When we look at most artists’ portrayal of Christ’s death, we often see Jesus nailed to a cross, when we look around at some religious buildings, we see both inside and outside that many have statues of Jesus nailed to a cross. There are some religious groups who believe that Jesus wasn’t crucified on a cross but on a stake pole and when we come to Scripture, we read about Jesus hanging on a cross and Jesus hanging on a tree.
Crucifixion is an ancient method of execution, in which the victim was tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang there until dead. It was never performed for ritual or symbolic reasons, usually, its purpose was only to provide a particularly painful, gruesome, and public death, using whatever means were most expedient for that goal.
The history of crucifixion can be traced back to the ancient Persians and there’s evidence to support that the Greeks practised this form of torture. As always, the Romans adapted the custom from Carthage and used it for slaves, rebels, and anyone who were their enemies, along with criminals. While most Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion, if you were a Roman and found guilty of treason, then you could face crucifixion. Crucifixion was considered a humiliating way to die.
The Romans would often display the victims, still on the cross, in rows, there would be row after row of condemned criminals lining the streets of the main entrance to the city, so that everyone entering a new city would know what would happen to them if they didn’t adhere to Roman laws and regulations. It also sent a powerful message to any oncoming enemies of the fate which awaits them.
There are a few passages of Scripture which clearly tell us that Jesus was hanged on a tree, Acts 5:30 / Acts 10:39 / Acts 13:29 / Galatians 3:13 / 1 Peter 2:24, but what does ‘hanged on a tree’ mean?
When we go back to the original Greek language, we soon discover that the word for ‘tree’ is the word, ‘xulon’, which simply put, means wood, a piece of wood or anything made of wood.
This obviously doesn’t literally mean a tree because if Jesus had been hung from an actual tree, the writers would have used the Greek word, ‘dendron’. Remember Simon was compelled to carry the cross, not a tree, for Jesus on the way to His execution, Mark 15:21.
History tells us that during the times of the Romans, many people were often crucified on a stake, this was the same as being crucified on a cross, except there was no crossbeam, the hands of the condemned were raised above their heads, and one put on top of another, and then nailed to the wood with a single nail, the feet were done the same whether a pole or cross, one nail through both feet.
A point of interest is that the Greek word used for ‘cross’, is the word, ‘stauros’ which means, an upright stake, especially a pointed one, a cross. And so, if a stake were used instead of a cross, then Jesus’ hands would have been placed above His head with a nail driven through His wrists. Since the wrists would most likely overlap, only one nail would be needed through both wrists.
A careful reading of the Scriptures will reveal some interesting truths, truths which teach us Jesus wasn’t crucified on a stake but on an actual cross.
Notice how Thomas uses the words, ‘nails’, plural, he doesn’t use the word, ‘nail’, singular. This implies that more than one nail was used to crucify the Christ, if one nail was used this would imply that Christ was crucified to a stake, but Thomas uses the word, ‘nails’, plural.
Notice how Jesus prophesied how Peter will die, this ‘stretching out’ of Peter’s hands implies he will be crucified. Jesus’ words imply Peter wouldn’t be crucified on a stake which wouldn’t require any kind of ‘stretching out’, as the hands would be folded one on top of the other, and one nail used. They imply Peter would be crucified like Christ was, stretched out on a cross.
The ‘nails’ were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7-inch-long with a square shaft 3/8 inch across. The victim was probably affixed to the cross by ropes, nails, or some combination of the two. In popular depictions of the crucifixion, possibly derived from a literal reading of the description in the Gospel of John, of Jesus’ wounds being ‘in the hands’, John 20:24-25, the victim is shown supported only by nails driven straight through the feet and the palms of the hands.
However, the flesh of the hands can’t support a person’s body weight, so some other means must have been used to support most of the weight, such as tying the wrists to the cross beam.
Another possibility, that doesn’t require tying, is that the nails were inserted just above the wrist, between the two bones of the forearm. the radius and the ulna. The nails could also be driven through the wrist, in a space between four carpal bones which is the location shown in the Shroud of Turin.
As some historians have suggested, the Gospel words that are translated as ‘hands,’ may have in fact included everything below the mid-forearm. Another possibility is that the nails may have been driven in on an angle, entering in the palm in the crease that delineates the bulky region at the base of the thumb, and exiting in the wrist, passing through the carpal tunnel.
Although there is no mention of crucifixion on a cross mentioned in the Old Testament, many people believe that there are foreshadows of Christ being crucified on a cross mentioned.
When God was asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, there are many things which happened in this event which appear to be showing a foreshadow of Christ. One of interest is found in the following verse.
Isaac was the one to be sacrificed and he carried the wood for his own sacrifice, which is a picture of what Christ did, Mark 15:21. Many people point to the ‘patibulum’, the wooded crossbeam which was laid upon Jesus who was to be sacrificed.
By the time of Christ, the prisoner usually had to carry the horizontal beam, patibulum, to the place of execution, Mark 15:21, not necessarily the whole cross. Crucifixion was an art form for the Romans who had specially trained men to carry out the sentence, there would usually be a commanding centurion and four soldiers. When it was done in an established place of execution, the vertical beam, stipes, was sometimes permanently embedded in the ground.
The horizontal beam of the cross, transom, could be fixed at the very top of the vertical piece, the upright, to form a ‘T’ called a tau cross. The horizontal beam could also be affixed at some distance below the top, often in a mortise, to form a ‘t-shape’ called a Latin cross. Alternatively, the cross could consist of two diagonal beams to form an ‘X’.
Focusing on what Jesus died on, whether it be on a tree, a stake or a cross, isn’t really the question we should be asking, the real question is simply this, WHY did He go there to die in the first place, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 / 1 Timothy 1:15.