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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. AntiChrist The 2nd

    Jesus was a the perfect saviour. He was without sin and crucified.

    The 2nd coming of Jesus and the Antichrist are the same person. The next saviour is going to be a sinner who will reflects his sin's at the world. The world will have to make a choice to either change their practices and ways (which will save the sinner Antichrist) or keep their evil ways and which will kill (crucify) the 2nd Jesus.

    Put it together. It makes sense.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
    • jason

      wow... and I thought people couldnt be more stupid, but you just proved me wrong.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
    • GregB

      No. That doesn't make sense at all.

      Go back to your cave and leave humanity alone so we can evolve and rid ourselves of people like you from the gene pool.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  2. patrick

    Christianity, and in fact most of the world's major religions, have a rich history of appropriating the symbols of other faiths in order to bring the followers of this other faith "into the fold." That's why the sabbath is Sunday (the pagan sabbath) not Saturday (the Jewish sabbath), Christmas is 12/25 the Winter Solstice (a pagan holiday), and the cross (a pagan symbol long before their conversion to Christianity) is the primary symbol of Christianity.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  3. Chelly

    Why is it that we can believe every other book, except the Bible? Choice. Why do people fight what they say they don't believe in? Remember, the "fool" has said in his heart, "There is no God." People just think...but then that would mean that there would be not argument, wouldn't it?

    July 2, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      You already made this point (or tried to) and it doesn't make any more sense the second time around.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:52 pm |
  4. FormerChristian

    1. The Gospels were not written by any Apostles or Disciples. Mark's is the oldest, and it was written after Paul's Epistles, which came at least 20 years after the alleged crucifiction. Luke and Mathew borrow from Mark, as well as from another lost source now called "Q." John's work was later than Mark's and probably came after Matthew and Luke's.
    2. These Gospels all suffered changes over the course of the last two millenia.
    3. Paul's letters do not state that a human by the name of Jesus was crucified.
    4. No contemporaneous writings confirm the existence of a Jesus of Nazareth or Jerusalem.
    5. From Paul's letters and the Gospels, one can reasonably conclude that there were at least two distinct preachers, one in Gallilee and the other in Jerusalem.
    6. Christianity–at least some cults–merged these preachers into one and called him Joshua or Jesus.
    7. This composite morphed over hundreds of years to become the modern Christ.
    8. It is more likely than not that a single man did not preach in Galilee, ride a donkey into Jerusalem, and suffer crucifixion around the year 35 CE. There were lots of preachers at this time and lots of executions.
    9. The Romans tolerated lots of beliefs. "Jesus" would not likely have been executed for preaching.
    10. Peter, as we know him, likely did not exist and certainly was not executed in Rome. Paul was apparently.
    11. Paul is the only true historical figure to be drawn from Christianity. The rest, including Peter and the otherApostles/Disciples have no historical basis (outside the New Testament).

    July 2, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
    • Eric

      These are some interesting observations, would you mind citing your sources? Thanks

      July 2, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
    • FormerChristian

      Look at The Jesus Puzzle; Lost Christianities; Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years; Misquoting Jesus; Jesus Interrupted.

      July 2, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  5. Chelly

    So many opinions and here is yet another one. It comes down to choice. We all have the power of choosing what we want to believe. Joshua said "Choose this day whom you will serve." And I will add "Choose this day whom you will believe." Does it matter whether Jesus was hung from a tree–which is what the Bible says–and a cross is made from a "tree?" Nail prints, piercing in the side, blood flowing down, that covers only those who choose to believe. Did he die for everyone? Yes. Will everyone accept his sacrifice of love for them? No. Will you? We all got here too late to really know what happened. We have to believe. God is wise and caring enough to speak to men to write what he wanted us to find out. "The secret things belong to Him. In due time all shall be revealed.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
    • Toby

      "It comes down to choice. We all have the power of choosing what we want to believe"

