Did Jesus Die on a Cross or a Stake?


Why do JWs think this is an important issue?

  • For 50 years JWs accepted that Christ was crucified on a cross. “The cross of Christ is the greatest pivotal truth of the divine arrangement, from which radiate the hopes of men.” (The Harp of God, 1921, p.141)
  • By 1936 the official position had been reversed. The book Riches claimed that the cross was of phallic and pagan origin, introduced into 4th century Christianity by Constantine.
  • It differentiates them from all false religion and is therefore to them a life and death issue. Most JWs feel very uncomfortable even entering a church.
  • “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.” (Wt 1989 May 1 p.23)

What does the Bible teach?

  • John 20:25 “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 never believe it.” (RNWT) Wouldn’t nails (plural) suggest Jesus was crucified with his arms separated on a cross with a nail in each hand, rather than hands together pierced by a single nail as on a stake?
  • Matt 27:37 “They also posted above his head the charge against him, in writing …” The notice was placed above Christ’s head, rather than above his above his arms.  What does this imply?
  • Symbolism was used in scripture. The original Temple contained objects – none of which were to be worshiped. Christians, while accepting the cross, avoid idolising or worshiping it, but regard it as a loving reminder, much as a business man may affectionately place a photograph of his family on his desk. Any symbols, even the prominent org logo, could become an object of reverence because idolatry is mainly a sin of the heart (Col 3:5; 1 John 5:21).
  • Jesus shed his blood for forgiveness of sins for those in the New Covenant (Matt 26:28). Once-for-all forgiveness of our sins as adopted sons of God is the issue not the shape of the piece of wood on which Jesus died (Gal 6:14-16; Heb 10:10,14).

JWs Three Main Objections

JW Objection 1 – Linguistic

JWs say, “The Greek word stauros originally meant a stake.”

It is true that in classical Greek this word [stauros] did mean an upright stake, or pole, but later by the first century it also came to refer to an execution stake having a crosspiece. Likely it was such a crosspiece that Jesus carried to Golgotha. We all know words which have now taken on a different, even opposite, meaning from their origin, eg. awful (‘wondrous’ but now meaning terrible); bully (‘sweetheart’ but now meaning cruel); shuttle (‘used in weaving’ but now a space vehicle). Hence, in the 21st century, the word in modern Greek for ‘cross’ is ‘σταυρóς’ (stauros) – the same as it was in the first century.

New Testament Greek scholar Dr David Alan Black commented that “the original meaning of a word used alone, cannot adequately account for the meaning of a word since meaning is continuously subject to change.… It is therefore mandatory for the NT student to know whether the original meaning of a word still exists at a later stage.… Hence it is not legitimate to say that the ‘original’ meaning of a word is its ‘real’ meaning.” (Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek, 1988, 1995, p.122) This is termed the diachronic development of languages.

Consider the following six lexical works revealing the development of the word stauros:

  1. HELPS Lexicon: 4716 staurós – the crosspiece of a Roman cross; the cross-beam (Latin, patibulum) placed at the top of the vertical member to form a capital “T.” “This transverse beam was the one carried by the criminal” (Souter).
  2. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: “In shape we find three basic forms. The cross was a vertical, pointed stake… or it consisted of an upright with a cross-beam above it… or it consisted of two intersecting beams of equal length…” (Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Vol 7, 1971, p572)
  3. Strong’s concordance: “(4716) stauros stow-ros’ from the base of 2476; a stake or post (as set upright), i.e. (specially), a pole or cross (as an instrument of capital punishment); figuratively, exposure to death, i.e., self-denial; by implication, the atonement of Christ: –cross.
  4. Liddell and Scott’s: “stauros … upright pale or stake, cross, as the instrument of crucifixion … its form was represented by the Greek letter T…” (Liddell & Scott, 1883, p.1635)
  5. Zodhiates: “stauros … A cross, a stake, often with a cross-piece, on which criminals were nailed for execution.” (Zodhiates, “The Complete Word Study Dictionary, 1992, p.1308-1309).
  6. Bauer, Gingrich and Danker: “stauros … the cross … in the sense ‘upright pointed stake’ or `pale’ … the instrument by which the capital punishment of crucifixion was carried out … a stake sunk into the earth in an upright position; a cross-piece was oft … attached to its upper part, so that it was shaped like a T or thus † …” (BAGD, 1979, p.764)

But a JW may object by quoting three contrasting reference works:

a. Vines Dictionary

Vines Dictionary: stauros “denotes, primarily, an upright pale or stake. On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun [stau·ros´] and the verb stauroo, to fasten to a stake or pale, are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed cross.”

Historical evidence shows that the cross was in common use in Jesus day, meaning that Vine’s (W. E. Vine was baptised Plymouth Brethren) is inaccurate. By the time of Jesus death, stauros could linguistically mean either cross or stake.

