Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Did the Egyptians Use Crucifixion?

Andrew Vargo

Round One

Ibn Anwar has tried to tackle an embarrassing anachronism in the Qur'an which speaks of the practice of crucifixion in the time of Joseph and in the time of the Exodus.  His main argument in this article is that “crucifixion did exist as a form of penalty in the time of Egypt...” therefore what Christians, and other skeptics of the Qur’an, have is nothing more than a “faulty charge of anachronism leveled against [the <sic>] Qur’an.”

Egypt has a very long history spanning many centuries, so the question is not if crucifixion existed as a form of punishment at any point in time, but whether, or not, it was used by Pharaoh during the time of Joseph or during the time of the Exodus. This article cites several sources which do not prove the point, unless the point is to misquote sources.

The first citation is from Steve Bates’ book Bible Crusade which says that Alexander the Great ordered the crucifixion of 2000 Tyrian rebels. The important point here is that the siege of Tyre occurred around 332 BC – long after anyone dates the events of Exodus.

The second citation is from Thomas Hartwell Horne’s, An Introduction to the Critical Study of the Holy Scriptures, Volume 2, page 69 which clearly says that crucifixion was used in Egypt. When we check the footnote, we see that he is making a reference to Thucydides. Thucydides wrote of an Egyptian rebel named Inaros who was captured, and crucified in Susa by the Persians in 454 BC – which was also long after the events of the Exodus.

The third citation is from David W. Chapman’s Ancient Jewish And Christian Perceptions of Crucifixion. The people at “Islamic Awareness”, an Islamic apologetics site, say:

“Chapman's book is not a history of the application of crucifixion in the ancient world rather his focus is on the perceptions of crucifixion [ibid., p. 2]. Nevertheless, Chapman provides an informative detailed study on crucifixion terminology spanning numerous different languages.”

Chapman blurs the distinctions between nailing a living person to a cross (what we would call crucifixion) and impaling or suspending a body, believing crucifixion is a form of suspension.

William Barclay’s The Apostles' Creed (page 77) does not say that crucifixion was practiced in Pharaoh’s Egypt. It gives a brief history of the practice:

“…. The Gospels tell the story of the crucifixion of Jesus with the most astonishing restraint. They simply state the fact, and leave it at that with no description at all.

The reason for this is that the Gospel–writers did not need to describe crucifixion; their readers knew all about it, for crucifixion was too tragically common in the ancient world to need any description. After the siege of Tyre, Alexander the Great crucified two thousand Tyrhians. During the Jewish civil wars Alexander Jannaeus crucified eight hundred men on one single occasion (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13.14.2). In Sicily Augustus on one occasion crucified six hundred men (Orosius 6.18). Hadrian crucified five hundred in one single day. Varus, in crushing the revolt in Galilee within the actual life–time of Jesus, crucified two thousand people (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17.10.10). In Titus’ final campaign in which the Jews lost their freedom for ever in which the Temple was destroyed, it was said of Titus that he crucified so many men ‘that there was no space left for crosses, and no crosses for the bodies’ (Josephus, Wars of the Jews 6.18). No one in the ancient world needed to be told what crucifixion was like. They were perfectly familiar with its agonizing details.

The custom of crucifixion was widespread. We find it in Egypt, Phoenicia, Carthage, Persia, Assyria, Scythia and even India; and we find it in Greece and Rome. It was likely that the Romans took it over from the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians.”

In conclusion, none of these four sources so much as imply that crucifixion was a form of punishment during the time of Joseph or of the Exodus and to imply that they do is intellectual dishonesty – pure and simple. Therefore, the claim that crucifixion was used as a punishment during the time period, in which historians believe Joseph lived or the events of the Exodus took place, is in fact anachronistic.

Round Two

But that is not the end of the story. After the dishonest citations were pointed out, the polemic changed but the dishonest tactics did not. The new line of attack is to broaden the definition of “crucifixion” so that something, anything, can fit into its definition. After all, since crucifixion is a form of impalement, any form of impalement can be called crucifixion and, since a cross contains a stake [the vertical beam], all stakes must be a cross. Any student of Philosophy 100 can see the fallacy in this. But then again, sophistry is slightly better than outright dishonesty!

