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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. Kevin E

    Of course Satan is going to work through the minds of people to draw people away from the blood of Jesus Christ to prevent the saving of souls. The devil is a liar!!! Jesus Christ died for our sins. Get behind me Satan in the name of Jesus! We know the truth and you are not my father. Lord Jesus Christ is my father and I will not submit to your lies Satan, you devil.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:23 am |
    • Samuel Tinkerbottom III

      @ Kevin E I agree completely my man. I am going with Jesus, stay away from me Glenn Beck

      July 2, 2010 at 1:30 am |
  2. Zac Schneider

    This is all arbitraty okay? I still find it hilarious that everyone believes that Jesus died to save us from ourselves, so now we don't have to follow his teachings. Why focus on his death when it was meant to accent his life? We could be up in arms or schisming or hating other religions, but that would not be what Jesus actually wanted. He wanted love and a spirit of brotherhood between all people. He didn't say that the way to achieve this would be to kill everyone in your way, as the means would totally corrupt the ends. Christianity, as a religion, is seriously flawed. Most religions, in fact, are seriously flawed. And for everyone who will want to reply that I am a Godless liberal communist, I reply that communism is a great idea but flawed in that it can never work in the world, I am liberal and so was Jesus, and that though I have no religion and do not believe in God, I still believe that Jesus was a great man and that he would be ashamed of you for ragging on someone who was trying to merely present his own views. If we are to be truly faithful, let us put faith in each other and focus on the teachings of wise men and women, and earnestly try for universal love. (Footnote: the chances of that happening are about as slim as a neutrino ACTUALLY hitting something. Probably slimmer, as a neutrino probably HAS hit something. But it's a good life-goal)

    July 2, 2010 at 1:18 am |
  3. Ronald Ferguson

    Zeit-Geist
    Thanks Josef
    glad to see someone else has done their homework and realizes the Pagan origins of the Abrahamic religions
    just look at the fish hat worn by the Pope it is exactly the same as worn by the fish priests of Dagon in Sumeria
    all the "Christian" iconography can be traced to Sumeria and Egypt, culture that existed thousands of years before Jesus was suppodsed to live

    Zeit, you are on the right track, but not the correct source. What you say about the Pope's fish hat is true, but please do not conclude Christianity is derived from paganism because you have reversed the true order of things. Noah and the other 7 people established themselves after the Flood but not long after came Nimrod, a man bent of establishing his own religion in Sumer – Bab'el and other places which he established. Semiramis (wife) was a very powerful figure and together they established the pagan babylonian religion that corrupted the true knowledge of God, post-Flood. The mother/child deity worship (Semiramis/Tammuz) spread through the world into every pagan culture. Venus/Cupid and Isis/Orisis for example (later to become the worship of Mary/Christ as Queen of Heaven in the Roman Catholic Church which is a great corruption.

    In AD 315 the Emperor Constantine claimed he had a vision of victory the eve of the Milvan Bridge battle where he was successful, and claimed in that vision he saw the cross (with the horizontal arms) and that it was to be through the cross that he would conquer. Constantine was a pagan, not a Christian, but he embraced christianity without conversion so he became a pagan pretending to be a Christian in the church. He ended persecution through the Roman Empire BUT he compelled all his soldiers to be baptised and become "christians". Well these likewise were not converted, but when they came into the Church they brought all their pagan beliefs and practices and from that time biblical christianity became corrupted.

    As a result, the church adopted vestments, celebrate priesthood, initiation (Confirmation), weeping for Tammuz (Lent), worship of Mary (Semiramis -= Queen of Heaven), the system of cardinals, Pope as head (pontifex maximus – Babylonian) and many more. All these and many other practices came from Babylon through the pagans that flocked into the church and in time it all became established doctrine and practice in the Roman Catholic Church, but it is paganism!

    The true Christian faith as taught by Jesus and the Apostles is found in the New Testament WITHOUT ADDING ANYTHING.

    This matter of exactly what the cross was – from early Church fathers, the descriptions best fit the stake and not the extended arms of a cross. It is still a crucifixion and it is not worthwhile going on arguing about the shape of the "cross" because the NT speaks of "the shame of the cross" but Jesus is risen to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:16 am |
  4. The Old Wolf

    Oh, the Witnesses will love this man. They believe Jesus died on a "torture stake". On the other hand, there may be a reason that this scholar is "obscure"... being a nut case will do that to a body.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:16 am |
  5. David Green

    The Dunning-Kruger effect at work with a vengeance.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:10 am |
    • Samuel Tinkerbottom III

      what does the paper company that Micheal Scott works for in the Emmy award winning hit "The Office" starring Steve Carrell and created by Ricky Gervais and Steve Mearchent have to do with jesus christ?

      July 2, 2010 at 1:26 am |
  6. David Green

    The "Dunning-Kruger effect" at work with a vengeance.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:09 am |
  7. Samuel Tinkerbottom III

    i challenge anyway to refute the argument that the devil wears prada.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:08 am |
  8. Patrick

    I have an old image that shows a man being suspended by the wrists on a stake. The image is very old, (around 11th century), and the man has his arms extended above his head. His wrists are nailed to the very top of this long pole.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:06 am |
  9. Jim

    No person is as empty as one who is full of him or herself.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:06 am |
    • Samuel Tinkerbottom III

      how can i be empty if i am full of something?

