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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. Geotuck

    what a wonderful idea. lets debate whether or not a mythical figure was crucified or not.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:17 am |
  2. The Truth

    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;-

    This is the truth.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:16 am |
    • Science Soma

      With all due respect to your convictions, it is no more the truth than any other mythologically based foundation. There is Abrahamic religion parts I, II, and III. If Judaism was a mythological device to help understand our world and survive in it, then so is Christianity and Islam. Hinduism, Zorastrianism, Scientology – if they help you to cope with the difficulties of being a human being, I understand your affinity. However, wanting it to be so does not make it so.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:48 am |
  3. Dave P

    This obscure interpretation by an obscure scholar - who goes on to say he believes he actually was crucified - is worthy of center home page promotion on CNN?

    You are page view mongers.

    I don't care what side of the religious coin one falls - this is not news its is sheer manipulation.

    You make me want to spit you out like the warm water you are.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:14 am |
    • ybs

      Joran van de sloot also feels he is being crucified!

      Life is just so unfair at times! 🙂

      July 2, 2010 at 8:31 am |
  4. IronGiant

    "and more gruesome methods of execution such as impaling people by the belly or rectum"

    Ouch.

    Imagine how different the "sign of the cross" would be if this were the case!

    July 2, 2010 at 2:13 am |
  5. joey joe joe

    Let's be honest here... Jesus has had about 2000 years to show up and show up the non believers, mockers of of his name, and people like myself, independent analytical thinkers who happen to have a camera (y'know to take evidence)... anyhow the point is this: if Christ is taking this long to come again, he can have his salvation and all the wars and perversion of his name with it. Just because He has all the time in the world doesn't mean I do.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:13 am |
    • ndundu

      You have anything from where you are today to a maximum of 100 years, to live. You don't have much of a say in the time you will have to say farewell. You are being offered grace, to accept or reject, while you live. You are being offered grace by Jesus "before Abraham was, I am", the "Alpha and the Omega", for whom a 1000 years is as a day and a day as 1000 years.
      At least, acquaint yourself with his message on a first hand basis.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:59 am |
  6. Paul

    Forget about this whole translation potential mix-up.

    Let's think about the fact that people still believe this whole " 'Santa Claus for Adults': featuring favorites like, Adultery, Lust, Pride and your favorite and mine, Despair!" -esque literature?

    July 2, 2010 at 2:12 am |
  7. Howard

    There was no independent historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, Maria, Matthew, John, Luke, Mark,... the whole fairytale is a naked emperor. I was a christian, but I studied various religions and historical texts... the more I study the more I find that all religions are poisonous and morally bankrupt. The organized religions are without an exception like mafia which use greed and fear to hold weak-minded people together, and they are willing to be controled because of protection and benefits they get from scratching each other. Think about how Hamas holds muslims together in Gaza. Relion is the highest form of animal tarining, and is held true by the weak-minded common, false by the wise, and useful by the rulers.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:12 am |
  8. talkdanceco

    Wow, so much press for Jesus, Didn't we change TIME for Jesus, 2010 ad right? We will find out when the time comes. If Jesus is real and if Jesus is who he says he is then the Christian will be in heaven and the rest will be in hell. If Jesus is a lunatic then we will all be in hell. Time will tell, not me, not you, you all can think and beleive all you want, one day we will all know.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:11 am |
  9. The Half Baked Lunatic

    Jesus is a myth. The bible is a bunch of fairy tales and folklore and storeis passed down from generation to generation and embellished each time the story was told. Anyone who actually believes this crap should have their head examined.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:11 am |
  10. erw

    Scholar is a false teacher, but he would probably say Luke isn't the Gospel too? The book of Luke in chapter 23 shows Jesus conversing with two criminals, I think this is quite impossible to do if hung by any other manner, read the versus . . . 32Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”e And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

    35The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”

    36The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

    38There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.

    39One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

    40But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

    42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.f”

    43Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

    Jesus’ Death

    44It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:10 am |
  11. Tom

    Bring it on, you scholars! you aint going anywhere by trying to create a confusion. Some scholars feel that their research is very true. Samuelsson says he spent 12hrs fr 3 days to come to this conclusion. my question to him is whether he really have time to go back in time? it has been already proven n number of times.... you aint going anywhere samuelsson.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:10 am |
  12. Jonrd

    Prove His Word to be false . . . then I can agree. Christianity was shoved in my life by my forefathers. I didn't want to believe it was real until I asked God in faith and every request was made known to me. Just ask him (God) to prove himself, he is a person as well as a gentlemen, and would be more than happy to redeem himself.

    Let me know how it goes.

    C. Jones

    July 2, 2010 at 2:09 am |
  13. LaJollaRich

    It is not a small thng King Tutakenaten's peen is missing - you do know that?

    July 2, 2010 at 2:07 am |
  14. Godfan

    Doesn't matter how He died, just matters that He did to take the sins of the world away. To take away you sins and to take away my sins. Because He loves you.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:07 am |
  15. Will

    Jeewish, anti-Christian, propaganda

    July 2, 2010 at 2:07 am |
  16. Will

    Jewish, anti-Christian, propaganda.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:06 am |
  17. boom

    Interesting work, however most rational people have grown beyond religion because of what it is, "Delusion."
    Sure something created the laws of our "known" universe~~ To bad some are stuck in man-made religions. The world is better than that.
    The Jesus story is not an original story.
    Judas Khrestus and Horus had the same stories before there was ever a Jesus.

    Charles Dawkins has many videos "google" and books debunking religion to help you deprogram
    Watch Bill Maher Religulous
    Watch or read books by Christopher Hitchens

    July 2, 2010 at 2:06 am |
  18. LagunaSlick

    No, "jesus" wasn't really crucified because "jesus" is just an amalgam of religious myths of the time. The gospels did not even start to be written until four to eight decades after the supposed life of "jesus" and were written in Greek instead of Aramaic. It is just a fairy tale.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:05 am |
  19. Christopher Alan Fields

    The Bible and all Religious BS was Created to Control People! You Only Live Once so Stop Wasting Your Time in the Fantasy Religious World.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:05 am |
  20. joey joe joe

    "And religion, like the monster that it is
    Keeps telling you to turn the other cheek
    God is on your side, but I don't think that you're on his,
    If Jesus showed up now he'd be in jail by next week."
    Motorhead – "Brave New World"

    July 2, 2010 at 2:03 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.