Sadly, the rest of Ibn Anwar’s arguments are not even his, but were lifted from another Islamic website – without attribution, of course, and he didn’t mention that the “Islamic Awareness” article had been rebutted some time ago! This site’s authors deal with the issue of crucifixion in the same way as they deal with many other problematic issues in the Qur’an – they simply broaden, or change, the meaning of the word(s) in question (in spite of what centuries of Islamic commentators and scholars who have written on the subject have to say about the matter) in order to avoid a serious analysis of the issue – continuously changing the argument and moving the goal posts – and then declaring victory after proving nothing.

The final result of this approach is that words have no meaning and therefore nor does the Qur’an. If a passage of the Qur’an proves to be embarrassing in the light of modern knowledge, we can simply change it to say something else until another issue is raised.

To make matters worse, Ibn Anwar, in his response, selectively and dishonestly misquotes his sources.  For example, Danker and Bauer’s text says the following for “Stauros”:

σταυρός, οῦ, ὁ (Hom. et al. in the sense ‘upright, pointed stake’ or ‘pale’; s. Iren. 1, 2, 4 cj. [Harv. I, 18, 4]; as name of an aeon Hippol., Ref. 6, 31, 6)
① a pole to be placed in the ground and used for capital punishment, cross (Diod S 2, 18, 1; Plut. et al.; Epict. 2, 2, 20; Diog. L. 6, 45; ApcEsdr 7:1 p. 32, 8 Tdf.; AscIs 3:18; Philo, In Flacc. 84; Jos., Ant. 11, 261; 266f.; Just.; s. also CSchneider, TW III 414, 4 and JCollins, The Archeology of the Crucifixion, CBQ 1, ’39, 154–59; JBlinzler, Der Prozess Jesu3, ’60, 278–81; EDinkler, Signum Crucis ’67; JFitzmyer, CBQ 40, ’78, 493–513), a stake sunk into the earth in an upright position; a cross-piece was oft. attached to its upper part (Artem. 2, 53), so that it was shaped like a T or thus: †—MHengel, Crucifixion ’77. Lit., w. other means of execution (Diogenes, Ep. 28, 3) IRo 5:3; Hv 3, 2, 1. Used in the case of Jesus Mt 27:40, 42; Mk 15:30, 32; J 19:25, 31; Phil 2:8 (Just., D. 134, 5);

William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 941.

Ibn Anwar selectively, and dishonestly, quotes Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon’s definition of stauros as “an upright stake, esp. a pointed one . . .”  The complete entry is:

stauros (stauros) - an upright stake, a cross, the well known instrument of the most cruel and ignominious punishment, borrowed by the Greeks and Romans from the Phoenicians.

Liddel and Scott’s entry for “Stauros” was also dishonestly cited by Ibn Anwar:

σταυρός , ,

A. upright pale or stake, “σταυροὺς ἐκτὸς ἔλασσε διαμπερὲς ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα πυκνοὺς καὶ θαμέαςOd.14.11, cf. Il.24.453, Th.4.90, X. An.5.2.21; of piles driven in to serve as a foundation, Hdt.5.16, Th.7.25.

II. cross, as the instrument of crucifixion, D.S.2.18, Ev.Matt.27.40, Plu.2.554a; “ἐπὶ τὸν ς. ἀπάγεσθαιLuc.Peregr.34; ς. λαμβάνειν, ἆραι, βαστάζειν, metaph. of voluntary suffering, Ev.Matt.10.38, Ev.Luc.9.23, 14.27: its form was represented by the Greek letter T, Luc.Jud.Voc.12.

b. pale for impaling a corpse, Plu.Art.17.

Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940.

Ibn Anwar (actually “Islamic Awareness”) is borrowing an old tactic from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who believe that Jesus was executed on a stake instead of a cross.  In spite of that undergraduate degree in “Linguistics”, Ibn Anwar fails to realize that the meanings of words change over time.  The word “stauros” is derived from the verb ἵστημι (histēmi) which means to "straighten up, stand".  This verb comes from the Indo-European word stao, which is a "stem or a shoot”. (see James Strong (1996). "ἵστημι histēmi". Strong's Complete Dictionary of the Biblical Words.  Thomas Nelson Publishers. p. G2476.)

