As is widely known, the Watchtower Society insists that Jesus did not die on a two-beamed cross but on a single-timber "torture stake". I agree with most people that this issue is pretty pointless and amounts only to a historical curiosity. As most Christians of faith would say, "It doesn't matter what he died on; it matters that he died for us". The purpose of this discussion is not to detract from that theological issue but instead to show that this subject is yet another instance of the Society's intellectual dishonesty and failure to represent the sources they quote. It will also provide a fairly interesting survey of what is historically known about the most heinous form of capital punishment in the Roman world.
The principal argument the Society furnishes is a linguistic one: that the Greek terms stauros and xulon and the Latin term crux (which translates stauros in the Latin Vulgate) did not mean "cross" in the first century. If the words used by the Bible writers referred only to a simple single-timber stake, then Jesus would not have died on a stake that had a crossbeam. So where Christendom get the idea that Jesus was put to death on a cross? The Society claims that the early Catholic church imported the cross symbol from neighboring pagan religions as part of its apostasy from original apostolic Christianity and their use of the cross in worship led them to claim that Jesus had in fact died on one. Of course, if Jesus did die on a cross (or was believed to have done so by the earliest Christians), then the use of the cross symbol by later Christians is certainly intelligible. The following quotation from the Society's literature is quite typical:
***w92 11/15 p. 7 The Cross-Symbol of Christianity? ***
FOR centuries multitudes have accepted the cross as a symbol of Christianity. But is it really? Many who have sincerely believed so are quite surprised to learn that the cross is not at all unique to Christendom. On the contrary, it has been widely used in non-Christian religions all over the world....
The Bible shows that Jesus was not executed on a conventional cross at all but, rather, on a simple stake, or stau·ros´. This Greek word, appearing at Matthew 27:40‚ basically means a simple upright beam or pole, such as those used in building foundations.
Regarding the first point, it should not be surprising at all that the cross symbol is ubiquitous around the word, for it is geometrically nothing more than an intersection of two lines at right angles -- a basic shape that can easily be invested with meaning independently by many different cultures. Pyramids are similarly found in cultures around the world but this is not due necessarily to contact or common origin; because of gravity, the only way to build very large buildings in the ancient world without steel reinforcement is to use a pyramid shape. Of course, the theological conception of Jesus' crucifixion may indeed have been influenced by neighboring pagan religions (which depicted certain gods like Prometheus as having been crucified), but fact that the cross symbol had a use outside of Christianity is not by itself evidence that the Christian cross was imported entirely from paganism.
As for what the word stauros meant in the NT, note that the Society provides no evidence but simply makes a blanket claim. The claim is that the use of this word in the Bible "shows that Jesus was not executed on the conventional cross". Now, if the "conventional cross" did not exist in the first century AD as a device for execution, it would be quite obvious that the word stauros could not have meant "cross" at the time. But without knowing anything about the history of Roman crucifixion, it is not self-evident that stauros did not mean "cross". If the Romans did use two-beamed crosses at the time to execute prisoners, there would have been a word for it in Greek! So if the word was not stauros, what was it? These are questions the Society does not pursue.
First I will survey the historical evidence for crucifixion and identify the time when the Romans began using crucifixion as a form of crucifixion. Then I will show what Latin words were used to refer to the two-beamed cross and the crossbeam in particular. Once I have established these basic facts, I will examine the Greek literature and show whether stauros referred to two-beamed crosses or not. Finally, I will look at biblical and patristic evidence bearing on the crucifixion of Jesus in particular.
I. THE ORIGINS OF ROMAN CRUCIFIXION
Historians generally believe that the crux compacta, consisting of a vertical stake and a transverse beam onto which the arms are tied or nailed, is a Roman invention combining native execution practices with those acquired from contact with neighboring peoples. There were several predecessors to crucifixion in the ancient Near East: impalement and postmorten hanging. The former involved forcing living prisoners or slaves down through pointed stakes and is illustrated in Assyrian reliefs; the oldest known reference to it is in the Code of Hammurabi, dating to 1700 BC. The latter was practiced by the ancient Israelites; after being stoned to death, idolators and blasphemers were hung on trees to show that they were accursed by God (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23), tho the Law forbid such corpses to remain on the tree overnight.
The ancient Persians however executed their criminals and prisoners by nailing them while still alive to trees and poles. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes that "the Persians invented or first used this mode of execution. They probably did so in order not to defile the earth, which was consecrated to Ormuzd, by the body of the person executed" (p. 16). What distinguished this practice from postmortem hanging was that the victim was still alive when the nails were driven into him. It is thought that the references to "hanging" in Ezra 6:11 and Esther 7:9-10 are of Persian crucifixion, though the texts themselves are not specific. The Greco-Persian Wars (499-479 BC) introduced the Greeks to this form of execution and Herodotus (Historiarum, 1.128.2, 3.125.3, 3.132.2, 3.159.1, 4.43.2-7, 6.30.1, 7.194) makes frequent reference to its use by the Persians (cf. also Thucydides, Historia 1.110.3, on its use in Egypt at the time). For instance, Herodotus mentions a viceroy named Sandoces, son of Thamasius, who was "taken and crucified (anestauróse) by Darius" but then Darius had a change of heart and released Sandoces so that "he thus escaped with his life from being put to death by Darius" (7.194). This passage clearly indicates that Sandoces was still alive when he was "crucified" (the verb, an inflected form of anastauroó, is obviously a form of stauros). The shape of the instrument used in Persian crucifixion also varied considerably. Herodotus said that it was comprised of "boards" (9.120), whereas Plutarch shows that even four vertical stakes were used for a single victim (Artaxerxes, 17.5). Apparently, the appearance of the apparatus did not matter to the Persians, as long as it performed its function.
From their interaction with the Persians, the Greeks adopted crucifixion as a military strategy. It was practiced especially by Alexander the Great in his wars against the Persians (336-323 BC). Thus, after the siege of Tyre came to an end in 332 BC, about "two thousand ... hung fixed to stakes over a huge stretch of the shore" (Curtius Rufus, Historia Alexandri 4.4.17; cf. also Plutarch, Alexander 7.2 on Alexander's crucifixion of his Persian physician). After Alexander's death, his successors (the Diadochi) continued to use Persian-style crucifixion against their enemies (cf. Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica 16.61.2), but the Greeks never fully integrated it into their legal system as a civil penalty. The Greeks were generally repelled by such a brutal display (cf. Herodotus, Historiarum 7.138, 9.78). Likely as a result of the Greek siege of Tyre, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians adopted the mass-crucifixion tactic for use in war (cf. Valerius Maximus, Memorabilium 2.7; Silius Italicus, Punica 2.344). During the Punic Wars (264-146 B.C.), the Romans encountered the Phoenician version of crucifixion and swiftly appropriated it as a means of capital punishment for slaves. Straying away from the purpose the Persians intended it for, the Romans converted it into a brutal torture machine. This was accomplished by adding a second piece of wood called the patibulum to the execution stake, as well as a thorn-shaped sedile upon which the victim rested his weight. Prior to the invention of crucifixion, the Romans used the patibulum to humiliate condemned slaves marching to their execution. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (first century B.C.) described this ancient practice:
"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).
This patibulum-bearing punishment, during which a slave is whipped and lead through the city, was practiced in pre-Republican times and was the direct ancestor of the portion of the crucifixion ritual in which the victim carries his own cross. It did not always precede execution; it was often used for humiliation. Other descriptions of this early form of punishment can be found in Livy and Plutarch, who both describe its use in pre-Republican times and reveal that the wood carried by the victim was also called a furca "fork".
"At an early hour of the day appointed for the games, before the show had begun, a certain householder had driven his slave, bearing a yoke (furca), through the midst of the circus, scouraging the culprit as he went" (Livy, Roman History 2.36.1).
"A certain man had handed over one of his slaves, with orders to scourge him through the forum, and then put him to death. While they were executing this commission and tormenting the poor wretch, whose pain and suffering made him writhe and twist himself horribly, the sacred procession in honor of Jupiter chanced to come up behind....And it was a severe punishment for a slave who had committed a fault, if he was obliged to take the piece of wood (xulon) with which they prop up the pole of a wagon, and carry it around through the neighborhood. For he who had been seen undergoing this punishment no longer had any credit in his own or neighboring households. And he was called a 'furcifer' (phourkipher), for what the Greeks call a prop, or support, is called 'furca' (phourkan) by the Romans" (Plutarch, Coriolanus 24.4-5).
It is this piece of wood that centuries later became the crossbeam in the Roman cross. The crux compacta came into existence when Phoenician crucifixion was fused with the pre-existing Roman patibulum-bearing punishment. Not only was the errant slave punished by being paraded throughout the city yoked to a patibulum, but he now died suspended from it. But when did this happen? We need to examine the earliest known descriptions of the kind of crucifixion adopted by the Romans and the specific terms they used to refer to it.
II. THE LATIN CRUX IN EARLY SOURCES
As mentioned in the introduction, if the Roman two-timbered cross (crux compacta) arose after the first century AD, then it would be obvious that Jesus could not have died upon one. The Society admits that the Latin word for the device was crux, but points out that it did not necessarily refer to a double-beamed cross:
"True, the Romans did use an instrument of execution known in Latin as the crux. And in translating the Bible into Latin, this word crux was used as a rendering of stauros. Because the Latin word crux and the English word cross are similar, many mistakenly assume that crux was necessarily a stake with a crossbeam" (15 August 1987 Watchtower, p. 23).
But even if it did not necessarily refer to a "stake with a crossbeam", was such a meaning possible? It all depends on when the Romans invented the double-beamed cross and when the word crux began to refer to it. It is theoretically possible that for the first few centuries after the Punic Wars, the Romans continued to use the crux simplex of the Carthaginians and did not combine it with the patibulum until the second century; in such a circumstance, the word crux would have definitely still referred to a simple stake. But if the Romans had invented the crux compacta early on, and if crux was the only word used to refer to crucifixion, then by default crux would have referred to double-beamed crosses since no other word did.
When does the Society believe the meaning of crux shifted to "cross?" Although it has never published (as with stauros) any official statements on the matter, it has twice indicated that the semantic change occurred after the first century A.D. The 1963 publication All Scripture Is Inspired of God and Beneficial quoted Tacitus (c. A.D. 56-c. 120) as saying that Roman Christians were martyred on flaming "crosses" during the A.D. 64 persecution (p. 235; cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.44). Twenty-five years later, the Society cited the same passage in Revelation - Its Grand Climax at Hand. But this time it replaced the reference to Christians being "crucified" with "[impaled]" and referred the reader in a footnote to a discussion of the "torture stake" doctrine in the 1984 New World Translation appendix (p. 101). Apparently the Society believes that crux still meant "stake" in the second century A.D., when Tacitus composed his Annals.
The Society also falsely claims that crux meant only "stake" in the days of the Roman historian Livy (59 B.C.-A.D. 17). We read in the 1950 New World Translation appendix:
"The fact that stauros is translated crux in the Latin versions furnishes no argument against [the "torture stake" doctrine]. . . .A cross is only a later meaning of crux. Even in the writings of Livy, a Roman historian of the first century B.C.E., crux means a mere stake" (p. 770).
The 22 June 1984 Awake! likewise remarked: "The Latin word used for the instrument on which Christ died was crux which, according to Livy, a famous Roman historian of the first century C.E., means a mere stake" (p. 17). Finally, the version of the New World Translation published in the same year stated: "In the writings of Livy, a Roman historian of the first century B.C.E., crux means a mere stake. ‘Cross’ is only a later meaning of crux" (p. 1577).
But this claim does not stand up to critical scrutiny. Notice that the Society never backs up its claim with references to Livy's writings. A careful examination of Livy's writings shows the historian never used crux the way the Society says he did, i.e. with specific reference to a crux simplex. According to Packard's Concordance to Livy, the word crux in its various inflected forms appeared six times in Livy's writings (p. 1011). These are quoted below with their contexts:
"Whereupon he scouraged the guide, and, to terrify others, crucified (crucem sublato) him, and going into the camp behind the entrenchments, dispatched Maharbal with the cavalry" (22.13.9).
