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The Jehovah's Witnesses state that Jesus was not nailed on a cross, but on a torture stake. The New World Translation of the Bible is phrased accordingly. For example:

Matthew 10:38 (NWT)
And whoever does not accept his torture stake and follow after me is not worthy of me.

(All the other translations (that I know of) translate cross instead.)

What is significant about the difference between a torture stake and a cross, and on which one was Jesus crucified?


An illustration of what might be a torture stake:
Crux Simplex by Justus Lipsius (1547-1606). Wikimedia Commons.
Crux Simplex by Justus Lipsius (1547-1606). Wikimedia Commons.

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I think a lot of people don't tend to keep in mind, outside of the crucifixion narrative, that a cross was used for tortures and executions, and that Christians saying they are saved by the power of the cross is like someone today saying they could be saved by the power of the electric chair. Calling it a torture stake (whether or not one imagines it has a crossbeam), though quite unpoetical, certainly serves to re-emphasizes that. –  Muke Tever Feb 29 '12 at 12:44
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@MukeTever: Had it been prophesied that Jesus would have been executed via an electric chair, I don't think Christians would care less. The cross is a symbol of the faith because it was prophesied that the Messiah would be crucified. "For the preaching of the cross is to those who perish, foolishness; but to us who are saved, it is the power of God." (1 Cor. 1:18) –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Mar 1 '13 at 17:21
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8 Answers

up vote 45 down vote accepted

There is comparatively little evidence in the NT for the shape of the object. There is not much etymological help from the Greek words σταυρός or ξύλον, which do not clearly indicate either shape. Some of the textual hints we do have are:

But [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25, NIV)

This suggests that there was more than one nail placed through the hands, which is more likely on a cross than on a stake - though I could imagine a nail through each hand, with the hands side by side. But the JWs assert that the plural is referring to two nails, one through both hands and the other through both feet. The Greek reads "ἐν ταῖς χερσὶν αὐτοῦ τὸν τύπον τῶν ἥλων", which is "in his hands the imprint of the nails", clearly linking multiple nails to the hands specifically.

Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. (Matthew 27:37, NIV)

If Jesus were crucified as in the picture, the sign would be obscured by his arms. If it were also placed above his hands, Matthew could have written "Above his hands..." - but he didn't.

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

Several different crucifixion methods were used by the Romans, including the traditional cross and the simple vertical stake. But the reference to carrying suggests that Jesus carried the crossbeam or patibulum of his cross - contemporary sources indicated that condemned people could be made to carry their own patibulum, but not the entire cross or stake, and of course a stake has no crossbeam at all. (Now-familiar depictions of Jesus carrying the whole cross come along later.)

It is common ground between Jehovah's Witnesses and the rest of us that for most of Christian history, Christ's crucifixion has almost always been regarded as being on a cross. The problem that the JWs have with it is that they think that the cross is a pagan symbol which was mistakenly (or maliciously) adopted early on in Christian history, as Christian belief and practice departed from its original form. As a restorationist group, they believe that in rejecting the cross shape they are returning to Christianity as it was meant to be. Insistence on the 'torture stake' is not particularly important in itself, but it is a prominent reminder of their distinctiveness, and of the error into which they think others have fallen.

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+1 very insightful! Welcome to the community! –  dancek Sep 5 '11 at 22:31
    
excellent answer! –  warren Sep 6 '11 at 16:12
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A very good answer, especially for that last section pointing out that the Witnesses apply no particular theological meaning to the "torture stake" (an awkward translation, I think everyone agrees). –  TRiG Sep 11 '11 at 21:54
    
Not to say what I believe, but I bet you could fit a sign between that guy's head and hands in that pic –  Shredder Mar 21 '12 at 21:29
    
I once saw a documentary about this. A researcher with some medical knowledge claimed that in the stake position in the picture it'd be impossible for Jesus to breath for very long. Given that the Roman idea was to prolong the agony for as long as possible, it's was most likely a cross. I believe crucifix crosses have been dug up before. –  Matt Nov 25 '13 at 22:01
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I'd like to remark that the linguistic arguments of Jehovah's witnesses are based on the fact that is not certain if Jesus died either on a (single) torture stake or a (tradinally shaped) cross. Rather they feel the language used in the NT is not sufficiently clear on this point. Therefore they stick with the basic meaning of the NT word (stauros) as a 'torture stake'. By translating it with a 'cross', they feel they risk adding something to the word which might not be intended by the original authors in the first century.

Recently, there has been a Ph.D. study published about this very subject. The author basically agrees with this linguistic argument of Jehovah's witnesses.

Gunnar Samuelsson, Crucifixion in Antiquity. An Inquiry into the Background of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion, 2010, 413 p. (published in 2011).

