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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. AllisonCA

    Not true I just found another fact: you spelled dimension wrong.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:22 am |
  2. Andacar

    Oh boy oh boy, here we go again. Another obscure scholar leaps into the news with a claim about Christ carefully crafted to be controversial. The devout will immediately leap to the attack, as planned, creating a loud but short lived sensation, while the snotty atheist trolls jump in with their usual irrelevant attacks against religion in general. In a week we’ll have forgotten all about it, and I can go back to church in peace.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:21 am |
    • Andacar

      My sincere apologies for the double post folks...

      July 2, 2010 at 3:30 am |
  3. True Believer

    Following chapter of the Quran would make things crystal clear..

    Chapter 4:
    Verse 156. That they rejected Faith; that they uttered against Mary a grave false charge;

    Verse 157. That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah.;- 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:-

    Verse 158. Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise;-

    God himself has said that Jesus (peace be upon him) was NOT crucified. Jesus was raised unto Him and will return before the Day of Judgment.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:20 am |
  4. Mel

    The the witness by John in Revelation 1:9 would have to be a lie in which it is written:

    I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

    I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

    When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

    Now all who wish to take the words of the witness and discredit them should do so at their own risk. For at the end of Revelation is this statement by which the warning is very clear:

    " And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book."

    The message is clear, whether by 1 writer or a million writers.

    Jesus is Alive

    July 2, 2010 at 3:18 am |
  5. Harvey

    The bible is not a reliable book, It was written to promote just another primative mythology. It has been sliced diced and garbeled for over a thousand years into wild tails of gods god men and fairy tails. The only thing it is good for is to give insight into the primative pre scientific mind

    July 2, 2010 at 3:18 am |
  6. ndundu

    Firstly, remember that the Gospels were written in Greek, not in English. Greek was then the world language. In Greek, it says that Jesus was nailed to a 'stauron'. Ask your Greek friends. How do we translate 'stauron'? Jesus had to carry it, or part of it, Himself. What Samuelsson says, Bible scholars have said all along: no one knows for sure how a 'stauron' looked. One can assume that they were of different shapes and sizes, as you wouldn't have paid much attention to aesthetics if you wanted to execute somebody. From research, we have a rough idea that it might have been T shaped or a kind of cross. The Romans made them from wood, they were rough, temporary artifacts used for killing people and no stauron survived intact. Jesus was 'stauronized' between two criminals. In AD 70, so many 'staurons' were made that the olive groves around Jerusalem were almost depleted. But does it really matter how a 'stauron' exactly looked? When I hear the word 'cross' or see a cross symbol in Christian context, I don't pay too much attention to its shape, I rather remember that a loving, kind, Man laid down His life for His sheep, and that I am one of them (Ps. 23). It will be a good thing for everybody to read the Gospels attentively, meditatively, prayerfully.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:15 am |
  7. Andacar

    Oh boy oh boy, here we go again. Another obscure scholar leaps into the news with a claim about Christ carefully crafted to be controversial. The devout will immediately leap to the attack, as planned, creating a loud but short lived sensation, while the snotty atheist trolls jump in with their usual irrelevant attacks against religion in general. In a week we’ll have forgotten all about it, and I can go back to church in peace. Ho hum...

    July 2, 2010 at 3:13 am |
  8. Pat

    All religion is man made. There are approximately 10^21 stars in the universe. Going with a very conservative estimate that only 1% of stars have planets which orbit them and only one planet per star that leaves 10^19 planets. To think that a god created that many planets but only cares about the one we exist on and only accepts one way of life on that one planet is completely self centered. With that approximation there are more planets than cells in the human body. Each time one of your cells die does it affect you at all? If there is a god it most likely doesn't care about you.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:12 am |
    • Lini

      Al-Qur'an 85:14 And He is the Oft-Forgiving, Full of Loving-Kindness

      I want this verse to be set into people’s minds because it is something that should be on the lips of every Muslim today.
      Almost every non-Muslim in the world today thinks of ALLAH as some tyrannical, blood craving vengeful God, when this is the furthest from the truth. Because their knowledge of Islam is from those who are already prejudice against Islam, they have a poor understand of the God of Islam. God’s love is spoken of in the Qur’an as being expressed through action. It is not merely a word or a feeling. This love is personified to man through his provision to man. He does not simply provide man with the bare necessities like food and water and shelter. But to bestow man with a variety of delicious foods, fruits, vegetables, and drinks, and to illuminate the world with brilliant color and beautiful sound are things which are not necessary. Even greater proof is that God has given man the ability to love and to share with others. He has given man an appreciation for love, for great taste and for beauty. These things show that God gives man more than he needs. This is an illustration of his loving kindness.

