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. Panama 1

    As a minister of the Bible, I must say that mankind is so willing to not believe by faith in what the bible says. That is why I believe the bible to be true...in the latter days knowledge will abound, but man will not come into the knowledge of truth. Here is an old question that I would like all the so called scholars to answer, when you go to sleep at night, by what power is it that keeps you alive and breathing? Since you are asleep, and have no more control over your heart rate of beat, nor your rate of breathing, to whom do you attribute this? If we take the time to listen to our hearts, then we will know that we walk by faith in Christ, not by sight. Otherwise, we would be like the disciple Thomas who wouldn't believe that Jesus was arisen until he saw him .

    July 3, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
    • Sanjosemike

      Panama 1, you should stick to things that you understand. You asked the question: What is the power that keeps you breathing and alive, even though you are unconscious?" The answer is simple. The autonomic nervous system, which controls many functions over which you don't have conscious control. Panama 1, this is high-school biology, which you apparently flunked. We got this way due to evolution of our nervous systems. It aided in our survival and therefore had value. Your god had nothing to do with this.

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

      Panama- People cannot simply choose what they want to believe. A person can only believe things to the extent that he has good evidence for the belief. I think a person can "will" himself to actually think he believes something (tantamount to brainwashing), but this amounts to nothing more than, as philosopher Daniel Dennett claims, "belief in belief." Perhaps this sounds familiar to you? And what do you mean by "listen to our hearts"? Your heart is an organ of the circulatory system that pumps blood. Your heart does not speak, nor does your heart send messages to your brain. This is the kind of dribble that keeps the religious trapped in their mind-forged delusions.

      July 3, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
    • DakkonA

      The above two posts touch on the "power" that keeps us alive at night well. But my question is this: Was Thomas sent to hell for doubting? Why do we not deserve similar proof?

      July 6, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  2. Jeff Fisher

    What a waste of time and knowledge. While the world compromises every inch of the Word they can; families fall apart, the divorce rate sky rockets, kids don't know their fathers...and this guy takes his theological education to help batter down more of the gospel... the only good news that can deliver, set free, and change this dead world.

    July 3, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  3. Eric

    Indeed, that is what Peter said.
    (Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
    1 Peter 2:24 (NIV)
    I believe Samuelsson is concerned with exactly what that means (pole, cross, something else).

    July 3, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  4. gerald

    It takes far more faith to be an aethist than a Christian. Faith that life could spring out of an inert pool of muck void of any kind of intelligence and without the guidance of intelligence create complexity and beuty and design far beyond what we humans are capable of. That takes faith. Our "inventions" in this world are only replications and uses of what is already present in nature.

    July 3, 2010 at 11:46 am |
    • Sanjosemike

      Gerald, frequently religious people say that it takes more faith to be an "atheist" than a believer. This is nothing but a word game. Evolution provided all of the biologic features that religious people say were created for them by a god. Atheists simply don't believe in god or gods, that's all. It is not OUR obligation to prove there is a god, only to say that there are no indications that there are any. By the way, where was your god at Auschwitz? sanjosemike

      July 3, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • Toby

      "It takes far more faith to be an aethist than a Christian."

      This statement is absolute, utter nonsense. If there is any meaning behind the words we use, the word "faith" simply means belief in an idea or proposition with insufficient evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of faith. Those who do not believe (you call them atheists, I prefer the term "non-supernaturalists") live their lives according to an understanding of the natural laws as science reveals them. Where there is incomplete evidence, or the evidence is contradictory, we rely on the scientific method of building a working hypothesis to explain a phenomenon. We do NOT rely on prophesy or miracles to explain anything.

      "No one, in the world's whole history, ever attempted to substantiate a truth by a miracle. Truth scorns the assistance of miracle. Nothing but falsehood ever attested itself by signs and wonders. No miracle ever was performed, and no sane man ever thought he had performed one, and until one is performed, there can be no evidence of the existence of any power superior to, and independent of nature."
      — Robert G. Ingersoll

      July 3, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
    • gerald

      I like how you both swich the discussion to my beliefs rather than try to "prove" evolution or that life came out of a primordial soup and was not guided by intelligence. Why ,because you have no proof and only a fool would say a house was not built by intelligence. Yet the human cannot even produce the brain of a fly yet. It takes far more intelligene than we possess. Yet you say it showed uap out of nothing or through evolutionary process or random chances in mutations, making a dog oujt of some other species. There is no proof of this anywhere. Defend your position! You can't.

      July 3, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
    • verify

      Gerald: "Yet the human cannot even produce the brain of a fly yet. It takes far more intelligene than we possess."

      No, it does not necessarily take more 'intelligence' than we possess; perhaps it just takes more 'knowledge' than we currently have. Think of all the things that we didn't have a couple of hundred years ago (or less) - automobiles, airplanes, trips to the moon, heart transplants, etc., etc., etc. Surely they thought that only "God" could cause one to fly... not to mention how they would have scoffed at replacing an organ of the body.

      July 3, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
    • gerald


      I will grant you that we will do far greater things if we don't destory ourselves in the process. But you only make my point that nature requires great intelligence far beyond our current capacity.. Who is it?

      July 3, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
    • verify

      Gerald: I don't know what the ultimate boundary of human intelligence is. I don't know what is beyond it. The myriad myths of supernatural beings show no evidence of fact.

      July 3, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
    • geraldh


      Are you claiming that the humans "created" the "intelligence" in nature? I hope that is not what you are saying.

      July 3, 2010 at 7:44 pm |
  5. Victor Garcia

    Excellent article

    July 3, 2010 at 10:58 am |
    • Eric

      Imagine reading the actual thesis by Dr. Samuelsson.
      Do let us know if you find it.

      July 3, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  6. elgeevz

    It seems to me that quoting Scripture to prove a point is a bit like quoting "The Night Before Christmasi" to prove that there really is a Santa Claus.

    July 3, 2010 at 9:17 am |
    • Eric

      elgeevz – Could you quote the source for the idea that quoting the Bible is like quoting from the "The Night Before Christmasi" – Thanks

      July 3, 2010 at 10:12 am |
  7. gerald

    It takes far more faith to be an atheist and believe that life and all its complexity and processes and beuaty and abundance and intelligence came from an inerert pool of much containing absolutely know intellegence. I was watching a show on cuddlefish in the ocean this week. It amazed me how the cuddle fish had it "figured out". For instance the baby cuddlefish when it eats all the food in the egg spits out an acid to burn away the eggshell. Hmmm. How long did cuddlefish sit in a lab figuring out the right acid that could be inside the baby, produced by the baby, and have the right PH and chemistry to burn away that shell. Its ludicrous to even think such nonsense or that there was no intelligence, just evolutionary processes that "figured" this out. And this is only one minor process in the millions and billions of species and creatures that can't pace first grade carry out daily in amazing ways far beyond even human science and capability. One would be a fool not to believe there is some intelligence greater than us that brought this about.

    July 3, 2010 at 3:49 am |
    • Q

      This is an argument from incredulity founded in an argument from ignorance. The power of randomness filtered through a selection process to produce exquisite and novel functionality has been demonstrated repeatedly in the lab and in nature.

      July 6, 2010 at 1:15 am |
  8. Bob

    SanJoseMike, interesting insight and honest assessment. However, I must point out, that atheism is a religion in and of itself. If "religions" need to be taxed, atheist groups will be as well. : )

    July 3, 2010 at 12:56 am |
    • Sanjosemike

      Bob said: "SanJoseMike, interesting insight and honest assessment. However, I must point out, that atheism is a religion in and of itself. If "religions" need to be taxed, atheist groups will be as well.

      sanjosemike responds

      Bob, atheism is not a religion. (This is nothing but a word game). Atheists only believe there are no god or gods. They are not under any obligation to "prove" there is. That said, I will not disagree with you that atheists should also be taxed. If your religious folks paid their proper and fair share, then the rest of us will all pay less, including atheists. sanjosemike

      July 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  9. Sanjosemike


    This study is silly. I agree with those religious critics who complain about it. The Romans used crucifixion as a capital punishment for centuries. Not just demi-gods, but common criminals, those guilty of plotting against the emperor, etc.

    I'm not entirely sure that Jesus existed, but there is reasonably good historical evidence he did. He was no god, but an activist Rabbi who shoved too many people the wrong way. He paid the ultimate price for it. As a (retired) physician, I've read studies on the actual physiologic nature of crucifixion. It was absolutely horrible. No doubt about it. The pain and suffering was un-imaginable. And unconsciousness didn't always come quickly. Sometimes it took over 24 hours before blood loss and shock finally took over. This was far beyond cruelty, believe me.

    Therefore, evan as an atheist, I dismiss this study as ridiculous. The man was crucified. Now, let's move on and force religions to pay their fair share of taxes.


    July 2, 2010 at 10:46 pm |
    • Eric

      Thanks for the insight. Crucifixion is a nasty way to die. And Jesus saw it coming too.

      32 But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."
      33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.
      John 12:32-33 (NIV)

      July 2, 2010 at 11:15 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      @ Eric – AMEN!!

      July 2, 2010 at 11:52 pm |
    • gerald

      Sanjosemike, while I do not agree with your aethism and rejection of the Biblical accounts of Jesus, I do appreciate that you are at least intellectually honest about the existance of Jesus and the crusifixion.