David W. Chapman comments that: … the “fundamental” references to an upright pole in σταυρός […] does not rightly imply that such terminology in antiquity, when applied to crucifixion, invariably applied to a single upright beam. This is a common word study fallacy in some populist literature. In fact, such terminology often referred in antiquity to cross-shaped crucifixion devices.

b. The Imperial Bible-Dictionary

The Imperial Bible-Dictionary is only quoted in part in the JW’s Reasoning Book. Here is the complete quotation – the bold words are omitted in their publication:

“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 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 our cross is derived) appears to have been originally an upright pole; and this always remained the most prominent part. But from the time that it began to be used as an instrument of punishment, a transverse piece of wood was commonly addedThere 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.”

The Imperial Dictionary shows quite the opposite of what the Watchtower attempts to prove.

c. The Non-Christian Cross

The Non-Christian Cross, by John Denham Parsons” is quoted in the Reasoning Book for support that Jesus did not die on a stake. John Parsons was a skeptic who also wrote “Our Sun-God: Or Christianity before Christ”, trying to prove a connection between Jesus and the Egyptian God Horus.


JW Objection 2 – Pagan origin

JWs say, “The cross was originally a pagan symbol.”

  • Should Christians reject everything having a pagan origin? JWs readily dismiss many customs and almost all celebrations as of pagan religious origin. They use the illustration of never picking up and eating a piece of candy lying in a gutter. They would include the cross as being of such unclean pagan origin. By the same arbitrary application of this principle, we ask why they do not reject other things of pagan origin, including: the days of the week and months, wedding rings and cake, bridesmaids, white wedding dresses and bridal flowers, eye make-up, and piñatas?

Cats were worshipped as gods by the Egyptians but is this a reason for Christians to avoid cats?

  • Rome was a pagan culture, so it wouldn’t be strange for them to use a pagan symbol in their executions. Christians use a cross in remembrance of Jesus’ ransom, not as association with pagan gods.
  • What about the stake or pole being pagan?

David Williams, writing of medieval images, says: “The disembodied phallus is also formed into a cross, which, before it became for Christianity the symbol of salvation, was a pagan symbol of fertility.” (David Williams, Deformed Discourse: The function of the Monster in Mediaeval thought and literature, McGill-Queen’s Press 1999, p161.)

Insight vol 2, p835, says, “Both Israel and Judah disregarded God’s express command not to set up sacred pillars and sacred poles; they placed them upon “every high hill and under every luxuriant tree” alongside the altars used for sacrifice. It has been suggested that the poles represented the female principle, whereas the pillars represented the male principle. These appendages of idolatry, likely phallic symbols, were associated with grossly immoral sex orgies, as is indicated by the reference to male prostitutes being in the land as early as Rehoboam’s reign. (1Ki 14:22-24; 2Ki 17:10)”

JW Objection 3 – Historical Evidence

JWs say, “The first 300 years of Christianity shows Jesus on a stake.”

  • Lipsius engravings appear in their, ‘Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures’ (Appendix, 1985, p.1150) which carries an illustration of an engraving by Lipsius of the crux simplex (left photo). As Lipsius lived from 1547 to 1606 this engraving is from the artist’s own imagination. However, what is not mentioned is that Lipsius taught that Jesus died on a cross. His book included a total of 16 such woodcuts, 9 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.” De Cruce Liber Tresby Justus Lipsius.
  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BC to c.7 BC) A Greek historian who lived at the time of the birth of Jesus, described how a condemned slave was led to execution through the streets: “The men ordered to lead the slave to his punishment, having stretched out both his arms and fastened them to a piece of wood which extended across his breast and shoulders as far as his wrists, followed him, tearing his naked body with whips.” (Roman Antiquities, VII, 69:1-2)
  • Yehohanon (c.20 AD) was a crucified Jewish man whose remains were unearthed in a Judean tomb. Forensic analysis of the remains indicates that he was crucified with his arms stretched apart. A nail was found still embedded in his heel bone. Link 
  • Justin Martyr (100–165 AD) explicitly says the cross of Christ was of two-beam shape: “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.” Link 
  • Irenaeus (c.130-202 AD) speaks of the cross as having “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.”
  • Tertullian (c.150-225) distinguished between stipes (stake) and crux (cross), noted that it was the cross that people associated with Christianity. And he indicated that the shape of the cross is that of the letter T.
  • Palatine Graphito (c.200 AD) is a piece of Roman graffiti mocking a Christian for worshiping the crucified Jesus also pictures Jesus’ execution as being on a cross. (Craig Evans, Jesus, and His World: The Archaeological Evidence, 2012, p77) Link 
  • Odes of Solomon (1st to 3rd Centuries) These odes, generally considered to be of Christian origin, were written by several authors over the first three centuries. In Ode 27, the author wrote: “I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord, For the expansion of my hands is His sign, and my extension is the upright cross.”   Link 
  • Jean-Léon Gérôme: ‘The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer.’ This illustration appears in the Watchtower’s brochure, “How Can Blood Save Your Life?” commented about this artwork, “It portrays a rather common trope in the Christian imaginary, that of their early forebears being persecuted by the Roman Empire and executed by damnatio ad bestas, which means killed by wild beasts.  In this rendition, a group of Christians performs their last prayer, surrounded by their brothers already crucified and covered in pitch, while their purported executors erupt from their underground chambers.  Link. A partial enlargement does indeed show Christians hanging on crosses with arms spread apart.

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