The cross is perhaps the most important symbol in Christian theology; it refers in its most basic sense to the physical device of torture upon which Jesus Christ was executed, but carries with it tremendous theological symbolism and significance.
The word stauros comes from the Greek verb histēmi (root sta), “to stand,” and originally meant an “upright pointed stake” or “pale.” Criminals were either tied to or impaled upon it. Stauros in the New Testament, however, apparently was a pole sunk into the ground with a cross-bar fastened to it giving it a “T” shape.
The word cross is used in the following cases:
Death by crucifixion originated somewhere in the East. seems to have learned of it from the Persians. Rome borrowed the idea from the Phoenicians through Carthage, and perfected it as a means of capital punishment.
The Romans reserved crucifixion, however, for slaves, robbers, assassins, and the like, or for rebellious provincials. Only rarely were Roman citizens subjected to this kind of treatmentCicero, In Ver. 1. 5. 66. The tradition, therefore, which relates the beheading of Paul, and Peter’s crucifixion accords well with this distinction between peoples.
Upon receiving the sentence of death the condemned person was flogged with a leather whip loaded with metal or bone so cruelly that it became known as the intermediate death. He was then required to shoulder the crossbar upon which he was to be extended and carry it to the place of his crucifixionPlutarch, De Ser. Num. Vind. 9.554A. He wore about his neck a placard naming his crime. At the execution site he was stripped and tied or nailed to the crossbar, which then was fastened to an upright post. A projecting peg gave the condemned a place to sit to relieve the strain on his arms. Death, therefore, was slow in coming, except when it was hurried by soldiers breaking the crucified man’s legs (
According to Josephus crucifixion in Palestine was a most common sightAntiq. 17. 10. 10; 20. 5. 2; Wars, 2. 12. 6, 13. 2, 14. 9; 5. 11. 1. The fact that two robbers were crucified with Jesus in Jerusalem tends to confirm this claim.
The Jewish nation, unlike the Roman, did not crucify living persons. Frequently, however, they did suspend the bodies of the executed upon a tree to intensify their punishment and to expose them to public shame (
Crucifixion, therefore, was abhorrent to the Jew (
Forms of the Cross
The artistic representation of the cross has typically assumed one of four different forms, although alternate depictions exist:
Antedating these forms, the Assyrians impaled the body with a crude pointed stick.
Theological and Religious Thought
Because of the sacrificial death of the Savior on the cross, the cross rapidly became interwoven into the theological construction of religious thinking, especially Paul’s. In
Symbolical Uses of the Cross
The sign of the cross was well known in the symbolism of various ancient nations. Among the Egyptians it is said to have been the symbol of Divinity and Eternal life, and to have been found in the temple of Serapis. It is known either in the form of the Greek cross or in the form of the letter "T". The Spaniards found it to be well known, as a symbol, by the Mexicans and Peruvians, perhaps signifying the four elements, or the four seasons, or the four points of the compass.
Cross (Cross-Bearing) (σταυρός, G5089, pale, stake, cross).
In the New Testament, when used of Jesus, the word staurós has both a literal and figurative meaning. Literally it meant that physical instrument by which Jesus was put to death. Figuratively Jesus’ cross became the mark of God’s redemptive action in history. It was symbolic of the means God employed for releasing into this world a power for good sufficiently strong to save men (
Since the cross was reserved for criminals and those accursed by God (see above), it symbolized, too, the suffering, shame and humiliation Jesus endured (
Jesus’ cross also stood as the symbol of God’s unique purpose for Him. That is to say, since dying was planned by God as Jesus’ supreme mission (
The Christian’s Cross: Crossbearing
The cross was used also of the followers of Jesus, both literally and metaphorically. Because crucifixion was a frequent occurrence, and because the spectacle of condemned men carrying their crosses to the place of execution was common, Jesus’ words about taking up the cross and following Him (
Jesus also interpreted metaphorically the cross His followers must bear. It was for Him the symbol of their self-sacrifice: “If any man wills to come after me,” He said, “let him deny (perhaps, ‘lose sight of’) himself, and take up his cross (Luke adds, ‘daily’), and [continually] follow me” (
If in the experience of Jesus the cross was a metonym for His mission, there is a sense then in which the cross also stands for that mission in life to which the Christian has been called. “To bear the cross,” therefore, means further that the Christian is called upon to imitate Jesus’ commitment to doing that particular task assigned him by God and doing it completely (
The cross is also a symbol of the shame and humiliation which the Christian must be prepared to endure for the sake of Christ
The Christian’s cross is always a voluntary thing. Unlike the convict he never is compelled to carry it: “If any man wills to do so,” Jesus said (
Discovery of the True Cross
Many people throughout history have attempted to locate the remains of the cross upon which Jesus died. The early church historians Socrates, Sozomen, Rufinus and Theodoret all make mention of this tradition. The most significant thing is that EusebiusVit. Const., iii.26-28, who carries more weight than they all together, wholly omits it.
According to this tradition, Helena, the mother of Constantine, in 325 AD, when she was 79 years old, discovered the true cross of Jesus by an excavation she caused to be made on the traditional spot of His grave. With the cross of the Savior were found the two crosses of the malefactors who were crucified with Him. A Miracle of healing, wrought by touching the true cross, revealed its identity. When found it was intact, even the holy nails of the crucifixion being discovered. The main part of the cross was deposited by Helena in a church erected over the spot. Of the remainder, a portion was inserted into the head of the statue of Constantine, and the balance was placed in a new church, specially erected for it at Rome and named after it Santa Croce.
Small fragments of the wood of the true cross were sold, encrusted with gold and jewels, and since many among the wealthy believers were desirous of possessing such priceless relics, the miracle of the "multiplication of the cross" was devised, so that the relic suffered no diminution "et quasi intacta maneret"Paulinus epistle 11 ad Sev. Fragments of the true cross are thus to be found in many Roman Catholic churches of many countries, all over Christendom. It is said that the East celebrated the staurosimos hemera (Crucifixion Day) on September 14, since the 4th century. The evidence for this fact is late and untrustworthy. It is certain that the West celebrated the Invention of the Cross, on May 3, since the time of Gregory the Great in the 6th century. The finding and publication of the apocryphal " " has made it evident that the entire legend of the discovery of the cross by Helena is but a version of the old Edessa legend, which tells of an identical discovery of the cross, under the very same circumstances, by the wife of the emperor Claudius, who had been converted to Christianity by the preaching of Peter.