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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. Toby

    Faith is the belief in something for which little or no evidence exists. It is, therefore, fair to say that the mere fact that no one has ever actually witnessed the resurrection of a dead human being, much less met and talked to a god and definitively ascertained that he indeed exists and has a son named Jesus is about all the evidence I need to dismiss such claims as the fantastic invention of man.

    July 2, 2010 at 10:33 am |
  2. John G

    Who cares whether he was crucified or not – the real question is whether he even existed. There is absolutely no, and I repeat, no evidence that he ever did. The gospels were all written decades after his alleged death. There are no contemporary accounts of his existence. None. No Jewish historians, no Roman records. Nothing. What there is, however, is a remarkably similar story in Zoroastranism that pre-dates the Jesus myth by a thousand years or more (virgin birth, son of god who is killed and resurrected, etc. etc.).

    July 2, 2010 at 10:28 am |
  3. Eric

    John is a trustworthy eye-witness who himself personally interacted with Jesus.
    …which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched… (NIV) 1 John 1:1

    July 2, 2010 at 10:27 am |
    • John G

      Sorry, but that doesn't match up with history. John can claim that he interacted with him personally, but history shows his account was written some 60-70 years after Jesus' alleged death. That's a real problem with Christianity and religion in general – an unwillingness to look critically at their holy texts, what amounts, basically, to faith...

      July 2, 2010 at 10:31 am |
    • Eric

      When speaking of John's testimony, what source has made you doubt its historical reliability?

      July 2, 2010 at 10:42 am |
    • Reality

      See Father Raymond Brown's 800 page book, An Introduction to the New Testament, for what is known about the authors of the NT. Contemporary exegetes have concluded that the authors were not eye-witnesses. Said book has both a nil obstat and imprimatur.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:44 am |
  4. Jerry C

    Using a different meaning of a word and then re-interpreting it with a new translation is a joke. I will rely upon the translation all the experienced scholars King James employed via three groups who actually believed they were handling the Word of God. That, and along with much prayer, fasting and study ON MY OWN. GOD will lead you from there, not man. P.S. Studying the book of Esther in the origianl hebrew on acrostics helped me to put faith in in the Bible.

    July 2, 2010 at 10:17 am |
  5. Eric

    Please consider, the accounts of Matthew and John are eye-witness testimony.

    July 2, 2010 at 10:14 am |
    • GregB

      Please consider, none of the writings in the Bible are eye-witness accounts. They are all, at best, second hand accounts.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:18 am |
    • Reality

      See Father Ray 800 page book, An Introduction to the New Testament, for what is known about the authors of the NT. Contemporary exegetes have concluded that the authors were not eye-witnesses.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:36 am |
    • Satan

      so was O.J.'s testimony......

      July 2, 2010 at 10:36 am |
    • Reality

      See Father Raymond Brown's 800 page book, An Introduction to the New Testament, for what is known about the authors of the NT. Contemporary exegetes have concluded that the authors were not eye-witnesses.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:38 am |
    • Eric

      Does anyone have a link to Father Raymond Brown's "An Introduction to the New Testament" specifically page 800? Thanks

      July 2, 2010 at 10:48 am |
  6. TJ

    How can you believe anything and you are you aren't sure of the writer. It is all fiction, do you also believe in Zeus? Riddle me this..who wrote Genesis?

    July 2, 2010 at 10:07 am |
  7. Seeingisbelieving

    Have you ever played the whisper game? The one where you whisper something in a persons ear, then that person whispers into another persons ear, continuing this trend until the entire room has had a chance to hear the secret. Well, imagine doing this over a span of 2000 years in several different languages, influences of power, political controls, cultural clashes, etc etc etc....How many of you think the "whisper" is accurate?

    July 2, 2010 at 10:04 am |
    • Winston Sumirsan

      Believing the seeing will never let you get what you want because you never get what you see.

      If there are no humans in a forest, then a tree falls down. Will there be a sound?

      If you define sound as waves of vibration that will hit into humans' ears that are working well, so humans will hear sounds and recognize as sound... there will be no sounds.

      If you define sound as waves of vibration of air particles that are capable of shaking human's ears if humans are present... there will be sound.

      Seeing is believing... It depends on how you define seeing.

      For humans who can see will not see and humans who can not see may see.

      May peace of Jesus of Christ be with you always.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:02 pm |
  8. Gary

    As an agnostic ,I believe he was crucified. Crucifiction and other means of torture were common during that era. Actually torture and cruel deaths is common still in middle east and around the Mexico/American boarder too.

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

    @JESUS

    Hello and Peace everyone, Jesus was neither killed nor crucified, but rather he was raised alive up to heaven The Qur’an states VERY CLEAR: 004.157 That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of God";- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:-

    004.158 Nay, God raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise;-

    004.159 And there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in him before his death; and on the Day of Judgment he will be a witness against them;-

    Wake up muslims! Repent! Everyone walks on egg shells when confronting muslims. Well as a soldier for Christ Jesus I do not. Allah is a false God. Christ is the only way. There is no 72 virgins and your Qua'ran is another attempt by satan to distract people from the truth.. Your radical jihadists can kill as many people and christians as they want. Islam could even try to force itself to be the world religion. But it does not matter nor does it make it true.You can kill the body but you cant kill the soul. God will have His revenge on you in the end. All you other doubters are also deceived by satan. So some empty headed "scholar" makes a claim, declares it as truth and you all say; " see this guy said Jesus wasnt crucified I believe him." Look, if you dont want to follow Christ dont follow Him. But quit with all your excuses! There is one truth out there. Someone is going to be correct. One thing is for sure....it is not Allah based on "Moo"hamad and the Qua'ran, Buddah, Hinduism,evolutionists, athiests, JW's, Mormons,.....all deceptions created by satan to distract from the truth. Oh lets throw in christians too. Carnal christians. Oh...and with all due respect Muslims whether you like it or not, Israel mand the Jews are God's chosen people. You will not ever destroy Israel. You are dropping hot coals into your lap when you mess with Israel. God will destroy you. Creating caos does not speed the coming of the False "Mahdi" but speeds the coming of Jesus. Oh...in conclusion...Jesus died on the cross. All of you out there in selfish land; there is still time to Repent and find the Truth. So go ahead, tear this post apart with your foolish worldly comments. It does not matter. I serve the one and the only Savior of mankind; Jesus Christ.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:58 am |
    • GregB

      This is one of the scariest things I've ever read. Your logic and reason are the causes of most confrontations and hatred in this world. You're a walking disgrace to humanity.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:09 am |
    • TexinVA

      And blah blah blah blah blah mumbo jumbo oogah boogah to you too. What a dope.

      July 2, 2010 at 10:43 am |
    • Leah (TXanimal)

      Buddhism & Hinduism predate the Jesus myth by thousands of years. What point, exactly, are you trying to make? YOUR words, not Bible verses or a regurgitation of something you heard your pastor say.

      July 6, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
  10. LRoy

    Faith and beliefs are not just based on what is in the Bible, but also by tradition for over 2000 years. Before there was the written WORD there was tradition, which is also based on God's truth which never changes.

    Somebody is going to rot over this one.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:58 am |
  11. GregB

    Yes, it says the word "crucified" in more than one place in the Bible. If you're still quoting scripture passages pointing this out, than you missed the entire point of the article.

    He saying that the word "crucified" was a mistranslation in not just one place in the Bible but ALL of them. Why is this such a hard concept?

    July 2, 2010 at 9:46 am |
  12. William62

    The scriptures revealed to Moses, Jesus & Mohammad are from the one & the only creator of the heavens, the earth & all that's in between. As the Tora & bible have been revised by men,they have mixture of Gods revelations & human additions. Whereas Quran has never been altered, as it was revealed when writing material, ink etc were available. PLEASE READ QURAN & GET FACTS FOR YOURSELF. JUDGE FOR YOURSELF WETHER IT TRUE WORD OF ONE & THE ONLY CREATOR.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:46 am |
    • TexinVA

      ALL religions are just archaic myths written thousands of years ago by primitive cultures. Get a brain and stop believing in silly fairytales. The ignorance of the average person never ceases to amaze me.

      July 2, 2010 at 9:49 am |
  13. LilRdVet2

    Zac Schneider said:

    This is all arbitraty okay? I still find it hilarious that everyone believes that Jesus died to save us from ourselves, so now we don't have to follow his teachings. Why focus on his death when it was meant to accent his life? We could be up in arms or schisming or hating other religions, but that would not be what Jesus actually wanted. He wanted love and a spirit of brotherhood between all people. He didn't say that the way to achieve this would be to kill everyone in your way, as the means would totally corrupt the ends

    Me: Jesus was a perfect man...humans are not...thus the reason for His sacrifice. If Jesus was not crucifed, there would have been no need for Him to ask (doubting) Thomas to look at His hands after He was resurrected...That's the only proof I need...the Old Testament prophesied His manner of death...the Jews demanded it, the Romans merely carried it out...as for Islam's "version" of Jesus' death...of course it would have to be told that way for the sake of their own prophet...but I can tell you this...Jesus' grave is empty, Muhammad's is not...Jesus died for his sins, too...

