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Did Jesus die on a cross?

The Watchtower says, “Jesus most likely was executed on an upright stake without any crossbeam. No man today can know with certainty even how many nails were used in Jesus' case.” (Watchtower 8/15/1987, p. 29). They insist that a cross is a pagan symbol and Jesus a Jew, would never have died on a cross.

But it’s obvious that a cross could be used, since Jesus was in fact crucified by the pagans! On one hand the Roman Catholics venerate the cross, on the other hand Jehovah’s Witness completely reject it. Christianity nor the Bible state anything holy about the wood or the configuration of it, despite that Catholics have made it a symbol or icon of veneration; this is not the meaning of it from Scripture. However history yields some interesting stories of how this was arrived at.

“This view was not always held as a symbol or emblem merely at first, it soon began to have the notion of spiritual and supernatural efficacy attached to it. In the 6th century the crucifix image was introduced, and worship (latria) to it was sanctioned by the Church of Rome” (Fausset's Bible Dictionary).

The story of “the invention of the cross,” can be traced from the empress Helena, mother of Constantine, about A.D. 326 when she visited Palestine. At nearly 80 years old, she made a pilgrimage to the holy places, and with the help of a Jew who understood her superstitious tastes, found for her three crosses. In order to know which was the genuine one, Macarius, bishop of Jerusalem, suggested that they be tested by their power of working miracles. Only one being reported as possessing this quality, it was declared to be the real cross. The main part of the cross was deposited by Helena in a church erected over the spot, the remaining portion was inserted into the head of the statue of Constantine, and the balance was placed in a new church, specially erected for it at Rome and named after it Santa Croce.

Later we find small fragments of the wood of the cross were sold, adorned with gold and jewels, as many desired possessing such priceless relics. Bits of this real cross were distributed as relics throughout Christendom in the church of the Holy Jerusalem Cross at Rome. Relics of the top of the cross with the inscription that was over Christ are annually exhibited to the people for veneration. The whole story appears to be falsified because of Jewish law that required the cross to be burnt; also the church historian Eusebius is silent as to the alleged discovery of it.

“The miracle of the “multiplication of the cross” was devised, so that the relic suffered no diminution “et quasi intacta maneret” (Paulinus epistle 11 ad Sev). Fragments of the true cross are thus to be found in many Roman Catholic churches of many countries, all over Christendom. It is said that the East celebrated the staurosimos hemera (Crucifixion Day) on September 14, since the 4th century. The evidence for this fact is late and untrustworthy. It is certain that the West celebrated the Invention of the cross on May 3, since the time of Gregory the Great in the 6th century. The finding and publication of the apocryphal “Doctrina Addaei” has made it evident that the entire legend of the discovery of the cross by Helena is but a version of the old Edessa legend, which tells of an identical discovery of the cross, under the very same circumstances, by the wife of the emperor Claudius, who had been converted to Christianity by the preaching of Peter.”(From The New Unger's Bible Dictionary.) Also contained in the Edessa legend is that the king was dying and someone brought to him the covering that rested over Christ’s face in the tomb and the king was healed. This coincides with the shroud and some of the legends that accompany it as well.

When the Christians were being persecuted, they disguised the cross as an anchor. Numerous other symbols were used to identify themselves as Christians

Jehovah’s Witnesses and its history of the cross

The Jehovah’s Witnesses magazine it shows the “Crucifixion” (with a picture of Christ on the Cross) CREATION, p. 265). “The Cross” (in a picture) in CREATION, p.336.

Picture of the cross is also in RECONCILIATION, p. 168; picture of the cross in the HARP OF GOD, p.115. The Watchtower organization in the Creation magazine it says of Jesus, '... he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.' (Phil. 2:7,8)(CREATION, p.161.)

There is also the Cross and crown logo, which was the symbol of Watchtower 1/1/1891, P. 1277. One needs to understand that Russell had no problem with this since there is evidence he was Mason, and this is Masonic symbol. It is no wonder he hated the cross.

Jesus was depicted on a cross in the early years of President Rutherford as well (Harp of God p.113). In1928, Rutherford’s book Reconciliation picture Jesus along with the two thieves on crosses. The caption to this reads, … “The death of Jesus Christ upon the cross put an end to the law covenant” (Reconciliation, p.168). It seems that many of the early Witnesses of this organization would be considered apostates today because of their viewpoint, even their president.

The 1975 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses explains why the Watchtower abandoned the cross in its symbolism: “Beginning with its issue of October 15, 1931, The Watchtower no longer bore the cross and crown symbol on its cover. A few years later Jehovah’s people first learned that Jesus Christ did not die on a T-shaped cross. On January 31, 1936, Brother Rutherford released to the Brooklyn Bethel family the new book Riches. Scripturally, it said, in part, on page 27: ‘Jesus was crucified, not on a cross of wood, such as is 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.’” (1975 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, pp. 148-149.)

After Russell died, during Rutherford’s administration of the Watchtower beginning with its issue of October 15, 1931, began to change. In 1936 the Society began to change their position to what has become the current Watchtower Society position, that of His crucifixion on the torture stake. Rutherford wrote, “Jesus was crucified, not on a cross of wood, such as is 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” (Riches p. 27).

Hanging on a tree is Peter’s favorite description of Christ, Acts 5:30 “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.” Acts 10:39 “whom they killed by hanging on a tree.” Acts 13:29 “Now when they had fulfilled all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from the tree and laid Him in a tomb.”1 Peter 2:24 “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree.” This does not infer that Jesus was literally hung on a tree instead of a pole or a cross. Peter uses this because cursed is anyone who is hung on a tree. He is using the Old Testament model to show Christ took our curse in our place, not that he hung on a literal tree.

The Awake magazine of 1972 says “No biblical evidence even intimates that Jesus died on a cross.” (11/8/1972, p. 28). The evidence indicates that Jesus did not die on the traditional cross” (Awake 9/22/1974, p. 28). They even show a picture of Jesus with one nail through both hands (Awake 4/8/1974, p. 14).

They used Justus Lipsius on how Jesus was impaled; a picture is also in INTERILINEAR '69, pp. 11 55-56

So how do we make sense out of all this?

What kind of crucifixion does the Bible teach?

The earliest mode of crucifixion seems to have been by impalation, the transfixion of the body lengthwise and crosswise by sharpened stakes, a mode of death-punishment still well known among the Mongol race. The usual mode of crucifixion was familiar to the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, Persians and Babylonians (Thuc. 1, 110; Herod. iii.125, 159). Alexander the Great executed two thousand Tyrian captives in this way, after the fall of the city. (From International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia)

Crucifixion was from a Phoenician origin-- it was later used by the Greeks, especially during the time of Alexander the Great and by the Carthaginians. Rome adopted and improved on it. The modes of execution among the Jews were: strangulation, beheading, burning, and stoning. The Targum [b On Ruth i. 17.] speaks of it as one of the four modes of execution of which Naomi described to Ruth as those in custom in Palestine, the other three being, stoning, burning, and beheading. Crucifixion was not a Jewish mode of punishment, although the Maccabee King Jannaeus had so far forgotten the claims of both humanity and religion as on one occasion to crucify not less than 800 persons in Jerusalem itself. [a Jos. Ant. xiii. 14, 2; War i, 4, 6]

A man named Judas with a Shammaite Rabbi, Sadduk, revolted in submitting to the tax of Quirinius. [c Ant. xviii i. 1] How the Hillelites looked upon this movement, we gather even from the slighting allusion of Gamaliel. [Acts 5:37] The two sons of Judas died for it on the cross in 46 A. D. [e Ant. xx. 5. 2]

The Romans cross never had the symbolical meaning attached to it that it had in the ancient Orient; they regarded it solely as a instrument of punishment.
History shows there were 4 different crosses used by the Romans. There was the upright pole a stake, as well as an X shaped ( St. Andrew's Cross x, the Crux decussata), which was very rarely used outside Italy. The two common forms used in Jesus’ day was the Tau cross (shaped like the Greek letter Tau or like our T (Crux Commissa), with the titulus, (the crime written on the plate below his feet or above), and the ordinary Latin Cross (+, Crux immissa) a lower tau with the crossbeam not on the top but near it. The St. Anthony's cross, The upright portion of the cross (or stipes) could have the cross-arm (or patibulum) attached two or three feet below its top known today as the classical form of the cross with the titulus, or small sign, with the victim's crime written above it.

