Home » Jehovah's Witness Theology » The Cross and the Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Cross and the Jehovah’s Witnesses

Subjects

For Christians, the cross of Christ is a symbol of god’s judgment, mercy and means of salvation all rolled into one. The cross is seen as the instrument through which Jesus was killed nearly 2,000 years ago. For most there is little dispute that it is indeed a cross on which Jesus died, this is not universally accepted however.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses assert that the cross was not in actuality a cross, but instead was a simple upright pole onto which Jesus was nailed. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses the symbol of the cross was a later accretion from pagan mythology, this therefore should not be accepted by true believers in Christ.

 

For the Jehovah’s Witnesses it is significant that the term used to describe the means of execution in the Bible was ξύλον (xulon/xylon). Citing Strong’s concordance of the Bible they note that Xylon simply means “timber,” and “by implication a stick, club or tree or other wooden article or substance.”[1]

As further evidence Gal. 3:13; Deut. 21:22, 23 are raised as proof texts that the method of death was fastening to a stake or a tree.

 

In the source cited above it is also asserted that the symbol of the cross did not appear in Christian iconography for the first four centuries of the Christian church. This is raised as an indication that the Cross was not in fact known as the method of Christ’s execution during that time frame.

 

Are the Jehovah’s Witnesses correct in their understanding of the Cross? To put it simply, no.

 

The Greek:

 

There are two terms in the New Testament that refer to the means of execution that was carried out by the Romans on Jesus and others: σταυρός (stauros) and ξύλον (xulon/xylon). A brief break down of these terms is needed and then further contextual issues will be discussed that provide further clarification.

According to the standard lexicon of New Testament Greek the term Σταυρός means “a pole to be placed in the ground and used for capital punishment, cross”[2] At first glance this seems to support the Jehovah’s Witness argument. The primary definition after all means a pole. Whilst having some plausibility, the lexicographers do move on to note that this term can also by extension mean a cross.

 

Consider another source – The Theological Word Book of the New Testament: “In shape we find three basic forms. The cross was a vertical, pointed stake…, or it consisted of an upright with a cross-beam above it (T, crux commissa), or it consisted of two intersecting beams of equal length (†, crux immissa).”[3]

 

The term ξύλον can mean a number of things according to lexical sources. One such meaning is an object made of wood – this can be used to denote religious idols / images. Clearly this would not be restricted to the meaning of an upright pole. The lexical sources do list the meaning of a pole, and of a club or cudgel which seems to support the Jehovah’s Witnesses as neither of these contains a cross beam. The sources however also list stocks designed to limit a persons movement which seems incompatible with a mere upright post.[4] Indeed sometimes it is a wooden collar, and other times a fastening for the feet.[5]As a further proof that the term ξύλον may not need to only refer to an upright post, it is noted that it can also mean a bench or a table.[6] A bench or a table is not a mere upright stake, it is an object made from wood, something that a cross in the traditional sense of the word also is.

It is worth noting that the Jehovah’s Witness use of Gal. 3:13 is based on the meaning of this noun and given the lexical evidence above is rendered highly suspect as a relevant proof text.

 

Simply put, the lexicons allow for either an upright post any implement or construction made of wood or a cross of some variety. The question therefore comes down not to simply citing the definitions given in lexical sources, but also looking at how those at the time described the stauros and xylon.

 

 

Early Christian references to the shape of the cross

 

Epistle of Barnabas 9:8 “For it says: “And Abraham circumcised ten and eight and three hundred men of his household.” What, then, is the knowledge that was given to him? Observe that it mentions the “ten and eight” first, and then after an interval the “three hundred.” As for the “ten and eight,” the I is ten and the H is eight;82 thus you have “Jesus.” And because the cross, which is shaped like the T, was destined to convey grace, it mentions also the “three hundred.” So he reveals Jesus in the two letters, and the cross in the other one.” [7] The shape of the cross on which Jesus died is here mentioned to be that of a capital T shape. There was in other words a cross beam.

