Cross or Stake: which is the better translation of the Greek?

Example of the use of "Stake."

NWT Matthew 16:24 "Then Jesus said to his disciples: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him disown himself and pick up his torture stake and keep following me."

NWT Mark 15:13-15 "Once more they cried out: “To the stake with him!” 14 But Pilate went on to say to them: “Why? What bad thing did he do?” Still they cried out all the more: “To the stake with him!” 15 At that Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Bar·abʹbas to them; and after having Jesus whipped, he handed him over to be executed on the stake."

NWT Colossians 2:14 "He has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the torture stake."


Cross, Crucify: denotes, primarily, "an upright pale or stake." On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun and the verb stauroo, "to fasten to a stake or pale," are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed "cross." The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt. By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith. In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the "cross" of Christ.”-Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words

The Imperial Bible-Dictionary acknowledges this, saying: “The Greek word for cross, [stau·rosʹ], properly signified a stake, an upright pole, or piece of paling, on which anything might be hung, or which might be used in impaling [fencing in] a piece of ground. . . . Even amongst the Romans the crux (from which our cross is derived) appears to have been originally an upright pole.”—Edited by P. Fairbairn (London, 1874), Vol. I, p. 376.


In my sub-question I make the point that I would like to see the use of the Greek word "stauros" before "Church traditions." What does this mean? That is to say, how was the word used before any of the New Testament was penned, so on the day before the first word of the Gospels etc. was put to paper, what did the word mean? This then would shed light on my main question. Which in turn will tell us what it meant to the first Christian penmen.

  • 2
  • The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt. - You sure about that ? – Lucian Aug 8 '19 at 0:52
  • @Lucian, "sure?" It wasn't the OP expressing an opinion, it was quoted from Vine's Expository Dictionary. The use of a cross symbol dates back to ancient pagan antiquity, as described in this 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article describing the origins of the word "bun", as in "hot cross buns". – Ray Butterworth Aug 8 '19 at 18:04
  • @RayButterworth: He quoted falsehood as fact; that he didn't author it is of secondary importance. (Prior to the European Enlightenment, most humans everywhere were illiterate; as such, letters were not commonly used as symbols by the masses; ancient Babylonians, and their various deities, being no exception to the rule). The Brittanica link seems equally problematic (Chrysostom's Orthodox liturgy, for instance, does not employ flat, circular wafers, but cubic loafs of bread; I am also unaware of pre-Columbian New World paganism employing cross-shaped sun symbols). – Lucian Aug 9 '19 at 6:31

I'm of the opinion that the mode of Jesus' execution ultimately was not crucifixion but rather stabbing:

[Jhn 19:34 KJV] 34 But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

Nor do we know the details about the equipment used. As with so much it seems to have been lost to time.

The two most promising theses I've been able to identify are:

  • beam:


σταυρός is used in the scriptures for the structure upon which Jesus died. In secular usage a σταυρός is a "beam". The word for a cross is διασταύρωση which is a cognate of σταυρός that sort of means "thru beam" or perhaps "across beam". So on the basis of the koine word choice it appears it was a beam. However, it could be that the διασταύρωση referred to the X shaped cross.

  • cross:

Traditional Cross

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the σταυρός in Latin had two names for two parts:

The crosses used were of different shapes. Some were in the form of a , others in that of a St. Andrew's cross, , while others again were in four parts, . The more common kind consisted of a stake ("palus") firmly embedded in the ground ("crucem figere") before the condemned arrived at the place of execution (Cicero, "Verr." v. 12; Josephus, "B. J." vii. 6, § 4) and a cross-beam ("patibulum"), bearing the "titulus"—the inscription naming the crime (Matt. xxvii. 37; Luke xxiii. 38; Suetonius, "Cal." 38). It was this cross-beam, not the heavy stake, which the condemned was compelled to carry to the scene of execution (Plutarch, "De Sera Num. Vind." 9; Matt. ib.; John xix. 17; See Cross). The cross was not very high, and the sentenced man could without difficulty be drawn up with ropes ("in crucem tollere, agere, dare, ferre"). His hands and feet were fastened with nails to the cross-beam and stake (Tertullian, "Adv. Judæos," 10; Seneca, "Vita Beata," 19); though it has been held that, as in Egypt, the hands and feet were merely bound with ropes (see Winer, "B. R." i. 678). The execution was always preceded by flagellation (Livy, xxxiv. 26; Josephus, "B. J." ii. 14, § 9; v. 11, § 1); and on his way to his doom, led through the most populous streets, the delinquent was exposed to insult and injury. Upon arrival at the stake, his clothes were removed, and the execution took place. Death was probably caused by starvation or exhaustion, the cramped position of the body causing fearful tortures, and ultimately gradual paralysis. Whether a foot-rest was provided is open to doubt; but usually the body was placed astride a board ("sedile"). The agony lasted at least twelve hours, in some cases as long as three days. To hasten death the legs were broken, and this was considered an act of clemency (Cicero, "Phil." xiii. 27). The body remained on the cross, food for birds of prey until it rotted, or was cast before wild beasts. Special permission to remove the body was occasionally granted. Officers (carnifex and triumviri) and soldiers were in charge...

I lean toward the beam:



Greek-English lexicons such as Thayers list the meaning of σταυρός as:

1) an upright stake, esp. a pointed one or
2) a cross

In most regards however, these can actually be thought of as synonymous for a couple of reasons. First, many believe that crucifixion actually originated with the Assyrian empire. It was a favorite tactic of the Assyrians to impale victims en mass alive on poles outside of a fortified city they wished to conquer as a means of psychological warfare. The victims' screams were used to convince the target city that it would be better to surrender and avoid the same fate than to face the Assyrian empire.

Assyrian Psychological Warfare

Later, crucifixion began being used by the Persians in a manner more similar to the crucifixion of Christ. This persisted among several major cultures until it was picked up and used by Alexander the Great against the Phoenicians The major difference in early usage of this torture method by the Persians and others was that this was often done on a stake or tree without the use of a cross-member (or "patibulum"). This type of cross is known as a crux simplex and is the primary reason σταυρός can be translated as an upright stake.

The Torment of MarsyasFulda Hermann - "Das Kreuz und die Kreuzigung" (1878)

Another reason this may be referred to as an upright stake has to do with exactly how crucifixions happened in the Roman Empire. There is actually some thought within scholarship that Jesus may have been hung on a Tau Cross.

Tau Cross

In the Roman Empire, when a specific place was used for crucifixion, they would typically bury a pole in the ground which was then used repeatedly. Installing a new cross on the hill of Golgotha each time another crucifixion was taking place was simply too troublesome. Instead, after each body was taken down, the patibulum only was removed and the main part of the cross - a stake - would be left behind. When a crucifixion occurred, the prisoner would be forced to carry only their patibulum (the cross-member), not the entire cross. This would then be either nailed to the stake left behind after each crucifixion or set on top of and nailed down into the top of the stake depending on if it was a Tau cross or a cross like that which is depicted in most Christian iconography. For obvious reasons, it was easier to nail a patibulum (with victim already attached) to the stake using a tau cross which accounts for its popularity with the Romans (this was actually the most widely used type of cross by the Roman Empire) It is therefore not wholly inappropriate to think of σταυρὸν as referring to the buried stake left behind after a crucifixion was completed.

As you can see from this brief history, when σταυρὸν is used in the context of torture, there really is no difference between "stake" or "cross". These refer to the same method of torture. While this could be meaningful if σταυρὸν was being used in the context of gardening for example, it is doubtful that that there is any meaningful difference in the context in which you are discussing it. For the sake of clarity to modern readers, it seems then that the most clear meaning would be "cross" as most laypersons probably do not know the history and methods of crucifixion and would be unable to understand that a "buried stake" and a cross are essentially the same thing in the context of torture. This rendering would be unnecessarily confusing to modern readers and over-literal. Drawing a distinction between "Cross" and Steak, is neither particularly meaningful or helpful to hermeneutics.


