Bible Question:

Can you provide me with any historical facts about the cross?

Bible Answer:

The question we are concerned with is what historical facts are known about the cross on which Christ died? The gospels provide some information. Historical data will provide other information. In the end we discover that Christ suffered a horrible death by an exquisite tool of death.

Crosses Used

Shape of the Cross

The Greek word for cross is stauros. The word refers to a “stake” or “a pointed one.” Sometimes the stauros was simply a tree and the victim was affixed to the tree. This type of cross is usually referred to as a crux or crux simplex in Latin. St. Andrew’s cross is in the form of an “X” and its use occurred after Christ. A later version of St. Anthony’s cross which looks like a “T”  is called crux commissary. The typical cross that is identified with Christians is called crux immissa.

In the New Testament, the cross was more sophisticated than the crux since the cross was carried by Simon the Cyrene as described in Matthew 27:32. 

As they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross.  Matthew 27:32 (NASB)

This means it was not a tree but a piece of sawn lumber. Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; and John 19:19-22 reveals that a portion of the cross extended above Christ’s head since the a name plate or placard was placed on the cross above Jesus’ head.

And above His head they put up the charge against Him which read, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Matthew 27:37 (NASB)

This information strongly suggests that the cross typically associated with the Christian faith was the cross used by the Romans to crucify Christ since the other versions occurred later.

W. Adams Brown writes this about the cross used to crucify Christ,

Most modern illustrations err in making the upright too high. It was erected on some spot outside the city, convenient for the execution, and remained there as a permanent fixture, only the cross-bar or patibulum being carried to the spot, usually by the person who was to suffer death. This consisted sometimes of a single piece of wood, more often of two parallel bars joined at one end, between which the head of the victim passed, and to the ends of which his hands were fastened.[1]

Typically “cross” referred to the cross-bar.[2] This was the cross on which Christ was crucified.

Historical Usage

Ancient writers have left us with comments and descriptions about the cross. These comments come to us from Cicero, Josephus, Tertullian, and Seneca to name a few. The cross as a tool for torture was borrowed by the Roman Empire from the Phoenicians.

Thayer states in his Greek-Lexicon that the cross was borrowed from the Phoenicians and the victims were normally criminal.

. . . the well-known instrument of most cruel and ignominious punishment, borrowed by the Greeks and Romans from the Phoenicians; to it were affixed among the Romans, down to the time of Constantine the Great, the guiltiest criminals, particularly the basest slaves, robbers, the authors and abetters of insurrections, and occasionally in the provinces, at the arbitrary pleasure of the governors, upright and peaceable men also, and even Roman citizens themselves . . .[3]

However, Cicero claims it was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen.[4]

Crucifixion on a cross was perfected by the Romans to execute slaves, robbers, assassins, people in rebellious provinces, and only rarely for citizens. The victims were first abused with whips. After the victims’ sentences were declared, they were flogged with leather whips which had metal, rocks, and bones embedded in the leather. The victim was then required to carry his or her cross to the place of death. A sign was also hung from the victim’s neck declaring the reason for the torture. Once they arrived at the place of the crucifixion, they were stripped naked and then either tied or nailed to the cross.

Josephus’ comments add some additional information about the tortures inflicted on the victims who were eventually crucified.

. . . they were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures before they . . . were then crucified before the wall of the city. This miserable procedure made Titus greatly to pity them. While they caught every day five hundred Jews . . . So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one . . . by way of jest; when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses . . .[5]

. . . so the citizens fled along the narrow lanes, and the soldiers slew those that they caught, and no method of plunder was omitted; they also . . . brought many before Florus, whom he first chastised with stripes, and then crucified. Accordingly, the whole number of those that were destroyed that day, with their wives and children (for they did not spare the infants themselves), was about three thousand six hundred . . .[6]

But Josephus states that the crucifixion of Christ was for political reasons and not as a result of criminal action. He also states that the nation of Israel was punished for crucifying Christ.

Which political crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth brought down the vengeance of God upon them, and occasioned those very Romans, of whom they seemed so much afraid, that to prevent it they put him to death, actually to “come and take away both their place and nation” within thirty-eight years afterwards. [7]

The writer of Barnabas states,

The cross was to express grace by the letter “t”.[8]

Conclusion:

The crucifixion of Christ was prophesied in Psalm 22:16 and  Zechariah 12:10.

For dogs have surrounded me;
A band of evildoers has encompassed me;
They pierced my hands and my feet.
Psalm 22:16 (NASB)

. . . so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced . . . Zechariah 12:10 (NASB)

Isaiah 50:6; 52:14 prophesied that Christ would be beaten. Psalm 34:20 refers to the fact that Christ’s bones would not be broken.

He keeps all his bones,
Not one of them is broken. Psalm 34:20 (NASB)

Isaiah 53:12 prophesied that Christ would die between two thieves. Yet, Jesus’ horrible crucifixion took place so that our sins can be forgiven. He did it so that we could live with Him some day. All He asks us to do is to believe or trust in Him and turn our life over to Him.

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. 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NASB)

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.” Acts 5:30-32 (NASB)

 

References:

1. W. Adams Brown. Cross. A Dictionary of the Bible  Dealing With Its Language, Literature, and Contents. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1905. p. 528.
2. G. F. Hawthorne. “Cross” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Zondervan Publishing. 1977. vol. 1, p. 1038.
3. Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm’s Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti (New York: Harper & Brothers., 1889), 586.
4. Cicero. in Verrem . 2.5.170.
5. Flavius, Josephus. War of the Jews. 5.11.1.
6. Flavius, Josephus. War of the Jews. 2.14.9.
7. Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. 13.16.
8. Barnabas. 1.143.