The Romans were an incredibly efficient society, concerned about its
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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".