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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. MIke

    If you refer to a book "Secrets of Golgotha" by Ernest L Martin you will be very enlightened. He approaches this very issue going back to Old Testament prophecys about Jesus. One of the things he mentions was that "He was hung on a tree". No I don't have the book, chapter and verse in front of me but it can be looked up. But his explanation does make sense and it is not stepping on anyone's doctrine toes.
    For his research, the Romans did crucify Him but not on a standard upright. They made Him carry His crossbeam to Golgatha(the Mount of Olives) and for expediency hung His and the 2 criminals with him from the olive trees on the mount with Him facing the temple. In his explanation it does make sense since His prosecution and conviction happened so fast. This was not a common method of death for regular criminals so they just did not have alot of uprights lying around waiting to be used.
    Yes He was crucified. Yes He REALLY did die and Yes He REALLY did rise again. and Yes the details surrounding the events can be discerned with a little of thinking outside the box.
    It is a very eye opening book. It will make you look at the Last Day in a very different light.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:27 am |
  2. I love Jesus

    Our God is stronger
    God you are higher than any other
    Our God is Healer
    Awesome in power
    Our God
    Our God

    And if our God is for us
    Then who could ever stop us
    And if our God is with us
    Then what could stand against

    July 2, 2010 at 9:24 am |
  3. Realist

    Let me just say it first: Yes I believe in God, and I certainly believe the events in question happened. Now to my point.

    The bible as we know it today is not 100% reliable. For the first 20-150 years, the stories and facts that make up our bible were passed along by word of mouth all over the Arabian sub-continent until they could be written down. Now, for a moment, liken these narratives to campfire stories. We hear such a scary or funny story and retell it whenever the situation is suitable. However, we add in just a little bit of extra detail to make the story that much scarier, or that much funnier. The story you have now told was passed on to others. Over time, you may eventually be told the same story, one with different characters and one that takes place in half the time in a different place.

    So what am I talking about? Long story short, the "popular" numbers of biblical times and after were 3, 4, 7, 12, and interestingly, 40, among others. Look it up yourself. My point is that yes, a ton of very special things happened to our ancient ancestors, but exactly what happened to whom and when and where may never be known. Christians didn't make up stories to suit themselves, time did.

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

      Did you forget Jesus Christ’s promise to the Apostle’s that He would send the Paraclete who would guide them and bring them to remembrance all that He taught them and that He kept that promise? No, there is nothing added or changed with time concerning Truth.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:00 am |
  4. George

    Christian's follow Christ, not only his word but his principals. Not to bicker, and not to wait in public forums like these to remind others that they right, and that you are wrong. Many will call themselves Christians, and very, very few will ever understand what it means, unfortunately.
    \

    July 2, 2010 at 9:22 am |
  5. Satan

    Come on over...plenty of room.....

    July 2, 2010 at 9:21 am |
  6. T. Regan

    I believe in the Holy Scripture. It is fine if you do not believe, because you have chosen not to believe. If you say it's a myth, that is a choice that you have made. The Scriptures are Truth. If you chose to reject Truth, it is your choice. I will not badger you or insult you because of your choice. I think it is good that people challenge what is believe to be historically accurate in the Bible or in other history books. But don't demean either side. Present proof. Debate is good, not insults. Those who insult show their ignorance. Ignorance is immoral, bad, evil, etc. No matter what it is darkness.

    – In His Service

    July 2, 2010 at 9:21 am |
  7. Yep

    Whether or not Jesus died on a cross, or lived and died at all, we must realize that the Bible is a literary work, a storybook - it is a metaphor for the inner battle that every human faces. It should not be interpreted literally.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:21 am |
  8. Samuel Curalov

    Ok wait until MY SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST COME BACK so HIM will show HIS hands

    July 2, 2010 at 9:21 am |
    • GregB

      ...and I'm waiting for Santa Clause to come on Christmas eve and show me all the presents he brought me?

      July 2, 2010 at 9:24 am |
  9. steeve-o

    Yes, we knew that. Saw that South Park episode. how is Saddam?

