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The debate over whether Jesus was crucified on a cross or impaled on a stake arises from different interpretations of biblical texts and historical evidence. The majority of scholars and historians agree that Jesus was crucified on a cross, as it was the standard method of execution used by the Romans for non-citizens during the time of Jesus.
Crucifixion on a Cross
- The Greek word used in the New Testament for the instrument of Jesus’ crucifixion is “stauros,” which is commonly translated as “cross.” This word can refer to an upright post or a post with a crossbeam, depending on the context.
- The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in the 1st century CE, specifically mentions that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
- The Roman practice of crucifixion typically involved nailing the victim’s hands and feet to a cross, which would then be raised upright. The victim would be left to die slowly from asphyxiation, exposure, and blood loss. This method of execution was designed to be a slow and agonizing death, serving as a deterrent to others.
- Some argue that Jesus was impaled on a single stake, based on the premise that the Greek word “stauros” can also mean a simple upright stake without a crossbeam.
- This interpretation is primarily advocated by Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that the use of the cross as a Christian symbol is a form of idolatry and a corruption of early Christian beliefs.
- However, this view is not supported by the majority of historical and archaeological evidence, which consistently points to crucifixion on a cross as the method of execution employed by the Romans.
In conclusion, the most widely accepted view based on historical and archaeological evidence is that Jesus was crucified on a cross rather than impaled on a stake.
The historical evidence I mentioned primarily comes from the writings of ancient historians, who documented crucifixion as a method of execution employed by the Romans. Some of the most prominent historians who mentioned crucifixion include:
Josephus: A Jewish historian and Roman citizen who lived in the 1st century CE, Josephus wrote extensively about Jewish history and the Roman occupation of Judea. He documented several instances of crucifixion carried out by the Romans, including the mass crucifixion of Jewish rebels during the Jewish-Roman War.
Tacitus: A Roman historian who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, Tacitus mentioned crucifixion in his writings as well. In his work “Annals,” he specifically referred to Jesus’ crucifixion under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Tacitus’ account of Jesus’ execution is one of the earliest non-Christian references to the event.
Seneca the Younger: A Roman philosopher and statesman, Seneca mentioned crucifixion in his writings as a brutal form of execution employed by the Romans. In his work “De Ira” (On Anger), he described the various ways in which crucifixion was carried out, including the positioning of the crossbeam and the use of nails.
These ancient historians, among others, provide valuable historical evidence for the practice of crucifixion during the Roman period. Their accounts describe crucifixion on a cross, with victims being nailed or tied to a crossbeam and an upright post. This evidence, combined with archaeological findings, supports the idea that Jesus was crucified on a cross rather than impaled on a stake.
While there is no archaeological evidence directly related to Jesus’ crucifixion, there are findings that provide insight into crucifixion practices during the Roman period. These discoveries support the view that crucifixion on a cross was the typical method of execution during that time.
The crucified man from Givat HaMivtar: In 1968, the remains of a crucified man named Yehohanan were discovered in a tomb at Givat HaMivtar, near Jerusalem. The remains date back to the 1st century CE, around the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. The victim had been nailed to a crossbeam through his forearms, and his legs had been nailed to the upright post with a single nail. This finding provides clear evidence that crucifixion on a cross was practiced in the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus.
Graffiti from Rome: The Alexamenos Graffito, a piece of ancient graffiti discovered in Rome, dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century CE. It depicts a man worshiping a crucified figure with a donkey’s head, accompanied by the inscription “Alexamenos worships his god.” This graffiti likely represents a mocking portrayal of a Christian worshiping Jesus, indicating that the crucifixion on a cross was associated with Jesus even in the early centuries after his death.
Writings from ancient historians: Several Roman historians, such as Tacitus and Josephus, mention crucifixion as a method of execution used by the Romans. The descriptions in their writings align with the idea of a cross, with victims being nailed or tied to a crossbeam and an upright post.
