Jehovah's Witnesses and the Cross

© Spotlight Ministries, Vincent McCann, 2000

Whenever Jesus is depicted in His crucifixion on the crosss, Jehovah's Witnesses always show Him as being nailed to an upright pole, with one nail through both hands (eg. Watchtower, 15 August, 1987, p. 29) rather than has been traditionally and historically understood - on a cross with two nails through His hands. Furthermore, they will often contend that the cross is actually a non-Christian pagan symbol.

Jehovah's Witnesses argue that the Greek word for "cross" (stauros) simply means 'an upright pole or stake'. However, it should be noted that this interpretation is severely limiting, and most probably incorrect of Jesus' own crucifixion, as will be seen by other evidence later. Robert Bowman observes that the Greek word stauros appears to have been used to represent a wide range of wooden executional structures (Robert Bowman, Understanding Jehovah's Witnesses, p. 143). Concerning the actual shape of the structure which Christ was crucified on, The Lutterworth Dictionary of the Bible has this to say:

"It is believed that three different kinds of crosses were used for Roman executions - the crux commissa which had the form of a T, the crux decussata whose shape was X and the crux immissa or capitata which is generally believed to be the type of cross on which Jesus died."(p. 185).

So with the Greek word open to interpretation and debate, and the fact that there were many different structures in existence by which people were crucified on, is there other evidence which indicates that Christ died on a cross?

Biblical Evidence
In their representations of Christ on the torture stake, the Watchtower society of Jehovah's Witnesses, always show 'one nail' through both of Christ's hands. However, in contrast to this, the Bible clearly states that Christ's crucifixion bore the marks of two nails and not one. This is seen in John 20:25 which records Thomas as saying:

"...Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe."

In addition to this text, further biblical evidence that Christ was crucified on a cross, rather than a torture stake, can be gleaned from Matthew 27:37, which describes the charge placed "above" Chirst's "head":

"This is Jesus The King of the Jews".

This charge would have been difficult to read if Christ had been crucified on a torture stake as His hands would have obstructed the words. If it was placed higher up the pole, it may have been easier for the Gospel writer, Matthew, to have written that the charge was placed above His hands. However, the traditional historic view of Christ being crucified on a cross, would both make the charge easier for all to have seen, and, as the text says, been placed above His head.

Archaeological Evidence
Michael Green has observed the following:

Some experts doubt whether the cross became a Christian symbol so early, but the recent discoveries of the cross, the fish, the star, and the plough, all well known from the second century, on ossuaries of the Judaeo-Christian community in Judae put the possibility beyond all reasonable cavil." (Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, pp. 214-215).

In June of 1968 1st century tombs were accidently unearthed by bulldozers working north of Jerusalem. Archaeologist, Vasilius Tzaferis excavated the tombs and unearthed the skeletal remains of a young man who had been crucified. Mr Tzaferis, who is not a Christian, wrote an article on his findings in the Biblical Archaeological Review. Writing of what he discovered, part of the Review states:

"At the end of the first century BC, the Romans adopted crucifixion as an official punishment for non-Romans for certain limited transgressions. Initially, it was employed not as a method of execution, but only of punishment. Moreover, only slaves convicted of certain crimes were punished by crucifixion. During this early period, a wooden beam known as a 'furca' or 'patibulum' was placed on the slave's neck and bound his arms. The slave was then required to march through the neighbourhood proclaiming his offence. This march was intended as an exipiation and humiliation. Later, the slave was also stripped and scourged. increasing both the punishment and the humiliation. Still later, instead of walking with the arms tied to the wooden beam, the slave was tied to a vertical stake...Following the beating, the horizontal beam was placed upon the condemned man's shoulders, and he began the long, gruelling march to the execution site, usually outside the citywalls...When the procession arrived at the execution site, a vertical stake was fixed into the ground...If the victim was attached by nails, he was laid on the ground, with his shoulders on the cross-beam. His arms were held out and nailed to the two ends of the cross-beam, which was then raised and fixed on top of the vertical beam. The victim's feet were then nailed down against this vertical stake...In order to prolong the agony, Roman executioners devised two instruments that would keep the victim alive on the cross for extended periods of time. One known as the 'sedile', was a small seat attached to the front of the cross, about half way down. This device provided some support for the victim's body and may explain the phrase used by the Romans, 'to sit upon the cross'. Both Erenaeus and Justin Martyr describe the cross as having five extremities rather than four; the fifth was probably the 'sedile'." (Biblical Archaeological Review, January/February, 1988, pp. 48-49, as quoted by Doug Harris in Awake to the Watchtower, pp. 309-310.).

Further archaeological evidence for the cross can be seen in the picture below which is of some first century graffiti, which depicts a believer worshipping an ass headed god on a cross.

The inscription reads: "Alexamenos worships his god."

It is interesting to know that in a similar way to Jehovah's Witnesses, there are some who have previously believed that Christ died on a torture stake rather than the cross, but then have changed their position. This has been seen most notably with the Worldwide Church of God, publishers of the magazine The Plain Truth. This group used to believed that Christ was crucified on an upright pole or torture stake. However this position has been abandoned in recent times in favour of the traditional belief that the implement of crucifixion was a cross.

It has been my own observation, as I have observed the behaviour of, and talked with Jehovah's Witnesses over the years, that many have an almost superstitious dread and fear of the cross shape. So convinced are they, of what the Watchtower has told them regarding this image, that many instantly associate it with paganism. This is most unfortunate because, as was seen, the evidence seems to clearly be in favour of this shape. When Christians use the cross of Christ in their decorations of churches etc. they use it as a symbol of victory over the forces of paganism. It also reminds Christians of the suffering which Christ endured for our sins. Some Witnesses may even think that Christians worship the cross. While there may be some individuals who may do this, this is certainly something which is not the norm in Christianity (particularly Protestant Christianity) and certainly something to be rejected, as indeed it is by the vast majority of Christendom.

Some may object that it is not important what shape the structure was upon which Christ was crucified, but rather what happened there. Christians would certainly agree with this. Certainly, theologians and scholars have no doubt pondered on the shape of the implement of crucifixion, but it has never been an issue of primary concern. However, it should be remembered that it was not the Christian Church who began to attack the shape of the cross, and reject it as a pagan symbol, but rather the Watchtower Society. Christians are simply defending a symbol which reminds them of an event which is important to them.

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