Did Jesus Really Die on a Cross?

“THE cross,” says one encyclopedia, “is the most familiar symbol of Christianity.” Many religious paintings and works of art depict Jesus nailed to a cross. Why is this symbol so widespread in Christendom? Did Jesus really die on a cross?

Many would point to the Bible for the answer. For example, according to the King James Version, at the time of Jesus’ execution, onlookers made fun of Jesus and challenged him to “come down from the cross.” (Matthew 27:40, 42) Many other Bible translations read similarly. Today’s English Version says of Simon from Cyrene: “The soldiers forced him to carry Jesus’ cross.” (Mark 15:21) In these verses, the word “cross” is translated from the Greek word staurosʹ. Is there a solid basis for such a translation? What is the meaning of that original word?

Was It a Cross?

According to Greek scholar W. E. Vine, staurosʹ “denotes, primarily, an upright pale or stake. On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun and the verb stauroō, to fasten to a stake or pale, are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed cross.”

The Imperial Bible-Dictionary says that the word staurosʹ “properly signified a stake, an upright pole, or piece of paling, on which anything might be hung, or which might be used in impaling a piece of ground.” The dictionary continues: “Even amongst the Romans the crux (Latin, from which our cross is derived) appears to have been originally an upright pole.” Thus, it is not surprising that The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “Certain it is, at any rate, that the cross originally consisted of a simple vertical pole, sharpened at its upper end.”

There is another Greek word, xyʹlon, that Bible writers used to describe the instrument of Jesus’ execution. A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament defines xyʹlon as “a piece of timber, a wooden stake.” It goes on to say that like staurosʹ, xyʹlon “was simply an upright pale or stake to which the Romans nailed those who were thus said to be crucified.”

In line with this, we note that the King James Version reads at Acts 5:30: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree [xyʹlon].” Other versions, though rendering staurosʹ as “cross,” also translate xyʹlon as  “tree.” At Acts 13:29, The Jerusalem Bible says of Jesus: “When they had carried out everything that scripture foretells about him they took him down from the tree [xyʹlon] and buried him.”

In view of the basic meaning of the Greek words staurosʹ and xyʹlon, the Critical Lexicon and Concordance, quoted above, observes: “Both words disagree with the modern idea of a cross, with which we have become familiarised by pictures.” In other words, what the Gospel writers described using the word staurosʹ was nothing like what people today call a cross. Appropriately, therefore, the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures uses the expression “torture stake” at Matthew 27:40-42 and in other places where the word staurosʹ appears. Similarly, the Complete Jewish Bible uses the expression “execution stake.”

Origin of the Cross

If the Bible does not really say that Jesus was executed on a cross, then why do all the churches that claim to teach and follow the Bible​—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—​adorn their buildings with the cross and use it as a symbol of their faith? How did the cross come to be such a popular symbol?

The answer is that the cross is venerated not only by churchgoers who claim to follow the Bible but also by people far removed from the Bible and whose worship far predates that of “Christian” churches. Numerous religious reference works acknowledge that the use of crosses in various shapes and forms goes back to remote periods of human civilization. For example, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and depictions of their gods and goddesses often show a cross in the shape of a T with a circle at the top. It is called the ansate, or handle-shaped, cross and is thought to be a symbol of life. In time, this form of the cross was adopted and used extensively by the Coptic Church and others.

According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, “the primitive form of the cross seems to have been that of the so-called ‘gamma’ cross (crux gammata), better known to Orientalists and students of prehistoric archæology by its Sanskrit name, swastika.” This sign was widely used among Hindus in India and Buddhists throughout Asia and is still seen in decorations and ornaments in those areas.

It is not known exactly when the cross was adopted as a “Christian” symbol. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New  Testament Words states: “By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith. In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols,” including the cross.

Some writers point to the claim by the sun-god worshipper Constantine that in 312 C.E., while on one of his military campaigns, he had a vision of a cross superimposed on the sun along with the motto in Latin “in hoc vince” (by this conquer). Some time later, a “Christian” sign was emblazoned on the standards, shields, and armor of his army. (Pictured at left.) Constantine purportedly converted to Christianity, though he was not baptized until 25 years later on his deathbed. His motive was questioned by some. “He acted rather as if he were converting Christianity into what he thought most likely to be accepted by his subjects as a catholic [universal] religion, than as if he had been converted to the teachings of Jesus the Nazarene,” says the book The Non-Christian Cross.

Since then, crosses of many forms and shapes have come into use. For example, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary tells us that what is called St. Anthony’s cross “was shaped like a capital T, thought by some to be derived from the symbol of the [Babylonian] god Tammuz, the letter tau.” There was also the St. Andrew’s cross, which is in the shape of the letter X, and the familiar two-beamed cross with the crossbar lowered. This latter type, called the Latin cross, is erroneously “held by tradition to be the shape of the cross on which our Lord died.”

What First-Century Christians Believed

The Bible shows that in the first century, many who heard Jesus became believers and accepted the redeeming value of his sacrificial death. After the apostle Paul preached to the Jews in Corinth, proving that Jesus is the Christ, says the Bible, “Crispus the presiding officer of the synagogue became a believer in the Lord, and so did all his household. And many of the Corinthians that heard began to believe and be baptized.” (Acts 18:5-8) Instead of introducing some religious symbol or image into their worship, Paul instructed his fellow Christians to “flee from idolatry” and from any other practice drawn from pagan worship.​—1 Corinthians 10:14.

Historians and researchers have found no evidence to validate the use of the cross among the early Christians. Interestingly, the book History of the Cross quotes one late 17th-century writer who asked: “Can it be pleasing to the blessed Jesus to behold His disciples glorying in the image of that instrument of capital punishment on which He [supposedly] patiently and innocently suffered, despising the shame?” How would you answer?

Worship acceptable to God does not require objects or images. “What agreement does God’s temple have with idols?” Paul asked. (2 Corinthians 6:14-16) Nowhere do the Scriptures suggest that a Christian’s worship should include the use of a likeness of the instrument used to impale Jesus.​—Compare Matthew 15:3; Mark 7:13.

What, then, is the identifying mark of true Christians? Not the cross or any other symbol, but love. Jesus told his followers: “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.”​—John 13:34, 35.

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What the Gospel writers described was nothing like what people today call a cross

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A 17th-century drawing of an execution on a staurosʹ, from Lipsius’ De Cruce

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Egyptian wall painting (c. 14th century B.C.E.) featuring the ansate cross, a symbol of life

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© DeA Picture Library/​Art Resource, NY

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The gamma cross on the Laxmi Narayan Hindu temple

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From the book The Cross in Tradition, History, and Art (1897)