A Cross or Torture Stake: Evaluating the Watchtower’s Claims

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There is perhaps no other Christian symbol that is despised by Jehovah’s Witnesses as the Cross. This is reflective of their contempt for the Christian Church, which they derogatorily term as “apostate Christendom.”

This piece intends to demonstrate that the very belief of Watchtower Society regarding the cross of Christ actually exposes it as an organization that every truth-seeking individual must reject.

An Innovative Idea

At its inception in 1884 and for more than half a century, the Watchtower Society held the cross in high esteem. Many of their publications during these early years contained references – some with vivid illustrations – of Christ’s death upon a cross.

For example, the Society’s early symbol, a cross and crown, was featured on the cover of each edition of The Watchtower magazine.

Their founder, Charles Taze Russell’s pyramid monument at his gravesite in Pittsburgh’s Rosemont United Cemetery, also bears this cross and crown image.

In 1921, 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, p. 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).

But in 1931 things began to change. First, the cross and crown image was dropped from their magazine. Then in 1936, Rutherford released a book, Riches, where he declared that: 

“Jesus was crucified, not on a cross of wood … Jesus was crucified by nailing his body to a tree” (p. 27).

Since then, the current JW position was affirmed: “We know that Jesus was nailed to a torture stake” (The Watchtower, January 15, 1966, p. 63).

The Watchtower Society illustrates this torture stake as a single standing pole without a horizontal cross beam, with one nail piercing both of Jesus’ hands – which were placed 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 Watchtower, January 15, 1966, p. 63).

Now this is a contradiction. If Jesus died on a torture stake, it would require just a single nail piercing both hands, yet this Watchtower article is telling us about “wounds inflicted in his hands by means of the NAILS.”

Is it one nail 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, p. 29).

If this is true, then their depiction of Jesus’ death should not contradict the Bible, logic, archaeology and history. But this is not the case as I will show.

Biblical evidence

First, the Bible clearly states that Jesus’ hands were nailed with two nails. It quotes the words of Thomas who was an eyewitness to the crucifixion:

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.

Notice that he used the plural form of the word ‘‘nail,’’ while ‘‘print’’ is singular, indicating a separate nail punctured each hand leaving a single mark in each hand.

Second, in Matthew’s account, we read:

‘‘They put up above His head the
charge against Him, which read,
‘This is Jesus the King of the Jews’’’
(Matthew 27:37).

Notice the description provided in God’s inspired Word. Matthew reported that the proclamation of Pontius Pilate was ‘‘set up over his head.’’

If Christ had been impaled as the Watchtower describes, the text would have read: ‘‘set up over (or above) his hands.’’

Evidently, Jesus died on a cross. His hands were stretched out and the sign was placed above His head.

Third, the very words of Jesus Himself prophesying the Apostle Peter’s martyrdom refutes the claim of Jehovah’s Witnesses:

‘‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go. Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God” (John 21:18-19).

Notice again the wording of Scripture as Jesus declared that Peter’s hands would be stretched out, not raised over his head. Peter’s crucifixion is attested to by church history.

Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t have it both ways. They must either accept the inspired Biblical record or cleave to the uninspired Watchtower Society.

Semantic Acrobatics

JWs argue that the Greek words translated as ‘cross,’ stauros, means an upright stake or pole and not a timber joined into a cross.

Indeed, during the BC era, the term stauros strictly meant a pole or stake, but when the Romans adopted Greek language and customs, stauros came to be used to refer to both poles and crosses.

Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vol. VII, p. 572) gives three meanings for stauros. Only one of them matches the Watchtower’s; the others present other distinct meanings:

‘‘The στανρoς [stauros] is an instrument of torture for serious offenses, … In shape we find three basic forms. The cross was a vertical pointed stake [Skolops] … 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].”

Another Greek scholar, Joseph Thayer, agrees with the dual meaning of stauros:

‘‘An upright stake, esp. a pointed one, … a cross; a. the well-known instrument of most cruel and ignominious punishment, borrowed by the Greeks and Romans from the Phoenicians…” (Joseph H. Thayer, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 586).

The Watchtower Society dogmatically assert that the word xy’lon used in Acts 5:30, Galatians 3:13 and 1 Peter 2:24 means ‘timber,’ not a cross.

Actually, the Greek word is xulon and it carries more definitions than “the Society” tells its readers.

Greek scholar W. E. Vine translates xulon as ‘‘wood, a piece of wood, anything made of wood’’ and gives its application as ‘‘of the Cross, the tree being the stau-ros’, the upright pole or stake to which the Romans nailed those who were thus to be executed’’ (The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words, p. 1165).

Kittel gives one of its renderings as ‘‘Cross. A distinctive NT use of ξùλον [xulon] is in the sense ‘cross’ (Theological Dictionary, Vol. 5 p. 39).

Strong’s Concordance defines xulon 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 xulon (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.

The Watchtower is being deceptive by providing a single definition for a word with different meanings.

