(WDGR Lesson 11: “Beliefs and Customs That Displease God”)
Was Jesus crucified on a cross or was He impaled on a torture stake? Why does the Greek word translated “cross” in many Bibles mean just one piece of timber? Were crosses used at the time of Christ?
KAREN: Cindy, I noticed at 1 Corinthians 1:18, your Bible reads differently than mine. My Bible says “…the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness.…”1. , but your Bible, The New World Translation, says “…the speech about the torture stake is foolishness to those who are perishing.”
CINDY: That’s right, Karen. Just as we’ll be studying today in the Watchtower brochure What Does God Require of Us?, “Jesus did not die on a cross. He died on a pole, or a stake. The Greek word translated ‘cross’ in many Bibles meant just one piece of timber.”2.
KAREN: Cindy, I was reading the The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible and while it is true that the Greek word stauros which many Bibles translate as “the cross” “originally meant an ‘upright pointed stake,’” this encyclopedia goes on to explain that “Stauros in the NT, however, apparently was a pole sunk into the ground with a cross-bar fastened to it giving it a ‘T’ shape. Often the word ‘cross’ referred only to the cross-bar.…” So you see, Cindy, the Society is right when they say that the Greek word “meant just one piece of timber” for it referred only to the cross-bar upon which criminals were nailed and “hoisted then with it up onto the upright stake already in place at the execution site.”3.
CINDY: But, Karen, were crosses used at the time of Christ? How could a cross-bar have been used to impale Jesus to the torture stake, when the Watchtower notes that it wasn’t until “later” that stauros “came to be used for an execution stake having a crosspiece.”4.
KAREN: Cindy, is the Society saying that there is no historical evidence for the cross being used at the time of Christ?
CINDY: That’s right, Karen. In support of this, the Watchtower book, Reasoning from the Scriptures, quotes J.D. Parsons who said in his book The Non-Christian Cross, “ ‘There is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which…bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross.’…Thus the weight of the evidence indicates that Jesus died on an upright stake and not on the traditional cross.”5.
KAREN: Cindy, did you know that the Greek historian Herodotus who lived approximately 400 years prior to the birth of Christ, described a crucifixion in which he stated: “They nailed him to planks and hanged him aloft.…”6. How can the Society argue that there is no evidence of more than “one piece of timber” being used in this kind of execution, when Herodotus described the crucifixion of a man upon “planks” long before Jesus’ time?
CINDY: I don’t know, Karen, but just because crosses were used 400 years before Christ, doesn’t mean that they were used at the time of Christ, does it?
KAREN: Cindy, I think you’ll be surprised at the evidence. The book The Crucifixion of Jesus notes that “detailed descriptions” of crucifixion can be found in literature from ancient Roman times. In this literature, “a variety of postures and different kinds of tortures on crosses” are described. “Some victims are thrust head downward… still others have their arms outstretched on a crossbeam.”7. How can the Watchtower Society argue that Jesus’ torture stake did not have a crossbeam when historical evidence from literature at that time, describes crossbeams being used in crucifixion?
CINDY: I don’t know.
KAREN: Cindy, not only do we find historical evidence of the cross being described in literature from the time of Christ, but archeologists have recently uncovered the remains of a man who they believe was crucified by the Romans at 7 A.D. According to the Newsweek article of January 18, 1971: “What particularly interested the scholars were the marks found on the crucified man’s bones.…As the scholars see it,” this man “was probably held down by soldiers while his outstretched arms were fastened first to the cross bar.…Scratches on these two sets of bones are clearly discernible just above the wrist.”8.
CINDY: That’s interesting Karen, but does the Bible give us any indication that Jesus was impaled on a crossbeam attached to the torture stake?
KAREN: Yes, it does, Cindy. Let’s look at some of the evidence. If Jesus was impaled on a torture stake with no crosspiece, as the Society argues, how many nails would have been driven through his hands?
CINDY: Well, Karen, looking at the picture of Jesus impaled on the stake found on page 7 of the brochure What Does God Require of Us?, there was only one nail going through his hands.
KAREN: That’s right, Cindy. Now would you read John 20:25 in your New World Translation Bible?
CINDY: O.K. “…But he [Thomas] said to them: ‘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.”