    July 2, 2010 at 9:20 am |
  10. ThsIsNotReal

    Pointless article. Regardless of whether the specific verb can mean only crucifixion or not, it's clear Jesus was crucified. Everything from the breaking of the thieves' legs, to the spear in Jesus' side, to the nail scars He showed to Thomas after His resurrection, is all clearly specified in the gospels, and it's all consistent with crucifixion.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  11. TatoMudre

    Carlos of Brklyn makes a good point. Crufixication was the standard punishment for the crime was it not?.
    Although we don't have absolute proof is there reason to belive that the excetution was somrthing different?

    July 2, 2010 at 9:15 am |
  12. Carlton

    It's time for the true believers in Jesus Christ, not religious people, to demonstrate the agape love, authority, and power to the entire world!!! This can only be accomplished by grace through faith in the power of the Holy Spirit!!!

    Pastor Evans

    July 2, 2010 at 9:14 am |
  13. Be Real

    How do you know I'll go to Hell. Just because some guy in a robe to you. Please.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:14 am |
    • ApeHanger

      Everyone knows you're going to hell, since, as Billy Joel sang, you'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:42 am |
  14. GregB

    This is the same logic that keeps humanity in mental shackles and the same logic that will send us back to the Dark ages at the hands of your religious leaders.

    Learn to always questions your beliefs and your authority figures or you're no better than some goose-stepping Gestapo soldier.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:14 am |
  15. katherine, k?

    come on, really. its all just a metaphor to symbolize what it means to live and what it means to die. beautiful art, christianity. beauitful literature. all symbolic metaphors.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:12 am |
  16. lilmorse

    Luke 23:33 And when they were come to the place which is called Calvary, there they crucified him....
    You may not believe it, but don't say it isn't written

    July 2, 2010 at 9:11 am |
    • BigPicture1234

      You are missing the point. This guys research indicates that in the original texts the act of crucifixion as we think of it was not specified. It is in the many flovors of the NT now because it has been put in there, but he does not find the term in the originals. Mr. Google can't help with this one, unless the original texts are available and you can read ancient Greek.

      July 2, 2010 at 9:25 am |
  17. hasc

    The Gospels say that even when Thomas expressed doubt that the resurrected Jesus was who he said he was, he was shown the wounds in His hands, the marks of crucifixion, not of impaling. Knowing that and the fact that crucifixion was a common execution method employed by the Romans, what grounds are there to change the story, other than some off-the-wall scholar needing to draw attention to himself?

    July 2, 2010 at 9:11 am |
  18. Be Real

    Is it possible that this never even happened and Jesus never exisited at all? Is the Bible just a work of fiction. There were probably 2 monks writing this stuff down and one looked at the other and siad " Do you think someone will believe this stuff some day?"

    July 2, 2010 at 9:11 am |
    • Becca

      A year ago I would have told you yes...maybe this stuff about Jesus wasn't real. In an earlier post I said I have gone to church my whole life which is true, but last year was the absolute worst year of my life. And I couldn't help but wondering how could an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God who sent His son to die for me exist if He was putting me through all of what was going on. But through that whole time I knew there was something missing in my life. Deep down I knew God was the answer but I refused to admit it until I started going to a small Christian college in the fall. And I changed. I can't explain what happened, but all I know is through a conference at the school God spoke to me in so many ways. You can't understand what I mean until it happens to you. And maybe it has, I don't know what you believe. Wherever you are at in life is fine. I can't give you all this Christian history or Biblical interpretations but I can tell you what I know to be true because of what God has done in my heart this year. I know that the change that happened in me wasn't some freak accident or something done by me, but it was God. Nobody knows all of the facts and why God does the things He does, but if we did then God wouldn't be God. If God wasn't real and if His son didn't die for us then what other hope do we have? What is the point in being a good person? You can't rely on facts alone, which is what a lot of people do. Yes, they are important but you also have to leave room for faith. Without having faith you can't really believe in God.

      July 2, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  19. BigPicture1234

    If God is love, and if all humanity are God's children, shouldn't there be unconditional love and grace for all mankind? Why are we arguing the trivia?

    July 2, 2010 at 9:10 am |
  20. Boka

    Acutally Jesus was dumped in boiling tar. But the crusifix looks cooler so christians adopted that. No one wanted to where a small little barrel around their neck.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:10 am |
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