Some have sought to limit the relevance of this citation by claiming that this is a late and spurious work. Regarding the dating however the following quotes may show that there are many scholars who see this as an early work:

“It appears to have been written after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in a.d. 70 (16.3–5) but before the city was rebuilt by Hadrian following the revolt of a.d. 132–135. Within these limits it is not possible to be more precise”[8]

“scholars today assign the letter to the second century (usually c. 132–35)” [9]

“The earliest Christian reference to the seventy-weeks prophecy seems to be the rather brief remark found in The Epistle of Barnabas (ca. A.D. 100)” [10]

“The Epistle of Barnabas is an early second-century Christian tract that seeks to justify Christianity and respond to exegetical challenges to Christianity made from the Hebrew Bible.”[11]

These sources do not provide a definitive and authoritative list of sources, they do however serve to show that scholars see the Epistle of Barnabas as an early second century source. Whilst conceivable that the shape of the crosses used had changed by then the writing of Seneca noted later in this post should give cause for pause before dismissing this description.

 

The second author who needs to be cited is Irenaeus of Lyons who lived between AD 120-202.

Irenaeus: Against Heresies: 2:24:4 “The very form of the cross, too, has five extremities, two in length, two in breadth, and one in the middle, on which [last] the person rests who is fixed by the nails.”[12]

The citation here is certainly later than that of the Epistle of Barnabas but is still a relatively early attestation as to the shape of the cross in the minds of the early second century Christians. This would indicate that the Jehovah’s Witness claim that there is a lack of religious iconography depicting crosses has little relevance – it was found in common descriptions long before the first iconographic appearance. The reference here to the extremity in the middle is a reference to what has been termed the sedile, or seat “This support allowed him to breathe—and prolonged the agony of his death. When the soldiers needed to hasten death by asphyxiation, they would break the legs of the victims with iron clubs so”. [13]

 

The third early Christian reference is that of Justin Martyr who lived between 110 and 165.

Justin Martyr – Dialogue with Trypho 91: “Now, no one could say or prove that the horns of an unicorn represent any other fact or figure than the type which portrays the cross. For the one beam is placed upright, from which the highest extremity is raised up into a horn, when the other beam is fitted on to it, and the ends appear on both sides as horns joined on to the one horn. And the part which is fixed in the centre, on which are suspended those who are crucified, also stands out like a horn; and it also looks like a horn conjoined and fixed with the other horns.”[14]

 

Non-Christian references to the shape of the cross

Hengel has collated a number of references to the form of crucifixion that will be outlined below.[15]

 

The writer Seneca who lived in the from roughly 4B.C. to A.D. 65 states in De consolatione ad Marciam 20.3: “I see crosses there, not just of one kind but fashioned in many different ways: Some have their victims with head down toward the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the crossbeam.”[16] Clearly for Seneca the form of a cross as we know it today was not out of the question – the crossbeam that he mentions is evidence of this. The use of the crossbeam does not seem to be a foregone conclusion as other positions are mentioned, but for the sake of examining the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ view this citation sheds some interesting light.

The term for crossbeam here is derived from the Latin patibulum. Plautus and Clodius also reference a cross beam called a patibulum when referring to crosses.[17]

 

Herodotus is also cited by Hengel. Herodotus was a writer who lived centuries before Christ (roughly 484-425 B.C.) and even he seems to intimate that the form of crucifixion did involve more than one piece of wood. Citing Herodotus 9.120 Hengel translates the text as “They nailed him to planks and hung him there…And they stoned Artayctes’ son before his eyes.”[18] The reference to more than one plank may indicate that there was a cross beam in use; this is not certain however. In fact Hengel moves on to suggest that this was not actually a cross but a tympanum “This was a flat board made up of planks (σανίδες) on which criminals were fastened for public display, torture or execution.”[19]

 

Hengel further cites Lucian who lived in the second century AD as another early reference to the shape of the cross: “According to Lucian, the letter T was given its ‘evil significance’ by the ‘evil instrument’, shaped in the form of a tau, which tyrants erected to ‘hang men on’: ‘I think we can only punish Tau by making a T of him.”[20]

 

A second century AD writer named Artemidorus also states that there was often a beam placed on top of the upright post[21]

 

 

 

A Biblical clue

One Biblical clue as to the shape of the cross is found in the fact that there is a reference to multiple nails being used for the hands. “So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”” [22] The use of more than one nail would make sense if Jesus were fasted to a crossbeam, but less sense if his hands were nailed to a simple upright post where presumably one would be laid on top of the other.

