What Was Nailed to the Cross? By Dr. Nicholas J. Schaser
According to the King James Version of the Bible, God erased the “handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14 KJV).
Another translation refers to eliminating the “record that stood against us with its legal demands” (NRSV).
Some see this statement in Colossians as a reference to the abrogation of the Mosaic Law—the “handwriting of ordinances” being that which appeared on stones at Sinai and consisted of “legal demands” for Israel. Yet, both the context of Colossians and first-century Jewish theology disqualify reading the “handwriting” as the Torah. Instead, what God nailed to the cross was the heavenly record of debt that humanity had accumulated through its sins; Jesus’ death obliterates the debt of sin, not the Law of Moses.
In first-century Jewish thought, committing sins put people in debt to God. Therefore, to expunge sin, humans needed a way to pay down their sin-debts. According to the New Testament writers, this is where Jesus comes in. Specifically, the Messiah gives his life as a ransom payment to God. Yeshua declares, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve; and to give his life as a ransom (λύτρον; lutron) for many” (Matt 20:28 // Mk 10:45). In other words, Jesus presents his own life as a ransom payment in exchange for the lives of those who have sinned. Jesus’ self-appellation, “Son of Man,” recalls Daniel’s vision of “one like a son of man” (כבר אנשׁ; kevar enash; Dan 7:14) appearing in heaven as God’s “court sat in judgment, and books (ספרין; siphrin) were opened” (Dan 7:10). When Jesus gives his life as a ransom payment to God, the Son of Man dissolves the record of debt in these heavenly books.
Equipped with this ancient Jewish background of sin-debt, the claim in Colossians 2:14 makes more sense. The original Greek says that Jesus’ death cancelled the “χειρόγραφον” that was against us. This word also appears in the earlier Book of Tobit (c. 200 BCE), where it refers to a written financial bond or record of debt. When Tobit tells his son Tobias to collect money that he left with another man twenty years prior, Tobit states, “He gave me his bond (χειρόγραφον) and I gave him my bond…. And now twenty years have passed since I left the money in trust. So now, my son… get back the money” (Tob 5:3; cf. 9:5). It is this kind of written bill that God “erased” by “nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14).
But the cross-affixed document does not detail earthly indebtedness; it is a record of sin-debts written in heaven. With its cancellation, the debt of sin dies with Jesus. The immediate context of Colossians explicates the point: “You who were dead in your sins… God made alive with him, having forgiven us all our sins by erasing the record of debt that was against us” (Col 2:13-14). As Paul puts it, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), but God eliminates the record of sin-debt when Jesus dies on the cross.