Monday, July 4, 2016

Did Jesus die on a cross?

crux simplex, from a 16th century woodcut
Justus Lipsius

Good Morning America reported this week on a thesis by Swedish theologian Gunnar Samuelsson in which he claims 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.

There are two Greek words in question: 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 'hung on a tree.' When the passage was translated into the Greek Septuagint version, the translators used a form of the word xylon. Jerome's Latin Vulgate says the baker was to be hanged on a cruce, a form of the word crux. In English, some bibles say the baker was hanged on a cross, but the primary definition of crux is tree, not cross. Further, there is no historical evidence that the Egyptians crucified people, 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 winning a victory over 5 kings, and 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. Are we to 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 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). 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, usestauros about 10 times with reference to Jesus' executional implement. 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 ofstauros as "an upright stake or pole."

In spite of 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 Jehovah's Witnesses 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 rather silly to think of fruit being crucified.

The fact of Jesus' execution is far more important than the implement on which he died. The fact that translators allowed their preconceptions to sway them to translate stauros as cross instead of stake or pole has to make one wonder about the accuracy of the rest of 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 god Tammuz, it is certainly inappropriate for Christians. Even if it didn't, isn't wearing a little gold copy of someone's murder weapon on a chain around your neck a little gruesome?

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