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July 1st, 2010
01:49 PM ET

Gospels don't say Jesus was crucified, scholar claims

Update July 2 8:04 a.m. After this article posted Gunnar Samuelsson got in touch to stress that his research focuses specifically on the narratives of Jesus's execution in the four Gospels, not on the entire New Testament, so "Gospels" has been substituted for "Bible" in the headline.

There have been plenty of attacks on Christianity over the years, but few claims have been more surprising than one advanced by an obscure Swedish scholar this spring.

The Gospels do not say Jesus was crucified, Gunnar Samuelsson says.

In fact, he argues, in the original Greek, the ancient texts reveal only that Jesus carried "some kind of torture or execution device" to a hill where "he was suspended" and died, says Samuelsson, who is an evangelical pastor as well as a New Testament scholar.

"When we say crucifixion, we think about Mel Gibson's 'Passion.' We think about a church, nails, the crown of thorns," he says, referring to Gibson's 2004 film, "The Passion of the Christ."

"We are loaded with pictures of this well-defined punishment called crucifixion - and that is the problem," he says.

Samuelsson bases his claim on studying 900 years' worth of ancient texts in the original languages - Hebrew, Latin and Greek, which is the language of the New Testament.

He spent three years reading for 12 hours a day, he says, and he noticed that the critical word normally translated as "crucify" doesn't necessarily mean that.

"He was handed over to be 'stauroun,'" Samuelsson says of Jesus, lapsing into Biblical Greek to make his point.

At the time the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing their Gospels, that word simply meant "suspended," the theologian argues.

"This word is used in a much wider sense than 'crucifixion,'" he says. "It refers to hanging, to suspending vines in a vineyard," or to any type of suspension.

"He was required to carry his 'stauros' to Calvary, and they 'stauroun' him. That is all. He carried some kind of torture or execution device to Calvary and he was suspended and he died," Samuelsson says.

Not everyone is convinced by his research. Garry Wills, the author of "What Jesus Meant," "What Paul Meant," and "What the Gospels Meant," dismisses it as "silliness."

"The verb is stauresthai from stauros, cross," Wills said.

Samuelsson wants to be very clear about what he is saying and what he is not saying.

Most importantly, he says, he is not claiming Jesus was not crucified - only that the Gospels do not say he was.

"I am a pastor, a conservative evangelical pastor, a Christian," he is at pains to point out. "I do believe that Jesus died the way we thought he died. He died on the cross."

But, he insists, it is tradition that tells Christians that, not the first four books of the New Testament.

"I tried to read the text as it is, to read the word of God as it stands in our texts," he says - what he calls "reading on the lines, not reading between the lines."

Samuelsson says he didn't set out to undermine one of the most basic tenets of Christianity.

He was working on a dissertation at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden when he noticed a problem with a major book about the history of crucifixion before Jesus.

What was normally thought to be the first description of a crucifixion - by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus - wasn't a crucifixion at all, but the suspension of a corpse, Samuelsson found by reading the original Greek.

The next example in the book about crucifixion wasn't a crucifixion either, but the impaling of a hand.

Samuelsson's doctoral advisor thought his student might be on to something.

"He recommended I scan all the texts, from Homer up to the first century - 900 years of crucifixion texts," Samuelsson recalled, calling it "a huge amount of work."

But, he says, "I love ancient texts. They just consume me." So he started reading.

He found very little evidence of crucifixion as a method of execution, though he did find corpses being suspended, people being hanged from trees, and more gruesome methods of execution such as impaling people by the belly or rectum.

The same Greek word was used to refer to all the different practices, he found.

That's what led him to doubt that the Gospels specify that Jesus was crucified.

At the time they were written, "there is no word in Greek, Latin, Aramaic or Hebrew that means crucifixion in the sense that we think of it," he says.

It's only after the death of Jesus - and because of the death of Jesus - that the Greek word "stauroun" comes specifically to mean executing a person on the cross, he argues.

He admits, of course, that the most likely reason early Christians though Jesus was crucified is that, in fact, he was.

But he says his research still has significant implications for historians, linguists and the Christian faithful.

For starters, "if my observations are correct, every book on the history of Jesus will need to be rewritten," as will the standard dictionaries of Biblical Greek, he says.

More profoundly, his research "ought to make Christians a bit more humble," he says.

"We fight against each other," he reflects, but "the theological stances that keep churches apart are founded on things that we find between the lines.

"We have put a lot of things in the Bible that weren't there in the beginning that keep us apart. We need to get down on our knees as Christians together and read the Bible."

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Jesus

soundoff (1,530 Responses)
  1. Divad

    You'll demonstrate then?

