The method of Jesus’ crucifixion, the real stauros

The crucifixion of Jesus occurred in Judea most likely between the years 30 and 36 AD.

Jesus’ crucifixion is described in all four of the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Jesus’ crucifixion is also attested to by other ancient sources and is also a confirmed historical event by other non-Christian sources.

According to the canonical gospels: Jesus was arrested, tried, and then sentenced by Pontius Pilate to be scourged, and finally crucified by the Romans at the demand of the Jews. Jesus was stripped of his clothing and offered wine mixed with gall to drink, before being crucified.

He was then hung or suspended between two convicted thieves and according to Mark’s Gospel, died some six hours later.

Most Christians believe the device of which Jesus was executed as being the traditional two-beamed cross depicted in art.

Crucifixion of Jesus
Most popular depiction of the Crucifixion of Jesus

However, most Jehovah’s Witnesses hold the view that a single upright stake was used in His Crucifixion.

Most common depiction of Jesus’ Crucifixion by Jehovah Witness’

It must be quickly noted, the question we are investigating is NOT whether or not Jesus was crucified, but rather what was the device and method used in the actual crucifixion.

To best answer this, we have to look at what was practiced historically and what was originally written in the Gospels.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were all originally written in Koine Greek, which also known as ‘Biblical Greek’.

Koine Greek was the fairly uniform Hellenistic Greek spoken and written from the 4th century BC until the time of the Byzantine emperor Justinian (mid-6th century AD) in Greece, Macedonia, and the parts of Africa and the Middle East that had come under the influence or control of Greeks or of Hellenized rulers. – Britannica

Papyrus 37, a 3rd-century papyrus of Matthew 26 written in Greek

In the original writings in Koine Greek, before they were translated into Vulgate Latin, the terms used in the New Testament to describe the device used for Jesus’ execution are: stauros (σταυρός)stauron (σταυρὸν), and xylon (ξύλον).

for example, in the Gospel of John:

John 19:17 (NIV) Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 

in Greek:

καὶ βαστάζων αὑτῷ τὸν σταυρὸν ἐξῆλθεν εἰς τὸν λεγόμενον Κρανίου Τόπον, ὃ λέγεται Ἑβραϊστὶ Γολγοθα

Xylon (ξύλον) means wood (a live tree, timber or an object constructed of wood).

Stauros (σταυρός) is the Greek word, originally meaning “upright stake”, which in the New Testament names the device on which Jesus was executed and is usually translated as “cross”.

The word stauros comes from the verb ἵστημι (histēmi: “straighten up”, “stand”), which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *steh2-u- “pole”, related to the root *steh2 “to stand, to set” (the same root is found in German Stern, or Stamm, the English “stand”, the Spanish word estaca, the Portuguese word estaca, the Polish stać, the Italian stare, of similar meanings)

Earlier forms of Greek, the term stauros (σταυρός) meant an upright stake or pole, but in Koine Greek it was used also to mean a cross. The Latin word crux was also applied to objects other than a cross.

Homeric and classical Greek, until the early 4th century BC, stauros meant an upright stake, pole, or piece of paling, “on which anything might be hung, or which might be used in impaling [fencing in] a piece of ground.”

In the literature of that time, ‘stauros (σταυρός)’ never means two pieces of timber placed across one another at any angle, but always one piece alone.

In Koine Greek, the form of Greek used between about 300 BC and AD 300, the word σταυρός was used to denote a structure on which Romans executed criminals.

This form of capital punishment involved binding the victim with outstretched arms to a crossbeam, or nailing him firmly to it through the wrists; the crossbeam was then raised against an upright shaft and made fast to it about 3 meters from the ground, and the feet were tightly bound or nailed to the upright shaft.

Regarding the execution of Jesus, the number of nails used to affix Him to the “σταυρός” was not specified in any Scripture and the number varies anywhere from 3 to 14 – to none in some arguments.

Speaking specifically about the “σταυρός” of Jesus, early Christian writers unanimously suppose there to have been a crossbeam.