"Five and twenty slaves were crucified (crucem acti), on the charge of having conspired in the Campus Martius" (22.33.2).
"He thereupon . . . ordered them [high-ranking officials] to be scourged and crucified (cruci adfigi). Then he crossed over to his ships to the island of Pityusa" (28.37.3).
(4) "The deserters were severely treated than the runaway slaves, Latin citizens being beheaded, Romans crucified (crucem sublati)" (30.43.13).
"Some, who had been the instigators of the revolt, he scouraged and crucified (crucibus adfixit), others he turned over to their masters" (33.36.3).
"In this I for my part should trust my own cause even if I were pleading, not before the Roman, but before the Carthaginian senate, where commanders are said to be crucified (crucem tolli) if they have conducted a campaign with successful but defective policy" (38.48.13).
Each and every one of these references to crucifixion are laconic and devoid of detail as to the manner of the execution; none of the six excerpts reveal any information indicating what the nature of the crux was like. When Livy did refer to the crux simplex, he used the word palus: "Bound to a stake (deligati ad palum) they were scouraged and beheaded" (28.29.11; cf. also 26.13.15). The Society's claim must therefore be dismissed as false.
In contrast to the Society's attempts to suggest that the word crux did not refer to "crosses" until after the time of Jesus (and by implication, the existence of two-beamed crosses), there is direct evidence to the contrary dating back to the third century BC -- from the time of the Punic Wars themselves. The following citations from Plautus, Seneca, and Tacitus, who wrote from the third century BC to the second century AD, show unambiguously that (1) the crux could include a patibulum or furca (both meaning "crossbeam"), (2) the patibulum was nailed to the stipes (the upright stake), (3) the victims carried the patibulum prior to their crucifixion, and (4) the victims "stretched out" their arms on the crux or patibulum.
Plautus (254-184 B.C.)
(1) Frateor, manus vobis do. Et post dabis sub furcis. Abi intro--in crucem. " 'I admit it, I hold up my hands!' 'And later you will hold them up on a furca. Do go along to the crux' " (Persa, 295).
(2) Credo ego istoc extemplo tibi esse eundum actutum extra portam, dispessis manibus, patibulum quom habebis. "I suspect you're doomed to die outside the gate, in that position: Hands spread out and nailed to the patibulum" (Miles Gloriosus, 359-360).
(3) O carnuficium cribum, quod credo fore, ita te forabunt patibulatum per vias stimulis carnufices, si huc reveniat senex. "Oh, I bet the hangmen will have you looking like a human sieve, the way they'll prod you full of holes as they run you down the streets with your arms on a patibulum, once the old man gets back" (Mostellaria, 55-57).
(4) Ego dabo ei talentum, primus qui in crucem excucurrerit; sed ea lege, ut offigantur bis pedes, bis brachia. "I'll give two hundred pounds to the first man to charge my crux and take it -- on condition his legs and arms are double-nailed, that is" (Mostellaria, 359-360).
(5) Patibulum ferat per urbem, deinde adfigatur cruci. "Let him bear the patibulum through the city; then let him be nailed to the crux" (Carbonaria, fr. 2).
These texts establish beyond reasonable doubt that the Roman crux compacta had come into existence by the late third century BC and early second century BC. The crossbeam is called furca in (1) and patibulum in (2), (3), and (5), and the furca is mentioned with the crux in (1) and the patibulum is mentioned with the crux in (5). In both these passages, the patibulum is carried by the victim prior to execution, and (3) similarly refers to the victim being "run down the streets with your arms on a crossbeam", and later in the same play someone else is described as having their legs and arms being double-nailed to the crux. In all their discussions on the cross, the Society has never discussed this evidence.
Seneca (c. 4 B.C.-A.D. 65)
(6) Cum refigere se crucibus conentur, in quas unusquisque vestrum clavos suos ipse adigit, ad supplicium tamen acti stipitibus singulis pendent; hi, qui in se ipsi animum advertunt, quot cupiditatibus tot crucibus distrahuntur. At maledici et in alienam contumeliam venusti sunt. Crederem illis hoc vacare, nisi quidam ex patibulo suo spectatores conspuerent! "Though they strive to release themselves from their crosses---those crosses to which each one of you nails himself with his own hand--yet they, when brought to punishment hang each one on a single stipes; but these others who bring upon themselves their own punishment are stretched upon as many crosses as they had desires. Yet they are slanderous and witty in heaping insult on others. I might believe that they were free to do so, did not some of them spit upon spectators from their own patibulum!" (De Vita Beata, 19.3).
(7) ....alium in cruce membra distendere.... "another to have his limbs stretched upon the crux" (De Ira, 1.2.2).
(8) Video istic cruces non unius quidem generis sed aliter ab aliis fabricatas: capite quidam conversos in terram suspendere, alii per obscena stipitem egerunt, alii brachia patibulo explicuerunt. "Yonder I see crosses, not indeed of a single kind, but differently contrived by different peoples; some hang their victims with head toward the ground, some impale their private parts, others stretch out their arms on a patibulum" (De Consolatione, 20.3).
(9) Contempissimum putarem, si vivere vellet usque ad crucem....Est tanti vulnus suum premere et patibulo pendere districtum.... Invenitur, qui velit adactus ad illud infelix lignum, iam debilis, iam pravus et in foedum scapularum ac pectoris tuber elisus, cui multae moriendi causae etiam citra crucem fuerant, trahere animam tot tormenta tracturam? "I should deem him most despicable had he wished to live up to the very time of crucifixion....Is it worth while to weigh down upon one's own wound, and hang impaled upon a patibulum?....Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly tumours on chest and shoulders, and draw the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? I think he would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the crux!" (Epistle, 101.10-14).
(10) Cogita hoc loco carcerem et cruces et eculeos et uncum et adactum per medium hominem, qui per os emergeret, stipitem. "Picture to yourself under this head the prison, the crux, the rack, the hook, and the stake which they drive straight through a man until it protrudes from his throat" (Epistle, 14.5).
(11) ....sive extendendae per patibulum manus "....or his hands to be extended on a patibulum" (Fragmenta, 124; cf. Lactantius, Divinis Institutionibus, 6.17).
These passages also establish in no uncertain terms that the two-beamed cross was in existence in the time of Jesus and that the word crux was used to refer to it. The quote in (6) explicitly describes the crux as composed of two main pieces: the stipes, or upright pole, and the patibulum attached to it. Also, interestingly, the arms are described as outstretched on a crux in (7) and on a patibulum in (11), indicating that both words refer to similar things. Example (8) is important for showing that crux had a wide range in meaning. It could refer to crosses which hang people upside down, it could refer to stakes which impale people through their private parts, and it can refer to the crux on which the victim stretches their arms onto a patibulum. The second kind of crux is the method of impalement mentioned earlier in which the victim is driven through a stake (skolops, in Greek). This same method of execution is mentioned in (10), but interestingly it is here distinguished from the crux. Finally, (9) is yet another reference to the crux containing a patibulum. The evidence of Plautus and Seneca is thus overwhelming that Roman crosses by the time of Jesus included crossbeams, and again the Society is silent on the testimony of Seneca.
Tacitus (c. A.D. 56-c. 120) (12) Solacio fuit servus Verginii Capitonis, quem proditorem Tarracinensium diximus, patibulo adfixus in isdem anulis quos acceptos a Vitellio gestabat. "The Tarracines, however, found comfort in the fact that the slave of Verginius Capito, who had betrayed them, was crucified (patibulo adfixus) wearing the very rings that he had received from Vitellius" (Historia, 4.3).
(13) Rapti qui tributo aderant milites et patibulo adfixi. "The soldiers stationed to supervise the tribute were seized and nailed to the patibulum" (Annals, 4.72).
(14) ...sed caedes patibula ignes cruces, tamquam redddituri. "He was hasty with slaughter and the patibulum, with arson and the crux" (Annals, 14.33).
Tacitus has two references to patibulo adfixus in (12) and (13), which are clear references to crucifixion on a crux compacta. In (14), references to the patibulum and crux are paralleled with references to carnage and arson. One further reference to the patibulum occurs in Annals 1.61, pertaining to the army erecting patibula for the prisoners of war.
A number of other references to the two-timbered cross (or at least, hanging from a patibulum) can be found in the literature. Clodius Licinus (first century BC) refers to the executioner who would "bind [the victims] to the patibulum (ad patibulos); thus bound they are carried around and then nailed to the cross (cruci defiguntur)" (Roman History, 3; cited in TLL, p. 707 for "patibulum"). Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) referred to the yearly crucifixion of dogs near the temple of Juventas, making them "affixed to a furca" (furca fixi) (Historia Naturalis, 29.14.57). Another Roman writer who somewhat later alluded to the patibulum to which prisoners are nailed was Lucius Apuleius (AD 123-170), who made four references to the patibulum in his Asinus Aureus: (1) The captain Lamachus stuck his hand through a large keyhole to jimmy the door open, but Chryseros grabbed a big nail and hammered it through Lamachus' hand, pinning him to the door, and left him "nailed there like poor wretch on a crossbeam (patibulatum)" (4.10); (2) In pondering over the kind of execution to give their prisoner, a group of thieves discussed whether to burn her, throw her to beasts, or "hang her from a crossbeam (patibulo suffigi)" (4.31), so that (3) "she shall remain on the crossbeam (patibuli), while dogs and vultures drag out her innermost bowels" (4.32), but it was decided that she "should not be crucified (cruces), nor burned nor thrown to beasts" (6.31). This last text uses crux "crucifixion" interchangeably with patibulum suffigere "to hang from a crossbeam". Still later, the third-century Historia Augusta relates that when Emperor Celsus was killed by a woman named Galliena, "his image was set up on a cross (in crucem)," so that the spectators looked at as if Celsus himself was "affixed to a patibulum (patibulo adfixus)" (29.4). Finally, the Latin Vulgate translates the Hebrew terms for "gallows" and "hanging" with patibulum in Esther 2:23, 6:4 (affigi patibulo), 7:10, 9:13 (patibulis suspendantur), and 16:18.
In summary, the Latin literary evidence is quite conclusive that (1) The Roman crux compacta emerged by the late third century BC, combining the pre-existing patibulum-bearing punishment with crucifixion borrowed from the Carthaginians, and (2) the Latin word crux was used from the third century BC onward to refer to an execution stake (stipes, palus) that included a patibulum to which the victim's arms were nailed. That crossbeams were common is indicated by the use of the expression "bind/nail to a patibulum" by Tacitus, Apuleius, and the late Historia Augusta to refer to crucifixion. Any suggestion the Society may have made that crux did not mean "cross" in the first century BC or AD can easily be dismissed as without any support.
III. WHAT DID THE GREEK WORD STAUROS MEAN?
Now that we know when the two-beamed cross was invented and how it was constructed (particularly by including a beam of wood called the patibulum which the victim carries prior to execution), we can consider the Greek evidence and what words Greek writers used to refer to the Roman execution instrument.
The Society insists that the word stauros did not refer to crosses in the first century AD and merely referred to single-beamed stakes. Here are some typical statements to this effect in the literature:
"Stauros in both classical and koine Greek carries no thought of a "cross" made from two timbers. It means only an upright stake, pale, pile, or pole" (Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. 1, 1988, p. 1191).
"The inspired writers of the Christian Greek scriptures wrote in the common (koine) Greek and used the word stauros to mean the same as in the classical Greek, namely, a stake or a pole, a single one without a crossbeam of any kind or at any angle. There is no proof to the contrary" (New World Translation, 1950 edition, p. 769).
"In classical Greek, this word [stauros] meant merely an upright stake, or pale. Later it also came to be used for an execution stake having a crosspiece" (Reasoning From the Scriptures, 1987, p. 89).
