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. Turner

    Who cares if he lived or died. A religion was built on a name that he would not especially be proud of. Most of the conseratives would rather not wait in any line at all then to allow everyone to have health care. They don't mind going to war under false pretenses because it is easier to just believe rather the use reason.
    Then they want to believe in some big man in the ski who made everything because they can't quite grasp the concept of how RNA could eventually lead to DNA chains.

    July 1, 2010 at 5:33 pm |
  2. Matt Quebe

    Almost everyone here is delusional.

    Whoever wins the arguement on the technical aspects of the translation still doesn't get they're arguing basically whether Jack climbed up the magical bean stalk on the east side or the west of the stalk.

    July 1, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
    • kmichaels

      Really Matt? I thought the discussion was whether the actual greek words in the New Testament indicates crucifixion or possibly just impalement. Silly me. It was about Jack and the bean stalk all along.

      July 2, 2010 at 8:08 pm |
  3. Bob Ramos

    To me, the think is that Jesus died for our sins. Everything else is not really important.

    July 1, 2010 at 5:28 pm |
  4. John

    Jesus was a fictional character and never really existed at all. The bible is just a book of fanstasy.

    July 1, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
    • kmichaels

      Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that generally speaking, practicing Christians are nicer people to be around that most atheists.

      July 2, 2010 at 8:04 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      kmichales–keep practicing. You may get it right someday.

      July 5, 2010 at 11:39 am |
  5. Ruby

    I agree. 🙂

    July 1, 2010 at 5:22 pm |
  6. Defender of Truth

    This is sad. I love God & He loves you even if you don't believe in/love Him. I want to apologize to everyone on His behalf for the behavoir of all of His so-called disciples & believers. While I do not condone their behavior, I cannot say that you non-believers are right either. I respect your right to post your views, but you should try listening to high-minded Christians to see our true views before you slander us all based on the foolish words of the many false believers.
    Sorry to rant, too...

    July 1, 2010 at 5:19 pm |
    • Science Soma

      The difficulty, Defender, is that there really is no one or true Christian view. The view of the Baptist is as valid as that of the Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, Westboro Baptist Church member, Catholic, or Protestant. They all have the Truth according to them, just as the more esoteric scholarly Christians claim the same. Does any one denomination or person really represent the ideas of Christianity in totality? The answer is clearly no. I must add, with all due respect to your post, that the lack of cohesion amongst Christian ideas and ideals is consistent with the digression of political and social views. In other words, man-made ideas are consistent with the diversity of man.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:25 am |
  7. vitru

    he is right!!!!! People need to know the truth!!! Ther is prise to pay for thous who dont respect religion the way it was from the first time!!! i m happy we have people still looking for the truth!!! god with u !!!

    July 1, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • DanW

      You are obviously a Muslim and didn't read the article. He did say that Jesus died, he is only disputing the meaning of the Greek word "stauros." Nothing more.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:34 am |
  8. Josh

    What I don't understand is the fact that people are chastised for believing in an omniscient being who created us and the universe we live in, but what is honestly wrong with wanting to believe there is a life after death? I don't enjoy thinking that this is all there is. with the problems in the world today, and the difficulties we have to suffer through it's nice to believe that there is something more out there to reward us for the troubles we deal with in life.

    July 1, 2010 at 5:17 pm |
    • Mary

      I'm not sure the christian afterlife is that appealing. I personally believe your energy disperses and you become part of every other living thing.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:35 pm |
    • Science Soma

      And yet, as warm and well intentioned as your thought is, wanting it to be so does not make it so. Do what you can with what you have and find your salvation within yourself. It is all you can do.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:19 am |
  9. ScottK

    The first known use of a cross as a religous symbol dates back much further than Christ, going all the way back to the worship of Tammuz by Sumeriens and the Babylonian's. It was merely adopted for use by third century Christians since a merging of the ancient religions and christianity was taking place. Virtually all of the modern day christian holidays were adaptations of pagan religious celebrations. Its not surprising that the cross would be one of those ancient symbols that was grafted into modern Christianity, especially since there were so few visual symbols from Christianitys Jewish roots because the making of idols of any kind, even those meant to represent their Hebrew God, was forbidden.

    I find it rather ironic that the God of peace should be represented by a torture device that people now hang around there necks as good luck. That would be like people hanging little golden rifles around their necks to honor Dr. King or President Kennedy.

    July 1, 2010 at 5:10 pm |

      Dr. Nutcase in the house.

      July 1, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
    • VedicIndian

      Hey DAVINCICODE! Weren't you the one discounting Buddhism the other day on another forum? Buddha's teachings are pretty similar to Christ's. The miracles performed are also similar. You said you dont advocate for Christianity but you seem to be doing just that. How does Christianity not become obsolete (like you claimed for Buddhism) with the people having to believe in some strict premises not relevant in todays age? Loving God is great but why should He suffer for your sins? Isnt it easier to make all humans not sin at all because after all, God made all things and decides fate.

