How was the actual cross used by the romans for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? Some texts say that he carried only the “crossbeam” of the Cross and not the True Cross. The Gospel of Mark says that Jesus “embraced” the Cross, which indicates he was carrying the True Cross. This is what our faith believes.
Historically, the records state that culprits carried only the crossbeam or patibulum (strapped across their outstretched arms) and the uprights were permanent at the site of execution.
We are not told specifically how it was done to our LORD.
The words Jesus “embraced” the Cross does not necessarily mean that he couldn’t have been carrying just the crossbeam.
It does not matter if we don’t know those details. He freely gave Himself up for us and suffered excruciating pain.
There’s nothing in Mark - or in the other gospels, for that matter - which states that Jesus ‘embraced’ the cross or how He carried it or even what it looked like. “And they are leading him out to crucify him. And they compel a passer-by – a certain Simon, a Cyrenaean coming from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus – to bear his cross. And they bring him to the place Golgotha (which is, being translated, ‘skull-place)’, and they were giving him myrrh-mingled wine, but he did not take it. …”
Crucifixion victims are usually spoken of as carrying their own crosses or crossbeams. Here’s a selection of quotes:
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
Chrysalus: When he shall have found out that he has made his journey thither to no purpose, and that we have misspent his gold, what will become of me after that? I’ faith, I think upon his arrival he’ll be changing my name, and at once be making me Crucisalus (cross-bearer) instead of Chrysalus (gold-bearer).
- Plautus, Bacchides 362
Bearing my gibbet (patibulum feram) I shall be carried through the city; afterwards I shall be nailed to the cross.
- Plautus, Carbonaria, fragment 2
Whoever will want to exact punishment on a male or female slave at private expense, as he [the owner] who wants the [punishment] to be inflicted, he [the contractor] exacts the punishment in in this manner: if he wants [him] to bring the patibulum to the cross, the contractor will have to provide wooden posts, chains and cords for the floggers and the floggers themselves. And anyone who will want to exact punishment will have to give four sesterces for each of the workers who bring the patibulum and for the floggers and also for the executioner.
- Leges libitinariae (De publico libitinae), 8-9
And whereas every criminal who goes to execution must carry his own cross on his back, vice frames out of itself each instrument of its own punishment, cunning artisan that it is of a life of wretchedness containing with infamy a host of terrors, regrets, cruel passions, and never-ending anxieties.
- Plutarch, Moralia 554
If a wrongdoer dreams that he is carrying one of the demons of the lower world, Pluto himself or Cerberus or some other one of those in Hades, it signifies that he will carry a cross. For the cross is like death and the man who is nailed to it carries it beforehand.
For a righteous man, it signifies that he will carry a wild animal and, if he feels oppressed by his burden, that he will be bitten and will die. If this is not the case, he will notice it, will cast it down, and will not perish. …
- Artemidorus of Ephesus, Oneirocritica 2.56
At daybreak the estate manager went and informed his master of what had happened. Mithridates neither saw the prisoners nor listened to any defense but immediately ordered the sixteen cellmates to be crucified. They were brought forth bound together by their feet and necks, each of them bearing his own cross. The men in charge of the punishment added this gloomy spectacle to the strictly necessary penalty as an example to frighten other slaves. As he was led away with the others, Chaireas said nothing, but Polycharmos, when he picked up his cross, said, “Callirhoe, it’s your fault we’re going through this. You’re responsible for all our troubles.”
- Chariton of Aphrodisias, Chaereas and Callirhoe 4.2.7
All these sources attest to the fact that the criminal who had received judgment by crucifixion could be forced to go to the place of execution as in a kind of public procession, usually while being forced to carry the patibulum (the horizontal crossbeam), all the while as soldiers, officials, or in the case of private crucifixions, the slave-owner or the assistants in charge, harm and torture the criminal both before and during the journey. (The Leges libitinariae is a bit ambiguous as to whether it is the slave or the workers who will carry the patibulum - operis singulis quae patibulum ferunt “each of the workers who bring the patibulum” - but this may refer to those who provide the equipment. It could be that the slave does carry the patibulum while the workers drive him or her on.)
To be precise, the records doesn’t state anything about that - that’s just a scholarly conjecture. If anything, the actual texts only give sparse and sometimes contradictory information. Really, the only element in a typical scholarly account of crucifixion that is attested in both biblical and non-biblical sources was that the victim was whipped first.
In other words, there was not one form of crucifixion. One scholar (Gunnar Samuelsson, Crucifixion in Antiquity) argued that perhaps, there really was no specific punishment called ‘crucifixion’ in those days, but rather a whole spectrum of punishments which involved suspending/hanging the victim, all of which shared common terminology. In his opinion, ‘crucifixion’ really came into being when Jesus was condemned to an executionary suspension - or maybe perhaps not even then, but when later Christians interpreted the event.
You might be interested to learn that it would be a better image of our salvation that our Lord carried only the crossbeam, and not whole cross. Allow me to explain.
The beam that goes across the neck of work cattle is called a yoke. This is what the plow, or the wagon, is attached to that allows the cows to pull it along. It’s attached there because that is the strong part of the animal.
