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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. David

    Jesus took the world to new heights

    July 2, 2010 at 12:11 am |
  2. neuron2003

    Stephan:
    Absolutely! Start reading historical sources, not religious treatises like the "Harper's Study Bible." There is no debate among historians about the fact that "John" was not written by John. It's only Paulists who believe this myth, perpetrated for centuries by the Catholic (Paulist) church. Read some real history, and then we can talk.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:11 am |
  3. John

    Speaking of which .. how did Santa Claus die ?
    He fell off his sled or got stuck in chimney ?

    July 2, 2010 at 12:01 am |
  4. James M.

    @Joe: Yes, He was, He is and He will always be. The problem is that folks pick at that nit. He could have died on a pole, but the Aramaic states 'Cross of Wood'. That is in several places. I don't think the original scholars would have got that wrong. Plus there are the words of Pilate and others that back this up. The fact that the original texts were translated into Greek also puts things at odds. Remember, the Rapture may be the figment of one man's imagination. All I know is that Rev states "We will be called into the clouds, just like He was." Nothing there about a Rapture where we will all 'disappear' and then reappear. Also, the Dead will be called forth before the Living. Should be a sight to see.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:59 pm |
  5. Jessica

    It's an interesting thought. Now, granted, I'm not a Christian so to my mind, whether or not a literal cross was involved doesn't really change the fact that Jesus was executed using one of the most excruciating methods possible, specifically to make a point. When I was a Christian, my understanding was that this was the method used by God to demonstrate that anyone, even the worst criminals suffering the most horrific punishments, could still be redeemed and enter heaven. (See also: the thief on the next cross–or whatever.) In that context, whether or not it was actually a CROSS is immaterial, because Jesus still died and rose up three days later having saved humanity, right?

    And in that light, I think it's a good thing that this scholar is bringing up this point; I think he's right to point out that Christians take too much issue with needlessly divisive points of dogma instead of striving to understand the principles behind them. Jesus could've been hit by a bus, thrown in a shark tank, buried alive, pushed off a cliff, even killed by lethal injection. The exact instrument isn't really the point–er, no pun intended. The life that he led and the sacrifice he made are the point.

    However, historically speaking, it wouldn't be the first time that a religion underwent a symbolism facelift. The Bible wasn't even collected into its current form until hundreds of years after Jesus died, and plenty of text was left out or edited in order to form a cohesive work. If Christianity needs to change the cross to a pole, that won't change the meaning behind it. Hopefully I'm not the only one who sees that.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:59 pm |
    • OhthatChar

      Exactly!! You get it. Wish the rest of us would.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:33 am |
    • Carole Clarke

      Excellent perspective Jessica – nail on the head. It wasn't HOW he died that matters, it's how he lived and what he taught – especially that. What galls me about so many so-called Christians is that they do not live by his teachings. They are bigots, unhappy people using Christianity as a cover for their ugliness.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:22 am |
  6. Stephen

    @neuron2003,

    Actually, whether John wrote that book or not is heavily debated, with roughly equal amounts of scholars arguing one way or the other.

    "the writer never saw Yeshua, and was relying on 2nd, 3rd, or 4th hand accounts." - You state these as fact, which reveal your motive even before your last sentence. The fact remains that if the book was written by John, these statements are false.

    As for the date of composition of the Gospel of John: "[The Gospel of John's] references to expulsion of Christians from the synagogue and its highly developed theology suggest a date in the 80s or 90s C.E." source: The Harper Collins Study Bible

    Many Christians do not know their religions history. Well I do. Care to make any other statements?

    July 1, 2010 at 11:57 pm |
  7. Carole Clarke

    If he was executed on the orders of the Roman Procurator then he would have been crucified – that was how the Romans dispatched unimportant non-Romans convicted of crimes against Roman rule such as sedition. That is how General Marcus Licinius Crassus had Spartacus and his followers executed, one every few paces along the Appian Way south of Rome – the crosses went on for miles. Had the Jews executed Jesus he would have been stoned to death. Saint Paul was a Roman citizen so his execution was decapitation by the sword by a Roman legionary – quick and painless. Saint Peter was not a Roman citizen and was convicted of the same crimes as Jesus and met the same fate, albeit they said he requested it be upside down, feeling unworthy to imitate his master.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:56 pm |
  8. James M.

    For those who are interested, read the Revelation of Jesus Christ as told to John and compare modern times. It is very scary and exciting. Also, remember that Yesua revealed himself not only to the Hebrews but to all on the Earth. The Mayan Calendar ends in 2012. There is a story that times will change then. I believe this is going to be so. Do you?

    July 1, 2010 at 11:54 pm |
  9. JESUS

    Hello and Peace everyone, Jesus was neither killed nor crucified, but rather he was raised alive up to heaven The Qur’an states VERY CLEAR: 004.157 That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of God";- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:-

    004.158 Nay, God raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise;-

    004.159 And there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in him before his death; and on the Day of Judgment he will be a witness against them;-

    July 1, 2010 at 11:54 pm |
  10. Joe

    This article is very refreshing. Usually the Jesus doubters come up with their stories around Easter to get more exposure... So here is the deal. WHO CARES. Religion is a matter of faith. I believe that Jesus died for my sins. That is my faith and my belief. For those of you who say he was impaled, stabbed, hung until he was dead,,, or whatever, I truly don't care. The fact of the matter is that Jesus existed, he lived, and he died. Deny it all you want. The fact remains that it is a matter of faith. Not blind faith. I have seen enough to let me know that he exists. If you don't agree or like what I say, I don't care. As a matter of fact, you can take a number and kiss my christian ass.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:54 pm |
  11. James M.

