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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. SCOTO

    Sorry Matt, there is much debate about the historical accuracy of the bible. Much of it just doesn't stand up to historical examination. There is no historical evidence for instance for the Exodus. Much of it has as much veracity as fables.

    July 1, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
  2. Ronnie Harper

    None of what this guy says is true. None of it is supported by historical texts, and his claims as to the translation of Herodotus are fiction. This whole article is full of historical inaccuracies, half-truths, and religious propaganda.

    July 1, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
  3. Confident in Christ

    Zeit-Geist......you are asking people to research a myth (astro-theological) to refute the existence of what you claim to be another myth, Jesus Christ. Sounds like you will take the existence of components of a myth to be factual if it suits your purpose. Where's the basis in reality in that?

    July 1, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • dalis

      Oh my God, yes, you just wrote exactly the thing I was trying to formulate.

      July 1, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
    • verify

      CinC: Are you really that dense? A myth is a myth is a myth is a myth...

      July 1, 2010 at 5:02 pm |
    • verify

      CinC: Upon further reflection, I will apologize for my knee-jerk reaction to your quandary. Simply stated, though, a myth as a spin-off of another myth is still a myth.

      July 1, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  4. Christ Loves You

    @Just2Reason: God will not send you to hell if you don't accept Jesus Christ. He, only God, will decide whether someone goes to hell or heaven at the Gates of St. Peter! You may think He will but Christians don't!

    July 1, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
    • Just2Reason

      Then you don't meat the normal criteria of being a Christian, and you don't believe what's written in black and white throughout the New Testament.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  5. Susan

    I don't understand why it's important to identify exactly how Jesus died. It doesn't make any difference to the main points – Jesus was killed by and three days later was resurrected. The details shouldn't mean anything. Then again, I'm Jewish and don't believe in the virgin birth, divinity, and resurrection.
    This article and controversy just seem very silly to me.

    July 1, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      It does matter, Susan. When you get these people speaking that which they think is a more learned aproach—it is just one more way for them to try to chisel away at your faith. There have been heresies galore from the beginning right up until today with this suggestion. This is just another person with his brand of heresy—or maybe it will help sell his books.

      July 1, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  6. dalis

    Anyone else find it interesting that this CNN story about the veracity of crucifixion is released the day after another concerning the display of the crucifix in Italian public school classrooms?

    July 1, 2010 at 4:26 pm |
  7. Karen Matthews

    This is why you need church tradition to truly understand what happened to Jesus. This tradition was the oral teaching that was passed on from the apostles to their disciples and new converts. We know Jesus was crucified because the apostles told the first Christians and they told new Christians and so and and so on throughout the ages. Most of the apostles ran away, but John and Mary stood at the bottom of the cross and saw it all and they told everyone what happened.

    July 1, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
  8. John

    To Zeit-Geist, It would take you six months to take a permit to tour the White House for an hour and you won't even see the President. Only Jesus salvation , life time faith and good deeds to live with the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords in the eternal life. I hope that you live to see the salvation of GOD because He loves you.

    July 1, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
  9. Bubba

    Dear Craig, anyone who starts out with name-calling isn't much of a Christian. Thanks for playing, and better luck next time.

    July 1, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
  10. masterwenger

    All this is an eye-opener. One gets the idea that if Jesus (assuming that he lived) was to appear here today, he would not pick 'the Church' (whatever that means) as the product of his teachings if you asked him to guess!

    July 1, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
    • Luke M.

      Yup, Jesus won't choose the word 'the Church' that you understand. But, Jesus would choose the word 'the Church' where people who firmly believe in him and dwell in his Church. Thanks,

      July 1, 2010 at 11:58 pm |
  11. ndundu

    I agree that the message is very much more important than knowing the exact shape of the 'stauron'. Enough to know that the Romans 'stauronized' thousands of people during their wars and that the Son of Man willingly subjected Himself to this kind of death and therefore shows the heart of a God who is not distant from us, but Who willingly shared our suffering in order to prepare the way for a time when suffering will be something of the past. However, I will not call the guy an 'idiot', as Christianity is a faith in which open discussion is to be honored and the outcome entrusted to the Holy Spirit.

    July 1, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  12. Bernie

    Bryan Bro: "the Bible is very clear in taking a stand against using images in worship. No matter what you think the device looked like that Jesus was impaled upon, an image of it is not to be used in worship according to scripture."

    You should read "Three Treatises on the Divine Images" by St. John of Damascus." The Church settled this issue way back in the ninth century and St. John states the winning argument powerfully –and from scripture. If you are going to call upon the bible then understand that you must include the authority of the WHOLE bible and not just selected excerpts.

    July 1, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  13. Uh oh

    Did ur beliefz just died?

    July 1, 2010 at 4:12 pm |
  14. YOUSUF

    Was Jesus Really Crucified ?
    See what Holy Books of Christianity & Islam says about it .
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPzZRn0lHXc&w=640&h=360]

    July 1, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
    • ndundu

      Peter tried very hard to keep Jesus from going to the cross. Yusuf is trying very hard to convince us that Jesus did not die on the cross. To Peter, Jesus replied: "Go away from me Satan, for you think not the things of God but the things of men." Compassion means com = with, passion = suffering. That is what God is in His Almighty Being.

      July 1, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
    • GBattista

      So in 2,000 years from now, when people read, "he slept with her" or "they were sleeping together" are they to think we were a dormant people?

      July 2, 2010 at 6:37 am |
    • Winston Sumirsan

      Was Jesus really crucified?

      Does it matter because you all, Muslims, have accepted that Jesus did exist?

      Hey, Yusuf,

      I grew up as a Muslim boy in Asia. After I arrived at USA and started schooling, my third essay in my first English class was Terrorism in the year of 1999.

      Humans are very much look alike by appearances. But, by actions, they are wide apart. I am not going to compare the deeds of Mohammad and Jesus from Islam point of views, apart from Christian point of views. Even in Islamic point of view, Jesus and Mohammad had differences in actions, which Islamic religious teachers claim as different purposes for different Prophets.

      I will tell you a little bit about why I became interested in Christianity. While attending college, then, uni, I heard from a Christian radio this:

      Christian doctrine is based on the fact that God created Himself as a man to come to the world to let His unique creatures know about Him and to share His Blessed life.

      When I was going through RCIA, one person gave me an example.

      A couple got married and ran away from their parents. The couple got their own children. Then, the couple passed away; yet, grandparents are still to live. Grandparents would like to let the grandchildren know about them. So, Grandparents, in worldly life, went themselves or sent uncles or aunties to grandchildren.

      Likewise, God wants to let His unique creatures know about Him, so, He sent His beloved Son to this world to get reconnect with Him. Through His beloved Son, we all humans are connected to God.

      Let say a group of humans sits on the chairs close by. If you give them one-ply tissue roll and ask everyone there to hold the tissue roll from the first person to the last person, all humans are connected through the one-ply tissue roll. Some one may touch tissue tough, some may soft, some might get disconnected for some period. But, we can reconnect again and we all can connect through tissue roll.

      Likewise, we all humans, first person from the last person, are connected to each other through Jesus Christ whom Muslims accepted as a Prophet in Heaven and the only Prophet who will come back to this world. One thing about Christianity is: If some non-Christians or even some Christians destroy Jesus statue or insult the Christianity or do some bad things to Christianity, they will not get any harm or curse or punishment from God or Jesus Christ; of course, their holy spirit can not light up yet under the ashes of sinful deeds. Why? Our Christian God is not revengeful, does not have any hatred to humans, and God is slow to anger and rich in kindness so that

      He let his only Son Jesus Christ to be Crucified by sinful creatures he created; yet, always welcoming us, humans, to come close to Him to share His Blessed Life eternally.

      Thanks for reading.

      July 5, 2010 at 8:21 pm |
  15. Confident in Christ

    Zeit-Geist..... you are asking people to research a myth (astro-theological) to refute the existence of what you claim to be another myth, Jesus Christ. Sounds like you will accept the components of a myth to be true when it serves your purpose. Where's the basis in reality in that?

    July 1, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
    • Zeit-Geist

      astro-theological myth is a premise, Im not asking people to believe in myths but understand their origin just as
      Joseph Campbell wasnt advocating mythological belief with his books
      please understand a persons argument before you attempt to derail it with your ignorance

      July 1, 2010 at 4:23 pm |
  16. James

    No! the invisible grand doge of spaghettiland has blue shoes! no, red! no, blue! You religious people are delusional.

