AM: According to the Gospels Jesus was crucified, but in Acts 5:30 Peter says that he was hanged on a tree. Did Peter get it wrong?
JESUS CHRIST died by crucifixion. This was a form of capital punishment which the Romans tended to use for the lowest criminals, and is possibly the most excruciating method of torture ever invented.
The victim of crucifixion was hung on a ‘cross’. This is traditionally understood as a stake fixed upright in the ground with a cross-piece to which their hands were fixed. Actually when our English Bibles use the word ‘cross’, they are translating the original Greek word ‘stauros’ which simply means a stake or post. Some historians believe that crucifixion involved just the stake, without the cross-piece.
The cross is at the heart of the Gospel message. Not the object itself—that was not important, and anyway no one knows what it looked like—‘the cross’ is used as shorthand for the sacrifice of Christ: ‘For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:18).
There are a few occasions in the New Testament on which people refer to the cross by a different Greek word, ‘xylon’. English Bibles translate this word pretty consistently as ‘tree’. So in Acts 5:30, ‘The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.’
The Bible does not use words carelessly, there must be a reason why the cross is called a tree. The reason is explained in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”’ (Galatians 3:13). He is referring to a clause in the Law of Moses: ‘If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God’ (Deuteronomy 21:22–23). No doubt one of the reasons why Jesus’ enemies wanted him to be crucified was so that they could point to this clause and claim that he was cursed by God. But God used their dastardly scheme to bring salvation. When Jesus hung on the tree, the Law cursed an innocent man. In that third chapter of Galatians Paul is demonstrating that the Law of Moses has now been fulfilled—the way for you and me to come to God is to believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and rose again to bring life to the world.