Here's an excerpt from something I wrote a few years ago:

Roman Efficiency

The Romans were an incredibly efficient society, concerned about its long-term future.

Whenever they built anything, the Romans built it to last. Even today, there exist roads, bridges, aquaducts, and buildings that the Romans built over two thousand years ago.

Whenever they did anything, the Romans did so as efficiently as possible. Designs were functional, not ornate. A comparison of contemporary Roman and Greek architecture shows the Greeks creating fluted columns, elaborately carved capitals, and various decorative features, with the Romans having a very utilitarian style, everything plain and simple, with all shapes being rectangles or circles.


Crucifixion wasn't invented specifically for Jesus; it was a very common method of torture and execution throughout the Roman Empire. There were times when literally thousands of people were crucified at a time, their tortured bodies hanging in one long row along the side of a heavily travelled road.

The crosses typically depicted throughout the modern Christian world would have been far too large, far too heavy, and far too complicated for the Roman army to use. Fitting and binding the two pieces together would have required a significant amount of work. For the Romans, form followed function, and for this purpose there was simply no need for a complicating crossbar.

One simple vertical pole was all that was needed.

Similarly, there is no way that Roman soldiers would have put nails through a prisoner's palms. The weight of the body could have ripped the nails up through the hands, and remounting them would have been too much trouble. The modern concept of using rope to support the weight would also have been an added complication, not to mention that devising something to compensate for a poor basic design would have been seen as inefficient.

A single nail, driven between the wrist bones of the prisoner's crossed hands would have been far more efficient. The nail would never tear out, and the pressure of the nail on the nerves in the end of the wrist (like banging one's funny-bone) would have added to the torture. One could relieve that pressure by supporting one's weight by the legs, but it would be very tiring to do so. Yet relaxing the legs would cause excruciating pain. (The word "excruciating" has the same origin as "crucifixion".) The mental stress of deciding between leg support and wrist pain makes the crucifixion process even more effective in terms of torture.

Yes, there were times when fancy elaborate devices were used to crucify special people or used at special events, but it was only to enhance the entertainment value. One king, for instance, was crucified on a specially constructed "X"-shaped cross. But for the vast majority of people, a simple pole with a single nail through the crossed wrists and one in each ankle got the job done.

The Bible

While some translations (e.g. New World Translation) use expressions like "torture stake", most English translations of the Bible refer to Jesus's execution device as a "cross". The original Greek word is "stauros" (σταυρός), which simply means an upright wooden stake, and has no connotation of having a crossbar.

Jesus, or anyone else, couldn't possibly have carried anything like the large and often elaborate cross we see depicted in churches, books, and films. Nor was he forced to carry only the crossbar, as some people now rationalize the event. The same Greek word is used for what he carried as is used for the execution device.

Even if the Romans had thought of Jesus as deserving special treatment because of who he was (which they didn't), they obviously didn't bother. Jesus was crucified alongside two other criminals, with nothing mentioned indicating that his stake was any different from the other two.

The soldiers were asked to break the legs of the three criminals so that they would die much sooner allowing them to be buried before the Sabbath began at sunset. The leg breaking would speed up the death because the entire body weight would then be on the single nail between the crossed wrists. The pain would be intense and continuous, and any false hope provided by leg support would be gone.

Why There is nothing recorded in the first few centuries to indicate a cross-shaped execution device, so where did this iconic shape originate?

In 312CE, when the Roman emperor Constantine won the battle of Milvian Bridge, he saw a cross of light and the message "In this sign you shall conquer". Sundog Light Phenomenon, Manitoba, Canada, 2005. This might have been the meteorological phenomenon known as a sundog: vertical and horizontal beams of light centered around the sun with four similar but smaller crosses occurring on a ring of light surrounding the sun.

Even today, many Roman symbols of the cross look much like this phenomenon. John Paul II From ancient times, cross symbols had been used by many cultures to represent the Sun. Constantine was a sun worshipper, so invoking the power of the Sun god in battle would have been a natural thing for him to do. The Emperor ordered his soldiers to put the cross symbol on their shields in all future battles.

