Men have bowed to it, fought for it and even died for it. Revered by Christendom, it has come to symbolise the supreme sacrifice of one perfect man for a grossly imperfect world.
Even today, despite determined attempts by militant secularists to efface it from schools, council chambers, courts, colleges and other public buildings, the cross remains a powerful image, a rallying point for some 41,000 Christian denominations.
So it may came as a shock to learn that, according to several respected scholars, Jesus didn’t die on a cross at all. Instead, scriptural accounts indicate that Jesus was impaled upon a single, upright stake.
In his Expository Dictionary of New & Old Testament Words, W E Vine distinguishes the Greek word ‘stauros’ (‘stake’ or ‘pale’) as used in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death, “from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed cross”. This is backed up by The Imperial Bible-Dictionary which says that the word stauros′ “properly signified a stake, an upright pole, or piece of paling, on which anything might be hung, or which might be used in impaling a piece of ground.......Even amongst the Romans the crux (Latin, from which our cross is derived) appears to have been originally an upright pole.” The Catholic Encyclopaedia also admits that “the cross originally consisted of a simple vertical pole, sharpened at its upper end."
Another Greek word used in the gospels to describe the means of Jesus’ execution is xy’lon, which in the Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament is defines as “a piece of timber, a wooden stake.” This is in agreement with the King James Version at Acts 5:30: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree [xy′lon]”, while other versions, also translate xy′lon as “tree.” At Acts 13:29, The Jerusalem Bible at Acts 13:29 says: “When they had carried out everything that scripture foretells about (Jesus) they took him down from the tree [xy′lon] and buried him.”
Origin of the Cross
Vine explains that the cross originated from ancient Chaldea where it was used “as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt.”
By the middle of the 3rd century CE, the early Christian faith had been polluted by unscriptural doctrines, many drawn from pagan beliefs. “In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches....and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau or T in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the cross of Christ.”
Much of the blame for this can be laid on Rome’s sun-god worshipping Emperor Constantine who, it was claimed, had a vision of a cross emblazoned on the sun with the words “in hoc vince” (by this conquer) just before an important military victory. As a result, he supposedly became a Christian, but was not baptised until just before his death 25 years later. Questioning his motives, the author of The Non-Christian Cross stated: “He acted rather as if he were converting Christianity into what he thought most likely to be accepted by his subjects as a catholic [universal] religion, than as if he had been converted to the teachings of Jesus the Nazarene."
Interestingly, the image of the cross is not exclusive to churchgoers. The ancient Egyptians had their own version with the handle-shaped ansate - a T shape topped by a circle - while the ‘gamma’ cross venerated by Hindus and Buddhists is more commonly recognised by its Sanskrit name: “swastika”.