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. Rufus

    One thing we know for sure – they poked Jesus in the belly (to make him laugh!). In the original greek, "pocus bellus lafus".

    July 1, 2010 at 11:01 pm |
  2. Stan

    This is why Muslims, Jews, Hindus like to watch CNN, because they like bashing Christians and Christ. Either ways these are all signs of end days.
    "The message of cross if foolishness to those who perish..."........These kind of arguments prevailed even during early days.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:58 pm |
    • Science Soma

      There have been signs of the End Days since the death of Jesus. Every generation of believers thinks they will see the Apocalypse. It's just part of the allure, mystery, and excitement. However, wanting it to be so does not make it so.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:51 am |
  3. Thomas Brown

    The Catholic Church clearly teaches that Holy Scripture is "one" revelation of Christ; the other two being "Holy Tradition" and "Church teaching". For this reason you confirm the true Church's teachings that Holy Tradition teaches us that Christ was crucified. Of course He was, and the Church has always taught this, and will because it's His truth.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:55 pm |
  4. pockets

    Jesus’ brothers are mentioned in several Bible verses. Matthew 12:46, Luke 8:19, and Mark 3:31 say that Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see Him. The Bible tells us that Jesus had four brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (Matthew 13:55). The Bible also tells us that Jesus had sisters, but they are not named or numbered (Matthew 13:56). In John 7:1-10, His brothers go on to the festival while Jesus stays behind. In Acts 1:14, His brothers and mother are described as praying with the disciples. Later, in Galatians 1:19, it mentions that James was Jesus’ brother. The most natural conclusion of these passages is to interpret that Jesus had actual blood siblings.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:53 pm |
  5. HeIsGod

    Tom, you are not lying!!!! When I was about 6 years old, the very first verse of the Bible I learned was JOHN 3:16. The devil is very busy trying to devour many and drag them to hell!

    Satan is the father of all lies:

    the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:4 & Genesis 3:14)
    Satan (1 Chronicles 21:1)
    the adversary playing the role of prosecuting attorney in a heavenly court with God and the angels (Job 1:6 & Zechariah 3:1-2 & 1 Peter 5:8)
    as the devil (from the Greek "diabolos" which means "slanderer"), the temper of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-3, Luke 4:2)
    the prince of the demons, Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24, Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15)
    unclean spirit (Matthew 12:43)
    the evil one (Matthew 13:19 & 1 John 2:13)
    the author of all evil (Luke 10:19)
    a murderer and the father of lies (John 8:44)
    the prince of this world (John 12:31 & 14:30 & 16:11)
    a demon able to enter into a human body (John 13:27)
    god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4)
    Belial (2 Corinthians 6:15)
    prince of the powers of the air, the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 2:2)
    power of darkness (Colossians 1:13)
    an adversary, like a roaring lion who walks about seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8)
    the angel of the abyss, named Abaddon in Hebrew, Apollyon in Greek (Revelation 9:11)
    a great red dragon (Revelation 12:3 & 12:9 & 20:2)
    the accuser of our brethren who accuses Christians before God day and night (Revelation 12:10)
    the dragon, the old serpent (Revelation 20:2)

    When Lucifer was cast out of Heaven, one third of all the angels were cast out with him. (Rev.12:4,9)

    Revelation 12:4-9 (King James Version) "And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

    (5) And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.

    (6)And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

    (7)And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, (8)And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

    (9)And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

    Lucifer became Satan, and the fallen angels became Demons.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:52 pm |
  6. Me

    Spoken like a compassionate Christian, Craig. There appears to be little love or tolerance in your words. This man, scholar and Christian is doing what all followers should do... seek the truth. The text we read and call the bible is several people's best effort or attempt at preserving the teachings of Christ. There is nothing that says it is without flaw. Even our Old Testament differs with Judaic teachings. Are we to believe their accounts are wrong and ours right? Even the line "faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God" is taken out of context daily in modern Christian view. People refer to the bible as the "word of God." Oddly enough, there was no such thing as the Bible at the time that was said, and we don't even know if it was recanted properly in either translation or transcription. We assume too much, and are open to too little. It's all a leap of faith. We should all seek the truth, which, unfortunately, happens to be more elusive than righteousness.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
  7. John L

    I'm over this Jesus guy. He didn't work, was very arrogant, rude to his mother and full of empty promises. If he lived that is.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
  8. talking dog

    We'll ask him when we meet him. Then report down to the rest of you.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
  9. unome

    Speaking of idiots..... you have spoken.