Over the next decade, because his mother had become interested in Christianity, Constantine relaxed the official persecution of Christians, and began to see the potential usefulness of that cult. He gradually incorporated Christian terminology into the Roman religion and convened councils to set doctrine, including making Sunday, the day of the Sun, the official day of rest for Christians. Later he outlawed the Biblical holidays and declared that the Roman celebrations that we now know as Easter and Christmas must be celebrated instead.

It was a simple matter to say that the device of Jesus's execution was a cross, and the Latin cross, the sign of the Sun, became the official emblem of Roman Christianity. This transition is supposedly supported by Malachi 4:2, which, when considered as a messianic prophecy, refers to Christ as the "sun of righteousness".

It wasn't until 25 years after his original Sun vision, and years of redefining Roman religion, that Constantine himself finally converted to what was by then called "Christianity".

  • There is nothing recorded in the first few centuries to indicate a cross-shaped execution device - You sure about that ? – Lucian Aug 8 '19 at 0:54
  • Constantine was a sun worshiper. - Doubtful. Egyptians, who lived in the desert, did indeed worship the Sun, Ra, as their supreme deity; Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, worshiped Zeus or Jupiter, whose celestial symbol is, obviously, the classical planet bearing his name until this very day. – Lucian Aug 8 '19 at 0:58
  • 1
    @Lucian, Sol Invictus - Wikipedia says "Emperors portrayed Sol Invictus on their official coinage … , claiming the Unconquered Sun as a companion to the Emperor, used with particular frequency by Constantine." . It was Constantine himself, in AD321, that declared Sunday as the official day of rest: "On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.". – Ray Butterworth Aug 8 '19 at 17:53
  • 1
    @Lucian says "My point was that the sun did not occupy a central or particularly important role in Greek-Roman paganism", and I'm not disagreeing with that. My point was that it was Constantine that changed things so that from then on the Sun (and the Cross symbol) did play an important role in mainstream Roman religion, which from then on was no longer considered pagan. – Ray Butterworth Aug 9 '19 at 18:01
  • 1
    @Lucian, the ideas of plate tectonics, the origin of meteorites, and mass extinctions were also considered pseudo-science before they were accepted. (I'm definitely not saying that this means that all pseudo-science is true, only that one shouldn't dismiss something simply because it isn't yet accepted.) – Ray Butterworth Aug 9 '19 at 22:56

As I understand it, there is evidence for the cross of Christ looking like a Capital "T" (a "Tao" cross) rather than a lower case "t".

This would explain the discrepancy between a stake or a cross. The vertical member was a stake and Jesus carried the cross piece which was attached to the top of the vertical stake when He was crucified.

If you think about it, it makes no sense to have the top tail above the cross piece. It would be easier to set a mortise in the cross piece on to a tenon in the vertical stake. Perhaps the tenon was extra long and that was the tail piece above the cross piece.


John 18 Most truly I say to you, when you were younger, you used to clothe yourself and walk about where you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another man will clothe you and carry you where you do not wish.” 19 He said this to indicate by what sort of death he would glorify God. After he said this, he said to him: “Continue following me

When I was little and needed to get dressed, my mom always said reach for the stars,when she would put my shirts and sweaters on(in other words) stretch up so high you can reach the stars with your bare hands above your head,so he died with his hands above his head and don't forget they also nailed his hands above his head and was tied upon the stake, so that why he couldn't pull himself up and free himself,plus when you reach out or stretch, you are expanding your chest cavity out more.. besides all of the facts if you had your mom dress you,when little could she dress you with your arms stretched out opposite directions, no she wouldn't waste time put one arm in at a time. But go out and ask family members or friends how do they dress their children under 5 years of age or ask a stranger how would they get a tee shirt on a toddler or if they themselves were taught by momma or dad,ask them how did you put my shirt on and which way, was easiest...

  • Hello Magpie, welcome to BHSE, glad to have you with us! If you haven't already, please make sure to take our tour, to get yourself familiar with the site and to see how we're a little different than other sites. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour Thanks! – sara Sep 16 '19 at 8:07