Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Reasoning with the Reasoning Book - Did Jesus Die on a Cross? Part 1: Scriptural Evidence

One of the unique beliefs among modern Jehovah's Witnesses is that Jesus did not die on a cross, but instead died on a upright pole or "stake". They call the cross a pagan symbol that is associated with the worship of Tammuz and originated in ancient Chaldea. They say that even so much as wearing a cross is tantamount to false worship and should be shunned by all true Christians. They have even removed the word "cross" from their Bible translation and replace it with words like "torture stake" or "tree".

Are Jehovah's Witnesses correct in these statements? Did Jesus die on an upright torture stake? Is the cross something that should be shunned by all Christians? Or are they, perhaps, mistaken?

They have an in depth discussion of these issues in the publication "Reasoning from the Scriptures" which is published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society and is used regularly in their ministry today. My attempt is to "test all things" that they say about the cross in this book, and see if the claims are accurate and all true Christians should shun the cross. (1 Thess 5:21)

They begin by defining cross as "The device on which Jesus Christ was executed is referred to by most of Christendom as a cross. The expression is drawn from the Latin crux." The begin by saying that "the Greek word rendered “cross” in many modern Bible versions (“torture stake” in NW) is stau‧ros′. In classical Greek, this word meant merely an upright stake, or pole. Later it also came to be used for an execution stake having a crosspiece."

Is it true that "later" or after Christ stauros came to be known as "cross"? No, in fact An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, p.45, says, "Cross--A universal symbol from the most remote times; it is the cosmic symbol par excellence." It was in fact used as an execution device over 100 years BEFORE Jesus. 

They go on to quote The Imperial Bible-Dictionary, saying: “The Greek word for cross, [stau‧ros′], properly signified a stake, an upright pole, or piece of paling, on which anything might be hung, or which might be used in impaling [fencing in] a piece of ground. . . . Even amongst the Romans the crux (from which our cross is derived) appears to have been originally an upright pole.” What they also seem to ignore is the clear historical fact that the Romans commonly executed people on crosses! I wonder why this issue was ignored... The horizontal bar or crossbeam was called the patibulum and it was customary that the prisoner was made to carry the patibulum to their place of execution. Again, this fact is ignored. 

The next quote they give is from the book, "The Non Christian Cross" by J. D. Parsons (London, 1896). They quote him as saying, "“There is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross. . . " Is this true? Is there anything in the Bible that gives evidence of Jesus arms being stretched out along a cross beam? 

Please consider John 20:25. Jesus has recently been resurrected and has shown himself to many of his disciples. However, one of his apostles, Thomas,  was not present when Jesus had appeared and refused to believe the words of the other apostles. So in verse 25 Thomas said, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the NAILS were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." If Jesus had been hung on an upright stake with his hands above, there would have only been one nail (see photo below). However, Thomas uses the PLURAL form and says he wants to see IN HIS HANDS the mark of the NAILS.

 Another verse that clearly seems to show that Jesus was hung on a pole with a crossbeam is John 21:18-19. Jesus gave a prophecy to Peter that showed him that he too would be crucified! He said, "when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God." Crucifixtion clearly meant that they would "stretch out" the hands, not "raise up" the hands.

Is there any other biblical proof of a cossbeam being used in Jesus execution? There is! Matthew 27:37 is clear. "Above his head they placed the written charge against him: This is Jesus, King of the Jews." If Jesus was killed with his hands above his head, the sign would have been place above his hands, not his head.

So is it true when the Reasoning book says, "There is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross. . ."? No. There is little evidence that Jesus was killed on anything BUT a cross. Does this not seem much more reasonable?

My next post will tackle the next issue that the reasoning book brings up about the cross of Christ. The claim is made that it is a pagan symbol and should be rejected by all true Christians. Is it a pagan symbol? Should it be considered a pagan symbol today? Should true Christians reject it? Should Christians and do Christians worship it


  1. Hi Dan :)
    You can also find the actual shape of the cross in the Epistle of Barnabas where he describes it as the greek letter "Tau" ie: "T".


  2. Yes, I will cover the historical significance of the cross in part 3. Justin Martyr spoke about the shape of the cross as well, showing that the early Christians believed in it as well. This is contrary to what the reasoning book says as well. The quotes that are given in the book are shockingly taken out of context. But I will review all of this in part 3.

  3. Dan - I'm enjoying your blog. A well informed presentation. Although I can not be dogmatic about it I believe that taking all of the Biblical presentations into account, Jesus carried a crossbeam to the execution site and was hung upon a tree that was used for this purpose.

    The origins of the WT particular notions about the instrument of Jesus' death came at a time when J.F. Rutherford was making a concerted effort to distinguish Jehovah's Witnesses as unique and separate from religion. This time period also gave birth to Kingdom Halls, focus on the name Jehovah, and a beardless Jesus.

    The WT picture you used above well illustrates the incongruities of their presentation of the execution of Christ. In a WT QFR they admit the fact that Jesus could possibly have had more than one nail driven into his hands per John 20:25 and yet I haven't seen a single painting that was presented this way. Second, the WT often illustrates Jesus nailed to these rather massive electrical poles, something that a very strong man in good health would have trouble dragging into the execution site, let alone a severely flogged and beaten "criminal".

    If a JW insists that stauros could only mean an upright pole then a could followup question is to ask them what is the Greek word for a cross shaped execution device?

  4. You bring up a good point, Anthony. The shape of the device that Jesus died on should not be a major issue. The fact of what it represented and the meaning of Jesus sacrifice is what we should focus on. The reason I've chosen to write about it is because the Jehovah's Witnesses use this as a "proof" that they know the "truth" and that all those that respect the cross are pagan idol worshipers.

    I will cover it in part 3, but to hang someone on a tree was considered one of the worst insults to a person. It was frequently done in times of war, even hanging the dead bodies of kings on trees so as to show their contempt for them. So what Jesus did was take something contemptable and turned it into something glorious.