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Was it a Cross or a Stake?

In my last post we got side-tracked from looking at the cross itself by an interesting quote from an ‘authority’ insisting Jesus died on a stake. The Insight book contains an entry on the issue of the Stake in which this single ‘authority’s’ words take up more than two-thirds of the entry. It turns out this is not the authority the Watchtower would have you believe. You can
read it here.

The Stake or the Cross?

What is further interesting about the Insight entry is the following Watchtower statement:

In classical Greek the word (stau·ros#) rendered “torture stake” in the New World Translation primarily denotes an upright stake, or pole, and there is no evidence that the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures used it to designate a stake with a crossbeam.’

Of course, if it ‘primarily’ denotes a stake then it might sometimes denote a cross. A word that has a primary meaning inevitably has a secondary meaning, otherwise it would have a singular meaning. To insist there is no evidence the gospel writers meant a cross when writing stauros is to assume too much and the historical evidence rather stands against the claim.

Stauros does indicate a stake or upright beam. If you erect fence posts you are using stauros, the verb stauroo meaning ‘I fence with pales.’ The stake as a means of punishment can be used in a variety of ways. It may be used for torture as well as execution. In the Old Testament criminals were stoned to death and sometimes their bodies hung on a tree as a warning (Deut.21:22-23) that body being considered accursed (Gal.3:13). This humiliation explains why Christ was described as being hung on a tree (Acts 5:30).

NB. Have you noticed the Watchtower has carefully avoided the language of those doing the crucifixion...Latin?

In the Jan/Feb 1985 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review Greek archaeologist Vasilius Tzaferis, wrote about the exciting find of the tomb of a 1st century man named Yehohanan son of Chaggol:

At the end of the first century B.C. the Romans adopted crucifixion as an official punishment...During this early period, a wooden beam, known as a furca or patibulum was placed on the slave’s neck and bound to his arms...When the procession arrived at the execution site, a vertical stake was fixed into the ground...the patibulum or crossbeam, to which the victim’s arms were already bound, was simply affixed to the vertical beam…If the victim was attached by nails, he was laid on the ground, with his shoulders on the crossbeam. His arms were held out and nailed to the tow ends of the crossbeam, which was then raised and fixed on top of the vertical beam.’

(Thanks to Randall Waters’ Refuting Jehovah’s Witnesses for this quote)

There was not only a crossbeam, the Romans had a name for it. A furca describes a fork-like structure, it is where we get our English fork.

Remember the words of Vasilius Tzaferis, ‘When the procession arrived at the execution site, a vertical stake was fixed into the ground.’ Isn’t this what is described in Matthew’s gospel?

As they went they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross.’ (Mt.27:26, 31-37, cf Mk.15:14-26; Lk.23:26-28; Jn. 19:1-22)

The Greek, however, is still stauros, an upright stake. Remember that the Insight book states, ‘In classical Greek the word (stau·ros#) rendered “torture stake” in the New World Translation primarily denotes an upright stake, or pole.’

Consider the facts studiously ignored by the Watchtower Society:

The Romans did execute people on upright stakes, but they also executed people on crosses.

The crossbeam on the cross has a Latin name, furca or patibulum, and slaves were made to carry this patibulum to the place of execution.

While stauros denotes an upright stake in ancient times, by Roman times it also referred to a cross, or the crossbeam carried by the condemned man. Strong’s wisely distinguishes between definition (an upright stake) and usage (a cross) saying:

4716 staurós – the crosspiece of a Roman cross; the cross-beam (Latin, patibulum) placed at the top of the vertical member to form a capital "T." "This transverse beam was the one carried by the criminal" (Souter).

Christ was crucified on a literal Roman cross (staurós). Staurós ("cross") is also used figuratively for the cross (sacrifice) each believer bears to be a true follower-of-Christ (Mt 10:38, 16:24, etc.). The cross represents unspeakable pain, humiliation and suffering – and ironically is also the symbol of infinite love! At the cross, Jesus won our salvation – which is free but certainly not cheap! For more discussion on the untold suffering of Christ on the cross see stauróō ("to crucify on a cross").

[The "cross" (Mk 8:34) is not a symbol for suffering in general. Rather it refers to withstanding persecution (difficult times), by the Lord's power, as He directs the circumstances of life. As Christ's disciples, believers are to hold true – even when attacked by the ungodly.]

Given the clear and accurate descriptions of Roman execution in the 1st century, what is it Christ calls his followers to take up and bear in Mark 8:34? Further, as I hinted at the end of my last post, Thomas has something to help us. His doubts about the risen Christ were expressed in a very particular way: 'unless I see in his hands the marks of the nails [plural]'

Finally, the picture at the top of this post is the famous (but ignored by the WBTS) Alexamenos graffito (also known as the graffito blasfemo, or blasphemous graffito). It is estimated to date from c.200AD and depicts a young man worshipping an ass on a cross. The Greek inscription accompanying it roughly translates,
"Alexamenos worships [his] god," and mocks Alexamos’ Christian faith. Even enemies of the cross know it is a cross on which Jesus was crucified.


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