Was Christ crucified on a cross or a tree?

I’m wondering how to respond to a non-denominational Christian (who was introduced to Christianity through a Jehovah’s Witness point of view) who claims that, “There is a lot of historical evidence that Jesus was actually nailed to a tree with His hands above his head, not outstretched as the crucifix depicts”.

I don’t know what historical studies he is citing but I’m curious what the Catholic response would be to this and what historical evidence we could offer in return.

Thank you!!


Wonderful resource, thank you!!

How to respond?

Say, “That’s nice. What are we having for lunch?”


**Thanks for the informative article.
Medical research using cadavers has proved that nails in the palms will not support the weight of a human body. The nails will tear through the hands.
The wrist, however, has strong ligaments, and a nail there will not tear out. The Aramaic word for hand also included the wrist.
Archeological evidence indicates that the nails were driven into Jesus’ wrists. That same evidence also shows the direction of that blood flowed from His wrists.
It must also be noted that we have a reasonably accurate conception of what Jesus’ face looked like. **


I always invite visitors from the local JW temple into my home where I have on permanent display a number of Shroud of Turin photos.
When invited to attend the JW temple I asked if I could bring along some Shroud items. The JWs did not think that was a good idea.
I find it strange that so many Christian people reject this marvelous record of our Lord’s suffering and death.

The standard Roman crucifixion was a cross, and I bet that the “cross” was what is known as “rough-cut” limbs i.e. nothing planed or flattened out. Just a guess.

Actually if I remember correctly, it was not a cross, but an ‘X’.

You were there? :smiley:

I have a tiny hunch as to where you’re getting this, but just to confirm: where did you get this?

Our Lord did not teach that if we are to follow Him, we must deny ourselves, take up our tree and follow Him. This is yet another error of sola scriptura, in which a dictionary must be used to determine what the scriptures really mean. AYKM?

If we were to believe a tree instead of the cross, what was carried by Simon the Cyrenian?

I watched something on a religious channel, they were trying to figure out the exact details of the crucifixions, and they came to the conclusion it had to be in the shape of an ‘X’ due to a few things, such as stability, being able to hold a persons weight in the manner it was supposed to, ease of construction, etc.

They also mentioned that christian symbol of the X and how prevalent and significant it is in old biblical texts, Ive seen it explained how the word ‘Xmas’ for Christmas is actually more devout, but cant recall the exact details of this. The more they researched crucifixion, the more they found a normal cross would not work.

Ah, just as I thought.

Yes, I’ve heard this. This was one of those documentaries by the um, rather infamous Simcha Jacobovici (the guy who keeps claiming outlandish theories like the Jesus Family Tomb).

(Hey, come to think of it, didn’t we have a conversation like this a while back? Now I remember why I’m familiar with it - I’ve heard it from you before.)

For those not in the know, essentially, Jacobovici’s thesis in the documentary was that Jesus’ cross - well, actually, not just Jesus’ cross specifically, but the supposed standard shape of the Roman cross - was actually an X (or rather, asterisk-shaped) rather than a t or even a T.

Something like this.

But here’s the main problem with the theory: Jacobovici assumes that the http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/96/Christliche_Symbolik_(Menzel)_I_193_1.jpg/20px-Christliche_Symbolik_(Menzel)_I_193_1.jpg and the IX (iota-chi) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/99/Christliche_Symbolik_(Menzel)_I_193_4.jpg/20px-Christliche_Symbolik_(Menzel)_I_193_4.jpg monograms were actually originally representations of Jesus’ cross, and dismisses the t or T cross as only becoming “a symbol of Christianity after crucifixion stopped, when people actually hadn’t seen crucifixion.” He ignored ancient sources dating from before Constantine which do clearly mention or depict crosses (specifically, Jesus’ cross) as being a T or a t.

