'Cross' vs. 'Stake'? Not Entirely


I just happened to read this post by Trent Horn (very excellent BTW) about the ol’ Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that traditional/mainstream Christians are wrong in using the cross because Jesus actually would have been hung on a stake instead of the traditional cross that we know of.

This is actually what got me thinking. Very often, these debates can be summarized like this:
“Jesus was hung on a stake.”
“No, He was hung on a cross.”

I don’t know about you, but I see a problem with this. Not just with JWs, but also - especially - with people who make the cross argument. You want to know why? Here’s why.

My bone is really with that counter-argument: “No, He was crucified, He was hung on a cross.” Not too many notice it, but that statement actually presupposes two things: that a ‘cross’ is (1) different from a ‘stake’ and (2) made out of two or more pieces of wood that are perpendicular to each other. So when people say ‘crucified’, what they often mean is, ‘hung on a gibbet made out of two wooden beams perpendicular to each other’. You know, like our crucifixes.

But that presupposition is not entirely accurate.

I’ll focus on the word ‘cross’, because this is what trips up a lot of people. News flash: a cross (I’ll use the Latin word crux from here on to describe the device) actually does not have a definite shape. I’ll be honest with you: yes, there are times when a crux can be a simple vertical pole - in fact, the word does mean in the broadest sense ‘pole’. But, there are also other times when a crux could consist of two wooden beams joined in the shape of a T, a t, or an X. Heck, a tree can even be a crux. As long as it’s a pole/pole-like thing or a contraption which builds on the basic pole that you can hang people on.

The words crux or stauros simply meant ‘some kind of torture/execution device used for hanging people’ - nothing about their exact shape. They could and do mean ‘stake/pole’ or in some cases ‘more fancy variations shaped like a t or T’, but there was no connotation that specified what they are to look along the lines of, ‘cruxes (cruces?) are stakes’ or ‘cruces are t/T-shaped.’ To sum: a stake or a T or t-shaped gibbet are ‘crosses’, but not all ‘crosses’ were vertical stakes or Ts or ts.

The idea of applying the word ‘cross’ specifically to ‘a T or t or X shaped contraption’ actually only came with the early Christians. Christians had the idea that Jesus’ particular crux was shaped like a T or t and thus depicted it; when crucifixion as a punishment was long gone, all’s that’s left was those depictions of T or t shaped cruces or Jesus hanging on a T or t shaped crux. And so people subconsciously began to form the idea that crosses must have generally looked like that - because, you know, they’re crosses. :cool:

These are all ‘crosses’. Yes, even the stake on the left.

It’s telling that in English, one can use the term ‘cross-shaped’ without elaborating about just what a ‘cross’ is shaped like.

I’d like to use a modern analogy. The way we currently use the word ‘cross’ is like trying to use the term ‘chair’ with an added connotation of ‘the chair must look like this’ or ‘the chair is of this color’ or ‘the chair is this big’ in order for it to qualify as a real chair. But while chairs are all built using the same basic idea, not all chairs are of the same size or appearance or color or even number of legs. That doesn’t make single-legged chairs any less of a chair than a four-legged one.

So if you’ll ask me, a better argument is not simply to say that “Jesus was hung on a cross.” Instead:

The gibbet, the crux Jesus was hung on does not necessarily have to be a stake - it could have been any other shape, like a t, or a T, or an X, or whatever. But from early Christian testimony we can infer that the early Christians believed that the specific crux Jesus was hung on was shaped something like a T or t.

This is a mouthful, :wink: but at least, it’s a honest argumentation if you ask me.


So what I’m saying is, I think both camps are guilty in inserting presuppositions into key terms. JWs are guilty of in thinking that only a ‘stake’ can actually be a stauros/crux (to the exclusion of T or t or X or whatever shaped two-beam-or-more gibbet), while traditional Christians are guilty of thinking that only a T or t or X or whatever shaped two-beam-or-more gibbet is actually a ‘cross’ (to the exclusion of simpler contraptions like…a stake). Both sides are guilty of imputing a very specific meaning to the word ‘cross’ - though I guess that can’t be helped.

I did notice two arguments in Trent Horn’s post that I see in other JW rebuttals: the two nails argument and the ‘signpost above Jesus’ head argument’. If you ask me, they’re really weak arguments. Yes, John does seem to describe two nails piercing Jesus’ hands, but that doesn’t automatically disprove the ‘Jesus was hung on a stake’ claim. And the attempt to invoke Matthew’s description of the placard being “above [Jesus’] head” is really just unnecessary nitpicking IMHO. Yes, they are above His arms in the standard depiction, if you wanna get very literal/nitpicky - but you gotta admit, the sign is, in a way, still “above His head.” :wink:

This one picture demonstrates why the arguments are not too strong. Showing a stake does not preclude two nails and depicting the sign literally above the head. Really, all those two arguments show is, that Watchtower artists are sloppy/too reliant on their iconography. Can’t they check their Bible (don’t worry, it says the same thing as other translations in those two instances)? :stuck_out_tongue:


The cross/stake argument might not be worth fighting, were it not that the JWs are attacking the cross as a symbol, much as their forebears attacked the crucifix.

It is true that a sign above one’s upraised hands is also above one’s head; but it is also true that the four-limbed cross as a symbol of our faith is very old, and should not be conceded easily.



You mean the T/t-shaped crux, as opposed to the stake/pole-shape crux. :smiley:

JWs do make a big deal about Christians using the T/t-shaped cross. But they’re really doing it in the wrong century. Back in the old days, you would indeed find some controversies erupt over stuff that we would find now trivial - say, portraying Jesus as suffering and dead instead of triumphant and erect on the cross or portraying Jesus nailed with only three nails instead of four. I think the advantage we have now is that we can say, “it doesn’t really matter” and move on. It isn’t a big deal anymore for many Christians just how many nails were used to pierce Jesus or just how tall His cross was - these are just side issues.


I’d like to add this for further thought.

There is this scholar named Gunnar Samuelsson who published a thesis on crucifixion in antiquity. (Guess what the title is: Crucifixion in Antiquity. :D)

He argued that perhaps, there really was no specific method called ‘crucifixion’ back then. Instead, what you had was a whole spectrum of punishments which involved suspending/hanging a person, all of which shared common terminology (crux, stauros, skolops, patibulum, etc.). In his opinion, our idea of ‘crucifixion’ really came into being when Jesus was condemned to such an executionary suspension - or maybe perhaps not even then, but when later Christians interpreted the event.

In other words, that specific event - Jesus’ hanging - gave rise to our notions of what ‘crucifixion’ or a ‘cross’ is or should be. We do not consciously realize it, but our perceptions of ‘suspension punishments’ in antiquity are colored by that one, single event.

Understandably, Samuelsson got some flak from people who thought he was denying Jesus’ ‘crucifixion’. But they’re really misreading him. In his own website (here) he has this Q and A portion where he clarifies his opinion.

Q: How do you think Jesus died? In other words how would he have probably been executed according to the available evidence?

A: The question of how Jesus actually died, i.e., the area of historicity, is outside the scope of my investigation. My field is classical philology and New Testament exegesis, i.e., the area of text. My question is what knowledge we could derive from the texts themselves. The answer of my thesis is - and this is the provocative and widely misunderstood issue - that it is strikingly sparse, both in the ancient pre-Christian and extra-Biblical literature as well as the Biblical.

The overwhelming number of text offer only a noun (e.g., stauros) or a verb (e.g., anastauroun or anaskolopizein). In almost every lexicon or dictionary these terms are said to mean “cross” or “to crucify.” **But, as I try to show in my thesis, they are used in a much wider sense than that. The verbs refer to some kind of suspension of a human being, living or dead while the noun refers to the suspension device used in such suspension.

