What Was the Form of the Cross on Which Jesus Died?

By Irvin Himmel

The Bible says of Jesus, “And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: Where they crucified him…” (John 19:17,18).

Members of a modern sect called “Jehovah’s Witnesses” contend that Jesus was not nailed to a cross and was not crucified. Their New World Translation reads as follows: “And, bearing the torture stake for himself, he went out to the so-called ‘Skull Place’, which is called ‘Golgotha’ in Hebrew, and there they impaled him…” (John 19:17,18).

Arguing that the Greek word stauroo does not mean to “crucify” but to “impale,” they insist that Jesus was nailed to a single beam or pole, not to a cross. They maintain that stauros means an “upright stake,” not a “cross” formed by the using of two pieces of timber. In the appendix to their translation they discuss this matter and give a picture taken from a sixteenth century Roman Catholic publication which shows Jesus nailed to a straight pole. The Witnesses say the idea of the cross dates back to about 312 A.D. and was borrowed from paganism by Constantine. They speak of the cross as “the symbol falsely used to represent Christianity” and coming from “the erroneous idea that Jesus Christ was put to death on a post with a crossarm” (“Make Sure of All Things, ” p.83).

Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon defines stauros as “an upright stake, esp. a pointed one . . . a cross . . .” The Analytical Greek Lexicon says it means “a stake: a cross.” Both these lexicons include “to crucify” among their definitions of stauroo.

Gerhard Friedrich’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines stauros as it was used in the New Testament world: “an instrument of torture for serious offences . . . In shape we find three basic forms. The cross was a vertical, pointed stake . . . , or it consisted of two intersecting beams of equal length.” Then it defines the word as used in the New Testament: “The cross which the Romans set up to execute Jesus was like any other, consisting of an upright post with a cross-beam” I Vol. 7, pp. 572, 574).

Justin Martyr wrote about the cross of Christ in the second century. He said, “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” (Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, Chap. XCI, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 244). This was long before the time of Constantine.

If the cross is a pagan symbol, Russell and Rutherford, leaders in the movement known today as “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” must have been strongly tainted with paganism.

In 1886 the first volume of Charles T. Russell’s Millennial Dawn was published. It includes a foldout “Chart of the Ages” on which a cross (shaped like a dagger) marked the death of Christ. The same kind of symbol was used on charts in volume three of the Millennial Dawn in 1891.

J F Rutherford’s Harp of God was published in 1921. On page 114 it gives a picture of Christ paying the ransom on the cross. The full-page illustration depicts Jesus suspended with hands nailed to the crossbeam and an inscription nailed to the center post which extends above the crossbeam. In this same book Rutherford wrote, “Jesus was led away and crucified on Calvary’s hill. And Pilate, more righteous than the clerics, posted over his cross the sign: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’ “(p.135).

According to Rutherford (in 1926), Jesus “was cruelly nailed to the cross” (Deliverance, p. 148). In 1927 he declared in a book called Creation that “Jests was crucified” t p. 160) and “died on the cross” (p. 183). He said in 1928, “The death of Jesus upon the cross or tree removed that curse from the Jews,” referring to Dent. 21:23 (Government, p. 110).

But presto! By 1937 Rutherford was saying “Jesus was not crucified on a cross” (Enemies, p.187). The book in which he makes this dogmatic assertion gives an illustration depicting Jesus suspended on a pole without a crossbeam.

It makes no difference to me whether Jesus died on a single pole, a cross shaped like an X, or a cross shaped like a T, or a cross shaped more like a dagger. It does seem a bit ridiculous, however, for people to assert that the instrument on which He died had to be of a specific form. This kind of dogmatism is no more than the expression of human opinion.

The words used in Greek could apply to a single stake or to a cross. It is enough for me that Jesus died for our sins. Whether one beam was used, or two beams were joined to form a cross, only men who want to speak where the Bible is silent will make bold and unfounded assertions that it could not have been of the traditionally accepted form, or it had to be of thus and such shape. Beware of religious leaders who claim to be wise above that which is written.

Truth Magazine XXI: 35, p. 546
September 8, 1977