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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. Jesus Girl

    This is foolishness. The gospel of John, chapter 19, clearly states that Jesus was crucified. It also specifies that nails were hammered into Christ's HANDS. I'm not sure what other form of hanging involves nailing the prisoner's hands.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:42 am |
    • Lini

      John’s gospel then speaks of the prophecy in which it says that Jesus’ (pbuh) bones will not be broken (19:36). Let us have a look at that prophecy.

      Psalms 34:20 Many are the ills of the righteous, but Lord delivereth him out of them all.
      Psalms 34:21 He keepeth all his bones; not one of them is broken.

      If this prophecy is about Jesus (pbuh), then God WILL DELIVER him from ALL difficulties, including the CRUCIFIXION. This is
      another confirmation that God HEARD the prayers of Jesus (pbuh) to be saved. And how can someone be nailed to a cross and none of their bones are broken?

      -I.D. Campbell, "Jesus Was Not Crucified"

      July 2, 2010 at 6:10 am |
  2. Nick

    Hello,
    Just because there is faith, does it mean we have to believe or 'have faith' in what they thought centuries ago? How do we know they were telling the truth? They used to believe the world was flat, slavery was good, women weren't real people, etc. Just because somebody wrote it down and called it spiritual, should we have to believe it? Why is Santa Claus not real, but God and jesus are? Why is moses real, but jack and the beanstalk fake? It's all crap. Fairy tales.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:41 am |
  3. LaJollaRich

    The man's name is king Akhenaten. King Tutakhenaten succeeded him. Queen Nef found the boy king. And yes, they were the birth of monotheism.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:39 am |
  4. Phillip B.

    This is so utterly predictable; CNN creates a rouse in "Belief Blog," which is basically a coyly disguised effort to undermine religious (namely Christian) belief. They place articles from liberal scholars with clearly abberant provacative views without any countpoints from opposing views. I'm sure soon, if not already, we'll be seeing articles from the Jesus Seminar regarding the historicity of Christ. I'm guessing its longterm goal is to create enough doubt in readers that soon it will be just a matter of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:39 am |
    • nktrygg

      Phillip B.

      When religious belief is not based on evidence, but rather wishful thinking, cultural/parental upbringing and faith – then no evidence is going to sway a person from their belief.

      But rather, they attack the messenger, the message and then move the goalposts of what they would accept as evidence.

      There is little difference between a religious believer and a conspiracy theorist.

      July 10, 2010 at 10:55 am |
  5. Time Travel

    There is a greater historical context here. Although the bible never specifically says Jesus died on a cross, crucifixions were extremely popular death devices across the Roman empire long before and after the life of Jesus. There is evidence that thousands of Judeans died this way, so there isn't much reason to believe Jesus would have been killed differently. But really, it doesn't matter much. It isn't the actual death of Jesus that matters to Christians. It is the resurrection and promised return that Christians should really be focused on.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:35 am |
  6. LaJollaRich

    If someone had actually floated up to the sky, turned water into wine, raised the dead, walked on water, etc., the Romans would have written about it as miracles. None of them did.

    Only his friends / disciples 'witnessed' all of them. Lazarus was his brother-in-law and the 1st resurrection was a hoax planned by them both. They were rich, contrary to popular believe, and they played pranks.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:32 am |
    • DanW

      Proof? Citation?

      July 2, 2010 at 2:50 am |
  7. Stephen

    neuron2003,

    The Harper Collins Study Bible was a required text in a higher education course from a public university. I can assure you among secular colleges, this is (with the possible exception of the Oxford series) THE Bible you would use for commentary and study of Christianity in a secular sense. If you have studied in this area, you should have heard of this book.

    If you want a source that is exclusive from the Bible, then you got it: "If the gospel was circulating in Egypt by about 125 C.E., it must have been written by about 100. In addition, a reference to expulsion from the synagogue in 9:22 probably reflects a ruling not adopted until 80 or 90 C.E." (it goes on, etc). source: An Introduction to the Bible: A Journey into Three Worlds.

    I simply have to disagree with you that it is settled debate regarding the authorship of this book. But I do understand that undermining the authenticity (via attempting to cast doubt on authorship) would advance an anti-Christian agenda.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:28 am |
  8. LaJollaRich

    Jesus never existed in real life. Mythology is just that - myth.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:25 am |
  9. LaJollaRich

    Jesus never existed in real life. Mythology is just that - myth. Just because some people decided to make him a divine off-spring that walked the Earth, doesn't make him or their religion any more real than all the other manufactured divine off-spring before him.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:24 am |
  10. Lee

    Neuron2003,

    Below you state that Paul was the first to discuss the resurrection. Actually Peter speaks of the resurrection in teh first sermon in Acts 2. There was plenty of discussion about resurrection prior to Paul.

    neuron2003

    Paul (Saul of Tsarsus) never met Jesus, and didn't even know any of his apostles. He clearly states that he was converted after a "blinding light" on his way to Damascus. He then became a true believer, & began spreading the "good word" throughout the gentile community. What we today know as Christianity should really be called "Paulism" because Paul was the first to discuss the Resurrection, the divinity of Yeshua, etc.
    Geez, don't you Christians ever read about the history of your own religion???

    July 2, 2010 at 12:24 am |
    • DanW

      Not to mention that Paul certainly did know Peter at least, since he rebuked Peter openly in front of the church for not eating with Gentiles when Jewish believers were around (Galatians 2:11-14).