My topic appears almost to be made to be misunderstood. It is so close to the heart of the Christian fate that is easy to react emotionally instead of logically.** But, there is no need to react in such way since I do not question the historicity of the death of Jesus. Neither do I question the traditional understanding of how he died. My question deals with to what extent a traditional understanding of the death of Jesus (i.e., that Jesus carried a crossbeam toward Calvary, but since he could not stand the burden of the cross a passer-by was forced to carry it for him. On Calvary the rest of the cross was awaiting, that the two parts were conjoined, and Jesus was then nailed to the crucifix-like cross) has support in the passion narratives.

As a matter of fact, these texts are strikingly silent when it comes to depicting the actual event. The texts say that Jesus carried a stauros, which has a much wider usage in antiquity than just referring to a “cross,” towards Calvary, to be stauroun which is used in a much wider sense that just “to crucify.” Why Jesus carried a stauros, what that looked like (e.g., was it the whole execution tool or just a part - the “crossbeam”), why a passer-by according to the Synoptics was forced to carry it for Jesus, the text is silent about. The actual execution texts are silent about how Jesus was attached to the execution device.

This is the heart of the problem. The text of the passion narratives is not that exact and information loaded, as we Christians sometimes want them to be.

I’m basically borrowing Samuelsson’s argument in this thread: we - traditional Christians and JWs alike - impute too specific and too concrete a meaning to the words ‘cross’ or ‘crucifixion’ - we often use it to mean ‘hanging people on T or t or X or whatever shaped two-beam-or-more gibbets’. In reality, the ancient usage of the words are broader and more general.


This is what Samuelsson points out in his thesis: the word stauros, in a broadest sense, simply means ‘pole’. It doesn’t automatically mean ‘cross’ in the way we understand the word to mean (‘two pieces of wood joined together’).

“In some cases, it is a kind of suspension device, used for the suspension of corpses, torture, or in a few cases executionary suspensions. Very little or nothing is said about what it was made of or how it looked.” (p. 309)

JWs are correct in saying that stauros can/does mean ‘pole’ or ‘stake’. Where they are wrong is in saying that it can only mean ‘pole’ or ‘stake’ - i.e. a single beam jutting out of the ground. It can sometimes mean a sort of ‘hanging device’ - with no specific shape or form in mind.

As for the words crux and patibulum:

crux and patibulum are not used in the sense “cross or standing bare pole” and “crossbeam.” A crux is some kind of torture or execution device, and so is patibulum. The difference is that crux to a higher degree than patibulum refers to a standing pole. crux is more firmly connected with the suspension of humans than stauros]. The ecclesiastically pregnant term crucifigere did not evolve until the final years before the Common Era, and its usage is hard to define beyond denoting “to attach in some way to a crux.” (pp. 309-310)

Aside from being used synonymously with crux, patibulum can sometimes also mean a wooden beam or yoke, but it is not obvious how it was carried or why it was carried, since the surviving texts do not give any explicit indication.

If we’re going by the ancient broad definition of crux/stauros, IMO you can say that the Tree of Woe from Conan the Barbarian is also a ‘cross’.

The Roman playwright Plautus (c. 254-184 BC) makes references to the carrying of a patibulum in some of his plays:

Palaestrio: Well, Sceledrus?
Sceledrus: I’m at this job. I so have ears; say what you want.
Pal.: (noting his position) You’ll soon have to trudge out beyond the gate in that attitude, I take it - arms outspread, with your gibbet patibulum] on your shoulders.
Scel.: (still eyeing the door) So? What for?

  • Plautus, Miles Gloriosus (“The Braggart Warrior”) 358-360 (Act 2, 4)

Grumio: Oh, I bet the hangmen will hang you looking like a human sieve, the way they’ll prod you full of holes as they run you down the streets with your arms on a cross bar (patibulatum), once the old man gets back!

  • Plautus, Mostellaria (“The Haunted House”) 56-57

Bearing my gibbet (patibulum feram) I shall be carried through the city; afterwards I shall be nailed to the crux.

  • Plautus, Carbonaria, fragment 2

These quotes can be and are used as support for the idea that Jesus carried only a crossbeam (which is what patibulum is often understood to mean here) to Golgotha, where the standing pole (crux?) is waiting. But a careful reading of Plautus shows that he does not say that the patibulum was intended to be attached to the crux. For all we know, the carrying of the patibulum might be a punishment distinct from being hung on a crux: it could very well be a punishment tool which is carried separately and not necessarily a prelude to ‘crucifixion’ (being hung on a crux). Samuelsson’s point (and my point) is: the texts we have are too unclear and too diverse to make any conclusions.

Guess what the one element in a typical modern day scholarly or popular account of crucifixion that is actually attested in both biblical and non-biblical sources is. The victim was whipped first - that’s it. That’s the only concrete thing we know for sure about hanging punishments in the ancient world, that there was a sort of preliminary beating or scourging. Anything else you see described - the supposed height of a ‘typical’ cross, the stuff about the crossbeam and the vertical post - is just conjecture.


It has been noted that the ancient languages (i.e. Greek, Latin, Hebrew/Aramaic) lacked a special term for “crucifixion.” What has now been added is that the reason for this might lie in the fact that there was no specific punishment of crucifixion. The present author cannot see anything that speaks against the assumption that this absence of specificity is what it is all about: antiquity had no special terminology called crucifixion because there was no particular punishment called “crucifixion.”

Samuelsson immediately clarifies what this means.

Second, what can be said about the punishment that the terms describe?
The punishment consists in fact of punishments. There is a large group of terms and idioms which refer to various acts of suspension, and this is all that can be said about “the punishment” - it comprises various acts of suspension. The disparate verbs refer mainly to acts of suspension upon, or attachment onto, various torture or execution devices, which are referred to with various nouns. The variation is the only firm theme. The message of the texts in which the studied terminology is used appears to be that a punishment could be carried out in a way that was simply fitting for the moment. What is described as happening to Jesus on Calvary might then be only a momentary expression of local caprice. If the previous and subsequent executions had been described in texts, they might have been described quite differently. What has become the solid image in the center of the Christian faith might just be a freak of fate, not an expression of a well-defined and long-used execution form.

Third, how do the New Testament authors describe the death of Jesus on the philological level? The New Testament authors are strikingly silent about the punishment Jesus had to suffer on Calvary. The vivid pictures of the death of Jesus in the theology and art of the church - and among scholars - do not have their main source here. Perhaps crucifixion as it is known today did not even come into being on Calvary, but in the Christian interpretation of the event. Before the death of Jesus, it appears that there was no crucifixion proper. There was a whole spectrum of suspension punishments, which all shared terminology. What is described as happening on Calvary was, so to speak, crucifixion in the making, if it is allowed to allude to famous book suite.

In other words: Jesus was sentenced to be executed by a form of suspension punishment which involved a stauros/crux. There was no set written-in-stone formula for suspension punishments, other than it involves, well, hanging the person in some way; there was a lot of variations, so technically, the type of suspension punishment Jesus experienced is really just something unique to and specific to that event. (Unfortunately, the gospels do not go into the details.) It just so happened, though, that this particular execution was so influential that it colored the way we view the different, disparate hanging punishments in the ancient world. We associate and conflate such hangings with the particular one Jesus was subjected to and pigeonhole them into that same category. And that’s where we get our preconceived notions of what ‘cross’ and ‘crucifixion’ are from.

There might have been particular suspensions in ancient times that cohered well with the particular execution of Jesus - the ‘crucifixion’. But that doesn’t mean that you can just add up and combine these hangings together. Each texts which describe a form of hanging should be viewed on their own terms as specific and different cases, not harmonize them together as different presentations of a single, customary, set form of punishment - which is what most scholars, past and present, did.


I’m replying to your post again. You’re right; it’s only a big deal (seemingly) because JWs make a big deal out of it. It’s one of those ‘mountains out of molehills’ moments.