In OT tradition, the yoke became a symbol of a few things. First, it was a burden that was placed on the Jewish people by God for disobedience. Second, it represented oppression by wicked rulers. Third, it also represented the burden of slavery.
Genesis 27: “ Isaac being moved, said to him: In the fat of the earth, and in the dew of heaven from above,  Shall thy blessing be. Thou shalt live by the sword and shalt serve thy brother: and the time shall come, when thou shalt shake off and loose his** yoke from thy neck**.”
Deuteronomy 28: “ Thou shalt serve thy enemy, whom the Lord will send upon thee, in hunger, and thirst, and nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put an iron yoke upon thy neck, till he consume thee.”
3 Kings 12: “ And he spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying: My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke: my father beat you with whips, but I will beat you with scorpions.”
Psalms 2: “** Let us break their bonds asunder: and let us cast away their yoke from us**.”
Given this rich history of the meaning of the yoke as a symbol of oppression, we shouldn’t find it odd, then, that the yoke of oppression comes to be associated with the slavery of sin.
Ecclesiasticus 40:" Great labour is created for all men, and a heavy yoke is upon the children of Adam, from the day of their coming out of their mother’ s womb, until the day of their burial into the mother of all."
Isaias (Isaiah) 9:" For** the yoke of their burden, and the rod of their shoulder**, and the sceptre of their oppressor thou hast overcome, as in the day of Median.
Lamentations 1:" **The yoke of my iniquities **hath watched: they are folded together in his hand, and put upon my neck: my strength is weakened: the Lord hath delivered me into a hand out of which I am not able to rise."
It should also, then, not be surprising to hear of Jesus, Himself, speaking about a yoke:
Matthew 11: “ Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you.  Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls.  For my yoke is sweet and my burden light.”
And we find warning of the yoke of sin later in the letters:
Galatians 5: “ Stand fast, and be not held again under the yoke of bondage.”
When you see and understand the rich history of the symbol of the yoke of oppression, then you come to realize that by carrying the cross-beam only, Christ symbolically takes upon Himself the yoke of our iniquities, the burden of our sins. This rich symbolism is lost if Christ carries the whole cross, because the yoke is actually a “cross-beam” that is laid across the necks of beasts of burden.
As such, I would assert that in God’s providence, the Romans supplied Christ with the cross-beam only, in order that the witnesses might in Christ see a vision of Him carrying the yoke of sin.
I researched Samuelsson quite a bit and found out that his book stirred up a little controversy - because people thought he was denying that Jesus was ‘crucified’ or something along those lines. But in fairness to the man, I think what he’s saying is right - and he’s not really saying anything new. He has a Q and A section on his own website:
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 passions narratives is not that exact and information loaded, as we Christians sometimes want them to be.
Samuelsson points out that the word stauros in a broadest sense simply means ‘pole’. It doesn’t automatically mean ‘cross’ (in the sense of 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)
As for the Latin words crux and patibulum, they are not really used in the sense “cross / standing bare pole” and “crossbeam,” as people today often assume. (This is where I eat my own words. :p) “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].”
Aside from being used synonymously with crux, patibulum can sometimes apparently 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. The quotes from Plautus’ plays (the ones I gave in the earlier post) might be used as support for the idea that Jesus carried only a crossbeam (which is what patibulum is understood to mean here) to Golgotha, where the standing pole (crux?) is waiting, but looking closely, Plautus does not say that the patibulum was intended to be attached to the crux. For all we know, the carrying of patibulum might be a punishment distinct from being hung on a crux: it could very well be a punishment tool which could be carried separately and not necessarily a prelude to ‘crucifixion’ (being hung on a crux). The texts are too unclear and too diverse to make any conclusions, which is basically Samuelsson’s point.
Our faith does not require us to believe in a specific type of cross.
The greek texts say he carried the “stauron” pole. This pole had a smaller cross beam like a standard electricity pole.
I think this is certainly one level on which we should understand the Passion.
Even if this was the norm, as Patrick is giving evidence for, I think that the OP shouldn’t be worried about the millennia of Christian art which shows Christ carrying an assembled cross. For one thing, it’s just a representation. I think a lot of westerners may be surprised to meet The Lord in Paradise and see that he doesn’t quite have the shirt brown beard, white skin, and hair parted in the middle. For another, since Jesus was a “late add” to that day’s execution schedule, there may not have been a 3rd setup at Golgotha, requiring Him to bear an assembled cross. Being such an extraordinary burden, that may explain why Simon of Cyrene was pressed into service. It seems to me that if random people were routinely required to carry execution devices to execution places, there would not be many people watching on the side of the road. Can you picture Simon making it to the end and telling the soldiers, “no, really! I’m just a guy who’s carrying this cross up the hill. It’s some other guy’s!”?
Jesus was fulfilling the Old Testament, Jesus was the Passover lamb (1Co 5:7-8) The blood of the Passover Lamb was to be put on the two doorposts and top post of the door (Ex 12). This means Jesus cross came from a doorway and had upright, cross beam and top post. Because a uses stake in the ground would have defiled Jesus the holy sacrifice and because everything that would make people unclean was removed at Passover, Jesus was not crucified on a previously used pole in the ground. For more details see Jesus Our Passover www.scripturescholar.com/JesusOurPassover.htm
Grace and peace,