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The Watchtower and the Shape of the Cross

Guest Article

By Michael J. Partyka

Part A: Textual Evidence

I was hopping around the Watchtower’s official web site looking for articles supporting their rejection of the cross as a Christian symbol - Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was put to death on an upright torture stake, not a t-shaped cross. The reason I was looking for such articles was that, during my ongoing study of the writings of the Church Fathers, I had discovered several references to the cross that appeared to me to be far too early to support the Watchtower’s claim that the cross is a pagan symbol which entered into Christianity only after much time had passed since the death of the apostles.

Actually, the matter of whether Jesus died on a t-shaped cross or an upright torture stake is utterly irrelevant to fundamental Christian doctrine. However, the Watchtower uses the argument of the torture stake over the cross to create feelings of uncertainty in people about mainstream Christianity. After all, if mainstream Christianity is wrong about the origin of their most cherished symbol, what else could they be wrong about? Although the “stake vs. cross” argument is shabby at best, it remains one of the Watchtower’s primary points of attack on the Christian faith, and for this reason I have decided to document the earliest evidences for the Christian cross which I have found in the Bible and in the literature of the ante-Nicene Church Fathers.

The Gospel According to John (New Testament):

John 20:25 (NWT) - “Consequently the other disciples would say to him: ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them: ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails and stick my finger into the print of the nails and stick my hand into his side, I will certainly not believe.’” [Emphasis added]

Directors note: The Watchtower pictures Jesus being crucified with both arms over His head, wrists crossed, with ONE nail going though both wrists.

Epistle of Barnabas (100 AD):

“the cross was to express the grace [of our redemption] by the letter Τ….”

“Here again you have an intimation concerning the cross, and Him who should be crucified….in Moses, when Israel was attacked by strangers….the Spirit speaks to the heart of Moses, that he should make a figure of the cross, and of Him about to suffer thereon….Moses therefore placed one weapon above another in the midst of the hill, and standing upon it, so as to be higher than all the people, he stretched forth his hands….”

Justin Martyr (died 165 AD):

“[The cross], as the prophet foretold, is the greatest symbol of His power and role; as is also proved by the things which fall under our observation. For consider all the things in the world, whether without this form they could be administered or have any community. For the sea is not traversed except that trophy which is called a sail abide safe in the ship; and the earth is not ploughed without it: diggers and mechanics do not their work, except with tools which have this shape. And the human form differs from that of the irrational animals in nothing else than in its being erect and having the hands extended, and having on the face extending from the forehead what is called the nose, through which there is respiration for the living creature; and this shows no other form than that of the cross. And so it was said by the prophet, ‘The breath before our face is the Lord Christ.’ And the power of this form is shown by your own symbols on what are called ‘vexilla’ [banners] and trophies, with which all your state possessions are made, using these as the insignia of your power and government, even though you do so unwittingly. And with this form you consecrate the images of your emperors when they die, and you name them gods by inscriptions.”

“…that lamb which was commanded to be wholly roasted was a symbol of the suffering of the cross which Christ would undergo. For the lamb, which is roasted, is roasted and dressed up in the form of the cross. For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb.”

“Moses himself prayed to God, stretching out both hands…. if he gave up any part of this sign, which was an imitation of the cross, the people were beaten, as is recorded in the writings of Moses; but if he remained in this form, Amalek was proportionally defeated, and he who prevailed prevailed by the cross. For it was not because Moses so prayed that the people were stronger, but because, while one who bore the name of Jesus (Joshua) was in the forefront of the battle, he himself made the sign of the cross.”

“And God by Moses shows in another way the force of the mystery of the cross, when He said in the blessing wherewith Joseph was blessed, ‘…Let him be glorified among his brethren; his beauty is [like] the firstling of a bullock; his horns the horns of an unicorn: with these shall he push the nations from one end of the earth to another.’ Now, no one could say or prove that the horns of an unicorn represent any other fact or figure than the type which portrays the cross. For the one beam is placed upright, from which the highest extremity is raised up into a horn, when the other beam is fitted on to it, and the ends appear on both sides as horns joined on to the one horn. And the part which is fixed in the centre, on which are suspended those who are crucified, also stands out like a horn; and it also looks like a horn conjoined and fixed with the other horns.”

Irenaeus of Lyons (died 200 AD):

“The very form of the cross, too, has five extremities, two in length, two in breadth, and one in the middle, on which [last] the person rests who is fixed by the nails.”

“And since He is the Word of God Almighty, who invisibly pervades the whole creation, and encompasses its length, breadth, height, and depth - for by the Word of God everything is administered - so too was the Son of God crucified in these fourfold dimensions…that He might demonstrate, by His visible form on the cross, His activity which is on the invisible level, for it is He who illumines the ‘heights’, that is, the things in heaven, and holds the ‘deeps’, which is beneath the earth, and stretches the ‘length’ from the East to the West, and who navigates the ‘breadth’ of the northern and southern regions, inviting the dispersed from all sides to the knowledge of the Father.”

