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. Greg

    I think it was west of the gum-drop forest, beside the yum yum tree and chocolate brook....

    July 2, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
    • Eric

      Umm, chocolate brook....

      July 2, 2010 at 7:35 pm |
  2. Eric

    Dear CNN,
    Could you get us a link to Gunnar Samuelsson thesis? Thanks.

    July 2, 2010 at 6:33 pm |
  3. FormerChristian

    No serious scholar believes that the Gospels of John and Mathew are eye-witness accounts of anything. These are certainly not accounts of any Apostles/Disciples who knew Jesus. They were authored generations later after all of the alleged followers of Jesus were dead.

    July 2, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
    • Eric

      Could you give me the names of these serious scholars? I would like to read their work. Thanks

      July 2, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
  4. Bryant

    Tobias Strauss makes a perfect point. Jesus was raised up and suspended from something at the time when translated was called a crucifix. I believe since it was pretty clear that Jesus was treated like any other criminal in Rome that they didn't want him viewed as being put to death in any different manner than any criminal at that time. 1 piece of timber that he carried and was laid on and his hands were nailed above his head and feet below. This was the traditional method used. These guys didn't waist time lifting two pieces of timber along with a body up, way to heavy. Folks cmon be real. It's common sense.

    July 2, 2010 at 5:40 pm |
  5. Eric

    Yes, the Bible is a "man made book" and Matthew and John are eye-witnesses accounts of Jesus.
    But lets stay on track here, the question Dr. Samuelsson is asking is "What does the word 'crucifixion' mean?"
    His thesis has nothing to do with the Bible being the Word of God.

    July 2, 2010 at 5:26 pm |
  6. Jim

    Lol! All this debate and fighitng over an imaginary person. It's no wonder it's still so easy to start a cult in this day and age. People will believe anything in order to attempt to find a bit of peace in life. The Bible is a man-made book and there is no proof that the Bible is the word of a God other than another man telling another man that it is. I have some swampland in Arizona if any of you is interested in buying. Take a left at the Snake Oil stand and don't forget to bring your moodrings.

    July 2, 2010 at 5:13 pm |
    • Eric

      Jim – Would you mind citing your source for Jesus being imaginary? Thanks

      July 2, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  7. moondoggie

    What would happen if Jesus were not crucified in the way people picture it, but did die in some other way? Does that invalidate Christianity? And I think if you are not reading the text in its original language, you absolutely run the risk of putting your faith in someone elses translation. So to all of this I can only say; Oy Vey.

    July 2, 2010 at 5:08 pm |
    • Eric

      Ron Rhodes wrote "The Complete Guide to Bible Translations" and shows some of what is involved in Bible translation.

      The difficulties of Bible translation are illustrated very well by the question of what it meant to be “crucified” which is what Gunnar Samuelsson’s thesis seems to be all about.
      400 pages for one concept. Wow!
      Now, on to the rest of the Bible.

      July 2, 2010 at 5:19 pm |
    • W0lfman

      And I supposed it is possible that Jesus died only for us on planet Earth, since the beings on the other planets did not disobey God.
      Sounds crazy, but God's ways are not like our ways.

      July 2, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
    • W0lfman

      Eric, and to others who are serious about the content of this article:
      I apologize for being here only because, to me, this is more like being on the front line in a war.
      I will fight this war of words as long as I have the energy to do so, anywhere, anytime God wants me to.
      And to those who hate God – not specifically the skeptics, but you know who you are, you are here to fight too, I say to you with all my heart, soul and mind:
      God IS, and Jesus IS our Savior.

      July 2, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
  8. Gi John


    As an atheist, I'm going to sound off a little bit. Normally, I would confront the problem of religion and God as a whole ( christianity, islam, etc.) However, I would like to respond to GI John's post mainly because the ignorance you've just so feverently typed is absolute nonsense. People like you are what's wrong with religion and believers. I can presume your Jewish and may harbor some ill feelings towards everyone else since your people were bullied for the first couple of centuries. In your post you write "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." The fact that you openly insult a religion that has stemmed from yours is actaully ironic and also incredibly childish. Moreover, I love how you paint this picture of God as an old-school crime fighter, who will wreak havoc on you with eternal damnation. Who in their right mind would believe something like that? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, just please do everyone a favor and stop talking. You're not very bright, and frankly, your stupidity is harming anyone who reads your post.

