Did Jesus die on a cross or a stake?

The Question

I hear much debate on whether Jesus Christ died on a cross or a stake. I believe Jesus died on a cross, but also, is it possible that these two words mean the same thing? It seems that man has taken something so simple and made a big debate out of it. Can you give me some insight about this issue?

DS from New York, NY


The Answer
Part 1: How Jesus Died

How Jesus Died (Part 1)

I have not heard about this debate before but it doesn't surprise me. There are a multitude of arguments within the church down through the centuries that only distract us from our mission: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." (Mark 16:15) When we are busy arguing we don't do that.

This is one argument, however, that I believe is fairly easily resolved. In the New Testament, the Greek word for cross is "stauros". I am now going to quote directly from the New Bible Dictionary - Third Edition, 1996: "cross means an upright stake or beam, and secondarily a stake used as in instrument for punishment and execution." Therefore you are exactly right; both words really mean the same thing.

The Romans often used crucifixion as a means of execution so they had a system worked out for their own efficiency. They kept upright beams standing in place at whatever the crucifixion location was depending on the city. In the case of Jesus, they used Golgotha or "Place of a Skull" which was outside the city of Jerusalem.

The person who was being executed carried their own cross beam and then they were nailed to it and attached to the wooden stake already there. If you will recall, because of Jesus' weakened condition, he fell and the Roman soldiers enlisted a man named Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross the remainder of the way. (See Luke 23:26)

Crucifixion was the most humiliating and despised death possible in the Roman world at that time. While there might have been some honor to die in certain ways such as in battle or as a gladiator in a contest of strength, that was not the case for crucifixion. Rome usually picked crucifixion sites along highways to increase the shame. Gawkers could hurl additional abuse at those pitiful enough to be hanging naked as they passed by.

Rather than argue about the fine points of the cross, I suggest we spend our time thanking God over and over that he was willing to send his Son in our place. How could we ever be grateful enough?

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