 

Religious iconography and the Cross

Perhaps one of the more accurate statements in the Watchtower article cited earlier, is that pertaining to the religious iconography. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary states “Probably the first scene of Jesus suffering occurs on the Vatican’s Passion sarcophagus, carved ca. mid-4th century. About the same time one artist transformed the Constantinian chi-rho to a cross, the crux immissa. This may be the first clear use of the cross as a symbol,”[23]

 

Staurogram circa 200AD

An earlier example of Christian iconography related to the cross of Jesus may be found in what has been termed the staurogram.  “From around 200 we also find the common symbol , the staurogram…, which is made up of the superimposed letters tau (T) and rho (P) as an abbreviation for stauros / stauroō (cross / crucify). It is a symbol of the cross of Christ denoting the saving event”[24]  Referencing the work of Larry Hurtado, Mody notes that this may be a reference to the shape of the cross involved.[25]

Whilst the earliest documented instance comes from roughly 200AD we cannot simply assume that this was not in use before then. Our documentary evidence is incomplete and many earlier manuscripts can be assumed to have used this symbol. Another way to put this is that it is highly unlikely that our earliest manuscript attesting to the staurogram is the earliest that there was in history.

 

 

  1. 21:22, 23 and the Jehovah’s Witnesses

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. [26]

The word translated as tree in these verses is עֵץ. The lexical sources give the following definitions:

    1. — collective trees, copse, timber
  • — (an individual) tree
  • — pl. trees
  • species of tree
  • wood (as material)
  • wood for building constructions
  • pieces of wood, sticks
  • — pieces of wood, sticks[27]

 

Clearly the meaning here cannot be limited to a mere upright stick by default. The person could have been bound to a literal tree, and it doesn’t really need to be mentioned that trees contain cross beams – they are called branches.

 

 

Conclusion

 

The combination of Seneca and to a lesser degree the Epistle of Barnabas should be enough to convince impartial viewers that there was an early understanding of crosses being in the shape that we depict them in modern religious iconography. The writers that discuss the use of the patibulum also contribute to an understanding of the cross being formed in the traditional shape attributed to it.

The early use of the staurogram also serves to show that people saw the cross as having a crossbeam attached to it. This shape was so attached to it that the letters with the shape of a T and a P became shorthand for a cross in Christian documents.

[1] Watchtower 57 3/15 p. 166 Did Christ Die on a Cross?

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5] Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[6] Kittel, G., Bromiley, G. W., & Friedrich, G. (Eds.). (1964–). Theological dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[7] Holmes, M. W. (1999). The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations (Updated ed., p. 299). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[8] Holmes, M. W. (1999). The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations (Updated ed., p. 272). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[9] Hawthorne, G. F., Martin, R. P., & Reid, D. G. (Eds.). (1993). In Dictionary of Paul and his letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[10] Tanner, Paul J. (2009). Is Daniel’s Seventy-Weeks Prophecy Messianic (Part 1). Bibliotheca Sacra, 166(662), 182.

[11] Kloppenborg, J. S., & Marshall, J. W. (2005). Apocalypticism, anti-semitism and the historical Jesus: subtexts in criticism (Vol. 275, p. 78). London; New York: T&T Clark International.

[12] Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 395). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

[13] Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Jn 19:31–33). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[14] Justin Martyr. (1885). Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 245). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

[15] Hengel, M. (1977). Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. (J. Bowden, Trans.) (p. 24ff). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[16] Brown, R. E. (1994). The death of the Messiah and 2: from Gethsemane to the grave,  a commentary on the Passion narratives in the four Gospels (Vol. 1, pp. 947–948). New York;  London: Yale University Press.

[17] Fiensy, D. A. (2012). Crucifixion. In (J. D. Barry & L. Wentz, Eds.)The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

[18] Hengel, M. (1977). Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. (J. Bowden, Trans.) (pp. 24–25). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[19] Hengel, M. (1977). Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. (J. Bowden, Trans.) (p. 70). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[20] Hengel, M. (1977). Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. (J. Bowden, Trans.) (p. 8). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[21] Davies, W. D., & Allison, D. C., Jr. (2004). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (p. 610 note 3). London; New York: T&T Clark International.

[22] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jn 20:25). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[23] Snyder, G. F. (1992). Art and Architecture: Early Christian Art. In (D. N. Freedman, Ed.)The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday.

[24] Fahlbusch, E., & Bromiley, G. W. (1999–2003). In The encyclopedia of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill.

[25] Mody, R. (2008). A Review of The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Themelios, No. 1, May 2008, 33, 83–84.

[26] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Dt 21:22–23). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[27] Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1999). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament. Leiden; New York: E.J. Brill.

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