It may surprise some people to know this, but the ‘Jesus was hung on a pole/stake’ claim isn’t something devised by the Watchtower Society. Back in the 19th-early 20th century, there were already a few scholars who noticed the usage of words like stauros or crux in Greek and Latin literature. They noticed that both words can and do mean in the basic sense ‘pole’ or ‘stake’. They wondered how to square this with the gospels saying that Jesus was hung on a stauros. Simple, they answered; it’s likely that Jesus was actually hung on a simple pole, with the idea of Him hanging on a T- or t- shaped gibbet being a later product. Maybe the idea of a T- or t-shaped cross was even an import from other pagan cultures. (That’s really the hilarious thing about segments of early modern scholarship: don’t know where something actually came from? It must have been cribbed from Mesopotamia/Greece/Rome/India/whatever.) It would seem that the JWs - who up until then used the traditional t-shaped cross - found this idea appealing, because it would square in with their belief in stuff like the Great Apostasy, where Christianity basically got corrupted and went downhill after the death of the apostles, and all other denominations and religions being part of the network of ‘Babylon the Great’. How can you believe folks who got it wrong in such a small and trivial matter, i.e. the form of Jesus’ gibbet, with the larger and more important stuff? That’s probably why they adopted this theory and capitalized on t.

Remember that old saw about how a little knowledge can be dangerous thing?


Something to consider in this…


Based on the blood trails left on the body as evidenced by the shroud of Turin, it would seem the traditional cross we see in most Catholic churches is the one.


That depends on whether the Shroud is really that of Jesus or not. I personally believe so, but let’s be honest: the whole matter of the authenticity of the Shroud is still an open question.

Another thing is: even if we do suppose that the man in the Shroud (let’s say for the moment that it is Jesus) was hung with his arms spread-eagled, I don’t think it really definitively settles the shape of the cross/crux Jesus was nailed on. You can hang people spread-eagled on a t-shaped cross, but also on a T-shaped gibbet or even an X-shaped one, if you try.

(P.S. Pierre Barbet’s book is very popular, but it is quite outdated - it was after all originally written in the 1930s. A more recent work along the same lines would be that of the late Dr. Frederick Zugibe.)


I have another thing to tell.

I’m sure some folks here already know about the bones of Jehohanan, a man who was sentenced to death by ‘crucifixion’ (I continue to use this term for convenience) near or around the time of Jesus. If you don’t who he is, here’s the gist: in 1968, building contractors accidentally undug a tomb (dating from near the time of Jesus; it was in use from the 2nd century BC up until AD 70) at a suburb of Jerusalem known as Givat ha’Mivtar. (Givat ha’Mivtar is home to quite a number of tombs from the period; this is but one of them.) Archaeologists who were called to excavate the site found ossuaries - a stone box where the bones of the dead are placed after the flesh had rotted away - containing the bones of various individuals. By itself, this is nothing extraordinary; ossuaries were after all a feature of some Jewish burials in those days.

Givat ha’Mivtar.

What caught the eye of academics though was the bones of a man between twenty-four and twenty-eight years of age deposited in one of the ossuaries (along with the bones of two or three more people). This man’s left heel bone had a bent nail sticking out of it, with fragments of wood still sticking in the nail. This man was dubbed ‘Jehohanan’ (Yehohanan - the longer form of the name Yohanan ‘John’) because that name was scratched in the box the man’s bones were found in.


'Jehohanan’s heel bone at the time of discovery

Judging by the remains of wood between the head of the nail and the heel bone, it would seem that the nail was driven into Jehohanan’s heel on purpose: the nail was probably first driven through a sort of wooden plaque or washer before it was driven through Jehohanan’s heel. With this nail, Jehohanan’s heel was pinned onto something made out of olive wood; the nail was likely bent because it encountered a hard knot in the wood. It would seem that the washer was used to increase the head of the nail, making it difficult for Jehohanan to free his leg. The bent nail is only preserved because apparently, the people who buried Jehohanan could not take it off.

The fact that wood and nail was involved may point out to Jehohanan being executed in a form of punishment somewhat similar to that of Jesus - in other words, he was crucified.