(9:7-8) Learn fully then, children of love, concerning all things, for Abraham, who first circumcised, did so looking forward in the spirit to Jesus, and had received the doctrines of three letters. For it says, “And Abraham circumcised from his household eighteen men and three hundred.” (Gen. 17:23) What then was the knowledge that was given to him? Notice that he first mentions the eighteen, and after a pause the three hundred. The eighteen is I (=10) and H (=8) - you have ‘Jesus’ (IHCOYC) - and because the cross was destined to have grace in the T (=300) he says “and three hundred.” So he indicates Jesus in the two letters and the cross in the other.

(Epistle of Barnabas, late 1st-early 2nd century)

Men weep and bewail their lot and curse Cadmus over and over for putting Tau (T) into the alphabet, for they say that their tyrants, following his figure and imitating his build, have fashioned timbers in the same shape and crucify men upon them; and that it is from him that the sorry device gets its sorry name (stauros, cross). For all this do you not think that Tau deserves to die many times over? As for me, I hold that in all justice we can only punish Tau by making a T of (i.e. crucifying) him.

-Pseudo-Lucian (ca. 125-after 180), Trial in the Court of Vowels aka Consonants at Law

I think it was like this

I dont think the body would stay up there like that though, gravity would pull it down, especially nails thru the wrists, the weight of the body would rip them out.

Im not sure what to believe about this, Ive seen good arguments for both styles, but not really sure us knowing the exact details of the cross make that much difference, all we need to know is people were strung up in some manner and died that way.

The oldest depictions of crucifixion or a cross that I know of.

(1) This is a little-known fresco in Rome dating from somewhere around the 2nd-1st century BC showing a bearded, naked man bound onto a horizontal beam - a patibulum - with some kind of fetter. This would make it one of our oldest known artistic depictions of a crucifixion or at least, a crucifixion-related punishment (predating Jesus even).

(2) This is a late 1st century graffiti found in Pompeii. It shows what seems to be a Latin cross, plus a sort of ledge with a stake attached midway through it, with the letters VIV above it. The graffiti as a whole is often interpreted as a sentence: vivat crux. While a few former scholars interpreted this as a Christian acclamation, it’s more likely that this was a crude insult: “May you live on the cross.” (In other words, may you suffer long and hard.)

(3) This meanwhile is another graffiti scratched in a wall in Pozzuoli (ancient Puteoli) in southern Italy. What’s interesting about this drawing is that near it is scratched a name: Alcimilla. Since this is a woman’s name, either (if we suppose this name is a caption to this drawing) this drawing actually depicts a crucified woman or, a man given a woman’s name as a mocking gesture. this sketch shows the victim hanging, with arms widespread, on a T-shaped cross.

The subject’s legs are wide open, with his/her feet seemingly separate and straddling the vertical beam. Notably, the victim is shown to ‘sit’ on a kind of ledge (there’s that ‘seat’ again).

(4) This is the famous Alexamenos graffiti from Rome (2nd-3rd century). The crucified figure is here shown with a donkey’s head, crucified on a T-shaped cross, with feet separate from each other (and seemingly resting on a footrest). To the left of this figure is a young man, raising one hand in a gesture possibly suggesting worship. Beneath the cross there is a caption written in crude Greek: Αλεξαμενος σεβετε Θεον “Alexamenos, worship god.” However, it has been suggested that σεβετε should be understood as a phonetic misspelling of σεβεται, ‘worships’. As a result, the full inscription would then be translated as “Alexamenos worships a god” or “Alexamenos worships [his] god.”

The inscription, believed to be one of, if not the, earliest pictorial representations of the crucified Jesus, is usually thought to be a mocking depiction of a Christian in the act of worship.

(5) And this is a carved gemstone (an amulet of some sort) from the 2nd-3rd century showing the crucified Jesus. Jesus here is depicted as crucified on a T-shaped cross, completely naked, resting/sitting on a short ledge (hey, there it is again!) midway through through the vertical post, with His feet not nailed, but dangling freely. In fact, Jesus’ hands do not seem to be nailed in this depiction either, but simply tied to the patibulum.