    July 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
    • perry

      What a sad existence you must live in your own head- I'll pray you wake up

      July 2, 2010 at 7:17 am |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      thank you! I always like to keep religious discussions in perspective.

      Why argue over the color of the shoes if it doesn't really matter? Different sects of Christianity are the same way. He died on a t-shaped cross! No! he died on a l-shaped tree! 😛 At least they both think he died...

      When it comes down to it–we are all following our own belief systems that originate internally–not externally. We all drink our own kool-aid. Discussing our personal beliefs is one thing. Proclaiming that they are the one true faith for all peoples at all times is quite another. thanks for the reminder that the details may not be quite as important as some are making them out to be.

      Cheers!

      July 5, 2010 at 11:19 am |
  17. Bobby Bookany

    Oh, you really goofed this up! There is NO way an even half-serious scholar (even amongst the most conservative ones) would EVER agree with this...

    //At the time the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing their Gospels...//

    The apostles didn't write the Gospels, you knuckleheads!!!!!!

    Every academic knows full well that the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written anonymously, and all of them by Greek authors. Only a century later were they attributed names, but even then nobody was claiming that these were the apostles names (Matthew, Mark and Luke were common names). It's commonly believed that Mark was written by a relative of Barnabas around 67 AD. But Matthew and Luke, which used Mark as their key source, were written around 100 AD by Greek authors! In fact, the writer of Matthew was totally unfamiliar with local Palestinian geography. After the crucifixion (in Jerusalem), Matthew said that Jesus met up with his disciples in Galilee. But that's 60 miles away!! The other synoptic authors had him meet them closer by, but Matthew screwed up because he didn't even understand the region.

    The Gospels were not written by apostles, nor were they every claimed to be. CNN just writes that so matter-of-factly as if it's common knowledge amongst scholars. I've got a newsflash for you: no scholars think that the gospels were written by apostles. To the contrary, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that they were not!

    July 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
    • GregB

      This response has more intelligent facts than the entire "news" article.

      If I could high-five you through the computer, I would.

      July 1, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
    • Eric G

      Hey buddy!!!!! Don't be brining up your "facts" when talkin' bout my bible!!!!

      July 1, 2010 at 4:11 pm |
    • Corso

      Remember that the question is, why were they written to begin with? How were these stories compiled by each author, stories written on different media from the oral tradition? Not too many people knew how to read and write back then. The author, may be wrote them to keep a lot of corruption and false teachings to change the message from the spirit of the early church. The fact that many authors were responsible for the creation of such manuscripts is, according to present scholars and methods, an indication of an unbiased presentation of early church beliefs and witnessings. They even present a more believable account than the ones expressed by a single author, since it innevitably shows the author's bias. An example is the compilation of the koran after the death of mohamed. Not authentic, but very biased.

      July 1, 2010 at 4:57 pm |
    • Jo

      Thanks and well stated!! 'Christian' don't mean 'Stupid'

      July 5, 2010 at 5:40 am |
  18. Robby Bookand

    Oh, CNN, you really goofed this up! There is NO way an even half-serious scholar (even amongst the most conservative ones) would EVER agree with this...

    //At the time the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing their Gospels...//

    The apostles didn't write the Gospels, you knuckleheads!!!!!!

    Every academic knows full well that the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) were written anonymously, and all of them by Greek authors. Only a century later were they attributed names, but even then nobody was claiming that these were the apostles names (Matthew, Mark and Luke were common names). It's commonly believed that Mark was written by a relative of Barnabas around 67 AD. But Matthew and Luke, which used Mark as their key source, were written around 100 AD by Greek authors! In fact, the writer of Matthew was totally unfamiliar with local Palestinian geography. After the crucifixion (in Jerusalem), Matthew said that Jesus met up with his disciples in Galilee. But that's 60 miles away!! The other synoptic authors had him meet them closer by, but Matthew screwed up because he didn't even understand the region.

    The Gospels were not written by apostles, nor were they every claimed to be. CNN just writes that so matter-of-factly as if it's common knowledge amongst scholars. I've got a newsflash for you: no scholars think that the gospels were written by apostles. To the contrary, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that they were not!

