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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. luc law

    who cares really...jesus was a fraud..end of story whether he was crucified or not.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:59 am |
  2. Adam

    I respect this gentleman's efforts. It fills me with questions, however. What about the other two criminals that were supposedly crucified with Jesus? The account in the Bible is that Jesus forgave a thief that was also being crucified and he repented and recognized Christ for who he was and Jesus told him today you will be with me in paradise. Anyway, if Jesus wasn't crucified how'd that convo go down?? Hmmmm.

    That's a Q to all the Christians out there, of course.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:58 am |
  3. 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? If we remove more suffering, do we remove more God?

    July 2, 2010 at 2:58 am |
    • Stocko

      What makes you think that suffering will ever be removed?

      July 2, 2010 at 3:30 am |
  4. MountingLosses

    Like it matters? I couldn't care less how some obviously insane street person was put to death 2000 years ago.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:58 am |
  5. John

    You will know the answers to your questions when you die. Be patient.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:58 am |
    • Stocko

      No, John. I appreciate your concern but my point is we will never know as humanity.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:27 am |
  6. Stocko

    This is it, I swear, the last time I spend hours reading through posts relating to: the meaning of life, does God exist, is religion evil or benefit mankind. We WILL NEVER KNOW UNTIL WE DIE. If you die and pass to heaven (or some type of eternal life) you will know, if not you just cease to exist. You can spout scripture that is most likely made up stuff or believe that we are here on Earth in a very, very, very small chance of happening. IT DOESN'T MATTER! We are on this Earth to be happy, not hurt, and find peace. What is wrong with that as a belief? Although I obviously tend towards the agnostic side of the discussion, I find the atheistic mentally on these posts somewhat disturbing in their vehemence.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:56 am |
    • Stocko

      mentality

      July 2, 2010 at 3:22 am |
  7. Dennis

    Did it ever occur to anyone that atheists are the most sane people on the planet?

    July 2, 2010 at 2:54 am |
  8. sense 11

    Religion is just a way to control people without power. Deal with it!! All Religions are pure BS

    July 2, 2010 at 2:54 am |
  9. Anth

    it is funny that all churches will not discuss the gospel of Thomas or Judas. And there are many others that were proven to be written 150 years after the suspension *crucifixion* of Jesus as opposed to traditional gospels Matt, Mark, Luke and John, which were proven to have been written 500 yrs after the fact. and in these other books, and some of them being from the dead sea scrolls, these not so talked about books will give you the key to knowledge and will give life to what you have suspected or ponder about all this religion built around Jesus. In my opinion, I am pretty sure Jesus wouldn't be of any faith but of his own and certainly he wouldn't of been a Muslim or Christian – Research Nag Hammadi Library – And don't follow man who tells you that this is what god want you to do just because he was nominated by others to be a church authority.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:53 am |
  10. Anth

    hmm, funny all churches, will not discuss the gospel of Thomas or Judas, and many others that were proven to be written 150 years after the suspension (crucifixion) of Jesus as opposed to traditional gospels Matt, Mark, Luke and John, which were proven to have been written 500 yrs after the fact. and in these other books, and some of them being from the dead sea scrolls, these not so talked about books will give you the key to knowledge and will give life to what you have suspected or ponder about all this religion built around Jesus. In my opinion, I am pretty sure Jesus wouldn't be of any faith but of his own and certainly he wouldn't of been a Muslim or Christian – Research Nag Hammadi library – don't follow man who tells you that this is what god want you to do just because he was nominated by others to be a church authority ..

    July 2, 2010 at 2:51 am |
  11. DJH

    Gunnar Samuelsson isn't alone in thinking that Jesus wasn't killed on a cross. There is some evidence that it may have been a straight post. The main reason some argue against the cross is that the "T" shape has connotations coming from other pagan religions.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:50 am |
  12. Anth

    funny all churches, will not discuss the gospel of Thomas or Judas, and many others that were proven to be written 150 years after the suspension (crucifixion) of Jesus as opposed to traditional gospels Matt, Mark, Luke and John, which were proven to have been written 500 yrs after the fact. and in these other books, and some of them being from the dead sea scrolls, these not so talked about books will give you the key to knowledge and will give life to what you have suspected or ponder about all this religion built around Jesus. In my opinion, I am pretty sure Jesus wouldn't be of any faith but of his own and certainly he wouldn't of been a Muslim or Christian .. research Nag Hammadi library .. and don't follow man who tells you that this is what god want you to do just because he was nominated by others to be a church authority.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:50 am |
  13. unmaskd

    Nice work CNN. Now I'm sure you will follow up with an article questioning Qur'an's statements. Which with no doubt will be followed by similar articles on other religions. After all you're an unbiased news network, aren't you?

