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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. david

    And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center. Now Pilate wrote a title and put [it] on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. John 19:17-19

    July 2, 2010 at 7:49 am |
  2. Rod

    See, this is a perfect example of why this whole bible written by God thing is ridiculous. A perfect being conveying a message with eternity in heaven and hell hanging in the balance...but the message must be translated over and over again by imperfect beings who can't agree on what the translations really should be.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:49 am |
  3. Gary

    This guys agenda is clear. He wants to promote the false doctrine of "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity." It is basically boiling Jesus down to essentials which are reasonable, and classifying anything that is not reasonable to be a non-essential. Welcome to post-modern Christianity, which is not Christianity at all.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:45 am |
  4. Atheist

    I don't believe in Jesus. and i hate him! *stomps feet and pouts*

    July 2, 2010 at 7:44 am |
  5. jeolsz

    In response to Jesus was raised to Heaven alive: Did he at least use a space ship?

    July 2, 2010 at 7:43 am |
  6. Monster93

    I would love to look his work over and see what led him to his conclusion. Sure the article tells us but I am a strong believer of Trust but verify. Too many people asserting opinions as facts these days.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:35 am |
  7. Robert Tobin

    The Bible was miscopied many times and, at the Council of Nicea, Constantine set up a sub-committee to decide which books of scripture were to be in the Bible. Any they did not like they had burned.

    To make life easy for the "Holey" Roman Catholic Church there are no original authored manuscripts in existence. The accuracy of what we have of the bible cannot be verified. Holy Mother Church can make any outrageous claims it likes. It has no proof Jesus actually existed.

    "Religion poisons everything". "Religion is a mental health hazard".

    July 2, 2010 at 7:31 am |
  8. Leisa

    It may not say it in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, but it does mention it in the New Testament. For example, the Apostle Paul mentioned it many times:
    "But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God."—1 Corinthians 1:23-24.
    "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
    And Peter preached it in Acts 2:36, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ– this Jesus whom you crucified."
    I am sure there are even more references if I were to look them up.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:28 am |
  9. william62

    For all the right anwers, please read Quran & find out what it says for yourself.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:24 am |
  10. ProProv

    From one of the earliest posts:
    Aaron

    This discussion is so mote. All this made up 2,000 year old fluff.... translated and then again "translated" has simply become political power structures with devastating consequence to sensible world order. All of them...

    Did you happen to mean "moot", Aaron? There is only one thing worse than 'aggressive ignorance' and that is...hmmm I can't think of one. Wise up if you want people to take you seriously, which on second thought, is probably ironic, is it not?

    July 2, 2010 at 7:19 am |
  11. DD

    Nothing new here, its been questioned before, even by the original guys who wrote the stuff. Imagine what symbology & icons would look like if Jesus had been hung or burned at the stake.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:18 am |
  12. Brian

    Harvey,
    If we read the Bible, knowing that it was written by people who didn't know what we now know about the solar system, we still get a look at people who love God and who are trying to seek God. We should seek God. Just talk to God in your quite time. Don't get caught up so much in the details, just seek to know your creator.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:16 am |
  13. ProProv

    From earlier:
    Aaron

    This discussion is so mote. All this made up 2,000 year old fluff.... translated and then again "translated" has simply become political power structures with devastating consequence to sensible world order...

    Answer: Do you happen to mean "moot", Aaron? There's only one thing more irritating than 'aggressive ignorance, Aaron, and that is.....hmmmm I can't think of one.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:12 am |
  14. nakquda

    This scholar was looking to contradict a long tradition and belief by the christian people. I, myself, am not a devout christian nor am I a hardline believer in everything the bible says, but as a religious scholar, I can assure you that Jesus was indeed crucified. Given the current stated of Judea and the Roman Empire and their choices of execution, historical knowledge itself would dictate that Jesus indeed died on the cross. A basic knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic reveals that the word "hung" in this context somes directly from the word "cross."

    July 2, 2010 at 7:06 am |
  15. Ren

    Soooo, if it turns out that jesus was hung from a noose, are all you christians going to replace the cross around your neck with a little noose?

    July 2, 2010 at 7:03 am |
  16. Tommy

    Crucifying was actually done on just a wooden stake or the victim was impaled. In the 1400 Vlad Tepes used this technique while fighting the Ottoman incursion into Wallachia. It is well know that the cross was in fact a pagan idol before it was adopted as the holy idol of the Catholic religion. As for Paul, he had never even met Jesus, everything he knew he got second hand.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:01 am |
  17. Jim

    Of course Jesus was crucified, otherwise he wouldn't have challenged Thomas to put his hand in the hole in his side (from the spear) or touch the holes where the nails had been in his wrists (considered part of the hand during that time period) or see the holes in his hands (John 20).

    The crowds called for crucifixion and Pilate gave him over for crucifixion. Oh wait...he only gave him over to be hung like a laundry bag....aaahhh wait...that wouldn't make any sense....

    The very antagonistic Roman historian Tacitus in I believe in the 10th volume of his "Annals" says that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. I guess the Romans didn't know they only hung Jesus like a laundry bag instead of crucifying him!

    This guy has either no clue or he is just looking to make a name for himself. Anyone who has read the gospels and a little bit of ancient history about Rome would never question whether Scripture claims (or ancient Rome admitted) that Jesus was crucified.

    July 2, 2010 at 6:58 am |
  18. Stephen B

    For those interested in the "truth" this may interest YOU! Jesus NEVER died on a cross! He died on a torture stake! In other words a tree or pole. Despite numerous pictures of nails in the palm of his hand, the nails where actually in his wrist. ( "If" they where in the palm of his hands his body weight would have torn right through them! )
    Theres a lot of lies that the catholic faith in particular have taught about Jesus and his death, that have brought the church tremendous amounts of money over the years! Just imagine the money made on the selling of crosses alone!!!

    July 2, 2010 at 6:57 am |
  19. neuron 20 B.C.

    Homework for tonight is to read or reread the Bible.

    July 2, 2010 at 6:45 am |
  20. neuron 20 B.C.

    I was there

    July 2, 2010 at 6:36 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.