According to Liddel and Scott (who Ibn Anwar dishonestly quotes) in Homeric and Classical Greek, stauros was an upright stake or a pole.  The problem here is that Jesus was not crucified during this time period.  The meanings of words change over time.  In Koine Greek, which was the form of Greek used between about 300 B.C. and A.D. 300, the word  “stauros”  referred to a cross. For example, Justin Martyr (in Dialogue with Trypho, chapter XL) said the cross (σταυρός) of Jesus Christ was prefigured in the Jewish paschal 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.”

In the final analysis, the cut–and–paste apologetics concerning the meaning of “cross” and “crucifixion” from Christian commentaries is completely irrelevant to the discussion, but shows the level of dishonesty to which some Muslims will sink to defend the absurd claims of the Qur’an. Christians know the meanings of these terms. For example, the chief baker of Genesis was not nailed to a cross, but was impaled on a pole.

The issue is the meaning of “cross” and “crucify” in the Qur’an and how these terms fit into our knowledge and understanding of Egyptian history. So we must look at the term salaba. Every passage in the Qur'an which mentions crucifixion can be traced back to the same root word salaba – from the S–L–B root. The Qur'an uses the variant Salaba [to crucify] in two passages: Surah 4:157 where it is perfect active, and Surah 12:41 where it is imperfect passive. A second form, Sallaba, is used in four passages. In three of these cases the imperfect active is used (Surah 7:124, Surah 20:71, and Surah 26:49). In the fourth case it is imperfect passive (Surah 5:33).

Keep in mind that this word is not Arabic, but was borrowed from Old Persian and/or Ethiopic via Syriac or Aramaic [see Arthur Jeffrey’s “Foreign Vocabulary of the Koran”]. The Arabic term for a cross is salib and "to crucify" is salaba. This is also the term used for making the sign of the cross [as Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do] or to cross one's arms or legs. Sulub janubi is the "Southern Cross" constellation of stars. A salbut is a crucifix, a musallab is an intersection of two roads and Hurub al–Salib, or 'Wars of the Cross', is the Arabic term for the Crusades.

Ignoring the clear Arabic meaning of the term in the context of the Qur’an, Ibn Anwar attempts to confuse the issue by cutting and pasting another section from the “Islamic Awareness” article on Crucifixion, in which the word ‘salb’ refers to “the pus that leaks out of the body of the executed.”  Both dawagandists cite Lane’s Lexicon, page 1711 (on pages 1758-59).  The portion of the entry, that mentions this issue contains a wide range of meanings for the S-L-B trilateral root – especially references to a geometric cross and crucifixion.  What is important is the context in which the term is used.  Qur’an commentators and translators have historically understood the term to mean cross and crucifixion – not pus.

Muhammad most certainly knew the difference between stakes and crosses (and pus) since we know, from Islamic sources, that he had a fierce hatred for anything that resembled a cross. Even placing ones’ hands on their hips during prayers was considered tasleeb [i.e. making the shape, sign, or image of a cross] by Muhammad and was strictly forbidden by him (see the Musnad Ahmad bin Hanbal, vol. 10, p. 153).

Clearly, the Arabic word for crucifixion requires the use of more than one stick. The Arabic term used in the Qur'an refers clearly to a geometric cross and not a pole, a stake, or a tree. If Pharaoh were impaling people on poles or stakes, why doesn’t the Qur’an use the term al–awtadi [which is used in Surahs 38:12 and 89:6–12 – in which Pharaoh is called Lord of Stakes]?

There is absolutely no historical or archeological evidence that the ancient Egyptians executed people by crucifixion on a cross. None of the references that Ibn Anwar cited, even suggest that crucifixion existed in the times of Joseph or the Exodus – as he dishonestly attempted to imply. The execution method of crucifixion was invented by the Persians and adopted by the Romans and others and there is no mention of crucifixion in ANY Egyptian texts at all, and trying to dress up an "impaling" (which is mentioned in Egyptian hieroglyphs tp-ht) as a crucifixion simply will not do.

Although crucifixion may be considered as a form of impalement – when nails are used – all forms of impalement do not qualify as crucifixion. Ibn Anwar [actually Islamic Awareness – to be fair, since it is their work] has also failed to make the case from etymology. The Arabic word for crucifixion used in the Qur'an refers to a cross–shaped instrument of execution. It would be very difficult to impale a person on a cross [thrusting the vertical beam through the body] because the horizontal beam would be in the way.