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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. sarah

    Who cares?????

    July 2, 2010 at 1:56 am |
  2. k

    Jesus probably never existed, his story was a way to control people, what Christianity was in Europe was what Islam is in the middle east, a way to control people

    July 2, 2010 at 1:55 am |
  3. truthfulster

    It doesn't matter what "all you scholars" have to say about what you've all read because none of you were there! It matters how these things that happened so long ago effect you now. If you have FAITH that these STORIES are true then you will have life with Jesus. If you don't believe then this is your one and only life and I hope you enjoy it. I don't know about anyone, anywhere else but there have been enough SIGNS in my life that something else exists besides the here and now to convince me that there is a god and he does have a son

    July 2, 2010 at 1:47 am |
    • Samuel Tinkerbottom III

      truthfulster why is god a man?

      July 2, 2010 at 1:52 am |
  4. Jamie

    This is akin to saying, "I didn't die from being shot, but rather I died because a bullet went into my brian."

    Two true statements can both be true.

    What does he think the word "crucify" means? He pretty well describes it.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:46 am |
  5. JJ

    Jesus is fake

    July 2, 2010 at 1:46 am |
  6. Pete

    Great post Zak, every time I hear a Christian spout some ignorant or even hateful nonsense they supposedly get from the bible, I just think of what the real Jesus was probably like, and then I feel better. And there are actually some neutrino detectors around...read about the Super-Kamiokande. It's pretty awesome.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:46 am |
  7. Roz

    Actually the letters and books that were compiled into what we know as the bible, were written at a time when the public was illiterate, and only a very small few could read or write. The authors, whomever you want to believe they were, inspired or not, can not be argued to have been writing the bible for us to 'read'.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:45 am |
  8. Michael Toussaint

    This story's tease on the front page is rather misleading. It says: "Scholar: Was Jesus Really Crucified?"
    Yet, the actual text of the article explains that this New Testament scholar is merely stating that perhaps the Bible's text itself did not clarify the kind of torturous device he died on, but he wants to make certain that the writer of the article is aware that he believes other evidence clearly indicates he was hung on a cross and crucified. So, he is not asking "Was Jesus Really Crucified?"; he's asking "Does the Bible specify that Jesus died by crucifixion or a more general word for torture until death?" I'm not sure there's as attention-grabbing of a headline as that, but you are currently misrepresenting the words of Mr. Samuelsson. It is poor journalistic integrity to use this headline.

    Also, for people's clarity, it might be better to replace "The Gospels do not say Jesus was crucified" with: "The Gospels do not specify what instrument of torture was used to kill Jesus."

    For the sake of CNN's high integrity, I hope that you shall promptly modify this story appropriately and with all respect to the subject of the story.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:44 am |
  9. charlie

    Why...why do Scandinavians always bring up controversial religious topics?

    July 2, 2010 at 1:42 am |
  10. Shemuel-Benn

    The question you all should be asking yourselves isn't "how" Jesuse died....but WHY?

    July 2, 2010 at 1:39 am |
    • JJ

      Or if he even exists

      July 2, 2010 at 1:47 am |
    • Maria Rivera

      Finally, one comment with sense!! Crucified or not, he was lifted...and if anyone does not believe in the bible...too bad...it is called faith.

      John 3:14-15 (New International Version)
      14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:33 am |
  11. adrift

    You'd think God would be more careful with the words he inspired.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:39 am |
  12. Stophatin

    Everyone has the right to believe in any religion they choose, just as if someone does not believe in any religion they have that right too. And for anyone to claim they know the proper interpretation of the Bible because of what they studied in college is just ridiculous, we all can have our own interpretation and the right to have faith in what we want. For anyone to criticize someone for any of that, your just a child.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:38 am |
  13. Sean

    Interestingly, while large groups of people argue over all of this, there sits aside another group of us on this board that think "who cares?" Maybe the cross was more like a tree, or a pole, or stake, or some other wooden thingy stuck in the ground. I think that for the vast majority of Christians out there this is no big deal. All we care about is that Christ died for everyone's sins, and that everyone gets a chance to go to heaven as a result.

