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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. HeIsGod

    Ian – Your prayers will not reach God, He sent His followers to preach the Gospel of the Good News, yes, the bible.

    For everyone that has the same mentality as Ian, no disrespect, in regards to the bible being written by men, I want to say that the Bible was written by men who saw God, walked, talked, traveled and learned of Jesus Christ. The Bible was inspired by God given to men to write down for us. The Bible is sealed and it was not written for unbelievers and to make believers. It was written for believers, only. Believers are the only ones that can understand the Word of God by the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit. So, if you want to know the Truth that sets you free, your heart has to sincerely be surrender to Christ.

    God Bless you all....HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!!

    July 4, 2010 at 10:01 pm |
  2. Ian

    It is Mythology...the bible is not Gods word he never wrote a thing ! Jesus never wrote anything either. So what do we have, a group of 'original good people' who had their message high-jacked by the likes of the Catholic Church, the Protestants , Jesuits, Mormons and many more to fleece the poor, weak, stupid and scared ( of death) of their money.
    Jesus save us from your followers...please....I forgot no one is listening.

    July 4, 2010 at 9:13 pm |
    • gerald

      so Ian, ya sure about that?

      July 4, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
    • Eric

      Ian – Are you saying that the Roman empire didn't exist or have influence in first century Judea?

      July 4, 2010 at 11:02 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Ian, you said…………‘the bible is not Gods word he never wrote a thing ! Jesus never wrote anything either.’

      But, listen.....
      Those that wrote the Bible were inspired to write by God. God inspires us to do works by His Holy Spirit, given to us as a gift when we are Baptized. We can do all things with God working through us--in fact, we are expected to do the Father’s will once Baptized.
      You are right, Jesus never wrote a thing, however He taught the Apostles everything He wanted them to know up to the time of His Resurrection. He promised He would send the Paraclete [another name for the Holy Spirit] after His resurrection to bring to mind all that He taught them and also to guide them into all Truth as they could not bear to know the fullness of Truth at that point in time.
      All this information is called Tradition and Catholics have believed it for the hundreds of years that they were without a Bible and continue to believe it because Truth does not change over time. The Bible reinforces Tradition and the Church is the pillar and foundation of the Truth. The Pope is the successor of the Apostle Peter who was the one who had the final say on any disputes among the people. It was good in Jesus’ day and still works today.
      So, you see, the message wasn’t high-jacked by Catholics because the message was a Catholic message then and still is today.

      July 5, 2010 at 8:59 am |
  3. Stupidity

    If that is the conclusion this "scholar" came up with after with 3 years of reading 12 hours a day, that is 13,140 hours of his life that he will never get back, poor guy.

    July 4, 2010 at 8:41 pm |
    • Eric

      And what have you spent your time doing? How have you set a better example for us?

      July 4, 2010 at 11:00 pm |
  4. Firmbeliever

    Matthew 27:26 "Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scouraged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified." Mark 15:15 "So Pilate wishing to satisfy the crowd released for them Barabbas, and having scouraged Jesus he delivered him to be crucified." "scouraged" or the greek word "phragelloō" refers to severe beating administered in connection with capital punishments, including crucifixtion.

    Dear Lord I pray for the nation, I pray that your word reaches unbelievers. Thank you for the opportunty to speak your Truth!

    July 4, 2010 at 6:44 pm |
  5. GriffMills

    "He spent three years reading for 12 hours a day".....how the hell do you get a job like this???

    July 4, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
    • Eric

      Griff – It is pretty much what most doctoral students do... so just go back to school and you can do something similar.
      So... what would you do a thesis on?

      July 4, 2010 at 7:38 pm |
  6. Eric

    ttwp – Yes, Jesus is God, but I can't even convince these people that Jesus was a real person.
    First we start with the simple things, then we go on to the more difficult things.

    Dr. Samuelsson’s thesis is simply about the man Jesus who was killed on the cross.
    Lets start there, with that fact of history which is attested to by eye-witness and collaborating testimony.

    July 4, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  7. Inyourdreams

    One writer here says that the Quran claims Jesus was neither crucified on a cross nor died. His reference is only the Quran, which is about 600 years after the fact, far too long after the events to be historically accurate. While the writer may believe that the Quran is the indisputable word of God, the facts suggest otherwise. If Jesus did not die, then he did not ressurect. If he did not ressurect, then what in the world would convince his disciples to follow his way and subject themselves to crucifixion only to die a painful death after living a miserable life. No, the disciples saw the dead and risen Christ. This is the only explanation their continuing to follow the way of Jesus. The Quran is mistaken.

    July 4, 2010 at 4:03 pm |
    • Eric

      Iny – Allow me to add some eye-witness testimony to support what you have said.

      27 Then he (Jesus) said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands.
      Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
      28 Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
      29 Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed;
      blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
      John 20:27-29 (NIV)

      July 4, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
    • verify

      People sometimes die for mistaken beliefs - Many ancient Egyptians died taking sides in Amun vs. Aten; lots of people died for Naziism; many have died for mistakenly believing in Allah too - and many, many more throughout history.

