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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. Harvey

    Wow the religious kooks are coming out of the wood work!

    July 2, 2010 at 4:23 am |
  2. Matt

    So after reading what seems like a thousand comments it pretty much boils down to this:
    It's possible that instead of a traditional cross in the T-shape that people associate with Christianity Jesus may have instead been crucified on a single pole with no crossbar.... Which really wouldn't change anything theologically for Christians. Nor would it have any influence on non-Christians. So sort of a non-story right?

    July 2, 2010 at 4:16 am |
  3. ndundu

    There are themes in many world religions, which only confirms my faith in Jesus as the One who came in the fullness of times to fulfill the hopes of mankind. 'God did not leave Himself without a witness' amongst the nations. Many missionaries have reported the astounding experience when going to people groups that have not heard the Gospel before, that there was some kind of recognition and happiness that pieces for them at last fell into place and that they could get rid of long-held riddles. These were the origins of churches in many countries. Some however chose to let recognition and riddle co-exist, thereby causing confusion, just like trying to use two incompatible computer program versions at the same time.

    July 2, 2010 at 4:13 am |
  4. Anth

    TrueBeliever thanks for the warning, future militant children.

    July 2, 2010 at 4:11 am |
  5. Anth

    I am pretty sure Jesus wouldn't be of any faith but of his own and certainly he would not of been a Muslim or Christian .. Research the Nag Hammadi Library. Don't follow any 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 4:08 am |
  6. Harvey

    I have read numerous versions of the bible, all contradictory. What you need to do is REALLY READ the bible. Hint, the sun does not stand still and the earth revolves around the sun not visa versa, stars do not fall from the sky to earth, (they are Suns in their universe), there are no unicorns. Believe what you want but please don’ insult others intelligence with mythology as fact

    July 2, 2010 at 4:07 am |
  7. Brandon

    There haven't been any "attacks" on Christianity in the recent years, just its own irrelevance to modern times like any mythology.

    July 2, 2010 at 4:00 am |
    • ybs

      Even horoscopes is not that trashy! 🙂

      July 2, 2010 at 5:33 am |
  8. Harvey

    It is very sad that people need fairtytails to make purpose of their lives/ Education is the key

    July 2, 2010 at 3:53 am |
    • ybs

      Right! He [Gunnar Samuelsson] says, 'his research "ought to make Christians a bit more humble."'

      ha ha ha ha ha ha... Gunnar, keep on researching! Christians need googols more scholars like you!

      Another researcher/scholar once said, "A pile of dung is just that!" 🙂

      July 2, 2010 at 5:27 am |
  9. Chicago Art

    QUESTION: Has anyone ever taken a good look that the Mythicist case (as opposed to Historicist) for the non-existence of Jesus, as evidenced by the fact that Paul, the earliest of the New Testament writers, seems to know nothing of Jesus' life on earth, except that he came, died, and rose? (I apologize if this issue has already been dealt with in earlier posts–didn't have time to read all 700+). Does anyone besides me think it's a very interesting case? (cf., Earl Doherty's "Jesus–Neither God Nor Man")

    July 2, 2010 at 3:50 am |
    • Harvey

      Non of the so called gospel writers were contempories of the god man jesus, no eyewitnesses. No historical writing by the Romans or anywhere else that anything took place with a man named jesus,except the self serving "holy book" fabricated by questionable sources

      July 2, 2010 at 3:58 am |
  10. John of Ephesus

    pwned 😛

    July 2, 2010 at 3:45 am |
  11. Shmuck

    Jesus was never killed, he is still in the heavens and will descend soon as the True Messiah to kill the Anti-Christ

    July 2, 2010 at 3:44 am |
  12. dj

    Roman practice at the time bears out the story, as evidenced by the Giv'at ha-Mivtar site found in 1968. Science does help out the bible from time-to-time, though i think to dwell on details is to run the risk of missing the main message :>).

    July 2, 2010 at 3:43 am |
  13. Stocko

    Oh yes!!! Let the King James Bible save me. All have to do is read it and I will fall on my knees in belief. Oh wait...I am still reading my 1040 and falling on my knees in grief.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:39 am |
  14. Tobias Strauss

    @the article:

    Stauresthai means "to crucify." Its taken from the noun "stauros," which means "crucifix." In Greek, it was commonplace to turn nouns into verb. The "baker" "baked," and the "butler" "buttled." Now, that isn't saying that the actual shape of the cross had to be the traditional lower-case "t" we are so familiar with today. There is evidence to suggest that the Romans also used crucifixes shaped like upper case "T"s sometimes, and that they also used simple vertical poles (the hands were affixed above the condemned's head, and his feet were fastened below as usual).

    @Mike

    Symbols are not universal; the same sign often develops independently across various traditions, carrying very different meanings. The swastika, for instance, was a recognized symbol in pre-Colombus North America, Europe, China, and India. All well before the Nazis.

    If someone is telling you to shun a symbol because its "evil," tell them to take a running leap–If a symbol meant something different 1500 years ago than it does now, then the only people who have a right to be upset about things are long since dead.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:36 am |
  15. Chicago Art

    (Preceding is a reply to Christopher Alan Fields)

    July 2, 2010 at 3:33 am |
  16. 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 3:26 am |
    • Redeemed by the blood

      First and foremost, comments about reading the bible, re-reading the bible, studying the "true history" of the bible are all good advice but one thing must be remembered,

      1 Corinthians 2:13-14 (New King James Version)

      13 These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

      Without the Spirit of God, the bible reads like any other mythological book, full of fantasy and fairy tales, it is the Spirit of God that helps us discern the truth of the word. Those that have recieved this spirit understand what I mean.

      As for the Quran stating that Jesus was not crucified, that sounds strikingly similar to gnostic
      beliefs that sprung up in the few centuries following the death, crucifixion, and ressurection of Christ. The fact that the Quran was written a few hundred years after these beliefs began circulating around some communities leads me to believe that this specific passage from Quarn was influenced by these "urban legends". Read the history people

      July 2, 2010 at 10:21 am |
  17. Mel

    Jesus, in his own words made the statement that he was dead and is now alive forever.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:24 am |
  18. Alex

    So there is ambiguity in Koine Greek words. This is nothing new. Just like when we say death by "the chair", we know the subtle connotations meaning electricution. Future people 2,000 years from now will not, and will have to construct the most probable situation using context and all available sources. This is the same technique scholars use for translating the Bible.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:23 am |
  19. GC

    Mark 15:20,24: "And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, dressed him in his own clothes, and led him out to crucify him ... then they crucified him and divided his garments by casting lots for them to see what each should take." Luke 23:21-25, 32-33: "But they continued their shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him ... with loud shouts, however, they persisted in calling for his crucifixion, and their voices prevailed. The verdict of Pilate was that their demand should be granted ... So he released the man who had been imprisoned for rebellion and murder, for whom they asked, and he handed Jesus over to them to deal with as they wished. Now two others, both criminals, were led away with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left." Matthew 28:5: "Then the angel said to the women in reply, 'Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified.'"

    I guess the scholar misinterpreted Scripture, eh?

    July 2, 2010 at 3:22 am |
  20. Brains

    The scholar says that he believes Jesus was crucified on a cross but that the Bible doesn't say that he was. So, if the Bible doesn't say Jesus was crucified then why the hell would you believe he was? This guy is obviously confused or full of crap.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:22 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.