    I guess I really don't get what all the fuss is about. I mean, the atheist folk out here aren't any more likely to believe or not believe just because some scholar somewhere has a theory about what the cross/tree/wood thingy stuck in the ground looked like. Everyone should just take a moment to chill out, maybe pray for each other, and go one from there. Relax peeps.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:38 am |
    • DanW

      Yes! Thanks.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:39 am |
  14. geraldh

    Ah, another scholar, wiser than 2000 years of Church history, the bible, the early church fathers, etc. etc. He'll make a name for himself, sell a bunch of books, strip people of their faith and burn in hell for eternity for it.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:35 am |
    • Samuel Tinkerbottom III

      what is the temperature in hell gerald?

      July 2, 2010 at 1:39 am |
    • geraldh

      Foolish question. Hell is outside of time and space. It is a spiritual burning that can be likened to a physical burning but the soul is never consumed like the body would be by a fire however. Thus it is eternal. The worm never dies the scriptures say. Pascal's wager isn't sounding so bad.

      July 2, 2010 at 1:44 am |
    • Samuel Tinkerbottom III

      ...had to go look up Pascal's wager...
      so is Hell more of a chemical burn?

      July 2, 2010 at 1:49 am |
    • sense 11

      How do you explain the story of Horus the Egyptian Messiah that existed 4000 years ago, 2000 before your precious Jesus. Horus story is exactly the same as Jesus story. So its kind of a historical fact that the Crucifixion is a rehash of a really old story, and its not done very well btw, you know its plagiarism.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:01 am |
    • gerald

      Been a while since I looked in to the Horus claim but it is a manufactured objection. First there are thousands of stories about Horus, not one common one. There are all sorts of charachterizations of him among the greeks. His mother was not a virgin. Someties Orisis is claimed to be his father and sometimes Horus and Orisis are the same god. Those who object to Christianity have picked and choosen what they wanted out of thousands of stories. They put it all together in what sounds like a plausable objection but it's rational is not historical reality about the thousands of myths. I will give you more detail if you like but this is it off the top of my head.

      July 2, 2010 at 9:13 am |
    • gerald

      Samuel,

      Do you know the difference between spiritual and physical? Clearly not. Chemical is in the physical real. The physical realm gives us insight in to the spritiual but only in likeness. Chemical burn does not really enhance the explanation. Further hell is not of one intensity as there are levels based on the evil done in this world and the rejection of God. Are there not levels of heat in fire and in different kinds of fire? Why would we expect the spiritual realm to be uniform if the physical is not. Pain of the soul is of varying levels as is pain of the loss of loved ones based on the level/intensity of love. Much greater for a mother or a child or wife or husband than for a friend.

      July 2, 2010 at 9:18 am |
  15. Stophatin

    Everyone has their own beliefs, and the Bible and all that is contained within can be interpreted many different ways, for anyone to come on here and say they are right as opposed to someone else, your just plain naive. And everyone has the choice to believe in their own religion or none at all, but don't bash people for whatever it is they believe, thats just childish.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:35 am |
  16. J3susSucks

    First they'd have to prove Jesus even existed...

    July 2, 2010 at 1:35 am |
    • ndundu

      Existence is no cozy matter. Ask the European existential philosophers. How do you know you exist and what does it mean to exist? With no more than 100 years on hand, how sure can we be that we are not just a dream?

      Have you really taken the time and trouble to read the Gospels yourself and learn more about "I Am'?

      July 2, 2010 at 3:48 am |
  17. Roy

    I agree , just another Doubting Thomas, why did he want to feel t nails in his hands , because he wasn't curcified ? The crowd @ Pilate's sencencing Cried, Crucify him, crucufy him !

    July 2, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  18. Zoroastrianism

    DON'T... mention Mel Gibs ddOON'T, please, thank you.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  19. Kevin E

    Satan is in the last days of deceiving those who don't believe in the work of God the Father saving our souls through the blood of his son Jesus Christ. Satan, I know you are working though the darkness to destroy the light, but "on this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!" (Matthew 16:18) Amen!

    July 2, 2010 at 1:29 am |
    • Samuel Tinkerbottom III

      @ Kevin E amen brother, lets close those gates so Glenn Beck can't get in!

      July 2, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  20. Brad in Tokyo

    I reccomend, "Paul and the invention of Christianity" by Hyam Maccaby (spelling?). It's a very interesting academic analysis of the gospels in the original langauges. It's a bit hard to digest, but fascinating insight into the mind of paul.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:27 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.