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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. violinner

    We are a violent race. We do not use these texts to face this habit and heal from this habit. Instead we make killing and dying violently somehow essential to our religions. Who out there will see the message separately from the violence? Who will see the message as separate to the messenger? How is violence conceivable if the belief is about perfect forgiveness and perfect love? It does not appear that Christianity is about the message of the Gospel. Christianity does not speak to the modern world about perfect forgiveness. There is always the unforgivable, the out that requires vengeance and violence. Christianity does not speak to the modern world about perfect love. The deity of the old and new testaments shows conditional love, and kills his children. Only a psychotic would kill his children.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
    • W0lfman

      Sounds a bit dramatic; I don't see much violence being done by Christians these days myself. People want God to put his justice away; but even in the Old Testament, you can see that God's justice is tempered by love.
      What would you do if you saw your child inject heroin into their body? If you say 'nothing' or 'just talk to them' I would say you were psychotic.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
    • TJ

      W0lf, isn't there a passage in the bible where it states God is vengeful? If man is supposedly created in his image, did we not inherit this quality. I look at Westboro Baptist Church and some of the others who purport vengeance on some of Gods "children"....so it doesn't have to be physical it can be theoretical and subliminal.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:28 pm |
    • W0lfman

      TJ: Well, I dislike speaking for God, but I think He has cooled down a lot since He got angry in the early days. He sent His son, which proves that He does not wish vengeance on us anymore. Yes, we do have that quality, since we are in His image, but we are like mirrors covered with dust, so we have lost the ability to do much good on our own, in my opinion.
      The vengeful Baptists well... like the Catholics who shoot people at abortion clinics, they must try to do better; I don't think Jesus would be happy with them at all.

      July 2, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  2. violinner

    We are a violent race. We do not use these texts to face this habit and heal from this habit. Instead we make killing and dying violently somehow essential to our religions. Who out there will see the message separately from the violence? Who will see the message as separate to the messenger? How is violence conceivable if the belief is about perfect forgiveness and perfect love? It does not appear that Christianity is about the message of the Gospel. Christianity does not speak to the modern world about perfect forgiveness. There is always the unforgivable, the out that requires vengeance and violence. Christianity does not speak to the modern world about perfect love. The deity of the old and new testaments shows conditional love, and kills his children. Only a psychotic would kill his children.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  3. Mike

    Human nature, the human experience, and our sensoriperceptual abilities encompass the axiomatic foundation of all of our knowledge of ourselves, the world, and that deemed to be reality/truth. The basis of science and relegion alike is founded on the tenets of human sensoriperception, selfawareness, and first-hand experience. There is no perfect subjectivity in our reality, only things that are less subjective or more subjective relative to one another (i.e. a scale of subjectivity). Things that are based more in the sensoripercetual realm where there is a commonly shared experience between people and that are testable, repeatable phenomena fall at the low end on the scale of subjectivity relative to things which are not testable, quantifiable, and repeatable. This is why, in the public facing world, science as a method for judging reality will always have more clout than relgion. Religion is an immensely personal experience, and therefore, it is more subjective relative to science. This is why having relgious arguments, especially one's that lead to violence or feelings of hatred, is especially threatening to humanity's long-term prospects. As a general rule of thumb, people should publically go about their lives in a secular manner. Religion and belief should be a private manner, reserved for you and those closest to you. This is what made America such a great place where people of all walks of life got along better than not in the past. It is sad that these days extremists from all faiths have made it their perogative to disrupt this balance. Bring it back into your private life, people. That's why we have one! Remember the old bit of common wisdom we used to have: "Never argue religion and politics." There was a reason for that cliche saying after all.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
    • W0lfman

      I think what has diminished America more is the increasing government presence and authority in our lives. It feels to me like I am constantly being micromanaged, and directly blame it on activity based on euphemisms like "politically incorrect" and "separation of church and state". The more separation, the more government is involved.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  4. W0lfman

    "All eternity... until the end of time"?
    Fire your writers!

    July 2, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  5. Elizabeth Kirkley Best

    The author of this unusual thought may have researched the word 'stauros' in 900 manuscripts (he doesn't say which ones), but one word out of the Holy Scriptures is never apart from its context and other references. Further, the author does not say which text family the texts were from, not a minor point in a day when two major text families find a point of conflict.

