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Did Jesus Die on a Cross?

I think it was Tom Oxgoad who, when confronted with something shocking, or even unexpected, would frantically move his right hand from breastbone to abdomen and back again, over and over. Of course, any companion would look at him quizzically. 'What's with you?' they'd want to know. Nothing to worry about, he'd say: “Just making the sign of the stake.” He was merely staking himself.

All the JWs he pulled this on either thought him very funny, or would, at least, tolerate him. Naturally, the joke would be lost on everyone else, and even offensive to a few, but he never did it in front of anyone else....just JWs. He was just clowning, you understand. His joke could be made with Jehovah's Witnesses, and them alone, because JWs are well known for rejecting that Christ was executed on a cross. We maintain he was put to death on an upright stake. Where many Bibles say “cross,” the New World Translation says “torture stake.” (Greek word: stauros)

I've mentioned this quirky aberration from common dogma only once on this blog, and even that was in response to someone else....the scientist from Iceland, who was impressed with a dialogue between the two of us and chose to reproduce it on his own blog, assigning icons to himself and me. He, man of science that he was, represented himself with the double helix. I got stuck with the cross! So I fired back my reply that we don't believe Jesus died on a cross. 'Yeah, I know,' he admitted, 'but I had to use something, and a stake looks ridiculous as an icon.' I have to admit it does, but then who says that the instrument of Jesus death should be used as an icon, anyway...kissed, carried around, worn around one's neck, and so forth? What if he had been killed with a handgun? Would folks wear tiny handguns around their necks?

But I otherwise haven't mentioned our belief that Jesus did not die on a cross, because once you come forward with something like that, people latch on to it as the definitive Jehovah's Witness belief, whereas it really is only a detail for us. “What do you know about Jehovah's Witnesses?” they'll be asked, and their reply will be “well, I know they don't celebrate Christmas, and they don't take blood transfusions, and they don't believe Jesus died on a cross.” All true, but it's as though someone asks you at a party, “what do you do?” and you say “well, I brush my teeth.” So I haven't made a big deal about this point before.

But now I will make a big deal about it, because over the summer, ABCNews.com made a big deal about it. “Jesus Christ May Not Have Died on Cross” runs the headline of July 2, 2010, followed up with: “No Evidence in Ancient Sources Backs Up Defining Symbol of Christianity, Scholar Says.”

The text goes on to tell about Gunnar Samuelsson, an evangelical preacher and theologian, who researched the cross for his doctoral thesis and concluded it's a mistranslation! Stauros is the Greek word generally translated as 'cross,' but it doesn't mean that! Or, rather, it didn't mean that at the time it was written; it has been assigned that meaning retroactively by some who want to read their doctrines into the New Testament. Rather, Samuelsson says, stauros, at its time of use in the New Testament, meant stake, or pole, or even tree trunk.

This evangelical preacher searched through thousands of ancient texts to research his 400-page "Crucifixion in Antiquity." "If you chose to just read the text and ignore the art and theology,” he says, “there is quite a small amount of information about the crucifixion. Jesus, the Bible says, carried something called a stauros out to Calvary. Everyone thought it meant cross, but it does not only mean cross.”

“Ignore the art and theology,” Samuelsson says. Now, that is exactly what Jehovah's Witnesses do. They focus only on what the text says, not the art and “theology.” So, not having to grapple with these red herrings, JWs have recognized for over 100 years the truth about the cross. Not only was Christ not put to death on a cross, but the symbol itself far predates Christianity, and finds its roots in various beliefs which, from a Christian point of view, would be considered unsavory.

From An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (London, 1962), W. E. Vine, p. 256:   The shape of the [two-beamed cross] had it 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 systems 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. -

Samuelson originally printed just 200 copies of his work. He figured family and friends might like it....maybe a few others. Instead, he got his Andy Warhol ten minutes of worldwide fame. The ABC.com piece alone is followed by (at last count) 463 comments. [!] No....I didn't read them all...if I don't exactly have “a life,” at least its not to that extent. But I skimmed through some of them. There's a few scholarly types saying scholarly things. And quite a few religionists, essentially calling him the antichrist, since they know “by faith” that Jesus died on a cross. Then some atheists chiming in that, not only did Jesus not die on a cross, but everything else about him is made-up hooey, as well. Then the aforementioned religionists responding “Oh yeah!! Well, you atheists will be singing a different tune when you're BURNING IN HELL!!!” And then, somewhere along the line, Jehovah's Witnesses discover the post, and they....shall we say.....pile on? with comments that (in a few cases) amount to “nyah, nyah, told ya so!” But how can you blame them for piling on? Didn't I, sort of, do the same with that New Scientist article “An Act of Faith in the Operating Room”? It's irresistible. JW's have said this about the cross forever, only to be told to shut up since they are ignoramuses, and then some University fellow concludes the same, and it's taken as ground-breaking research. Not at all unlike the learned response to “unlettered and ordinary” apostles of the first century. (Acts 4:13; KJV reads more harsh: “unlearned and ignorant”) Once again, we see it's not what is said that counts, but who says it. If this Samuelsson fellow had been one of Jehovah's Witnesses, his story would not even be on the bottom of ABC's cat litter box.

