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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. Becca

    I have gone to church my whole life, but until recently I haven't really understand what being a Christian really means. I believe Jesus died on the cross to be the ultimate and perfect sacrifice for our sins. But to me I don't think it really matters how Jesus died. So many people find little things that are in the Bible to debate about and I think it is nonsense. People fight so much about their religion saying I am right and you are wrong. But is that how Jesus would want us to act? I think he would want us to focus more on being like him and walking with him in every step we take.
    I am young, so there are still several things about Christianity that I don't know or understand...but I am trying to learn more every day by looking into God's word. Although there are some things that I don't know there are several things I do know.
    I know God created the heavens and the earth. Man sinned and fell away from him. Nobody is perfect and nobody knows everything except for God. God has a plan for this crazy world and it can be shown through the Old Testament that Jesus was a part of that plan. So God sent His son to live on earth to show us how to live as Christ followers. He died and raised three days later from the grave. He gave his disciples a commission to preach the gospel and then left. But he promised to return some day for those who believe in him. I think knowing those things are really the only things that really matter. Why does it matter how he died or when he died or when the Gospels were written or who they were written by? As long as we believe in God, follow His commands, know Jesus died for our sins, and he will come back to us some day then that is all we need to know.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:10 am |
  2. richunix

    Reality,

    I can pull referenced information from the web on people being executed this year alone, but it doesn’t prove anything other than they died. So your point is?

    July 2, 2010 at 9:07 am |
  3. Jay

    Some people are too smart for their own good.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:06 am |
  4. bill

    This argument will go on for ever. No matter how Jesus died, or the debate whether he was the son of God, people miss the following. If you follow his teaching and his words, you will find an inner peace. Western world would have been different with out his presence.
    To Jews he was he was a traitor, yet the Jew called Jesus spread his beliefs around the world. Why, because he did not discriminate against any nationality or colour. Love Jesus and find peace in this turbulent time.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:05 am |
  5. Bill

    This thing says I am posting comments too fast. Anyway they found the Roman records that the Romans did have it recorded that they crucified Jesus or at least killed his body like he was a criminal.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:05 am |
    • GregB

      Not to play Devil's [no pun intended] advocate but which Roman records are you referring to?

      July 2, 2010 at 9:09 am |
  6. 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 9:04 am |
  7. weallgotone

    Looking forward to the question of did Hitler really kill all those Jews.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  8. Bill

    We have really departed from common sense and are asking scholars if Jesus (Yeshua) was cruxified. They found the Roman records at one point. I would say yes. Phil's comment was good too. Jesus did have the holes in his hands where the nails went in and the hole in his side where the spear went in (the Roman soldiers did that to see if he was still alive because if you are dead, lots of fluid comes out).

    July 2, 2010 at 9:02 am |
  9. Satan

    My work here is done

    July 2, 2010 at 9:01 am |
  10. johnny

    Many Christian's seem hung up on needing the Bible to be verbatum facts rather than a tome of artistic interpretation of the facts. I've always thought Jesus may have had his freedom paid for by his family or followers which saved him from a certain death (thus he rose from the dead). He was probably married. None of this affects the value of the Bible in my life. The Bible's genius is that it gets us on a base level and is an accessible way to discuss/teach morality and consequences. Of course the true believers and the non-followers are polarized about this. It becomes an argument about it being all true or not true at all. I think both are missing the point. Whether or not each detail in the text is factual does not increase or decrease the meaning of the teachings. Creationist arguments suffer from the same skittish reality.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:56 am |
  11. Manuel J.

    Taking an objective view, the Romans left detailed historical data stipulating Jesus was indeed crucified. Scripture simply reinforces this fact.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:54 am |
  12. Phil

    If Jesus was not crucified, why did he instruct Thomas, when Thomas doubted it was him, to put his fingers in the holes in his hand and side?

    July 2, 2010 at 8:54 am |
  13. Shamrock6

    If you need something to worship...then worship the Earth. Treat the planet as a deity and be glad that she gave life to us all. Worship nature as the living force that created everything you see including us. Worship the movement of the stars and our place in the heavens. Become a part of the planet and think good thoughts. Stop bickering about things which do not matter. It matters not who lived 2000 years ago, why they lived, what they did etc. There is only now....forever. Think peace, be still...love the planet. Gaia.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:45 am |
  14. California Dreamer

