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In the thousand and one works supplied for our information upon matters connected with the history of our race, we are told that Alexander the Great, Titus, and various Greek, Roman, and Oriental rulers of ancient days, "crucified" this or that person; or that they "crucified" so many at once, or during their reign. And the instrument of execution is called a "cross."
The natural result is that we imagine that all the people said to have been "crucified" were executed by being nailed or otherwise affixed to a cross-shaped instrument set in the ground, like that to be seen in our fanciful illustrations of the execution of Jesus. This was, however, by no means necessarily the case.
For instance, the death spoken of, death by the stauros, included transfixion by a pointed stauros or stake, as well as affixion to an unpointed stauros or stake; and the latter punishment was not always that referred to.
It is also probable that in most of the many cases where we have no clue as to which kind of stauros was used, the cause of the condemned one's death was transfixion by a pointed stauros.
Moreover, even if we could prove that this very common mode of capital punishment was in no case that referred to by the historians who lived in bygone ages, and that death was in each instance caused by affixion to, instead of transfixion by, a stauros, we should still have to prove that each stauros had a cross-bar before we could correctly describe the death caused by it as death by crucifixion.
It is also, upon the face of it, somewhat unlikely that the ancients would in every instance in which they despatched a man by affixing him to a post set in the ground, have gone out of their way to provide the artistic but quite unnecessary cross-bar of our imaginations.
As it is, in any case, well known that the Romans very often despatched those condemned to death by affixing them to a stake or post which had no cross-bar, the question arises as to what proof we have that a cross-bar was used in the case of Jesus.
Nor is the question an unimportant one. For, as we shall see in the chapters to come, there was a pre-Christian cross, which was, like ours, a symbol of Life. And it must be obvious to all that if the cross was a symbol of Life before our era, it is possible that it was originally fixed upon as a symbol of the Christ because it was a symbol of Life; the assumption that it became a symbol of Life because it was a symbol of the Christ, being in that case neither more nor less than a very natural instance of putting the cart before the horse.
Now the Greek word which in Latin versions of the New Testament is translated as crux, and in English versions is rendered as cross, i.e., the word stauros, seems to have, at the beginning of our era, no more meant a cross than the English word stick means a crutch.
It is true that a stick may be in the shape of a crutch, and that the stauros to which Jesus was affixed may have been in the shape of a cross. But just as the former is not necessarily a crutch, so the latter was not necessarily a cross.
What the ancients used to signify when they used the word stauros, can easily be seen by referring to either the Iliad or the Odyssey.
It will there be found to clearly signify an ordinary pole or stake without any cross-bar. And it is as thus signifying a single piece of wood that the word in question is used throughout the old Greek classics.
The stauros used as an instrument of execution was (1) a small pointed pole or stake used for thrusting through the body, so as to pin the latter to the earth, or otherwise render death inevitable; (2) a similar pole or stake fixed in the ground point upwards, upon which the condemned one was forced down till incapable of escaping; (3) a much longer and stouter pole or stake fixed point upwards, upon which the victim, with his hands tied behind him, was lodged in such a way that the point should enter his breast and the weight of the body cause every movement to hasten the end; and (4) a stout unpointed pole or stake set upright in the earth, from which the victim was suspended by a rope round his wrists, which were first tied behind him so that the position might become an agonising one; or to which the doomed one was bound, or, as in the case of Jesus, nailed.
That this last named kind of stauros, which was admittedly that to which Jesus was affixed, had in every case a cross-bar attached, is untrue; that it had in most cases, is unlikely; that it had in the case of Jesus, is unproven.
Even as late as the Middle Ages, the word stauros seems to have primarily signified a straight piece of wood without a cross-bar. For the famous Greek lexicographer, Suidas, expressly states, "Stauroi; ortha xula perpégota," and both Eustathius and Hesychius affirm that it meant a straight stake or pole.
The side light thrown upon the question by Lucian is also worth noting. This writer, referring to Jesus, alludes to "That sophist of theirs who was fastened to a skolops;" which word signified a single piece of wood, and not two pieces joined together.
Only a passing notice need be given to the fact that in some of the Epistles of the New Testament, which seem to have been written before the Gospels, though, like the other Epistles, misleadingly placed after the Gospels, Jesus is said to have been hanged upon a tree. For in the first place the Greek word translated "hanged" did not necessarily refer to hanging by the neck, and simply meant suspended in some way or other. And in the second place the word translated "tree," though that always used in referring to what is translated as the "Tree of Life," signified not only "tree" but also "wood."
It should be noted, however, that these five references of the Bible to the execution of Jesus as having been carried out by his suspension upon either a tree or a piece of timber set in the ground, in no wise convey the impression that two pieces of wood nailed together in the form of a cross is what is referred to.
Moreover, there is not, even in the Greek text of the Gospels, a single intimation in the Bible to the effect that the instrument actually used in the case of Jesus was cross-shaped.