    July 1, 2010 at 10:09 pm |
  2. ashlux

    The discussion of what instrument was used to put Christ to death is really nothing new. The term "Stauros" was used to define several torture devices including the cross, a stake and even in the shape of an "X". I believe the internal evidence however contradicts what this scholar has determined.

    Firstly, if an upright stake was used then generally both hands were pressed together and only one nail would have been driven through. This contradicts John 20:25 which states "unless I see in his hands the prints of the NAILS and stick my finger into the print of the NAILS and stick my hand into his side, I will certainly not believe". Seems to be more than one nail that was used to pierce his hands. The bible also says that "above his head" was a sign that read "THIS IS JESUS , THE KING OF THE JEWS" (Matthew 27:37) not above his hands.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:07 pm |
  3. jason

    you make me sick threatening people with eternal hellfire, which is actually taken from pagan religion. Ancient egyptians believed in hellfire too. Its non-christian, its downright satanic. there is no crime, no matter how bad, that justifies eternal torture by hellfire. if you would actually read the bible, you would notice that death aquits you from sin and therefore your sins will be forgiven on death.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
    • thinquer

      Educate with love my brother. Get more bees with honey. Peace, love, sis.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:47 pm |
  4. May

    And in our day we have Saint Padre Pio 1887-1968 who bore the marks of the crucified Christ, he was living proof of God's activity in the world, and was gifted with a complete range of supernatural gifts. He was sble to perform miraculous healings, even giving sight to a man born without pupils. He was able to read the hearts and minds of others so they were unable to keep secrets from him. Further there were many reports that he could be in two places at the same time.
    In 1910 he was marked with the stigmata on his hands, feet and side, similar to St. Francis of Assisi, these inexplicable open wounds appeared and remained there, bleeding, for fifty years.
    Yes, I would say Christ was crucified.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:04 pm |
  5. Salvador Lama

    amazing that people can call someone an idiot, when they believe in an invisible man that was his own father, died and got up again...

    July 1, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
  6. Leonid Brezhnev

    Your point?

    July 1, 2010 at 10:02 pm |
    • Leonid Brezhnev

      My question is directed at the Jason dude.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
    • jason

      My comment was directed to the al dude

      July 1, 2010 at 10:08 pm |
  7. al

    Isn't this a bit like arguing whether Santa Claus wears a green hat or a red hat? Or whether the Easter Bunny is pink or white?

    July 1, 2010 at 9:59 pm |
    • Leonid Brezhnev

      Yes, but it's so much fun to see the christian fanatics get their panties in a bunch.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:00 pm |
    • jason

      for someone like you, yes.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:01 pm |
    • Andy

      Not exactly al. There is not definitive text on Santa or said bunny. Its just an argument about the precise translation of a single word. It would be more like finding an old book that called Santa a made up word like protundified and arguing whether that meant fat or chubby. Its fun to see people getting so worked up about it though.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
    • Santa vs. E. Bunny

      Red and White - no argument.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
  8. Steve Bob

    I think first he should've worked on proving "Jesus" existed at all and the bible is anything other than fiction. Evidence points to no jesus, and the bible being a fairy tale.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:57 pm |
    • Thorrsman

      Really? What evidence would that be? While I HAVE seen article discussing whether a certain cave tomb was the one where jesus was laid, I've not seen a single article saying "Proof that Jesus was a fictional character!" Please, pray do, reveal the source of your information.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:06 pm |
    • jason

      fairy tale? I have read the whole bible and found no "fairy" in it.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:10 pm |
    • Toby

      Maybe Jesus was a real person, and maybe he wasn't. No one can say with absolute certainty that a man named Jesus did not exist 2000 years ago. However, we now know, if we know ANYTHING that dead people do not come back to life after being dead from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. We also know that devils and demons only inhabit the minds and imaginations of man. We also know that virgins do not give birth, and even if they did, it does not PROVE that the child is any kind of god or divine. We also know (having seen the near implosion of the Catholic Church, Inc.) that we do NOT need religion to be good moral people.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:27 pm |
  9. Leonid Brezhnev

    Notice, too, that the christian religions have him depicted as a white male. Now, if this dude was born in Bethlehem, and his parents were natives, then ol' Jesus should look like any other Arabic person that was living then...olive skin, dark hair, etc. He certainly wasn't the lilly white person depicted on numerous paintings and such...

    July 1, 2010 at 9:57 pm |
    • Leonid Brezhnev

      What's the matter, sheep....don't have an answer at the ready for this one???

      July 1, 2010 at 10:01 pm |
    • Josip Broz

      How's the job at CNN treating you, rabble rouser?