      There is also evidence of his affinity for mankind in that we are given morals and ethics and a moral compass,our conscience, to keep us on the right path. Another example is our soul. That immaterial thing inside of your body that is the real you. Through our souls, we experience the world around us and that immaterial soul will be called to account for all that we have done.

      July 2, 2010 at 7:02 am |
    • Winston Sumirsan

      Imagine there is no religion; Imagine there is no war; Imagine there is no terrorism.

      Yup, the religions are human-made. But, there is God and his begotten Son, Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit mysteriously present in all humans' hearts. Why?

      We are not humans being having spiritual experience, but, we are spiritual beings having human experience.

      Since we think that we are human, we define the term religion. If we find that we are spiritual, we will feel God the Father; Jesus Christ has made us realize that sharing His Blessed Life is essentially timeless by the power of Holy Spirit.

      Yup, religion is human defined as long as you think that we are humans, not spiritual beings having human experience.

      Thanks,

      July 2, 2010 at 8:15 pm |
  9. Trevor Willis

    @ Zac 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?

    I don't understand how anyone with a brain wouldn't understand this concept... let alone say this out loud.... FOR GUILTY PEOPLE TO BE PARDONED... A GUILTLESS OFFERING TO SUFFER IN THEIR PLACE FOR PUNISHMENT CANCELS THEIR TRESPASSES. read that again.. over and over and over and slowly so you can understand....

    Jesus was sinless.. he was God in the flesh on earth... Man can't save himself from his own sin, so a price has to be paid to cleanse him of sin. the price to be paid is the blood of the innocent son of man!

    July 2, 2010 at 3:12 am |
  10. nels d

    Wow, I learn so much about religion on CNN. Poor Jesus, why is his fate so unclear by his flock?

    July 2, 2010 at 3:10 am |
  11. AllisonCA

    I just read the entire thread of posts from many contending view points and observed one unifying observation: People don't know how to engage in the art of rational discourse! Someone says " Jesus never existed!" Then someone says " He did!" then someone uses the age of the earth as a measuring stick for the validity of Christianity? Then someone calls someone an idiot because they don't like another person's post!!! What kind of circular reasoning is that? Please site your sources, give examples, don't present opinions disguised as facts and don't use blanket statements like " evidence shows" or "experts say".
    Also a challenge to Agnostics, Muslims, atheists, and even Christians etc: Why not begin by actually reading the entire, and I mean entire Bible? Would you deconstruct Shakespeare's Hamlet before even reading it?

    The comment section on CNN could function as a dialog where we can go back and forth on this topic and converse WITH one another, but instead a bunch of people are talking AT one other. So, I challenge the readers of this article and comments to start over and leave your egos at the door. I seriously doubt a few bored (even myself) CNN.com posters are qualified to solve 2000 years of scholarly debate in one day. This scholar spent three years on one verse ! Whether I agree with him or not, I am humbled.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:10 am |
  12. LaJollaRich

    It appears most of us agree that the story of Jesus as The Christ is a man-made story patterned after the story of Isis & Horus - Ancient Egyptian mythology.

    Now, let's move on out of the Age of Pisces (current age) and prepare for the pending Age of Aquarius. I have a lot of studying to do.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:09 am |
  13. Dude

    and where does it say in the Bible that Jesus (pbuh) is son of God?

    July 2, 2010 at 3:08 am |
  14. mmohammad

    It seems like there are many educated people posting on this forum so I will pose this question. I have always wondered about labeling Christinaity as a monothesitic religion.I understand how Judaism is monothistic religion because they don't consider Moses Son of God and neither does Islam. But in Christanity Jesus is considered Son of God, are Jesus and God the same being or do Chrisitans think of him as son, like in human terms? Or do different types of Christians believe different beliefs about this?

    I am not trying to be offensive/ sarcastic by any means, I am just really curious about how Christians define themsleves in this regard.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:06 am |
    • Winston Sumirson

      My reply:

      If God can create everything and humans, man and woman, why can’t God create Himself as a man to let His unique creatures, humans, know about Him in order to share His Blessed Life eternally.

      Why God create Himself as a man?

      In this world, men are regarded and seen as heads of house, but, in Christianity having equal rights between man and woman.

