Impaled on a Torture Stake or Crucified on a Cross?

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe that Jesus was crucified on a cross.  They believe that it is more accurate to say that he was impaled on a torture stake.  (1) The New World Translation translates the noun (stauros) “torture stake.”  For example, Philippians 2:8 reads, “he humbled himself and became obedient as far as death, yes, death on a torture stake.”  (2) The New World Translation translates the verb (stauroo) “impale.” For example, Mark 15:20 reads, “And they led him out to impale him.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses sometimes use this difference to create doubt in a Bible student’s mind about things one thought that he knew.  If one is wrong on this point, what else could one be wrong about?

On what instrument was Jesus executed?  Let’s examine the Biblical words.  (1) Jesus died on a “xulon” (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24).  This is commonly translated “tree.”  The NWT translated it “stake.”  Here are some definitions: “1. Wood… that which is made of wood… 2. A tree” (Thayer); “Wood, a piece of wood, anything made of wood” (Vine’s).  “1. Wood… 2. Object made of wood” (BAG).  (2) Jesus died on a “stauros” (Matt. 27:32, 40, 42; Mark 15:21, 30, 32; Luke 23:26; John 19:17, 19, 25, 31; 1 Cor. 1:17, 18; Gal. 6:14; Eph. 2:16; Phil. 2:8; Col. 1:20; 2:14; Heb. 12:2).  This is commonly translated “cross.” The NWT translated it “torture stake.”  Here are some definitions: “1… an upright stake… 2. A cross” (Thayer). It refers to “a stake sunk into the earth in an upright position; a cross-piece was often attached to its upper part” (BAG).  “1. An upright stake… 2. An instrument of torture for serious offenses.  It may be a vertical pointed stake, an upright with a crossbeam above it, or a post with an intersecting beam of equal length” (Kittle’s TDNT Abridged).  These definitions seem to allow for a cross beam.

However, Vine’s does not.  It says, “denotes, primarily, an upright pale or stake… Both the noun and the verb stauroo… are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beam cross.  The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as a symbol of the god Tammuz.”  This is sometimes cited by Jehovah’s Witnesses to not only deny the cross, but to associate it with idolatry.

What is the evidence for the traditional idea of a cross?  (1) certain ancient sources refer to the instruments of Jesus’ death being in the shape of the Greek letter tau.  These include: The epistle of Barnabas 9:8 cf. 12:22 (c. 150 – c. 215 A.D.), The Stromata book 6, chp. 11; Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240 A.D.), Adversus Marcionem liber 3, chp. 22.  (2) Thomas wanted the see the print of the nails (plural) in Jesus’ hands (John 20:25).  This is consistent with the use of the cross.  However, it does not rule out a stake.  One nail could be used for hands stretched above the head attached to an upright stake, though multiple nails could be used.  (3) The charges are said to have been placed above Jesus’ head (Matthew 27:37).  It does not say that they were placed above his upwardly stretched hands.  The language is consistent with the use of a cross.  However, admittedly, this language does not rule out an upright pole or stake.

The word “impale” certainly sets forth a different image in my mind.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses admit that Jesus was impaled with nails.  Though, they do believe that it is possible that he was impaled on the stake itself (Watchtower, October 15, 1969,  There is no Biblical evidence for this.

This, in my opinion is much ado about nothing.  Christianity does not stake (pardon the pun) its faith in the shape of the instrument used.  The Bible does not describe the shape.

What is important?  “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  “He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:15).

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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