      July 1, 2010 at 8:07 pm |
  10. Bruce

    Whatever the process, it produced visible scars in his hands and feet. I have always known that the instrument of execution was not the pretty piece of gold jewelry that James Avery, et al, sell, but the presentation of the wounds after the resurrection point to an execution consistent with crucifixion.

    July 1, 2010 at 5:07 pm |
  11. Quezz

    The earliest Gospels are fairly scant on the details of Jesus' execution. That being said, I'm for the crucifixion idea because that was the most common method of killing political dissidents in Imperial Rome. It would make sense that Christ was crucified, as he was essentially a political dissident in the eyes of Rome - that is how the Pharisees presented the case.

    July 1, 2010 at 5:06 pm |
    • OhthatChar

      The Roman Catholic Church. Hello.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:44 am |
  12. Random

    Maybe this wouldn't be such a problem if the Bible's translation wasn't changed so many times...just saying....
    The original Bible is loooooong gone, its has all the truths in it!

    July 1, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
    • urban scholar

      I thought they found something a while back called The Dead Sea Scrolls. I think they actually confirmed the authenticity of several disputed texts like the messianic prophecy out of Isaiah 53.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:20 am |
  13. Reality

    Professor JD Crossan summary about Jesus' crucifixion:( Professor Crossan is a historical Jesus exegete and has published 20 books on the subject)

    "That Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, as the Creed states, is as certain as anything historical can ever be.

    : “ The Jewish historian, Josephus and the pagan historian Tacitus both agree that Jesus was executed by order of the Roman governor of Judea. And is very hard to imagine that Jesus' followers would have invented such a story unless it indeed happened.

    “While the brute fact that of Jesus' death by crucifixion is historically certain, however, those detailed narratives in our present gospels are much more problematic. "

    “My best historical reconstruction would be something like this. Jesus was arrested during the Passover festival, most likely in response to his action in the Temple. Those who were closest to him ran away for their own safety.

    I do not presume that there were any high-level confrontations between Caiaphas and Pilate and Herod Antipas either about Jesus or with Jesus. No doubt they would have agreed before the festival that fast action was to be taken against any disturbance and that a few examples by crucifixion might be especially useful at the outset. And I doubt very much if Jewish police or Roman soldiers needed to go too far up the chain of command in handling a Galilean peasant like Jesus. It is hard for us to imagine the casual brutality with which Jesus was probably taken and executed. All those "last week" details in our gospels, as distinct from the brute facts just mentioned, are prophecy turned into history, rather than history remembered."

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

      But, then again, Crossman wasn't there and his suppositions do not make good scholarship. Without proof, he is just another windbag.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:29 am |
    • Reality


      So you believe all recorded history is simply supposition?

      July 4, 2010 at 8:20 am |
  14. Les

    Most of the arguments here are based on the King James translation. This version contains so many error that it makes any serious study of it laughable to the extreme. For example, KJV translations say 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live'. The accurate translation of the word 'witch' is 'poisoner' or 'pharmacist'. Thereby, millions were unnecessarily sent to their death by 'mistranslation'. My suggestion would be to relegate the KJV to the trash heap where it belongs. To use that translation to argue any theological point is ludicrous. BTW, Odin hung on a 'tree' for 3 days also. All Cristian mythos and ritual were borrowed from existing religions around them. History is VERY clear on that point.

    July 1, 2010 at 4:49 pm |

      Try Lamsa Bible.

      July 1, 2010 at 4:58 pm |
    • DanW

      No, Les. You are wrong. The Hebrew word for witch does not mean "poisoner." The word is "כּשׁף" kashaph, and it means a "whisperer" probably because of the way they chanted when performing their spells.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:26 am |
    • Les

      Whisperer? Live and learn. Regardless, the more accurate translation would still eliminate 'witch' as a probable choice. Millions went to their deaths on the basis of an incorrect translation. ANYONE who 'whispers' to someone should be condemned to death then perhaps by being hung on a tree.

      July 2, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
    • kmichaels

      Actually, it was old testament law that mentioned who it was that should be killed, not new testament. So obviously when they killed witches, those people were messed up in their minds in many ways, the least of which would be whether the word meant poisoner, pharmacist, whisperer, witch, or whatever. You are being simplistic thinking that it was the mistranslation of a single word that led to the deaths of people deemed witches. It was an evil spirit that invaded such communities.

      July 2, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      Ah–the "blame it on the evil spirits" routine... As if the old testament mistranslation had nothing to do with witch trials As if that mistranslation didn't justify the persecutors in committing acts in which many had alterior motives (like gaining land and creating "examples" of what happens to those who oppose them).

