Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What was the likely shape of Jesus' cross, 2: The Alexamenos graffito and the Staurogram in P75

One of the points of debate that has been advanced by Jehovah's Witnesses and a few scholars, is that the cross of Christ mentioned in the NT is not in the traditionally understood t-shape or the similar T-shape.

The traditional, informed understanding is that when the Gospel accounts describe people as carrying their crosses and speak of Jesus being flogged and made to carry his cross until Simon of Cyrene had to be forced to carry it the rest of the way to Golgotha, such were describing known, common Roman praxis. 

Namely, that: 
  • on a brutality learned from the Carthaginians, Greeks and/or Persians and/or others, 
  • a condemned Roman subject, slave or captive (or rarely a citizen) would be flogged mercilessly, then 
  • forced to carry the patibulum or cross-beam to the site of his execution. There,
  •  he would be tied up or nailed to the cross-beam, then 
  • it would be erected to the waiting upright, and his feet would also be nailed or tied to the upright (or possibly a footrest)
  • Then, he would be guarded while he suffered and eventually died from one of several unpleasant consequences, in
  • a process that could easily take days, apparently up to nine is on horrifying record. Or, 
  • to hasten the end, the legs would be broken with club blows preventing the victim from pushing himself up to get a breath, leading to asphyxiation in a few minutes.
  • Yes, crucifixion was an especially cruel form of hanging.
  • Where, typical crosses could be in the forms, T or t, or X or Y [a forked tree] or I or even just improvised on a wall or the like
In the case of Jesus, he was made to carry his patibulum [which probably weighed 40 - 60+ lbs . . . barely within the carrying capacity of a badly whipped man], not the upright or the whole assembly, which would start out at probably 150 lb or more to be sturdy enough, just on a typical density for wood [0.7 g/cc] and reasonable dimensions for required strength. Two thieves were crucified with him, one on either HAND, and there was a placard above his head that probably was about 12" tall and 24 - 30" wide. Later, after his resurrection, Thomas spoke of marks in his hands [which included the wrist in those days], from nails, plural.

These are usually understood as adding up to that Jesus was crucified on a T- or t- shaped cross, which is the traditionally understood shape.

However, as a part of their wider claim that Christians of orthodox views are in a pagan intrusion driven apostasy dating to the time of Constantine or thereabouts, the Watchtower Society has claimed, argued and indoctrinated its members that the cross of Jesus was I-shaped, that the term stauros demands that interpretation -- "stake." Also, that the usual t- or +- shape is a reflection of pagan intrusions dating to the 300s or thereabouts. This is then used to alienate and isolate members from people of more traditional Christian affiliation, who are viewed as apostates. (NB: Cf here for a broader reply to JW claims, and here for much more detailed information and responses.)

Consequently, any reasonable evidence that points to an earlier understanding that the cross of Jesus or wider Roman crosses took T or t shapes, would score against that claim. 

It would also help people to reconsider the claims of and the system of indoctrination used by the Watchtower Society.

Accordeingly, Exhibit A, the Alexamenos graffito, probably c. 200 AD:

Also, Exhibit B, the Staurogram in P75 [cf here and here], an early papyrus dating to c 200 AD, which uses Rho superposed on Tau, forming a shape like a T with a P on its top, with the stroke continuing up through the P, in the word stauron:

Together, these serve to show that the T- or t- form cross was a common understanding well before the 300's, and that this was understood to be the form of cross that Jesus suffered on.

So, the Jehovah's Witness claim is over-drawn on inadequate evidence that does not warrant the force with which it is advanced. That claim should be moderated and the accusations routinely made thereby should be apologised for. END

PS: The John Ankerberg show episode here is worth watching: