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. artistchd

    YES: here the racist white males go again tryING to justify their false existence of their so name "Jesus" who supposed to be "The Christ". This man is not a true scholar of ancient history, not do he know much about the historical African scrolls. No man has ever existed at all as hunkind's "Lord & Savior"; "Son of God"; as these phony-false Christians profess. The Caucasoid racial groups are "barbaric" and wish to rule the world via fabricated Scriptures..., no matter what the European-Caucasian Bibles claims. They are all racist white supremacy lies of liars!!

    July 2, 2010 at 2:42 am |
  2. JON

    Well you bielieve what you want and in the end we will see , as for me I believe in Christ and All that he is including his written word. If he is not God then I am am fool. If not then you are.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:41 am |
  3. John doe

    ditto Christopher. Ahh yes, the persistence of power and mind control. If only the sheep knew who the herder really was. Religion is truly what holds us back from real truth and progress as a species. Let the cattle retaliate with comments galore. And here – we – Go!

    July 2, 2010 at 2:39 am |
  4. Carl

    Ethelbert Bullinger reported this in his concordance of 1877. I believe he wouldn't have given his (or any) modern translation absolute or definitive status, however. Very interesting, nonetheless.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:39 am |
  5. Science Soma

    Seeking truth is always a worthwhile endeavor as long as you can accept the answer, regardless of what your predispositions may be. I pose a question for the board: If in our future , perhaps 100, perhaps 500 years, we have the technology to be immortal, to replace our biological organs with synthetic ones, to control our physical world in a way that allows us virtual reality at our leisure, to go out and explore the universe unbound – will your concept of God have the same role to these humans? When men can live as a god, what then is God's place? Will we be another backwards society in history that had these myths to help explain our universe because we lacked the technology to understand it?

    July 2, 2010 at 2:38 am |
  6. Kyle Simpson

    I think it *does* matter whether he was impaled or hung on a cross. Unless someone is claiming that being impaled, to the extent that your entire body (and hands and feet) were pierced and hung, would allow a person to hang there alive all day long, then it's contrary to the scriptures.

    Matt 27:45-50 indicates Jesus was on the cross for many hours, until at least 3 o'clock the day of his death. One would have to have a pretty wild imagination to assert that Jesus was impaled on a stake and somehow was alive and able to talk and such for many hours.

    Everything I know about impaling is that it's much quicker (almost immediate it would seem). Moreover, why did the soldiers come and pierce his side if was already severely pierced with the stake he was impaled on? Certainly impaling would have been more than enough to kill him, right?

    The crucifixion was meant more torture than execution (though death was certain), and that's why the Scripture tells us Jesus suffered up there for a long time.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:38 am |
    • Science Soma

      One could pierce hands and feet on a single stake without piercing the body. It would be a very slow way to die. I'm sure Vlad the Impaler (aka Vlad Dracula) must have done it to someone at least once. People were once very creative with death when execution was as much for display as death itself.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:42 am |
  7. Steven

    Yea, and Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy and Kennedy had one named Lincoln? Get the F7ck out of here with your 'Egyptian texts'. You got any more information pertaining to these most hallowed inscriptions??

    July 2, 2010 at 2:37 am |
  8. Steven

    Congratulations CNN! You found some washed up, obscure critic to debunk one of the most honored pillars of Christianity. Did you guys pat your selves on the back, and were high-fives doled out to all the involved parties? When will you people understand, Christians are not your enemies. The people who you need to vilify are radical islamists. THOSE are the ones who are going to take away all your toys and slit your throats. All Christians want to do is have you repent.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:34 am |
    • sense 11

      All Religions are pure BS, even yours sir. Its a way of controlling and dividing people into groups.

      Maybe someday you will realize the truth. Its an amazing feeling that change me and opened my heart to my fellow human beings.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:21 am |
  9. Raymond

    Accept your Islam for your Salvation.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:33 am |
  10. XO

    What is up with CNN, these instigating stories (anti-Christian themes, Gay/Bi coming out of the closest) are pointless otherwise.

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

    Here's a fun experiment. Look at your palm. Drive a nail through the center of your palm like every image depicts. Now try to hang from the ceiling by that nail. Guess what, it rips right out the top of your hand and passes between your fingers!

    Even if he was crucified, it wasn't through the hand it was through the wrist where actual bone would hold the body in place. Every single 'graven image' you're not supposed to be worshiping in the first place is wrong.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:29 am |
  12. XO

    @Josh: He was speared on the side to check check if He was alive. This is in the Old and New testaments. I'll leave the google search to you. This is historically consistent. This was a test to see if criminals were alive or not. If they were, their bones were broken to hasten death. Jews did not want anyone hanging alive during the Sabbath.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:29 am |
  13. darkon

    I just dont understand these comments, the article clearly states further study is required and the fact that the pastor beleives Jesus died on the cross. He is merely pointing out how the word crusified had many different meanings during that time period. The bilbe also indicates Jesus died much quicker than it normally took. However as pointed out in the article crusifixtion still meant a gruesome torturing method. Also those referencing the Koran are not worthy of responding too because that is a man-made relegion that has nothing to do with God in the first place.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:28 am |
  14. WhatIsBeliefe