The universal testimony of those who lived nearest the time (like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and others) all testify to a cross beam, not a pole as the Jehovah’s witnesses insist. However since they have a problem with everything written by the early church pastors and theologians they will not accept this.

The Cross was to be carried to the place of execution by Him the one who was to die on it. Arms bound to it with cords, according to ancient custom, the neck of the Sufferer was fastened within the patibulum, two horizontal pieces of wood, fastened at the end, to which the hands were bound. Ordinarily, the procession was headed by the centurion, [Tradition calls him Longinus.] He was preceded by one who proclaimed the nature of the crime, sometimes written on a board.[2 This was the Jewish practice also (Sanh. vi. 2).

The cross carried could not be a 8-10 foot beak that would have been the post. The heavy patibulum of the cross is tied across the shoulders, as the victim to be crucified walked the slow and humiliating journey along the Via Dolorosa. Jesus being extremely weak, the centurion selected a North African from the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, to help him carry the cross. It is not likely a 10 foot beam with a side bar would have been carried, this would be too heavy, weighing well over 100 pounds. So more than likely it was the 6-8 ft.crossbeam that was carried.

The expression 'bearing the cross,' as indicative of sorrow and suffering, is so common, that we read, Abraham carried the wood for the sacrifice of Issac, 'like who bears his cross on his shoulder.' [c Ber. R. 56, on Gen. xxii. 6.]

When arriving at Golgotha they were fastened to the crossbeam on the ground with ropes-or nails (possibly both), through the wrist. The upright post, or stipes, was generally permanently fixed in the ground at the site of execution and the condemned man -was forced-to carry the patibulum, apparently weighing about 110 pounds, from the prison to the place of execution. The victim who was near naked (or naked) was then hoisted with the crossbeam against the standing vertical stake. Discoveries near Jerusalem of the bones of a crucifixion victim suggests that the knees were bent up side-by-side parallel to the crossbeam and the nail was then driven through the side of the ankles.

A block or peg was often fastened to the stake as a crude seat under the feet as the feet were tied or nailed to the stake. The weight of the person would rest on this block and they were able to push up, keeping them from suffocation. This prolonged the agony and the pain of the crucifixion as it was their own strength to push up that lengthened their life. The length of this agony was determined by the strength of the victim, death rarely came before 36 hours had elapsed. The suffering of death by crucifixion was intense, bleeding from jagged wounds, produced traumatic fever. The exposure to the heat of the sun, brought on an insufferable thirst (like Lk.16 being described as Jesus said he thirsts). Arteries of the head and stomach were filled with blood and a throbbing headache would occur. Anxiety in emotions, and the mind could reel with confusion. It was said the victim of crucifixion died a thousand deaths. Death came by suffocation when exhaustion finally set in after a long period of agonizing pain, the person slumped over no longer having the strength to push up their weight from the foot peg. Exhausted the victim would sink into unconsciousness and death. Death was sometimes hastened by breaking the legs of the victims and by a hard blow delivered under the armpit before crucifixion. Crura fracta was a well-known Roman term (Cicero Phil. xiii.12). The pre-mature death of Christ brought great astonishment (Mark 15:44) to the Centurion. The symptoms surrounding his death by John (John 19:34) seem to point to a ruptured heart, which Jesus died from independent of the cross claiming Him as the victim. This is especially seen as He dismissed His own spirit, picking the time of His own death. Then the Roman guard putting a spear in his side and a mixture of blood and water spilled out, showing He died of a ruptured heart.

Crucifixion is typified in the Torah. The Israelites on the eve of the first Passover marked their doors with blood of the lamb - in Exodus it explains in detail how the blood was smeared on the two sides, the lentil and in a bowl below, thus symbolizing the picture of the future lamb on a cross. The Psalmist predicted the piercing of the hands and the feet (Psalm 22:16) which Jesus fulfilled in his crucifixion. It also said not a bone would be broken fulfilling the Passover lamb motif.

Matthew’s description of the Lord’s death includes the information that: “They put up above His head the charge against Him, which read, ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews’” (Matthew 27:37). The Roman governor Pontius Pilate had written the offense of which Christ was condemned and Matthew reported that the proclamation was “set up over his head.” The inscription given by Matthew corresponds exactly with that which Eusebius [c H.E. v. 1.] records as the Latin titulus on the cross of one of the early martyrs.

