his horns, the horns of an unicorn...’ But Christ was therein signified: ‘bull,’ by reason of each of His two characters, — to some fierce, as Judge; to others gentle, as Saviour; whose ‘horns’ were to be the extremities of the cross. For even in a ship's yard — which is part of a cross — this [word, i.e., ‘horn’] is the name by which the extremities are called; while the central pole of the mast is a ‘unicorn.’ By this power, in fact, of the cross, and in this manner horned, He does now, on the one hand ‘toss’ the universal nations...”
And in the same place, he asks why Moses prayed “with hands expanded, when, in circumstances so critical, he ought rather, surely, to have ... hands beating his breast, and a face prostrate on the ground; except it was that ... the figure of the cross was also necessary”.
h. Novatian, writing about 257, says:
“But He [God] cannot be received as God the Father; but as God and Angel, as Christ, He can be received. And Him [Christ], as the author of this blessing, Jacob also signified by placing his hands crossed [in the sign] upon the lads, as if their father was Christ, and showing, from thus placing his hands, the figure and future form of the passion. Let no one, therefore, who does not shrink from speaking of Christ as an Angel, thus shrink from pronouncing Him God also, when he perceives that He Himself was invoked in the blessing to these lads, by the sacrament of the passion, intimated in the type of the crossed hands, as both God and Angel.”
Even such strange works as the apocryphal ‘Gospel of Nicodemus’ has Jesus in Hades making ‘the sign of the Cross.’ This speaks of the utterly universal belief that the stauros was cross-shaped.
I really could go on, but the pattern has been established. What this proves is that the very earliest authorities (the apostle Barnabas; John's student Ignatius; Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, who were taught by those who knew apostles; Minucius Felix and Tertullian, second century apologists, and Novatian) affirm the traditional shape of, specifically, Jesus' cross. The historical record presents an unbroken chain of cross-shaped crosses, while, in a good-faith effort, I can find not one single word about its being a simple upright stake. Even the secular writers Seneca and Josephus affirm the traditional shape. There is a pseudo-scholarly myth that the Council of Nicea corrupted the teachings of the original, true church. This is an ignorant and unhistorical teaching, however – no ancient historical documents support such a belief. Rather, we have seen that the documents support the traditional picture of the cross.
So why would the Gospel writers use the Greek word ‘stauros,’ instead of the more specific Latin ‘crux immissa’? Because it was the appropriate Greek word (the language in which the New Testament was written), already in contemporary usage describing that specific form of Roman execution — Rome had ruled in Judea from Herod's day. Does its etymology exactly describe how Jesus died? No. But the word approximates the event closely enough to communicate the method. It was a problem of translation; should the writers introduce a foreign word, ‘crux,’ with which most Greek readers would have been unfamiliar, in order to preserve some technical exactitude?
Every Jew and Greek was familiar with the method of Roman crucifixion, if not the Latin word; they would have had a graphic mental picture to amend any linguistic shortcomings. They certainly would have remembered the sight of the 2,000 men which Varus, governor of
It is simply a matter of indisputable historic fact that the Romans used a cross-beam, ‘patibulum,’ in crucifixions of the gospel period — no evidence is found to suggest a ‘stake’; and since it was the Romans, not the Greeks or Jews, who crucified Jesus, it is their customs that must be considered.
3. Pagan Influence?
Satan sets his traps, even foreshadowing God's truth. Justin Martyr (First Apology, ch. 54) says that myths: “have been uttered by the influence of the wicked demons, to deceive and lead astray the human race. For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvelous tales, like the things which were said by the poets.”
Shall we fall into the Liar's snare, and call unclean what God has made clean (Acts )? Even food sacrificed to an idol is fit for those with strong consciences ... it is the weak for whom we must be solicitous (1 Cor 8).
C. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
Paul says there must be disagreements, that those who are approved may be recognized (1 Cor ). He also says that those who are obsessed with disputes and arguments over words are proud and know nothing (1 Tim 6:4), and that we are not to strive over words, which is useless and leads to ruin, but rather to shun profane and vain babblings (2 Tim 2:14-16) and refuse foolish and ignorant speculations which produce quarrels (2 Tim 2:23), and not to dispute over doubtful things (Rom 14:1). So is the issue really important? Well, it's not a matter of dogma ... any who would make it so are simply disobedient. Right knowledge is important, but basically irrelevant to salvation: Christianity is not a gnostic sect. Knowledge is relevant to sanctification, which follows salvation, as 1 Tim 2:3-4 says: “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men [first] to be saved and [second] to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
That the cross was a stake is a disputable point, and overwhelmingly likely to be wrong; but if solid evidence is adduced against the ‘crux’, fine – its shape may be more a point of historical, than spiritual, interest. As for the spiritual importance of the cross itself, let the Bible speak for itself:
. Vine's, p. 363, "Left", 2, [b].
. See Vine's, p. 574, "Side", A., B., and Notes.
. See Thayer's, p. 245, # 2007, 1., epitithemi: "to put or lay upon."
. See Vine's, p. 52, "Bear", 1.: bastazo does not mean ‘drag.’
. Vine's, "Punishment," 2.
. Quoted from The Popular and Critical Bible Encyclopaedia and Scriptural Dictionary, ed. S. Fallows (The Howard-Severance Co., 1922), p. 472.
. A Dictionary of the Bible, ed. J. Hastings (T & T Clark, 1951), "Cross," p. 528.
. Webster's Unabridged; `impale', def. 3.
. Fallows, loc. cit.
. Consol. ad Marciam, xx. — quoted in The Imperial Bible-Dictionary, ed. P. Fairbairn (Blackie & Sons, n.d.), Vol. 2, "Cross" p. 84.
. Fallows, loc. cit.
. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. G. W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1980), Vol. 1, "Cross", p. 826.
. The New Bible Dictionary, ed., J.D. Douglas (Eerdmans [also Tyndale, in a later edition]), "Cross," p. 279.
. Source material can be found in Livy, 33. 36; Lucian, Judic. Voc., xii; and Val. Max., i., 7.
. Lightfoot, p.148.
. See Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 135. Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Origin are the first to attribute authorship, and it is to Barnabas. Liberal critics habitually ascribe the latest possible date for all manuscripts, often on poor and highly speculative evidence.
. Footnote in text, of variant reading.
. Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Roberts, Vol. 1, p 144-145.
. Barnabas, 9.
. Josephus, Wars, Vol. 11, 1.
. Trallians, 11, and Smyrnaeans, 2-3; Lightfoot, pp 74-75, 83.
. Dialogue with Trypho, ch. xc; comma added between ‘prevailed’.
. Op. cit., ch. xci.
. First Apol., ch. lv.
. Webster's Unabridged, 1934, def. 1.
. Enc. Brit., 1980, Vol. 16, p. 688.
. Webster's, def. 6.
. Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 35, ANF, Vol. 1, p. 174.
. Ch. xxix; ANF, Vol. iv, p. 191.
. "Haer." ii. 24. 4, ANF, Vol. 1, p 395.
. "Haer.," Vol. 17. 4; ANF, Vol. 1, pp. 545-546.
. ANF, Vol. 3., p. 691; On Prayer, ch. 29.
. "Apology," ch. xvi; ANF, Vol. 3, p. 31.
. Ch xii; ANF, Vol. 3, p. 122.
. "De Corona," ch iii; ANF, Vol. 3, pp. 94, 95.
. "An Answer to the Jews"; ANF, Vol. 3, pp. 165 and 166.
. "De Trinitate," ch. xix; ANF, Vol. 5, p. 631.
. Also known as "The Acts of Pilate"; F.F. Bruce says of this work in his Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 94, that "there is reason to think that its core goes back to the second century.
. Wars, Vol. 11, 1.