While these archaeological and historical findings do not directly prove the specific shape of the instrument used in Jesus’ crucifixion, they do provide strong evidence that crucifixion on a cross was a common method of execution during the Roman period. This, combined with the overwhelming scholarly consensus, supports the idea that Jesus was crucified on a cross rather than impaled on a stake.
THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES MAKE THE FOLLOWING ARGUMENTS BELOW – WE PROVIDE EVIDENCE OF ITS ACCURACY ACCORDING TO KNOWN HISTORICAL OR ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE
The Jehovah’s Witnesses point out that impalement was a common form of punishment in ancient times, used by various civilizations such as the Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. They argue that Jesus’ execution might have involved impalement rather than crucifixion on a cross. However, the evidence provided here mostly pertains to the general use of impalement in different cultures and does not directly support the specific claim that Jesus was impaled on a stake.
It is important to note that the Romans, who were responsible for Jesus’ execution, had their own specific methods of crucifixion. Crucifixion was distinct from impalement in that it involved nailing or tying the victim to a wooden structure, whereas impalement typically involved driving a stake through the victim’s body. Roman crucifixion involved different types of crosses and techniques, including the crux simplex (a single upright pole), the crux commissa (a T-shaped cross), and the crux immissa (the familiar Latin cross).
While the Jehovah’s Witnesses provide an interesting overview of impalement practices in ancient times, the majority of historical and archaeological evidence supports the view that Jesus was crucified on a cross. Ancient historians such as Josephus and Tacitus documented the Roman practice of crucifixion, and archaeological findings, like the remains of a crucified man found near Jerusalem, show that nails were used to affix the victim’s limbs to a cross-like structure. Thus, the argument that Jesus was impaled on a stake remains a minority view among historians and biblical scholars.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that Jesus was impaled on a stake rather than crucified on a cross based on their interpretation of the Greek words “stau·rosʹ” and “xyʹlon.” They assert that “stau·rosʹ” means an upright stake or pole and that “xyʹlon” similarly refers to a single piece of wood or timber. They also cite various sources to support their claim that the cross is a later development in Christian tradition and was not the original method of Jesus’ execution.
While it is true that “stau·rosʹ” can mean an upright stake or pole, its meaning in the context of Roman crucifixion is less clear. The Roman practice of crucifixion involved various methods and structures, including a single upright pole (crux simplex), a T-shaped cross (crux commissa), and the familiar Latin cross (crux immissa). In some cases, a horizontal crossbeam could have been affixed to an upright stake, creating a cross-like structure. The precise form of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified is not explicitly detailed in the Bible.
The use of “xyʹlon” in the New Testament does not definitively prove that Jesus was impaled on a single stake. The term “xyʹlon” can mean “wood” or “tree” and, in some contexts, can refer to the instrument of crucifixion. Its use does not necessarily exclude the possibility of a crossbeam.
While the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation of the Greek words is not without basis, it remains a minority view in scholarly circles. The prevailing opinion among historians and biblical scholars is that Jesus was crucified on a cross, based on the descriptions provided by ancient historians, such as Josephus and Tacitus, who documented the Roman practice of crucifixion. Additionally, archaeological evidence, such as the remains of a crucified man found near Jerusalem, shows that nails were used to affix the victim’s limbs to a cross-like structure.
Figurative Use Argument
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ figurative use argument refers to metaphorical or symbolic representations of impalement or crucifixion in the Bible. This argument focuses on the spiritual and transformative aspects of the crucifixion event rather than the specific historical details of the method of Jesus’ execution. The figurative use argument does not necessarily provide direct support for the belief that Jesus was impaled on a stake rather than crucified on a cross.
Using the historical-grammatical approach to biblical interpretation, we can see that the cited scriptures are indeed using figurative language to convey deeper spiritual meanings. This approach takes into account the historical context, literary genre, and grammatical structure of the biblical texts. The figurative use of impalement in these passages does not necessarily mean that Jesus was literally impaled on a stake; rather, it emphasizes the spiritual significance of his death.