      This statement is patently false and is a glaring example of what is wrong with the Christian revelation and those who claim it to be truth-a person cannot simply WILL himself to believe anything. Those who suppress their faculties of reason, denounce critical thinking, and allow specious claims and anecdote to stand in for empirical evidence will CLAIM to believe, but can they really believe it? I think not.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
    • SDFrankie

      What Toby says is 100% correct. I don't believe in leprechauns and I cannot just CHOOSE to believe in them. I can certainly SAY that I believe in leprechauns. But the simple truth is that the whole leprechaun thing doesn't hold water regardless of whether "believing" it would help or hinder me. I've considered the whole Christian thing carefully, done the math as honestly as any person can, and it's just plain nonsense. The whole notion of God having to clone himself so he could die some temporary death to keep himself from punishing the flawed beings HE CREATED in the first place is outrageous gibberish that no self-respecting five year old would swallow.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
    • W0lfman

      The first humans were not flawed in any way – they chose to disobey God.

      July 2, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
    • W0lfman

      Also, ask some 5 year olds what they think before you implicate THEM for your purpose.

      July 2, 2010 at 5:19 pm |
  6. Eric

    In regard to the actual CNN article on the crucifixion of Jesus.
    This is eye witness testimony from Matthew and John that what ever “crucifixion” is, it indeed happened to Jesus.
    Matthew 27:35 ...when they had crucified (stauroósantes) him...
    Matthew 27:38 ...crucified (stauroúntai) with him...
    Matthew 27:40 ...come down from the cross (stauroú)…
    Matthew 27:42 ...come down from the cross (stauroú)...
    Matthew 27:44 ...crucified (sustauroothéntes) with him...
    John 19:18 …here they crucified (estaúroosan) him …
    John 19:23 …When the soldiers crucified (Estaúroosan) Jesus …
    This is what I found in the Bible (NIV with Greek (UBS) transliteration inserts):

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

    July 2, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
  7. Insane

    One thing bothers me all the time. While Christians admit themselves that Bible has gone through lots of revisions and hence guilty of not preserving the original truth, they on the other hand give quotes from Bible to support their claims. Does it make any sense?

    July 2, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
  8. Aradan

    Saying something is true because you read somewhere doesn’t make it true.

    If I wrote, “The Moon is made of cheese” then claimed it was true because I read it, it wouldn’t mean much. I wrote it down and I read it – so what?

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    What if someone else wrote something down and you read it? Do you assume it’s true because you read it? Or do you approach the claim tentatively and ask how the claim fits in with what we know of the reality and how things work? Do you ask how solid is the claim, and how good is the evidence supporting the claim?

    If you said you read the moon is made of cheese, and you point to a book or website for proof, don’t expect people to become moon cheese believers.

    Likewise, when people point to books where things are claimed that are contrary to what we know of how the universe works (e.g. The Bible, The Quran, The Book of Mormon, etc), it’s unreasonable to expect people to just believe them. Regardless of whether the story of doubting Thomas occurred (I don’t think it did), the moral of story is sound – Thomas required more than just hearsay to believe in an extraordinary claim – he required extraordinary evidence.

    Why should people today be any different than a Thomas?

    July 2, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
    • W0lfman

      Because God speaks to you here and now. He IS, your consciousness is His image. You don't recognize it anymore.

      July 2, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
  9. JB

    evolution = proven fact | religion = myth, wives tale, unproven, outdated

    July 2, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
    • jason

      evolution is just as dogmatic as other religions

      July 2, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
    • Q

      The science of evolution entertains the possibility that it could be wrong in light of future evidence (e.g. rabbit fossils in pre-Cambrian strata). Theists, however, most certainly don't entertain the fact they could be wrong.