    July 2, 2010 at 9:46 am |
  14. Eric

    This is what I found in the Bible (NIV):
    Matthew 27:35 ...when they had crucified him...
    Matthew 27:38,44 ...crucified with him...
    Matthew 27:40,42 ...come down from the cross...
    John 19:18 …here they crucified him…
    John 19:23 …When the soldiers crucified Jesus…
    (Please note: This is eye witness testimony from Matthew and John)

    “We need to… read the Bible." Gunnar Samuelsson

    July 2, 2010 at 9:43 am |
    • TexinVA

      Mmm...you obviously didn't read the article very well did you? It says in the "ORIGINAL" Greek, Latin etc. it doesn't say crucified. Of course it says that in the English translation. The point the guy was trying to make was that it was translated wrong. Duh!

      July 2, 2010 at 9:45 am |
  15. TexinVA

    Who freaking cares anyway?

    Christianity: The belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree. Otherwise you'll be tortured forever by an invisible red guy with horns and a tail.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:39 am |
    • Brian

      Yep, that about sums it up.

      July 2, 2010 at 9:51 am |
    • bahbahblacksheep

      ok so I've been studying ancient greek in school and I translated John last year. So, as one who has actually read THE ORIGINAL TEXT IN THE ORIGINAL LANGUAGE, I can attest to the fact that stauresthai did not mean "to crucify" at the time of the gospels' writing. I know this because I have a lexicon, unlike some postings on here who seem to only have their beliefs (or, more accurately, the Catholic Church's beliefs). Garry Wills, above, does not seem to be familiar with etymology and the fact that, well, it exists. Stauron came to mean cross only AFTER the gospels were written, making it utterly useless as a definition if you're looking for a literal translation of the gospels – which is what it sounds like Samuelsson was trying to do.

      However, I don't really know what the big deal is for some of the people on here. There are a number of terms used in the gospels that have various meanings besides (and sometimes counter) to the ones expounded by the Catholic Church, it's just that this is the only one that has been brought to your attention. I am not stating an opinion, but rather a fact. These are empirical observations and, as such, cannot be disputed (unless, of course, you are in the habit of dismissing physical evidence in favor of a comfortable yet unsupported belief in a desperate attempt to clutch at the one delusion you've found helps you sleep at night. like a cozy, ignorant baby). In fact, the first reference to Jesus in John ( a well-known verse), "In the beginning was the Word", gave my language class a rough time interpreting. the Greek term used for "word" was "logos", a notoriously ambiguous term. The translation could have just as easily read 'in the beginning was the thought" or "in the beginning was the computation". The context used to determine how to translate it was taken from other books in the bible, but not the gospels, John's context leaves it just as ambiguous.

      Also, an interesting sidenote: The gospels are seriously concerned with Jesus "fulfilling the words of Isaiah" (Isaiah from the Old Testement. You know, that OTHER part of the Bible). Isaiah was the prophet that prophesied the coming of the next prophet (the account is in the Book of Isaiah, if you would like to reference it). But anyway, the gospels are awash with lines like "to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah" and "so that the prophecy of Isaiah would be fulfilled", etc. However, one of the KEY components to Isaiah's account of the next prophet was that he would be "of the blood of David". NOT "the line of David", but blood. (look at the original Hebrew, not the King James translation) The gospels proudly proclaim that Joseph, Mary's husband was of the blood of David. Well that is frickin awesome, except that Jesus was concieved Immaculately- No blood of Joseph (and therefore, of David) flowed through his veins. Now you could dismiss this as "that's only one thing, who cares?" THE GOSPEL CARED. The evangelists cared A BUNCH. they went out of their way to point out the various instances where the prophecy was fulfilled. However, in this instance they fall short. It is almost as if Isaiah wasn't foretelling the coming of Jesus at all.....

      July 2, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  16. saint4God

    It is important for people to read the whole gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and/or John, take your pick) with an open mind and heart to see for themselves what is does and does not say instead of reading what someone else who read it thinks.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  17. ruben

    this is what God doesn't want for us to argue about who's paulism or jesuits but to believe. All over the bible God is trying to teach us about the abomination of worship Image but what we run to exactly to it if the the cross was really a cross or it like capital T or lower t the Lord Jesus live us a message to avoid all this abominations witch's FAITH many of you don't no the meaning of this word, but the majority of us have to see something to believe poor souls have faith that is all you need and love God over all things and your neighbor as you love yourself. May the Grace of the Lord pour in all your heart peace brothers and sisters.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  18. GregB

    While we're on the subject of bible irregularities and since quoting the Bible seems to help validate your argument, here are some simple Bible quotes regarding the resurrection. Am I the only one who seems a dilemma here?

