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Image:LatinCross.png|thumb|right|The "Latin Cross," the artistic representation of the Cross most familiar today.

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:

  • the wooden instrument of torture;
  • the cross as a symbolic representation of redemption;
  • death on the cross, i.e., crucifixion.
  • Crucifixion

    Death by crucifixion originated somewhere in the East. Alexander the Great 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 (John 19:31).

    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 (Num 25:4; Josh 10:26; 1 Sam 31:10). Men thus hanged were considered accursed by God (Deut 21:22, 23).

    Crucifixion, therefore, was abhorrent to the Jew (1 Cor 1:23; Gal 3:13), but no less so to the Roman Cicero wrote: “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears”Pro Rab. 5.

    Jesus Crucifixion

    Forms of the Cross

    Image:GreekCross.png|thumb|right|The "Greek Cross," with two crossbeams of equal length.

    The artistic representation of the cross has typically assumed one of four different forms, although alternate depictions exist:

  • the crux immissa, the type usually presented in art in which the upright beam extends above the cross beam, traditionally held to be the cross on which the Redeemer suffered and died.
  • The crux commissa, or “Saint Anthony’s Cross” in the form of the letter “T.”
  • The Greek cross in which the crossbeams are of equal length;
  • The crux decussata, or “Saint Andrew’s Cross,” in the shape of the letter “X.”
  • 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 1Cor.1.17 the “preaching” (kērygma) of the Cross is set forth as the “divine folly” in sharp contrast to earthly Wisdom. In Eph.2.16 it is presented as the medium of Reconciliation. In Col.1.20 peace has been effected through the cross. In Col.2.14 the penalties of the law have been removed from the believer by the cross. How Paul as a pious Hebrew, to whom one hanged was accursed, and as a Roman to whom one crucified was an object of scorn (Gal.3.13), came to Glory in the cross would be one of the absurdities of history were it not for the fact that the Apostle held the Crucified as the Christ of God (Gal.2.20).

    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)

    Cross (Cross-Bearing) (σταυρός, G5089, pale, stake, cross).

    Jesus’ 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 (1 Cor 1:18), to break down otherwise insurmountable barriers between man and man, thus making it possible for him to live at one with his brother (Eph 2:16), to bring everything back into peace and harmony with God (Col 1:20), to effect for mankind forgiveness of sins and a release from that which continually made him feel his guilt (2:14), and to free him forever from the cosmic forces of evil which everywhere surrounded him (2:15).

    Since the cross was reserved for criminals and those accursed by God (see above), it symbolized, too, the suffering, shame and humiliation Jesus endured (Heb 12:2) for the human race, indicating the depths to which He was willing to go to lift up the worst and lowest of men.

    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 (Acts 2:23; cf. Matt 16:21 with 20:18, 19 and John 18:11), the cross, therefore, becomes a metonym for mission, a symbol both of the divine will for Jesus, and Jesus’ voluntary submission to that will (Mark 14:36; Phil 2:8).

    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 (Matt 16:24; cf. John 12:26) must first of all have been interpreted literally. These words must have been understood as a prediction of the same physical means of death for Jesus’ followers as for Him (Matt 23:34). This prediction was soon fulfilled in the early years of the Church’s historycf. the tradition about Peter’s crucifixion and see also Ignatius, Roman 5.3; Hermas, Vis. 3.2.1.

    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” (Mark 8:34-36). “To bear the cross,” therefore, means a continuing loyalty to Christ along with a continuing death to self. It means “we must refuse, abandon, deny self altogether as a ruling or determining or originating element in us. It is to be no longer the regent of our action. We are no more to think ‘What should I like to do?’ but ‘What would the Living One have me do?’”George MacDonald.

    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 (Luke 14:27, noting especially the words “his own cross”; cf. John 17:4). The cross is a symbol, then, of life lived under Christian discipline, marked by voluntary obedience to the will of God.

    The cross is also a symbol of the shame and humiliation which the Christian must be prepared to endure for the sake of ChristHeb 12:2 with 13:12, 13; cf. also Ign. Trall. 11:2: Hermas, Vis. 3. 2. 1. It is a symbol, further, of the destruction of everything which interposes itself between man and God, whether it be an institutionalized religion, as in the case of Paul (Gal 6:14), or material things, as in the case of Ignatius (Rom 7:2), or whatever else there might be. The cross, too, is a symbol of that mystical union of the Christian with Christ, wherein one’s old evil impulses are crucified with Christ, and new desires and powers are released in his life (Gal 2:19b, 20; Rom 6:6).

    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 (Mark 8:34). Nor is there ever any hint that the Christian, like Christ, by bearing his cross acts redemptively or becomes accursed in behalf of others or thereby atones for another’s sins. Yet there is a sense in which the Christian who bears the cross fills up (supplements) on his part the things lacking of the afflictions of Christ (Col 1:24), i.e. by continued acts of self-denial on the part of successive individuals through the years in the interest of God and humanity, the work which Christ began continues even to the present.

    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 Catholicism|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 "Doctrina Addaei" 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.


  • H. Cremer, Biblico-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek (1892);
  • F. W. Dillistone, Jesus Christ and His Cross (1953);
  • L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955);
  • J. Schneider, σταυρός, G5089, in G. Kittel, ed., Theologisches Wörterbuch zum New Testament (1962);
  • Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, translated and edited by G. W. Bromiley (1971).
  • H. W. Robinson, The Cross in the Old Testament, 1955
  • Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 1960; C. Brown, NIDNew TestamentT, 1:389-404
  • M. Hengel, Crucifixion, 1977.
  • See Also

  • Calvary
  • Crucifixion
  • Crucifix
  • Symbol