Now, it is true that the etymological meaning is something like "an object which stands firm" (< Proto-Indo-European *sta-, whence our English words via Germanic, "stand", "stern", "stem"), and stauros was originally denoted a type of pointed stake used to build fences. Homer's Oddysey provides the earliest attestation of this word: "He had driven stakes (staurous) the whole length this way and that, huge stakes, set close together, which he had made by splitting an oak to the black core" (14.11). Thucydides (Historia, 4.90.2) similarly describes the building of a fence by "fixing stakes (staurous)" along a ditch, and stauros was also used with the sense of "palisade" or "piles" serving as a foundation (e.g. Herodotus, Historiarum 5.16; Thucydides, Historia 7.25.6-8). It was also used to refer to the pointed stake used in impalement (compare Seneca's description above of "the stake which they drive straight through a man until it protrudes from his throat"), though a more common term for this was skolops: e.g. "...hurl their bodies from rugged rocks or impale them with a stake (skolopsi)" (Euripides, Iphigenia Taurica,1430).
So it is certainly true that stauros meant only "stake" originally. But it would be a mistake to think that the original or most basic sense of the word is the only one that matters. A little reflection on the history of the word "car" will show why this is the case. Etymologically, "car" comes from the Latin carrus and meant "chariot". Thus in Middle English (which was when the word was borrowed into the language), we find it used to mean chariots; the 1382 Wyclif translation of Isaiah 66:16 referred to "his foure horsid carres" and the original 1611 King James Version translated 1 Esdras 5:55 as: "They gause carres that they should bring Cedar trees from Libanus". But by this time, the word was being used in a modern sense to refer to the horse-drawn "carriage"; in 1576, an Act of Queen Elizabeth referred to "Cars or Drags furnished for Repairing Highways", and a 1716 issue of the London Gazaette referred to "Carts, Drays, Carrs, and Waggons". Then it was used to refer to the part of a hot-air balloon in which aeronauts sit; in 1794, G. Adams wrote concerning "Air Balloons": "To this a sort of carr, or rather boat, was suspended from ropes", and another source from 1825 refers to an aeronaut "seated in the car of his vehicle". Finally, the term began to be used to refer to "motor cars" when they were invented, and has become almost exclusively restricted to this meaning; in 1896 L. Serraillier refered to "Farman's Auto-Cars" and in 1900, W. W. Beaumont noted: "Hill-climbing trials along would not of course be sufficient as a test of the wearing power or durability of a car".
So if a historian from the future discovered an advertisement to the latest Lexis cars, would she be justified in looking up what this word originally meant in Middle English or Latin, and conclude that Americans were still driving chariots in the 21st century? This is analogous to what the Society is claiming regarding stauros. As technology evolves, so do the meanings of the words used to refer to technological artifacts. So it is important to note what words Greek writers employed to refer to the crucifixion practices of the Persians, Greeks, and Phoenicians, and especially of the later Romans. Since we know that the Roman cross was in existence and was widely used by the late third century BC, the Greeks must have had a word for it. If stauros was the principal word used to refer to Roman crucifixion, and if no other word was commonly used to refer to the crux compacta, then we may be assured even without direct evidence that stauros began to refer to two-beamed crosses by the second century BC. Indeed, as we saw above in our historical survey, the Persian instrument of crucifixion varied considerably in shape tho the word stauros was used to refer to it (e.g. Herodotus, Historiarum 9.120; Plutarch, Artaxerxes 17.5). The actual shape of the object denoted by stauros probably did not figure very much in the word's meaning; as long as it had the function of executing people while alive on a wooden post, it was irrelevant how many beams or pieces of wood the stauros included -- it still was a stauros.
The quotes from the Society posted above only vaguely indicate that "later" the meaning of stauros changed. Thus we find ambiguous statements like: "Later it also came to be used for an execution stake having a crosspiece" (Reasoning From the Scriptures, 1987, p. 89). "...the original meanings of these words [stauros and crux] were later expanded to include the cross" (Watchtower, 15 February 1960, p. 127). But when was this "later"? Many Watchtower publications cite W. E. Vine's lexicon as stating that this occurred "by the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D." (cf. Truth that Leads to Eternal Life, 1968, pp. 142-143; Awake!, 8 May 1969, p. 4; Reasoning, pp. 90-91; Watchtower, 15 August 1987, p. 22; Insight, Vol. 1, pp. 1191; Watchtower, 1 May 1989, pp. 23-24; see Vine's An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, 1948, Vol. 1, p. 256). Additionally, the 22 March 1987 Awake! (p. 11) published an article by Nicholas Kip which implied that the meaning-shift took place in the days of Emperor Constantine (A.D. 312-337). The impression the Society gives is that stauros referred only to a crux simplex until between AD 250 and 315.
But this cannot be the case, because the word stauros referred regularly to the Roman method of crucifixion from the second century BC onward, and since the Roman cross increasingly included the patibulum, it is inconceivable that a word referring to the Roman crux would not also refer to the crux compacta that was in common use as Plautus and Seneca attest. Here are references to crucifixion in Greek writings from the second century BC to the second century AD which use the word stauros to refer to the execution instrument:
"All the baggage fell into the hands of the enemy, and Hannibal himself was made a prisoner. They [the Roman soldiers] at once took him up on the cross (stauron) on which Spendius was hanging, and after the infliction of exquisite tortures, took down the latter's body and fastened Hannibal, still living, to his cross (stauron), and then slaughtered thirty Carthaginians of high rank round the corpse of Spendius". (Polybius, Historiae 1.86.6; the author lived between 200-118 BC, this event occurred in 183 BC)
"They found the others already hanging on their crosses (staurous), and he was just mounting his cross (epi bainonta tou staurou). From far off they each shouted appeals: 'Spare him!' 'Come down!' 'Do not hurt him!' 'Let him go!' So the executioner stopped his work, and Chaereas descended from the cross (katebaine tou staurou), regretfully, for he had been glad to be leaving his miserable life and unhappy love" (Chariton, Chaereas and Callirhoe, 4.3.5-6; written in the first century BC or early first century AD).
"Many men too, who were alive, they bound by one foot, fastening them round the ankle, and thus they dragged them along and bruised them, leaping on them, designing to inflict the most barbarous of deaths upon them ... dragging them though all the alleys and lanes of the city.... The relations and friends of those who were the real victims were led away to prison, were scourged, were tortured, and after all the ill treatment which their living bodies could endure, found the cross (stauros) the end of all, and the punishment from which they could not escape" (Philo of Alexandria, In Flaccum 70-72; author lived between c. 20 BC - AD 50).
"But will you nail him to a cross (eis stauron kathélóseis) or impale him to a stake (skolopi péxeis)? What does Theodorus care whether he rots above ground or beneath?" (Plutarch, Moralia, Ad Vitiositas 499D; author lived between AD 45-125).
"While the [Roman] soldiers were cutting off his head, his tutor [the tutor of Antyllus, son of Mark Antony] contrived to steal a precious jewel which he wore about his neck, and put it in his pocket, and afterwards denied the fact, but was convicted and crucified (anestauróthé)" (Plutarch, Antonius 81.3).
"They were whipped with rods, and their bodies were torn to pieces, and were crucified (anestaurounto), while they were still alive, and breathed. They also strangled those women and their sons whom they had circumcised, as the king had appointed, hanging their sons about their necks as they were upon the crosses (anestaurómenón). And if there were any sacred book of the law found, it was destroyed, and those with whom they were found miserably perished also" (Flavius Josephus, Antiquitates Judaicae 12.256-257; author lived between c. AD 37-100, wrote c. AD 95; the narrated event took place 168 BC).
"Now it happened at this fight that a certain Jew was taken alive, who, by Titus's order, was crucified (anastaurósai) before the wall, to see whether the rest of them would be affrighted, and abate of their obstinacy" (Josephus, De Bello Judaico 5.289; the narrated event took place AD 66-70).
"Nor did he fail of his hope; for he commanded them to set up a cross (stauron), as if he were just going to hang Eleazar upon it immediately; the sight of this occasioned a sore grief among those that were in the citadel, and they groaned vehemently, and cried out that they could not bear to see him thus destroyed" (Josephus, De Bello Judaico 7.202).
"Why do you obey the order to submit to trial? For if you wish to be crucified (stauróthénai), wait and the cross (ho stauros) will come" (Epictetus, Dissertationes 2.2.20; author lived between AD 55-135)
"He was being escorted by crowds and getting his fill of glory as he gazed at the number of his admirers, not knowing, poor wretch, that men on the way to the cross (stauron) or in the grip of the executioner have many more at their heels...It is as if a man about to go up to the cross (epi stauron anabésesthai) should nurse the bruise on his finger" (Lucian, De Morte Peregrini 34.7, 45.5; author lived between AD 117-180).
"The Jews, indeed, had done much injury to the Romans, but they suffered far more themselves....These people Antony entrusted to a certain Herod to govern; but Antigonus he bound to a cross (stauroi) and flogged, a punishment no other king had suffered at the hands of the Romans, and afterwards slew him" (Cassius Dio, Historae Romanae 49.22.4-6; the author lived between AD 165-235).
"Capio's father led the second slave through the midst of the Forum with an inscription making known the reason why he was to be put to death, and afterwards crucified (anastaurosantos) him" (Cassius Dio, Historae Romanae 54.3.7-8).
None of these references give specific information on the shape of the cross but they together demonstrate that stauros was the most common word for the instrument. Since the Roman two-beamed cross (crux compacta) had come into existence by this time, and since it was not uncommon as Seneca and others show, the fact that stauros was general term referring to Roman crucifixion is strong evidence that it meant more than "stake" by the first century AD. The quotation above from Plutarch's Moralia is also interesting because it distinguishes crucifixion with the stauros from impalement with the skolops. However, stauros was not the only word that came to refer to crucifixion. The literary evidence shows that skolops, and its verbal form in particular, became roughly synonymous with stauros for some writers:
"Many of the crowd went with Theron as he was taken away; he was crucified (aneskolopisthe) in front of Callirhoe's tomb and from the cross (staurou) gazed out upon the sea" (Chariton, Chaereas and Callirhoe, 3.4.18).
"But this man did not order men who had already perished on the cross (stauron) to be taken down, but he commanded living men to be crucified (anaskolopizesthai), men to whom the very time itself gave, if not entire forgiveness, at least a brief and temporary respite from punishment" (Philo of Alexandria, In Flaccum 84).
"Now bring in the output of the courts, I mean those who died by the scourge and the cross (aneskolopismenous)" (Lucian, Cataplus 6.18-20).
"Only the ghosts of those who died by violence walk, for example, if a man hanged himself, or had his head cut off, or was crucified (aneskolopisthé)" (Lucian, Philopseudes 29).
"Temple-robbers are not punished but escape, while men who are guiltless of all wrongdoing sometimes die by crucifixion (anaskolopizomenous) or the scourge" (Lucian, Juppiter Tragoedus, 19).
Note how the first two texts use stauros to refer to the device involved in the crucifixion (anaskolopizoó). As we shall see later, Lucian elsewhere indicates that this verb can refer to crucifixion with double-beamed crosses and he indicates the same with respect to anastauroó. Since skolops also originally meant "stake", it is tempting to see only references to impalement here, but this is not necessarily so.
Literary sources from the period, in fact, do show that stauros and the verb anastauroó did indeed refer to crucifixion involving a crux compacta. Although explicit descriptions of the cross are relatively rare, references to the practice of cross-bearing in advance of execution are common in ancient sources. As we saw in the discussion above, this practice derives from the traditional Roman use of the patibulum to humiliate slaves by parading them throughout the city while carrying the wooden timber, sometimes yoked to their neck. This practice was appended to the act of crucifixion as a prelude, so that the prisoner carries his own crossbeam from which he will later be suspended from. What is interesting is that the word stauros is used in Greek sources to refer to the patibulum carried by the victim:
"Without even seeing them or listening to their defense he immediately ordered the sixteen cell-mates to be crucified (anastaurósai). They were duly brought out, chained together at foot and neck, each carrying his own cross (ton stauron ephere). The executioners added this grim spectacle to the requisite penalty as a deterrant to others so minded. Now Chaereas said nothing as he was led off with the others, but upon taking up his cross (ton stauron bastazón), Polycharmus exclaimed, 'It is your fault, Callirhoe, that we are in this mess!' " (Chariton, Chaereas and Callirhoe, 4.2.6-7; written in the first century BC to early first century AD).