      July 6, 2010 at 1:07 am |
  10. Allan

    This theologian ought to have read the gospels more carefully. He would have noticed that Thomas, one of the 12 apostles, was definitely certain Jesus was crucified, that is, nailed to a cross. For after Jesus was raised from the dead Thomas doubted it (doubted the resurrection), and said, "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" (John 20.25). A little later Jesus appeared to them again, and gave Thomas the opportunity to do just that.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:53 pm |
    • jason

      That scripture doesnt prove that he was nailed to a cross, it only proves that he was nailed to something.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:51 pm |
  11. BullzFan

    Scholars can say or think whatever they want. It's all made up stuff, anyway. None of it has any basis in reality. It's all myths, fables, stories, and fairy tales. All the doctrine on theology (whether it's Christianity or not), canon laws, college courses, volumes of text at libraries, vocations, radio and television shows, discussion, analysis, articles, books - all of it is based on something for which there is no verifiable, empirical proof. There may as well be doctrine and college courses on the tooth fairy. God didn't create man. Man created the idea of God.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
    • Eric

      I enjoyed Mythical Creatures 101 and 207 but they were qualitatively different then the courses I had about the Life of Christ that was based on eye-witness testimony.
      Fact and Fiction are not the same.

      July 2, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
  12. JB

    well if he was hung, then they will praying to a strand rope. rope necklaces, ropes dangling from rear view mirrors. Oh the marketing potential. such low overhead on the product.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  13. SDFrankie

    Regarding the "pink fluff" that reportedly appears around the legs of unicorns just above the hooves: there is a great deal of misapprehension on this matter. Some have gone so far as to call it pink "hair", which is of course ludicrous. The very idea of this sublime creature traipsing about with it's wonderful legs festooned with pink "hair" causes the mind to recoil. There is simply no evidence to support the continuation of this heresy. Fluff it has been and fluff shall it be. No serious minded person can think otherwise.

    July 2, 2010 at 1:41 pm |
    • ManicZorbian

      But does this explanation have any bearing on unicorn glitter?

      July 2, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  14. Mad Doc

    What are you trying to do? Debunk the story? Enough already. I am thinking these people who are saying that Jesus weren't "nailed" are a false kind of clone and the work of the devil! Nuff said! They aren't human and they are making it different and make it like no bible would ever be sold because of what they said!

    July 2, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
  15. ManicZorbian

    Another interesting read is " Jesus: One Hundred Years Before Christ" by Alvar Ellegaard

    July 2, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  16. geraldh

    do a google for the following. It pretty well debunks the Horus/Jesus myth and exposes the tactics used by atheists to pull a rabbit out of a hat and strip people of religous faith.

    Jesus & Horus Parallels – A Christian Response

    July 2, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  17. "Bored-again Christian"

    .............sorry, needed to yawn, LOL. It's all pretty irrelevant isn't it? Last I checked it seemed the vast majority of Christians (and seemingly all other religions) were hell-bent on going to war, killing each other, judging one another, hoarding money and fighting for power. Meanwhile endless discussions about who is right about there religion continue by the very same people. Why do people continue to pretend they know anything about Jesus, let alone what was written and translated a thousand times in the last 2000 yrs. I think if you look carefully you will find the original transation of Yahwee was "Scottie" ......"and Jesus said, beam me up lord, they'll never get it. Lets check out another planet!

    July 2, 2010 at 1:11 pm |
    • W0lfman

      Jesus is alive and real, and ministers to His people.
      That's how we know.

      July 2, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
  18. Eric

    Dear CNN,
    Could you let us know where a copy of Gunnar Samuelsson thesis can be found on-line?

    July 2, 2010 at 1:09 pm |
  19. Len

    It is case of accepting the whole bible or refusing it all, but we cannot take parts of it and reject the others. With this in mind, one needs to look at both the New Testament and the Old Testament to get a clear picture.
    Psalm 22:16-18 Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
    Isaiah 53:5-8 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
    From these Old Testament scriptures that echo the New Testament, we can only conclude that Jesus was crucified.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  20. alstefanelli

    The question is moot, since Jesus never existed. He was an amalgamation of many different savior myths of previous and current religions of the time.

    July 2, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
    • W0lfman

      Not so. He is real. But you will be forgotten, and therefore unreal also, since you don't exist in our memories anymore?

      July 2, 2010 at 12:59 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.