Misquoting Sources

In Watchtower publications, quotes from the Catholic Encyclopedia, Critical Lexicon and Concordance or Greek scholars are often presented to convince the reader that stauros rigidly means torture stake.

But these quotes usually lack complete references or page numbers so you can’t double-check them. The reason is: Watchtower writers quote their sources out of context as if the authors agree with their views. (See some documented examples here and here)

Two examples will suffice.

(1) They cite the work of a Roman Catholic scholar, Justus Lipsius (1547-1606), De Cruce Liber Primus.

The illustration in it depicts a man being impaled on an upright stake and based upon the drawing, readers are told: ‘‘This is the manner in which Jesus was impaled.’’

But when one consults this Latin work (which is difficult to find), the dishonesty of the Watchtower Society becomes evident.

The work includes several wood-cut illustrations portraying impalement or crucifixion. Most of these illustrations depict a man on the cross, not torture stake.

And Lipsius never suggested that Jesus was impaled on a cross, but instead argued for a ‘‘cross’’ with such statements as, ‘‘the cross was inserted and the other crosswise bar is joined and inserted with the upright plank, and thus it cuts [divides] itself.” (Justus Lipsius, De Cruce Liber Primus, Ch. IX, pg. 24. Translated from Latin by Marie Tseng, University of Southern California).

(2) They also quote from the Imperial Bible Dictionary (1874, vol. 1, p. 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 part appearing in bold was conveniently omitted by Watchtower leaders for obvious reasons: it damages their argument. So, they dishonestly cite it as if the author agreed with their theory. This is a common tactic in JW publications.

Archaeological evidence

False beliefs do not usually survive the light of scientific inquiry. The archaeological evidence favouring a cross as a means of execution at the time of Jesus is much more convincing than the alternative theory.

In his book, Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green states:

‘‘Some experts doubt whether the cross became a Christian symbol so early, but the recent discoveries of the cross, the fish, the star and the plough, all well known from the second century, on ossuaries of the Judaeo-Christian community in Judea put the possibility beyond reasonable cavil’’ (pp. 214-215).

In the 1945 discoveries at Talpioth, eleven ossuaries were found and reported to be from Christian grave sites in Bethany. These burial boxes too were engraved with crosses and their burial date was estimated at 42-43 A.D. – slightly more than a decade after our Lord’s death and resurrection (Jack Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament, pp. 238-240).

Even non-Christians indicate that archaeology favours the cross above a torture stake. In 1971, it was reported that:

“Israeli archaeologists announced that they had identified the remains of the unfortunate young man and found clear evidence of his grisly execution. The Israelis scholars who studied the find for more than two years before making their announcement, were understandably cautious. What they uncovered and authenticated is the first firm physical evidence of an actual crucifixion in the ancient Mediterranean world” (Time Magazine, 1971, p. 64).

Early Church History

From the works of early church writers, one can infer that it was common knowledge that Jesus died on a cross.

In 100 AD, the writer of The Epistle of Barnabas (12:2) says:

“The Spirit saith to the heart of Moses, that he should make a type of the cross and of Him that was to suffer, that unless, saith he, they shall set their hope on Him, war shall be waged against them for ever” (J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, eds. The Apostolic Fathers, p. 278).

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, p. 40).

Ignatius of Antioch, an early church leader, in his Epistle to the Trallians (11:1-2), speaks of the ungodly and says:

‘‘These men are not the Father’s planting; for if they had been, they would have been seen to be branches of the Cross, and their fruit imperishable — the Cross whereby He through His passion inviteth us, being His members.”

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, p. 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 third 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).

On a final note, true believers do not venerate or pray to a cross as Jehovah’s Witnesses are made to believe. The true Christian focus is not on the cross as a piece of wood, but on what Jesus accomplished on it (Col. 2:14-15)

However, when Biblical, historical, archaeological and logical evidence are integrated, it’s safe to conclude that Jehovah’s Witnesses are in plain error on this one. Their organization has revealed itself as one of the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18).

How the Quran Crucified Itself

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The death and resurrection of Christ was not only a fulfillment of several Old Testament prophecies but also predicted by Christ Himself (Psa. 22: 7-18, Is. 53, Mt. 16:21, Lk. 9:22).

This is not just a matter of belief, but also that of history. Secular historians living at the time of Christ all recorded the fact that Jesus died on the cross.

Cornelius Tacitus (AD 55-120), a heathen historian, wrote about Christ “from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators” (Annals 15:44).

Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius wrote that:

“And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him [Jesus] to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day” (Antiquities 18:63).

Tertullian (b. 150 AD), an early church father, in his work Apology, gave a full report of the trial, death and resurrection of Christ quoting from the official law report of Governor Pontius Pilate (Chapter 21:34-26).

An anti-Christian work such as the Jewish Talmud also admits:

“Jesus was crucified one day before the Passover. We warned him for 40 days that he would be killed … Whoever wished to do so was asked to defend him, and when none did, He was crucified on the eve of the Passover” (Amsterdam, 1943, p. 42)

Lucien (c. 100 AD), a Greek anti-Christian philosopher wrote that Christians “still worship the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world” (Lucian of Samosata: The Passing of Peregrinus, Translated by H.A. Harmon, p. 11).