    Consider though, that if one chooses to take the meaning of 'stauros' as impaled, because it can mean that, then one would have to consider that nails were involved, as Thomas also in his momentary unbelief, said he would not believe unless he saw the nail prints:
    Jhn 20:25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

    By the way, 'nail' means 'nail' in the Greek. (helos)

    The Romans were not above impaling victims, but crucifxion was most certainly a widespread practice at the time for 'rebel slaves.' One could go into lengthy discourses with multiple words and Greek renderings, but there is evidence throughout scripture that it was a crucifixion and not an impaling, including the prophetic description of Psalm 22 , which Jesus renders on the Cross of a crucified death described by King David in a year and culture when crucifxions were not used as a form of death.

    This garbage scholarship by the so called evangelical pastor, sounds far more like the myriad of attempts of Jehovah's Witnesses to try and negate the physical suffering of Christ on the Cross, the necessary sacrifice and great cost of Salvation, which JWs and other gnostics seek to ignore or pejorate in order to promote 'another gospel' which does not require surrender.
    No scholar I have ever read would ever take a secondary meaning of one word and try to run with a whole new doctrine, no matter how many manuscripts he claims to have read. By the way, over 5000 pieces of manuscript evidence exist, so tht is less that 20 percent, and as with too much scholarship in the area today, what is occurring is an intense research on a small point, without a broadbased knowledge of the Word of God.

    This is yet one more attempt to denigrate belief, the real battlefield of life. It occurs almost annually, with the psuedo-finds of the century like Jesus's bones supposedly found, 'passover plots' etc, etc, etc, which all are found to be false in the end. In the end, it is always belief, faith vs. unbelief, no matter the point of evidence.

    And Thomas did, by all accounts find the wounds in Jesus' hands and side.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
    • Elizabeth K Best

      One last point: the Roman impaling usually went up through the mouth, a horrible image. How hard it would have been to utter "It is finished".

      October 21, 2010 at 6:00 pm |
  6. INKT1

    Mary cheated on Joseph AND LIED. The fact that Christ was born into a rich family under the belief that he was the son of God made it easy for him to mingle with the great minds of the time and, as a result he became an amazing orator. So they listened and followed him. But he got too big for his britches. So the Jews ratted him out and the Romans did torture and crucify him. And Lo, on the third day they opened the tomb and he wasn't there because the ROMANS ATE HIM. That's where Catholic mass comes from. Why else would they ritualisticly eat his flesh and drink his blood in those creepy robes.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
  7. I love Jesus

    @WhatIsBeliefe
    To all the "true" Christians: Why do you worship an idol, ie Jesus on a cross. Doesn't that just make you a Pagan or idol worshiper. I guess no different then the Hindus (or anyone else for that matter)- who also talk to God through idols. Be honest and think before replying.

    ---How can the ONLY true and living GOD be a Pagan idol?? We "Christians" are the only people that worship a real GOD, that is what separates us from every other Religion. And for those of you that say Jesus is used as a why to control people are so mistaken. Why would selfish people teach others about a person who was selfless and tell you to be like he was?? that makes no since. Everyone is going to find out when he returns how real he is and i just pray that you are on his side when he returns. John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that who ever believes in him will not die but have life ever lasting.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
  8. Amadea

    So many of you posting here have obviously never read the Bible I wonder that you have the temerity to comment. One of you even asks where in the Bible it says that Jesus is God's Son. Good grief. That's what the entire New Testament is all about! My Greek Bible expresses the Greek word 'stauroun' as "affixing to a cross". Hanging someone on a cross with ropes is not 'affixing'. Besides, there are innumerable instances in Roman literature attesting to the barbararian practise of nailing people to crosses.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  9. Walter

    Islam is the biggest hoax of humanity, it is a combination of various religions and traditions into one.

    July 2, 2010 at 11:59 am |
    • jason

      Islam reminds me of the mormon religion

      July 2, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  10. Good advice, I hope he takes it

    ""I do believe that Jesus died the way we thought he died. He died on the cross."

    On what basis? You have just proven that he wasn't.

    ""We have put a lot of things in the Bible that weren't there in the beginning that keep us apart. "

    Amen. The Church and St. Paul started it. We should only read the words of Jesus.

    July 2, 2010 at 11:58 am |
  11. Eric

    I still haven't found it. Does anyone know where an entire copy of Gunnar Samuelsson thesis can be found on-line?