"Every criminal who goes to execution must carry his own cross (ekpherei ton hautou stauron) on his back" (Plutarch, Moralia, De Sera Numinus Vindicta 554 A).
"For the cross (ho stauros) is like death and the man who is to be nailed carries it beforehand (proteron bastazei)" (Artemidorus Daldianus, Oneirocritica 2.56; written in the second century AD.
It is possible that the entire crux compacta is meant here (the upright pole plus the patibulum), but this is unlikely. Various sources indicate that the upright stake was either a stationary fixture at the site of execution or inserted into the ground in advance of the arrival of the victim (e.g. Cicero, Verrines 5.66; compare possibly Josephus, Bello Judaico 7.202). Moreover, the combined weight of both the stake and the patibulum was likely too much to bear. Finally, no Latin writer ever mentioned prisoners bearing the entire crux compacta, which suggests that we are dealing with a Greek expression, in which stauros could refer to either the patibulum or the stationary cross. In any case, it is clear that carrying a mere pole is not what is meant here (which has no precedent in Roman execution practices). For example Artemidorus, as we shall soon see, was quite explicit about the stauros being double-beamed. Note also the similarity between the quote from Chariton and the metaphorical expression in Matthew 10:38, 16:24 (of "taking" the stauros, "lifting" it, and "following" Jesus).
A few descriptions of crucifixion by Greek-speaking authors are ambiguous but likely assume a crux compacta. Epictetus (a first-century AD Stoic philosopher) described those being massaged as "stretched out (ekteinas) like men who have been crucified (estauromenoi)" (Dissertationes, 3.26.22). The phrasing here is reminiscent of the "spread-out hands" (dispessis manibus) of Plautus and the "stretched-out limbs" (membra distendere) and "outstretched hands" (extendere manus) of Seneca; in later Christian writings (see below), the expression used by Epictetus became a cliche for crucifixion on a crux compacta. Josephus also gives a detailed account of the Roman siege and attack on Jerusalem in AD 70 and mentions that the soldiers "out of rage and hatred amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures (allon allói skhémati, or "from one style to another"), and so great was their number that space could not be found for the crosses (staurois) nor crosses (stauroi) for the bodies" (De Bello Judaico 5.451-452). Since only a limited number of postures (or crucifixion styles) is possible with a crux simplex, whereas the addition of a crossbeam adds another degree of freedom in positioning the victim, the wording in this passage best reflects a situation in which the soldiers were creatively displaying their victims in many different ways (to suit their amusement), and in such a situation it would be unusual for them to restrict themselves to a plain pole without a crossbeam to help them position the bodies.
Other writers were much more explicit on the shape of the stauros. Take, for example, Artemidorus Daldianus, a pagan soothsayer who flourished in the second century AD. Sometime around AD 160, he wrote a dream interpretation manual named Oneirocritica, which as we saw above claimed that people punished with crucifixion must carry their own stauros (e.g. patibulum, as the Romans called it) prior to execution. Artemidorus also referred to the stauros as double-beamed:
"Being crucified (staurousthai) is auspicious for all seafarers. For the cross (ho stauros), like a ship, is made of wood and nails, and the ship's mast resembles a cross (hé katartios autou homoia esti stauró)" (Artemidorus Daldianus, Oneirocritica 2.53).
Just as it is today, a ship's mast consisted of a tall pole rising upward from the deck or keel intersected at right angles by the yard-arm. In fact, the Latin word for "yard-arm," namely antenna, was also used to denote the patibulum (cf. Insight, Vol. 1, p. 1191). Rock carvings from that period show that a ship's mast did indeed resemble the traditional cross (cf. the relief of a Roman ship from Sidon in Philip Carrington's The Early Christian Church, 1957, Vol. 1, p. 129). Elsewhere, Artemidorus (Oneirocritica, 1.76) mentioned that those who are "crucified" (staurothesetai) "stretch out their hands" (tón cheirón ektasin), an expression reminiscent of Epictetus, Seneca, Plautus, and other writers who make explicit reference to the patibulum.
Another writer who was explicit on the shape of the Roman cross was the satirist Lucian of Samosata who was a contemporary of Artemidorus. Strangely, the Society thinks that he supports their belief that stauros only meant "stake." The 1950 New World Translation states:
"To such a stake or pale the person to be punished was fastened, just as when the popular Greek hero Prometheus was represented as tied to a stake or stauros. The Greek word which the dramatist Aeschylus used to describe this means to fasten or fix on a pole or stake, to impale, and the Greek author Lucian used anastauroo as a synonym for that word" (p. 769).
The 1984 revision even gave a specific citation:
"It was to such a stake, or pale, that the person to be punished was fastened, just as the popular Greek hero Prometheus was represented as tied to rocks. Whereas the Greek word that the dramatist Aeschylus used to describe this simply means to tie or to fasten, the Greek author Lucian (Prometheus, I) used anastauroo as a synonym for that word" (p. 1577).
Lucian did use anastauroó to refer to the fastening of Prometheus to the rocks of the Caucasus: "Let him be crucified (anestaurosthai) half way up this precipice" (Prometheus, 1.12). But the next phrase indicates what type of cross Lucian had in mind: "...with his hands outstretched (ekpetastheis tó kheire) from crag to crag". This implies a horizontal stretching of the arms from one rock to another, a posture which "will make a very handy cross (ho stauros genoito)" (1.19). Lest there be any doubt about the matter, Lucian next describes the hands as being nailed separately with separate nails: "Come, your right hand! Clamp it down, Hephaestus, and in with the nails; bring down the hammer with a will. Now the left; make sure work of that too" (2.3-8). Clearly, then, Lucian pictured the mythological Prometheus as stretching out his hands horizontally, as if on a patibulum, with each hand nailed individually, and he uses the word stauros to refer to this configuration. One wonders how the Society could cite this text without knowing it actually disproves their claim that stauros meant only "stake".
Moreover, Lucian elsewhere explicitly described the stauros as shaped like the letter T. In his humorous essay "Trial in the Court of Vowels," the Greek letter Tau (who otherwise had an awful reputation) was found guilty of murder:
"Men weep and bewail their lot, and curse Cadmus with many curses for putting Tau into the alphabet; for they say that their tyrants, taking his body as a model (somati phasi akolouthésantas) and imitating his shape (mimésamenous autou to plasma), have fashioned similar-looking timbers (skhémati toioutói xula) to crucify (anaskolopizein) men upon them, and the vile device is even named (eponumian) after him (i.e. sTAUros). Now, with all these crimes upon him, does not Tau deserve to die many times over? As for me, I think the only just thing to do would be to punish Tau on what has been made in his own shape (tó skhemati tó hautou), for the cross (ho stauros) owes its existence to Tau, but its name to man (hupo de anthrópón onomazetai)" (Lis Consonantium, 12).
Note the use of anaskolopizoó to refer to crucifixion on a crux compacta. Some scholars, such as Sommerbrodt, excise the last sentence referring to the stauros explicitly as an explanatory gloss. But even without it, the obvious pun between "Tau" and stauros and the several references to the T-like shape of the cross prove beyond doubt that Lucian regarded the stauros as double-beamed. The Society's attempt to cite Lucian in support of their "torture stake" theory is thus exceedingly uninformed at best, or intellectually dishonest at worst.
In summary, the Society's claim that the word stauros could not refer to the crux compacta by the first (or even the second) century AD is without support. By the first century BC, stauros had become the most common word referring to Roman crucifixion, which by that time increasingly included the addition of a crossbeam (patibulum). As direct evidence of the change of meaning of stauros, we have seen that by the first century AD (if not earlier) the crossbeam itself was called a stauros in references to the patibulum-bearing punishment practiced by the Romans. Other first-century references to the stauros by Epictetus and Josephus appear to assume a shape other than a simple stake. Finally, explicit references to the shape of the stauros by Lucian and Artemidorus demonstrate without doubt that stauros was already being used to refer to the crux compacta. We have also seen that the Society even misrepresents Lucian on the matter, making him appear to support their position when in fact he demolishes it. Just as the word "car" came to refer to motorized carriages when they first came into existence, so the word stauros was most likely applied to the crux compacta when it first came into existence (which had the same purpose and function as the older crux simplex). Hence, I conclude that stauros would have naturally had the meaning of "cross" by the first century BC.
But even if the word stauros did mean "cross" in the first and second centuries AD (when the gospels were written), this does not mean that Jesus' cross was necessarily a crux compacta. This is because stauros was still being used to refer to a simple stake; it referred to crucifixion in all its forms. So whether Jesus died on a cross (or was believed by the early Christians as having died on one) is a separate issue and must be answered with biblical and patristic evidence.
IV. BIBLICAL EVIDENCE OF JESUS' CRUCIFIXION
The NT is not very explicit on the shape of Jesus' cross. Most references to it are theological in nature, and the more historically-oriented gospel accounts of Jesus crucifixion are terse and brief. Nevertheless, there are several details that taken together indicate that Jesus was indeed put to death on a crux compacta (or at least that is the kind of stauros the gospel writers had in mind). I will examine each text in turn.
(a) John 19:17
"Jesus was led away, and carrying the cross by himself (bastazón hautó ton stauron), went out to what is called the Place of the Skull".
This is the decisive text, and it is one that is almost never mentioned in discussions on the cross in Watchtower literature. But it is very important because it is an explicit reference to the Roman practice of patibulum-bearing. Note that the verb bastazón "carrying" is the same verb used by Chariton (i.e. "taking up [bastazón] his cross") and Artemidorus to refer to the same thing (i.e. "the man who is to be nailed carries [bastazei] it beforehand"), and Artemidorus was quite explicit that the same victim who carries the stauros would hang from a two-beamed stauros. The Latin sources mentioned earlier, which more clearly distinguish the patibulum from the cross by having a distinct term for each, are quite explicit that it is the crossbeam that is carried and not the stipes (upright pole). In fact, nowhere in ancient sources is a prisoner ever described as dragging a pole without a crosspiece, and such a practice would have nothing to do with the well-attested ancient Roman practice of forcing prisoners or slaves to bear a patibulum while walking through the city or a public area. The synoptic gospels also refer to cross-bearing but claim that Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus' cross. The original version in Mark 15:31 (cf. also Matthew 27:32) says that Simon lifted Jesus' cross (aré ton staurou autou), but the Lukan version has a more elaborate depiction of the event: "And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and laid on him the cross (epethékan autó ton stauron), to carry it (pherein) behind Jesus" (Luke 23:26). The verb pherein "to be bearing" was also used by Chariton and Plutarch to refer to cross-bearing, and the verb epethékan "placed upon" is especially suggestive of a patibulum placed squarely upon the victim's back (as Plutarch described it) or across his chest and shoulders (as Dionysius of Halicarnassus put it). Compare with the use of the same verb in Luke 15:5, describing a shepherd placing his lost sheep on his shoulders (epitithésin epi tous ómous)", or its use elsewhere to refer to the soldiers placing the crown of thorns on Jesus' head (Matthew 27:29, John 19:2) or the people putting their garments on a donkey so Jesus could sit on it (Matthew 21:7).
Since the Watchtower writers believe that Jesus's cross was a crux simplex, they have no choice but to surmise that it lacked the transverse beam that would have made it more carryable. The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived book (chapter 124, p. 3) in fact illustrates Simon pulling Jesus' stake by holding onto one end with both hands and dragging the pole over his right shoulder, lumberjack-style. This scenario is nothing like the stauros-bearing described by Plutarch (who described it as placed over the victim's back), and of course nothing like it can be found in ancient literature or art; no classical or ecclesiastical writer of antiquity ever described the condemned man as carrying a stipes without a crossbeam. Even the popular Christian conception of Jesus bearing the entire crux compacta over one of his shoulders appears rather late in Christian art (cf. Yves Christe's Art of the Christian World, pp. 51, 482; the earliest known representation is from c. AD 430), and is probably unhistorical. The practice that is instead attested is the carrying of the patibulum across one's shoulders or back, but the Watchtower rules out this scenario a priori by their denial that stauros could refer to a cross with a crossbeam. One of their only statements on the matter is found in the Insight book:
"Tradition, not the Scriptures, also says that the condemned man carried only the crossbeam of the cross, called the patibulum or antenna, instead of both parts. In this way some avoid the predicament of having too much weight for one man to drag or carry to Golgotha" (Insight on the Scriptures, 1988, Vol. 1, p. 1191).
