ξύλον is an extremely difficult word to translate, although from its entry in BDAG you wouldn’t think so. It gives three basic meanings:
- Something made of wood, such as a pole, club, stocks, cross
Gal 3:13 in the NIV reads, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’” The use of “pole” is, shall we say, unexpected since we know the shape of the cross. Since there are always reasons for a translation, you have to ask yourself why the NIV did this. How could Jesus have been hung on a pole when the wounds in his hands require a cross?
The other translations use “tree” (NASB [footnotes it could also be “cross”], ESV, HCSB, NRSV, NET, NLT, KJV). Of course, Jesus never hung on a tree. The cross was made from wood, but it wasn’t a tree. And he wasn’t “hung” in the sense that someone familiar with American culture would assume from the words.
Paul is referring to Deut 21:23: “you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” The Hebrew עֵץ is defined by HALOT as “tree,” and all translations use “tree” except for the NIV. But executed criminals were generally impaled on a pole, which explains the NIV translation. By saying “hung on a tree” it creates an image that most assuredly is incorrect.
This illustrates how difficult it can be to connect a NT to its OT allusion, and how the specifics of the ancient OT culture can make the translation even more difficult. By using “pole,” the NIV is uniquely calling attention to the fact that Jesus was not hung on a tree as in the wild west, but that his body was displayed for all to see on a pole, a pole in the shape of a cross made of wood.
The translation of a person hung on a tree creates an incorrect image of the crucifixion. Hung on a pole is not much better, but how else can you say Jesus’ body was displayed on something made of wood in a way that reflected ancient practice and fulfillment of Deut 21:23?