    July 2, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  12. Reality

    There were almost 100 Jesus Seminar ballots on issues relating to the crucifixion tradition, including the historicity of the Passion Narrative and many of its component elements. Their conclusions:

    Jesus was crucified. Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

    July 2, 2010 at 11:49 am |
    • Toby

      Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that Jesus was crucified according to the Christian tradition. Let's also assume that Pilate had him crucified. What does this prove? The bible gives an account of the earth shaking at the time of the crucifixion and the graves opening and the saints of the day walking around too. Where are their accounts of events? Where are the witnesses to this outrageous claim? For that matter, where are the written accounts of the 500 who are claimed to have witnessed Jesus' ascention into the heavens? Paul claimed many years later that there had been 500 witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:6), where are their written accounts of what happened? For that matter, what are the names of ten of these 500? No one knows. It is all made up out of whole cloth to astound and elicit belief in the idea of a messiah and savior of humanity. There is simply no good evidence for these events, and very good evidence that these authors were writing of events that they not only did not witness themselves, but that they were using propaganda to make others believe their stories.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  13. I love Jesus

    Jesus is the ONE and ONLY true GOD!!!

    July 2, 2010 at 11:49 am |
    • jason

      No. Jesus is the son of God. Jehovah is the only true God

      July 2, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  14. Jack

    Repeated questions and boring re-interpretations of Jesus's life death and resurrection have dogged the Church since before Jesus died. His Ressurrection was already disputed by Jewish scholars during the time of the writing of the Gospels and writing new histories about Jesus and then fitting them to one's own personal beliefs in order to excuse oneself from personal reponsibility if one is already Christian is cowardly, and a real waste of time. Why can't people just get on with living life instead of listening to "critical" hate-mongers who have a history of attacking the Church and can find any way to do so in order to protect their own "way of life" and perhaps even deny their own sense of guilt at subverting normally Christian people and turning them away from what even animals know is the truth about Jesus Christ and his Death and Resurrection? This scholar can join the rest of the apolgists who blindly attacked the Church in the past and lived to repent of their actions when experiencing God's miraculous and always good truth in their own lives afterwards.

    July 2, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  15. WhatIsBeliefe

    To all the "true" Christians: Why do you worship an idol, ie Jesus on a cross. Doesn't that just make you a Pagan or idol worshiper. I guess no different then the Hindus (or anyone else for that matter)- who also talk to God through idols. Be honest and think before replying.

    July 2, 2010 at 11:48 am |
    • W0lfman

      The crucifix is the one of the most powerful symbols on earth, power to heal minds and bodies. In Christianity, there is always a physical means associated with the power of God.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:57 am |
    • CatholicMom

      We do not worship the crucifix but we worship Him who it brings us to mind. We do not use items such as statues or pictures as idols; they are not worshiped. It is a wonderful way to distract your mind from the world and think of Heaven and that which is not of this world.
      So, you see, it has been explained to you that we are not worshipping idols. If you persist on thinking this way, I must ask,–do you have a Holy Book in your house—you must be worshipping it. Do you have pictures of family members—grandparents, perhaps, parents, someone you loved to be around who has passed into the next Age, sitting around on shelves, hanging on walls? You must be worshipping these idols.
      Some people have pictures of trees, maybe a dog or cat, oceans and seas, so you worship those things, too?

      July 2, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
    • jason

      The cross is a pagan symbol indeed, and while some of you claim not to worship it, the vast majority of catholics and other "christians" worship it.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • W0lfman

      Wrong. We don't worship a piece of wood.
      And It is no longer pagan, but a symbol of redemption, where God punished His son for our sins.

      July 2, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  16. I love Jesus

    “A man with an argument is always at the mercy of a man with an experience”

    July 2, 2010 at 11:47 am |
    • Toby

      Actually, a man with an argument (particularly a good argument) is restricted to reason, logic, and natural explanations in his argument. A man with experience (particularly when that experience is subjective and cannot be replicated or reproduced outside of his own mind) has no limits on what he may say in defense of his idea of belief. Subjectivity is the operative world here, not objectivity.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:52 am |
    • W0lfman

      If that is so, how can physicists believe that the universe suddenly came into existence from nothing? Are they going back to a belief based on spontaneous generation?

      July 2, 2010 at 11:55 am |
    • TJ

      W0lf, it is a theory...no one can prove it without a shred of doubt in the same way no one can prove Noah had an arc or that the Red Sea was parted by a staff.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:24 pm |
    • W0lfman

      Then likewise, it is just a theory that atheism will improve our world.

      July 2, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
  17. Eric

    Thanks W0LF, I wonder what his source is?

