Did Jesus die on a cross or a tree?

Author: BibleAsk Team


Cross or a Tree

The question of whether Jesus died on a cross or a tree is a matter of interpretation and translation, as the original Greek word used in the New Testament can be understood in different ways. The New Testament, written primarily in Greek, uses the word “stauros” (σταυρός) to describe the instrument of Jesus’ crucifixion. While “stauros” is often translated as “cross,” some argue that it could also refer to a “tree” or a wooden stake.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, raise this question and teach that Jesus did not die on a cross because the cross is a pagan symbol. And in their effort to support this teaching they worded their New World Translation to say that Jesus died on a “torture stake” rather than a cross. But what is far more important than this is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses deny the deity of Christ.

Let’s explore the possibilities and implications of both interpretations, supported by references from the New King James Version (NKJV) of the Bible.

1. The Cross Interpretation:

a. Historical Context: The cross was a common method of execution in the Roman Empire, used primarily for slaves, criminals, and enemies of the state. It typically consisted of a vertical stake (known as the “stipes”) and a horizontal beam (known as the “patibulum”), forming the shape of a cross.

b. Biblical References: The New Testament consistently refers to Jesus’ crucifixion using the Greek word “stauros,” which is commonly understood to mean “cross.”

There is a New Testament clue that points that Jesus was in fact crucified on a cross. This clue is found in John 21. “‘When you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God” (verses 18–19). The fact that Peter would “stretch out” his hands shows that the Roman crucifixion usually involved outspread arms that would be positioned on a crosspiece.

References:

  • Matthew 27:32: “Now as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear His cross.”
  • John 19:17: “And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.”

c. Symbolism: The cross has deep symbolic significance in Christian theology, representing the sacrifice of Jesus for the redemption of humanity. It is seen as a symbol of salvation, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God.

References:

  • 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
  • Galatians 6:14: “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

2. The Tree Interpretation:

a. Alternative Interpretation: Some scholars and theologians argue that the Greek word “stauros” could also refer to a wooden stake or pole, rather than a traditional cross. They point to historical evidence suggesting that crucifixions were sometimes carried out using a single upright stake or tree trunk.

b. Linguistic Analysis: The Greek word “stauros” itself does not specify the shape of the instrument of execution, leaving room for interpretation. In some contexts outside the New Testament, “stauros” is used to describe a simple stake or pole.

References:

  • Acts 5:30: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.”
  • Acts 10:39: “And we are witnesses of all things which He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, whom they killed by hanging on a tree.”

c. Historical Context: Crucifixion methods varied across different cultures and time periods, and some argue that the Romans may have used different forms of execution, including crucifixion on a single stake or tree.

3. Implications and Interpretations:

a. Symbolic Significance: Regardless of the shape of the instrument of Jesus’ crucifixion, the theological significance of His sacrificial death remains unchanged. Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross (whether in the form of a traditional cross or a stake) as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

What is more important than the shape of the object on which Jesus was crucified is the fact that Jesus offered His life for our sins and His death bought for us eternal life. And in return He invites us, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25).

References:

  • Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
  • 1 Peter 2:24: “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.”

b. Historical Accuracy: Determining the exact shape of the instrument of Jesus’ crucifixion is challenging due to the limited historical evidence and variations in ancient crucifixion methods. While the cross interpretation aligns with traditional Christian imagery and theology, the tree interpretation offers an alternative perspective based on linguistic and historical analysis.

Conclusion:

The question of whether Jesus died on a cross or a tree is a matter of interpretation and translation, influenced by linguistic, historical, and theological considerations. While the New Testament consistently uses the Greek word “stauros” to describe Jesus’ crucifixion, the exact shape of the instrument of execution remains uncertain. Therefore, we cannot construct a biblical stand, for either a cross or a pole/stake. Historically, the Romans crucified people on crosses, poles, stakes, upside-down crosses, X-shaped crosses walls, roofs, etc. Jesus could have been crucified on a cross or a pole.

Whether interpreted as a traditional cross or a wooden stake, the sacrificial death of Jesus is central to Christian belief and serves as the foundation of redemption and reconciliation with God. Ultimately, the significance of Jesus’ death transcends the physical details of the crucifixion, pointing to the profound truth of God’s love and salvation for humanity.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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