    Matthew 28:2-4: And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door,[a] and sat on it. 3 His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.

    Mark 16:5: And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

    Luke 24:4: And it happened, as they were greatly[a] perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments.

    John 20:4-14: And he, stooping down and looking in, saw the linen cloths lying there; yet he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; and he saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who came to the tomb first, went in also; and he saw and believed. 9 For as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went away again to their own homes.

    All different stories regarding the same situation – a situation that is the cornerstone of the entire faith. I'm not even going to bother mentioning the differences regarding who actually went to the Tomb, since each gospel claims different eye witnesses.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  19. Big Ben Utah

    I feel that most of the posts above are taking the article out of context. The scholar who is the subject of this article is not denying that Christ was crucified...only that the New Testament gospels don't specifically say he was crucified or that the word used in translation is one that is more general and COULD mean death by means other than specifically crucifiction.

    In the end, you must rely upon your own faith to understand these things. "...faith is things hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trail of your faith." Ether 12:6

    The Epistle of James in the New Testament give specific advice on how you can have a better understanding of these things. "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed." James 1:5-6

    The fact remains that none of us can be exalted (or saved) without overcoming physical and spiritual death. This is where the laws of Justice and Mercy come in to play. God must live and act within the the laws of the universe. Every action has a consequence...good and bad. Christ's atonement in the Garden of Gethsemane all the way to his death was an intercession on our behalf. He took upon himself the sins of every person that had lived on the earth before him...including Adam; and took upon himself the sins of every person who would be born on the earth after him. This singular moment satisfied the demands of justice within the laws of the universe. So, in the eyes of the God...we are all without sin.

    Through Christ's resurrection....we have all been guaranteed the ability to overcome physical death. But....to overcome spiritual death...we only need one thing...Christ's endorsement. How do we get his endrosement? By learning of him, by coming to know him and through obedience to follow his teachings and commandments.

    That's basically what our goal is in this life....to live in a way to get Christ's endorsement in the end.

    So make no mistake, Christ was killed. My faith, belief and testimony say it was by crucifiction. Since no of us were there and the fact that ancient texts have been altered, translated, retranslated, lost and misunderstood simply mean we have to rely on our personal beliefs.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:33 am |
  20. Edward

    Shamrock6 said "Religion, as it exists now, is a major impediment to humanity moving forward and evolving into a better species."

    Really? Let's talk about well known athiests, particularly ones with a lot of political power; such as Stalin, Chairman Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot. How many deaths were attributed to them. Did these numbers range in the tens or hundreds of thousands like a few known religious killing events (like the Crusades and the Inquisition and the witch trials, combined), or more like the tens and hundreds of millions. Try the second choice:

    Stalin – at least 35 million
    Mao – at least 50-60 million
    Hitler – at least 12 million
    Pol Pot – around 2 million.

    Are you sure you want the world to go completely athiest? Wasn't it the "religious" segment who started hospitals and schools and universities? Does not the Decl. of Independence reference the Christian God when declaring that our fundamental human rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness derive from Him? Is not the U.S. Const set up to protect these rights?

    C'mon Shamrock (and other such athiests), stop drinking that Irish brew long enough to sober up, so that you can make some sense while your blogging in that favorite pub of yours.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:28 am |
    • Leah (TXanimal)

      Whoa, careful when making such generalizations, Edward. Was atheism the driving force behind Hitler, Mao & Pol Pot's policies (Stalin yes, to an extent, though he himself was probably not an atheist)? Or were there other factors? Also to consider: look at the time period of those you mentioned. By that time, technology and communication had evolved in such a way that mass casualties on such a scale COULD take place. Had Pope Urban II had access to tanks, machine guns and chemical warfare in the 11th century, the Holy Land would have probably been purged of all non-Christians in a matter of days, and the death toll for the First Crusade would have been on the scale of the Holocaust or higher.

      As Hitler, Stalin, Mao & Pol Pot proved, evil people with power will always find a reason to exact their will. But one thing that has remained constant from the writings of Josephus and earlier to the modern insurgency in Afghanistan IS religion. Numbers are irrelevant...death is death!

      July 6, 2010 at 3:33 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.