In summary, while the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ figurative use argument highlights important spiritual aspects of Jesus’ crucifixion, it does not directly support their belief that Jesus was impaled on a stake instead of being crucified on a cross. The interpretation of these scriptures using the historical-grammatical approach suggests that the focus is on the spiritual meaning and transformation, rather than the specific method of Jesus’ execution.
We have said the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ argument (1) from the history of other cultures (Babylonians, Persians, Romans), (2) the original language words, and (3) the figurative use does not directly support their belief that Jesus was impaled on a stake. What about taking them cumulatively? Does it give more credence to their argument?
When considering the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ arguments cumulatively, it is important to note that each argument provides different perspectives and lines of reasoning. However, even when taken together, these arguments do not conclusively prove that Jesus was impaled on a stake rather than crucified on a cross.
(1) History of other cultures: While it is true that impalement and various forms of execution were used by the Babylonians, Persians, and Romans, this does not directly prove that Jesus was executed in this specific manner. The historical context provides insight into the various methods of execution used at the time but does not establish definitive evidence for Jesus’ impalement on a stake.
(2) Original language words: The Greek words “stauros” and “xylon” can be translated as “stake” or “pole,” but they can also be understood as “cross.” While the Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that these words indicate Jesus was impaled on a stake, there is no definitive linguistic evidence to settle the debate.
(3) Figurative use: As discussed earlier, the figurative use of impalement in the cited scriptures focuses on the spiritual significance and transformative aspects of Jesus’ crucifixion. These passages do not provide direct evidence for the specific method of execution.
In conclusion, although each argument offers a different perspective, none of them provide conclusive evidence for the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief that Jesus was impaled on a stake rather than crucified on a cross. While it is important to consider these arguments and the historical context, the debate over the exact method of Jesus’ execution ultimately remains unresolved.
In conclusion, while the Jehovah’s Witnesses present a case for Jesus being impaled on a stake, the majority of historical and archaeological evidence supports the view that Jesus was crucified on a cross.
Veneration and Worship
The argument on moral and biblical grounds regarding the prohibition of making images or worshiping idols is a separate issue from the debate over whether Jesus was crucified on a cross or impaled on a stake. This argument is based on the interpretation of the biblical commandments against idolatry, which can be found in Exodus 20:4-5 and Deuteronomy 5:8-9.
Some Christians, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, argue that venerating the cross or using it as a symbol of faith, such as wearing it as a necklace, goes against these commandments. They believe that the cross has become an idol for some Christians and that it distracts from the true message and purpose of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Others argue that using the cross as a symbol of faith is not a form of idolatry as long as it is not worshiped as an object itself. They believe that the cross serves as a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice and the hope of salvation for Christians and that its use as a symbol can be a meaningful expression of faith.
While the debate over the use of the cross as a symbol is an important discussion within Christianity, it does not provide direct evidence for the specific method of Jesus’ execution. The focus of this argument is on the appropriate use of religious symbols and the potential dangers of idolatry, rather than the historical details of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ argument that the belief in the crucifixion and the cross is simply a matter of church tradition passed down for so long that it is accepted as truth is a challenge to the mainstream Christian belief. They argue that historical and biblical evidence does not conclusively prove that Jesus was crucified on a cross, and they emphasize the importance of relying on the Bible for guidance rather than on human traditions.
However, it is important to remember that the belief in Jesus’ crucifixion on a cross is not solely based on church tradition. There is historical and archaeological evidence, as well as biblical evidence, that supports the idea of crucifixion on a cross. While it is true that the specific shape of the cross may not be explicitly described in the Bible, the available evidence and the interpretation of the original Greek words used in the New Testament do support the traditional view of the crucifixion on a cross.
Ultimately, whether one agrees with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ argument or not depends on how they interpret the available evidence and biblical passages. It is important to keep an open mind and critically examine both the historical and biblical evidence to form a well-informed opinion on this matter.