The Early Christian View of the Cross

Webster’s Dictionary:

Cross:  An upright with a cross beam, used by the ancients especially the Romans as a means of execution.

Cross:  An upright post, with a bar across it near the top, on which the ancient Romans fastened convicted persons to die.

The Apostle Paul confirmed that Christ was crucified. 

Philippians 2:8 states:  “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (stake).”

The early Christians denied themselves and took up the cross of Christ.

Matthew 10:38:  “And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of me.”

Matthew 16:24:  “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.'”  (See also Mark 8:34, Mark 10:21, Luke 9:23, & Luke 14:27)

The Power of the Cross

The Apostle Paul knew nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified, when proclaiming the gospel to early believers.  He preached Christ crucified, not with eloquent or lofty words of wisdom, but with weakness, fear, and trembling.  The word of the cross was both Spirit and power to those who were being saved, and foolishness to those who were perishing. 

At 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, the Apostle Paul wrote:  “17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void.  18 For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

At 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, the Apostle Paul wrote:  “1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God.  2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, 4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”

The Apostle Paul went on to state at 2 Corinthians 13:3-4:  “3 Since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you.  4 For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God.  For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.”

Crucified in Christ/ Christ In the Believer

Early Christians were persecuted for the cross of Christ.  They boasted or gloried in nothing but the cross of Christ, by which the world was crucified unto them and they unto the world.  By dying to their former life under the Law, and living a new life by faith in the Son of God, early Christians were crucified with Christ.  Having been spiritually transformed and crucified in this manner, Christ now lived in every believer.

At Galatians 6:12 & 14, Paul’s states:  “12 Those who desire to make a good showing in the flesh try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.  14 But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

At Galatians 2:19-20, the Apostle Paul states:  “19 For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God.  20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

The Cross, Uniting Two Peoples, Into One Body

Through His shed blood on the cross, Christ broke down the wall of hostility that had existed between the Jews (the nation of Israel) and the Gentiles (the people of the nations).  Christ accomplished this by abolishing or cancelling out the Law of Moses, which consisted of 613 commandments or ordinances.  In so doing, Christ created one new man or body out of two distinct groups of people.  By His shed blood on the cross, Christ reconciled the Jewish and Gentile believers into one body (the church), thus establishing peace between these two peoples.

Note, how the Apostle Paul explains this at Ephesians 2:11-17:  “11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision,’ which is performed in the flesh by human hands –12 remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross (stake), by it having put to death the enmity.  17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near.”

Paul went on to state at Colossians 1:19-22:  “19 For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.  21 And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, 22 yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.

Christ, A Curse For Us/ The Law Abolished

According to the Law of Moses, any man hung on a tree or stake was considered someone accursed by God.  Any man, who had been put to death in this manner, was to be taken down by sundown and buried.  (Refer to Deuteronomy 21:22 &23)  Christ, by undergoing crucifixion (death on a tree), released us from the curse of the Law, by becoming a curse for us.  In this way, He bore all of our sins on the cross and redeemed us as sinners.  Christ cancelled out the Law of Moses, which was hostile to us.  Due to inherent sin, no imperfect human had ever kept the Law.  Consequently, all of sinful mankind was in a condemned status before Almighty God and in need of a redeemer.  (See Romans 5:6-21)  Only Christ, as a perfect man, could keep the Law; which was itself perfect.  By living a sinless life, Christ fulfilled the law.  (See Matthew 5:17-18)  Through His sacrificial death, He became a curse for us, thereby releasing us from the curse of the Law.  Christ canceled out the certificate 0f debt, and took it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 states:  “22 And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God. . .”

At Acts 5:30, it states:  “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree.”

Acts 10:39 states:  “And we are witnesses to all that He did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.  They put Him to death by hanging Him on a tree.”

At Galatians 3:13, the Apostle Paul states:  “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'”

The Apostle Peter states at 1 Peter 2:24:  “And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.  By His wounds you have been healed.”

Paul at Galatians 3:19 states:   “What then you ask was the purpose of the lawIt was a later addition, to make men conscious of their wrongdoings (the existence and extent of sin), until the arrival of the ‘Seed(Christ) to Whom the promise was made.”

At Colossians 2:13-14, Paul states:  “13 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled (blotted, wiped ) out the certificate of debt (the law, the hand written document, the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments, the bond written in ordinances) consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us (stood against us, always hung over our heads); and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (stake).”