Had there been any such intimation in the twenty-seven Greek works referring to Jesus, which our Church selected out of a very large number and called the "New Testament," the Greek letter chi, which was cross-shaped, would in the ordinary course have been referred to; and some such term as Katà chiasmon, "like a chi," made use of.
It should also be borne in mind that though the Christians of the first three centuries certainly made use of a transient sign of the cross in the non-Mosaic initiatory rite of baptism and at other times, it is, as will be shown in the next two chapters, admitted that they did not use or venerate it as a representation of the instrument of execution upon which Jesus died.
Moreover, if in reply to the foregoing it should be argued that as it is well known that cross-shaped figures of wood, and other lasting representations of the sign or figure of the cross, were not venerated by Christians until after the fateful day when Constantine set out at the head of the soldiers of Gaul in his famous march against Rome; and that the Christian crosses of the remainder of the fourth century were representations of the instrument of execution upon which Jesus died; a dozen other objections present themselves if we are honest enough to face the fact that we have to show that they were so from the first. For the Gauls, and therefore the soldiers of Gaul, venerated as symbols of the Sun-God and Giver of Life and Victory the cross of four equal arms,, or X , and the solar wheel,or ; while the so-called cross which Constantine and his troops are said to have seen above the midday sun was admittedly the monogram of Christ, Monogram of Christ orwhich was admittedly an adaptation of the solar wheel, as will be shown further on; and it was as tokens of the conquest of Rome by his Gaulish troops, that Constantine, as their leader, erected one of these symbols in the centre of the Eternal City, and afterwards placed upon his coins the crosses
Our only plausible explanation of the fact that we hold sacred almost any species of cross is that, as we do not know what kind of cross Jesus died upon, opinions have always differed as to which was the real cross.
This difference of opinion among Christians as to the shape of the instrument upon which Jesus was executed, has certainly existed for many centuries. But as an explanation of the many different kinds of crosses accepted by us as symbols of the Christ, it only lands us in a greater difficulty. For if we did not know what kind of cross Jesus died upon when we accepted the cross as our symbol, the chances obviously are that we accepted the cross as our symbol for some other reason than that we assert.
As a matter of fact our position regarding the whole matter is illogical and unsatisfactory, and we ought to alter it by honestly facing the facts that we cannot satisfactorily prove that our symbol was adopted as a representation of the instrument of execution to which Jesus was affixed, and that we do not even know for certain that the instrument in question was cross-shaped.
It need only be added that there is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross.
Taking the whole of the foregoing facts into consideration, it will be seen that it is not a little misleading upon the part of our teachers to translate the word stauros as "cross" when rendering the Greek documents of the Church into our native tongue, and to support that action by putting "cross" in our lexicons as the meaning of stauros without carefully explaining that that was at any rate not the primary meaning of the word in the days of the Apostles, did not become its primary signification till long afterwards, and became so then, if at all, only because, despite the absence of corroborative evidence, it was for some reason or other assumed that the particular stauros upon which Jesus was executed had that particular shape.
But—the reader may object—how about the Greek word which in our Bibles is translated as "crucify" or "crucified?" Does not that mean "fix to a cross" or "fixed to a cross?" And what is this but the strongest possible corroboration of our assertion as Christians that Jesus was executed upon a cross-shaped instrument?
The answer is that no less than four different Greek words are translated in our Bibles as meaning "crucify" or "crucified," and that not one of the four meant "crucify" or "crucified."
The four words in question are the words prospegnumi, anastauroo, sustauroo, and stauroo.
The word prospegnumi, though translated in our Bibles as "crucify" or "crucified," meant to "fix" to or upon, and meant that only. It had no special reference to the affixing of condemned persons either to a stake, pale, or post, or to a tree, or to a cross; and had no more reference to a cross than the English word "fix" has.
The word anastauroo was never used by the old Greek writers as meaning other than to impale upon or with a single piece of timber.
The word sustauroo does not occur in pre-Christian writings, and only five times in the Bible against the forty-four times of the word next to be dealt with. Being obviously derived in part from the word stauros, which primarily signified a stake or pale which was a single piece of wood and had no cross-bar, sustauroo evidently meant affixion to such a stake or pale. Anyhow there is nothing whatever either in the derivation of the word, or in the context in either of the five instances in which it occurs, to show that what is referred to is affixion to something that was cross-shaped.
The word stauroo occurs, as has been said, forty-four times; and of the four words in question by far the most frequently. The meaning of this word is therefore of special importance. It is consequently most significant to find, as we do upon due investigation, that wherever it occurs in the pre-Christian classics it is used as meaning to impalisade, or stake, or affix to a pale or stake; and has reference, not to crosses, but to single pieces of wood.
