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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. Reva Beagle

    I WILL PRAY FOR YOU.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:35 am |
    • ybs

      When you give something to someone who doesn't want it, many relevant terms come to mind... "spamming, r*ping, etc."

      July 2, 2010 at 10:10 am |
  2. Terri

    "Post a comment" surely is a great place for folks to rant and rave. It's nice to have a place to release one's stress. And sometimes these comments are even worth reading! That said, in my now relaxed state of mind, I shall make use of my First Amendment Rights and boldly state -" I BELIEVE IN GOD THE FATHER, GOD THE SON, AND GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT". Done deal.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:32 am |
  3. Shamrock6

    The Bible, The Quran and The Torah are all just books. That's it. They are no more the word of God than what I am writing here. All these religions represent are individual platforms for intolerance, judgment and widespread control. Why do you need religion? Why can't people just live? Do good things because it's what you are supposed to do. Not becuase it comes from some book. Is it really that difficult and scary to think for your self – to be still and just exist? Religion, as it exists now, is a major impediment to humanity moving forward and evolving into a better species.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:32 am |
  4. Magellan

    The fact that Quran has never been revised does not necessarily prove that it contains the original word of God.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:26 am |
  5. Buddah2112

    TAX ALL Religions!

    July 2, 2010 at 8:24 am |
    • Winston Sumirsan

      I think that you don't mind living in a tent outside of Heaven, trying to get contact with Jesus Christ.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm |
  6. Pink Hijab

    Im sorry to say that the Bible is corrupted, it has been "revised" so many times, that is not longer the word of God, but of men as well. Please , open your minds and hearts and read the Holy Quran.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:13 am |
    • Paul

      As an atheist, I'm able to say that, although the Quran doubtless has some credibility of events, when four books written completely separately say the exact same thing, I would probably believe them over the Quran. Plus, Muhammed lived hundreds of years later. How on earth would he know about the death of someone 600 years before him in the middle of the dark ages, when absolutely no written records would have been available in the mainstream? Not that it's his fault, he probably did think that's what happened because he didn't have any opportunity to see evidence to the contrary, but I would be more inclined to go with the Biblical version of events.

      July 2, 2010 at 8:49 am |
    • Jim

      Soryy PH but the Q'ran was written well after the older Hebrew texts of the OT and the Greek texts of the NT were written. We have older texts that show that if any text is off base from what was originally written it would be the Q'ran.

      July 2, 2010 at 9:23 am |
    • Rod

      "My texts are older than your texts. My religion's better than yours. My religion is the only true religion. Without my religion, you're not going to heaven. All others are going to hell." Blah blah blah, and so on and so on. Can you see how a perfect being would not be able to trust man to convey his perfect message? That's why none of you can possibly speak for God...if there is one.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  7. DREW

    He warns of looking for signs, he warns of the none faithful, he say's I should suffer and do it with the joy of my faith, he warns of man's fleash and earthly wisdom will be a stumbling block for those lacking the eye opening internal awakening of the spirit that is within ,do I belief" Heck to the YES "with much joy and fear that keeps me.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:12 am |
  8. Carlton

    Scoffers and mockers of Jesus Christ is nothing new. Self-proclaimed experts and scholars scoff and mock Jesus Christ out of their "OWN" opinions and philosophies because they don't believe in Jesus Christ. The reality and revelation of Jesus Christ only comes to a person who really wants to know him by the power of the Holy Spirit and is captured within the context and principles of the Holy Bible. Just because people don't believe, which are many in today's world, don't be moved by their unbelief. Keep on believing, trusting, having faith and proclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord and let him take care of those who hate Him and don't believe in Him unless their life of sin, unforgiveness, and unbelief doesn't overtake them before they have the opportunity to know Him. "REPENT", for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!!! Only a "FOOL" says in his heart that there is no GOD!!!

    Pastor Carlton C. Evans Jr.
    An unshamed believer in Jesus Christ!!!

