The three meanings of σταυρός (stauros) are cross, crucifixion, or stake. Literally it is possible to place Jesus on either the traditional cross or a stake. When used as "stake" it especially meant a pointed one (consistent with "impalement"). In the Appendix of the New World Translation (NWT), an explanation for the decision to translate the word as "torture stake" is given. It begins with:
Matthew 10:38 - 'Torture Stake'
This is the expression used in connection with the execution of Jesus at Calvary. There is no evidence that the Greek word stau-ros' meant here a "cross" such as the pagans used as a religious symbol for many centuries before Christ to denote the sun-god.
In the classical Greek the word stau-ros' meant merely an upright stake or pale , or pile such as used for a foundation. The verb stau-ro'o meant to fence with pales, to form a stockade or palisade, and this is the verb used when the mob called for Jesus to be impaled. To such a stake or pale the person to be punished was fastened, just as when the popular Greek hero Pro-me'the-us was represented as tied to a stake or stau-ros. The Greek word which the dramatist Aes'chy-lus used to describe this means to fasten or fix on a pole or stake, to impale, and the Greek author Lucian used a-na-stau-ro'o as a synonym for that word. In the Christian Greek Scriptures a-na-stau-ro'o occurs but once,at Hebrews 6:6. The root verb stau-ro'o occurs more than 40 times, and we have rendered it "impale," with the footnote :"Or, 'fasten on a stake or pole.'"
A copy of the picture, "Crux simplex" by Justus Lipsius, which depicts this manner of execution is included:
Lipsius' rendering made in 1594 CE, is a poor example. It fails to show the message above Jesus head (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19). Nor is Jesus "impaled" as the Assyrians practiced (see picture in James Shewey's answer).
The linguistic position of the NWT has validity. The extra-Biblical writings of Josephus and Seneca the Younger state crucifixions were carried out using different types of crosses:
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, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.
I see before me crosses not all alike, but differently made by different peoples: some hang a man head downwards, some force a stick upwards through his groin, some stretch out his arms on a forked gibbet. I see cords, scourges, and instruments of torture for each limb and each joint: but I see Death also.
Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) is believed to have written the Consolation to Marcia around 40 CE, shortly after Jesus' crucifixion.
5 At the time he was in Rome and likely he is describing practices there. However, if crucifixions were carried out using different crosses in Rome, there is no reason to doubt this practice at that time elsewhere in the Empire. Using different types of crosses is evidence the NWT may be correct. At the same time it contradicts their assertion the text must be rigidly understood to mean there was only one way the word can be understood.
The most compelling extra-Biblical evidence against a torture stake is the Alexamenos graffito, a drawing discovered in Rome in 1857. It is graffiti mocking Alexamenos worshiping a god:
The dating of the drawing, "ranging from the late 1st to the late 3rd century have been suggested, with the beginning of the 3rd century thought to be the most likely"
6shows how a non-Christian understood what the Christian believed. The picture mocks a Christian (Alexamenos) who worships a god crucified with arms outstretched. This graffiti is at odds with several NWT positions:
- Jesus was impaled on a stake
- The one crucified was not worshiped
- The one crucified was not considered a god
The graffiti does support one of the primary assertions of the NWT: crosses were not used
by the early Christians as they are today:
De Rossi positively states that no monogram of Christ, discovered in the catacombs of other places, can be traced to a period anterior to the year 312. Even after that epoch-making year, the church, then free and triumphant, contented herself with having a simple monogram of Christ: the Greek letter chi vertically crossed by a sho, and horizontally sometimes by an iota [see chi rho iota image below]. The oldest crucifix mentioned as an object of public worship is the one venerated in the Church of Narbonne in southern France, as early as the 6th century.
The NWT translation philosophy is consistent with a prohibition of pagan practices such as using the "cross" in worship or as jewelry (which may be an accurate understanding of early Christianity). Translating the word as "stake" eliminates these practices.
Christian scribes would sometimes use abbreviations. One was the staurogram, which is found in very early New Testament manuscripts such as P66, P45 and P75:
As Larry Hurtado writes:
The tau-rho device
may have been appropriated by Christians originally, not (or not
simply) on the basis of numerical symbolism, but because it could
function as a visual reference to the crucified Jesus. This is not an original suggestion, but was proposed previously, notably by K. Aland
and then supported strongly by E. Dinkler.51 In this proposal, the
tau-rho device was appropriated initially because it could serve as a
stylized reference to (and representation of ) Jesus on the cross. The
tau is confirmed as an early symbol of the cross, and the loop of
the superimposed rho in the tau-rho suggested the head of a crucified
figure. This very simple pictogram reference to the crucifixion of
Jesus fits with the simplicity and lack of decorative detail that characterizes earliest Christian art.
Here are two conclusions from using a symbol to represent either the Crucifixion or Christ when making a copy of a New Testament document:
- It conveys a visual understanding objectively with no implication of pagan idolatry.
- It is an additional way the copyist’s vorlage can be interpreted.
While the word itself carries two possible meanings, the image shows one, the cross. Manuscript P75 (Papyrus 75) is dated as early as 175 CE and uses a staurogram in Luke 14:27:
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (ESV)
Using the staurogram means this copyist intends a reader to understand Luke's σταυρὸν is a cross.
One account of the crucifixion provides additional details:
The the Jews, since it was Preparation, in order that the bodies might not remain upon the torture stakes on the Sabbath, (for the day of that Sabbath was a great one,) requested Pilate to have their legs broken and the [bodies] taken away. The soldiers came, therefore, and broke the legs of the first [man] and those of the other [man] that had been impaled with him. But on coming to Jesus, as they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Yet one of the soldiers jabbed his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:31-34 NWT)
To speed up death in crucifixion, the legs were broken (crurifragium). This detail and the motives for the request make two points:
- The Jews wanted all three men to specifically die by crucifixion. If death was the only objective, the request would have been to kill by the spear to bring about immediate death.
- Legs were integral to crucifixion: unbroken legs delayed and broken legs hastened death.
The knowledge broken legs brought death quickly is consistent with death by asphyxiation, either directly or in conjunction with other factors like hypovolemic shock. The legs were broken in order to prevent the victim from using them to "push or raise up" to breathe.
There is an exercise to demonstrate the issue. Pull ups done with the arms spread wide are more difficult than with hands close together. If the grip is too wide, the shoulders will be damaged. Breaking the legs of someone being crucified means the body is then supported by the shoulders. If the hands are over directly overhead as they must be on a "torture stake" the shoulders are affected much less than if the arms are outstretched. In fact, breaking the legs of someone hanging with outstretched arms, will undoubtedly cause immediate damage to the shoulders rendering the victim completely unable to raise up to breathe.
Jesus was not stoned according to Jewish law. He died by means of Roman execution. Thus the Gospel narratives should be approached as descriptions of a Roman practice, not something faithful to Greek mythology, as the NWT suggests. There is evidence different types of crosses were used, but, in addition to tradition, abbreviations in manuscripts, graffiti mocking Christians, and the breaking of legs all support crucifixion with arms stretched wide on a cross.
1. New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Third Revision With Footnotes 1971, 1981, p. 1360.
2. Ibid., p. 1361
3. Flavius Josephus, The Judean War, Book 5, Whiston Chapter 11, Whiston Section 1
4. Seneca, Of Consolation: To Marcia, Section XX
5. Seneca's Consolations
6. Alexamenos graffito
7. New World Translation, pp. 1360-1361.
8. Larry Hurtado, *"The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: the earliest visual reference to the crucified Jesus?" in Thomas J. Kraus, New Testament Manuscripts: Their Texts and Their World, Brill, pp. 223-224
Image of NWT depiction of Chi Rho Iota: