A Cross Or A Stake?
Dr. Randy White
The Beauty of the Cross In Christianity
I think it is without question that the cross is the symbol that communicates “Christian” more than any other symbol, and this has been true for centuries. We find crosses on jewelry, hanging in the church, lifted high on the steeple, on church logo’s, even on tattoos! This is the Christian communities chosen symbol to say, “I’m Christian.”
Among Protestant Christians, the empty cross is the “icon of choice,” while among Catholics the crucifix is often preferred. For the protestants the emphasis is on the resurrection and the completed work of Christ, while for Catholics the emphasis is on the continual sacrifice of Christ.
But what if the cross, either in crucifix form or the empty form we are used to, was never seen by Jesus Christ. That is, what if the cross did not have a cross-beam, but was only a stake? While for some this may seem like a meaningless triviality, for others the thought becomes an existential threat to their faith.
It may surprise you that the earliest “logo” of Christianity was not the cross, but the “chai rho”, a symbol made by superimposing the Greek letter rho on the Greek letter chai, with chai-rho being the first two letters of the word Christos.
What is a “Cross” in the Bible?
In the Bible, the word cross comes from the Greek σταυρός [stauros]. The first use of the word is found in Matthew 10:38, where its definition is assumed. This is because death by crucifixion was a well-known tactic of the Romans and had previously been used by the Greeks. The word, as used in Matthew 10:38 and other places, is sometimes figurative of a willingness to pay any price to serve the Lord. At other times it is used as the actual instrument of capital punishment.
But the actual instrument of death is never described in the Bible. So inquiring minds like ours want to know: what did the cross look like?
What Do We Know About the Roman Cross?
If you research Roman crosses, you will find plenty of “information” that states that the Romans used four types of crosses, the I, the T, the t, and the X. However, this comes more from the repetition of scholars than from solid archaeological evidence.
If you investigate the Greek word itself, it is used of any upright stake, whether a fence post, signpost, or means of public torture and death. In fact, any study of the word stauros in the Greek language will find that the word is almost always used of a single post without a cross-beam.
There are some descriptions of crucifixion in a few historical accounts, such as that of Dionisius of Halicarnassu who wrote Roman Antiquities and described a cross-beam. Most other non-Biblical accounts, however, are post-Constantine and thus not eye-witnesses.
Are the Jehovah’s Witnesses right?
Jehovah’s witnesses insist that Jesus was crucified on a “stake,” and refuse to use a “cross” in any kind of their depictions of crucifixion. Beyond the “lexicon argument” that stauros means “stake,” they argue that a traditional Christian cross should not be used for three reasons.
First, they argue that no symbol should be used in worship, because of the Ten Commandments and other teachings from the Old Testament.
Second, they argue that the early Christians did not use a cross, and they were closest to the Apostolic pattern.
Third, they argue that the Christian cross symbol came from pagan sources and thus are not worthy of being a symbol of Christ’s death.
Concerning these three, the first is a reminder that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not rightly divide the Scriptures, and much of their doctrine is based in Old Testament doctrine for Israel rather than those saved under grace. The second argument is one based on tradition, which is of little to no value. The final argument is simply impossible to defend to any convincing degree.
Personally, I think that the JW’s use this “stake not cross” argument as a diversion to win converts to their doctrine. By casting doubt on a person’s understanding of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they can present themselves as truth bearers, which can seem refreshing for the unsuspecting seeker.
Whether the cross of Christ was a stake or had a beam, the death of Christ is not negated either way. There are three things that do matter. First, the reality of the death of Jesus. Second, the manner of death being crucifixion (and not stoning, or drowning, or poisoning, etc) is important due to John 3:14 and other Scriptures. Finally, the purpose of His death matters. It must be to be the propitiation for the sins of the world (2 Jn. 2:2).