Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Greek word translated as “cross” in the New Testament, stauros, actually means “upright stake” or, in their words, “torture stake.” They claim that Jesus was nailed through both wrists on a large vertical stake without a crossbeam (pictured right). They even go so far as to claim, “True Christians do not use the cross in worship.”[0]

Oddly enough, this belief was not present in the earliest doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their second president, Joseph Rutherford, taught, “The cross of Christ is the greatest pivotal truth of the divine arrangement, from which radiate the hopes of men.”[1] It was not until the late 1930s that Rutherford changed the Witnesses’ position on this issue.

Now, when it comes to disagreements Catholics have with the Witnesses, this is a minor one. But it is still important to address the Witnesses’ arguments related to this issue. If they are able to convince people to abandon the cross, it becomes easier to convince them to abandon the Christian faith that embraces the cross.
Evidence for a Stake?

In the article cited above, the Witnesses make the claim that stauros means only a stake and never means two pieces of timber joined into a cross. They also say that in other passages (e.g., Acts 5:30, Galatians 3:13, 1 Peter 2:24) the Greek word xulonthat is used means simply “timber.” Finally, the Witnesses point out that in Galatians 3:13 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 21:22-23 (“Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree”) in reference to Christ’s death. They say this shows Jesus wasn’t hung on a cross, because the passage in Deuteronomy refers to hanging from trees, not crosses.
But these arguments fail to prove their conclusion.

First, stauros can mean upright stake, but that is not the word’s only meaning. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary says of a stauros:
In shape we find three basic forms. The cross was a vertical, pointed stake (skolops, 409, 4 ff.), or it consisted of an upright with a cross-beam above it (T,crux commissa), or it consisted of two intersecting beams of equal length (†, crux immissa).[2]

The first-century Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger described crucifixions in a variety of ways. He writes:
I see before me crosses not all alike, but differently made by different peoples: some hang a man head downwards, some force a stick upwards through his groin, some stretch out his arms on a forked gibbet (emphasis added).[3] In regards to xulon, according to Strong’s Concordance (3586), a xulon can refer to anything made from wood, be it a stake, a tree, or a cross. So its use in Paul’s citation of Deuteronomy 21:22-23 does not rule out Jesus being executed on a cross. Paul is simply using this verse to foreshadow Christ’s death, not to explicitly describe it.

In fact, the Witnesses’ argument disproves their own view that a wooden stake was used, because Deuteronomy 21:22-23 more naturally refers to hanging someone from a literal tree (or in Hebrew an ‘ets), not a stake.[4] If the Witnesses can say Paul was using the tree language as a foreshadowing of a stake, then Christians can use the same argument for a foreshadowing of the cross upon which Jesus really died. A tree actually has more in common with a cross than a stake, because most trees have branches.

Finally, just because something is described as a stake or a pole does not mean it is a single, vertical shaft. For example, we refer to the thing that holds up power lines as a utility pole, even though it is usually fashioned in the shape of a cross.

Evidence for the Cross

So why think Jesus was crucified on a cross and not a stake?
First, if a stake were used instead of a cross, then only one nail would have been driven through Jesus’ overlapping wrists (once again, see the above picture). But this doesn’t explain why John 20:25 refers to the nails that were used to affix Jesus to the cross. This means that Jesus’ arms were stretched out on a cross and one nail was driven through each arm, not one nail through both arms on a stake.

In addition, Matthew 27:37 says, “[O]ver his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews.’” But if Jesus were crucified on a stake, then the sign would be placed directly above his hands, not his head.

We also have evidence that the early Christians believed Jesus was crucified on a cross, not a stake. In the year A.D. 100, the epistle of Barnabas described how Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross were similar to Moses’ outstretched arms in a battle with the Amalekites.[5] The second-century apologist Justin Martyr eloquently described the crossbeams used to crucify Jesus.[6] In the third century, Tertullian said that Christians used the Greek letter tau, or “T,” as a sign of the cross.[7] Biblical scholar Larry Hurtado has even shown how Christian writers in the second century combined the Greek letters for T and R in order to create a symbol that represented the crucifixion called a staurogram.[8] In the image below you can see how the letters model a figure with his arms outstretched on a cross.
staurogram

Additionally, an ancient drawing called the Alexamanos graffito shows a Roman soldier worshipping a man with a donkey head being crucified.
AlexGraffito.svg_
It has been dated to the early third century and was probably intended to mock Christians who worshipped a victim of crucifixion. The caption reads, “Alexamanos worships [his] God.” Tertullian references such parodies in his own writings.[9]

To summarize, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have no evidence that the passages in Scripture concerning the cross must refer to a stake. They also cannot account for the abundant evidence among the early Christians who believed that Jesus was executed on a cross and not a stake.