  • A short outline of the book's content

The author investigates the philological aspects of how ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts, including the New Testament, depict the practice of punishment by crucifixion. A survey of the ancient text material shows that there has been a too narrow a view of the “crucifixion” terminology. The various terms are not simply used in the sense of “crucify” and “cross,” if by “crucifixion” one means the punishment that Jesus was subjected to according to the main Christian traditions. The terminology is used much more diversely. Almost none of it can be elucidated beyond verbs referring vaguely to some form(s) of suspension, and nouns referring to tools used in such suspension. As a result, most of the crucifixion accounts that scholars cite in the ancient literature have to be rejected, leaving only a few.

The New Testament is not spared from this terminological ambiguity. The accounts of the death of Jesus are strikingly sparse. Their chief contribution is usage of the unclear terminology in question. Over-interpretation, and probably even pure imagination, have afflicted nearly every dictionary that deals with the terms related to crucifixion as well as scholarly depictions of what happened on Calvary. The immense knowledge of the punishment of crucifixion in general, and the execution of Jesus in particular, cannot be supported by the studied texts.”

  • Own website

Since the author was frequently quoted in the media as a person who doubted the crucifiction of Jesus, the author, who is not a Jehovah's witness but a protestant pastor, has his own website in which he tries to take away some misconceptions.

See http://www.exegetics.org/

See also for general information: Wikipedia.

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Here are links to official material published by Jehovah's Witnesses which you can read online about this topic:

Why True Christians Do Not Use the Cross in Worship

Reasoning from the Scriptures: Cross

Insight on the Scriptures: Torture Stake

I recommend reading some of these for a more in depth, and rounded out answer with references to back up their claims. What follows is a summary of some of the important concepts from these sources. The Greek word stau·ros′ is usually translated "cross" in most English Bible translations. However this word originally meant an upright stake or pale. The word did not imply the idea of a second piece of timber. Some other parts of the Bible refer to the instrument of Jesus execution with the Greek word xy′lon. (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24) This word can mean timber, a stick, club, tree, or stake. The Bible shows that Jesus died on a stake at Galatians 3:13 where the Apostle Paul quotes Deuteronomy 21:22, 23. The cross as a religious symbol is pagan in origin. It was used extensively as a religious symbol in pre-Christian times. The Roman emperor Constantine promoted the cross as the symbol for Christianity. Apparently, this was done to make it easier for pagans to accept "Christianity." God's word condemns the use of pagan idols and all forms of idolatry. (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Exodus 20:4,5; 1 Corinthians 10:14)

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I am a first generation American Greek and I can tell you without any doubt that direct translation of the Greek words "σταυρός" and "ξύλον" are "cross" and "wooden". There is no ambiguity here it it very plain and to the exact point.

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The meaning may have changed. By comparing the writings of the time, namely homer, we see that it meant something different then. "In the literature of that time it never means two pieces of timber placed across one another at any angle, but always one piece alone." Usage and meaning of words can change with time, but the usage of "σταυρός" then meant an upright stake. –  Jeremy Nov 21 '13 at 16:47
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Interestiung reading, so I did some research and found that JW's are not the only ones who ever believed that.

Here is one example.

Anglican theologian E. W. Bullinger, in The Companion Bible (which was completed and published in 1922,[3] nine years after his 1913 death), was emphatic in his belief that stauros never meant two pieces of timber placed across one another at any angle,

"but always of one piece alone ... There is nothing [of the word stauros] in the Greek of the N.T. even to imply two pieces of timber."

Bullinger wrote that in the catacombs of Rome Christ was never represented there as "hanging on a cross" and that the cross was a pagan symbol of life (the ankh) in Egyptian churches that was borrowed by the Christians. He cited a letter from English Dean John William Burgon, who questioned whether a cross occurred on any Christian monument of the first four centuries and wrote:

"The 'invention' of it in pre-Christian times, and the 'invention' of its use in later times, are truths of which we need to be reminded in the present day. The evidence is thus complete, that the Lord was put to death upon an upright stake, and not on two pieces of timber placed in any manner."[4]

Of course anytime an article is obviously targeting someone because of their bias of prejudice of someone or a group is never a good thing.

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Welcome to C.SE! When you get the chance, please check out our about and specifically How we are different than other sites. I'll admit - I'm torn, because this is actually amazingly good information, and it is closely related to the topic at hand. My problem though, is that it's on the border of being an answer but not quite smack on. I wonder if you could maybe develop this further along the lines of "The case for stauros being stake or cross..." But this really is good. –  Affable Geek Oct 8 '13 at 2:50
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John 20:25 Settled this for me. "The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." Nails (plural) in His hands, would have to go at least one to each hand.