Anthropologist Nicu Haas of the Department of Anatomy at Hebrew University recontructed and studied Jehohanan’s bones. He published his findings in 1970, where he concluded that Jehohanan was crucified, and that:

… The feet were joined almost parallel, both transfixed by the same nail at the heels, with the legs adjacent; the knees were doubled, the right one overlapping the left; the trunk was contorted; the upper limbs were stretched out, each stabbed by a nail in the forearm.

In other words, Haas thought that Jehohanan was hung like this.

Haas was unable to examine the remains any further partly because of serious health problems on his part and partly because of the insistent demands of the Jewish religious community for reburial of the bones. (This is actually an issue whenever archaeologists dig up bones in the Holy Land: ultra-orthodox Jews view the excavation and the study of human remains as a violation of the deceased’s repose and often clamor for the bones’ reburial as soon as possible.) In the end, most of Jehohanan’s bones were reburied, except for the reconstructed heelbone.



In 1985, though, two experts called into question Dr. Haas’ original conclusions. Archaeologist Joseph ‘Joe’ Zias and Dr. Eliezer Sekeles, in their reappraisal of the bones, pointed out that the nail was too actually short for it to pierce both ankles, as in Haas’ reconstruction. In fact, what were previously thought to be fragments of two heel bones through which the nail passed were shown to be fragments of only one heel bone and a long bone. Moreover, while Haas claimed to have found evidence of injury to the forearms - which he associated with Jehohanan’s arms probably having been nailed as well, Zias and Sekeles found no such evidence; Jehohanan could have simply well been tied to the cross. On the basis of their findings, Zias and Sekeles reconstructed Jehohanan’s crucifixion like this.

More recently, anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz studied the heel-bone using modern medical scanning equipment, which revealed that the actual piecing together and gluing of the (originally shattered) heel-bone by Haas in 1968 may have been incorrect - if so, it might affect the way we reconstruct Jehohanan’s crucifixion. Further work on the bones, however, is now nearly impossible, since nearly all of Jehohanan’s bones (except for the heel-bone and nail, and some additional fragments) have been reburied after the original anthropological work was done by Haas.

Now here’s the problem. Both Haas’ and Zias’/Sekeles’ reconstructions - in fact, all of the reconstructions of Jehohanan’s crucifixion (there are six of them, three by Haas) - presuppose that Jehohanan was hung on a traditional t- or T-shaped cross. But in reality, there’s really nothing in Jehohanan’s bones which suggest the form of the gibbet he was nailed to or his exact posture; after all, the only possible indication of Jehohanan being ‘crucified’ was the heelbone with the nail in it, and even that is just conjecture. Jehohanan could very well have been crucified on a stake. (No, I did mean what I said: ‘crucified on a stake’.) One guess is as good as another.


I will just stick with what Jesus said. :slight_smile:


Jesus did say to take up the stauros - the execution device you hang people on. But He didn’t say, ‘Take up the T-shaped stauros’ or ‘Take up the t-shaped stauros’ or ‘Take up the pole-like stauros.’ :smiley:


My friend, I was raised in a church (if that is a valid name for it) that purchased a baptist church and the first thing they did was cover up the cross on the front of the church, and they covered it with a giant plywood cutout of an open bible.

Besides the fact that it is next to impossible to breath with one’s hands above one’s head, the JWs with little knowledge of Greek came up with the word stake around the 1940s, before that nothing. But with Ezekiel 9:4 a sign that in Hebrew was not a word but a “t”, and that Jesus had open arms as a sign of embrace, I tend to go with history. Do not concede.


Jesus instead carried the cross beam only.


This is true - but only if you’re hanging with nothing to support your body weight. This isn’t the case when you’re either standing or sitting on something - basically anything that takes the load off your arms. Here’s a little experiment: try raising your arms above your head while you’re sitting or standing. It’s a bit hard, but not totally impossible - because there’s no pressure.

So you really need to qualify that. It is difficult to breathe with one’s hands above one’s head when you’re dangling off the ground and your arms take the load. But not when you have something like a ledge or or a pedestal. Or when you’re at ground level.

the JWs with little knowledge of Greek came up with the word stake around the 1940s, before that nothing.

