Did our Lord Jesus Christ die on a cross with his arms out stretched (the traditional 2-wooden-beam symbol), or did he die on a tree (xulon in Greek) as written in 1 Peter 2:24, or on a vertical stake (stauros in Greek), a "pole" placed vertically into the ground, His hands overlapping above His head?
The truth is that we don’t know for certain what the cross looked like because the bible does not clearly say. But there are many clues found in history and in scripture.
Historians have shown that the cross shape varied from impaling on a stake to affixing to a tree, to an upright pole or to a combination of an upright and a crossbeam. The famous Jewish author historian Josephus describes multiple tortures and positions of crucifixion during the Siege of Jerusalem as Titus crucified the rebels.
Seneca the Younger recounts: "I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the beam."
At times there was only one vertical stake, called in Greek monos stauros, i.e. isolated stake. A stauros refers to a wooden pole or timber with or without a crosspiece. This was the simplest available construction for torturing and killing the condemned.
Frequently, however, there was a cross-piece attached either at the top to give the shape of a T (crux commissa) or just below the top, as in the form most familiar in Christian symbolism (crux immissa). Other forms were in the shape of the letters X and Y.
Though information is limited, historical and archaeological evidence shows that the Romans generally used a crossbar, not a vertical post alone, when crucifying individuals. This crossbar either sat on top of the vertical post or traversed it somewhere along its upper quadrant.
The beam that Jesus was made to carry (John 19:17), and that Simon from Cyrene carried for him after Jesus collapsed in exhaustion (Luke 23:26), was most likely the crosspiece that was later affixed to an upright pole that was already in place.
In what would appear to be an apparent contradiction in scripture, Acts 5:30, Acts 10:39, and 1 Peter 2:24 tell us that Jesus was put to death on a tree (xulon in Greek). The reason this word was used in a few places is because the authors were making a point to the Jews. Traditionally, the Jews viewed an individual who was hung on a tree as one who was under God’s curse (Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23).
But the authors of Acts and Peter, when they used xulon did not mean Jesus was crucified on a living tree. He was crucified on some kind of apparatus fashioned from the timber of a tree. Therefore, there is no contradiction in scripture concerning those passages.
Under ancient Roman penal practice, a cruel prelude to crucifixion was scourging, which would cause the condemned to lose a large amount of blood, and approach a state of shock. The convict then usually had to carry the horizontal beam to the place of execution, but not necessarily the whole thing, the stauros and beam together.
Crucifixion was typically carried out by specialized teams, consisting of a commanding centurion and four soldiers. When it was done in an established place of execution, the vertical beam (stauros in Greek) was usually already there in place, being permanently embedded in the ground. As scripture records Jesus was crucified at Golgatha, being interpreted “the hill of the skull”. Golgatha was widely known as an established place of execution. Therefore it stands to reason that the post, or stauros, was already standing in place.
A stauros and beam together could weigh well over 300 pounds (135 kilograms), but the crossbeam would weigh only 75–125 pounds (35–60 kilograms). The Roman historian Tacitus records that the city of Rome had a specific place for carrying out executions, situated outside the Esquiline Gate, and had a specific area reserved for the execution of slaves by crucifixion. Upright posts would presumably be fixed permanently in that place, and the crossbeam, with the condemned person already attached to it by either nails or rope, would then be attached to the post.
Long story short, I believe history and scripture shows that the Lord Jesus was tried, convicted, condemned and executed according to standard methods of the time. Jesus carried the crossbeam that his hands were to be nailed to. The stauros was already embedded in the ground and standing upright. Jesus was nailed to the beam, arms outstretched and then hoisted to the top of the stauros where the beam settled into a notch already carved in the top of the stauros. This notch was necessary to hold the crossbeam in place.
It is highly likely, although impossible to prove for certain, that according to standard practices of the time the finished cross looked more like a capital “T” and not a lower case “t” like most Christian drawings depict.
Obviously the cross of Jesus Christ has rich meaning for Christians as a powerful symbol of their relationship with God, who gave his Son that we might die to sin and live in him.
We need not be ashamed of it, and we need not be offended by it. The cross is not to be worshiped, but neither should it be disparaged as sinful. Because some people might wrongly worship the cross must not mean that other Christians cannot use it rightly as a symbol of Jesus' profound sacrifice for sin.
However vital the details of Christ’s execution may seem, the shape of the cross is not really that important. Paul, the self proclaimed "Apostle", when preaching the gospel about the crucified Jesus, was not concerned about giving a detailed physical description of the death of Jesus or describing the actual shape of the cross. He pointed to the meaning of Jesus' sacrifice, and he used the cross as symbolic of God's grace toward us, demonstrated through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Because of the cross, God's people are saved by grace through faith (Galatians 2:16-21).
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