“And again, concerning His cross, Isaiah says, ‘I stretched out my hands all the day to a disbelieving and contrary people,’ for this is a sign of the cross.”

Octavius of Minucius Felix (210 AD):

“Crosses, moreover, we neither worship nor wish for. You, indeed, who consecrate gods of wood, adore wooden crosses perhaps as parts of your gods. For your very standards, as well as your banners; and flags of your camp, what else are they but crosses glided and adorned? Your victorious trophies not only imitate the appearance of a simple cross, but also that of a man affixed to it. We assuredly see the sign of a cross, naturally, in the ship when it is carried along with swelling sails, when it glides forward with expanded oars; and when the military yoke is lifted up, it is the sign of a cross; and when a man adores God with a pure mind, with hands outstretched. Thus the sign of the cross either is sustained by a natural reason, or your own religion is formed with respect to it.” (Octavius, Chapter 29)

Tertullian (died 230 AD):

“Joseph, again, himself was made a figure of Christ….For Joseph is withal blest by his father after this form: ‘His glory (is that) of a bull; his horns, the horns of an unicorn; on them shall he toss nations alike unto the very extremity of the earth.’ Of course no one-horned rhinoceros was there pointed to, nor any two-horned minotaur. But Christ was therein signified: ‘bull,’ by reason of each of His two characters - to some fierce, as Judge; to others gentle, as Saviour; whose ‘horns’ were to be the extremities of the cross. For even in a ship's yard - which is part of a cross - this is the name by which the extremities are called; while the central pole of the mast is a ‘unicorn.’” (An Answer to the Jews, Chapter 10; repeated in Against Marcion, Book 3, Chapter 18)

“But, to come now to Moses, why, I wonder, did he merely at the time when Joshua was battling against Amalek, pray sitting with hands expanded, when, in circumstances so critical, he ought rather, surely, to have commended his prayer by knees bended, and hands beating his breast, and a face prostrate on the ground; except it was that there, where the name of the Lord Jesus was the theme of speech - destined as He was to enter the lists one day singly against the devil - the figure of the cross was also necessary, (that figure) through which Jesus was to win the victory?” (An Answer to the Jews, Chapter 10; repeated in Against Marcion, Book 3, Chapter 18)

“Premising, therefore, and likewise subjoining the fact that Christ suffered, He foretold that His just ones should suffer equally with Him - both the apostles and all the faithful in succession; and He signed them with that very seal of which Ezekiel spake: ‘The Lord said unto me, Go through the gate, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set the mark tau upon the foreheads of the men.’ Now the Greek letter tau and our own letter T is the very form of the cross, which He predicted would be the sign on our foreheads in the true Catholic Jerusalem, in which, according to the twenty-first Psalm, the brethren of Christ or children of God would ascribe glory to God the Father….” (Against Marcion, Book 3, Chapter 22)

Part B: Archaeological Evidence

The archaeological evidence in favor of the early Christians’ usage of the cross is even stronger than the textual evidence, from this site.

“Many ossuaries were discovered that date to the 1st century in a cave near Bethany. Inscribed in Greek and Hebrew with names of many Christians listed in the New Testament (NT). Some had inscribed crosses, some not. Listed names in Hebrew include: Salome, wife of Judah (with a cross); Judah (with a cross); Simeon the Priest; Martha, daughter of Pasach; Eleazar, son of Nathalu; and Salamston, daughter of Simeon the Priest. In Greek: Jesus (twice repeated with a cross); Nathaniel (with a cross)….Another found several years ago: Inscribed with ‘Alexander, son of Simon of Cyrene,’ as well as a cross….In 1945, many more found with crosses, 2 inscribed with name of Jesus, and one had a coin minted in A.D. 41 for King Herod Agrippa I, indicating it was sealed by A.D. 42.”

From this site.

“The first century catacomb uncovered by archaeologist P. Bagatti on the Mount of Olives contains inscriptions clearly indicating its use, ‘by the very first Christians in Jerusalem.’ A ‘head stone’, found near the entrance to the first century catacomb, is inscribed with the sign of the cross.”

From this site.

“Historical findings have substantiated the traditional cross. One finding is a graffito dating to shortly after 200 A.D., taken from the walls of the Roman Palatine. It is a drawing of a crucified ass [donkey]; a mockery of a Christian prisoner who worships Christ. The Romans were no doubt amused that Christians worshiped this Jesus whom they had crucified on a cross.”

In 1873 a famous French scholar, Charles Clermant-Ganneau, reported the discovery of a burial chamber or cave on the Mount of Olives. Inside were some 30 ossuaries (rectangular chests made of stone) in which skeletal remains were preserved after their bodies had disintegrated….One (ossuary) had the name ‘Judah’ associated with a cross with arms of equal length. Further, the name ‘Jesus’ occurred three times, twice in association with a cross….

