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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. Goddess :)

    ...just wasted my 10 minutes on reading about scholar and 15 minutes on arguments...who "cares" what way he was killed..his father didnt..bottom line..what kind of "father" send his son to die for dogs (us,) what kind of "father" have favorite child in family with many of his creation, his kids(remember.. israely are chosen)what kind of "father" allowed to starve to dead rest of his children in Eastern, Africa, S.America.. and last questin to angry "christian" who dies for sins for those people before christ? (sorry for grammar..lazy to run spell check 🙂

    July 1, 2010 at 11:25 pm |
  2. neuron2003

    Heather:
    "John" was written in circa 110 ACE, the writer never saw Yeshua, and was relying on 2nd, 3rd, or 4th hand accounts.
    Don't you know the history of your own religion?

    July 1, 2010 at 11:23 pm |
  3. MYTHYX

    There is no god and there was no jesus. So why all the conflict and discussion?

    July 1, 2010 at 11:22 pm |
  4. Salman

    {And because of their saying: "We killed the Messiah, 'Isa (Jesus) the son of Maryam, the Messenger of Allah." But they killed him not, nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear to them so, and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no knowledge; they follow nothing but conjecture. For surely, they killed him not.} [Al-Qur'an – An-Nisa': 157]

    July 1, 2010 at 11:22 pm |
  5. luc law

    jesus was as adroit as hitler persuading an entire masses to follow his bullcrap...either way, wow

    July 1, 2010 at 11:21 pm |
  6. dbarak

    Let me preface by saying that I'm not trying t sway anyone's opinion of the gospels.

    So you're inclined to believe Jesus was crucified. Keep in mind that you're reading an English-language translation of something written 2,000 years ago, and more than likely has been translated from older translations many times. Try the gossip game with a dozen or so people. You whisper "Jesus was crucified," and by the time the phrase works its way back to you, it could be something as odd as "Jesus Cruz mows my lawn."

    I can't see how you can dismiss the hypothesis of someone who's done a lot of research with something backed exclusively by un-researched opinion and expect to be taken seriously. A person of faith should have enough strength in their convictions to not only acknowledge potentially new angles on their beliefs, but should actually welcome such research.

    Again, this post isn't anti-religion, but pro-open mindedness.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:20 pm |
    • Jessica

      Actually, this is not true. As technology and scholarship improved through the centuries, theologians have been able to go back to the oldest texts and create far more accurate translations than have been made in the past. They're not playing a game of literary telephone by going back to the Gutenberg and the King James.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:03 am |
    • Alex

      Modern translations depend on a plethora of ancient sources. These are then compiled into a Greek text with an apparatus detailing any conflicts among the sources. Translators use this information to convey the meaning in the best most precise way into contemporary language.

      Much scholarship goes into this process. It's not the gossip game that you mentioned.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:38 am |
  7. Toby

    Let's all just sit back, relax, and use our common sense and rational thought processes for a minute, shall we? 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 11:17 pm |
  8. Eric H.

    I couldn't care less how He died......doesn't matter to me. Splitting hairs really.

    The important thing is that He did.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:17 pm |
  9. Billy

    Not only is Christ's resurrection the keystone of the Gospel and likewise apologetics, but the manner in which Chirst died carries significance as well. His manner of death was prophecied throughout the OT, and historical evidence proves that here was a man named Jesus, who lived during this time period and was crucified (nailed to a cross beam, possibily a T shaped structure instead of the cross shape we typically think) and buried in a very specific grave. That grave is now empty. The grave being empty does not prove the resurrection, only that the grave is empty. However, the resurrection is the only plausible explanation that accounts for ALL the evidence. If the body was stolen, why would the apostles have been willing to die for something they knew was a lie. Look at their transformation before and after seeing the resurrected Christ, they went from weak and scared men to bold, strong men who would rick their loves to proclaim the news of the resurrection. If the guards took it, why didnt they produce it to stop the budding religious movement. But that is another discussion for another time. Here the important issue is that Koine (Biblical) Greek is not the same as modern Greek. In Koine Greek the word means crucified as we know it today. Although this gentleman may have spent hours reading the original texts, sitting in Taco Bell for hours does not make me a taco. (BTW, I can read Koine Greek and spend hours doing so).

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

    I guess this should shut the "scholar" and others on this forum

    John 20:25 So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it." 26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.

    Acts 2:23 This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

    If you still don't believe...then go suck an egg.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:13 pm |
  11. zxcvbnm

    Muslims believe that Jesus was never killed, he was raised into heaven. I think this article seems to go agree with that belief.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:13 pm |
  12. Heather

    This is just so stupid. He died on the cross! Whether you want to call it a crucifixion or suspension – who cares??? He died for our sins and that is all that matters. This "theologian" is wasting his time arguing points that don't need to be argued. Can't believe CNN thinks this is worthy of being posted...

    July 1, 2010 at 11:13 pm |
  13. Some dude

    Muslims believe that Jesus was never killed, he was raised into heaven. This story seems to go along with that belief.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:11 pm |
    • Admin

      right, and muslims arent Christians either, so who gives a flip about what they say?

      July 2, 2010 at 2:18 am |
  14. chris woolley

    Jehovah's Witnesses have been saying the same thing for the past 80 years. Any true Bible reader will find out that Jesus died hanging on a stake or tree or some thing similar to that. The cross has always been a pagan symbol that Christan's allowed to infiltrate their religion....Shame on them! Jesus did die, he was a real person and that's all that matter! A perfect man died for imperfect man, that's the main point, we keep forgetting!

    July 1, 2010 at 11:11 pm |
  15. Tony

    John 20:25-29

    July 1, 2010 at 11:10 pm |
  16. Heather

    It says he was stabbed in the chest with a spear to ensure that he had died, and that the blood was seperate from water, and thus indicting he had suffered cardiac arrest. This is found it John chapter 19 verse 34.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:10 pm |
  17. a

    Wow, you religious folk really are idiotic.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
    • DanW

      Try an intelligent comment and I might agree with you. As far as I can see, you are what you accuse others of being.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:03 am |
  18. Alexa Gomez

    Much ado about nothing. JC had to take one for the team or there would be no other way for rich white evangelical bible thumpers to rake in so much money from the naive and gullible who worship a nice Jewish boy who lived with his Mother, hung with sailors and wore long hair and a dress. Amen.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:08 pm |
  19. a

    religion is stupid

    July 1, 2010 at 11:05 pm |
    • Benjamin Al-Cohan

      Aw, they all say that–in hell.

      July 2, 2010 at 8:01 am |
  20. Farhan

    We Muslims believe that Jesus was never crucified and he never died. God raised him up to heaven and he will come back in the world again . We believe that a Jesus LOOK ALIKE was crucified and killed but some people mistakenly believed that it was Jesus.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:02 pm |
    • DanW

      I have never, nor will I ever, understand how Muslims believe these things about Jesus, but still insist that Mohammad was greater than Him. Mohammad did nothing. No miracles, no healings, nothing. He just robbed and beheaded those whom he hated and in his spare time dated six year olds. A truly disgusting man who filled the world with hatred and violence, murder and bloodshed cannot even begin to compare to the gentle Christ who harmed no one.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:00 am |
    • Lini

      DanW.
      You have a completely distorted view of Islam. You should read more about Islam from Muslim sources and then you can make a sound decision about Islam and the Prophet.

      July 2, 2010 at 6:03 am |
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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.