    The Bible is not a historic text and no scholar takes it as such. It proves nothing. It is an article of faith based on incidents that may or may not have occured in the decades just before the all destroying Jewish revolt of 64CE, a war that seperates with a huge gap, reports of fact and adds a great deal of fancy. So no earlier than 20 years later, as this war is breaking out and huge political shifts are forming, a hero story arises based on one man's life and a small Jewish cult that is still Jewish and reveres on leader, or the hero story is based on several Jewish "heros" – men who resisted the Roman occupation with religious militancy, much like Al Queda and the Taliban resists Western occupation today. Claims of resurrection were added later and even more invented through forgery and insertions into existing texts for the next 800 years. All honest Biblical scholars know this. That literate people can believe in ghosts that impregnate, and dead that are revived and fly up into the sky, etc., in the 21st century is only a testament to the severe centuries of oppressions, with brainwashing purges, tortues and death for nonbelievers that has resulted in inherently unquestioning fools like you.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
    • Biagio

      Agree 100%.

      July 5, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  10. Tom

    Learn about Jesus through Islam? Another big joke.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:47 pm |
    • guest

      not a joke man, watch the speech and then post.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm |
    • jim

      Tom cannot open his closed mind beyond the microfraction of a millionth of a millimeter it took to stuff in his myth that he believes to be true. If you cannot stand the questioning of a thing you hold to be true, you have but a myth and nothing more.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:17 am |
    • Winston Sumirsan

      Hey, Tom,

      I grew up as a Muslim boy and when I found Jesus via a Christian radio that:

      Jesus is God who came to serve in this world, not to be served...

      What I had known about Jesus from Islam was thrown away.

      That statement from Christian radio blew me off....

      People might say that you have closed mind... but, forgive them for what they know, not for what they do.


      July 2, 2010 at 8:19 pm |
  11. Terri

    I guess come Judgement Day, we will all be shown the truth.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:47 pm |
    • John L

      Terri, you'll be dead.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:50 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      @ John L. – Physically, Terri, you, myself, and all people will be dead, after that, comes eternity, heaven or hell.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:56 pm |
    • Science Soma

      Seeking truth is always a worthwhile endeavor as long as you can accept the answer, regardless of what your predispositions may be. I pose a question for the board: If in our future , perhaps 100, perhaps 500 years, we have the technology to be immortal, to replace our biological organs with synthetic ones, to control our physical world in a way that allows us virtual reality at our leisure, to go out and explore the universe unbound – will your concept of God have the same role to these humans? When men can live as a god, what then is God's place? Will we be another backwards society in history that had these myths to help explain our universe because we lacked the technology to understand it?

      July 2, 2010 at 2:56 am |
  12. HeIsGod

    @ pockets – You posted:

    "He died for our sins" hmmmm now what sin would have been so horrific that someone would have to be crucified for it? Oh you must mean Adam and Eve, two black people naked in a garden with a talking snake and a hankering for apples? The ignorance continues when you read some of the foolishness on this page. God's, magic book, raising the dead, burning bushes, water into wine,sighhhhh sounds like a circus show in town. Snake oil salesman and all.
    Jesus Christ being the Son of God, Jehovah and being God Himself died for our sins that separated us from eternal life in heaven. Satan is evil and he has been using mankind to carry out destruction on God’s creation since the beginning of the world, it started with Adam, which sin entered through him. BTW, how do you know they were black? Okay, that really doesn’t matter anyways. The real ignorance continues in mankind as Satan keeps blinding and deceiving many into believing that the Word of God is foolish. God is not a magician, He is everlasting God.
    The actual words of the Bible are anointed by the Holy Spirit Himself – and they have the full ability to completely change and transform you if you are willing to work with the truths that are contained in the actual words.
    Jesus says in the Bible that you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. However, you first have to know what the truth is before the truth can start to work to set you free.

    The word of God is sealed and only those who believe will have understanding. The Word of God was not written for make people believe and unbelievers.
    As it is written in God’s word:
    (1 Corinthians 1)

    18 – For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
    19 – For it is written:
    "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    The intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."[c]

    20 – Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
    22 – Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
    23 -but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
    24 – but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
    25 – For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
    27 – But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
    28 – He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:46 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Starting with the sentence is my reply to you:

      "Jesus Christ being the Son of God, Jehovah and being God Himself died for our sins that separated us from eternal life in heaven."

      July 1, 2010 at 10:48 pm |
  13. Randy

    Craig, that's what I was thinking before I saw your response. I read the article and thought, "This guy is an idiot."