      July 2, 2010 at 2:48 am |
  11. LaJollaRich

    Jesus didn't exist in real life. Only in people's minds where he and all the others like him were intended to exist. Mythology is just that - myth. Just because some people decided to make him a living god and create a whole religion around it for $$$ - christianity - doesn't make him any more real than all the other manufactured divine off-spring before him.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:22 am |
  12. Angel

    It has to be a cross! Seriously, a tree and rope would make a silly necklace.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:18 am |
  13. Aaron

    This discussion is so mote. All this made up 2,000 year old fluff.... translated and then again "translated" has simply become political power structures with devastating consequence to sensible world order. All of them... last year I was in a new buddist temple in Thailand that featured the nation's military might in the form of tanks and war ships in huge wall murals completely overwhelming the serene image of the buddah. I pity the millions that debate these idiotic minutiea when we really should be very concerned with how to save ourselves from ourselves... it's not going to be coming from dead people expected back "soon". Let's quit these political lies and have "faith" in ourselves.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:17 am |
  14. nktrygg

    why does it matter how a fictional character died? seriously, there's no evidence that there ever was a real person such as the bible character Jesus

    July 2, 2010 at 12:16 am |
  15. adam

    The Bible is an anthology of writings by insane, megalomaniacal, old men .

    July 2, 2010 at 12:15 am |
  16. JamesF

    WoW! Well the media wins again! Controversy, controversy, controversy...thats the media for you all! I laughed when I read about Gunnar Samuelsson's theory. That is what it is...a theory of his understanding. The cross is just a reminder of what Christ went through for mans sin! If it was a post, tree, or a cross it does not matter...Christ gave his life so man could be forgiven for their sins! So that all men (women too) through him have a chance to go to heaven! To see the world today with all their opinions...The thing about a opinion...well....everybody has a opinion! That doesn't make it the truth! Also everyone has the right to believe what they want to...But for the people that bash Christian's for their beliefs is wrong...to me that is a WoW! Well the media wins again! Controversy, controversy, controversy...thats the media for you all! I laughed when I read about Gunnar Samuelsson's theory. That is what it is...a theory of his understanding. The cross is just a reminder of what Christ went through for mans sin! If it was a post, tree, or a cross it does not matter...Christ gave his life so man could be forgiven for their sins! So that all men (women too) through him have a chance to go to heaven! To see the world today with all their opinions...The thing about a opinion...well....everybody has a opinion! That doesn't make it the truth! Also everyone has the right to believe what they want to...But for the people that bash Christian's for their beliefs is wrong...to me that is a WoW! Well the media wins again! Controversy, controversy, controversy...thats the media for you all! I laughed when I read about Gunnar Samuelsson's theory. That is what it is...a theory of his understanding. The cross is just a reminder of what Christ went through for mans sin! If it was a post, tree, or a cross it does not matter...Christ gave his life so man could be forgiven for their sins! So that all men (women too) through him have a chance to go to heaven! To see the world today with all their opinions...The thing about a opinion...well....everybody has a opinion! That doesn't make it the truth! Also everyone has the right to believe what they want to...But for the people that bash Christian's for their beliefs is wrong...to me that is a atheist! They (atheist) sure did come out of the wood work on the comments posted here....to do a little more bashing! But one day eyes will open if you do not believe in God or Satan! Its real if you believe it or not...its kind of like someone not believing in AIR...If not one person believed in air...that doesn't mean its not there. But anyways....like I said before! Controversy, Controversy, and a little more Controversy! And for the atheist...May God open your eyes an your hearts...He loves you even if you don't believe in him!

    July 2, 2010 at 12:13 am |
  17. BD

    I was surprised at the initial posting, as I feel that he is so far 'off" in his reasoning that it really did not warrant a response! BUT...I was even MORE surprised as to how many of the posters did not believe in our Savior, as taught in the Bible! I can see where Satan has really deceived man in general. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he lived in the flesh and took on the sins of the world (the atonement) for all of mankind. I believe that he indeed perform the miracles as recorded. His Father is God the father. His mother was Mary. He had the divine attributes of God, and the earthly attributes of his mother. Because of this, He is the only man that lived a perfect life. A life we each should be trying to pattern ourselves after. I also believe that God the Father, his son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate personages. Jesus did in fact die on the cross as part of the atonement. May God bless you in your search for truth.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:13 am |
  18. Chris

    Love to see some proofreading or an editor with a command of the english language.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:12 am |
  19. A Believer

    It is interesting that there are almost 500 comments about something that a great deal of the posts don't believe happened. It is obvious none of us were there when this happened. In the Bible this is called faith, Heb 1:11 "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." As people you have two choices, one to not believe in those things you cannot see or to believe in the things you can not see. I have faith and I know Jesus CAME, DIED and ROSE from the dead for those who do not believe. You will only have one chance to believe before you die. My prayer for all of you out there who do not believe is that you will believe....

    July 2, 2010 at 12:12 am |
  20. LouAz

    Ah, the christian bible and what it means. Clearly, some things are like polishing a turd . . . the harder you rub, the duller it gets. Mumbo jumbo, voodoo, hoodoo, doo doo . . . all of it !

    July 2, 2010 at 12:12 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.