      July 2, 2010 at 1:10 am |
  10. tony

    wow...i'm am amazed at how many people want to argue about something so terribly irrelevant. the message of the Bible is not that Jesus died on a cross. it's that we are sinners, he came to save us, he's the only way for us to receive forgiveness and thus salvation....whether or not you agree with that theology, that is what the bible is actually about...regardless of who wrote what when and with what degree of detail.

    it would be very interesting to see this debate turn to the purpose of the cross/stake/"life of jesus" and "death of man" rather than whether or not Christ was "left handed" or "right handed", which to be honest is about how ridiculous most of these arguments have fallen to.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:03 am |
  11. ManicZorbian

    CNN posts articles like this one because we keep commenting on articles like this one.

    Jesus was allegedly around over 2000 years ago, and we know almost nothing about him. Clearly the writers of the Gospels knew next to nothing about him. You'd think for someone this important in our day and age we'd have a little more clarity about who he was, a little more historical data, something. Instead, we have texts written by people who may or may not have known him in real life that are full of mythological spin. Jesus didn't create the theology surrounding himself, others did it for him. Which makes the whole of Christianity look suspect to me, right along with all forms of monotheism. If one is willing to take the time to read historical information and look at archaeological evidence, there's plenty of reason to quit religion for good (literally – for good).

    July 2, 2010 at 12:58 am |
  12. Gil T

    America boasts proudly of being a melding pot of cultures and ethnicities. What binds those different cultures and ethnicities together in America is a longing to live free in a democracy. That democratic form of governance commemorated and celebrated by Americans in individuals and events in American history such as George Washington, the Fourth of July and Christmas have a common bond with our Founding Fathers: Faith in God and Jesus as the Son of God. Muslims are certainly free to commemorate and celebrate Muslim holidays. A legislated observance of Muslim holidays would be a political (that is the appropriate democratic political process in a republic) gain is not a melding of affirmation by some and denial by others of faith in Jesus as the incarnate Word of God by our Founding Fathers.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:56 am |
  13. Jim

    Theory, guesses, opinion, maybe, maybe not. Fact is that it doesn't matter.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:55 am |
  14. adam

    i hope all of you, whatever your beliefs can respect another's choice in faith, and respect them as people without judging them based on poor examples of their faith by others. in the end, we're all people, scraping a life out and trying to make sense of the place between start and finish.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:54 am |
  15. David

    The silliness is all the arguments over this novel called the Bible. They can't even get the crucifiction right, so everything else must be Wrong.Focus on the 21st century and our problems, not nonsense from 2000 years ago.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:52 am |
  16. joe

    Hard to be crucified when you don't exist, except in imagination and grilled cheese sandwiches and water stains on doors.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:49 am |
    • Samuel Tinkerbottom III

      Jesus EXISTED! Jeez didn't you read my post, I met him. joe..what an idot?!?

      oh and by the way joe, Jesus is alive and real today. Don't believe me, he was named employee of the month at the taco bell near my house. Plain as day "Employee of the month: Jesus"

      July 2, 2010 at 12:54 am |
  17. Samuel Tinkerbottom III

    When I was 10 (oh so long ago), I hooked up my waching machine to the hoover dam. Yeah there is an outlet just sitting there! My washing machine spun really fast and sent me back in time. (don't believe me? watch superman, the truth is in front of you!) When I awoke, (I bumped my head during the spin cycle) I was near the Dead Sea, I checked my watch and it was around 2000 years prior to my hooking up my washing machine. This guy named Jesus helped me out alot. One day, we bought a whole bunch of groceries and they were so heavy I had to help him up the hill carrying some. People were yelling at us the whole way because we were stalling traffic. (surprisingly enough...mainly Vespas) At the top of the hill, I climbed a tree to rescue a cat and my BFF bracelet got stuck and I was suspended from that tree for quite awhile. Then I fell and hit my bum really hard, so I just laid there for 3 days. When I got up I walked towards town and ran into Doc who gave me a ride home in the Delorian. I was happy it was Tuesday 🙂

    July 2, 2010 at 12:46 am |
    • Science Soma

      My Lord and Savior! I knew you would come! They said I would know you by the height o your stories! Take me with you back to the future!! (Thanks for the needed levity 🙂 )

      July 2, 2010 at 3:15 am |
  18. SynicalOne

    Interesting stuff.

    A lot of debate about whether Jesus died on the cross or not. I don't want to end the debate. The bottom line is, he still died for our sins. What would it change how he died?

    A lot of fantastic comments from people and a very interesting article.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:46 am |
  19. Annexian

    Y'know, people have probably been killed for pointing out if J.C. came back and had scars from his crucifixion they'd be on his "Wrists" not his "Palms". A person (divine or otherwise) can simply rip through the fleshy tissue in the hand and that'll heal believe it or not. The Romans nailed through the wrists to prevent not just escape but people falling off. Anyone pounded the nails through the hands, they'd go "Stumblios!" and make him do it again.

    But, really, say he was hung, should the Christians all melt down those crosses and re-cast them as nooses? How 'bout editing the 'vampire' movies so it's a Noose? Of course, that'd mean "Blacula" would spark race riots, not just "Taste" riots.

    Frankly, even a southern groups wouldn't like it. Yeah, they'd be able to wave nooses in public, but on the other hand, it'd be a mess to make a "Noose like" wood sculpture and plant it in the ground to burn.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:43 am |
  20. Gods Must Be Krazy

    So he dint die in kashmir? Thats what bbc said!

    July 2, 2010 at 12:43 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.