Stauros (σταυρός) is a Greek word which in the oldest forms (Homeric and classical Greek) (until the fourth century BC) is found used in the plural number in the sense of an upright stake or pole. In Koine Greek, in use during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, within which the New Testament was written, it was used in the singular number with reference to an instrument of capital punishment that writers in that form of Greek describe as cross-shaped or T-shaped; in modern Greek it is used to refer only to a cross, real or metaphorical.


The word stauros comes from the verb ἵστημι (histēmi: "straighten up", "stand"), which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *steh2-u- "pole",[1] related to the root *steh2- "to stand, to set"[2] (the same root is found in German Stern, or Stamm, the English "stand", the Spanish word estaca, the Portuguese word estaca, the Polish stać, the Italian stare, of similar meanings).[3][4]

Homeric and classical GreekEdit

Lake dwelling

In Homeric and classical Greek, until the early 4th century BC, stauros meant an upright pale or stake,[5][6] or piece of paling, "on which anything might be hung, or which might be used in impaling [fencing in] a piece of ground."[7]

These pales or stakes were driven in to serve as a palisade or as piles for the foundation of a lake dwelling.[5][8][9]

In the literature of that time, stauros, which never means two pieces of timber placed across one another at any angle, but always one piece alone,[10] is always used in the plural number, never in the singular of an isolated pale or stake.[5][11]

Koine GreekEdit

Justus Lipsius: De cruce, p. 47
Image by Justus Lipsius of the crucifixion of Jesus
Image by Justus Lipsius of one of the two meanings that he attributed to the term crux simplex.

In Koine Greek, the form of Greek in use between about 300 BC and AD 300, the word σταυρός was used to denote a wooden object on which Romans executed criminals. When the word is thus employed in the writings of Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC), Plutarch and Lucian – non-Christian writers, of whom only Lucian makes clear the shape of the device – the authoritative A Greek–English Lexicon translates it as "cross".[12] According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, this form of capital punishment involved binding the victim with outstretched arms to a crossbeam, or nailing him firmly to it through the wrists; the crossbeam was then raised against an upright shaft and made fast to it about 3 metres from the ground, and the feet were tightly bound or nailed to the upright shaft.[13] Speaking specifically about the σταυρός of Jesus, early Christian writers unanimously suppose it to have had a crossbeam. Thus Justin Martyr said it was prefigured in the Jewish Passover lamb:

That lamb which was commanded to be wholly roasted was a symbol of the suffering of the cross (σταυρός) which Christ would undergo. For the lamb, which is roasted, is roasted and dressed up in the form of the cross (σταυρός). For one spit is transfixed right through from the lower parts up to the head, and one across the back, to which are attached the legs of the lamb.[14]

In A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to The English and Greek New Testament (1877), hyperdispensationalist E. W. Bullinger, in contrast to other authorities, stated:

The σταυρός (stauros) was simply an upright pale or stake to which Romans nailed those who were thus said to be crucified, σταυρόω, merely means to drive stakes. It never means two pieces of wood joining at any angle. Even the Latin word crux means a mere stake. The initial letter Χ, (chi) of Χριστός, (Christ) was anciently used for His name, until it was displaced by the T, the initial letter of the pagan god Tammuz, about the end of cent. iv.[15]

A similar view was put forward by John Denham Parsons in 1896.[16] Bullinger's 1877 statement and that of Parsons in 1896, written before the discovery of thousands of manuscripts in Koine Greek at Oxyrhyncus in Egypt revolutionised understanding of the language of the New Testament, conflict with the documented fact that, long before the end of the fourth century, the Epistle of Barnabas, which was certainly earlier than 135,[17] and may have been of the 1st century AD,[18] the time when the gospel accounts of the death of Jesus were written, likened the σταυρός to the letter T (the Greek letter tau, which had the numeric value of 300),[19] and to the position assumed by Moses in Exodus 17:11-12.[20] The shape of the σταυρός is likened to that of the letter T also in the final words of Trial in the Court of Vowels among the works of 2nd-century Lucian. Other 2nd-century witnesses to the fact that at that time the σταυρός was envisaged as being cross-shaped and not in the form of a simple pole are given in early Christian descriptions of the execution cross.