Such a statement is prejudical and inaccurate. It is prejudical because religious "tradition" is elsewhere claimed to be the source of Christendom's "false doctrines"; the same publication elsewhere mentioned that tradition can often be "in error" and "harmful and objectionable" (Vol. 2, p. 1118). It is also inaccurate because religious tradition has nothing to do with what we know about patibulum-bearing. This knowledge comes from pagan Classical writings. In fact, by preferring the representation of Jesus carrying the entire cross, the traditional portrait of Jesus carrying the cross posits even more weight for Jesus or Simon to carry than the Society does. In light of the copious reference to patibulum-bearing in Plautus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Clodius Licinus, and others, it misrepresents the facts to claim that the belief that Jesus carried just the patibulum rests on the grounds that the pole was too heavy to bear.
The allusions to cross-bearing in the gospels thus furnish the strongest biblical evidence that the stauros had a crossbeam. To claim otherwise would require postulating a practice otherwise unattested in the ancient world. Of course, our knowledge of antiquity is limited, so it is always possible that somewhere Roman soldiers tried something different, but this of course is exceedingly unlikely.
(b) Matthew 27:37
This text is widely recognized as suggestive of a crux compacta. The other three gospels mention the titilus (a piece of wood nailed to the stauros stating the victim's crime, cf. Cassius Dio, Historae Romanae 54.3.7-8 quoted above), but do not precisely describe where it was placed on Jesus' cross. John 19:19 remarks that the titilus was nailed "on the stauros," Luke 23:38 says that it hung "over him [Jesus]." Mark did not even mention that it was put on the stauros. But Matthew reported the italicized detail quoted below:
"Above his head (epanó tés kephalés autou) they had put the charge against him in writing: ‘THIS IS JESUS, KING OF THE JEWS’ ".
If Jesus were impaled on a simple stake, the titilus would have been placed above his hands. J. H. Bernard observes that this statement in Matthew "suggests that the cross was of the shape called crux immissa, with a cross-bar for the arms, as painters have generally represented it to be" (A Critical & Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, 1929, Vol. 2, p. 628). Similarly, William R. Wilson's The Execution of Jesus commented: "There is no definite evidence about the shape of Jesus' cross, but it was probably a vertical stake and a crossbeam. This is indicated by the placing of the titilus over the head of Jesus, evidently along the crosspiece" (p. 167). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia makes the same observation: "The form usually seen in pictures, the crux immissa (Latin cross †), is that in which the upright beam projects above the shorter crosspiece. From the mention of an inscription nailed above the head of Jesus, it may safely be inferred that this was the form of cross on which He died" (Vol. 1, p. 826). This evidence is not as conclusive as the references to cross-bearing, but it does support the overall picture.
(c) John 20:25
Another relevant text is the famous remark attributed to Thomas to his fellow apostles:
"Unless I see in his hands (en tais khersin) the print of the nails (hélón), and place my finger in the mark of the nails (hélón), and place my hand in his side, I will not believe".
Watchtower art usually depicts a single nail piercing through Jesus' hands, whereas the plural "nails" suggests that two nails were used to affix the "hands" (plural) to the stauros; the use of a patibulum would require each hand to be nailed separately. Compare Lucian (Prometheus, 2), who describes the crucifixion of Prometheus in terms of nails being driven through each hand. The Gospel of Peter also refers to a plurality of nails piercing Jesus' hands: "And then the Jews drew the nails from the hands (apespasan tous hélous apo tón kheirón) of the Lord and laid him on the earth" (6:21). The best explanation for the wording in both texts is that the authors regarded each hand as nailed separately. Other interpretations are possible tho. It is possible that two nails pierced through each hand or through both hands together. It may be recalled that Plautus, who earlier in the same play described the patibulum-bearing punishment (Mostellaria, 55-57), described an especially severe crucifixion as one in which "are nailed twice the feet, twice the arms" (offigantur bis pedes, bis brachia). Two interpretations are possible: (1) the usual crucifixion method was to drive one nail through each hand and feet, and the unusually severe method was to drive two nails through each limb, or (2) the usual crucifixion method was to one nail through each of the hands, and the unusually severe method was to drive nails through the feet as well. The text is ambiguous, but interpreters favor the first possibility, and such a reading would attest the use of multiple nails through the hands. However, the use of two nails through Jesus' hands on a crux simplex is unlikely considering the use of the singular tupon "print, mark" in John 20:25 which presumes that only one mark would be present on each hand. Thus, the combination of the singular tupon and the plural hélón is best accounted for by presuming crucifixion on a crux compacta, so that two nails were used to pierce each hand, leaving a single mark on each hand. Moreover, we know from other sources that if additional support were required to restrain the prisoner, a combination of rope and nails was often used (cf. Pliny, Historia Naturalis 28.46).
The Society dismisses this text as "an insignificant detail" in a 1984 Watchtower "Questions From Readers" article:
"Some have concluded from John 20:25 that two nails were used, one through each hand. But does Thomas' use of the plural (nails) have to be understood as a precise description indicating that each of Jesus' hands was pierced by a separate nail? In Luke 24:39 the resurrected Jesus said: 'See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.' This suggests that Christ's feet also were nailed. Since Thomas made no mention of nailprints in Jesus' feet, his use of the plural 'nails' could have been a general reference to multiple nails used in impaling Jesus. Thus, it is just not possible at this point to state with certainty how many nails were used" (p. 31).
It is true that the description is not precise (e.g. using the plural is not as specific as explicitly stating that two nails were used for the hands) and for that reason not too much weight should be placed on this text. Yet the attempt to explain the plural in John 20:25 by appealing to Luke is unconvincing. Luke is an entirely independent gospel from John and would not necessarily assume the same common knowledge; in fact, the Lukan and Johannine post-resurrection stories diverge a great deal. Thus, there is nothing in the immediate context of John 20:25 to support the Society's interpretation. This scripture does not mention the feet, nor are they even implied. Thomas was only talking about nails used to pierce the hands. Similarly, John 20:20 says that Jesus showed his disciples "his hands and his side," but not his feet; J. H. Bernard thus notes that both "Lk. and Jn. agree that His hands were marked, and Jn. speaks of "the print of the nails" in them (v. 25); but Jn. says nothing of the feet having been nailed...no mention is made of any nailing of the feet" (pp. 674, 682). So without reading anything foreign into the text, we would naturally conclude that the nails mentioned in 20:25 are those that pierced the hands. Moreover, the Society has subsequently admitted that Thomas "could have meant a nail through each hand" (15 August 1987 Watchtower, p. 29), tho they still maintain that Jesus died on a crux simplex.
(d) John 21:18-19
The last text under consideration is the most ambiguous and does not even refer to Jesus' crucifixion but it is important because it a kind of death or execution involving a "stretching of the hands":
" 'Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands (ekteneis tas kheiras sou), and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.' This he said to show by what kind of death (poió thanató) he was to glorify God. And after this he said to him, 'Follow me' ".
As we saw above, the word ekteneis "you will stretch out" here is the same verb that Epictetus used to refer to refer to men who have been crucified (estauromenoi) (Dissertationes, 3.26.22), and Artemidorus (Oneirocritica, 1.76) mentioned that those who will be "crucified" (staurothesetai) have "outstretched hands" (tón kheirón ektasin). We have also seen similar phrases used by Lucian, Plautus, and Seneca. Since the death being described in John 21:18-19 is that of Apostle Peter, and since Christian tradition otherwise claims that Peter was crucified upside down (Acts of Peter 36-37; Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haericorum 36.12, Scorpiace 20, Adversus Marcion 4.5; Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum, 2; Origen, Commentary on Genesis, 3; Eusebius, De Theophania, 5.31, Ecclesiastical History, 2.25.5; compare Seneca, De Consolatione 20.3, which refers to upside-down crucifixions), the understated text in John 21:18-19 would appear to refer to crucifixion as involving a "stretching of the hands".
The literary form of the text however precludes such a simple explanation. There are three main interpretations of these verses. (1) Some feel that v. 19 is a gloss added by a anonymous redactor. In its original form, the saying in v. 18 "merely fortells in figurative language the helplessness of old age," but the redactor "in the glowing tradition of Peter's martyrdom" adapted the words to refer to crucifixion (Bernard, p. 709). Even if this theory turns out to be correct, the interpolation would had to have been made sometime in the second century (as v. 19 appears in all extant manuscripts), and thus it would itself constitute evidence that the phrase "stretch out the hands" was applicable to crucifixion at the time. (2) A second interpretation, favored by those who view v. 19 as original, treats the verse as a reference to Peter's crucifixion and nothing else. But this view is also inadequate. Bernard points out that the word meaning "girding" (zónumi) from v. 18 was generally used in the LXX and classical Greek to refer to the girding of clothes or armor; this word was never used "in the sense of binding a criminal, which must be supposed to be the meaning of allos zósei se if the Lord's words are taken as predicative of Peter's martyrdom" (p. 708). Another difficulty is the use of ekteneis instead of ektasis in this scripture. Whereas the latter word clearly denoted "an extension to the side," the former usually indicated "a forward extension of the arms," as in Luke 5:13: "And he stretched out his hand, and touched him". The occurrence of zónumi and ekteneis in John 21:18 conjures up the image of a helpless old man needing the assistance of an attendant to gird (zónumi) him with clothes as he stretches (ekteneis) his hands forward. The most convincing evidence that this text refers to something other than crucifixion is the order of events. As D. W. O'Connor puts it: "If there were a reference here to crucifixion, would one not expect that the ‘girding’ would be mentioned first, followed by the ‘carrying,’ and lastly by the extension of the arms?" (Peter in Rome: The Literary, Liturgical, and Archaeological Evidence, 1969, p. 62). (3) A third interpretation combines the best elements of the previous two. As suggested by Bultmann and other scholars, the text of John 21:18 may reflect an ancient proverb: "In youth man goes free where he wishes, in old age he must allow himself to be led even when he does not wish" (O'Connor, p. 62). This proverb was adapted by the author to refer to Peter's crucifixion, as Barnabas Lindars explains:
"He has put it into the second person and altered the tenses of the verbs from timeless present to past and future. He has also expanded it with symbolic detail. . . .The language is carefully chosen to preserve the picture of the helplessness of an old man" (Lindars, The Gospel of John, 1980, pp. 636-637).
This explains why zónumi and ekteneis were used instead of more appropriate words and why the order of events appears jumbled. As for the use of ekteneis, it should not be forgotten that Epictetus used it as well to refer to crucifixion, so it does not necessarily need to imply a forward extension of the hands (which would be inappropriate for execution on either a crux simplex or crux compacta). Lindars also advances an ingenious explanation of the ordering of events: "The sequence intended may be (a) stretching out the arms along the crossbeam, (b) having the arms tied to it with ropes, and (c) being hauled up on to the stake" (Lindars, p. 637). A slightly different view is expressed by G. H. C. MacGregor: "The language suggests the feebleness of an old man who must be tended by another and have the whole of life ordered for him irrespective of his own desires. But in the words ‘stretch out your hands’ there is a deeper reference to the stretching out of the victim's arms as the executioner straps him to the cross" (The Gospel of John, 1929, p. 375).
Since the epilogue to the Fourth Gospel was written in the early second century AD at the earliest, its anonymous author probably was in contact with the traditions circulating about the death of the apostles. Sources contemporary with it, such as 1 Clement (c. AD 98) and Ascension of Isaiah (late first century to early second century AD) rather vaguely suggest that Peter was martyred during the Neronian persecution of AD 64 (1 Clement 5:3-4; Ascension of Isaiah 4:2-3). Tacitus explained how numerous Christians were executed at that time: "They were fastened on crosses (crucibus adfixi), and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night" (Annals, 15.44). It is of course impossible to know whether Peter was executed on one of those crosses, or even whether he was in Rome; many scholars remain divided on this latter issue (cf. F. Lapham, Peter: The Man, The Myth, The Writings, 2003 for a discussion of the problem). What does matter however is that a tradition did exist in the second century that Peter was crucified, and since the second-century author of the epilogue connected Peter's death with a stretching-out of the hands, the most elegant explanation is that the author is making a veiled reference to this tradition here.