Thus Justin Martyr said it was prefigured in the Jewish paschal lamb: “That lamb which was commanded to be wholly roasted was a symbol of the suffering of the cross (σταυρός) which Christ would undergo. For the lamb, which is roasted, is roasted and dressed up in the form of the cross (σταυρός). For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb.”

In contrast to this belief, in A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to The English and Greek New Testament, E. W. Bullinger, stated: “The σταυρός” (stauros) was simply an upright pale or stake to which Romans nailed those who were thus said to be crucified, σταυρόω, merely means to drive stakes. It never means two pieces of wood joining at any angle. Even the Latin word crux means a mere stake.

Bullinger’s 1877 statement, written before the discovery of thousands of manuscripts in Koine Greek at Oxyrhyncus in Egypt revolutionized understanding of the language of the New Testament, conflicts with the documented fact that, long before the end of the fourth century, the Epistle of Barnabas, which was certainly earlier than 135, and may have been of the 1st century AD, the time when the gospel accounts of the death of Jesus were written, likened the σταυρός to the letter T (the Greek letter tau, which had the numeric value of 300), and to the position assumed by Moses in Exodus 17:11-12

Exodus 17:11-12 (NIV) 11 As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. 12 When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset

(Epistle of Barnabas, 12:2-3). “The Spirit saith to the heart of Moses, that he should make a type of the cross (σταυρός) and of Him that was to suffer, that unless, saith He, they shall set their hope on Him, war shall be waged against them for ever. Moses therefore pileth arms one upon another in the midst of the encounter, and standing on higher ground than any he stretched out his hands, and so Israel was again victorious”.

The shape of the σταυρός is likened to that of the letter T also in the final words of Trial in the Court of Vowels among the works of 2nd-century Lucian, and other 2nd-century witnesses to the fact that at that time the σταυρός was envisaged as being cross-shaped and not in the form of a simple pole.

Torture stake, a simple wooden torture stake. Image by Justus Lipsius (6th Century).

Another belief is the possible T-shape ‘cross beam” could have been from a device used to prevent the victim from using their arms and hands to pull themselves up.

The condemned’s arms would be outstretch and secured to a shorter pole to prevent them from pushing up from the impalement and relieving any pain from the torture. Their feet would also be secured to the pole to prevent them from pushing up as well. This torture-execution method would have formed the T-shape referred to by ancient writers.

Impalement was a common method of execution in the region of Jesus and His Disciples. The Muslims call it Khazouk, a method of execution in which a spike driven through the victim’s rectum. A method of execution unfortunately being revived in many Islamic nations.

Khazouk, a method of execution by impalement used by Muslims.

Impalement was also a common way to execute criminals and often one’s political-religious enemies. Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, is the most infamous in history for use of impalement as method of execution.

Vlad III, known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Dracula 1431-1476 AD.

We may never know the truth of what method was truly used in Jesus’ Crucifixion.

We only know the evnt took place and some very probable method which was in common use at the time.

The cross symbol used today by Christians to represent Christ evolved from early Christians using the initial letter Χ, (chi) from Χριστός (‘Christos’ meaning Christ the Messiah). The Χ from Χριστός (Christ) was anciently used to represent His name, not symbolizing the method of His execution.

The X (Chi) was replaced by X (Chi) P (Rho) to make a christogram to symbolize Chriist by superimposing the first two (capital) letters—chi and rho (ΧΡ)—of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos) in such a way that the vertical stroke of the rho intersects the center of the chi. 

The Chi-Rho symbol was used by the Roman emperor Constantine I as part of a military standard (vexillum). Constantine’s standard was known as the Labarum.

Early symbols similar to the Chi Rho were the Staurogram (Christliche Symbolik (Menzel) I 193 2.jpg) and the IX monogram (Christliche Symbolik (Menzel) I 193 4.jpg).

The cross symbolizing His Crucifixion came later when He was depicted on a cross in art.

This also became the most popular symbol representing Christ and Christians.

Article Sources: 

Lord's Prayer
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Read a re-translation from original Greek to Modern English

 


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