    Kevin, to try to explain spiritual things to you is frankly a waste of time. This is God's universe. He created it. He kills people Kevin. The flood, soddom and gommorah, and soon the end of this world as we know it. Anything God does is just and fair. You were created by Him. Who are you to talk back to God? And you assume wrong....I am not Jewish. Do some research and figure out why the Jews are God's chosen people. That does not mean God loves them anymore than anyone else. You are ignorant in spiritual matters Kevin. I care nothing about having a worldly wisdom. I am here to warn people about the tactics of satan. Some will put their pride and arrogance aside and seek the truth. You don't have to like me. I am not the issue here. Finding the truth is the issue. Souls are at stake. Look past your selfish lifestyle kevin and you will see the world in the final stages of it's existance. Life is not about you Kevin. It is about God and His glory. Until one seeks the truth, denies themself, denies this world, and chooses to follow Christ they will never experience Christ and God's love to understand what true peace and love is . While we are in this world it will be a constant battle against satan and his cronnies. But thanks for the insult KevO'.

    July 2, 2010 at 5:01 pm |
  9. The_Mick

    Bobby Bookany "Every academic knows full well that the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written anonymously, and all of them by Greek authors." +++++ That's not known "full well". For example, one strong possibility is that Matthew was written by a Jewish Christian north of Palestine around 80 AD where the Christians were strongly competing with a newly important Jewish sect, the Pharisees, which is why Matthew makes the Pharisees bad guys in his Gospel – they were not such an important group in Jesus' time.

    July 2, 2010 at 4:34 pm |
    • Eric

      Could you cite what book you are quoting from? Thanks

      July 2, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  10. skeptic

    OK, how does torturing Gods' only son to death release us from our sins? If we're nice to him we're doomed, but torture him to death and everything's OK?

    July 2, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • W0lfman

      This is the heart of Christianity. Humans disobeyed God and He punished them. What do we do when someone commits a crime? Put them in jail: punish them.
      It's called justice.
      Rather than punish us – who, by the way, punish ourselves enough as it is – he made a perfect sacrifice of His son:
      By nailing His hands and feet: crimes performed by our bodies were justified.
      By the crown of thorns: crimes of thought were justified.
      And so on.

      July 2, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
    • Eric

      "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
      2 Corinthians 5:21(NIV)

      July 2, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
  11. Toby

    Well, I'm going out for some sunshine and fresh air. You all have a great 4th!

    July 2, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  12. Gary

    Michael, May ALLAH bless you !

    July 2, 2010 at 4:06 pm |
    • Michael

      NO! Take it back! The Flying Spaghetti Monster and Sekhmet have promised to regrow any limbs I might get severed, but ONLY if the monotheistic imaginary magical buddies stay out of it. And I surely trust Sekhmet and her protege , the FSM much more than that evil old man.

      July 2, 2010 at 4:10 pm |
  13. Toby

    Eric- Your point is well taken and you're absolutely correct. My point is simply that, if one is honest and takes a step back from the discussion of whether or not Jesus was crucified, we can ask ourselves if it really matters. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. My point is simply that it is astoundingly unlikely that any of this is actually true, so the debate over the crucifixion issue is a red herring.

    July 2, 2010 at 4:00 pm |
    • Eric

      Toby – On an academic level the “crucifixion” matters because it causes us to consider what criteria we use when deciding the degree of certainty that we place on events that we did not personally witness.
      Saying the crucifixion happened is in my mind simply stating a fact of history.

      July 2, 2010 at 4:16 pm |
  14. Toby

    Religion (particularly Christianity and Islam) is based primarily upon fear of death and the unknown. The adherents accept an immoral offer of "salvation" by human sacrifice from a malevolent deity in order to escape from the consequences of their wrongdoings. In other words, Christians lack personal responsibility. This is so obvious it should not need underlining. To perpetuate the nonsensical dribble of their doctrinal inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and falsities, it is necessary to educate (read-indoctrinate) their offspring BEFORE their critical reasoning abilities take hold. This "Darwinistic" approach to maintaining the illusion is necessary to the survival of the cultish ideology. This is precisely why Christians have a need to attend church regularly, suppress doubt, and maintain faith (belief in absence of evidence, because where there is evidence, no one speaks of faith). Whenever someone claims to have lost their faith in Jesus or god, the first thing the faithful suggest is attending church frequently and praying about it. This is precisely the kind of mind control that is practiced by any successful cult. I just can't understand why otherwise intelligent people go in for this transparent illusion.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:46 pm |
    • Michael

      The mystery is partially solved by noting the consistently negative relationship between IQ and religiosity. The relationship holds for both individuals and for nations. So it should be a little comforting to know that more intelligence means less likely to fall for this nonsense.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • Eric

      Toby – The "fear of death and the unknown" was not Gunnar Samuelsson's point.
      It seems his point was that we might be misunderstanding the term “crucifixion.”

