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The Greek Word Mistranslated as "Cross"
Those that heard Jesus teach did not hear his statements as referring to any kind of "cross" as we do today.
The cross is the symbol of Christianity, the focal image in many interpretations of the Gospels, and a great example of how the meaning of words have developed over time, in some aspects, disconnecting modern Christianity from its roots in Jesus’s teaching. The "cross" as it is known today, a vertical post and with a crossing member, was unknown when Jesus taught and for centuries after.
The Greek word translated as "cross" is stauros (σταυρὸν) meaning “pole” or “stake.” It did not then have the meaning of either the object of a wooden cross or the cross pattern of a cross shape. It is unlikely that the Roman’s hung anyone on what we think of as a “cross.” Jesus only uses the Greek word five times, but those hearing him did not hear what we do today. The verb from the same root is stauroo (σταυρῶσαι), "to stake", "to fence in with poles" or "drive piles for a foundation." As a form of torture, it is translated as “to hang” on a gallows or “to impale.” Jesus uses the verb form three times, always to describe his own death.
A Stake or Pole
The word stauros means a wooden pole without a cross member, one driven into the ground. Stakes or poles have many uses for tents, fences, construction of houses, and so on, but they are also used for torture. However, the fact that they are used for torture is not the first idea that comes to mind when we hear “post” or “stake,” nor was it the way Jesus used the word. For example, though “stakes" today are associated with vampires, we do not think of them first when we hear the idea of "pulling up stakes" or “staking a claim.” This was even more true in the ancient world than it is today.
For example, we interpret Matthew 16:24 today as “If any [man] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me,” with “the cross” meaning the physical object on which Jesus was hung. People hearing Jesus at the time would not have had any context for interpreting “taking up a cross” as the instrument of his death because Jesus had not carried his “cross” or died. Jesus predicts his own form of death much later in the Gospels (Matthew 20:19, Matthew 23:34, Matthew 26:2) using the verb form of the word, not the noun. They wouldn’t even necessarily thought of it as a burden. None of his listeners knew that Jesus would be hung on a pole, much less be forced to carry that pole. Jesus was saying something completely different then that had nothing to do with the modern Christian symbol.
The most likely way Jesus’s listeners would have heard Matthew 16:24 would have been this:
A "stake" driven in the ground, sets a place of residence and of ownership, whether it supports a building or creates a fence or marks a claim. In a building, it supports a wall. In a fence or a claim, it defines a boundary. In a foundation, it creates a point of support. In all of these examples, it solidifies an existing, established place in the world. Then, as now, pulling up a stake was an analogy for being willing to move from where you are now to somewhere new.
Most might have heard “stake” referring to the center pole of a tent or the supporting pole of a wall or fence. Since the pole of a tent is much more commonly pulled up than that of a fence or a wall, the Judean people would likely have heard this phrase that way, especially since tents were an important part of many people’s lives and Judean tradition, celebrating as they do, Sukkot, the seven-day festival of the tents. The “reject yourself” phrase may refer to the reading of the Book of Ecclesiastes on the Sabbath of the Sukkot ("Vanity of vanities, all is vanity..."), this autumn festival in some ways a contemplation of death.
However, Jesus also knew that he would die on a pole. So his use of this metaphor was a play on words, one for the people of his time, another for us today.
Other Forms of Execution
Interestingly, however, the Greek word stauros is used in Josephus's Antiquities of the Jew, to describe a gallows, in execution by hanging with a rope. When he tells the Biblical story of Esther, where the villain, Haman, is hung from a gallows, Josephus uses the word stauros, (book 11, section 261-266 or Chapter 6, paragraph 11) to describe the gallows. However, the same Greek word is translated into "cross" from Josephus when describing the sentencing of Jesus by Pilot. This is a reflection of modern sensibilities, not historical perspectives.
However, in the Greek Old Testament version, Ester 7:9, the verb form of the word, stauroois used, always translated as “crucify” in the New Testament, but in this verse in the Old Testament, it is translated as “hang” (KJV, NAS) and “impale” (NIV, NLT). The word “pale” being an old English word meaning “stake.” So, in a sense, our modern connection between stakes and vampires goes back to the Bible, our legends of vampires arising originally from Vlad the Impaler.
So when Jesus talked about his death as being “crucified,” what his followers may have heard is that he was going to be “hung” from a post or “impaled” on a stake. Since the Roman’s of the era favored nailing criminals up on a stake to hang them, most likely that was what they imagined, which is, of course, what happened.
“Pulling up” a Stake or “Bearing” a Pole
To interpret this noun, we can also look at the verbs Jesus uses with this word.
In Matthew 16:24 (see above) and the very similar Mark 8:34, the word translated as “take up” is airo (ἀράτω), which means "to lift up", "to raise", "to raise up", "to exalt", "to lift and take away," and "to remove." It translations as “take away” is common in the Bible, used twenty-five times. Notice how badly the meaning of "take away your cross" works and how well "take away a stake" works, meaning destroying an established position. It doesn't make any difference if we are talking about destroying the integrity of the wall, the fence, or the boundary. Lifting or removing a stake destroys the established position, the comfortable place we’ve claimed.
But in Matthew 10:38, (“Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” NIV) the word translated as "take" is different. This is completely hidden by Biblical translators who want these verses to seem more alike than they are. Here the word translated as “take” is lambano(αμβάνει), a word usually translated as “receive” in the Gospels (133 times), however its primary meaning is to "take", "take hold of," or "grasp." It works like our word “get,” which can mean either to receive or to take. The image in this verse however is that the "stake" as a "pole" is taken in hand, that is, used as a walking stick, another type of pole driven into the ground. Of course, taking up a walking stick to follow someone makes perfect sense in the case, impling that the journey will be long.
However, among nomadic people who use simple tents when traveling, the idea of pulling up the central pole and a walking stick are connected. Tents have one central pole that is used as a walking stick when moving, You can see this among the Masai today. This concept flows naturally from the idea of following someone, especially in the ancient world where so many lived as nomads, shepherds, traders, even farm workers, moving among different harvests. Again, the idea of "lifting up" the stakes or poles on which the Romans hung criminals would not come to mind at all in thinking of following someone except after Jesus's death, when we know how he died.
Finally, we have the verb in Luke 14:27, (“And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” NIV). Here the verb translated as “carry” or "bear," depending on the Bible version, is bastazo (βαστάζει), which means "to lift up", "to raise", "to bear", "to carry", "to endure," and "to carry off, "produce", "yield," of land." Notice that this word means "produce" and "yield" as well as "carry." However, the primary meaning is "lift up," which connects to airo. Again, none of these ideas are easily applied to the instrument of death. Though Jesus carried his pole, criminals were frequently hung on stakes that others carried and planted. Some were left planted in the ground and reused, the victims simply pulled up and nailed onto them.
The fact that this basic idea of pulling out of an established position works in both English and ancient Greek shows how universal this idea is. It is a deep idea, not one to be taken lightly.
The Meaning of "Cross" as an "X"
So, where did the form of the cross, an upright pole with a crossbar, come from? The Greek letter chi, which looks like the letter X is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, χριστός. The early symbols (2nd century) of Christ were a dove, a fish, a ship, a lyre, and an anchor. We see early uses of the various Christ symbols with the "X", two fish forming an "X", or the anchor, with its crossbar leaning into an "X.”
The use of the “X” symbol grew in popularity with its adoption by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, who used the chi-ro (the Greek letter ro looks like a P, the with an X) on his banner and the painting of the X on his men's shields. This chi-rho image was seen a symbolic representation of the head, arms, and legs of an upright stake. Over time, this image was simplified into the cross we know today.
The earliest image of Christ hanging on a cross was used to decorate a reliquary around AD 420 among The Maskell Ivories in the British Museum. See this article tracing the evolution of these images. However, the earliest of these images were not images of the crucifixion, but of men praying, standing upright with arms spread being the attitude of prayer in Jesus’s era. So in a sense, our image of the cross is not one of torture as much as it is of a man at prayer.
Personally, I love the symbol of the cross and I think that Jesus knew that it would become his sign and that people in later eras would here his references to a stake differently after his death than before it.
However, if we want to understand what Jesus taught and what his followers heard, we need to hear the word “cross” differently than we do today. The idea is one of pulling up the stakes we have driven into the earth and, instead of staking claims for ourselves, following Jesus, wherever he may lead.
That is what I try to do on this site, and I would appreciate those who find this work interesting forwarding it and the site name, rediscoveryingjesus.substack.com, to those who might be interested.