      July 3, 2010 at 11:51 am |
    • Toby

      sanjosemike- I agree with your assessment that if Jesus existed, likely he was crucified. I think that if believers truly with to gain converts (and credibility) to their system of belief, the more important study that should be undertaken and heavily funded is one where it could be demonstrated that the dead can indeed come back to life after 18 hours. Now, we all know that isn't true, and even if it were it would not prove divinity.

      July 3, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
  10. Dean

    The papers cannot get what happened an hour ago correct. Why would we think some book written several thousands of years ago, which has been through probably dozens of iterations, is accurate? More than likely, it's not even close to accurate.

    July 2, 2010 at 10:36 pm |
  11. Eric

    Toby – Virgin birth? Demons? Son of God? Not sure where that all came from.
    Gunnar Samuelsson is talking about the state sponsored execution of Jesus;
    specifically how to understand the word “crucifixion” in the following passages.
    Matthew 27:35 ...when they had crucified (stauroósantes) him...
    Matthew 27:38 ...crucified (stauroúntai) with him...
    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):

    July 2, 2010 at 10:26 pm |
  12. Toby

    OK, let's all just sit back, relax, and use our faculties of reason, common sense and rational thought for a minute, shall we? Maybe Jesus was a real person, and maybe he wasn't. No one can say with absolute certainty that a man named Jesus did not exist 2000 years ago. However, we now know, if we know ANYTHING that dead people do not come back to life after being dead from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. We also know that devils and demons only inhabit the minds and imaginations of man. We also know that virgins do not give birth, and even if they did, it does not PROVE that the child is any kind of god or divine. We also know (having seen the near implosion of the Catholic Church, Inc.) that we do NOT need religion to be good moral people.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:52 pm |
  13. Eric

    decredico – You communicate like someone who is obviously highly educated (master's level at least) so I am sure you won't mind citing an author who you respect who is able to offer evidence to prove that Jesus is not a historical figure. Thanks

    July 2, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
  14. Jill

    It's important what Jesus died on but since we don't know 100% for sure, don't you agree that to wear his mode of execution as jewelry, or use it as an image, is unusual? I mean it would be like wearing any other mode of death on a piece of jewelry...like a gun, or a cancel cell, or maybe a plane, if the person died from a crash. We never do it for our loved ones nowadays. Hmmmm. Also, if Jesus is imaginary, what a testimony to an imaginary figure...we use the calendar based on his date of birth. Not sure anything will help.................

    July 2, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
  15. ttwp

    (2 John 1:7) Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
  16. ttwp

    (John 1:7) Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.

    July 2, 2010 at 9:02 pm |
  17. Gil T

    Did Samuelsson not intend the sensationalist effect of his discovery? I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say that was not what he intended mainly because he states Jesus was crucified. Still, there's some value to his contribution because he, a Christian, makes Christians mindful of how we speak matters of faith in terms other than those present in the scriptures. We engage in this when we speak, for example, of trinitarian and unitarian doctrines defining terms not present in the scriptures.

    Much as I appreciate scholarly work I am leery any time the focus of a doctrine relies on drilling down on a single word. In simple terms Samuelsson's point is akeen to a defense attorney arguing for his client's acquittal because all the testimony states he took the victim's life, took him down but no one ever said his client shot and killed the victim. Is this not the case if the scripture testifys Jesus was suspended on a cross that he was indeed put to death by crucifixion?

    Here's an example for my leeriness concerning scholarly findings such as Samuelsson's. He may be as loaded with those pictures of crucifixion when he says Jesus "was required to carry the 'stauros' to Calvary and they 'stauroun' him." The scripture says it was Simon of Cyrene (Luke 23:26) who carried the cross for Jesus

    July 2, 2010 at 8:54 pm |
    • Eric

      Gil T – Wouldn't it be the coolest thing if CNN actually posted Samuelsson's 400 page thesis.
      I keep asking people to cite their sources, I wish CNN would set a good example in this too. Oh, well.

      Excellent point about Simon of Cyrene! Another real man who helped the real Jesus carry a real object to a real place.

      July 2, 2010 at 9:19 pm |
    • DakkonA

      That would be cool, but chances are it is in Swedish, and thus mostly inaccessible to us.

      July 6, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  18. Tom

    Those of you who follow the idea of sola scriptura shoould take a huge lesson from this as most of you belong to small churches and your pastors do not have access to the volumes of knowledge passed down for the last 2000 years. Sacred tradition is just as imporatant becasue the patrisitic writings show how important it was to hand down things that were not in the Bible. Many fundamentalist and evangelicals forget that alot happened after 96 AD when the last book of the Bible was written.