    July 2, 2010 at 8:10 am |
    • TK

      Pastor Evans,
      Thank you for the post. As a fellow believer in Christ I am compelled to continue to proclaim the Gospel mesage to all that will listen.
      God bless
      Tim

      July 2, 2010 at 9:09 am |
    • Rod

      Yes, because Pastor Evans relies on your business to support him. Afterall, the church is just another big business. It should be taxed accordingly

      July 2, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  9. Heldenhaft

    It absolutely blows my mind that people can still follow these beliefs.

    Have any of you seen the Hubble Ultra Deep Field? Do any of you realize that we've created a machine that could potentially recreate the Big Bang (Large Hadron Collider)? Why does no one acknowledge that we've cloned organizms?

    No one likes to talk about the bloodshed, either. The Crusades, the Mayans, Native Americans, or any other culture that didn't believe in the Christian God. No one likes to talk about the Inquisition or Tomas de Tourqemada.

    It boggles my mind when I wonder where technology, science, and society would be if it weren't for religious sects burning books and "witches" and all other kinds of nonsense that threatened their beliefs.

    Religion was a way of explaining things we don't understand. That's why EVERY society that ever existed has had some form of a God. Christianity is a melting pot of those religions.

    Have you ever heard of the diety Loki from Greek mythology? Loki had three children and among them, one was a female called Hel. She was commanded by Odin to rule over a location by the same name. Hel rules over vast mansions and has innumerable servants in the underworld.

    The term, "Go to Hell"? It doesn't come from christianity. To "go to Hel" is to die and it comes from Greek mythology.

    Jesus wasn't even born on December 25th. They say he was born March 25th, which is celebrated as the Annunciation. December 25th is the pagan sun holiday for Sol Invictus. The church made a calendar and used cosmic symbolism to choose the date even though they knew it was a day of pagan celebration.

    For those of you who wrote that you were appauled that people didn't know their own religion should take a look in the mirror.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:10 am |
    • Rod

      NIce! Couldn't have written it better myself. But stop bringing that factual nonsense in here. You're dealing with people who base their faith on emotion vs. logic. I don't care if they choose to keep their proverbial heads in the sand and continue to believe this nonsense. I just don't want them making decisions based on this mythology that impact how we govern the masses. We've all seen what carnage can occur when we allow them to do this.

      July 2, 2010 at 9:06 am |
  10. Mark

    Zac: You might want to check out 1 Corinthians, 1:18.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:08 am |
  11. Matt

    The 'bible' is just a fiction book. I am not going to model my life and worship some old fable. That is just plain silly.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:07 am |
  12. Emmitt Langley

    Interesting that the skeptics are asking for "proof" that history is correct. But how does one prove history? If you don't believe George Washington was our first president no matter what recorded history says, I can't prove that to you.

    Compared with other books of antiquity, the gospels were recorded very soon after the events (meaning Jesus' death, resurrection, and crucifixion). For example, the first book about Caesar's life was written over an hundred years after his death, whereas the gospels were only decades later.

    Why the gap? Well ancients didn't have paper or a printing press...and parchment was rare and expensive. So they relied on oral traditions.

    But we do know this, the historian Cornelius Tacitus wrote that Nero was blaming Christians for creating havoc in Rome and his reign had ended by 70AD. So in a period of less than 40 years, you see the fledgling faith had already become a movement that had gotten the attention of the most powerful leader in the world.

    Now of course, skeptics try to say the account isn't authentic (imagine that), but what they're still left with is trying to explain who Tacitus was referring to...no other similar group appears in history. Bottom line is, if you don't like history, you can always deny it.