Again, not exactly. As I noted in earlier posts (I really recommend you to read the earlier posts - they’re long, but I think I’ve addressed some of the issues), they just cribbed it from somebody else and capitalized on it.

But with Ezekiel 9:4 a sign that in Hebrew was not a word but a “t”, and that Jesus had open arms as a sign of embrace, I tend to go with history. Do not concede.

Yes, it’s a taw. Which can either be a + or an x, depending on the way you write it.

I won’t go into issue whether the fact influenced the symbolism (Jesus was hung on a T- or t-shaped gibbet and Christians reflecting on the event associated it with Ezekiel 9:4) or the symbolism gave birth to the belief (Christians read Ezekiel 9:4 and thought, ‘Maybe that’s what Jesus’ crux was shaped like’).


Okay, I’ll try to explain this for you. But first, I ask you to read post numbers 5 and 6 of this thread - I’m just repeating what is written in there.

Nowadays, whenever you say the word ‘cross’, what comes into your mind?

Most likely this wooden contraption that is in the shape of a t or a T. Sometimes you might think of an X-shaped cross. It’s also likely that you’ll contrast this ‘cross’ with a simple wooden ‘pole’ or ‘stake’; you may not realize it, but in your mind you don’t really see ‘cross’ and ‘pole’ as synonyms. In fact, a vertical beam might be the last thing to pop up in your mind when the word ‘cross’ or ‘crucifixion’ is mentioned.

Case in point: when I say the word ‘cross-shaped’, you know what it means right? Something shaped like a + or a t. No need to explain that.

But here’s the thing. The words crux and stauros encompass all and none of those meanings. Words like crux and stauros do mean some kind of torture or execution device, especially one you hang persons to. But, there’s nothing in those words which automatically suggests the shape or form of that device. It could be a stake. It could be a tree. It could be two or more beams joined together. It can be T-shaped, or t-shaped, or X-shaped, or some other complicated shape. As long as it’s something you hang people on. The two words, unlike our word ‘cross’, have a very broad range of connotations to have too specific a meaning.

In fact, I think their semantic range is quite close to the English word ‘to hang’. (You might notice I use this verb a lot here. :D) That verb, ‘to hang’, has a very broad range. Just speaking from a context of hanging people, you can ‘hang’ someone or something using a rope, but you can also use other stuff, not necessarily things like ropes or chains or vines. You can ‘hang’ people from a tree, from a gallows, from a noose dangling on a roof. You can ‘hang’ people indoors or outdoors. You can ‘hang’ people by their necks, but you can also ‘hang’ people by the arms or hands, by the torso, or by the legs or ankles. Too many possibilities for the word to conjure a single image. That’s pretty much the same thing you have with the ancient usages of stauros or crux.

Everyone in this picture is ‘hanging’.

To be back on topic. From the gospels we know that Jesus carried an execution device, a stauros to Golgotha, where He was hung/suspended (stauroun) to it. Now, the text doesn’t say nor imply anything about what it looked like (Is it a stake? Is it a T? Is it an X? Was it a specially-made beam, or was it an actual tree? The text is silent about that), nor anything about whether Jesus carried the ‘whole’ stauros or just a part of it. That is just us unnecessarily imputing too specific a meaning to those words. The passion narratives are not as information loaded as we want them to be.



I think everyone knows by now that Jesus carried only the horizontal crossbeam to Golgotha. :smiley: But where do we really get this claim?

In some literary references, you will find instances where people are made to carry a patibulum. The literal meaning of this word is ‘yoke’, but it is also used to refer to a kind of torture or execution device, like crux. (Although crux refers to a standing pole to a higher degree than patibulum does.) You can see this in the Roman playwright Plautus’ plays - I already quoted him in post number 6 of this thread (please kindly refer to that).