It therefore seems tolerably clear (1) that the sacred writings forming the New Testament, to the statements of which—as translated for us—we bow down in reverence, do not tell us that Jesus was affixed to a cross-shaped instrument of execution; (2) that the balance of evidence is against the truth of our statements to the effect that the instrument in question was cross-shaped, and our sacred symbol originally a representation of the same; and (3) that we Christians have in bygone days acted, and, alas! still act, anything but ingenuously in regard to the symbol of the cross.
This is not all, however. For if the unfortunate fact that we have in our zeal almost manufactured evidence in favour of the theory that our cross or crosses had its or their origin in the shape of the instrument of execution to which Jesus was affixed proves anything at all, it proves the need for a work which, like the present one, sets in array the evidence available regarding both the pre-Christian cross and the adoption in later times of a similar symbol as that of the catholic faith.
Nor should it be forgotten that the triumph of Christianity was due to the fact that it was a "catholic" faith, and not, like the other faiths followed by the subjects of Rome, and like what Jesus seems to have intended the results of His mission to have been inasmuch as He solemnly declared that he was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel and to them alone, the monopoly of a single nation or race.
For if Paul, taking his and other visions of Jesus as the long-needed proofs of a future life, had not disregarded the very plain intimations of Jesus to the effect that His mission was to the descendants of Jacob or Israel, and to them alone; if Paul had not withstood Christ's representative, Peter, to the face, and, with unsurpassed zeal, carried out his grand project of proclaiming a non-national and universal religion founded upon appearances of the spirit-form of Jesus, what we call Christianity would not have come into existence.
The fact that but for Paul there would have been no catholic faith with followers in every land ruled by Constantine when sole emperor, for that astute monarch to establish as the State Religion of his loosely knit empire, because, on account of its catholicity, that best fitted to hold power as the official faith of a government with world-wide dominions, is worthy of a lasting place in our memory.
Nor is the noteworthy fact last mentioned unconnected with the symbol of the cross. For, as will be shown, it is clear that it was because Constantine caused the figure of the cross to become a recognized symbol of his catholic empire, that it became recognized as a symbol of the catholic faith.
Not till after Constantine and his Gaulish warriors planted what Eusebius the Bishop of Cæsarea and other Christians of the century in question describe as a cross, within the walls of the Eternal City as the symbol of their victory, did Christians ever set on high a cross-shaped trophy of any description.
Moreover, but for the fact that, as it happened, the triumph of Constantine resulted in that of the Christian Church, we should probably have deemed the cross, if to our minds a representation of the instrument of execution to which Jesus was affixed, as anything but the symbol of Victory we now deem it.
This is evident from the fact that the so-called cross of Jesus admittedly fulfilled the purpose for which it was erected at the request of those who sought the death of Jesus. And even according to our Gospels the darkness of defeat o'ershadowed the scene at Calvary.
To put the matter plainly, the victory of Jesus was not a victory over the cross; for He did not come down from the cross. Nor was it a victory over His enemies; for what they sought was to get rid of a man whom they deemed an agitator, and their wish was gratified, inasmuch as, thanks to the cross, He troubled them no more.
In other words the victory which we ascribe to Jesus did not occur during the gloom which hung like a pall over his native land at the time of His execution, but upon the then approaching Sun-day of the Vernal Equinox, at the coming of the glory of the dawn.
For the victory in question, from whatever point of view we may look at it, was not the avoidance of defeat, but its retrieval. And its story is an illustration of the old-world promise, hoary with antiquity and founded upon the coming, ushered in every year by the Pass-over or cross-over of the equator by the sun at the Vernal Equinox, of the bounteous harvests of summer after the dearth of devastating winter; bidding us ever hope, not indeed for the avoidance of death and therefore of defeat, but for such victory as may happen to lay in survival or resurrection.
It is therefore clear that even if we could prove that the instrument of execution to which Jesus was affixed was cross-shaped, it would not necessarily follow that it was as the representation of the cause of His death which we now deem it, that the figure of the cross became our symbol of Life and Victory.
In any case honesty demands that we should no longer translate as "cross" a word which at the time our Gospels were written did not necessarily signify something cross-shaped. And it is equally incumbent upon us, from a moral point of view, that we should cease to render as "crucify" or "crucified" words which never bore any such meaning.
Another point to be remembered is that when Constantine, apparently conceiving ours, as the only non-national religion with ramifications throughout his world-wide dominions, to be the only one that could weld together the many nations which acknowledged his sway, established Christianity as the State Religion of the Roman Empire, the Church to which we belong would naturally have had to accept as its own the symbols which Constantine had caused to be those of the State in question. And it should be added that the cross of later days with one of its arms longer than the others, if not also the assumption that the stauros to which Jesus was affixed had a cross-bar, may have been merely the outcome of a wish to associate with the story of Jesus these Gaulish symbols of victory which had become symbols of the Roman State, and therefore of its State Church.
And it was not till long after these crosses were accepted as Christian, and Constantine was dead and buried, that the cross with one of its arms longer than the other three (or two), which alone could be a representation of an instrument of execution, was made use of by Christians.