Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that Jesus died on a torture stake and not a cross but in their early days, they believed Jesus died on a cross. For example, the second president of the Watchtower Society, Joseph Franklin Rutherford wrote: “The cross of Christ is the greatest pivotal truth to the divine arrangement, from which radiate the hopes of men” (The Harp of God, 1921, 141).
An illustration from a book titled Life, written by Rutherford in 1929 clearly showed Jesus carrying the cross on the way to Golgotha (page 198). This was later rejected for the current JW position which says: “We know that Jesus was nailed to a torture stake” (The Watchtower, January 15, 1966, 63).
The Watchtower writers say that this torture stake is a single standing pole with no cross beam, which has one nail piercing both of Jesus’ hands above His head. All the artistic renditions in Watchtower publications present this, yet we are told: “In one instance, he invited Thomas to inspect the wounds inflicted in his hands by means of the nails [John 20:19-29]” (The WT Jan 15, 1966, 63).
This is a fatal contradiction. If Jesus died on a torture stake, it would require just a single nail in both hands, yet this Watchtower article is telling us about “wounds inflicted in his hands by means of the NAILS.” Is it one nails or two?
Granted, The Watchtower says “the depictions of Jesus’ death in our publications…are merely reasonable artistic renderings of the scene…” (August 15, 1987, 29). If this is the true, then their depictions of Jesus’ death must not contradict the Bible, logic and history. But this is not the case as I will demonstrate:
1. The Bible clearly states that Jesus’ hands were nailed with two nails. It quotes the words of Thomas: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails...” (John 20:25). The nails mentioned here were for His hands, not feet. Thus, Jesus died on a cross. While the Watchtower artistic renderings show the sign ‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews‘ posted above Jesus’ hands, the Bible says this sign was “posted above his head…” (Matt. 27:37). This is because He was on a cross and His arms were outstretched. Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t have it both ways. They must either accept the inspired Biblical record or cleave to the uninspired Watchtower Society.
2. JWs argue that the Greek words translated as ‘cross,’ stauros means an upright stake and not a timber joined into a cross. They also assert that the word xy’lon used in Acts 5:30, Galatians 3:13 and 1 Peter 2:24 means ‘timber’ and not a cross. The fact is, the Greek word stauros is used for both a cross and an upright stake in different forms.
According to Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1971, 7:572):
“In shape we find three basic forms. The cross was a vertical, pointed stake [Skolops, 49, 4ft] or it consisted of an upright with a cross-beam above it [T, crux commissa] or it consisted of two intersecting beams of equal length [+, crux immissa].” The Bible interchangeably used the Greek words stauros and xy’lon for the cross. Strong’s Concordance defined xy’lon as anything made from wood, be it a stake, cross or a tree. It doesn’t have a fixed usage. In Matthew 26:47, the word is used for wooden instruments and in Acts 16:24 for clubs or stocks.
In non-Biblical texts, like Antiquities of the Jews for instance, Josephus used it to refer to “gallows” (Book II), and Polybius used it for “a cudgel” (Histories, Book VI). An online Greek lexicon work defines xylon (tree) as “a beam from which anyone is suspended, a gibbet, a cross, a log or timber, a cudgel or a staff.” In English language, the term “tree” has a variety of uses which includes a cross, therefore, its Biblical use is completely justified.
3. JWs confuse their readers by quoting from the Catholic Encyclopedia, Critical Lexicon and Concordance or Greek scholar W. E. Vine to show that stauros means torture stake. But their quotes lack complete references or page numbers so you can’t double-check them. Why? The Watchtower likes quoting their sources out of context as if the authors agree with their views. See documented examples here and here
An example is their quote from the Imperial Bible Dictionary (1874, volume 1:376):
“The Greek word for cross, properly signified a stake, an upright pole…Even amongst the Romans the crux (from which our cross is derived) appears to have been originally an upright pole, and always remained the more prominent part. But from the time it began to used as an instrument of punishment, a transverse piece of wood was commonly added…about the period of the Gospel age, crucifixion was commonly accomplished by suspending the criminal on a cross piece of wood”
The portion in bold was conveniently omitted by the Watchtower Society for obvious reasons: it damages their own argument. So they dishonestly cite it as if the author agreed with their theory. This is a common tactic in JW publications.
4. Early church history proves that it was common knowledge that Jesus died on a cross. In 100 AD, the Epistle of Barnabas described how Jesus’ outstretched arms on the cross were similar to Moses’ outstretched arms in a battle with the Aamalekites (12.2). Justin Martyr (160 AD) described the cross beam used to crucify Jesus and wrote that “He will come again in glory after His crucifixion was symbolized by the tree.” (Dialogue with Trypho, 40) Tertullian also said that Christians used the Greek letter tau or T as a sign of the cross after the manner of Jesus’ death (Ad nationes 1:11).
Interestingly, The Watchtower (November 15, 1993, 9) quotes Tacitus, a historian saying that the early Christians were “nailed up to crosses” after the manner of Christ. An ancient drawing (dating back to the 3rd century) called Alexamanos graffito shows a Roman soldier worshipping a man with a donkey head being crucified. The caption on it reads: “Alexamanos worships [his] God”. It was probably intended to mock Christians who worshipped a victim of crucifixion. Early church scholar, Tertullian made allusion to these mockeries of the Christian faith by unbelievers: “Some among you have dreamed that our god is an ass’s head – an absurdity which Cornelius Tacitus first suggested.” (Ad nationes 1.11).
Thus, when Biblical, historical and logical evidence are integrated, it’s safe to conclude that Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong on this issue. Jesus died on a cross, not a torture stake!