Modern GreekEdit

In modern Greek the word σταυρός means:

  1. (a) "The combination of two beams crossing each other perpendicularly on which Christ was crucified and killed, and by synecdoche any object of that shape; (b) by synecdoche, the sign of the cross as a religious gesture
  2. (a) a design consisting of two lines crossing perpendicularly and producing four right angles; (b) by synecdoche, a cross-shaped design with various arrangements of the arms
  3. the ordeals one undergoes in life.[21][22][23][24][25]

To render the English terms "stake" and "pole", modern Greek employs not σταυρός but παλούκι[26] and πάσσαλος.[27]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 1391.
  2. ^ R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 601.
  3. ^ James Strong (1996). "ἵστημι histēmi". Strong's Complete Dictionary of the Biblical Words. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers. p. G2476.
  4. ^ Pierre Chantraine (1968). "Σταυρός". Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque. 4 (Ρ-Υ). Paris: Klincksiek. pp. 1044–1045.
  5. ^ a b c Liddell and Scott: σταυρός.
  6. ^ "The Cross and the Crucifixion" appendix, The Companion Bible (1922).
  7. ^ The Imperial Bible-Dictionary, edited by Patrick Fairbairn (London, 1874), Vol. I, p. 376.
  8. ^ Odyssey 14:11 in translation
  9. ^ Herodotus 5:16 in translation
  10. ^ The Companion Bible. (1922) Appendix 162.
  11. ^ Gunnar Samuelsson, Crucifixion in Antiquity, Mohr Siebeck 2011, p. 241
  12. ^ Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon: σταυρός
  13. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica: Crucifixion (capital punishment)
  14. ^ Dialogue with Trypho, chapter XL. The Greek text is: Καὶ τὸ κελευσθὲν πρόβατον ἐκεῖνο ὀπτὸν ὅλον γίνεσθαι τοῦ πάθους τοῦ σταυροῦ δι' οὗ πάσχειν ἔμελλεν ὁ Χριστός, σύμβολον ἦν. Τὸ γὰρ ὀπτώμενον πρόβατον σχηματιζόμενον ὁμοίως τῷ σχήματι τοῦ σταυροῦ ὀπτᾶται· εἷς γὰρ ὄρθιος ὀβελίσκος διαπερονᾶται ἀπὸ τῶν κατωτάτω μερῶν μέχρι τῆς κεφαλῆς, καὶ εἷς πάλιν κατὰ τὸ μετάφρενον, ᾧ προσαρτῶνται καὶ αἱ χεῖρες τοῦ προβάτου (edition by W. Trollope, Cambridge 1846).
  15. ^ E. W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to The English and Greek New Testament. (1877), edition from 1895 pp, 818-819 194.
  16. ^ John Denham Parsons, The Non-Christian Cross: An Enquiry into the Origin and History of the Symbol Eventually Adopted as That of Our Religion (London 1896)
  17. ^ For a discussion of the date of the work, see Information on Epistle of Barnabas and Andrew C. Clark, "Apostleship: Evidence from the New Testament and Early Christian Literature", Evangelical Review of Theology, 1989, Vol. 13, p. 380.
  18. ^ John Dominic Crossan, The Cross that Spoke, p. 121, ISBN 978-0-062-54843-6.
  19. ^ Epistle of Barnabas, 9:7-8.
  20. ^ "The Spirit saith to the heart of Moses, that he should make a type of the cross (σταυρός) and of Him that was to suffer, that unless, saith He, they shall set their hope on Him, war shall be waged against them for ever. Moses therefore pileth arms one upon another in the midst of the encounter, and standing on higher ground than any he stretched out his hands, and so Israel was again victorious" (Epistle of Barnabas, 12:2-3).
  21. ^ 1 ΕΚΚΛΗΣ. (α) το σύμπλεγμα δύο δοκών, που τἐμνονται κάθετα, πάνω στο οποίο σταυρώθηκε και θανατώθηκε ο Χριστός· συνέκδ. κάθε αντικείμενο τέτοιου σχήματος ... (β) (συνεκδ.) το σημείο του σταυρού ως λατρευτική κίνηση ... 2. (α) σχήμα που αποτελείται από δύο τεμνόμενες κάθετες γραμμές που σχηματίζουν τέσσερις ορθές γωνίες ... (β) (συνεκδ.) σταυροειδές σχήμα με διαφορετική κατά περίπτωση διάταξη των κεραιών του ... 3. (μτφ) τα βάσανα που υποφέρει κανείς στη ζωή του (Georgios Babiniotis, Λεξικὀ για το Σχολείο και το Γραφείο (3rd ed.), Athens: Lexicology Centre, 2012, ISBN 978-960-9582-03-2); cf. Dictionary of Standard Modern Greek (Trantafyllidis)
  22. ^ Isaak Lowndes, A Modern Greek and English Lexicon, p. 566
  23. ^ Modern Greek to English Wordlist
  24. ^ English to Modern Greek Wordlist
  25. ^ Flash Cards for Modern Greek
  26. ^ παλούκι
  27. ^ πάσσαλος