The Society has actually commented on this passage. In the 15 December 1971 Watchtower, the following discussion was published in the "Questions From Readers" section:
"The ancient religious historian Eusebius reports that Peter 'was crucified with his head downward, having requested of himself to suffer in this way.' However, Jesus' prophecy was not that specific. Acknowledges A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture: 'As the extension of hands is set before girding and being led away, it is difficult to discern how it must be conceived. If the order is part of the prophecy, we must suppose the prisoner lashed to the patibulum before being girded and led out to execution.'
"So, were it not for the tradition recorded by Eusebius, Jesus' statement in itself would not point to death by crucifixion or impalement. Viewing the words of John 21:18, 19 apart from tradition, we would come to the following conclusion: In his younger years Peter was able to gird himself at will for whatever duty he wanted to perform. He had the liberty to go where he wanted to go. But in later life this would change. He would have to stretch out his hands, perhaps in submission to someone else. Another man would take control of him, girding Peter (either binding him or preparing him for what was to come) and bearing him to a place where he did not want to go, evidently the place of execution. Thus Jesus' prophecy regarding Peter indeed indicated that the apostle would die a martyr's death; but the manner is not necessarily implied" (p. 768).
Unfortunately, the Society has made a rather selective use of the Catholic Commentary in this discussion (which incidentally is one of only two times the Society has made a reference to the patibulum in their literature since 1950). The author concluded from it that "Jesus' statement in itself would not point to death by crucifixion or impalement", but that is not what is implied in the book. Examine the entire context of the article's quotation from the Catholic Commentary:
"The words have some of the mysterious obscurity of prophecy. Against the liberty of Peter's younger days (girding himself and walking where he pleased) is set this mysterious future event of his old age. If the counterpart contains only two terms, namely, girding by another, as an old man is helped to dress himself, and being led to a place not naturally desired (a place of execution), the prophecy envisages a violent death only, not the mode of death by crucifixion. The extension of the hands must therefore be the term specifically corresponding to crucifixion, but as the extension of the hands is set before girding and being led away, it is difficult to discern how it must be conceived. If the order is part of the prophecy, we must suppose the prisoner lashed to the patibulum before being girded and led out to execution. J[oh]n writing after Peter's death notes that Jesus said this ‘signifying by what death he should glorify God' ".
Clearly, the editors of the Catholic Commentary believed that the phrase "stretch out the hands" in this instance referred to crucifixion. The portion quoted by the Watchtower writer was taken out of context since the issue being addressed was that of the sequence of events, not whether crucifixion was meant by the prophecy. Thus the bit about the the prisoner being lashed to the patibulum before being girded was mentioned not as a problem indicating whether crucifixion was meant or not (which is how the Society quotes it to be), but rather as a vague feature of the prophecy that can be explained in the indicated manner. The Society concludes from this passage in the Catholic Commentary that "the manner is not necessarily implied" and this echoes the statement in the Commentary that if the prophecy "contains only two terms ... the prophecy envisages a violent death only, not the mode of death by crucifixion". But the Commentary is quite clear that the addition of the third term (the extension of the hands) is what makes the manner of execution quite specific. Indeed, John 21:19 itself states that the references to girding, stretching out the hands, and being led were intended to show "what kind of death (poió thanató)" Peter was to experience. Compare John 12:32-33: " 'When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men to myself'. By these words he indicated the kind of death (poió thanató) he would die". Here, being "lifted" is the term that suggests crucifixion (i.e. being lifted up on the stauros), just as "spreading the hands" is the term in John 21 that suggests crucifixion. The literary dependance of John 21:19 on this passage, and the fact that John 12:32-33 referred to crucifixion as well, strengthens the likelihood that John 21:18-19 uses "stretch out the hands" to refer to crucifixion, and if this is the case -- crucifixion with a patibulum would be what is alluded to here.
The Society also falsely implies (in the phrase "...were it not for the tradition recorded by Eusebius...") that only Eubesius reported the tradition of Peter's crucifixion, and that this tradition is the sole basis for considering the possibility that crucifixion is meant here. Such an implication ignores (1) the copious references in Greek and Latin sources to "stretching the hands" at crucifixion and patibulum-bearing, and (2) the literary parallel to John 12:32-33, in which poió thanató also has reference to crucifixion.
The gospels thus paint a clear picture of Jesus’ crucifixion, one of Jesus stretching out his arms onto a patibulum (as later imitated by Peter), having each hand nailed to it with a separate nail, then carrying it up to Golgotha, and finally being lifted up onto the stake with the titilus placed directly over his head. John 19:17 alone demonstrates that the stauros contained a crosspiece.
EXCURSUS: THE USE OF XULON TO REFER TO JESUS' STAUROS
However, the Society does point to one piece of biblical evidence in support of their belief that Jesus' cross was a crux simplex: the use of the Greek word xulon "wood, tree" to refer to the stauros (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24). The Society argues that since the basic meaning of this word is "piece of wood" or "tree," Jesus must have died on a mere stake. This view is nowhere more confusedly stated than in an article published in the 8 April 1963 Awake! The anonymous writer remarked:
"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....If Jesus had been fastened to a cross made up of two pieces of wood and so constructed into a form, would it be described as merely a piece of wood?" (p. 28).
This argument is faulty for the same reason as the Watchtower's reasoning regarding stauros: they restrict a word's meaning to its most basic, or etymological sense, and then deny that it could have more specific meanings which vary from this "basic" sense. As we shall soon see, the word xulon most definitely referred to wooden artifacts made out of more than one piece of wood. Instead of focusing on "wood" as the critical part of the word's meaning, the author appears to have focused on "a piece of", e.g. assuming that reference to a singular piece of wood is a central part of the word's meaning. Such restriction of the word's meaning is next carried to its logical conclusion:
"But a club is merely a piece of wood and so we find the Gospel writers repeatedly using xylon when referring to clubs or pieces of wood that the mob carried that came to take Jesus....Certainly the mob that came to take Jesus did not come with crosses but with pieces of wood, clubs or staves, as xylon is variously translated in these instances" (Ibid.).
This line of reasoning again rests on the erroneous assumption that xulon was capable of only one meaning: If xulon referred to a "cross" in the case of Jesus' execution instrument, then the xulons used by the mob would have also been "crosses." Since this was not the case, xulon does not mean "cross". Another example of bad logic can be found in the same article:
"While the word xylon generally means a piece of wood, no longer living, it is at times used in the Scriptures to refer to figurative living trees.... There is a distinct word in Greek for tree, namely, dendron. From it comes the English word dendrology, the science or study of trees. Dendron occurs some twenty-five times in the Christian Greek Scriptures....This word dendron, meaning a living tree, however, is never used in Scriptures to refer to the instrument of torture to which Jesus was fastened" (Ibid.).
The reference to dendron is a conspicuous straw man. No one has ever claimed that this term meant either "cross" or "stake." The whole discussion on dendron adds nothing to our understanding of xulon, other than the fact that it was more often used to refer to living trees (which has no relevance on the issue at hand). Interestingly, the portions quoted above indicate that the Society is aware that xulon did in fact mean much more than "piece of wood" -- it had specific reference to "clubs" and "trees". Furthermore, the 1950 New World Translation appendix claimed (without citing any evidence) that a "special sense" of xulon is "an upright stake without a crossbeam" (p. 769). Despite all of this, the same 1963 article stated in its concluding paragraph (p. 28) that xulon "simply means a piece of wood and allows for no such twofold meaning"! Contradictory statements such as these demonstrate that the Society has not really done any clear thinking on the matter.
Xulon was capable of many specified meanings. In classical and koine Greek, it was used to refer to "logs" or "timbers" (Iliad, 8.507; Thucydides, Historia 7.25.2; Herodotus, Historiarum 1.186), "trees" (Xenophon, Anabasis 6.4-5), "benches" (Demosthenes, 1111.22; Aristophanes, Vespae, 90; Acharnenses, 25), "wood market" (Aristophanes, Fragmenta 402-403), and even a measurement of length (Hero, Geometrica 23.4.11). But that was not all. This word eventually "took on the sense of something disgraceful or shameful" (Kittel and Friedrich, Vol. 3, p. 37). It came to denote a wide variety of instruments of punishment, including "pillory" (Aristophanes, Nubes 592; Lysistrata, 680), "stocks" (Herodotus, Historiarum 9.37), a combination of both (Aristophanes, Equites 367, 1049), and "club" (Herodotus, Historiarum 2.63, 4.180; Plutarch, Lycurgus 30.2). Clearly the word meant more than just "a piece of wood"! Moreover, the author of the Awake! article claimed, as quoted above, that the meaning of xulon does not allow it to refer to objects "made up of two pieces of wood and so constructed into a form", yet the word clearly does refer to "benches" and other wooden artifacts that certainly were nailed together from separate pieces of wood.
The semantic range of xulon in the NT varies little from classical Greek. It was used to denote "wood materials" (1 Corinthians 3:12), "trees" (Revelation 22:19), "stocks" (Acts 16:24), and "clubs" (Matthew 26:47). But several NT writers also employed it to refer to the apparatus used in Roman crucifixions. There were apparently two reasons for this.
In pre-Republican times, the Romans sometimes punished disobedient slaves by fastening them to barren trees and scourging them to death (cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, CBQ 40: 509, 1978). Occasionally the victims were forced to bear the patibulum as well. This form of punishment was called arbor infelix or infelix lignum, and several later Latin writers used this old expression to refer to crucifixion (cf. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 1.26.10-11; Cicero, Pro Rabirio 4.13; Seneca, Epistle 101.14). As a result, the crux compacta became known as an arbor or lignum (both Latin words mean "tree"). This may have influenced the New Testament writers to use the Greek xulon to mean the same thing as stauros.
But there is a more likely explanation. Most scholars believe that the characteristic use of xulon in the NT (and in several contemporaneous Jewish writings) arose from a midrashic interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:22-23:
"If a man guilty of a capital offence is put to death and you must hang him on a tree, his body must not remain on the tree overnight; you must bury him the same day, for the one who has been hanged is accursed of God, and you must not defile the land that Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance".
This text of course does not actually refer to crucifixion. But many Jewish writers found it relevant when the Romans introduced that form of execution into Judaea, especially since it was typical Roman custom to let the body rot on the cross for several days (cf. Horace, Epistle 1.16.48; Lucan, Pharsalia 6.543). It was thus used as a guide to decide how Roman crucifixion should be understood legally. Significantly, Dead Sea Scrolls dating to the first century BC twice cited Deuteronomy 21:22-23 with reference to crucifixion practiced by the Romans or Hellenized Jews (11QT, 64:6-13; 4QpNah, 3-4:1:1-11; the latter text refers to the crucifixions by Alexander Janneus in 88 BC, compare Josephus, Antiquitae 13.14.2, Bello Judaico 1.4.5-6). Similarly, Paul applied that scripture (derived from the LXX, which uses xulon to render the Hebrew word for "tree") to the crucifixion of Jesus:
"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by being cursed for our sake, since the scripture says: 'Cursed be everyone who is hanged on a tree (xulon)'. This was done so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might include the pagans, and so that through faith we might receive the promised Spirit" (Galatians 3:13-14).
According to Max Wilcox, influence from Deuteronomy can be detected in each instance xulon is used to denote Jesus' execution instrument in the NT. Paul's discourse in Acts 13:28-30 has the appearance of being a midrash on Deuteronomy 21:22- 23 (cf. JBL, 96: 92, 1977). Moreover in the gospels, the Jews demanded Pilate to remove Jesus and the thieves from their crosses "to prevent the bodies remaining on the cross during the sabbath" (John 19:31; cf. Luke 23:50-54). All of this indicates that the Jewish perception of Roman crucifixion revolved around Deuteronomy 21:22-23. As a result, we find that xulon was used almost exclusively by Jewish writers as a synonym for stauros (cf. Josephus, Antiquitae 11.246-261; Philo, De Somniis 2.213). When we consider the broader context of xulon, it becomes clear that the expression definitely does not just mean "a piece of wood." It often denoted exactly the same thing stauros denoted: the instrument used in Roman crucifixion, composed of either one or two beams.
V. PATRISTIC EVIDENCE OF JESUS' CRUCIFIXION
The NT however is only a small sampling of the literature of the first two centuries of Christianity; writings from other early Christians claimed that Jesus' cross was a crux compacta. It should be stressed that the early church fathers and authors, like many of the writers of the OT, were strongly influenced by OT exegetical traditions. The midrashic aspect of the Passion narratives in the gospels exhibit this tendency most especially (see JD Crossan's The Cross That Spoke for a thorough examination of the literary evidence). Thus, what we have in these sources is not a self-conscious reporting of a historical event, but the interpretation of OT scripture in light of what those events were believed to have been like. This is not to deny any possibility that historical memory is involved in the selection of OT texts for consideration; it is just not knowable what extent any historical memory may be involved, and in many cases in both the gospels and in the apologists, entire events seem to have been inspired by OT statements. Nevertheless, it is instructive to see what kind of stauros the early Christians believed Jesus died upon. Did they compare his stauros to the letter Tau (= crux compacta) or the letter Iota (= crux simplex)? If the former, then they would confirm that (1) stauros did refer to double-beamed crosses at the time the NT was being written, and show that (2) the early Christians believed that Jesus' cross was a crux compacta and were highly motivated to find references to it in the OT. Listed below is a partial sampling of the relevant texts from apologists and chuch fathers up until the fifth century:
Pseudo-Barnabas (wrote in A.D. 70-79 or c. 130-135)(1) "Learn fully then, children of love, concerning all things, for Abraham, who first circumcised, did so looking forward in the spirit to Jesus, and had received the doctrines of three letters. For it (i.e. Genesis 14:14; 17:23) says, 'And Abraham circumcised from his house-hold eighteen men and three hundred' [in Greek, TIH]. What, then was the knowledge that was given to him? Notice that he first mentions the eighteen, and after a pause the three hundred. The eighteen is I (=10) and H (=8), you have Jesus (IH are the first two letters of Iésous, "Jesus"), and because the cross (ho stauros) was destined to have grace in the T (=300) he says 'and three hundred.' So he indicates Jesus in the two letters and the cross (ton stauron) in the other" (Barnabas 9:7-8).
(2) "Similarly, again, [the Spirit] describes the cross (tou staurou) in ... Moses (i.e. Exodus 17:8-12), when Israel was warred upon by strangers, and in order to remind those who were warred upon that they were delivered to death by reason of their sins, the Spirit speaks to the heart of Moses to make a representation of the cross (tupon stauron), and of him who should suffer, because, he says, unless they put their trust in him, they shall suffer war for ever. Moses therefore placed one shield upon another in the midst of the fight, and standing there raised above them all kept stretching out his hands (exeteinen tas kheiras), and so Israel began to be victorious: then, whenever he let them drop they began to perish" (Barnabas 12:1-2).
(3) "And again he [the Spirit] says in another Prophet (i.e. Isaiah 65:2), 'I stretched out my hands (exepetasa tas kheiras) the whole day to a disobedient people and one that refuses my righteous way'. Again Moses makes a symbol of Jesus (tupon tou Iésou)" (Barnabas 12:4-5).
Justin Martyr (wrote in A.D. 148-161)(4) "How the Christ after his birth was to live hidden from other men until he grew to manhood, as also happened, hear the predictions that refer to this. There is this: 'A child is born to us, and a young man is given to us, and the government will be upon his shoulders' testifying the power of the stauros, which when crucified he took upon his shoulders, as will be shown more clearly as the argument proceeds. Again the same prophet Isaiah, inspired by the prophetic Spirit, said: 'I have stretched out my hands over a disobedient and contradicting people'... But Jesus Christ stretched out his hands when he was crucified by the Jews, who contradicted him and denied that he was Christ" (1 Apology, 35).
(5) "But never was the crucifixion imitated in the case of any of the so-called sons of Zeus; for they did not understand it since, as has been explained, everything said about it was expressed symbolically. Yet, as the prophet predicted, the stauros is the greatest symbol of his power and authority, as [can be] shown from things you can see. Reflect on all things in the universe [and consider] whether they could be governed or held together without this figure. For the sea cannot be traversed unless the sign of victory, which is called a sail, remain fast in the ship; the land is not plowed without it; similarly, diggers and mechanics do not do their work except with tools of this form. The human figure differs from the irrational animals precisely in this, that man stands erect and can stretch out his hands, and has on his face, stretched out from the forehead, what is called the nose, through which goes breath for the living creature, and this exhibits precisely the figure of a stauros" (1 Apology, 55).
(6) "In the discussion of the nature of the Son of God in Plato’s Timaeus, when he says, "He placed him like an X in the universe," this was similarly borrowed from Moses. For it is recorded in the writings of Moses that . . . Moses took brass and made the form of the stauros ....Plato, reading this and not clearly understanding, not realizing that it was the form of the stauros, but thinking it was [the letter] Chi, said that the Power next to God was placed X-wise in the universe" (1 Apology, 60).
(7) "Moses himself, stretching out both hands, prayed to God for help. Now, Hur and Aaron help up his hands all day long, lest he should become tired and let them drop to his sides. For, if Moses relaxed from that figure, which was a figure of the stauros, the people were defeated (as Moses himself testifies), but as long as he remained in that position Amalek was defeated, and the strong derived their strength from the stauros. . . .while the name of Jesus was at the battle front [in Joshua], Moses formed the sign of the stauros" (Dialogue With Trypho, 90).
(8) "Furthermore, God indicated in yet another way the power of the mystery of the stauros when He said through Moses, in the blessing pronounced over Joseph (i.e. Deuteronomy 33:13, 17): '...His beauty is as of a firstling of a bullock, and his horns are the horns of a rhinoceros; with them shall he push the nations even to the ends of the earth'. Now, no one can assert or prove that the horns of a rhinoceros represent any other matter or figure than that of the cross. The one beam of the stauros stands upright, from which the upper part if lifted up like a horn when a crossbeam is fitted on, and the ends of the crosspiece resemble horns joined to that one horn. And the part which is fixed in the middle of the cross, on which the bodies of the crucified are supported, also projects like a horn, and it, too, looks like a horn when it is shaped and joined to the other horns. (Dialogue, 91)
Irenaeus (wrote in A.D. 177-200)(9) "So by the obedience, whereby He obeyed unto death, hanging on the tree, He undid the old disobedience wrought in the tree. And because He is Himself the Word of God Almighty, who in invisible form pervades us universally in the whole world, and encompasses both its length and breadth and height and depth (i.e. Ephesians 3:17, 18), for by God’s Word everything is administered, the Son of God was also crucified in these, imprinted in the form of a cross on the universe" (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 34).
(10) "...and He too frees us from Amalek by stretching forth of is hands" (Ibid., 36).
(11) "But the words whose government is set upon his shoulders mean allegorically the cross, on which he held his back when he was crucified" (Ibid., 56).
(12) "And again, concerning his cross, Isaiah says as follows: I have stretched forth my hands all the day to a stubborn and contrary people; for this is a figure of the cross" (Ibid., 79). Tertullian (wrote between A.D. 190-220)(13) "You hang Christians on crosses (crucibus) and stakes (stipitibus); what idol is there but is first moulded in clay, hung on a cross and stake (cruci et stipiti)? It is on a patibulum that the body of your god is first dedicated" (Apologeticus, 12.3).
(14) "It was certainly not intended to be a rhinoceros with one horn or a minotaur with two horns: rather in him Christ was indicated, a bullock according to both accounts, to some people stern as a judge, to others kind as a saviour, whose horns were to be extremities of the cross. For in a yardarm (antenna), which is part of a cross (quae crucis pars est), the extreme ends are called horns, while the unicorn is the upright middle post (medius stipitis palus)" (Adversus Marcionum, 3.18.3-4).
(15) "And again, why did Moses on that occasion only when Joshua was warring against Amalek, pray sitting and with outstretched hands (expansis manibus)? ...Evidently because on that occasion, ...the form of the cross (crucis) was essential" (Ibid., 3.18.6).
(16) "For this same letter TAU of the Greeks, which is our T, has the appearance of the cross (crucis)" (Ibid., 3.23.6)
(17) "If you want to be the Lord’s disciple, you must take up your cross and follow the Lord, that is, you must take up your straits and your tortures or at least your body, which is like a cross" (De Idolatria, 12).
Minucius Felix (wrote around A.D. 200)(18) "Crosses again we neither worship nor set our hopes on. You who consecrate gods of wood very possibly adore wooden crosses as being portions of your gods. For what are your standards, and banners, and ensigns but gilded and decorated crosses? Your trophies of victory show not only the figure of a simple cross (simplicis crucis), but also of one crucified. Quite true we see the sign of the cross naturally figured in a ship riding the swelling seas, or impelled by outspread oars; a crossbeam (iugum) set up forms the sign of the cross; and so too does a man with outstretched hands (homo porrectis manibus) devoutly offering worship to God. In this way the system of nature leans on the sign of the cross or your religion is shaped thereby" (Octavius, 29.6).
Clement of Alexandria (lived in c. A.D. 150-215)(19) "The very man who ... was bound by corruption, was shown to be free again, through his outstretched hands" (Exhortation to the Greeks, 11).
Firmicus (wrote in A.D. 346)(20) "What are those horns which he boasts he possesses? ....The horns signify nothing else but the worshipful sign of the cross. By one "horn" of this sign, the one which is elongated and vertical, the universe is held up and the earth held fast; and by the juncture of the two horns which go off sidewise the East is touched and the West supported....You, O Christ, with you outstretched arms support the universe and the earth and the kingdom of heaven....To conquer Amalek, Moses stretched out his arms and imitated these horns" (Error of the Pagan Religions, 21.3-6).
Rufinus (wrote in c. A.D. 404)(21) "These words, the height and breadth and depth, are a description of the cross. The portion of it which is fixed in the earth he called depth. By height he meant the part which stretches above the earth and towers upwards, by breadth the parts which extend outwards to the right hand and the left....His [Christ’s] outstretched hands, moreover, according to the inspired prophet, he held out all day long to the people who were on the earth, testifying to the unbelievers and welcoming believers" (Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, 14).
Jerome (lived in A.D. 347-420)(22) " 'All the day I stretched out my hand to a people unbelieving and contradicting.' The hands of the Lord lifted up to heaven were not begging for help, but were sheltering us, his miserable creatures" (Homily, 68).
(23) "What do the indignant say? 'It might have been sold for three hundred denarii', for he who was to be anointed with this perfume was crucified. We read in Genesis that the ark that Noah built was three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high. Notice the mystical significance of the numbers. . . .Three hundred contains the symbol of the crucifixion. The letter T is the sign for three hundred" (Homily, 84).
Augustine (wrote in A.D. 412-414)(24) "So, 'being rooted and grounded in love,' we may be able 'to comprehend with all the saints what is the breath and length and height and depth,' that is, the cross of the Lord. Its breadth is signified by the transverse beam on which the hands are extended; the length from the ground of that cross-bar is where the whole body from the hands down is fastened; the height, from the cross-bar up to the top which is near the head; the depth is that part which is concealed, driven into the earth. (De Doctrina Christiana, 2.41).
(25) "The figure of the cross appears in this mystery. For, he who died because he willed, died as he willed. Not without reason, therefore, did he choose this kind of death, nor would he have chosen it, except that in it He stood out as the master of this breadth and length and height and depth. For, there is breadth in that crossbeam which is fastened above; this refers to the good works because the hands are stretched there. There is length in the visible part of the beam which stretches from that one down to the earth....The height is in that part of the cross which extends above the traverse beam, and is left to point upward, that is, at the head of the crucified....And now, indeed, that part of the beam which does not appear, which is buried and hidden, from which the whole rises upward, signifies the depth of that freely given grace" (Epistle, 26).
