The form of Jesus’ execution device is a topic that biblical scholars and historians have debated for centuries. The Greek word used in the New Testament for Jesus’ execution device is “stauros.” This word has been traditionally translated as “cross” in most English Bible translations. However, some argue that “stauros” could refer to a single stake or pole, rather than a traditional cross shape. So what does the Bible actually say about the shape of Jesus’ execution device? Let’s explore the biblical evidence.
The Meaning of “Stauros”
As mentioned, the Greek word “stauros” is used in the New Testament to refer to Jesus’ execution device. This word had a range of meanings in Koine Greek, the common language of the early church. It could refer generally to an upright stake, pole, or tree without specifying a precise shape. However, it was also used to refer specifically to traditional cross shapes. The word “stauros” doesn’t definitively tell us the shape of Jesus’ execution device, since it was used flexibly in Koine Greek.
For example, the Gospel of Matthew uses “stauros” to describe the cross shape that Jesus would be crucified on: “They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross (stauros) of Jesus.” (Matthew 27:29-32). This seems to imply a traditional cross shape that could be carried over the shoulders.
However, the same word “stauros” is also used in reference to Jesus’ torture stake prior to crucifixion: “Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross (stauros), he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha)” (John 19:16-17). This could potentially refer to a single upright pole or stake without a crossbeam, since Jesus carried it himself to the crucifixion site.
So while “stauros” offers helpful clues, it doesn’t definitively reveal the shape of Jesus’ execution device. We need to look at all the biblical evidence in context.
The Greek Word “Xylon”
In addition to “stauros,” some point to the Greek word “xylon” as evidence that Jesus died on a stake rather than a cross. For example, Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree (xylon), that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). Since “xylon” can mean a living tree, piece of dead wood, or wooden club, some argue this must refer to a stake without a crossbeam.
However, “xylon” had a broad semantic range and could also refer generally to wooden instruments and structures, like a cross. The word choice alone doesn’t prove what shape Peter or other biblical authors had in mind. “Xylon” is sometimes used interchangeably with “stauros” to refer to the same object (Jesus’ execution device) in close context. For instance, Paul says Christ redeemed us from the curse by “becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree (xylon)'” (Galatians 3:13), quoting Deuteronomy 21:22-23 which refers to hanging on a “stauros” in the Greek Old Testament.
So “xylon” doesn’t definitively indicate the use of a single-beam stake in Jesus’ crucifixion either. The full biblical context must be considered.
Historical Usage of Crucifixion
When interpreting these Greek words, it is helpful to consider how crucifixion was practiced historically. Roman crucifixion typically involved the use of a vertical stake (Latin: palus) combined with a separate crossbeam (Latin: patibulum). The vertical stake was permanently installed at the crucifixion site, while the crossbeam was carried by the victim to the location. Although single-stake crucifixions were possible, the traditional cross shape with crossbeam was by far the most common form used by the Romans.
For example, the Jewish historian Josephus describes multiple crucifixions where multiple victims were attached to each vertical stake (presumably using crossbeams), indicating the traditional cross shape: “So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses (stauroi), by way of jest” (Jewish Wars 5.449-451). This historical context makes a traditional cross shape likely.
The Latin terms used in Roman crucifixion indicate that the traditional cross shape was typically used for Jesus as well. For instance, the sign above Jesus’ head saying “King of the Jews” was written in Latin, Greek and Aramaic (John 19:20). This matches typical Roman practice of placing a sign recording the victim’s crime at the top of the vertical stake above the crossbeam.
So the historical context of Roman crucifixion strongly points to Jesus being executed on a traditional cross shape rather than a single upright stake.
Descriptions of Jesus’ Crucifixion
The Gospels contain specific details about Jesus’ crucifixion which fit a traditional cross shape better than an upright stake. For instance, the accounts record that nails were driven into Jesus’ hands/wrists as well as his feet. This matches a cross shape, where the victim’s arms were stretched out horizontally and feet stacked vertically. With an upright stake, usually only the victim’s hands were affixed to the stake overhead.
Pilate’s inscription above Jesus’ head (John 19:19) also matches traditional cross imagery, as does the practice of executioners dividing Jesus’ clothes and casting lots for his seamless tunic (John 19:23-24). These details strongly point to a traditional cross shape rather than mere stake.
There are also indications that Jesus’ crossbeam was portable, since he initially carried it to the crucifixion site (John 19:17). And the fact that condemned criminals in Jerusalem customarily carried just the crossbeam to their crucifixion instead of the entire cross (Matthew 27:32) also fits with typical Roman practice for executing prisoners on traditional crosses.