In one of Plautus’ plays you have one character saying this: “Bearing my patibulum I shall be carried through the city; afterwards I shall be nailed to the crux.” Based on this, some scholars had the following idea: since in other instances, patibulum is used in a way almost somewhat similar to crux, maybe the patibulum is a part of the crux? Since the word’s basic meaning is ‘yoke’ (while crux is ‘stake’), could it be that the patibulum referred to the horizontal crossbeam which was in some way attached to the crux - the vertical post?

And that’s basically where we get the idea that crucified victims must have carried only the crossbeam. From here onwards, it’s pure conjecture: how the crossbeam must have been fitted onto the post, stuff like that.

Patibulum = crossbeam?

But here’s the problem with that interpretation - actually, there are two problems. First, a careful reading of Plautus shows that he does not say that the patibulum was intended to be attached to the crux - only that the person was supposed to carry it before he was to be hung on the crux. For all we know, the carrying of the patibulum might be a punishment distinct from being suspended on a crux: it could very well be a punishment tool which is carried separately and not necessarily a prelude to ‘crucifixion’ (being hung on a crux). And guess what? Behind this conjecture lies the preconception I mentioned in the last post that ‘crosses’ must have been anything other than a simple stake.

Second, even if Plautus did intend for the patibulum to be the ‘crossbeam’ that was supposed to be attached to the crux, all it shows is, that that’s how that specific scenario occurred. It does not necessarily have to hold true for every other execution that used a crux. In other words, it only tells us something about that particular event in Plautus’ play; you really cannot use that reference to ascertain for sure just what exactly transpired in other crux-related hangings, such as that of Jesus’, because no two ancient hangings are alike.

You may draw a parallel between the gospel’s saying that Jesus (or Simon by proxy) carried Jesus’ stauros with stuff like Plautus’ and others’ references to the patibulum, but all that will show is that there could be some general similarities - that some particular hangings in ancient times cohered well with the particular execution of Jesus. But Jesus’ execution is not as the same event or process as the ones Plautus may have had in mind.

What specifically happened at Golgotha was more likely just the whim of the executioners rather than them following a ritualized formula. Seriously, the only apparent requirement for the victim to be stauroun/cruci figere (hang/fix on a crux) was that…well, he hang on a crux, itself an execution device of no specific shape or form; everything beyond that was personal choice on the part of the executioners.

And this is really where we can say most scholars are at fault. They mishmash all these ancient references to crux-hangings together and try to present it as an established, single process dubbed ‘crucifixion’. So scholars will often read the gospels’ description of the Passion into Plautus, Josephus or Seneca or vice versa. I’d even say our modern ‘understanding’ of crucifixion is around 20% actual literary references and 80% conjecture. (I’m tempted to say 90%, but that’d probably be going too far.)

I mentioned this back, but I’ll mention this again. Do you wanna know what the one thing we know to have most likely happened in many ancient hangings, because it’s attested in multiple texts (i.e. different events/cases)? The victim was beaten or whipped first before he was hung on the crux. That’s the one constant thing we can be assured likely occurred in a lot of ‘cruci-fixions’. Only that one. Everything else is variation, the shape of the crux, the manner the poor person is hung on it, or even whether to make the victim carry his crux (or something else) before he was hung on it.


If a ledge were used to sit on and bear weight, ultimately in an effort to prolong death, I see two problems.

  1. Breaking the legs would achieve nothing.
  2. It defeats the entire purpose of the method. All one would need to do is shuffle off the ledge and die rather quickly from asphyxiation. This would be relatively painless, there would be sleepiness then black out then death. And most importantly the one being crucified would have cheated their accusers out of the privilege of a prolonged death.

The purpose of crucifixion was to make an example to the people watching of what the rulers (Romans) would do to anyone who rebelled against them. Do you want this to happen to you, so by fear the people stay in line and don’t revolt.

Therefore they were lifted up a considerable height above the ground, certainly not at ground level. Then those from a distance could also see clearly and passers by also had the opportunity to witness and take note briefly.

They were also lifted above the ground so there was no capacity to touch, look but don’t touch.

That would make the upright beam far too heavy to be carried by a individual.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.