    July 2, 2010 at 2:49 am |
  14. Christiangirl

    Does it really matter how Jesus died? Doesn't it just matter THAT he died? That's the whole point isn't it...Jesus died for our sins. It doesn't matter if he died on the cross, or any other way, it just matters that he died.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:49 am |
    • Science Soma

      On the contrary, my dear lady, Jesus dying quietly or of a heart condition nullifies the fundamental Christian principle that Jesus suffered greatly to save mankind from their current and future sins. Jesus' suffering is part of the PR campaign employed in gaining followers. The manner of his death is wholly pivotal to your belief system.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:03 am |
  15. Peace2all

    I understand that the article was basically about whether or not Jesus was actually 'crucified' or not, but out of all the time and postings, I have not seen anything that most of the fundamental christians have written, especially @heisgod, that says anything about the real problems and challenges we face in the world today. How does spouting off a bunch of versus from the bible make any of our lives better...? I would like to see us all do what we can to live our lives to the fullest now, whether or not there was a jesus, and whether or not he was crucified, etc.... Makes no difference.....
    Peace....

    July 2, 2010 at 2:48 am |
  16. Robert

    Everyone has their own beliefs but what this scholar is saying about Jesus is what Jehovah's Witnesses have been saying for years:

    Taken for the JW Insight on the scriptures book:

    What does the original Greek reveal as to the shape of the instrument on which Jesus was put to death?
    Most Bible translations say Christ was “crucified” rather than “impaled.” This is because of the common belief that the torture instrument upon which he was hung was a “cross” made of two pieces of wood instead of a single pale, or stake. Tradition, not the Scriptures, also says that the condemned man carried only the crossbeam of the cross, called the patibulum, or antenna, instead of both parts. In this way some try to avoid the predicament of having too much weight for one man to drag or carry to Golgotha.
    Yet, what did the Bible writers themselves say about these matters? They used the Greek noun stau·ros′ 27 times and the verbs stau·ro′o 46 times, syn·stau·ro′o (the prefix syn, meaning “with”) 5 times, and a·na·stau·ro′o (a·na′, meaning “again”) once. They also used the Greek word xy′lon, meaning “wood,” 5 times to refer to the torture instrument upon which Jesus was nailed.
    Stau·ros′ in both the classical Greek and Koine carries no thought of a “cross” made of two timbers. It means only an upright stake, pale, pile, or pole, as might be used for a fence, stockade, or palisade. Says Douglas’ New Bible Dictionary of 1985 under “Cross,” page 253: “The Gk. word for ‘cross’ (stauros; verb stauroo . . . ) means primarily an upright stake or beam, and secondarily a stake used as an instrument for punishment and execution.”
    The fact that Luke, Peter, and Paul also used xy′lon as a synonym for stau·ros′ gives added evidence that Jesus was impaled on an upright stake without a crossbeam, for that is what xy′lon in this special sense means. (Ac 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Ga 3:13; 1Pe 2:24) Xy′lon also occurs in the Greek Septuagint at Ezra 6:11, where it speaks of a single beam or timber on which a lawbreaker was to be impaled.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:47 am |
  17. N.E. Body

    I can accept this one but I don't know if i believe the virgin giving birth to the kid one.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:46 am |
  18. Pastafarian

    The BURNING question is:

    How many meatballs can dance on the head of a pin?

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

      Hmm.. can it be angel meat?

      July 2, 2010 at 3:08 am |
  19. sense 11

    When you get people to believe what they know in their heats isnt true, you got them by the b@11s.

    Religion is just a way to control people without power. Deal with it!!!

    July 2, 2010 at 2:45 am |
  20. Libra

    There's a reason why some movies are considered "based" on true stories. The bible is no different. We ourselves are all guilty of not being able to remember everything perfectly. As believers and non-believers we should not be too critical of the wriiten word. It's the ideas and lessons learned at the end that matter. If the bible is the truth or lies, it has effected every living being on earth. In this fact alone I am greatful.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:43 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.