The Apostle Paul at Ephesians 2:13-17 states:  “13 But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity (He has put an end to the law with its decrees, He annulled the law with its rules and regulations, He removed the hostility of the law, with all its commandments and rules), which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross (stake), by it having put to death the enmity.  17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near.”  (Previously cited)

Former Brethren/ Enemies Of the Cross

The Apostle Paul also referred to many brethren with weeping, who had left the faith and had become enemies of the cross of Christ.  He describes these former brethren as those whose end was destruction, and who had set their minds on earthly things, rather than on heavenly things.

At Philippians 3:18-20, we can read Paul’s words:  “18 For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross (stake) of Christ, 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things.  20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  (Refer also to 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 26 & Hebrews 6:4-6)

Did Jesus Die on a Cross?

It is important to note, that many of the above verses state that Jesus was put to death on a tree.

In ancient Hebrew the word for tree is “ets.”  This word is used in the previously quoted texts, which state that Jesus was put to death and hung on a tree.  This Hebrew word, “ets,” appears in the earliest manuscripts and was later translated into the Greek word, “xylon,” which also meant tree or wood.  (Refer to Acts 5:30 & 10:39, Galatians 3:13, 1 Peter 2:24, & Deuteronomy 21:22-23, previously cited)

More than forty other verses state that Jesus was put to death on a stake or cross.  Why is this?

In the 40 or more other scriptural passages, where the word “cross” appears, the ancient Hebrew word for stake, “tzelab,'” can be found in the earliest manuscripts.  This Hebrew word for stake, “tzelab,” was later translated into the Greek word, “stauros,” also meaning an upright pole or stake.  This would be a pole or stake similar to that used in a stockade.  This Greek word for stake, “stauros,” was later translated into our English word, “cross.”

How then do we conclude for a certainty that Jesus was put to death on a cross and not a tree or stake, when the Hebrew and Greek words for “tree” and “stake” are what appear in the earliest manuscripts? 
Image 1

Prior to the Roman empire, the Jews as well as the Greeks hung or impaled people on trees or stakes without the usage of a cross beam.  This manner of impaling someone was simply on an pole, stake, or tree, with the arms and hands extended above the head and nailed to the upright. Various religious groups and sources have maintained that as a result of the usage of these Hebrew and Greek words for tree and stake (as found in the most ancient manuscripts), Jesus did not die on a cross at all, but rather on an upright stake or tree.  They maintain that the usage of the word, “cross,” as translated into our modern English, is incorrect.

A Roman Crucifixion

As we have already established, the manner of impaling someone prior to the Roman empire was simply on a pole, stake, or tree, with the arms and hands extended above the head.  (See picture)

Once again the definition of the word cross is as follows:  a structure consisting of an upright with a transverse beam, used especially by the ancient Romans.  (Merriam Webster Dictionary) 

In perfecting the art of crucifixion, the Romans distinguished themselves from other cultures in the ancient world, by fastening a crossbeam or gibbet (patibulum in Latin) to an upright stake or tree (stipes in Latin).  The usage of the crossbeam not only increased the maximum suffering of the victim, but it also increased the duration of suffering. This would have been true at the skull (Golgotha), where the formal execution of our Lord Jesus Christ was carried out by Roman soldiers.  This was a Roman execution!  This would have indicated the usage of a crossbeam, which was attached to a stake, pole, or tree.

Historic & Scriptural Evidence

There are many reasons to support the conclusion, that Jesus died on a cross.

1. It is important to note that the Jews had no word for cross in ancient Hebrew and therefore referred to it as a tree or stake.  This would explain why the word, “cross,” is absent from the ancient Hebrew text and the later scriptural text that was translated into Greek.

Image 2.52. The early Christians pictured the cross of the crucifixion as the tau or T-shaped cross, also known as the crux commissa, Latin cross, or St. Anthony’s cross.  Ex. [T]  This is the type of cross that most contemporary historians now believe that Jesus was hung on.  (See picture)

3. The early church fathers (who succeeded the Apostles during the first and second century CE) mention the terms cross, crucifixion, and tree interchangeably in their writings.

Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, who wrote his epistles between 98 and 117 CE, refers to the tree or cross.

Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna and a contemporary of Ignatius, mentions the tree or cross in his epistle, 69-155 CE.

Barnabas, who wrote his epistle somewhere between 70 and 200 CE, refers to the tree or cross that Christ died on, even drawing the tau or T and referring to it as the symbol of Christ.  “And then, since grace was to come by a cross, of which T is the shape. . .”

Our present day term, “martyr,” is derived from the name of a 2nd century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, who received a martyr’s death by being beheaded in Rome.  In his writings, Justin explains the mystery of the cross from an account found in the Old Testament.  Referring to a passage from Exodus 17:11-13, he recounts how Moses stretched out both arms for hours; a sign that assured the Israelite’s victory over a warring enemy.  Moses’ extended arms signified Israel’s salvation.  In a manner similar to Moses, Christ stretched out His arms on the cross and died for our sins, thereby granting us salvation.  The early church father, Barnabas, also refers to the same account as Justin Martyr and its prophetic fulfillment in the crucifixion of Christ.

4. Historical records show that the cross was implemented in Roman executions as early as the 2nd century BC, almost 200 years before Christ’s crucifixion.  The usage of the crossbeam distinguished the Romans from previous cultures, such as the Jews and Greeks, who used an upright stake or tree to impale their victims.

5. An example of this would be the Roman crucifixion of 6,000 slaves, who revolted under Spartacus in 71 BC.  They were nailed to crosses all along the Apian Way, from Capua to Rome.

6. A later example of this was the Roman crucifixion of thousands of Jews, during the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE.  This event was documented by the Jewish historian Josephus, who makes specific mention of Jews attempting to escape the city and being nailed to crosses, by the Romans.

7. During the first 300 years of Christianity, the church was under intense persecution and danger.  It was for this reason that the cross was not displayed as a symbol of Christ, during this period.  Ironically, the cross does appear on the tombstones of early Christians, as a symbol of victory and hope.  It was not until the early 4th century CE, when the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, that the cross was publicly displayed as a symbol of Christ.

Image 48. The Romans were aware that the cross was a Christian symbol, during the first 300 years of Christianity. This is evident from a crude drawing that was excavated in 1856.  The drawing was unearthed from a palace in Rome, and pictures a man mockingly gesturing at a crucified man, with a donkey’s head.  Under the picture a caption reads, “Alexamenos worships God.”  Many Romans and pagans believed that the early Christians worshiped their God, “Jesus,” in the form of a donkey or jackass on a cross.  This drawing gives an amazingly detailed visual of a Roman crucifixion and the type of cross that the Romans used.

9. Recent evidence suggests that the cross that Jesus bore to the place of execution, was only the crossbeam or gibbet.  A crossbeam of that period is estimated to have weighed between 100 and 125 pounds and measured about six feet in length.  Recent attempts have been made in recreating Christ’s crucifixion, with the crucifixion candidate bearing a full sized replica cross.  A full sized cross of this period is estimated to have weighed between three and four hundred pounds.  In these instances, the crucifixion candidate was unable to bear the combined weight of the upright stake and crossbeam for more than several feet, before collapsing or suffering injury.  This certainly would have been far less of a distance than what Christ was estimated to have traveled (a quarter mile to one mile), through the crowded streets of Jerusalem.*  Many contemporary historians now believe that it was only the crossbeam that Christ bore on His trek to the crucifixion site.  It was at the crucifixion site, that the sentenced victim would have been tied and nailed to the crossbeam, and then suspended and hung to an already existing upright stake or tree.

10. The accounts in all four gospels, depicting Christ’s trial and crucifixion, give some credibility to this conclusion.  Recall, that while on trial, Jesus was deprived of any sleep the night before.  He was severely beaten by both Jewish and Roman guards, while in their custody.  He endured a crown of thorns that penetrated his head.  He was hit in the head repeatedly, with a wooden staff or reed, by Roman guards.  He endured a Roman scourging, which was capable of killing a man, causing severe damage to the musculature, nervous system, spine, shoulders, ribs, and internal organs.  It would have been an extraordinary feat for a man in this condition to have carried a crossbeam (weighing up to 125 pounds), let alone a full size cross of the period (weighing upwards to 300 or 400 pounds), through the crowded streets of Jerusalem to the crucifixion site.  (Refer to Matthew Ch. 26-27, Mark Ch. 14-15, Luke Ch. 22-23, & John Ch. 18-19)

Isaiah spoke of the brutality and horror that the Christ was to endure.

Isaiah 52:13-14 states:  “13 Behold my Servant (Christ) shall prosper, He shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.  14 As many were astonished at Him– His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and His form beyond that of the sons of men.”

Another translation renders verse 14:  “For many the Servant of God became an object of horror; His face and His whole appearance were marred more than any man’s, and His form beyond that of the son’s of men.”  (Amplified Bible)

The gospels make it plain that Jesus did not succeed in carrying His cross the entire distance.  He gave out under the weight of the cross and was physically unable to continue.  A man in the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, was recruited to help Jesus bear His cross the rest of the distance to the crucifixion site.  (Refer to Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, & Luke 23:26)

11. The scriptural accounts in the gospels suggest that the size of the upright stake or tree was significant, at least 12 feet in length; so that a Roman guard had to use a reed with a sponge, in order to give Jesus a drink.  This would once again raise the question as to whether Jesus could have carried a full sized cross, weighing as much as 300 to 400 pounds, a quarter mile or more to the crucifixion site.*  (Refer to Matthew 27:48, Mark 15:36, & John 20:28-29)

12. Further evidence that indicates Jesus died on a cross, not just an upright stake or tree, is found at Matthew 27:37, where it states:

“And above His head they put up the charge against Him which read, ‘THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.'”

If Jesus had died on an upright stake or tree, with His arms extended above His head, the text would have more than likely read:  “And above His hands (or arms) they put the charge against Him.”  But the verse clearly states that the sign was posted above His head.  This would once again indicate that a crossbeam was used to nail and fasten Jesus’ outstretched arms, with just enough space above His head to post the epitaph.

13. The final testimony from the Gospel of John, also supports the fact that Jesus died on a cross.

At John 20:25, a doubting Thomas proclaims:  “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.”

The use of the terms, “nails” and “hands,” by Thomas, would indicate a plurality of more than one nail, used in more than one hand.  This would imply the use of a crossbeam, where with outstretched arms, more than one nail would have been necessary to pierce more than one hand.  (Refer also to John 20:24-25)

14. This same manner of death (a Roman crucifixion) was indicated in a parting prophecy that Jesus gave to the Apostle Peter, concerning the type of death that he was destined to suffer.

At John 21:18, Jesus foretold the nature of Peter’s death:  “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring (bearyou where you do not wish to go.’  Now this He (Jesus) said, to indicate (or signify) what kind of death he (Peter) would glorify God.”

The early Christian Origen claimed that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome.  The early Christian Tertullian also spoke of Peter’s crucifixion in Rome.  This would certainly correspond with Jesus’ prophecy, concerning the nature of Peter’s death.  Being girded and born where he did not wish to go and with outstretched hands, would certainly be indicative of a Roman crucifixion or death on a cross.

Understanding the early Christian view of the cross, should inspire our faith.  It was the primary theme of the Gospel, representing the power and salvation of God to those who believe, and foolishness to those who were perishing.  It signified a believer’s willingness to take up their cross, thereby renouncing their former way of life in exchange for the next.  Through His death on the cross, Christ blotted out our sins, thus making the Law of Moses obsolete.  (Rd Hebrews 8:6-13)  In this way, Christ brought two peoples together as one, Jew and Gentile alike, into the early Christian church.

Finally, understanding the severity and nature of the crucifixion and of Christ’s sufferings should help rekindle our appreciation for what He did for us.  It should  move us to acknowledge God’s incredible love for mankind, that He would send His only begotten Son to die on a cross for our sins and transgressions.

Ephesians 3:17-19 states:  “17 That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”

*Red print in brackets is used to show variations in scriptural renderings from other translations or the original languages; also used for scriptural clarification.

*Impaling a man on a stake or tree, usually resulted in premature asphyxiation.  By suspending the arms over the head and nailing the hands to the upright, the victim would eventually be unable to breathe, due to the increased pressure on the chest cavity.  Eventually, the victims legs would start to tire from pushing the body up, which enabled them to take a breath.  When the legs gave out, the weight of the victim as suspended by the arms, restricted oxygen flow to the lungs.  This resulted in one’s inability to breath and subsequent asphyxiation.  The usage of the crossbeam prolonged the suffering of the crucifixion candidate.  The outstretched arms enabled one to breath more efficiently, when pushing up with the legs.  This increased the duration of the crucifixion and prolonged the suffering of the victim.

*There is some ambiguity as to the exact location of the execution site, known as the skull (Golgotha-Hebrew, Calvary-Greek).  There is also some ambiguity as to the exact starting point where Christ began His final trek, bearing the cross.  This would account for the variance in distance that Jesus bore the cross (estimated to be 1/4 mile to a 1 mile).

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