      If a man who could become head of the house loves God and Jesus Christ with holy spirited body and soul more than any women in the world, then, Jesus himself is the Head of heads of all households in the world. In this sense, we, male humans, are to love Jesus as our Head of the households regardless of single life still or married life. However, priests have chosen unmarried life because they do prefer themselves to be like Jesus Christ who loves God the Father more than any other things in the universe.

      Thank you very much for reading.

      God Bless us all and May Peace of Jesus Christ be with you always.

      July 2, 2010 at 8:06 pm |
  15. dy

    quarry?? if there was no religion?? than im supposed believe that everything would be rainbows and butterflies!!!?? gimme a f-in break; people would replace religion with something else...why do people hate their own race??..i think they just hate themselves and are scared to death at what "JUST IS" and what that could mean 🙁 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Read some physics....physics and critical thinking classes is all i needed to realize there is a GOD....History is bull.... just because someone writes it down doesn't make it true.....be careful what you read...

    July 2, 2010 at 3:05 am |
  16. ForwardTwo

    Mithra was a Persian/Indian god of the 6th century BC. Apparently, he was born of a virgin on December 25th (as were the gods Osiris, Horus, Marduk, Sol, Saturn, and Apollo), a birth witnessed by shepherds, and by gift-bearing Magi who had followed a falling star.

    He became known as the Light / Good Shepherd/ Son of God, and was said to be able to raise the dead, cast out devils, and cure the blind, lame, and sick. Like the god Attis, Mithra was sacrificed at the spring equinox, (Easter, or 'Eostre', being the ancient goddess of spring), rose up after three days, and ascended to paradise (a Persian word). Prior to this, Mithra celebrated a Last Supper with his 12 disciples (representing the 12 signs of the zodiac). In memory of this, his followers would 'eat' their god in the form of wafers and bread (like the followers of Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus.)- Bread marked with the cross, a symbol borrowed from another god, Tammuz.

    Mithra's worshipers also believed there would be a 'day of judgement' when sinners and the 'unbaptised' would be dragged down to darkness...

    The similarities are striking. Religion is nothing more than the Human Mind trying to cope with existence, we need a reason to exist, and a religion gives us one.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:04 am |
  17. AHMET SATAN

    hi, brothers and sisters,
    I am a Muslim we believe the Jesus.ıf we do not believe the prophets , our belief is not completed and we are accepted to be out of Islam.In our book it says" He, Jesus, was not killed on the cross. God, has taken him to the heaven" I am so happy that now some of the Christian brothers and sisters are closer to us. I hope this will help us to understand each other better.

    Take care

    see you in the other world

    July 2, 2010 at 3:04 am |
    • Ben

      i will light a candle for you, but I don't think it will help.

      July 2, 2010 at 8:09 am |
  18. Locode

    The bible is fiction.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:01 am |
  19. artistchd

    YES False Christianity & Fake Christians, plus Islamic Muslims are enemies to Mother Earth Natue's HUMAN RACE!!! My RealiVision vs Religion & Politics says down to hades hell fire with them both....

    July 2, 2010 at 3:00 am |
  20. Star Hopper

    I appreciated the article. I have studied virtually every religion and partake of none, though I am no atheist and honor them all. The only book I've ever read that absolutely clearly answers the confusions about Jesus in the bible is the Course in Miracles. One needn't be a Christian to comprehend it. It's about 'sin' as a lack of love, and the ignorance that is ego/disconnection from Creator/God. One needn't agree as to its authorship either, to gain true recognition of logical input, with Truth spun clearly into form. Bottom line (crucified or suspended), scholarly work is to be applauded toward the solitary purpose of discerning Truth – not for those who wish to use it for attack, rather for all who seek Enlightenment. Jesus is one of many Ascended Masters, and I would have loved to have sat with him, for I sense he wanted to unite humanity. Some say his missing years were spent with masters in India or 'the east' and he gained wisdom there from the teachings of prior Ascended Masters. Does it matter WHO our teacher is if we dare to learn? Why must my Master/Teacher/Rabbi be better or more valuable than any other? I merely seek Truth. Only Truth is True. The rest is illusion. I love the first part of ACIM. "Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Therein lies the peace of God.' Jesus knows, and ours is but a choice to be willing to hear the true Voice for God.

    Bless all the schollars, and all of us who stumble to learn ...... we're all really after the same thing.....

    In peace,

    S. H.
    (who is Greek)

    July 2, 2010 at 3:00 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.