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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. James

    It was hard to actually put a Hebrew to death at the time. They where protected by law. Jesus, (Yeshua is his real name) was sentenced to death for saying aloud the Holy name of God. MAT 26-64 If you are well read, and understand the laws of their time, and customs, you would better understand this view. And there is even a Jewish Rabbi who believes the same idea and has written on the subject. The priests would not only rent their clothing and react the way they did over Jesus' comment in the verse. Jesus' own name means YAHWEH is Salvation. He brought that message to us. I think this article should be about............ Why have great pains been taken to hide the name of the largest religions GOD. Even in Islam they hide the name. Remember people even though the two religions are very different they both still worship the God of Abraham. LORD and ALLAH are not names, their definition is God, Master etc...... How many time does the Bible tell us how important his name is, how many songs refer to his name.... how many times has the name been replaced with the word lord in the bible? Over 6000 times they have changed the name and use lord instead. Exo 3:13-15 More important things to discuss then whether or not it was a post, cross or hanging of some sort.

    July 2, 2010 at 6:30 am |
  2. michael

    I reply in unison with that truth.
    Impaled is the proper term.
    "Suspended" is very accurate.
    On a "torture stake".
    Not a cross however.
    Let the reader use discernment.

    The result of death could possibly be from suffocation;the hindered lung expansion that would result from being suspended in such a manner.
    Also,imagine your own body weight working against you.
    Jesus was no doubt famished and dehydrated as well.

    What matters,is that he kept his integrity to the end.
    His impalement was a "bruise in the heel" according to prophecy,but his Kingship will prove to be a "bruise in the head" for his chief adversary Satan the Devil.

    The death of Christ is also known as the "ransom sacrifice" as it bought back what Adam lost.
    As a result,those who believe and act according to accurate knowledge can attain to everlasting life.

    The use of the cross in worship stems from the worship of other gods. (that start with the letter "T" Tamuz )
    What's more,the worship of execution devices is prescribed nowhere in the scriptures.
    True Christians memorialize Jesus sacrifice by observing "The Lord's Evening Meal" annually on Nisan 14.

    Graven images cannot hear or speak,so the worship of such things is futile.
    The true God does not give his glory to graven images.
    Instead,we are invited to worship him "in spirit and truth".
    We do so by taking in accurate knowledge of his Son and sharing this truth with others.

    Before his arrest,Jesus said a prayer that included these words....

    You can find them in the Holy Bible at John chapter 17,verse 3:

    "This means everlasting life,their taking in knowledge of you,the only true God,and of the one whom you sent forth,Jesus Christ."

    Feel free to contact Christian Witnesses of Jehovah in your neighborhood for a free bible study to learn more about the wonderful and relieving truths of Gods word the Holy Bible,Jehovah God's loving personality,his Son Jesus Christ and the Kingdom that will bring everlasting benefits to lovers of righteousness in our time.

    July 2, 2010 at 6:25 am |
  3. housellyrandor

    Christians living in the time of Christ depicted his execution as a crucifixion. All the linguistics in the world can't argue with eye-witnesses who spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire within the lifetime of the Apostles, who all depicted Christ's death as a crucifixion on a cross.

    July 2, 2010 at 6:24 am |
    • kmcwilliams

      there are eyewinesses to Bigfoot, alien abductions, and every non-Christian religion on Earth too. Does that mean they are all true?

      July 5, 2010 at 8:54 pm |
  4. ybs

    god, eat me!

    July 2, 2010 at 6:19 am |
  5. Aazim

    The Quran says that they did not kill Jesus, nor did they crucify him

    July 2, 2010 at 6:12 am |
  6. Tim

    The Greek word stauros is properly rendered as "pale" in the interlinears Scripture4all (online) and in the Greek interlinear master text as "stake" in The New Testament in the Original Greek, by Westcott and Hort, as at Matthew 10:38, 16:24 and 27:32, 40. The English word "pale" means "fence stake: a pointed slat of wood for a fence."(Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2005) The Greek word stauros is used interchangably with the Greek word xylon and which is rendered as "wood"or "tree"(in the King James Bible at Acts 5:30) and is used in the Greek Septuagint at Joshua 10:26 for the execution of five kings, and in which the King James Bible reads "trees." Thus, Jesus was not put to death on a "cross", but rather on a "stake" or "upright pole," a "pointed slat of wood."

    July 2, 2010 at 6:02 am |
  7. ybs

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

    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 5:49 am |
  8. miles zarathustra

    If Jesus showed up today, he would be crucified by "Christians."

    e.g. the right-wingers who just took away unemployment benefits in the middle of a terrible economic depression caused by hypocritical "Christians" (e.g. W Bush) who pounded the drums of the war that is now draining the lifeblood of our economy.

    Modern "Christianity" seems devoid of compassion.

    July 2, 2010 at 5:48 am |
  9. Open-Your-Mind

    Qur'an: VERSE:4:157- And [for] their saying, "Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah ." And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain. Rather, VERSE : 4:158 : Allah raised him to Himself. And ever is Allah Exalted in Might and Wise.

    July 2, 2010 at 5:26 am |
  10. M

    Considering how many people never read the Bible and how many believe the Bible is full of errors, this (advanced religious studies) article probably does more harm than good.

    July 2, 2010 at 5:23 am |
  11. ybs

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

    ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha... Gunnar Samuelsson, keep on researching! Hands-down, Christians need more scholars like you!

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

    July 2, 2010 at 5:20 am |
  12. Randy

    We need to stop letting mythology dictate our world views.

