Monday, July 4, 2016

The implement of Jesus' execution

crux simplex, from a 16th century woodcut
Justus Lipsius

Swedish theologian Gunnar Samuelsson has published a thesis in which he states that there is no historical support for the notion that Jesus died on a cross. If this is true, what effect should it have on Christians?

"There is no distinct punishment called 'crucifixion,' no distinct punishment device called a 'crucifix' anywhere mentioned in any of the ancient texts including the Gospels," he told

For his thesis, Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion, Samuelson analyzed thousands of ancient texts to compare their wording with the wording of the gospel accounts and what he found is that there is simply no proof that Jesus was nailed to a cross.
 Since a lot of commenters objected to my original column on this subject, it seems appropriate to revisit it.
There are two Greek words used in the New Testament regarding the implement of Jesus' execution: stauros (stow-rose or stav-rose) and xylon (ksee-lon). Peter seems to favor xylon. For example, in his speech recorded at Acts 5:30 Peter says, "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you slew and hanged on a [xylon]." Some bibles translate that as "cross" and some as "tree." Which is correct?

Genesis 40:19 talks about the execution of an Egyptian, his body being 'hanged on a tree.' When the passage was translated from Hebrew into the Greek Septuagint version, the translators used a form of the word xylon. Jerome's Latin Vulgate, written 350 years after Jesus, says the Egyptian baker was to be hanged on a cruce, a form of the word crux. One English Bible translation says the baker was to be hanged on a cross, but most translations use pole or tree:
  • ESV: In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head—from you!—and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.”
  • KJV: Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thy head from off thee, and shall hang thee on a tree; and the birds shall eat thy flesh from off thee.
  • NASB: within three more days Pharaoh will lift up your head from you and will hang you on a wooden post, and the birds will eat your flesh off you.'
  • NLT: Three days from now Pharaoh will lift you up and impale your body on a pole. Then birds will come and peck away at your flesh.'
  • CSB: In just three days Pharaoh will lift up your head--from off you--and hang you on a tree. Then the birds will eat the flesh from your body." 
 There is no historical evidence that the Egyptians hanged people on crosses. There is, however, historical evidence that they displayed the dead bodies of people with whom they were displeased by hanging them on trees or impaling them on poles.

Joshua 10:24 relates an account of Joshua - who grew up in Egypt - winning a victory over 5 kings, and it says he put their dead bodies on display. Again, the translators of the Greek Septuagint used the word xylon. Jerome translated it stipites - posts or poles - in his Latin Vulgate. We could well ask why Jerome believed Joseph's xylon was a cross, but Joshua's was a pole? 
Does anyone believe Joshua hung the bodies of the 5 kings on crosses, 1500 years before Jesus was executed? Or is it more likely he followed an Egyptian practice with which he was familiar?
Esther 2:23 describes the execution of two criminals. Their bodies were hanged on "poles", "stakes", or "trees", depending on which version you read. One even suggests they were "crucified on crosses", hundreds of years before the Roman Empire existed! Highly unlikely. Strong's Dictionary says the Hebrew ets used here means tree, stake, or pole, the equivalent of the Greek xylon.
Esther 5:14 refers to Haman preparing a stake 75 feet high on which to hang Mordecai. The Greek translates it xylon; the Latin trabem (beam). Neither suggests a crossbeam. What purpose would have been served by a crossbeam 75 feet in the air?

 What about stauros?

The gospel accounts, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, use stauros about 10 times with reference to Jesus' execution. The remainder of the Bible uses it another dozen times. Several reputable Greek dictionaries advise that the definition of stauros is 'a stake or pole.' For example:
Vine's Expository Dictionary of Greek Words says of stauros
"Primarily, an upright pale or stake. On such malefactors were nailed for execution." 
Paul Schmidt's The History of Jesus says stauros, 
"means every upright standing pale or tree trunk.” 

 The Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott gives the first definition of stauros as,

"an upright stake or pole."
Despite all this, you would be hard pressed to find an English bible that doesn't translate stauros as "cross" when referring to Jesus' execution. (I looked at over a dozen online, and the only one that didn't translate stauros as "cross" was the New World Translation.)

One of the most telling points in Samuelsson's research is this: he points out that in the ancient literature, the word stauros is used with reference to hanging fruit or animal carcasses up to dry. It's pretty silly to think of fruit being crucified.

The fact of Jesus' execution is far more important than the implement on which he died. Clearly, the translators allowed their preconceptions to sway them to translate stauros as cross instead of stake or pole. 
It would be entirely reasonable for that to make you wonder about the accuracy of other choices they made in their translations.

And a serious Christian should also wonder where the "cross" idea came from. If, as Alexander Hislop suggested, it originated as the symbol for the false god Tammuz, it is certainly inappropriate for Christians. 
Even if Hislop was wrong, isn't wearing a little gold copy of someone's murder weapon on a chain around your neck a little gruesome?

Please feel free to leave a comment. To read the original column I posted on this subject, click here.
 Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at You can help support this page by purchasing a book.

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