All in all, these depictions have a number of things in common:

  • At least four of them clearly depict a T-or-t shaped cross
  • The subject is naked
  • A sort of ‘seat’ or ledge is attached midway through the vertical post; three of them depict the crucified as sitting on this ledge
  • The feet are not nailed together (as in traditional, post-medieval Western crucifixes), but either nailed separately or not nailed at all

In addition to these depictions, you have the so-called staurogram, a symbol composed by the Greek letter tau (Τ) superimposed on the letter rho (Ρ), used by the early Christians to abbreviate the Greek word stauros (“cross”) or stauroō (“crucify”): it is used in this way in very early New Testament manuscripts such as Papyrus 66 (ca. early 3rd century), Papyrus 75 (ca. AD 175-225) and Papyrus 45 (ca. mid-3rd century)

A scholar named Larry Hurtado has recently argued that the staurogram could actually be the earliest extant Christian depictions of the crucified Jesus (the T = the cross; the loop on the P = the head of the crucified). It is now a sort of given to assume that Christians did not visually portray Jesus on the cross until the 4th-5th century, with some even drawing conclusions from this apparent absence. (The Alexamenos graffito doesn’t count as it was made by a non-Christian who is mocking Christians.) Hurtado however says that no, the early Christians did in a way depict Jesus crucified in the form of the staurogram.

It is these precisely these key pieces of evidence that Simcha Jacobovici ignored in his documentary.

This was a theory popularized by Dr. Pierre Barbet in the 1930s. The problem with the wrist theory, however, is that during his experiments (which involved the use of amputated limbs and human cadavers) you might say that there was something flawed in Barbet’s methods, which led him to the wrong conclusion.

What Barbet did was essentially use a single amputated arm, drive a nail through its palm, and suspend an 88-pound weight from the elbow. The nail did tear through the hand after ten minutes. However, the late Dr. Frederick Zugibe argued that the results were skewed for a number of reasons:

(1) Barbet’s theory was based on the tension formula - which is applicable only to a free-hanging person. In other words, Barbet’s theory (that the hand would rip off the nail when driven through the palm) would only be true if we suppose that the person crucified was only nailed through the palms - he is left dangling, with his feet not nailed or tied to the upright.

What would happen if:

INDENT The victim’s hands were not nailed, but tied?
(2) The victim was resting or sitting on some kind of support - which would help relieve the pull of gravity?*
(3) The victim’s feet or legs were fixed in some manner to the vertical post?
(4) Any combination of the above?

  • What we do know from ancient sources is that at least in some crucifixions, a sort of ledge or peg is attached halfway down the upright post, wherein the crucified person could ‘sit’, thus relieving tension to an extent. (You might notice this support depicted in the artworks in my last post.) Some Church Fathers called this the ‘horn’ (cornu) of the cross, but it’s more commonly known nowadays as sedile or ‘seat’.

(2) Barbet conducted the experiment for one time only, using a single arm. He didn’t attempt to replicate it, which Zugibe argues makes it statistically insignificant and invalid.

(3) We don’t know the arm’s provenance - Barbet never mentioned it in detail. Zugibe wonders whether the arm might have been gangrenous; if so, the results would have been skewed, since in vascular obstructive disease the tissues would be less resistant to the force.[/INDENT]

Excluding the Shroud, we don’t really have anything to suggest how the hands would have been nailed to the cross. The only crucifixion-related archaeological evidence we have is a 1st century guy’s heelbone with a nail driven through it, suggesting that nails were driven through his ankles.

(And even then, just because this man was crucified in this particular way doesn’t mean that Jesus was crucified in exactly the same way as he was. There was no ‘standard procedure’ for crucifixion, actually: the only thing that was constant in crucifixions was that there was some kind of shaming the victim: he was whipped or beaten, and is naked when hung up on the cross. It wasn’t even necessary for the victim to carry the cross, just like in Jesus’ case: in some cases, it was already set up beforehand - all the executioners had to do was lead the condemned person to where it is.)