    July 2, 2010 at 5:20 am |
  13. George

    Scholar is right, it does not use the word crucifiction, but only suggests it. This is true of most of the bible. You may read that translates into your English bible word perfectly, but you'll misunderstand the steps to get that translation are often faulty, or read in-and-out of context.

    July 2, 2010 at 5:12 am |
  14. Kevin

    So where does Santa fall into this picture?

    July 2, 2010 at 4:57 am |
  15. Bill Kilpatrick

    This is much ado about nothing. The man, himself, says the most likely rendering of stauros is crucifixion and that he's only pointing out that the word isn't limited to that meaning. It makes no difference to me whether Jesus was crucified, as traditionally understood, or impaled, as some have suggested. The problem, however, is that so many references in the New Testament point to the obvious. All of the Gospels say Jesus was crucified between two thieves. Three of those Gospels speak of one on his right hand, the other on his left. John mentions that the soldiers broke the legs of these two, a practice peculiar to crucifixion. Crucifixion also allowed Jesus to mimic Moses whose arms were spread wide, both to part the Red Sea as well as to cheer the armies of Israel on (They prevailed while he held his arms out to his side). When Jesus rose again on the Third Day, Thomas said he wouldn't believe unless he could feel the nail prints in Jesus's hands. Jesus, himself, invited his disciples to handled his hands and his feet. Why would they need to if those same hands and feet hadn't been nailed to something?

    July 2, 2010 at 4:40 am |
  16. ghaytheistssuk

    atheists are the real bs

    July 2, 2010 at 4:33 am |
  17. akm tarike

    as a muslim based on my knowldge time of jesus his name was not jesus why everyone calling him jesus in hibrew isha in arabic isa there will be time people call him as a jesus but he will not look at to them he will say depart from me, based on quran jews wanted to kill him almighty took him to heaven almighty dosent want him to die like that almighty guide them all.

    July 2, 2010 at 4:32 am |
  18. gaytheistssuk

    what do gaythiests know about anything anyway? They are a wsste of space.

    July 2, 2010 at 4:30 am |
  19. Greg

    First, to comment on the article. I thought that every one knew as fact that Jesus was crucified, and also died. What I thought was the point of dispute, was whether or not he actually rose from the dead or not. Of course he did not, but if the Apostles and other friends of Jesus did not make up this story, then his death would have been for nothing. Jesus was a political activist and a martyr. He was rising up against the hypocrisy of the Jewish high priests and the Roman rulers, which were basically one in the same. Resurrection had been a common theme of many religions, even in Jesus’ time. As a matter of fact, the oppressed Jews had been waiting for the “messiah” for a very long time in order to free them from the tyranny of Roman Rule. I believe John the Baptist was actually the “leader” of the group to begin with; this is why he is the one who baptized Jesus. Only after John the Baptist was killed did Jesus become the leader, and he was probably so enraged about all of the leaders, religious or not, and this is what probably made him become so bold in Jerusalem, and throwing his “fit” with those gambling or doing other things he considered immoral being done in a Temple. If it was not the time for the celebration of Passover for the Jews, and there were not many thousands of visitors coming to celebrate this festival in Jerusalem, the Romans may have let Jesus slide. They felt they had to make an example of him for creating such a scene. They were going to keep order no matter what; they had too many people to deal with to put up with something like that. I don’t believe that Jesus himself ever called or considered himself “the Christ”. Maybe his followers did though; in other words, by calling him this out loud, they are the ones who really got him killed.

    It is nice that many of you commenting here know the Bible almost word for word off the top of your head. If this book were not mostly a book of fiction, then I would commend you all on how smart you are, but just the fact that you guys consider all of the events from the Bible to be factual events shows how truly unintelligent you really are. Most of the people in the Bible where actually real people, but nobody really has a clue who wrote any of the books from either the Old or New Testament. Do all of you theologians here even know how and when the Bible was compiled in the first place? As far as the New Testament is concerned, many “gospels” were written specifically just to be put in this “Bible”, and many of the actual stories written around the time of Jesus, or just after his crucifixion, were not accepted as being “worthy” of being put in this “Sacred Book”; they were too “blasphemous”. They were too truthful, and therefore did not portray Jesus as someone that could be considered “divine”, so they were rejected.

    Most of you know absolutely nothing beyond what you learn at church and in this book.
    Hopefully all of you “Bible Thumpers” will start to learn the history beyond this book. Please read about the history of not only the Bible, but about the entire history of the Middle East from Mount Ararat in Turkey, to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt under Moses, to more specifically the cities of Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem around Palestine. This should help you all to distinguish factual events from the Bible, from that which is made up “just for effect”. Thank you all. Have a nice day now.

    July 2, 2010 at 4:26 am |
    • richunix

      Good points, well spoken. Hopefully it did not fall upon deaf ears

      July 2, 2010 at 9:48 am |
    • ScottK

      Yeah, but, but, it says in chapter 12, book 1 of Twighlight that Vampires glitter in the sun, and as everyone knows Ms. Meyers studied vampires, like alot, and so it must be true... an , an you know what? someday theres going to be a vampire werewolf hybrid baby born from Bella and Jacobs children crossbreeding and they are going to totaly be into the bible and stuff, and then they are going to make their own religion for like, sure, and everyone will be welcome even if you are a vampire or a werewolf, or even just maybe like a human and stuff... so you know, whatever is written must come to pass, so sayeth the holiest of holy...

      July 2, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
  20. Ted

    How many religions had a Jesus or Jesus like character? All born on the same day had identical lives! It just a farce sold to us to make us keep out minds closed!

    July 2, 2010 at 4:24 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.