    July 1, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  19. Saajid

    Jesus, may peace be upon him (P.B.U.H), was not crucified. It was made to appear as if he was captured and crusified. God raised raised him to heaven and will one day reappear on earth to spend the rest of his life as a muslim. Jesus (P.B.U.H) was one of the great prophets sent out by god. God did not have children, nor did he have parents. Jesus (P.B.U.H) was sent by god with a message to humanity. Just like the previous prophets like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses (P.B.U.H) etc. God saved them from harm when ever situation arose. This you will note if you read the bible itself. This is the belief of muslims have about the crusification or rightly said crusifiction. The bibile talks of a coming messiah which was prophet muhummad. To learn more of the Holy Quran with translation, please visit website http://www.quranexplorer.com/quran/

    July 1, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • ndundu

      God is the truth and, let us say it reverently, He does not play games. To ascribe makebelief to God or to His prophet, is strange and not in keeping with a person who claims to be one of the faithful. Rather, in submitting Himself completely and in total obedience to the will of God, in the face of horrible death, knowing that He was not only going to die the death of a convict, but representing all of humanity before the throne of judgment, Jesus did what no other human being could ever perfectly do. Therefore "he became the fountain of salvation for everyone who believes in Him."

      July 1, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • DAVINCIKODE

      @ndundu

      Respect, well said.

      July 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
    • Saajid

      God saved Prophet from harm, just as he saved Prophets before him. Recall the story of Prophets Moses saving from Feron by crossing the sea. Yes, God does not play games, but he did what was necessary to save the messenger from the enemies of Jesus (P.B.U.H).

      July 1, 2010 at 5:00 pm |
    • kmichaels

      Considering how many muslim terrorists are infecting so many countries today, I will stick with the Christian version of Christ rather than some muslim version that seems to have been created out of jealously that they did not have the messiah in their scriptures first.

      July 2, 2010 at 8:12 pm |
  20. Osman

    I want to mention Greatness Truthfullness of Iesa (the Jesus Messiah PBUH) in Quran:

    19:16 And mention in the Book (the Qur'an, O Muhammad SAW , the story of) Maryam (Mary), when she withdrew in seclusion from her family to a place facing east.

    19:17 She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent to her Our Ruh [angel Jibrael (Gabriel)], and he appeared before her in the form of a man in all respects.

    19:18 She said: "Verily! I seek refuge with the Most Beneficent (Allah) from you, if you do fear Allah."

    19:19 (The angel) said: "I am only a Messenger from your Lord, (to announce) to you the gift of a righteous son."

    19:20 She said: "How can I have a son, when no man has touched me, nor am I unchaste?"

    19:21 He said: "So (it will be), your Lord said: 'That is easy for Me (Allah): And (We wish) to appoint him as a sign to mankind and a mercy from Us (Allah), and it is a matter (already) decreed, (by Allah).' "

    19:22 So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a far place (i.e. Bethlehem valley about 4-6 miles from Jerusalem).

    19:23 And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a date-palm. She said: "Would that I had died before this, and had been forgotten and out of sight!"

    19:24 Then [the baby 'Iesa (Jesus) or Jibrael (Gabriel)] cried unto her from below her, saying: "Grieve not! Your Lord has provided a water stream under you

    19:25 "And shake the trunk of date-palm towards you, it will let fall fresh ripe-dates upon you."

    19:26 "So eat and drink and be glad, and if you see any human being, say: 'Verily! I have vowed a fast unto the Most Beneficent (Allah) so I shall not speak to any human being this day.'"

    19:27 Then she brought him (the baby) to her people, carrying him. They said: "O Mary! Indeed you have brought a thing Fariya (an unheard mighty thing).

    19:28 "O sister (i.e. the like) of Harun (Aaron) [not the brother of Musa (Moses), but he was another pious man at the time of Maryam (Mary)]! Your father was not a man who used to commit adultery, nor your mother was an unchaste woman."

    19:29 Then she pointed to him. They said: "How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?"

    19:30 He ['Iesa (Jesus)] said: Verily! I am a slave and Man of Allah, He has given me the Scripture and made me a Prophet;"

    19:31 "And He has made me blessed wheresoever I be, and has enjoined on me Salat (prayer), and Zakat, as long as I live."

    19:32 "And dutiful to my mother, and made me not arrogant, unblest.

    19:33 "And Salam (peace) be upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive!"

    19:34 Such is 'Iesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary). (it is) a statement of truth, about which they doubt (or dispute).

    **************************************************************************************************************************************************

    July 1, 2010 at 3:54 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.