    Why is a belief in Jesus mandatory to enter heaven? If God is the perfect being, as described in most religions, then He must be aware of the comings and goings of all His children. Take the bible as a nice novel, compiled by many scholars, as is the Q'ran. If it is the word of God, as he speaks to me, then it should not need an interpretation from any biblical scholar, as that is now the interpretation as seen by him. Every time a work of literature is translated the interpretation of the translator is represented within the new literature. The bible and Q'ran have been translated by so many different scholars that it is now a watered down version of the original thoughts that went into the original writing. Enjoy your life, but quit killing everybody that does not believe as you do, and saying it is in the name of some God you don't have a clue about, is just plain stupid.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:45 am |
  15. richunix

    Teri and the Loc Ness monster, Santa Claus...and little green men. So pray tell what is the litmus test for proof. Or can anyone claim to be a god? Considering we have not heard hide or hare from ANYONE in the God department since 30 CE and please avoid man-made fallacy like "It is written you shall not temp your god" Nice, such comments are like "Have you stop beating your wife?" It easy to make conditions that cannot be proven or disproven based solely on words.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:43 am |
  16. Derek

    Thank you Internet for providing this amazing forum for the discussion of Religion! 😛 Brothers, I love Jesus too, but just like I wouldn't have a critical discussion with my wife over instant messanger, I wouldn't have a serious dicussion over Christ through short messages that can be percieved by the reader in what ever tone they choose. If you want to post something, post the Word and pray the Holy Spirit does his work.

    In Christ,
    Derek

    July 2, 2010 at 8:42 am |
  17. Carl

    Yet another article by the progressive/socialist-run media as another attempt to marginalize belief in God. Belief in God is completely contrary to their agenda that ultimately depends on people's dependence on and belief in government. Don't buy into their crap...and that's all this is really – CRAP.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:40 am |
  18. Scott

    Hey... here's something to think about... if Jesus was moving at the speed of light when he supposedly ascended into heaven, he's just now, some 2000 years later, reaching the edge of the milky way galaxy... No wonder he hasn't come back yet, he's got a long, long way to go.

    Science and reason. Try a little, a free mind is a liberating thing, indeed.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:39 am |
  19. Carlos in Brklyn

    Jesus, was sentenced as an enemy of the Roman state. The Romans were quite adept at dispensing capital punishments in their day. They had a whole long laundry list to choose from . However, for those considered enemies of the state there was one very "special" one reserved. The cross was meant to serve as a warning to all those thinking about causing unrest within the empire. Jesus' actions were a serious problem for Pilate in that His actions (Jesus) were causing some severe unrest to the order of things within Judea, especially within Jerusalem itself (the local religious authorities that Pilate needed to help keep the peace). Rome was dealing with a growing rebellion against her rule in the area ( the two so called criminals next to Jesus were jewish rebels/insurgents, and not common law breakers as many believe ). Pilate had no choice but to crucify Jesus . It was the only "reasonable" sentence that could have been dispensed considering the "crime", and the political climate at the time. If you dared upset the order of things within the empire you were given a long ,agonizing and public death that was meant to dissuade others of your "folly" . That was the point of a roman crucifixion.

    Notice all, no religious arguments here. Just a cold hard analysis of the trial and Roman rule.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:37 am |
  20. TruthSeeker

    the bible
    written by man
    edited by man
    proclaimed to be the word of god.....by man.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:36 am |
    • ybs

      interpreted by animals! 🙂

      July 2, 2010 at 8:38 am |
    • Winston Sumirsan

      Faith in Holy Trinity:

      Felt by the holy spirit
      Touched by the caring heart
      Exposed by the pure soul
      Engraved in the destiny of believers

      For Believers in Jesus will imitate Jesus to be in the circle of divine eternity, sharing God's Blessed Life.

      However a human tries hard to be able to enter to Heaven, if there is bridging of the Jesus' hands from sinful human world to holy spirited divine life on the cross, the human will not enter Heaven.

      God will not send humans to enter Heaven or to go to hell. Humans themselves will choose.

      Thanks and may peace of Jesus Christ be with you always. May you find Jesus Christ who is the truth for all truth seekers.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:32 pm |
    • Winston Sumirsan

      Faith in Holy Trinity:

      Felt by the holy spirit
      Touched by the caring heart
      Exposed by the pure soul
      Engraved in the destiny of believers

      Believers in Jesus will imitate like Jesus to be in the circle of divine eternity, sharing God's Blessed Life.

      However a human tries hard to be able to enter to Heaven, only if there is bridging of the Jesus' hands from sinful human world to holy spirited divine life on the cross, the human will enter Heaven.

      God will not send humans to enter Heaven or to go to hell. Humans themselves will choose.

      Thanks and may peace of Jesus Christ be with you always. May you find Jesus Christ who is the truth for all truth seekers.

      Sorry for the typos in the previous comment.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:34 pm |
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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.