The shape of things
The death of Jesus is one of the most important events (along side the resurrection) for all those who consider themselves followers of Jesus. But what was the shape of the wood that Jesus was executed on? Was it a cross or a stake?
Traditional Christians have an interest in the shape being a cross, and by that I mean the ‘t’ shape. Many Christians churches have crosses placed predominantly on the outside and inside of their buildings. Many people, Christian or not, wear crosses as jewellery. There are debates even among Christians about whether such prominence of the cross has moved into idolatry. My point is that there is a vested interest in the ‘t’ shaped cross.
Jehovah’s Witnesses argue vehemently that Jesus was not killed on a cross but rather on a stake. Part of their concern is the potential for idolatry, although this could just as easily happen with a stake and is not dependent on a shape. The main part of their argument is that the Greek stauros literally means stake.
So what was it?
What did Jesus die on? Although the Greek literally means stake, in Greek, as in English, the literal meaning is rarely meant. For example, if I say that I am starving after putting away a ton of books, I do not mean literal starvation or two thousand pounds of books.
To understand the word, we need to look at the cultural meaning. What we know from history is that the Romans executed people on a number of different shapes, both stakes and crosses. The shapes represented include ‘I,’ ‘t’ and ‘T.’ There is actually good evidence from some early Christian writings that Jesus was crucified on a ‘T’ shape. I lean toward this but in truth we cannot know.
What does this mean for conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses? The fact is that in the end, it really does not matter. The atonement that Jesus provided does not depend on the number of pieces of wood or where they were placed. What we need to focus on is that Jesus paid for our sins and we should not get distracted by less important topics like shapes.
For more information about this and other topics related to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, see my book, The Watchtower and the Word.