      July 4, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      AMEN!!! Well said!!

      Jesus Christ's disciples are the very living witness that saw the evidence of our Savior being crucified, died, and saw His resurrection on the 3rd day. How can anyone disprove what these great men of God saw with their very own eyes?

      July 4, 2010 at 10:11 pm |
  8. HeIsGod

    I am so glad to see that my trust can never, ever, be in human beings that think that they have God all figured out!

    THANK YOU JESUS, MY REDEEMER, MY SAVIOR!!!! GLORY!!!

    July 4, 2010 at 3:07 pm |
    • Eric

      The above article is not about God per say. It is about the finer details of how Jesus died.

      July 4, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
    • ttwp

      Jesus is God. "To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours..." (2 Peter 1:1)

      July 4, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      @ Eric – It is about God, Jesus Christ is God and these scholar are trying to disprove what the Word of God says, I will not buy into their lies.

      : – )

      July 4, 2010 at 10:16 pm |
    • Eric

      Hels – “We need to… read the Bible." is what Gunnar Samuelsson said.
      This is doctoral level investigation. Asking questions about the text, not taking anything for granted.
      It is not an attack on God, His Son, our His Word. All the man is trying to do is research what the word "crucifixion" means.
      He is seeking the truth and encouraging us to do the same.

      Now if CNN would only post a copy of the entire thesis...

      July 4, 2010 at 10:59 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      @ Eric – We have the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit and it is only through Him that we will know the Truth. We can't disprove what the Word of God says. We can't lean unto our own understanding. I don't know how these scholar came up with this.

      After Thomas touched the wounds of the resurrected Jesus Christ, he became a believing believer. Jesus said, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

      Faith is defined as confidence or trust, belief, such as belief in God. Faith is something every Christian knows something about, if only a little bit. Hebrews 11:1 is probably the most succinct definition of faith found in the Bible. “Faith means being sure of the things we hope for and knowing that something is real even if we do not see it.” (New Century Version) Very concise. The Amplified Bible expands. “Now faith is the assurance (the confirmation, the title deed) of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses].”

      The definition of trust is remarkably similar. Trust is the confident expectation of something, or confidence in the certainty of the future fulfillment of something. Trust is reliance on the integrity, strength and ability of a person or thing. Trust and faith go hand in hand. In difficult times, financial struggles or health problems, it is not always easy to trust, but God has proven to be trustworthy over time on countless occasions. Like a leap of faith, sometimes one must take a leap of trust. Once one discovers that God can be trusted, it becomes easier to trust Him again and again.

      Proverbs 3:5 and 6 give wise advice, and continuously implore God's people. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” These words challenge believers to put more confidence in God's ability than in their own, to not try to analyze and figure out every detail themselves, but to place their belief in God's wisdom, love and strength, to lean on God instead of relying on themselves or anyone else.

      July 4, 2010 at 11:29 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      @ Eric – We have the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit and it is only through Him that we will know the Truth. We can't disprove what the Word of God says. We can't lean unto our own understanding. I don't know how these scholar came up with this.
      After Thomas touched the wounds of the resurrected Jesus Christ, he became a believing believer. Jesus said, Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believe. John 20:29
      Faith is defined on confidence or trust, belief, such as belief in God.
      Proverbs 3"5 and 6 gives wise advice and continuously implore God's people. "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean NOT on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your path.

      Why doubt now?

      July 4, 2010 at 11:36 pm |
  9. david c.

    religion is nothing more than fantasy...

    July 4, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
  10. Dan

    Do you half-wit religious nuts believe everything that you read in an old book?

    July 4, 2010 at 1:10 pm |
    • Eric

      Dan – Gunnar Samuelsson is talking about the state sponsored execution of Jesus not about religion.

      July 4, 2010 at 1:45 pm |
    • Inyourdreams

      Yes I'm Crazy. Crazy about God and crazy about Jesus! Thank God he sent His Son to light the lamp in this world!

      July 4, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
  11. lovelyme

    I agree with JESUS its so many gospels been taking out the bible that actually states neither was he killed nor crucified, but it appeared to the blind followers as that which was people who really wasn't close to JESUS at all. ETC. Gospel of Bernabus, Gospel of MARY, Shepard of Hermus, and Book of Enoch. There are actually more books that state he wasn't crucified than those that state he was. Don't be in denial just study and you will become knowledgable of this.

    July 4, 2010 at 1:01 pm |
  12. epbdl

    Never happened because he never existed. End of debate.

    July 4, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
    • Thorrsman

      Offer proof. Can't? End of debate.

      July 4, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
    • Eric

      epbdl – Could you tell us a person in history that you actually believe in?

      July 4, 2010 at 1:53 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Good one, Thorrsman!!