KAREN: Cindy, how many nails does the Bible say were in Jesus’ hands?
CINDY: Well, Karen, it doesn’t say how many nails were used, but it does indicate that there was more than one nail that was driven into his hands.… ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails.…I will certainly not believe.” But, Karen, is this the only verse you have to prove that Jesus died on a cross?
KAREN: Absolutely not, Cindy. Would you read John 21:18-19 in your Bible?
CINDY: Alright. “ ‘Most truly I say to you.…when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and another [man] will gird you and bear you where you do not wish.’ This he said to signify by what sort of death he would glorify God.…”9.
KAREN: Cindy, if Jesus died on a torture stake with his hands up-stretched over His head as the Watchtower portrays in this picture, how can the Bible say that Peter’s hands were outstretched when he died, if crosses were not used at the time of Christ? Doesn’t this passage indicate that people who died in this way had their hands nailed in an outstretched position on a crossbeam? At Matthew 27:37, the Bible says that the sign, giving the charge against Jesus, was posted above His head, and not above His hands as the Watchtower picture depicts. Why does the Society argue that there is no evidence in the Bible for a crosspiece being attached to the torture stake, when the Bible and historical evidence clearly reveal the opposite?
CINDY: That’s a good point, Karen. I don’t know, but isn’t it true that “the symbol of the cross comes from ancient false religions”? In the Watchtower book, Reasoning from the Scriptures, the Society quotes a number of secular authorities that prove that pagans used crosses in their worship of false gods.10. Since the Bible says that Christians are to “flee from idolatry”11. “do you think it would be right to use a cross in worship?”12.
KAREN: Cindy, do you remember what the Society said in their Awake! article of December 22, 1976? In that article, the Society noted: “Snakes, crosses, stars, birds, flowers…yes, there is an almost endless number of designs and symbols that have at some time or other been linked with idolatrous worship.…just because idol worshipers at some time or place might use a certain design, that does not automatically mean that true worshipers must always shun it.…”13.
CINDY: Karen, did the Society really say that?
KAREN: Yes, they did, Cindy., and they went on to say: “Many times a design will change in significance according to location and time.…A pagan religious symbol might lose its religious connotation.…So the Christian needs to be primarily concerned about what? Not what a certain symbol or design possibly meant thousands of years ago…but what it means now to most people where he lives.”14. Cindy don’t you think this is good advice from the Watchtower Society?
CINDY: Well, I guess, Karen. So maybe the cross has lost its pagan religious connotation, but “how would you feel if one of your dearest friends was executed on the basis of false charges? Would you make a replica of the instrument of execution? Would you cherish it, or would you rather shun it?”15.
KAREN: Well, no, Cindy, but look at it this way. If one of your best friends died giving birth to a son, you wouldn’t shun him because he was the instrument of her death, would you? Rather, you would cherish him because in her death was his life. The same is true for Christians. If it wasn’t for Jesus’ death on the cross, we would all be spiritually dead. Can you see how, far from being a symbol of death, the cross has become the symbol of life for those who have been cleansed by the blood of Christ?
Friends, while it is true that Christians do not worship or venerate the cross, neither do they shun it. Just as Karen noted, far from being a pagan religious symbol of death, for true Christians, the cross has become the symbol of eternal life in Christ. This is why the apostle Paul says “…may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.…For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”16. Have you found eternal life in the power of the shed blood of Jesus?
1. New American Standard Bible
2. What Does God Require of Us?, 1996, p. 23:6
3. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Merrill C. Tenney ed, vol. 1, 1976, pp. 1037-1038
4. Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1985, 1989, p. 89
5. Reasoning from the Scriptures, pp. 89-90
6. The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith, by Gerard S. Sloyan (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1995), p. 15
7. The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith, p. 15
8. Newsweek, January 18, 1971, p. 53 and Time, January 18, 1971, pp. 64-65
9. New World Translation
10. Reasoning from the Scriptures, pp. 90-91
11. 1 Corinthians 10:14
12. What Does God Require of Us?, p. 23:6
13. Awake! December 22, 1976, pp. 13-14
14. Awake! December 22, 1976, p. 14
15. Reasoning from the Scriptures, p. 92
16. Galatians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 1:18, New American Standard Bible