Additionally, John records that Jesus spoke with his mother Mary and the apostle John while on the cross (John 19:25-27), meaning his arms were likely spread out horizontally in their sight lines. And the piercing of Jesus’ side with a spear while on the cross (John 19:34) only makes sense with a traditional cross shape.
So the specific details of Jesus’ crucifixion recorded in the Gospels fit a traditional cross much better than they would an upright stake or pole.
Imagery of Jesus’ Crucifixion in the New Testament
The visual imagery associated with Jesus’ crucifixion in the New Testament also conveys the traditional shape of a cross rather than a single stake. For example, Jesus describes the manner of his death saying “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). This refers back to when Moses lifted up a bronze snake horizontally on a vertical pole to save the Israelites who looked upon it (Numbers 21:9). Jesus uses this as a metaphorical image of himself being “lifted up” to save those who look to him in faith while horizontal on the cross (John 3:15).
Paul also uses the visual metaphor of outstretched arms when referring to Jesus’ death on the “tree” (Galatians 3:13), following the common biblical imagery of open arms indicating welcome and mercy. This matches a traditional cross shape better than an upright pole. When Paul says that through the cross, Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities” and “made a public spectacle of them” (Colossians 2:15), this recalls the horizontal crossbar that publicly displayed a victim’s crime. While a mere stake could “lift up” a body, only a cross would provide the full imagery that we see applied to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Additionally, the sign above Jesus’ head (Matthew 27:37) and the placement of the victim in the middle vertical beam with hands stretched to either side reflects ancient depictions of crucifixion on a cross shape. So the imagery used for Jesus’ crucifixion in the New Testament fits a traditional cross much better than an upright stake alone.
Objections and Rebuttals
Objection: Thomas said he wouldn’t believe until he saw and touched the nail marks in Jesus’ “hands and side” after the resurrection (John 20:25). So Jesus must have been crucified on a single stake with hands together overhead rather than outstretched arms on a cross.
Response: This ignores the possibility that more than one nail could pierce each hand/wrist. Additionally, the Greek words translated “hands” in John 20:25 and Luke 24:39 do not necessarily refer only to the palm but can include the wrist area. So the nail marks Thomas referenced don’t preclude crucifixion on a traditional cross, but can readily fit it.
Objection: The Greek word “crurifragium” for breaking the legs of crucifixion victims is not used in the crucifixion accounts and leg bones weren’t broken at Jesus’ death (John 19:32-33). So he must not have been crucified on a cross where this was common practice.
Response: While leg bones were often broken to hasten death, this wasn’t essential to crucifixion on a cross. And omission of the specific term doesn’t mean the practice didn’t occur. Since Jesus was already dead, breaking his legs would have been pointless (John 19:33). So these details do not exclude crucifixion on a traditional cross shape.
Objection: The phrasing “nailed to the stake” sounds like crucifixion on a single upright pole without a crossbeam (Colossians 2:14).
Response: This verse should not be taken as a technically precise description of Jesus’ execution device. The wording reflects Paul’s intent to emphasize that the legal record of sins was figuratively nailed to the execution device when Jesus’ body was nailed at his death. This does not preclude a traditional cross shape which Jesus was literally nailed to.
Objection: Jesus carried the torture stake (stauros) by himself on the way to crucifixion (John 19:17). He couldn’t carry a whole cross that way.
Response: As noted earlier, condemned criminals typically carried only the crossbeam (patibulum) to the crucifixion site rather than the entire vertical beam. So Jesus carrying the torture stake himself matches typical Roman practice with a traditional cross shape.
When we examine all the biblical evidence in its proper context, the traditional cross shape fits clearly as the form of Jesus’ execution device:
- The Greek words “stauros” and “xylon” were flexible terms that do not preclude a cross shape.
- The historical background of Roman crucifixion strongly points to the traditional cross shape as typical in Jesus’ time.
- The specifics of Jesus crucifixion recorded in the Gospels match a traditional cross much better than an upright stake.
- The imagery of Jesus being “lifted up” and “outstretched arms” fits a horizontal crossbar rather than mere stake.
- Objections to the cross shape based on limited wording or details fail to account for the full context.
When we combine all the biblical evidence and consider the historical background, the traditional picture of Jesus carrying a crossbeam and then being crucified on a vertical stake with outstretched arms emerges clearly from the text. While we cannot completely rule out the possibility of a single-stake crucifixion, the overwhelming weight of evidence points to Jesus dying on a traditional cross shape rather than a simple upright pole or stake.