If Jesus was executed on a torture stake, with both hands together over his head, instead of on a cross with both hands outstretched it would not read “This is Jesus the King of the Jews, put up ABOVE His head” (Matthew 27:37). Instead If Christ had been impaled as the Watchtower describes, the text would instead read: “set up over his hands” for the lack of room available it would have been next to impossible to have this between his arms as they are outstretched above him. Also his hands would be the highest point of the body. How could it have been posted above his head if his arms are stretched out directly over his head? Put your hands over your head and see if a plague can fit there as described, it would be more than difficult. The inscription of his accusation was put up at the third hour ( Mk.12:26; Mt.27:35-37) making next to impossible to put a lengthy sign in between arms that would be tied up above.

Also in Lk.23:33 it mentions there was a another man to his right HAND and the other on the left, again it does not say to the right side and left side which seems to indicate that his arm was outstretched.

Medieval and Renaissance painters have drawn pictures of Christ carrying the entire cross. Many of these painters and most of the sculptors of crucifixes today show the nails through the palms. Roman historical accounts, and experimental work have shown the-nails, were driven between the small bones of the wrists and not through the palms. Nails driven through the palms will strip out between the fingers when the weight of a body is hung on it. Although they could have been tied with rope to hold, the Bible gives affair amount of detail on the process and the instruments used, but does not have any mention this. If rope was used it was tied to the arms over the shoulders for carrying the crossbeam to the place of crucifixion.

The Watchtower interprets the Bibles account as an unclear statement “Jesus most likely was executed on an upright stake without any crossbeam. No man today can know with certainty even how many nails were used in Jesus' case.” (Watchtower 8/15/1987, p. 29)

Can we not know? Which way does the Biblical and historical evidence lean?

Thomas who had not seen the Risen Lord with the others voiced his skepticism (John 20:25). The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
Notice it says the print of the nails not nail. This is not singular, so Thomas knew how he had been crucified, with his arms outstretched, not with them being together like the feet. This would take two nails not a single nail as it would through the feet.

Thomas used the word “nail,” in the plural form but “imprint” is singular, indicating a separate nail punctured each hand leaving a single mark in each hand.

The common form of crucifixion used was the Tau cross (shaped like the Greek letter Tau or like our capitol T or lower t). There is archeological evidence that it was on this type of cross that Jesus was crucified.

On the tombstones of the early Christians had the cross etched on them as the emblem of victory and hope. It was only after superstition took the place of true spiritual devotion that the figure of the cross was used or borne about as a sacred charm. There would be no reason to draw a cross if in fact it was not the instrument of crucifixion, there was no conspiracy to change the object he was impaled on.

In 1873, French scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau unearthed nearly 30 ossuaries southeast of Jerusalem. The small limestone burial boxes containing human bones were found at the Mount of Offense and bore Hebrew and Greek names. Some bore a cross above the name inscription. The date of the original burial is estimated to be between 70-135 A.D.( Jack Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament, pp. 238-240).

The 1945 discoveries at Talpioth. Here 11 ossuaries were found and reported to be from Christian grave sites in Bethany. These burial boxes too were engraved with crosses and their burial date was estimated at 42-43 A.D. - slightly more than a decade after our Lord’s death and resurrection. Some of the ossuaries were even inscribed with the Greek monogram for Christ (Px) as a dedicatory, leaving no doubt as to the manner of the Savior’s death and the ensuing use of the cross as a Christian symbol. (Jack Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament pp. 240-243.)

Others, even from outside the Christian community, also indicate that the weight of the historical evidence favors the cross over a stake. In 1971, Time magazine reported an archaeological find that had remained secret for several months: “Israeli archaeologists announced that they had identified the remains of the unfortunate young man and found clear evidence of his grisly execution. The Israeli scholars, who studied the find for more than two years before making their announcement, were understandably cautious. What they uncovered and authenticated is the first firm physical evidence of an actual crucifixion in the ancient Mediterranean world. ... The only previously physical evidence of crucifixion was extremely tenuous. It consisted of a few bones, excavated in Italy and Rumania containing holes in the forearms and heals that could have been made during crucifixion. ... The new archaeological evidence, a byproduct of intense excavation and building activities by the Israelis in the territories they conquered in the Six-Day War, is far more substantial.” (Time magazine, Jan. 18, 1971, pg. 64.)

Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament gives three meanings for stau-ros’. The first matches the Watchtower’s; the others present other distinct meanings: “The stauros is an instrument of torture for serious offenses, ... In shape we find three basic forms. The cross was a vertical, pointed stake ... or it consisted of an upright with a cross-beam above it ... or it consisted of two intersecting beams of equal length.” (Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. VII, pg. 572.

Xulon (tree - rendered xy’lon by the Watchtower) also carries more definitions than what the Watchtower Society offers. Kittel interprets one of the renderings: “Cross. A distinctive New Testament use of xulon is in the sense ‘cross.’” (Kittel, Theological Dictionary, Vol. V, pg. 39.
W.E. Vine translates xulon as “a timber beam, a tree “wood, a piece of wood, anything made of wood” (from Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words) The word xylon is usually “wood” or “tree” Because it looked like a tree with a branch coming out of each side.

Kittel explained the particulars involved in the carrying out of the fatal punishment upon a stauros’: “Crucifixion took place as follows. The condemned person carried the patibulum (cross-beam) to the place of execution - the stake already erected. Then on the ground he was bound with outstretched arms to the beam by ropes, or else fixed to it by nails. The beam was then raised with the body and fastened to the upright post.” ( Ibid., pg. 573.)

The scholar Joseph Thayer concurs with the dual meaning of stauros: “An upright stake, esp. a pointed one, ... a cross; a. the well-known instrument of most cruel and ignominious punishment, borrowed by the Greeks and Romans from the Phoenicians; to it were affixed among the Romans, down to the time of Constantine the Great, the guiltiest criminals, particularly the basest slaves, robbers, the authors and abetters of insurrections, and occasionally in the provinces, at the arbitrary pleasure of the governors, upright and peaceable men also, and even Roman citizens themselves.” ( Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pg. 586.)

Dr. Paul Maier believes the Archaeological evidence for a cross has evidence. The Church used the symbol of the cross as early as the first century. In his 1976 work, First Christians, Maier writes:”Christians were already established at Puteoli-[the Apostle] Paul’s fame had preceded him there ... It may be from this early congregation that faith expanded around the Bay of Naples, because there were Christians in nearby Herculaneum shortly afterward. One of the houses in that resort town, today liberated from its lava burial by Mt. Vesuvius, shows the clear outlines of a metal cross that had been set in the wall over a charred prie-dieu in an upstairs room. The cross evidently is just as old a Christian symbol as the fish.” (Paul Maier, First Christians, p. 140.)

On the facing page, a photograph of the upstairs room is reproduced showing the outline of the cross in the wall. The photo’s caption reads: “A primitive Christian oratory in the upper room of the so-called ‘House of Bicentenary’ at Herculaneum. A whitish stuccoed panel shows the imprint of a large cross, probably metallic, that had been removed or possibly used as a stamping device. Before it are the remains of a small wooden altar, charred by lava from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D” (ibid. p.141)

Other scholars also agree with Maier’s assessment that the cross was quickly adopted by the Church as a Christian symbol. Michael Green, in his book, Evangelism in the Early Church, states: “Some experts doubt whether the cross became a Christian symbol so early, but the recent discoveries of the cross, the fish, the star and the plough, all well known from the second century, on ossuaries of the Judaeo-Christian community in Judea put the possibility beyond reasonable cavil.” (Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, pp. 214- 215.)

Jesus’ own word prophesied the Apostle Peter’s martyrdom refutes the Jehovah Witnesses position: “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.” (John 21:18-19) We are told that Peter was crucified on a cross upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to be crucified in the same way as His Lord.

We cannot change what has been written and explained in the Scripture but only try to understand it. The fact is that the Bible and history do lean to it being a cross just as “Christendom” has held.

The early church fathers regarded the cross as pointing above, below, and to both sides, as symbolizing” the height, depth, length, and breadth” of the love of Christ, extending salvation to all (Eph 3:18).

Whether one wants to believe in a certain shape of the wooden instrument is not really the whole issue. As the Bibles words still ring through time, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The real point is whether they one is saved by Christ dying on it. And it is clear that Jehovah witnesses do not believe they are or can be by Christ's sacrifice alone but instead by works.


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