    July 1, 2010 at 10:43 pm |
  14. Think about it...

    to all of those Christian skeptics...there are absolute truths in this world. For instance, 2+2=4. That is a fact. If you live on an island and your parents teach you that 2+2=5, you will believe it. But just because you believe it because that is what you learned doesn't make it true. 2+2 will always equal 4 no matter how much you believe that it equals 5. the same is true about the meaning of life, this world, religion. How many religions are there? i don't know but they all can't be right just because different people believe it, only one can be right. There either is a God or there isn't, they can't both be true. Just like 2+2 =4 if you believe it, and can also equal 5 if you believe that. Either Christ came as God incarnate, the Son, and as the perfect sacrifice so that we could be considered righteous before God and have entrance into heaven, or Christ is mytyical as some believe. One is true and the other is not. There either is a real place called hell for those who do not accept Christ's free gift of salvation or there is no hell. One of those statements is true. There either is a perfect paradise called heaven or there isn't. So for all the non-believers, it would seem to me that it can't hurt asking God to reveal Himself to you, ask Him if He is real, and see what happens. Ask Christ into your heart and see if the holy spirit reveals himslef to you. After all, if this 'fairytale' of Christianity happens to be right (and remember there is only ONE belief that is absolutely true) then wouldn't you rather live eternity in paradise rather than in hell where you will cry and gnash your teeth?

    July 1, 2010 at 10:39 pm |
    • Lee

      There is no heaven or hell. There is only the life we have right now. You say to ask for the christian god to show its self to you, but all the religions have people who say their god talks to them. Religions are all started to control and placate the masses. Sorry folks, there are no historical facts in most of the worlds largest religions.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:54 pm |
    • Samuel Tinkerbottom III

      Two + too equals 5. I asked Jesus into my heart and I had to take a Tums.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:37 am |
  15. HeIsGod

    @ OhthatChar – You posted:

    This is the truth. Jesus was not nailed to a cross. Nor was anyone else. The subjects were tied by the arms. then their legs were broken so the bodies had no support. The effects of this caused death. BUT! Jesus didn't die, my friends. He was given a secret potion to make him appear dead. Pontius Pilot was in cahoots with Jesus, and helped in his escape from the Sanhedrin who wanted Jesus dead.

    My comment to you:

    When I give post a comment about Christ, I don't spew just anything I want or even my opinion. I provide God's Holy Word to back up what I comment. Can you do that? Can you back up what you posted with the Word of God?

    July 1, 2010 at 10:38 pm |
    • OhthatChar

      Dead Sea Scrolls.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:17 am |
  16. Light

    People belive what they believe. Why can't this be an intelligent, intellectual disscussion about the findings and theories of this guy? Whether you believe in the Trinity or not, can't you take what he says at face value? I find it fascinating that there is so much more to a supposition held by a faith tradition that has existed for hundreds of years and has majorly influenced the world (whether for good or ill) then anyone origionally guessed. Despite what many of you have said, this finding does have value. If nothing else, it should, as Samuelsson pointed out, "make Christians a bit more humble." Which would most definately be a step in the right direction, don't you think?

    I am a Christian, and my faith is an essential part of my life, but this isn't the place for theological discussions that inevitably turn into name-calling and offending one another. If you don't believe in God (or believe in the lack thereof), that's has nothing to do with the story; if you don't believe, don't be angry that other's choose to.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:37 pm |
  17. colin

    You are so ignorant to claim you have study the gospels and make claims to read between the lines, when the lines are clear. He will be hung on a tree, his calvary device was too heavy and had to have a fellow man help him carry it. He received the worst torture and death the romans had, and that was crucifixion. You know people just made up the the cross as a symbol of christ for thousands of years just cause it looks appealing... right. What about Thomas touching his holes through jesus' hands? We need to rewrite the BIBLE!!!??? read the last page of the bible buddy. This man is pushing blasphemy and has no supporting evidence, and i am not surprise CNN would cover such a foolish story

    July 1, 2010 at 10:35 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Bless you colin!!!! Great point that you made about Thomas touching the hands Jesus Christ!!! Also, doubtful Thomas touched Jesus' side in order to believe that He had risen from the dead. Ignorant scholars think that they have God all figured out! LOL, yeah, right!

      As it is written:

      (1 Corinthians 1)

      18 – For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
      19 – For it is written:
      "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;The intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."[c]

      20 – Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:03 pm |
  18. teresa, kent, ohio

    ok, i was alright with this new idea until I saw this lie: "He spent three years reading for 12 hours a day, he says" I hate when people make these kinds of claims.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:35 pm |
  19. Lee

    How is this on a news site? It is known fact that Jesus is myth up there with Zeus, Thor, Jupiter, Krishna, Mohammad, and all the rest.

    July 1, 2010 at 10:34 pm |
  20. eternityag

    35 After they had nailed him to the cross, the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice.
    36 Then they sat around and kept guard as he hung there.
    37 A sign was fastened to the cross above Jesus’ head, announcing the charge against him. It read: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
    38 Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.

    (Matthew 27:35-37)

    Also the prophesy from Psalms 22:16

    stauroó – the greek word "to crucify"

    July 1, 2010 at 10:32 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.