    July 2, 2010 at 8:08 pm |
  19. HeIsGod

    I praise God that I attend a wonderful church where the Word of God is preached at it's best, to know God, learn of God, and give back unto others. I refuse to put my trust on philosophy, scholars, science, or any mankind. Of course, the devil is doing everything he can to kill, steal, and destroy spiritually as well as physically. He has his demonic forces of darkness working hard through mankind to deceive many into believing many things that are contrary to the Word and will of God. This are foolish people that think that they have God so figured out as if God is a liar or has made a mistake in His Word.

    July 2, 2010 at 7:34 pm |
  20. SweetStuff

    I have always wondered about the original writings, I think this type of research is so important. I think this because of exactly what he said in his last few paragraphs: "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.
    I can't go to church anymore it is just too stressful to see the ignorance all around, and the cruelty of modern religion. I still have my faith, I know no other way to live. I just know that organized religion is a business and I cannot be a part of the silliness that happens. He states that we fight about things that are found between the lines, that is genius and exactly how so many ex-church members feel.

    July 2, 2010 at 6:35 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      So, since we don't have the original writings, you rather believe in men instead of allowing the help of the Holy Spirit to guide you and lead you into all truth? Also, don't blame your stress in church over ignorance in it because there are so many ignorant people in every church. How are they suppose to know of God? Do you think that all churches have the Spirit of the Lord that dwells in it? No, God's Spirit is not within every church. Religion is more like a wall that stands between men/women and God. God is seeking those that will worship Him in Spirit and in truth by having a sincere RELATIONSHIP with Him, not through a RELIGION. Anyone can have a religion, but few knows how to have a relationship with Christ Jesus. That's the problem with this world who thinks that religion will get you closer to God or in heaven.

      July 2, 2010 at 7:40 pm |
    • SweetStuff

      SweetStuff here: HelsGod is right, we need to learn of God and give back to the world that we live in. We don't put our trust in anyone but God, also correct. God speaks to us in many forms, some through research like what this article is about, church is not the only way to learn of God. I used to think it was that simple, I have more pew time than anyone I know, so if this is the way to heaven I have no worries. We all have our journey, I am so glad that you have a church to attend that fits your needs, this is just not the only way and many of us have many experiences that we don't like to recall to even strangers on these blogs. Worshiping God comes in many forms and situations, I am sure you know this, it is just hard for some to comprehend. Our families don't treat us as Christians at all now that we don't attend a church, I have found this to be cruel and judgmental. Just know that not everything you believe is always true, none of us can know everything we want to about God. He has given us this restriction, but to love one another and accept one another is the fruit of what we have learned. I have had to learn to accept Christians as backwards as that sounds because I am one. The judgment that I now see since finding my own walk with God was so stressful, I had to see that I also was judging. I really can let go and let God, and old time saying, showing my age!! You are on a great journey and will find along the way that just being a small part of God's plan is alright. It is in the small things that others don't even see that I think God sees. Putting it all in His hands and letting your soul just breathe and love and care is an amazing place to be. Listening and really caring, suffering and serving because this is what we are, is a good lesson that is taught throughout our lives. When you reach that in any persons journey it is full of peace and contentment. It is full of peace because we are finally giving in to what we really know what God teaches. I don't remember Jesus attending a building every Sunday, this is a social event that is in our society, and is a very good thing, just not for me. No offense, just helping you to know how some others outside of your world feel. The beauty of the internet!!

      July 2, 2010 at 8:10 pm |
    • Tom

      I would encourage you to find a church. Congregation is important and it is specified in the Bible.

      July 2, 2010 at 8:20 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      @ SweetStuff – There are many nondenominational churches that you can visit. I highly recommend you to seek one, it is very important for your soul. Church is like a public school, the children has to attend school up until college in order to become a profession in an area that God gives them. Church is our spiritual school. We need to learn in order to become warriors, disciples, leaders, pastors, elders, you name it, in order for us to become and accomplish what God has called us to be. Faith alone will no help you stand. You need Faith and works. Without one with other, individually is dead.

      Also, don't allow those around you in church distract your from hearing the Word of God, you can be missing out in a blessing that your very life needs. I remember one day more than 14 years ago, my Pastor said something that helped me with my walk in Christ, he said, when "When I started coming to church, I had to pretend that it was just God, the Pastor and myself in church." Not that he would ignore those around him, but he was given his full attention to the preaching of God's Word. Also, I have been touched by the laying of anointed hands and there are times that I don't have my Pastor lay hands on me when I find the Power of the Holy Spirit on me and I am on the floor. It is amazing when one can experience such a divine touch of God. I encourage to visit a few churches, pray about it and ask God to guide you to the church where His Spirit dwells in, He will show you.

      May God's Blessing be upon you and your family!

      July 2, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
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