      July 1, 2010 at 10:09 pm |
    • Thorrsman

      I've seen ancient artwork that depicts Jesus as white, swarthy and a whole range of colors. The reason, as would be obvious to anyone giving it thought, is that the artists, most who never travelled to Judea, would paint "The Savior" as they pictured him based on the people they DID see in their lives. Simple as that.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:09 pm |
    • jason

      and how is that important? if he really did look the way you suggest, what change will it bring to the world? Obama is something near black, but he certainly didnt bring "change", thats for sure!

      July 1, 2010 at 10:13 pm |
  10. Petel2

    That's because you want to believe it your way.
    I say we keep religion away from children, or they end up the the blocked delusional thinkers here. If this stuff is so believable, then let them decide at age 18. Then again cult behavior doesn't like that, brainwashing works best at an early age.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
    • jason

      You can go ahead and keep it away from YOUR children. Its not up to you to decide whats good for others. Even non-religious people can suffer delusions of grandeur.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:15 pm |
  11. May

    And in our day we have Saint Padre Pio 1887-1968 who bore the marks of the crucified Christ, he was living propf of God's activity in the world, and was gifted with a complete range of supernatural gifts. He was sble to perform miraculous healings, even giving sight to a man born without pupils. He was able to read the hearts and minds of others so they were unable to keep secrets from him. Further there were many reports that he could be in two places at the same time.
    In 1910 he was marked with the stigmata on his hands, feet and side, similar to St. Francis of Assisi, these inexplicable open wounds appeared and remained there, bleeding, for fifty years.
    Yes, I would say Christ was crucified.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
  12. Proud to be a believer

    It's amazing what non-believers would print.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:54 pm |
    • Petel2

      They have as much right as you do. They even have the right to ask proof.
      I remember while getting gang sodomized at 9 years old by 4 priests, I prayed and asked god to make them stop. One priest leaned over and said god left us a long time ago because we are bad.
      Then I find out when I'm older that ratzinger knew all these abuses were going on and directed the cover up. Yep, he denied me and so many others.
      As far as I'm concerned, religion is about money and reputation.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:58 pm |
    • Hi, my name's Pete and I am an habitual liar.

      It's story time.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:04 pm |
  13. Tyler

    Yes this is a new argument, This has been taught by Jehovah's Witnesses for decades and have a whole section of the appendix in the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures with References on the fact that the oldest Bible manuscripts refer to him dying on a stake or tree. The Cross didn't come into the picture until the Catholic Church changed the Bible to read it that way.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:54 pm |
  14. Petel2

    I don't even believe there was a jesus as they say. We can't even get current stories right the day after, and how long after his existence was this stuff written? Ever play the game were you tell someone a story, it gets passed to 10 people and the last person tells everyone that story – it is always way off. And we are to believe this stuff.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:52 pm |
  15. Jesus Christ

    "giving hope for us all to do the same through him and through him only". So, take the cross and climb the mountain. Good luck

    July 1, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
    • Stocko

      Thanks a lot Jesus.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:46 am |
  16. Brenda, the lost one

    ...and I suppose you've read the Bible in different languages, particularly those that predate the English language version and those Protestant versions also.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
  17. Brenda, the lost one

    And I suppose you've read the Bible in different languages, particularly those that predate the English language version and those Protestant versions also.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
  18. Leonid Brezhnev

    Were you there?? Did you see it happen? How do you know this guy wasn't suspended from a beam by his wrists and beaten to death? You don't know anything. Go read your collection of fairy tales, and tell yourself how "holy" you are for believing in all the crap.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:50 pm |
  19. Andy

    It seems to me that a great many people are missing the point. Samuelsson is just saying that the literal translation didn't say anything about a cross. Not that it was not a cross, just that we can't claim definitively that the word stauroun refers to our concept of a cross.

    Its a pretty minor semantic point and, based on my experience with journal articles, it is likely that CNN is making a much bigger deal of the mincing of words than Samuelsson did in his original paper. It is publish or perish for scholars. Thus, they often have to grasp at very fine straws to make an argument.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:50 pm |
  20. Travis

    So much anger because someone's trying to find the truth and let people know. He's in no way saying Christ's sacrifice was any less important or that the Bible isn't true. He's just saying some of what we believe the Bible says might be a bit off. Or that maybe our literary understanding of the Bible is a bit skewed.

    He's searching for answers and sharing what he's found. There's no reason for anger.

    Oh yeah, I'm agnostic if that makes any difference...

    July 1, 2010 at 9:48 pm |
    • Nancy, the fat

      You're agnostic? Yeah, that's something we can all be angry about!

      July 1, 2010 at 9:49 pm |
    • Toby

      Which god are you agnostic about? Zeus, Thor, Posideon, Bal, Bacchus, Allah, Buddah? I know there are hundreds if not thousands more, I'm just using a short list because my fingers get sore typing too long.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:31 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.