Frankly, I'll bet he, an evangelist preacher, curses the day he ever thought to write about the cross. He thus joins the ranks of people like Bruce Speiss, Jason Beduhn, and Joel Engardio who write something that squares with JW beliefs, and spend the rest of their days on earth denying that they are one of Jehovah's Witnesses. Occasionally, they (though none of the aforementioned, to my knowledge) issue statements to the effect of  “Look, I'm not one of Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't agree with Jehovah's Witnesses. I don't like Jehovah's Witnesses.” But it's too late! The damage has been done! Sigh....what's a scholar to do? Agreeing with Jehovah's Witnesses is detrimental to one's career, and yet Jehovah's Witnesses are right on so many things. And the things they're right about, they have been saying for a long time, so it's embarrassing for cutting edge scholars to endorse what the JWs, for the most part unscholarly and ordinary folk, have long maintained. Alan Greenspan better be very careful the same fate does not befall him. He recently completed his memoirs in which he observes 1914 was a turning-point year, something you-know-who has said for 90 years.  

And, of course, we ought not let this subject go without putting in a good word for the New World Translation. There's not a cross in the entire work. Stauros is consistently rendered “torture stake,” and xylon is consistently rendered “stake.” Nor are there any “crucifies” in the NWT; the verb form of stauros is rendered “impale” throughout. Nobody else had the guts to do this, but now, per Samuelsson's research, we see that such translating is exactly correct. I am so sick and tired of know-nothings, guided by their “divine revelation,” and not scholarship, trashing the NWT, solely because it doesn't justify their favorite doctrines. It doesn't justify their favorite doctrines because those doctrines are not to be found in the Hebrew or Greek scriptures – they are found only “by revelation,” and the trouble with knowing things by revelation is that eventually someone else comes along who also knows something by revelation, but his revelation doesn't square with yours, and how is anyone else to ever get to the bottom of it? That's why Jehovah's Witnesses have always let their Bible study dictate their beliefs and not the other way around.

The closest any mainstream non-Witness work comes to exposing the cross dogma is the King James Version (and a few derivations that have kept its wording, such as the Revised Standard Version.)  Translating the Greek word xylon, the KJV reads:

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree   (Acts 5:30, see also Acts 10:39)

Not to worry, though. Most modern Bible translations have cleaned up this “apostasy,” either crucifying Jesus, or hanging him on a cross so as to conform to that “ol time [if innacurate] religion.”

Gunder Samuelsson deserves credit for his investigative work....there's no taking that away. Nonetheless, his discovery has been written about before, just not lately. The Watchtower organization can cite many sources. Such as this one from the Imperial Bible-Dictionary (Edited by P. Fairbairn (London, 1874), Vol. I, p. 376): “The Greek word for cross, [stau·ros′], 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.

“An upright pole.....on which anything might be hung.” Yeah. That struck Samuelsson as odd, too. Says the ABC.com article: “Part of what tipped Samuelson off to the apparent mistranslation, were routine references to things like fruits and dead animals being "crucified" in ancient texts, when translating the word as "suspended" makes more sense.”

Here's another source:

The Non-Christian Cross, by J. D. Parsons (London, 1896): “There is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross. . . . It is not a little misleading upon the part of our teachers to translate the word stauros as ‘cross’ when rendering the Greek documents of the Church into our native tongue, and to support that action by putting ‘cross’ in our lexicons as the meaning of stauros.......[bolded type mine]

Well....."misleading upon the part of our teachers." It's what they do best. Doesn't that show you need new teachers? Someone has to call them on it. This time it is Gunder Samuelsson, but Jehovah's Witnesses came long before him. 

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Tom Irregardless and Me                No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Comments

Mike Felker

If it turns out that "torture stake" is the best translations then...well...I can't say i'm going to lose too much sleep over it. Shame on evangelicals who die on this hill, when in fact the translation shouldn't effect their theology one scintilla.

tom sheepandgoats

Mike:

Every once in awhile we are semi-allies, and perhaps this is one of those times. You're right, the instrument of Christ's death doesn't affect the power and consequences of his sacrifice in the slightest.

It's a detail. Might as well be accurate about it. But as to the overall picture, I agree it changes nothing.