    But there's no way to prove history except by following the rules that historians have set in place. And if you do that, then the Bible passes with flying colors...but I got a feeling not many of you will let history speak for itself in these matters.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:06 am |
    • Rod

      "So they relied on oral traditions." And this is how truth becomes legend. It's a fact. You can tell several people the same story and have them tell more people. Next thing you know the story is nothing like the one that everyone started out with. So this all goes back to what I stated before. Do you really think a perfect being would rely on man to convey a message that holds eternity in heaven and hell in the balance...and expect that message to be the same over thousands of years? Not a very perfect plan.

      I'm not here to argue whether Jesus was crucified or not. Bottom line is that there are some beautiful teachings that are supposedly attributed to him. Teachings that we could all use in our daily lives to make us better human beings. But Jesus was just a man like you and I. Not the son of God. There's too much left to question for any of this to be a Godly plan.

      July 2, 2010 at 8:56 am |
  13. dxk

    The cheapest and easiest way of getting raid of thugs was to hang them. At that time, Jesus was nothing special and he was given the thug-treatment. Nonetheless, he is the man who leads the biggest social revolution in the World.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:06 am |
    • Emmitt Langley

      Studying history is always more difficult that simply speaking off the top of your head.

      The Romans crucified thousands of people. There was nothing rare about it. They weren't interested in costs. They ruled through fear. That's why they invented the penalty...to inspire fear. And they used it often. It was illegal to crucify Romans citizens but they had no problem crucifying conquered peoples.

      Why would crucifixion be more expensive than hanging anyway? Maybe I'm missing something. Often the Romans simply used a tree.

      July 2, 2010 at 8:14 am |
    • dxk

      You mentioned "crucifying conquered peoples" . This is true. It is a method used for people of importance, not thugs.
      For thugs, a tree and a rope. You missing something...........At that time, Jesus was a thugs.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:22 am |
    • dxk

      Hence, he was hung next to two thieves on the same branch of a tree.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  14. ABC123

    THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST COMEDIES OF THE 21ST CENTURY!!

    July 2, 2010 at 8:05 am |
  15. Abuzayd

    The Creator revealed to humanity this 1400 years ago(nearest meaning in english)::
    "...They said, “We killed the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of God.” They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but the likeness of him was put on another man (and they killed that man)..." (Quran, 4:157)

    July 2, 2010 at 8:04 am |
  16. Abuzayd

    The Creator revealed to humanity this 1400 years ago:
    "...They said, “We killed the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of God.” They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but the likeness of him was put on another man (and they killed that man)..." (Quran, 4:157)

    July 2, 2010 at 8:03 am |
  17. California Dreamer

    Why do we end up with hate and animosity between faiths, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. If they believe in one God, and you believe in one God, might it not be the same God. I find very little difference in the true teachings of all religions, and as stated in the article, our differences come from reading between the lines and forming different interpretations. If God is perfect, as most religions believe, then whether you pray or not, should not have any effect on that perfect love. Does it matter if I pray to God in Jesus' name, pray to Allah in Mohammed's name, or just pray to God and say we nailed the guy to a cross? We need to unite all Chrisitians, Muslims, Jews, etc. and realize religion is just politics bottled differently. It is a vehicle to control your life and gather your money to support some theocracy. It seems that if you are Christian 2/3 of the world will go to hell, if you are Muslim 4/5 of the world will not know paradise, and that is only the two main religions. If God created us, we are all children of God, and he loves us the same if His love is perfect. Then why are we at war? This seems to be very hypocritical. That any religion can say they know the will of God is complete ignorance, as the God of my believe is omniscient, omnipotent, and loving, that no religion can know His will. If there is one God then we are all praying to the same Guy.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:01 am |
  18. J

    What does all this have to do with the one true god, Joe Pesci?

    July 2, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  19. dxk

    At that time, the cheapest and easiest way to get raid of thugs was to hang them. Jesus at that time was not thing special and hence, he was given the thug treatment. Nonetheless, Jesus has been the force for the biggest social revolution in the World.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:57 am |
  20. JS

    A non-Roman executed by the state was typically crucified. The 'scholar' quoted in the article should brush up on his history.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:53 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.