    This is very interesting. The Jews, as slaves, were PROHIBITED from writing in either Greek or Latin. The New Testament, excepting five books were written in ARAMAIC. The only books originally written in any other language were LUKE (he was a physician and not a slave), the numbered John's and the Revelation of Jesus Christ as told to John, these were written in GREEK, and Hebrews, which was written in Hebrew (it was after all a letter to the Phrases/Sanhedrin). The letter to the Romans was written, from prison, by a lawyer, in Latin. Yes, Jesus was hung from a Cross, as Andrew was, and as Peter was (Andrew was hung upside down.) Whether that Cross was what we think today or if it was a pole in the ground is of little matter, it is the symbol that does matter. Jesus was NAILED, hand and feet, and there are many stories of how this execution was done. What is known is that it was a supreme method of execution, usually reserved for murderers or as it occurred, with two thieves of extreme stature (they were well known for having 'sticky' fingers.)

    July 1, 2010 at 11:51 pm |
  12. Younes

    This is a clear evidence that Islam is the correct religion because only in Islam do we believe that the prophet Jesus was not crucified. Rather, God Raised him to the heavens. Muslims do believe that Isa (A.S.) was sent down as a Prophet of Allah (God), but he (Jesus) is not God or Lord, nor the son of God. Muslims do not believe that Isa (A.S.), also known as Jesus by Christians and others, is dead or was ever crucified. We believe that he was raised to heaven and is there, and will descend at the appointed time, end all wars, and bring peace to the world. Like Jesus (A.S.), Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is also a Prophet and Messenger. Muhammed (P.B.U.H.) is the last Prophet, though, and there is none after him. Hence, Islam is the last religion, complete, with the Holy Qur'an as the unchanged and perfect word of God for over 1400 years, as God promised to preserve it till the last day for all of humankind, unlike sacred texts of other religions which have mulitple versions and are "revised" periodically. God, or Allah in Arabic, is Divine and Supreme Being and Creator.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:47 pm |
  13. Robin

    This is what is wrong with the church today, we have become to "smart" for our own good and have caused division with beliefs of "biblical scholars" like yourself.

    Let's get back to believing in the Bible just as it is written and quit trying to dissect it to fit a personal belief or conviction.

    When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him. John 19:6

    And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple from him, and put his own clothes on him, and led him out to crucify him. Mark 15:20

    And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him. Matthew 27:31

    The Bible says it in good plain English... believe it

    Blessings!

    July 1, 2010 at 11:41 pm |
    • Johnny

      Do you believe that John Smith met with an angel who gave him a book of golden plates engraved with a religious chronicle of ancient American peoples in an unknown language. He also said he had received a pair of seer stones in which he could see the translation, which he published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon.

      July 2, 2010 at 9:08 am |
  14. simonwigzell

    There is ample historical record that crucifixion was the Roman method of executing criminals. There is however no historical evidence that the Biblical Jesus even existed.

    So all we can say for sure is that if Jesus had existed and was executed by the romans it would most likely have been by crusifixion.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:40 pm |
    • Ferd. Magell.

      There is an account of a person called Jesus written by a Jewish historian Josephus (ca. 37 – 100 AD) in his famous text 'Antiquities of the Jews'

      book 18 chapter 3 verse 3 (English translation by William Whiston) :
      "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, (9) those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; (10) as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day."

      and book 20 chapter 9 verse 1 (English translation by William Whiston):
      "...Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done.... "

      Though the authenticity of the text is subject to a dispute, however, it is probably the only written historical
      evidence about Jesus from non-biblical perspective ever found so far.

      July 2, 2010 at 6:14 am |
  15. K

    It is most unfortunate that one can study the scriptures on 'how' he died and yet miss the reason for 'why' he died.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:38 pm |
  16. YAAAA Nooo

    I wish for a change that somebody would put a microscope on the Islam religion, I know Christianity is an easy target because we take it all and just turn the other cheek. The Bible has been analyzed, probed, and studied for decades and still it stands, now if somebody pointed all that effort on the Koran I wonder will it survive such scrutiny????

    Give Christians a break enough is enough you have been at this for way to long and it is getting very boring, try something else ok. And it seems that these thing are become more and more preposterous in order to get some headlines and your name in the papers.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:35 pm |
  17. puppy

    The Jehovah's Witnesses insist on calling the device a "torture stake." Sounds like they agree with this guy.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:34 pm |
  18. K

    Peter, an eye witness states "he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree" 1 peter 2:24

    July 1, 2010 at 11:33 pm |
  19. Ellyn

    Lost in translation: Impaling the victim's hands is a part of crucifixion right? As well as being suspended from some torture device. Put the pieces of the puzzle together; sounds like a pretty good definition of a crucifixion to me. Anyway, regardless of the root word's meaning, I still believe that He was crucified.
    But the point is that He died for our sins. Regardless of HOW he died, he died for us. No one's going to change anyone's beliefs by saying that our savior died by different means.

    July 1, 2010 at 11:32 pm |
    • OhthatChar

      How He died is indeed not important. How He lived, and tried to teach us, that is the real shebang.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:24 am |
  20. aatami

    Are we really discussing whether "Jesus" was crucified or not? We may as well be discussing what brand of socks Santa Claus wears when he delivers all the kiddies presents on christmas eve! Seriously, why do people believe this ridiculousness? It's incredible, incredibly sad that is. They believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth with Adam and Eve 6000 years ago. Ha!

    July 1, 2010 at 11:26 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.