      July 4, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
    • gerald

      Only a complete fool would say Jesus never existed. Our very system of time is based on his coming and dying. You count your days by this my friend. What do you think BC and AD mean? There were a hell of a lot of people beliving in him to base the whole calandar on him. That you don't is of far less historical consequence.

      July 4, 2010 at 9:59 pm |
  13. TC

    You want to find God? He is not in the sky. He is not in the words spoken at church. He is not in text, especially those put together in 4th Century AD by Constatine. He is in your heart.

    July 4, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
    • Eric

      TC – We are not talking about finding God. Please reread the article.

      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 …

      July 4, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  14. Anders Branderud

    The Dead Sea Scrolls suggest that–understandably given their rabid Hellenization and their collaboration with the Hellenist occupiers of Yehudah–both the Qumran Tzedoqim and the Perushim viewed the Hellenist Tzedoqim "Temple Priesthood" as "Wicked Priests." The Temple Priesthood were the (first Syrian, then Roman) Hellenist Judenrats of that era.

    This is the key to understanding what no one has ever explained sensibly: it's impossible to explain why Romans bothered to execute a Perushi Ribi as a threat to Rome OR a crowd of Jews would scream out for the death of one of their own rabbis EVEN IF he HAD made a claim to be the Mashiakh, which he never actively pursued in any political sense. It's absolutely clear that Ribi Yehoshua never posed any political threat to Romans nor religious threat to Jews from that perspective.

    It is not possible for me to quote all of the article, but the interested reader can find it in http://www.netzarim.co.il ; Web cafe (left menu; 2010-05-20)

    July 4, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
    • Eric

      Anders – See if you can get a copy of "The Illegal Trial of Christ" by Allen. It offers some insight into the politics of why the crucifixion took place.

      July 4, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
  15. Anders Branderud

    I would like to write these important words about the death of Ribi Yehoshua (quote from Paqid Yirmeyahu ha-Tzadiq):

    Regardless of their credentials, these are not scholars nor historians; they're gloss artists trying to convince that no one was bad, no one responsible–which leaves only the ex falso quodlibet "deduction" that it was a miracle... which proves that the crucifixion could only be the Divine Will, proving the Christian Jz*us is the Christ.

    They don't think you'll figure out that chain of "reasoning." It's supposed to look like an innocent exoneration of everyone, making nice-nice.

    While the facts have been available since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is the first time, anywhere, that the complete picture is being laid out in one place.
    Part 1 of 3

    July 4, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  16. Anders Branderud

    The source to the words I wrote is http://www.netzarim.co.il

    July 4, 2010 at 12:31 pm |
  17. Joe V.

    The fact is that the historical records from that period are sketchy and unsubstantiated. No are no photos or videos to prove what really happened. It's all unverifiable hearsay. You can believe biblical accounts on faith, but that's all it is is faith. Churches are collections of men and men say things for their own purposes and benefit. If you chose to have faith in them, that is your prerogative.

    July 4, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
    • verify

      Heh, Joe V. - I have spoken to people who thought that Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" was actually painted on-site at the event!

      July 4, 2010 at 12:49 pm |
    • Eric

      Joe V. – There are also no pictures or videos of the American War for Independence but I bet you that it still happened. (In fact, Happy 4th of July!)

      There are numerous records from reliable sources that can demonstrate that the Jesus, whom we are discussing, was a real person of history.

      July 4, 2010 at 1:42 pm |
  18. EAZY

    Yes Jesus was crucified on the cross. He died for you and me, so that our sins can be foregiven and we can have a chance at everlasting life.

    July 4, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  19. Steve

    Of course he wasn't crucified. That's like saying Sam I Am actually made green eggs and ham. Or Peter Pan actually led the Lost Boys and flew.

    Time and energy analyzing children's bedtime stories.

    July 4, 2010 at 10:00 am |
  20. Steve Keohane

    The Gospel of John is believed to be written by the apostle John. Not from some 2nd or 3rd hand account that a poster above says.

    Tacitus was a Roman historian wrote two major books about the first century ("Annals" and the "Histories"). In both of these books, Jesus and Christianity are mentioned. In about 115 A.D. Tacitus wrote the following in his "Annals":

    "A class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate".

    Josephus (born in Jerusalem 37 A.D.) the First Century Jewish General, Traitor, and excellent historian wrote the following about Jesus in his Antiquities (18:63), while writing for the Romans:
    About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not cease. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life. For the prophets of God had prophesied these and myriads of other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still up to now, not disappeared.

    The Jewish Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a) from the Tannaitic Period recorded: "On the eve of the Passover Yeshu [the Nazarene] was hanged".... or crucified hanging on a "tree"

    On the eve of the Passover Yeshu [the Nazarene] was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come and plead on his behalf." And since nothing was brought forward in his favor, he was hanged on the eve of Passover." Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a)

    July 4, 2010 at 8:30 am |
    • Eric

      Steve – Thank you for demonstrating how to actually contribute to a discussion.

      July 4, 2010 at 12:43 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.