    July 2, 2010 at 11:45 am |
  18. Mike

    The arguing of this kind of nonsensical religious minutia is exactly the kind of non-sequitar from reality and the real issues of your life that those who are incumbents of power and resources seek to inundate your mind with. All supernatural religion that focuses on the past and/or the future is a big fat lie and a distraction from what is. It weighs heavily on your spirit and monopolizes your time and energy, ensuring that you do not challenge your real masters here on earth. If you believe in this stuff (even if it as a by-product unburdens you in some way or has some positive effect), you have been made a fool and are not in control of your own actions, though you may think you are. My advice is to live in the here and now. This fleeting moment is the only one you will ever have. Live with kindness in your heart. Live with balance, moderation, and reason as your virtues. Love, laugh, and share. Compete in a friendly manner. Experience what life has to offer. Do what you want so long as you don't hurt others or destroy our habitat in the process. Realize that heaven and hell are just your present perception of this reality. Finally, realize that you are accountable for your self and your actions. Reality/truth is what it is...not what you want it to be. There is no reason to try to define and control it through religious dogma or even words. Life and happiness have always been in our midst...under our noses in fact. Our true nature is before us, ever-present. It is up to us to look inward and embrace it. Once we live life as it truly is, engaging fully in it...this is Zen. Latching on to things, whether they be material, psychological, or religious in nature, will never give us the peace of mind that we seek.

    I don't think this comment posted the first time. So, I am trying to post it again.

    July 2, 2010 at 11:43 am |
    • W0lfman

      Once you talk about Zen, it isn't Zen anymore.
      I'm sorry, but you are going with the flow just like the ones you are criticizing. It's those very powers that are influencing you to humanism. Go with the flow, go down the drain.
      They are making it difficult for every one to stay focused on Christ. You are being manipulated, brother.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  19. Islamic View

    This scholar's findings corroborate what the Holy Qur'an, Islam's Holy Book, made clear more than 1400 years ago:

    "That they (the wrong-doers) said (in boast), 'We killed the Christ Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah';- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them [or it appeared so unto 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: Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise." — Quran [4:157]

    July 2, 2010 at 11:42 am |
    • W0lfman

      I don't believe in Islam and never will.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:47 am |
    • Toby

      Considering that the Qur'an was written hundreds of years AFTER the biblical account of Jesus, ask yourself this-how hard would it be to write and account of an even AFTER the supposed event in order to CONFIRM the event? It would be tantamount to me saying that I read your above post and, fifty years from now telling others that it must be true because I read it from Islamic View in 2010. See what I'm getting at here? It means absolutely nothing.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:48 am |
    • W0lfman

      Toby, I can't blame you for being what you are. Many, many people are afraid to leave the safety of their thought world for reality... especially the way the world is now. Can you see how the lowering of the quality of life is correlating to the decline in faith? Your kind rejoice at that, but later, we will all be suffering because of it.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:54 am |
    • Islamic View

      @Toby – Yes, you are absolutely right that the Quran was recorded about 600 years after the Biblical account of Jesus. But you have to understand the big picture. Muslims believe that there is one God, with one message that began with Adam, Noah, Moses, Jesus (and many prophets in between), and ended with the final message from Muhammad (peace be upon all the prophets). When God sent each of those prophets to deliver His message to the people, he did so because it was necessary – the people had distorted His message and their beliefs had gone awry (just as Jesus brought his message to the Jewish people to bring them back to God's path). In this very same way, after Jesus left this existence (note, I did not say die, or crucified, because according to Islam, this never happened), his message, and what he was, were distorted by people. Among the distortions – that Jesus was the son of God, and not just a prophet, and that he was crucified and died to save mankind from its original sin. These beliefs which are fundamental to Christianity today (so I know you're not going to like me saying this), according to Islam, were created by people, Popes, religious leaders, etc. after Jesus' time here, and were not actually preached by Jesus. Jesus, like the prophets before and after, was a messenger a God (and Islam's second highest regarded prophet). Muhammad's message from God, which came after Jesus', was meant to correct these distortions created by people. This scholar's research, at least for me, confirms just one aspect of Islam – that Jesus was not crucified. I respect that this is not easy to swallow, and I'm not trying to convert anyone here, but it is what I believe and I hope you can respect that as well.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
  20. peace2all

    @Mark J. Can't deny that you have the ability to choose and have obviously made your choice. But, if you really read the bible it is full of horror stories mixed in with some nice platitudes. And again, none of it can be proven....and you don't have to give your life to god to live a good, moral and happy life. As for your eternity, that will take care of itself.
    Peace to you....

    July 2, 2010 at 11:36 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.