Q: #442. Was Jesus crucified on a cross or a stake?
A: The belief that Jesus was executed on a stake, or upright wooden pole is primarily championed by the Jehovah Witnesses. (They do not like the word “crucified” either because that is associated with the cross.) In fact, they go so far as to make it a primary teaching in their belief system, believing that the cross is a “pagan symbol,” and if a cross is displayed, it is committing idolatry. Of course, Christians in general do not “worship the cross,” nor make it an “idol” (although some Catholics may commit this sin), so this charge by the Jehovah Witnesses is ridiculous.
However, it is interesting that up until the late 1930’s, their own teachers and publications taught that Jesus died on a cross. This ended when a man named J.F. Rutherford came to power, and decided to reject the traditional teaching that Jesus died on a cross. He made the proclamation that the cross was an invention of Emperor Constantine (ruled from 306 – 317 A.D), and that there was no evidence that a cross was ever used as a method of execution (we will refute this below). From Rutherford to present day, Jehovah Witnesses have rejected the cross. But, enough on this, let’s get to the question at hand.
Is there proof that Jesus did indeed die on a cross, and not a stake/pole? First, we need to look at the Greek word for “cross.” This word is “stauros.” Here is how it is defined in Strong’s Concordance: “a stake or post (as set upright), i.e. (spec.) a pole or cross (as an instrument of capital punishment).” This definition seems to confirm the Jehovah Witness position. So why the word “cross” and not “pole?” There are several explanations.
I believe the best explanation is found when we look at one of the ways that people were crucified. Tradition has described that when a person was sentenced to be crucified, they were forced to carry a “crossbeam” (called a “patibulum”) to the place of execution. At the place of execution was a permanent “vertical beam” (called a “stipes”). The condemned was nailed (or sometimes tied) to the “patibulum,” and then hoisted up to the top of the “stipes,” where the patibulum was set in place. Therefore, we could say that the condemned was crucified on a “pole” or “vertical, upright beam (stipes).”
Another possible explanation I read was that while the Romans were indeed killing people on crosses, the Greeks had no corresponding word for a “cross” (it was a new thing to them). Therefore, they used an existing word which corresponded to, and described what the cross was.
Secondly, does the Bible give us any clues that Jesus was crucified on a cross, and not a single stake/pole? First, it is important to note how a person was crucified on a stake (this did happen as well in those days). In essence, it was the same as being crucified on a cross, except that since there was no crossbeam, the hands of the condemned were raised above their heads, one put on top of another, and then nailed to the wood with a single nail (the feet were done the same whether a pole or cross: one nail through both feet). Keeping this in mind, look at what Thomas says in (Jn 20:25):
“The other disciples therefore said unto him (Thomas), We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the NAILS, and put my finger into the print of the NAILS, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (Caps emphasis mine)
This seems clear evidence of Thomas being aware that “nails” were used to nail Jesus’ hands to the cross, and not a single “nail,” as would have been the case if Jesus was executed on a “pole.”
A second verse is found in (Jn 21:18), where Jesus is prophesying to Peter how he would die. It says, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, THOU SHALT STRETCH FORTH THY HANDS, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” (Caps emphasis mine) This also seems to point to crucifixion on a cross, with hands stretched apart.
Whether valid or not is up to the reader, but some believe that we also have “pictures” of the cross in the Old Testament. Here are three:
1. First, in (Gen Ch. 22), we have the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The parallels of this story to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross are astounding. However, for our discussion, one thing is particularly interesting, and that is found in (Gen 22:6) where it says, “And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son” (the one who was to be sacrificed). This seems a clear parallel to the “patibulum” (wood crossbeam) which was laid upon Jesus (who was to be sacrificed).
2. The second is in (Ex 17:8-13), where the Israelites were at war with the Amalekites. When Moses’ hands were outstretched the Israelites would win the war, but when they were lowered (because he grew tired) the Amalekites would win. Finally “Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side,” and they ultimately won the war.
3. The third is found in (Ex 12:22-23), where we see God ordering that the blood of the Passover lamb be put on the “lintel and the two doorposts” of the houses of Israel (a cross shape).
Finally, we also have both archaeology and tradition that point to the cross. Two of the most important archaeological finds are as follows.
In the mid 1800’s, what has been called the “Alexamenes Graffito” was discovered. This was in essence a piece of Roman graffiti, dated to between the 1st to 3rd centuries, which shows an image of a human body with the head of a donkey nailed to a cross. There is also an image of a man worshipping this figure, and an inscription which says, “Alexamenos worships his God.” In other words, we have the image of a man named Alexamenos worshipping his God on a cross. Obviously, this image was meant to ridicule Jesus and Christians (particularly with the donkey head). However, it is also proof that the cross was a form of execution. This piece can be found in the Palatine Museum in Rome.
A second quite significant discovery was in 1968, when a tomb was uncovered near Jerusalem with the remains (dated to around the time of Jesus) of a man who had been crucified. The ossuary (burial box) in which his bones were found had an inscription which read “Yehohanan the son of Hagakol.” In this box were feet (or some believe a single foot) with a nail driven through them. This is the first “physical” evidence of a crucifixion being done with nails. Also found were arm bones with evidence of a crucifixion with arms spread apart. (Pictures can be seen if you put “Yehohanan” in a search engine.)
In addition to these, archaeologists have uncovered other ossuaries with crosses engraved upon them, and crosses have been been found at other sites as well. These have also been dated to the 1st century.
As for tradition, NUMEROUS early writers and church fathers have spoken about the cross in their writings. There are too many to quote, but here are a few:
Irenaeus (130-200 A.D.) said in his writing Against Heresies (Book II, Chapter 24), “The very form of the cross, too, has five extremities, two in length, two in breadth, and one in the middle, on which [last] the person rests who is fixed by the nails.”
Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) “That lamb which was commanded to be wholly roasted was a symbol of the suffering of the cross which Christ would undergo. For the lamb, which is roasted, is roasted and dressed up in the form of the cross. For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb.” The Sacred Writings of Justin Martyr (Chap. XL.)
We also have this description of the cross from Justin Martyr: “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.” The Sacred Writings of Justin Martyr (Chap. XCI.)
Josephus (37-100 A.D.) said the following: “… so they were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures, before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city….. So the 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, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.” The War Of The Jews (Book V, Chap. 11)
In addition, there are quotes about the cross from many other writers as well (Christian and not) such as: Tertullian (150-200 A.D.), Lucian (125-180 A.D.), Origen (185-254 A.D.), Hippolytus (170-246 A.D.), Artemidorus (2nd Century), and more. In addition, the cross is mentioned in works such as “The Epistle of Barnabas” and the “Odes of Solomon.” (I have not investigated these, as I did the quotes above.)
It should be noted that the authors of these writings, as well as the archaeological findings mentioned above, ALL date before the time of Constantine. This clearly points to the fact that the cross as a method of execution was known about well before Constantine. It was not his “invention.”
In conclusion, having said these things, we cannot know for certain that Jesus was indeed crucified on a cross, although the evidence clearly seems to point that way. However, WHAT Jesus died on is not really important. What IS important is why He died. He gave his life so that we could be forgiven of our sins. By placing our trust in Him alone, accepting His sacrifice for our sins, confessing He is Lord (God), believing God raised Him from the dead, and repenting of our sins, we can be born again and have eternal life. On these points, Jehovah Witnesses miss the mark. Salvation should be the primary concern. (Click here to learn how to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.)
Related: The Bible says in several verses that Jesus was “hanged on a tree.” Could Jesus have been crucified on a tree and not a cross?