Crucifixion: Why the Crossbar?

As I have mentioned before, I grew up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and one of the beliefs that they were pushing as one of their great revealed truths is that Jesus Christ died on a straight stake instead of a cross.

Now, I’m not arguing that they’re right. They put forth theories that the crucifix was an assimilation by early Christians of the pagan phallic symbol of good luck and fertility that Romans were known to hang over their doorposts. Well…whatever.

But thinking about this, I’m wondering, why use a cross to hang your crucifixion victims on when a straight stake would be easier to build with no notching and lashing of a crossbeam? I imagine a straight stake would also not be top-heavy, and prone to fall over, in other words, easier to plant sturdily in the ground.

I mean, having your hands nailed over your head would be just as painful as splayed out as on a cross, perhaps even more so. Is display the thing here? Somehow, a ne’er-do-well on a cross is more intimidating than on a straight stake, and provides more of a deterrent to the general population?

I’m not sure if the straight stake vs. cross controversy is what it once was among Witnesses. It seemed to be a bigger deal when I was a young child than in my later years among them.

But still, why the crossbar?

Several variations of crucifixion were used by the Romans. The bible is mute on which one was used for Jesus.

I guess if there’s no crossbar, St. Peter’s cross (aka the edgy metal one) doesn’t make much sense.

Also the dragging of the cross sounds easier with a crossbar. Of course neither evidence for or against; it wasn’t supposed to be easy.

Would it have anything to do with an incorporation of the shape of the ankh?

It wouldn’t really be a crucifixion, then, would it?

I don’t remember ankhs being mentioned in what little was discussed about it. Phallic symbolism was. My dad thought it was hilarious.

A single pole would have a much better strength-to-weight ratio.

SFAIK in Roman practice the upright, the stake, was a permanent fixture at the place of execution, while the prisoner was required to carry his own crossbar to the place of execution. This was a painful and humiliating ritual which added to the horror of the process, and it might help to explain why simple stakes were not the norm. While simple stakes were used, the generic term for all the various instruments of crucifixion was crux, a cross, indicating that, conceptually, having two intersecting members was regarded as the norm.

They say that crucifixion kills by suffocation, because hanging from your outstretched arms fatigues the muscles used in breathing. That might not happen if your arms were over your head. Of course, everyone would die eventually of thirst and exposure, regardless of the position they were in.

Having your arms stretched up over your head would be pretty awful, and would make it even harder to breathe, I’m pretty sure.

However, I think if your arms were nailed to a stake over your head, they’d either be nailed over to each side, or one on top of the other, and either position gives you some leverage and the possibility of pulling them off (very painful, of course, but if your are facing a slow, painful death, you might be moved to try it). Being nailed to a crossbar doesn’t give you any way of getting leverage to pull your wrists down. For one thing, you would be using smaller muscles, and for another, the crossbar wouldn’t be as stable.

Although, FWIW, there are some references to people being nailed to “trees,” to mean crucifixion. I don’t know if that means that the permanent posts resemble trees, or that the posts were actually stripped down trees. Either way, it’s more suggestive of a post than a cross, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t add a crossbar to the “tree.”

In crucifixion the victim doesn’t pull down on the wrists so much as push up on the nail in the feet.

Originally they just nailed the victim to a stake and let the legs dangle. Then the subject suffocated in under an hour, because the intercostal muscles were stretched out and he couldn’t exhale very well. The Romans wanted it to last longer than that, so they developed the process by adding the cross piece, and then bending the legs and nailing the feet to the upright. Then the victim would push himself up to breathe, hold himself there as long as he could stand it, and then his legs cramped up and he sank down until he had to breathe again. That’s why they broke the legs of the two crucified on either side of Jesus - they could then no longer push up, and suffocated relatively quickly.

Death usually took a day or two, thru shock, dehydration, and exhaustion. That’s why Pilate was surprised Jesus was already dead after only a few hours - three hours according to John, six or so according to Mark. But Jesus had been thru an awful lot before His crucifixion. He hadn’t eaten anything since Thursday, hadn’t slept since Wednesday, had been beaten up several times, flogged at least once, and walked by one account from Gethsemane to Caiaphus’ house to Pilate to Herod then back to Pilate and then to Golgotha. Probably that was why Simon had to carry the crosspiece for Him - He was exhausted and probably in shock.


In the past century, we saw literally 10’s of millions of our fellow human beings slaughtered and starved in unspeakable ways. Why don’t we focus on preventing any more of these atrocities instead of wondering what exact method may have been used to kill a possibly real person 2000 years ago? I get it. It is something we have all been exposed to in our upbringing, that we all were told to have reverence for, the killing of Jesus on the cross. Wake up, folks, even the people calling themselves Christians today don’t even pretend to be following his precepts anymore.

Moderator Note

crucible, if you don’t like the question there is no reason for you to comment. And religious jabs as in your last line are not permitted in GQ. No warning issued, but refrain from commentary like this in this forum.

General Questions Moderator

Wait a moment-- They’re saying that other Christian sects added the crossbar to the upright to make it more phallic?

Yes, I’m guessing the crosspiece represents testicles. One on each side as seen from above.

I suppose you could go even further and say the crown of thorns represents pubic hair, but that was never discussed.

It seems to me that it would make displaying people better, which is kinda the point of doing this in public. Look at these guys: if you do what they did, we’ll do this to you, too.

On a single pole, it would seem you’d be all bent up, with your arms tied. Plus, our bodies naturally bend forward, so it’d be easier to put them on there with the pole covering them.

At least, in my head. I’m not exactly interested in trying this out or Googling images.

Also hypovolemic shock. Scouring and flogging until the back was laid open was apparently a common precursor to the crucifixion itself.

Cite that this was common?

My understanding is that it only happened in Jesus’ case. Pilate was reluctant to have him crucified at all. He hoped the Sanhedrin would accept a flogging *instead of *a death sentence. It wasn’t a standard part of crucifixion at all.

^^There’s a documentary on Crucifixion that usually airs around Easter on the History Channel. That’s what one of the experts interviewed said.

The answer to the OP:s question seems pretty obvious to anyone who has ever tried to drive a six inch nail into a tree or wooden post while standing on a ladder.

You would much prefer to do the nailing part on the ground, with the victim, who probably would be less than cooperative, firmly held down by a couple of muscular guys. The crossbar could then easily be hoisted by means of rope and pulley.