      July 2, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
    • Michael

      "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."

      That was also "a point" that whatsisname made. It is fair and relevant to replyu that "scholar" sounds funny in this context. The occupation is more aptly "grifter" or "tool".

      July 2, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
    • GodIsForImbeciles

      Well said. Sadly, many people are terrified of the inherently human need to think for yourself and address life in all its complexity. Religion provides answers...idiotic, ignorant and ancient answers, but imbeciles really like those, it would seem.

      July 5, 2010 at 12:40 am |
  15. Robert

    Crucifixion was the common form of punishment and execution. I would expect texts of the time NOT to make a big deal about how he was killed with it was the normal manner. As Samuelsson points out he was "suspended", suspended in the normal manner was crucifixion .

    July 2, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
    • Eric

      That seems to be a good conclusion based on the facts. Thanks Robert.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
  16. GodIsForImbeciles

    I prefer to think he was waterboarded and then hacked to pieces with an axe. But, hey, I'm from Jersey and that's just me.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
    • Michael

      And for conmen. Not all believers are idiots: the smart ones are grifters milking the marks.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
  17. Mike

    What does this fine line debate matter anyway? Does Santa Claus really live at the North Pole? What color is the Easter Bunny? How fast can the tooth fairy fly? Its all mythology anyway, including the whole crucifying and resurrection story......sounds nice, but no one has ever proven it.......

    July 2, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
    • Eric

      Mike this is not written like a fairy tail.
      1:1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
      Luke 1:1-4 (NIV)
      Can’t you see the difference between fact and fiction?

      July 2, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
    • GodIsForImbeciles

      Eric, that has to be the most idiotic argument we have heard on this thread. You have just quoted religious myth as a defense for the validity for religious myth. It is PRECISELY A FAIRY TALE, AND IS WRITTEN LIKE ONE.

      Read a real book and learn the difference, unless you're brain can no longer discern fantasy from reality.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
    • Eric

      Could you suggest a book that you would have all of us base our lives and moral compasses on, that you in fact also follow?
      I for one would appreciate it. Thanks.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:42 pm |
    • GodIsForImbeciles

      If you need a book to tell you the difference between right and wrong, you're beyond help. Or 13 years old. Or just mentally worthless.

      July 3, 2010 at 12:59 am |
    • john solomon

      actually people need police to tell them what's right and wrong.

      July 3, 2010 at 1:02 am |
  18. jason

    Funny, Jehovah's witnesses figured this whole thing out decades ago before this scholar was even born. The witnesses are known worldwide for this. It makes me laugh that he tries to claim that he found that out all by himself.

    July 2, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
    • jason

      If you dont believe me, heres proof: http://www.watchtower.org/e/200604a/article_01.htm

      July 2, 2010 at 3:03 pm |
    • Eric

      "Samuelsson's doctoral advisor thought his student might be on to something."
      If he would have read “http://www.watchtower.org/e/200604a/article_01.htm” he would likely have steered Samulesson in a different direction.
      Thanks Jason

      July 2, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  19. Jason

    Here is the proof that Jesus was indeed crucified and died on our behalf, stop doubting and believe!

    John 20:25-27 (New International Version)

    25So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!"
    But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."

    26A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" 27Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

    July 2, 2010 at 2:56 pm |
  20. Ed

    Like in all religions, this question is a matter of faith which can never been completely proven or disproven.

    July 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm |
    • Just2Reason

      Ask a Christian this: Do you think if you were raised in a Muslim country, by Muslim parents, that you would be taking that argument to your grave, instead of the Christian one? It is a truly amazing sight to present this question to a Southern Baptist, and watch his response. Find one who is an adult and still regularly attends church (not because of his spouse), and attended church weekly as a kid. They will likely not even be able to process the question, because so many dogmas are contradicted by the premises. It is an amazing thing to see – a mind that cannot process the simple question. The answer to the question is obvious. That Southern Baptist accepted the reality presented to him as a kid, so he would have done the same thing if raised in a Muslim country by Muslim parents.

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

      Lets not get distracted, Gunnar Samuelsson is asking if we are defining the term "crucifixion" correctly.

      If anyone could find his thesis we could read it (all 400 pages of it) and see what he was actually saying.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:08 pm |
    • W0lfman

      It can and does happen. Just like a child raised by atheists can become Christian.

      July 2, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
    • Just2Reason

      @W0lfman: I'm not talking about converts. I specifically referred to people raised in a Christian church that still voluntarily attend as an adult – and more specifically, Southern Baptist.

      July 3, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
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