Even the Shroud itself is not as firm an evidence as it first seems: it only shows where the nail went out, not where it was driven in - and even then, only in one arm. Just because the nail stuck out through the wrist area (in one arm) doesn’t necessarily mean that the nail was driven through the wrist.

I should actually say, it’s actually Mr. Jacobovici’s X or asterisk cross that is unknown on the historical record as far as I know (despite what his documentary claims). We do not have any historical sources that speak of crosses being X-shaped, much less asterisk (an X plus an upright post) shaped. When the shape of crosses are described or depicted, it’s usually a T or a † shape.

I know what y’all are thinking. Wait a moment, wasn’t St. Andrew crucified on an X-shaped cross?

Here’s the interesting thing actually. The idea that St. Andrew’s cross was X-shaped actually dates no earlier than the Middle Ages. In older accounts (and in older depictions of Andrew’s martyrdom - those that predate the 12th-13th century), Andrew is depicted as being crucified on a ‘regular’ Latin cross, a †. That, or he is shown as being hung from a tree.

Crucifixio Andreae, just in case you missed the caption. :smiley:


In fact, in the apocryphal Acts of Andrew (mid-2nd century), our earliest known literary source for the tradition of Andrew’s martyrdom, the cross where Andrew was hung in is heavily implied as being †-shaped. In the work, Andrew, before he was crucified, praises his cross, likening it to the one Jesus was hung on. This is what he says:

“I know thy mystery, for the which thou art set up: for thou art planted in the world to establish the things that are unstable: and the one part of thee stretcheth up toward heaven that thou mayest signify the heavenly word: and another part of thee is spread out to the right hand and the left that it may put to flight the envious and adverse power of the evil one, and gather into one the things that are scattered abroad. And another part of thee is planted in the earth, and securely set in the depth, that thou mayest join the things that are in the earth and that are under the earth unto the heavenly things.

Andrew’s words clearly envision a Latin cross. He says “one part of thee stretcheth up toward heaven … another part of thee is spread out to the right hand and the left … another part of thee is planted in the earth.” That doesn’t sound like an X to me.

Fun fact: strictly speaking, the Latin word crux only referred to the upright post, the stake. (This I think is really the source of the confusion.) The horizontal beam that is attached to the crux is called the patibulum, the ‘yoke’.

Both terms - crux and patibulum - can sometimes be used to refer to the device as a whole, but in classical Roman sources, you also see a distinction in particular cases, say when describing what the condemned person bears: what the condemned carries is a patibulum, not a crux. We have no classical source that describe the carrying of a crux; they all speak of the patibulum being carried, the person bearing said beam towards the crux.

(This is the reason why a few scholars have wondered: what if the carrying of the patibulum was actually a separate punishment from ‘crucifixion’ proper? But we don’t have evidence that the condemned men were released from the patibula they were carrying before they were hoisted onto cruces: on the contrary, many authors speak of individuals being suspended from patibula. The 4th-century author and astrologer-turned-Christian apologist Firmicus Maternus expressly says that victims were raised onto cruces while attached to a patibula.)

The only reason why we now speak of ‘carrying the cross’ is really because how the New Testament was translated into Latin. Jesus in the New Testament is described as both carrying a stauros and then also being hung from a stauros. Unlike in Latin texts, in Greek sources the single word stauros serves as a stand-in for both patibulum and crux. So in New Testament Greek, what is called a stauros means both what a Roman author would have specifically called a patibulum, and the modern meaning of the word ‘cross’ (patibulum + crux).

Now when the New Testament was translated into Latin, the Christian translators simply mechanically translated most instances of stauros into crux, which resulted in Jesus now being said to carry a crux to Calvary, even though classically speaking, that would have been an odd choice of words: He would have been carrying a patibulum towards the crux to where it would be attached.

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