      Those communities weren't visited by woo-woo evil spirits.
      Those people weren't witches.
      Those who condemned them to death weren't carrying out justice.
      Those who use this wrongly-written text as justification for their atrocities were the evil ones.

      So–I have met these "evil spirits" and they is us. Mistranslations are only fuel for the fires.

      July 5, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  15. Ol Diz

    But what about the grassy knoll????

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


      July 2, 2010 at 3:59 pm |
  16. Zeit-Geist

    @ various Christian apologists
    please can any of you experts please explain to me your knowledge of astro-theology or
    Egyptian myhic cycles? then we can talk....

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

      Does that mean you're finally finished? 🙂

      July 1, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
    • Christ Loves You

      @Atheist Apologist: How about you answer my question first?? What is the meaning of FAITH? What does FAITH mean to you?

      July 1, 2010 at 4:48 pm |

      Esotoric knowledge is the result of faith in God, buddy. Why are you asking for divine knowledge when you are opposed to it? That's quite a weird move.

      July 1, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
    • Zeit-Geist

      from the responses ive received from the Christians
      id say probably......

      July 1, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
    • Jal

      I want to ask you a question, have you ever had a situation occur in life wherein you knew without a shadow of a doubt you were right about something, only to find out later you were absolutely wrong? In clarifying what I am saying to you; you are right about much of what you have said. But? The conclusion you make by being able to point out the deception and irregularities of the matter do not give you the conclusion you believe you have. No more would it be true than for a killer to pin the object or fingerprint on an innocent person. If you choose to open your soul and seek the truth, you will not be found wanting when it is time for you to leave here. I can say with certainty that when it is time for you to leave here you will call upon his true name if you happen to know it. What I can tell you is that no one in this blog has the right name, so certainly the individual that has been presented to you is truly the imposter. I go in peace an ask that you continue in your quest to know the truth for yourself. We have little time for all of this conjecture. May Yahuwah guide you to the "Marriage Feast". There is little time before you enter into the Kingdom of the 'Most HIgh".

      July 1, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
  17. Resh

    Hang about... So all these people who come up to me in the street quoting the bible to prove some cause, or I kid you not try to tell me that Perl Harbor was the wrath of God. They take the literal meaning from the book in English from what is at best a literal translation of a text that is at very best only half chinese whispers (most authors didn't witness the events). And to think how wrong or biased our media is I hate to think how much "oh this will make the story sell better was back then." I personally enjoy the atheist view that comes from the film "The Book of Eli."

    July 1, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  18. Christ Loves You

    @Josef: The Romans did NOT kill Jesus, the Pharisees did! If you know and have read the Bible, then you would see that the Pharisees and the people of Jerusalem advocated for Jesus' death, NOT the Roman emperor. The Roman emperor asked the people of Jerusalem if they wanted Jesus killed and they all agreed..."Yes!"

    July 1, 2010 at 4:38 pm |
  19. gw

    Thank goodness they didn't have electricity back in the old days. If they did, we'd have church steeples with little electric chairs on the top.

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

      gw Maybe so. Maybe it would get people to think differently about the death penalty. 🙂

      July 1, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  20. Christ Loves You

    @Zeit-Geist: Jesus Christ is NOT a myth! Why aren't you understanding that? Why do you only need facts? You don't need facts to prove the existence of God, that is what FAITH is, and well, it seems like you DON'T have FAITH! Jesus Christ was as real as can be buddy!

    July 1, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • Zeit-Geist

      yeah mang
      who needs facts when you have myhs that have been fostered by Constantine and the Council of Nicea to manipulate your mind
      yeah who needs facts.....

      July 1, 2010 at 4:41 pm |
    • Christ Loves You

      You are being childish and annoying! Can you give me the meaning of FAITH, please? What is FAITH to you Zeit-Geist?

      July 1, 2010 at 4:44 pm |
    • Zeit-Geist

      Im being childish?
      how by presenting a view different from the one that you were indoctrinated into
      and backing it up with evidence?
      this is being childish?
      im only presenting an alternative view for those with ears to hear........

      July 1, 2010 at 4:48 pm |

      And how is presuming every believer has faith because of indoctrination not being totally naive?

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

      If a medical doctor told you that she didn't "need facts" and that intuition, faith, or divine revelation told her what was wrong with you and how to treat it you would disappear from that examining room faster than common sense at a Creation Museum. The fact is, we all rely on facts when it truly counts. No one in his/her right mind allows faith (the belief in something with little or no evidence) to guide them in matters of ultimate concern. You claim to know that there is a Jesus, he was indeed YOUR god's son, and that he was able to (not only) survive a physical death, but that he will one day appear through the clouds to judge us for our actions. Now, those who claim that all of this is absolutely true are asked to provide actual, testable, verifiable, FALSIFIABLE evidence for those of us who find this more than a little absurd.

      July 1, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
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