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Exactly! –  Wikis Nov 3 '13 at 7:24
    
This really doesn't show that he died on a cross or a stake. You could use 2 nails on a stake as well. Because the accounts don't elaborate on how many nails and the positioning of them, we can't know for sure. His hands could have been nailed side by side with one nail in each. –  Jeremy Nov 21 '13 at 16:46
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Denial of the cross goes hand in hand with the denial of Christ. There is one very important factor that is missing when trying to understand why it's so very important to reason about the cross vs a stake. Satan himself was defeated at Calvary by Jesus' crucifixion.

Does it matter if it is a stake or cross? Most definitely! Satan is called many things. Deceiver being one. Liar another. A wolf in sheeps clothing. To focus so dramatically on a symbol of the very defeat of the devil and to diminish its significance can only come from the Devil himself. To claim the cross is a pagan symbol to explain why it shouldn't be called a cross, rather a stake only proves the Devil's intent to minimize his defeat.

There isn't one single Christian who wears a cross that declares allegiance to paganism. There isn't one single Christian church that has a cross inside or outside their place of worship that does so to worship paganism. It is an outward declaration of the defeat of satan at Calvary. It is the very death of Jesus on this cross that sets every human being on earth free from SATAN'S trap!!!

To say a Christian who calls it a cross is paganistic is calling God a liar. And we all know God is not the Liar. Satan is. You can reason it away as much as you want to, but the truth is, only the devil hates the cross more than Jehovah's Witnesses. If you can't see the correlation here, then you have already been deceived.

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Welcome to the site! This answer would be a lot better if you could add references showing that this is a common understanding, and who teaches/believes it. Remember that "I believe it means..." isn't an acceptable answer, since this site isn't about personal interpretation. See How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Nov 24 '13 at 14:53
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The word stauros in classical Greek simply means an upright stake or post, not a cross. So keeping to the literal meaning of the word in the Greek scriptures we translate it as such.

COMMENT: The problem that the JWs have with it is that they think that the cross is a pagan symbol.

ME: It’s not the fact that we think that the cross is a pagan symbol (which it was going back to Nimrod and Ancient Babylon) it’s the glorying and turning the instrument of Capital punishment that Jesus innocently suffered upon into a symbol for people to Venerate. Wether a stake or a cross neither should be venerated and the fact that it was a symbol that goes back to Babylon just shows how wrong it is. Nowhere do the Scriptures suggest that a Christian’s worship should include the use of a likeness of the instrument used to kill our Lord Jesus. Could you imagine any of Jesus apostles or disciples after seeing Jesus horrific death carving up the instrument there Lord was just killed on, venerating it and using it as part of their Worship to God.

We also know how God Views things.

Hebrews 6:6 but have fallen away, it is impossible to revive them again to repentance, because they nail the Son of God to the stake again for themselves and expose him to public shame.

Exodus 20:4 You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.5 You must not bow down to them nor be enticed to serve them, for I, Jehovah your God, am a God who requires exclusive devotion.

Jeremiah 10:3 For the customs of the peoples are a delusion. It is just a tree of the forest that is cut down, Worked by the hands of the craftsman with his tool. 4 They adorn it with silver and gold And fasten it with hammer and nails so that it will not fall over.5 Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, they cannot speak; They have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not fear them, for they can do no harm, Nor can they do any good.

Also check out Isaiah 44:14-20 and Isaiah 46:5-7. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor.

COMMENT: Insistence on the 'torture stake' is not particularly important in itself.

ME: Very true, as Jehovah’s Witnesses it is of no importance, what’s important to us is that Jesus gave his perfect life so that we may have our sins blotted out and gain life by exercising faith in the ransom sacrifice he provided.

COMMENT: but it is a prominent reminder of their distinctiveness, and of the error into which they think others have fallen.

ME: no we just for-go tradition and translate the word stauros to its real meaning which is an upright stake not a cross.

COMMENT: A very good answer, especially for that last section pointing out that the Witnesses apply no particular theological meaning to the "torture stake" (an awkward translation, I think everyone agrees).

ME: OK lets trust other people and not think for ourselves. Majority Rules :P.

COMMENT: I'd like to remark that the linguistic arguments of Jehovah's witnesses are based on the fact that is not certain if Jesus died either on a (single) torture stake or a (tradinally shaped) cross. Rather they feel the language used in the NT is not sufficiently clear on this point. Therefore they stick with the basic meaning of the NT word (stauros) as a 'torture stake'. By translating it with a 'cross', they feel they risk adding something to the word which might not be intended by the original authors in the first century.

ME: Totally agree.

COMMENT: Denial of the cross goes hand in hand with the denial of Christ.

ME: Yikes.

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Welcome to the site. This is an okay answer. The script at the end is out of place for this site. I suggest that you edit it out. –  fredsbend Dec 17 '13 at 1:09
    
Welcome to the site! This next is just standard to help new visitors avoid misunderstanding the site (as I did at first.) As a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": the help page and How we are different than other sites?, and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Dec 17 '13 at 1:14
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