Galatians 6:14 “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (NASB)
My daily commute used to take me past a church building with a very tall steeple and a cross a the very top of the steeple. Oftentimes, early in the morning, I would see a hawk perched on top of the cross, surveying the ground below. After seeing that hawk there a number of times it occurred to me that it would be a good thing for me too to look at life from the standpoint of the cross, figuratively speaking. This post is the first of several meditations on the cross of Christ, which I hope, if nothing else, will encourage others to meditate and reflect upon the cross.
What exactly was the instrument of Jesus’ crucifixion? Was it just a tree? Was it an impaling spike that he was nailed to? Was it the traditional cross we see in Christian symbolism? Quite a bit of discussion exists on this topic, as one might imagine. Just the Wikipedia article on crucifixion is an interesting read: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion.
Scripturally speaking, Jesus was crucified on a cross, which is also called a tree. The word for cross is stauros while the original word for tree is xulon. John 19:19 says that Pilate wrote an inscription and put it on the cross (stauros). Peter later says that the Jews hung Jesus on a tree (xulon) (Acts 5:30; 1 Peter 2:24). The instrument of Jesus’ death is significant theologically. Not only did it fulfill Jesus’ own prophecy of the manner of his death (Matt 20:18-19), but it also took on symbolic meaning with reference to what Jesus accomplished through dying in that way. In fact, the theological point of using the word “tree” as opposed to “cross” has to do with Christ’s substitutionary atonement. Paul says that Christ became a curse for us, being hung on a tree for our sakes.
Galatians 3:13-14 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us– for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE “– 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (NASB)
As to what shape the cross was, we do not have a way of knowing for sure unless Scripture itself describes the shape (and it doesn’t). There are substantial studies on the historical subject of crucifixion, which are suggestive of many different shapes (see David W. Chapman, Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion). We do know that Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to the cross. I’m sure that factors into the shape of the cross, but I’m not sure it is definitive. I think the fact that people could be crucified in different postures means that it was not a simple pole. Josephus describes what the Romans did to the escapees from Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (see below).
“ When caught, they were driven to resist, and after a conflict it seemed too late to sue for mercy. They were accordingly scourged and subjected to torture of every description, before being killed, and then crucified opposite the walls.  Titus indeed commiserated their fate, five hundred or sometimes more being captured daily; on the other hand, he recognized the risk of dismissing prisoners of war, and that the custody of such numbers would amount to the imprisonment of their custodians; but his main reason for not stopping the crucifixions was the hope that the spectacle might perhaps induce the Jews to surrender, for fear that continued resistance would involve them in a similar fate.  The soldiers out of rage and hatred amused themselves by nailing their prisoners in different postures; and so great was their number, that space could not be found for the crosses nor crosses for the bodies.” H. J. Thackeray trans.
What a sobering scene. Many in that same generation who saw the crucifixion of Christ were themselves crucified outside Jerusalem just as He was. So many were crucified, in fact, that they ran out of crosses and space for the crosses.