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What Did the Cross of Christ Look Like?

What did the original cross of Christ actually look like?  And how was Jesus placed on the cross?  I received these two great questions from someone who is very interested in an accurate representation of the actual Cross.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of certainty about the Cross itself.  Using the Gospel passion accounts, a smattering of ancient sources, and modern forensic analyses of the manner and mechanism of death, scholars have been able to reconstruct many of the details of ancient crucifixion—what Jesus actually had to endure.  But when it comes to an accurate representation of the actual Cross, we can only make educated guesses. 

In its art and artifacts, the Early Church didn’t preserve this information—the earliest image of Jesus’ Cross comes from the Third Century found carved into a wall in the catacombs; its’ only in the Fourth Century that depictions of the Cross become common in Christian art.  This is probably due to the fact that, as Paul says, the Cross was a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.  As the most shameful, horrific, and grotesque implement of capital punishment devised back then, we can’t blame them. 

Who’d want to wear a replica of what Cicero called the “most cruel and disgusting penalty” around your neck or place it in the center of your worship space? 

Moreover, we know that Romans, by and large, didn’t talk about crucifixion, at least not in polite company.  It was thought to be too barbarous to bring up.  As Cicero also advises, the very word “cross” shouldn’t cross the thoughts or lips of Roman citizens.  This probably accounts for why there are so few Greco-Roman sources on this subject.

This leaves the Gospels as our best source.  Because their audiences were all too familiar with crucifixion, however, they never bother to describe the actual Cross or exactly how Jesus was placed on it.  But, they do provide clues in ways which scholars trust are historically accurate. 

Based on our limited non-Christian sources, here’s what we know.  In addition to the way it’s traditionally depicted, there were a variety of “crosses”: 

--An upright stake, where the hands of the crucified were raised vertically and nailed above their head

--A scaffold type structure made up of vertical planks used for mass crucifixions (Often, many people were crucified together at the same time.)

--An X-shaped cross which placed its victim at an angle

--A tau, or T-shaped cross

Furthermore, we know that the victim was often placed low enough that animals could ravage their feet—roughly, only a foot off the ground.  The crucified could be tied and/or nailed to the cross.  In some cases, one or both of two kinds of physical support were provided: A foot rest near the bottom of the upright beam, and/or a “seat” midway up.  Demonically, this was designed to prolong the torture—the victim could push themselves up to catch their breath and get a momentary break from the suffocating pressure crucifixion placed on the chest cavity.

In most cases, however, it seems that criminals were affixed to a crossbeam (with their arms stretched out and their wrists either tied or nailed in place) and then hoisted onto a vertical post that was permanently fixed in the ground.  They would be lifted up using forked poles, whereupon the crossbeam was inserted into a slot or notch in the upright beam.

In 1968, a cadaver was unearthed in Jerusalem of a man in his twenties who had been crucified decades prior to 70 AD—in other words, very close to the time of Jesus.  An iron nail remains impaled through his foot.  Based on its position, archeologists believe that his feet were straddled to either side of the upright beam and that two nails were used, using a piece of olive wood on the outer edge to keep him from pulling either foot free of the nail. 

Adding the clues the Gospels provide to all this, we can safely say the following things about Jesus’ Cross:

--Once the crossbeam was in place, the traditional depictions of the Cross turn out to be fairly accurate (We are told Jesus was forced to carry His cross, which means the crossbeam only, and that there was an inscription above Him proclaiming His “crime”, which means the vertical beam rose above His head)

--He was nailed—not tied—to the cross, likely with iron nails about five to seven inches long (Luke 24:39 implies that His hands and feet had been pierced by nails)

--The nails in His hands were actually placed through the wrists (John 20:25, 37 refer to the nailprints in His hands, but both the Hebrew and Greek words can include the entire forearm; we know that the palm could not have supported the weight of the body—the nail would rip right out—so nails were driven through the wrist bone)

--A common guess is that on the Cross Jesus was elevated to a height of roughly seven feet (Three Gospels talk about needing a reed or hyssop to raise a sponge full of wine to Jesus’ lips, which wouldn’t be necessary if He was lower)

--Because He died so quickly, Jesus probably didn’t have either the footrest or seat affixed to His cross (The scourging He received beforehand certainly would have significantly hastened His death, but because the Romans were seeking such expediency in His case—to avoid the Sabbath—it would defeat their purpose to provide anything that would prolong His life)

This is what we can say with a fair amount of confidence.  The rest is conjecture.  But what isn’t conjecture is the excruciating death Jesus would have suffered.  Looking at these details so analytically might distract us from the horror of crucifixion.  But, what we can be absolutely certain of is that it was sheer agony.  And that He did it all for us—out of His tremendous love.

I truly appreciate your questions and comments.  You can share them with me by going to the “Contact E.J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leaving them there.  I’d love to hear from you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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