23 Comments

  • […] Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Greek word translated as “cross” in the New Testament, stauros, actually means “upright stake” or, in their words, “torture stake.” They claim that  […]

  • Theresa says:

    One Jehovah a Witness I know always referred to Jesus being crucified on a stick.

  • chris says:

    I saw an article about our beloved Pope that he was preaching that it is dangerous to have a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus (http://joecruzmn.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/pope-francis-says-having-a-personal-relationship-with-jesus-is-dangerous-false-prophet-utters-false-words/). I wish to be enlightened about this statement of the Holy Father, since my understanding is the fact that we pray we are actually personally talking to God. Or other people interpret plainly that single sentence/phrase that the holy Father said, because when taken by itself it would mean negative as in not to have a relationship with Christ? In my view the Pope Francis simply wanted to say that all of us belongs to the church including Christ. So how would you have a relationship with Christ if you don’t belong to the community that he is with. Am I correct with that?
    Thank you very much

    • Eric E says:

      Wow, I read your link. They didn’t just take that sentence out of context, they chose a few words and took them out of the context of that very sentence! In the quote they use on the website, Pope Francis said, “[some] think they can have a personal, direct, immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside of the communion and the mediation of the Church. Such temptations are dangerous and harmful. They are, in the words of the great Pope Paul VI, absurd dichotomies.” He’s saying that one cannot have a relationship with Christ if one is separated from the Body of Christ (that is, the Church, according to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12). Makes sense, right? Furthermore, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangeli Gaudium, Pope Francis states, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.”

  • Peggy slough says:

    I had Two women chastise me for my crucifix in my house

  • B. Repolt says:

    Excellent article, thank you. Another point of interest involves Thomas, as recorded in John 20:25, who stated “Unless I see in his hands [plural] the print of the nails and stick my finger into the print of the nails and stick my hand into his side, I will certainly not believe”. That the resurrected Jesus had a nail hole in both hands provides strong, if not irrefutable, evidence that Jesus was nailed to a cross, not a stake.
    Thus, the illustration found in the JW book “What does the Bible Really Teach”, page 52, showing Jesus nailed to a stake, by a single nail through the wrists, is incorrect on two counts: the use of a stake & nailed through the wrists.

  • An ex-JW, here. I love this articles that EXPLAIN the inaccurate views of the WTS. Thankfully, God brought me out of “Egypt” (JWs) 30 yrs. ago. I applaud you for explaining the truth of the cross, and what it means to TRUE Christians!

  • RX says:

    THEY ARE PROTESTANT.. THEY ARE ANTI-CATHOLIC PROPHECY..

  • Ogni Momento says:

    Forgive me if I am wrong…Aren’t JW the same that thing that Jesus was really ArchAngel Michael. If that is true. Nothing more needs to be said.

  • Saida Isir says:

    Read Deuteronomy 21:22 “Criminals killed and hanged on a tree. The Bible always match old to new testament Galatians 3:13. but your bible says cross someone removed all stake or tree change to cross that is problems.

    • Eric says:

      What kind of tree has no branches? The form of Roman crucifixion is historically undeniable.

      • Saida Isir says:

        I am so sorry 🙂 my mom took over and commented with my account 😛

      • George says:

        Jesus would use illustrations about the Father being greater then the son, being older and also being wiser. As far as a utility pole or tree having limbs those are not that great as far as illustrations to try to prove your point of the cross. Romans used stakes not crosses. They would have them moved, Jesus did not move a utility pole or a tree, he dragged a pole or stake.

  • Keith Weatehrly says:

    I think many are missing the point. It is not the shape of the cross that is important. It is, however, the fact that Christ died on the cross, shedding His blood as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. That is exactly what I tell my J.W. friends as I remind them that John tells us in John 1 that God became a man to die for the sins of man and if we repent of our sin, turn and trust in Jesus Christ our sin will be forgiven, past present and future sin (they were all paid for on the Cross).

  • David says:

    Jesus Christ May Not Have Died on Cross
    July 2, 2010
    By RUSSELL GOLDMAN
    Russell Goldman More from Russell »
    via
    For 2,000 years the crucifix has been a potent symbol of both Jesus Christ’s death and Christianity. Now one Swedish theologian says that despite the crucifix’s proliferation in art and literature, there is scant evidence in the Bible or other ancient sources to indicate that Christ was killed on a cross.
    Gunnar Samuelsson, an evangelical preacher and theologian, says he spent three years combing thousands of ancient texts to research his recently completed 400-page doctoral thesis “Crucifixion in Antiquity.”
    What he discovered, he said, “came as a shock.” While there were numerous references to “suspension devices” used for executions at the time of Christ’s death, he could find no explicit references to the classic T-shaped cross.
    “There is no distinct punishment called ‘crucifixion,’ no distinct punishment device called a ‘crucifix’ anywhere mentioned in any of the ancient texts including the Gospels,” he told ABCNews.com.
    Samuelsson devoutly believes the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but says for generations people have misinterpreted and mistranslated the Greek word “stauros” to mean crucifix, when really the term just means a suspension device, which might have been anything such as a “pole or a tree trunk.” The earliest versions of the New Testament were written in Greek.
    “If you chose to just read the text and ignore the art and theology, there is quite a small amount of information about the crucifixion. Jesus, the Bible says, carried something called a stauros out to Calvary. Everyone thought it meant cross, but it does not only mean cross. We cannot say every instance of this noun, stauros refers to a cross,” Samuelsson said.
    Suspension devices, basically tall polls or pikes, were routinely used in the ancient world, by the Romans and their contemporaries, both as execution devices and for displaying the bodies of executed criminals and enemies as a public warning.
    Part of what tipped Samuelson off to the apparent mistranslation, were routine references to things like fruits and dead animals being “crucified” in ancient texts, when translating the word as “suspended” makes more sense.
    For Samuelsson, a 44-year-old pastor who is completing his research at the University of Gothenburg, his faith leads him to believe in the tradition that Jesus was suspended on a cross.
    However, he says, “We don’t know how those wicked people next to him on the right and on the left, were executed. Or what the devices looked like for people the day before or the day after.”
    “I am not saying no ‘crucifixions’ took place I the ancient world. But we cannot find evidence of them in the ancient texts,” he added.
    Given that the Romans were careful record keepers who wrote detailed and gruesome histories about their military conquests and lengthy legal treatises, it is strange that they would not have written plainly about their execution methods, he explained.
    Samuelson says the idea of suspension devices would have been understood in the ancient world and by the contemporaries of Jesus.
    “If you were walking around Galilee and heard Jesus say he will be suspended in days. People would have an understanding of the kind of torture involved.”
    While the Gospels mention Jesus’ suspension, none specify a cross, according to Samuelson. Furthermore, the passion is described differently in different Gospels and has been depicted in various ways throughout history.

  • Eric says:

    Not surprising that there aren’t many records of a particular form of execution from a 2,000 year old dead civilization that was used to terrify people into submission. Cicero writes in Pro Rabirio (16) that “the very word ‘cross‘ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears”. The early Christians were hesitant to depict Jesus in such a well-understood position of shame and torture, “long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony” (Seneca, Epistle 101 to Lucilius).

  • rick says:

    I started out being introduced to my local jw church and i was eager to go and learn . I was provided a New World Translation bible and watch tower mags . After the first meeting i went home and delved into that Bible whole heartedly.by the time i
    Went next meet i was so read up on Jesus that the watch tower mag teaching began to conflict with their bible. By the third meet i had a clear knowledge as to the true identity of Jesus by reading there bible and praying to God for him to reveal himself . He did . In the scriptures, even though they have purposely tweeked their version God The Father God the Son God the Holy Spirit revealed himself to me . So needles to say at that third meeting i had to point out the conflict between the man made watch tower mag and their study books and their tweeked bible. When i pointed that out they where dumbfounded. I then new i had go find others who had met Jesus too. A local Evangelical church became my home . Side note jws like to point out errors and lies found in Catholic church and they’re actually true lies and errors but jw church conveniently omit all the false doomsday predictions its made in the past ( many ) and they disrract and draw anttion to meaningless issue’s to look real smart . But they’re empty arguments. Their bibles offer the gospel of Jesus Christ and salvation by grace through faith but they dont even see it they’re spiritually blind , Don’t believe? Open their Bible and read it ! Read in whole chapters and whole books or the letters. Let Jesus reveal himself and then break away from their false teachings that contradict their own bible. Its really that simple. HEY JWS READ YOUR BIBLES AND ASK GOD TO OPEN YOUR SPIRITUAL EYES !!!!!

  • Innocent L. Nkwetie says:

    The Jehova witnesses sound as if the whole issue about christianity is just some kind of fiction or theory. They should know that it was real and people experienced it and testified it. And that is why the church uses the Sacred tradition in its teaching. People saw how Christ was nailed on the cross and they story was passed on and on.

  • George says:

    They are trying to base the evidence from a drawing of an animal on a cross, and a utility pole that can be used as a cross as well as a tree since there are branches instead of reading history. Jesus would not be dragging a whole tree to make that conclusion a reality for anyone who wants to keep a pagan symbol but he would forgive them.

  • Linda Ciesielski says:

    I first learned about Jesus being crucified on an upright pole was from a Catholic Priest. He said that when the church began receiving “””Pagans””” into the church, they adopted many of their traditions. One tradition was the “””Cross”””!

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