Question: "Was Jesus crucified on a cross, pole, or stake?"
Answer: The cross is arguably the most beloved symbol in all of Christianity. It adorns our churches and cathedrals, our jewelry, our books and music, and is used in numerous marketing logos. The empty cross symbolizes the work performed there by our Savior who went to death willingly to pay the penalty for our sins. Jesus’ last words before He died were “It is finished” (John 19:30). The Law was fulfilled, the Messianic prophecies were accomplished, and redemption was complete. It is no wonder that the cross has come to symbolize all that is the greatest story ever told—the story of the sacrificial death of Christ.
In spite of the overwhelming symbolism of the cross, the precise shape of the object on which Jesus was crucified cannot be proven explicitly from the Bible. The Greek word translated “cross” is stauros, meaning “a pole or a cross used as an instrument of capital punishment.” The Greek word stauroo, which is translated “crucify” means to be attached to a pole or cross. Though the Greek usage of these words can mean “pole” or “stake,” many scholars argue that Jesus most likely died on a cross in which the upright beam projected above the shorter crosspiece. Biblically, though, an airtight case cannot be made for either a cross or a pole/stake. The Romans were not picky in regards to how they would crucify people. The Romans used crosses, poles, stakes, upside-down crosses, x-shaped crosses, walls, roofs, etc. Jesus could have been crucified on any of these objects and it would not have affected the perfection or sufficiency of His sacrifice.
Certain cults, most notably the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are adamant that Jesus did not die on a cross, and that the cross is in fact a pagan symbol. Equally adamant are Christians who, in an effort to refute the Witnesses’ doctrines, cling to the idea of the cross and deny the pole/stake theory. While Jehovah’s Witnesses might be correct in their argument that Jesus was not crucified on a cross, that absolutely does not give any credence to their other beliefs, such as their denial of the deity of Christ. The truth is that we cannot definitively—from the Scriptures—make the case that Jesus died on a cross or a pole/stake. We just don’t know which Jesus was nailed to. In the end, such arguments only serve to get us off our message, which is that Jesus died on something and that His death is the sole atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 2:2).
Crucifixion was probably the most horrible form of capital punishment ever devised by man. It was designed to be a lingering death. The victim, as a rule, was first subjected to flagellation, that is, a beating with a three-thong whip (fashioned of plaited leather, and studded with bone and metal). He was stripped naked and then secured with leather ties. Roman executioners had perfected the art of slow torture while keeping the victim alive. Some victims even lingered until they were eaten alive by birds of prey or wild beasts. Most hung on the cross for days before dying. When the legs would no longer support the weight of the body, the diaphragm was constricted in a way that made breathing impossible. That is why breaking the legs would hasten death (John 19:31-33), but this was unnecessary in Jesus’ case because He, not the Romans, chose the moment of His death (John 19:30).
A notable feature of crucifixion was the stigma of disgrace that was attached to it (Galatians 3:13; 5:11; Hebrews 12:2). One indignity was the humiliation of carrying one’s own cross. After the beating, the soldiers would escort the prisoner through the crowds to the place of crucifixion. A placard bearing the indictment would be hung around the person’s neck. Here again we see the picture of Christ carrying the indictment of “sinner” for us which we ourselves would have to carry if it were not for Him. The death sentence we rightly deserve was carried out on Him so that we could go free. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
Completely lost in arguments over the shape of the cross is its significance to us. Jesus said to His disciples, and by extension, to us, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). The cross/stake/pole was an instrument of death, and by telling us to take up our cross and follow Him, Jesus is revealing to us that in order to be His true followers, we must die to self. If we call ourselves “Christians,” then we must deny ourselves and give up our lives for His sake. This may take the extreme form of being martyred for our faith, but even in the most peaceful political settings, we must be willing to lose the self—crucifying self-righteousness, self-promotion, selfish ambitions—in order to be His followers. Those who are not willing are “not worthy” of Him (Matthew 10:38).
So, did Jesus die on a cross? Maybe. Was it a pole or stake? Possibly. But, frankly, the shape of the object on which Jesus was crucified does not matter. What does matter is that Jesus died for our sins and that His death purchased for us eternal life.