    To all the "true" Christians: Why do you worship an idol, ie Jesus on a cross. Doesn't that just make you a Pagan or idol worshiper. I guess no different then the Hindus (or anyone else for that matter)- who also talk to God through idols.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:28 am |
  15. Buck Dharma

    TO EVERYONE...The bible is a STORY! None of it happened, haven't you come to grips yet? It is all made up to bring a fear to humans by humans so that you will obey some beliefs and basic principles. There is no shroud of Turin, no Noah's Ark, no "special" chailce which contained any blood. If there were such things, we would have them in some museum by now! You are all ignorant and lambs as this "incredible" story wants you to follow. I espcially like the stoy of having this great flood which will never happen again. Wow, you that believe these miraculous events should really follow something else of greater importance like how to fix our social programs here in the US to help our fellow citizens.. Y'all should listen to George Carlin for some guidance, if you need some down to earth basics on how to govern your life.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:27 am |
  16. Tony

    Ok, so we're led to be that Jesus 'died'. What does it matter how he died? Crucified, hung from a tree, shot, poisoned, what's the difference? He supposedly died for our sins, no self-respecting christian would care about 'how'. Otherwise they're missing the point, the whole basis of their faith.
    This guy wasted 3 years of his life reading all these books for nothing. He was searching for truth in a world of religion. It's a contradiction in terms.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:24 am |
  17. TheVeteran

    Not only do the text clearly state he was crucified, He even foretold it. William Tyndale, the person who translated the bible into english clearly used the word Crucify. Matthew 27:31 "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 27:35 "And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots. 36 And sitting down they watched him there; 37 And set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
    38 Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left.

    There are too many texts that clearly state he was crucified. And when the word crucify is traced back to the original Greek text, it translates to "Stauroo – to impale on the cross; and has roots in the word Staros; a stake, or post, i.e. a pole or cross.
    Impale – to torture or kill by piercing.

    Islam says that Christ did not die, and it is therefore the Anti-Christ, since it tries to take away the remission of sins, and therefore forces people back to working for salvation.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:21 am |
  18. erw

    There's archeological evidence of crucifix, here's some wikipedia . . . The Greek and Latin words corresponding to "crucifixion" applied to many different forms of painful execution, from impaling on a stake to affixing to a tree, to an upright pole (a crux simplex) or to a combination of an upright (in Latin, stipes) and a crossbeam (in Latin, patibulum).[5]

    If a crossbeam was used, the condemned man was forced to carry it on his shoulders, which could have been torn open by flagellation, to the place of execution. A whole cross would weigh well over 300 pounds (135 kilograms), but the crossbeam would weigh only 75–125 pounds (35–60 kilograms).[6] The Roman historian Tacitus records that the city of Rome had a specific place for carrying out executions, situated outside the Esquiline Gate,[7] and had a specific area reserved for the execution of slaves by crucifixion.[8] Upright posts would presumably be fixed permanently in that place, and the crossbeam, with the condemned person perhaps already nailed to it, would then be attached to the post.

    The person executed may have been attached to the cross by rope, though nails are mentioned in a passage by the Judean historian Josephus, where he states that at the Siege of Jerusalem (70), "the soldiers out of rage and hatred, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest."[9] Objects used in the crucifixion of criminals, such as nails, were sought as amulets with perceived medicinal qualities.[10]

    While a crucifixion was an execution, it was also a humiliation, by making the condemned as vulnerable as possible. Although artists have depicted the figure on a cross with a loin cloth or a covering of the genitals, writings by Seneca the Younger suggest that victims were crucified completely nude.[11] When the criminal had to urinate or defecate, they had to do so in the open, in view of passers-by, resulting in discomfort and the attraction of insects. Despite its frequent use by the Romans, the horrors of crucifixion did not escape mention by some of their eminent orators. Cicero for example, in a speech that appears to have been an early bid for its abolition,[12] described crucifixion as "a most cruel and disgusting punishment", and suggested that, "the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears."[12]

    Frequently, the legs of the person executed were broken or shattered with an iron club, an act called crurifragium which was also frequently applied without crucifixion to slaves.[13] This act hastened the death of the person but was also meant to deter those who observed the crucifixion from committing offenses.[13]

    July 2, 2010 at 2:21 am |
  19. Ethan L.

    My opinion is that it doesn't matter what happened in the bible or not. there is not even any proof that jesus actually existed so why has this specifically become a big deal. and still i wonder why this was the headline in cnn's website because right now its just seeming like there is nothing to talk about on the news.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:19 am |
  20. Dante

    Hello world. Jesus just called. He said to say "Why don't you all just STFU and get along?"

    July 2, 2010 at 2:17 am |
    • Winston Sumirsan

      Wow... Jesus said STFU: Save all The Fools in Universe? Great. Why don't you and me start saying everyone "May Peace of Jesus Christ be with you always." Wow... great message... saving all the fools in universe....

      July 3, 2010 at 2:01 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.