Examples such as these show that the tradition of the cross was not an invention from the time of Constantine, as suggested by the Society. Christians as early as the author of Barnabas, drawing on a reservoir of OT interpretation and typology, described Jesus' stauros as two-beamed. The fact that the cross is a basic shape of nature and human technology faciliated the mystical use of the cruciform symbology and the discovery of this shape throughout the everyday world. It is important to recall that these traditions did not start out seeking significance for the shape of a crux simplex; from the beginning, it was the crux compacta (later, the crux immissa in particular with the emphasis on four parts) that corresponded to OT motifs linked to Jesus' cross via midrashic exegesis.
We may supplement these references from "orthodox" sources with the following statements drawn from pseudepigraphal and apocryphal writings from the period:
Odes of Solomon (late first century-early second century A.D.)(29) "I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord. For the expansion of my hands is his sign. And my extension is the upright cross" (Ode 27:1-3).
(30) "I stretched out my hands towards the Lord, and towards the Most High I raised my voice" (Ode 37:1).
(31) "I extended my hands and approached my Lord, for my extension is the common cross, that was lifted up on the way of the Righteous One" (Ode 42:1-2).
Sibylline Oracles (second century A.D.)(32) "O wood, O most blessed, on which God was stretched out; earth will not contain you, but you will see heaven as home when your fiery eye, O God, flashes like lightning" (SibOr 6.26-28).
(33) "Moses prefigured him (i.e. Jesus), stretching out his holy arms, conquering Amalek by faith so that people might know that he is elect and precious with God his father" (SibOr 8.251-253).
(34) "He will stretch out his hands and measure the entire world. . . .First, then, the Lord was clearly seem by his own, incarnate as he was before, and he will show in hands in feet four marks fixed in his limbs, east and west and south and north" (SibOr 8.302, 318-321)
Acts of Peter (late second century A.D.)(35) "For you should come up to the cross of Christ, who is the Word stretched out....So that the Word is this upright tree on which I am crucified; but the sound is the cross-piece, the nature of man; and the nail that holds the cross-piece to the upright in the middle is the conversion (or turning point) and repentance of man" (38).
Acts of Andrew (third century A.D.)(36) "Hail, o cross (ho staure), be glad indeed!...And one part of you stretches up to heaven so that you may point out the heavenly logos, the head of all things. Another part of you is stretched out to right and left (to de sou héplótai dexiai kai aristerai) that you may put to flight the fearful and inimical power and draw the cosmos into unity. And and another part of you is set on the earth, rooted in the depths" (14:3-11).
It is striking that not once did a Christian writer seek OT parallels or real-life symbolism for the figure of the crux simplex, or find mystical meaning in the letter Iota rather than Tau as a sign of the stauros. Since this practice goes back to the early second century AD at the very latest, it is clearly not due to influence by Constantine centuries later (who, incidentally promoted a Chi cross, derived from the first letter in Khristos). The evidence from Barnabas also suggests that speculation on the cross goes back to the time of the composition of the gospel Passion narratives themselves, for as JD Crossan and Helmut Koester show, Barnabas often preserves a use of OT exegetical traditions in a more primative form than in the polished gospels. If nothing else, the early evidence from Barnabas and Justin Martyr prove yet again that stauros did indeed refer to the double-beamed crux compacta. As far as I can tell, the Society has only once ever discussed the value of the patristic evidence. The 22 November 1976 Awake! states:
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. He was born more than eighty years after Jesus' death, and was not an eyewitness of that event. It is believed that in describing the "cross" Justin followed an earlier writing known as the "Letter of Barnabas." This non-Biblical letter claims that the Bible describes Abraham as having circumcised three hundred and eighteen men of his household. Then it derives special significance from a Greek-letter cipher for 318, namely, IHT. The writer of this apocryphal work claims that IH represents the first two letters of "Jesus" in Greek. The T is viewed as the shape of Jesus' death stake.
Concerning this passage, M'Clintock and Strong's Cyclopaedia states: "The writer evidently was unacquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures, and has [also] committed the blunder of supposing that Abraham was familiar with the Greek alphabet some centuries before it existed." A translator into English of this "Letter of Barnabas" points out that it contains "numerous inaccuracies," "absurd and trifling interpretations of Scripture," and "many silly vaunts of superior knowledge in which its writer indulges." Would you depend on such a writer, or persons who followed him, to provide accurate information about the stake on which Jesus died? (p. 27).
The main objection here is that Justin Martyr and the author of Barnabas were not "inspired by God", and a good deal of space is devoted to attacking the credibility of Barnabas. Since inspiration is not an objective criterion that can be critically assessed, it really has no place in evaluating the historical accuracy and linguistic merit of certain writings. Perhaps it might have subjective weight for a believer in Bible inerrency, but again since the claim that Jesus died on a crux compacta contradicts nothing in Scripture (and indeed, is most consistent with it), it is difficult to see how even this argument has any subjective value. Indeed, the Society has no problem in citing "uninspired" historians such as Tacitus and Josephus to prove biblical accuracy (cf. Is the Bible Really the Word of God, 1969, p. 63; Reasoning, pp. 209-210; Greatest Man, introduction, pp. 2-3). The article "Benefiting From History" published in the 8 April 1974 Awake!, in fact, admitted that it was fallacious to reject pertinent evidence merely "because of the uncertainties regarding some of the material presented by the ancient writers." In fact, the author went on to say that "even when the ancient writings are obviously pocked with bias and personal loyalties, certain descriptive material and circumstantial evidence may be correct and quite valuable. Rather than giving up on history and pitching it all aside as useless, one needs to develop that important quality -- discernment" (pp. 24-25).
Furthermore, there is hardly any evidence suggesting a literary dependence between Barnabas and Justin’s apologetical works. Although some of the types mentioned by the author of Barnabas and Justin are the same, the two discussed by the Society (the "horn" and "circumcision" types) are unique to their respective authors. When compared with the narrative gospels, it is clear that these writers were working with a reservoir of exegetical traditions and independently used them in similar, and sometimes in different, ways. Also, the Society dismisses the merit of patristic evidence because it indulges in "silly" typological interpretation. But this is an unfair criticism. Typology was a vital element of the Zeitgeist of early Christianity and was freely used by first-century Christian writers (see Galatians 4:21-26; 1 Peter 3:20-21; 1 Clement 12:7-8), and it is not unusual at all that Christians examined the OT for prophetic references to the cross just as they did for almost every other aspect of Jesus' life. It is also rather odd that the Society would criticize Barnabas for interpreting the Scriptures in this manner since it has historically made excessive use of typology in its most arbitrary form. What the Society does not provide is an explanation why Christians as early as the 130s were fully convinced that Jesus died on a crux compacta. If this is a false tradition, how did come into existence so soon after the composition of the gospels. If the gospel of John was written in the 90s, as the Society believes, how is it that less than 40 years later the word stauros was used with clear reference to a cross with a crossbeam? Did the meaning suddenly change right after the gospels were written, or did the word have that meaning all along (i.e. since the first century BC)? These are questions the Society would prefer to avoid.
VI. ARTISTIC EVIDENCE OF JESUS' CRUCIFIXION
One last piece of evidence needs to be considered. The only unambiguous representation of the Crucifixion from before the time of Constantine was found inside the Paedagogium, on the slopes of Palatine Hill in Rome. In 1856 R. Garrucci examined the walls of this building (thought to be a prison for slaves), and discovered a caricature of the crucified Jesus. 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). The graffito is depicted below:
The artist wrote the following inscription below the drawings: "ALEXAMENOS SEBETE THEON," which can be translated as either "Alexamenos worships his god" or the vocative "Alexamenos, worship god."
There can be little doubt that this blasphemous graffito was scrawled on the wall to poke fun at early Christianity. 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).
The Palatine graffito is thought to date back to the reign of Emperor Marcus between AD 161-180, but some have dated it as late as Alexander Severus, A.D. 222-235. It could be argued on the basis of these dates that the caricature is too late to really prove anything, and indeed it is unlikely that such a depiction goes back to any genuine historical memory, but it does reflect what the pagan cariacturist would have learned from the Christians he was in contact with, and it attests the tradition that Jesus was crucified on a two-beamed cross.
Again, as I mentioned at the outset, the issue of what device Jesus was crucified on is only a big deal because the Society has made it a big deal; for most Christians, the only important thing is the fact that Jesus gave his life, and for historians, the issue is only a passing curiosity. Since the Society has made it a big deal and over the years published a great deal on the matter, it is a concern worthy of investigation (and a matter like this can only be investigated in the thorough manner pursued here) -- if only to see whether the Society has approached the issue with intellectual integrity and competence.
Unfortunately for the Society, they have performed very poorly in representing the evidence and supporting their claims. When they do discuss the relevant evidence, the articles are always much too brief and generally oversimplify the issue. Often they are little more than collections of quotes from other sources, such as W. E. Vine's lexicon (which is used simply as a proof-text, despite its obvious inaccuracy). The eyeopening statements found in Classical and patristic literature are consistently ignored, as well as the clues provided by the Bible itself. There is no reason for the Society to be unacquainted with this evidence; it is discussed in most major lexicons, biblical and classical encyclopedias, and commentaries.... works that are most definitely included in the vast Bethel library. If ever such evidence is mentioned, the Society always finds a reason to minimize or explain away facts inconvenient to its theory. But most serious of all is the dishonest or thoroughly inept manner in which the Society has cited the ancient writers Lucian and Livy.
The real reason why the Society holds such an implausible theory is because it justifies their opinion that the cross symbol has no place in Christianity. It is no secret that Watchtower founder Charles T. Russell and his followers esteemed the cross as a symbol of Christ's redemption of mankind from sin, publishing the cross-and-crown image (a symbol of the Millennial Kingdom) on Watchtower covers and wearing it as a clothing pin. Carey W. Barber, later a member of the Governing Body, described the pin: "It was a badge really, with a wreath of laurel leaves as the border and within the wreath was a crown with a cross running through it on an angle. It looked quite attractive and was our idea of what it meant to take up our ‘cross’ and follow Christ Jesus in order to be able to wear the crown of victory in due time" (1975 Yearbook, p. 148).
However, the Society's next president JF Rutherford did not think it was so "attractive". He perceived the cross as nothing more than a pagan symbol, as a long-time Witness recalled: "This to Brother Rutherford's mind was Babylonish and should be discontinued. He told us that when we went to the people's homes and began to talk, that was the witness in itself" (Ibid.). It took Rutherford eight years to purge the Bible Students of the cross. His first move against it occurred in 1928, when he instructed his followers at a Detroit convention to discard the "objectionable" and "unnecessary" jewelry. Then in 1931 the emblem was removed from the Watchtower covers. At that point the cross symbol became non-biblical, non-Christian, and ungodly -- and was relegated to the forbidden trappings of Satan's organization.
The Witnesses however still believed that Jesus was executed on a traditional cross. No doubt Rutherford was uncomfortable about this, because this fact seemed to still legitimize the cross as a Christian symbol, and thus he saw the need to revise his assumptions about the Passion. Therefore, without much fanfare, he presented his new view in the book Riches. On page 27, he wrote: "Jesus was crucified, not on a cross of wood, such as exhibited in many images and pictures, and which images are made and exhibited by men; Jesus was crucified by nailing his body to a tree". It seems that Rutherford saw nothing wrong (as does the Society today) with using the word "crucify" to denote impalement. Therefore, according to the Society's own account, scholarship really had nothing to do with its adoption of the "torture stake" theory. It was entirely motivated by theological reasons long ago, yet it remains in vogue today because it offers a means of setting the JWs apart from other Christians as different and because the image of Jesus "impaled" on a single timber, expressed frequently through the Art Department, is so ingrained in the minds of most JWs. It is also possible that the Society has not a clue how weak and unsupported their position is on the matter.