Romulus Crowe

This is news to me.

Are we talking Vlad the Impaler type stakes, or some form of hanging?

As Mike says, it makes no difference to the effective belief (and as you say, Tom, it wouldn't really change the religion if he was shot in the head with a Magnum, only the symbol would change) but it is of interest to this pedant.

He was up there for several days, as I recall, before the soldier speared his side and found that the blood had separated. Impaling might possibly take that long depending on the sharpness and girth of the stake (apologies to the squeamish who have imaginations). Hanging would be over much faster and would have made conversation while on 'the cross' impossible.

I have not studied the original texts, so I'll be interested in your opinions here.

tom sheepandgoats

See:

https://jehovahs-witnesses-headlines.net/bibleteachingscross.aspx

I'll get back with more, as time permits. The figure pictured is not meant to be Christ, but illustrates the form of execution. It is from a book of 1600 vintage.

Solomon

This shows the value of translating with an unbiased eye rather than the oft-clouded glasses of tradition.

Concerning the NWT, I have noted that, over the years since its publication, other English Bible translations have adopted some of its readings.

Whether advertent or inadvertent, "Imitation is the sincerest of flattery." -- Charles Caleb Colton, 1820

tom sheepandgoats

Click on Solomon's link to his excellent and unique blog: John 1:1 and the Coptic Translations.

Romulus Crowe

So, not the Vlad type of impalement but still very nasty.

I realise that practically every Christian (and every church I've ever been in) has violated the second commandment by having images of Jesus or Mary or a cross to worship, but does this mean that those who have a cross are not actually breaking that commandment? If there was no cross?

Or are they making it even worse by bowing down to something that isn't connected to their faith at all? A modern day golden calf, perhaps?

Oddly enough, the church I went to in my youth had the commandments written on the back wall (opposite the altar) including the 'No graven images' rule.

Behind the altar was a huge cross with a graven image of Jesus.

This might be a subconscious reason why I couldn't stay with the church.

Not if they so flagrantly ignore their own rules.

TJ

Romulus,

It's interesting that you bring up the worship of images. Jesus himself compared his being put to death on the stake (stauros) to an ealier event in Israel's history, saying, "just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up." (John 3:14)

It's a nice parallel, as that account is as follows: "Moses at once made a serpent of copper and placed it upon the signal pole; and it did occur that if a serpent had bitten a man and he gazed at the copper serpent, he then kept alive." (Numbers 21:9)

So not only was this copper serpent hung on a "pole" (NOT a cross), but it also gave life to those that looked to it in an act of faith. And yet, what eventually happened with this item?

Centuries later, it had to be destroyed: "[King Hezekiah] crushed to pieces the copper serpent that Moses had made; for down to those days the sons of Israel had continually been making sacrificial smoke to it, and it used to be called the copper serpent-idol." (2 Kings 18:4)

Interesting, isn't it? If they rendered worshipful honor to an object that was actually used by God and THAT was wrong, how do you think God feels about people using crucifixes and so forth in their worship?

On another note, I have heard a Protestant give some commendation for the New World Translation's unique rendering of stauros, but not for its accuracy. This person brought up the point that many people quite possibly misunderstand verses like Luke 9:23 because a cross is now primarily understood as a symbol, often in the form of jewelry. "Then [Jesus] said to them all: 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.'" (NIV)

So the NWT jostles some readers to the fact that Jesus isn't telling them to carry some outward symbol of their faith, but to 'carry' their own torture stake every day, to be willing to endure real persecution each day for their faith.


TJ

tom sheepandgoats

You know, TJ, I've never heard that application before. But now that you mention it, I can readily picture religious characters wearing their 'cross' jewelry around their necks, imagining that by so doing they are fulfilling Luke 9:23.

phil

As a Bible student of course your problem ? is that the watchtower taught that our Lord did die on the cross.Rather than any exposai on the cross they pointed out that the blodd in the most Holy 0f Holies in the tent,was poured out in the shape of the cross.
I think that the whole point is that Jesus died a a ransom for All inclusive adam.

phil

I should have added of course that Jehovah God is a spirit and that we must worship Him through His Son in spirit an in truth.
God bless

tom sheepandgoats

Sorry, Phil, I can't quite make out what you're trying to say in your first comment. Not sure whether you're being cryptic, sarcastic, deep, or sincere, but I'm just not reading where you're coming from.

Jig

Phil... Your comment, "As a Bible student of course your problem ? is that the watchtower taught that our Lord did die on the cross.Rather than any exposai on the cross they pointed out that the blodd in the most Holy 0f Holies in the tent,was poured out in the shape of the cross." ... WHAT?

Jig

Please post that watchtower for referencing. Thanx Phil.

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