Now let’s go to the Quran:

And for their saying ‘We did slay the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of Mary the Messenger of ALLAH;’ whereas they slew him not nor did they bring about his death upon the cross, but he was made to appear to them like one crucified, and those who differ therein are certainly in a state of doubt about it; they have no certain knowledge thereof, but only pursue conjecture; and they did not arrive at a certainty concerning it” (Sura 4:157)

1. Every historian laughs at this verse. Who was the eye-witness to all these? To dismiss an historical event attested to by even non-Christians with the vision of one man 6 centuries after it occurred is intellectual lunacy.

No reputable court of law in any civilized country would take the 23-year heavily abrogated, contradictory recitations of a confused man as a valid witness.

2. The statement attributed to the Jews in that verse: “We did slay the MESSIAH, Jesus, the Son of Mary...” is an impossible one.

The Jews who killed Jesus didn’t believe He was the Messiah. If they knew He was their long-awaited Messiah, they would never have killed Him. That statement is a forgery.

3. The ambiguity of this verse has led to several conflicting interpretations in Islam.

Some Muslims say Jesus only fainted at the cross and later woke up in the sepulchre. Others say he was taken up before He could be killed.

So Allah allowed Jesus to get ridiculed and tortured before pulling him to the sky? Why not rescue him earlier?

Other Muslims claim “another man” who looked like Jesus was crucified in His stead. Who is this “another man?” The Quran didn’t say and Muslims are not sure.

Tabari says it was a man named Sergius.

Baidawi says it was a Jew named Titanus.

Ath-tha-labi says it was a Jew named Fal Tayanus.

Wahb-ibn Munabbah says it was a Jewish rabbi named Ashyu.

Some say it was Judas Iscariot.

So as it turns out, Sura 4:157 has led to more conjectures within the fold of Islam than any Jew or Christian could have ever invented.

4. That verse reflects poorly on the character of Allah. The statement “but so was made to them” means that Allah is a deceiver or trickster.

If Sura 4:157 is true, it implies that for 6 centuries, Allah deceived many godly people – including the disciples of Christ – to believe the lie that Jesus was crucified until Islam came.

So Allah was pleased that thousands went to hell believing the very lie he invented. Such a detestable attribute does not befit the God of the Bible. It fits the gods of Greek mythologies who enjoy playing cheap tricks.

5. A place in the Quran suggests that all the apostles before Muhammad died, without giving an exception:

Muhammad is no more than an Apostle; many were the Apostles that passed away before him” (Sura 3:144)

The Jesus of the Quran also said:

And the peace of God was on me on the day that I was born; and it shall be on me on the day that I would die and the day I would be raised up to life.” (Sura 19:33).

Note: Yusuf Ali’s version added the word “again” in brackets to make it look like Jesus is yet to die. But Muhammad claimed to be Jesus’ successor. Do you succeed a living person?

Allah allegedly says to Jesus:

O Jesus! I will take thee [inni mutwafeeka]. And raise thee to Myself and clear thee of those who disbelieve and am setting those who follow thee above those who disbelieve until the Day of Resurrection…” (Sura 3:55).

In another place Jesus is also quoted saying to Allah:

“…And I was a witness over then whilst I dwelt amongst them when thou didst take me up [tawaffaytan]. Thou wast the Watcher over them…” (Sura 5:117)

The terms “I will take thee” and “take me up” are Arabic terms used for one who is taken at death.

Now, how can Suras 3 and 5 teach one thing – that Christ died – but Sura 4 categorically denies this? Does this make sense?

Such an inexcusable contradiction and incoherence shouldn’t come from even a normal human being. Yet we are told this is a book from God.

6. Out of all those suras shown above implying Christ’s death, only sura 19 is a Meccan or early sura. The others (3, 4 and 5) were Medinan or later suras. This makes the Quran more illogical.

What could have made Muhammad switch over from fact to fiction within a limited timeline? There are two possibilities.

It seems Muhammad adopted the heresy that Christ escaped the cross from some heretical/Gnostic sects in Arabia who denied the crucifixion.

Since he was borrowing Bible stories from other religious people, he might have also adopted their errors and recite them at some point. After his death, both truth and hearsay were collected and bound together by his followers as a single book.

Or, it’s possible that Muhammad deliberately denied the death and resurrection of Christ because these would prove that Jesus Christ has power over death and is the Saviour of the world.

Remember that Muhammad frequently distorted Bible events so as to parallel his own experiences. He possibly made up a “Jesus” to fit his level.

The fact that the Quran has no valid explanation for what really happened at the cross proves that Sura 4:157 is a big lie.

Muhammad was under the influence of a lying spirit that has kept millions of Muslims today from the only means by which they can obtain forgiveness and eternal salvation – the crucifixion of Christ. This is how the Quran crucified itself.