In 1939 excavations at Herculaneum, the sister city of Pompeii (destroyed in 78 A.D. by volcano) produced a house where a wooden cross had been nailed to the wall of a room. According to Buried History, (Vol. 10, No. 1, March 1974 p. 15): ‘Below this (cross) was a cupboard with a step in front. This has considered to be in the shape of an ara or shrine, but could well have been used as a place of prayer….If this interpretation is correct, and the excavators are strongly in favor of the Christian significance of symbol and furnishings, then here we have the example of an early house church.’”

Part C: What does the Watchtower say?

From Watchower.org.

“Jesus did not die on a cross. He died on a pole, or a stake. The Greek word translated ‘cross’ in many Bibles meant just one piece of timber. The symbol of the cross comes from ancient false religions. The cross was not used or worshiped by the early Christians.”

The Watchtower is correct in a couple of things.

First, the word stauros does generally mean “stake” rather than “cross”, but, according to every source I’ve come across, there was no Greek work for “cross”. Hence, the word for “stake” was used by Greek speakers as the closest approximation to “cross”, and it was understood by the first-century audience of the NT that “cross” was what was meant by stauros. (And, of course, anybody in the first century with access to either a living apostle or a witness to Jesus’ execution could have received clarification if they needed it.)

Second, it is true that the cross was not “worshipped” by the early Christians, but that’s because the cross has never been worshipped by any Christians at any time, even today. God alone is an appropriate object of Christian worship.

As for whether the early Christians used the cross, we have seen both archaeological and textual evidence that they did indeed. Interestingly, the archaeological evidence had been known both before the Watchtower’s ban on the cross in 1931 (with the 1873 discovery of cross-inscribed ossuaries in Bethany) and after the ban (with the 1939 discovery of a first-century Christian home church in Pompeii with a wooden cross hanging on the wall, and with the 1945 discovery of more cross-inscribed ossuaries definitively dated to 42 C.E. - a mere twelve years after Jesus’ crucifixion).

As for the textual evidence, the Apostle Thomas’ words in John 20:25 provide an indication of the cross, as he says in that verse, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails and stick my finger into the print of the nails and stick my hand into his side, I will certainly not believe.”

In the depictions of Jesus’ death I’ve seen on the Watchtower web site, only one nail is used to fasten both of Jesus’ wrists to the stake, but Thomas indicates the use of more than one nail, which would be more reasonably expected if Jesus were nailed to a cross rather than a stake.

The Epistle of Barnabas, dated 100 C.E., demonstrates belief that the cross was the instrument of Jesus’ execution only a few years after the death of the Apostle John. And moving forward into the second and third centuries of Christianity, still more textual evidence supporting the cross can be found in the works of Justin Martyr - “For the lamb…is roasted and dressed up in the form of the cross. For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb” - Irenaeus of Lyons - “The very form of the cross…has five extremities, two in length, two in breadth, and one in the middle, on which [last] the person rests who is fixed by the nails” - and Tertullian - “Now the Greek letter tau and our own letter T is the very form of the cross.”

 So, the notion that the symbol of the cross was not a part of Christianity until the fourth century (which is what the average Jehovah’s Witness believes) is easily disproved by textual and archaeological evidence that is not only readily available to us today but has also been available to Watchtower scholars and officials for over 100 years.

Given this, what rational basis does the Watchtower give its adherents for their rejection of the cross as a Christian symbol? It would be understandable if the Watchtower were to say, “Yes, Jesus died on a cross - the textual and archaeological evidence affirm this - but because Christendom has become so corrupt that the cross has lost its meaning, we’re going to discontinue the use of the cross in our worship and imagery.” That would be a plausible explanation. However, that’s not what the Watchtower professes to believe on its web site (and according to the home page, “This is the authoritative Web site about the beliefs, teachings, and activities of Jehovah's Witnesses”).

It professes instead:

1) Jesus did not die on a cross. He died on a pole, or a stake.

2) The cross was not used by the early Christians.

As we have seen, neither of these statements is true according to all the textual and archaeological evidence.

For the Watchtower to, in spite of all the readily-available textual and archaeological evidence, deny - and, moreover, force their adherents to deny - that (1) Jesus died on a cross and that (2) the early Christians used the cross as a symbol of Christianity is, frankly, both dishonest and wrong.

Director’s Note

To add to the above, the following is from the Web site for the Blue Letter Bible:

A torture stake required one nail in the hands (nailed over the head), but the Bible says there were two nails used in the hands (John 20:25).

The Bible says Jesus' hands were outstretched, not over His head during his death (John 21:18, 19).

The Romans placed a sign above Jesus' head, not above his hands; if He had died on a stake, the normal reference would have been to the hands which would have been nailed over the head (Matt 27:37).

The thieves that died with Him were described as being on the right hand and the left, as opposed to "at the side of" or "at His left and right" (Mark 15:25-27; Bible).

The Watchtower and the Shape of the Cross. Copyright 2006 by Michael J. Partyka. Used by permission.

The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light newsletter February 1, 2006.

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