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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. Asif N

    While we're on the topic of Christ and Christian history, when did Christ become a man with blond hair and blue yes. Imagine that, a Palestinian with blond hair and blue eyes. Not denying crucifiction, but mainstream Christianity is sometimes historically inaccurate and plain delusional.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:14 pm |
  2. Ron Curtiss

    It's all nonsense and has enslaved the weak, scared and gullible for thousands of years. When it invaded our politics in 1980, it weakened and dumbed down the whole nation. Repent!

    July 1, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
  3. Rendau

    I think it's significant that debate is an ongoing and healthy aspect of Christianity. Textual criticism has been going on for hundreds of years, and yet Christianity is still strong and the Bible has not been changed. Islam doesn't tolerate debate like this, plus the Koran has undergone many revisions. Christianity welcomes debate, while Islam fears it. Christianity can withstand scrutiny. Islam cannot.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:06 pm |
  4. Brandy

    READ THIS: "A Case For Christ" by Lee Strobel, former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune and earned his law degree from Yale Law. Strobel began his search in regards to Jesus as an atheist. Spent countless hours interviewing experts in history, linguistics, science, and theology and wrote about what he found. Very insightful. Very useful. Easy read. Can be found in audiobook form, too. HIGHLY RECOMMEND!

    July 1, 2010 at 7:06 pm |
    • Stocko

      Yes Brandy I read it. The only non-biblical reference was from Ptolemy in a historical reference.

      July 2, 2010 at 3:44 am |
  5. special

    everybody is free to write what he or she wants.but i want to say this;do you think the world just just came into existence?why avnt the monkeys we see turning into human beings according to evolution?why do we feel bad when we do some things?its a concience,and a conscience seperates good from evil,and therefore God from satan.to the athiest,ask tourself this questions,morality woulld not give you abetter explanation,it would only live you askin more questions.faith is the evidence of things not seen.you have to beieve before it works for you,and that applies to religion,if you dint believe you cannot get what its benefits are.different people come up with different ideaologies,but finally we still ask questions of who,what,how,when,where,why,the only path to getting the answers is through faith,and i believe that `living the way God wants you to live in the christian way would not do you harm,but do you a lot of good`just imagin if you dont fornicate,kil,covet,lie,steal,honor your parents,e.t.c how your life would be?

    July 1, 2010 at 7:05 pm |
  6. dan

    the bible is filled with inaccuracies. there are also many times when it contradicts itself. the bible was put together and PEOPLE decided what went in it and what was left out. the bible was NOT written in english and many things are not translated correctly. people that take the bible word for word are idiots.

    for example.....

    1 Timothy 2:11-12

    Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
    • DAVINCIKODE

      So, where's the contradiction?

      July 1, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
    • Toby

      I think you'll wait long and hard for a response to this one, but because there is no "wiggle room", it will likely go unanswered. Great post!

      July 1, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
    • Toby

      Sorry, my post was directed to Dan!

      July 1, 2010 at 7:05 pm |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      How about Deuteronomy 23: 12-13: 12 Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. 13 As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.

      So–true believers should shun the modern sewer system?

      I agree–it's a matter of interpretation in context.

      July 5, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  7. Christina

    who cares? this story is ludicrous. those of us non-scholarly types are well aware that there is no possible way we could even know every detail of history, religious or not. to the person who made this "discovery" how 'bout spending some time and your sharp educational resources on finding us a cheap renewable energy so we don't have to keep reading about BP's oil disasters?

    July 1, 2010 at 6:59 pm |
  8. greek_guy

    I agree. The guy does not even speak greek. There is no such a verb stavroun in Greek, instead the correct one is stavrosoun. There is no alternative meaning to the greek stavrosis other than crusifiction, which means suspended by a cross. Jesus, I am Greek, I am supposed to know.

    July 1, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
    • dalis

      greek_guy Nice!

      July 2, 2010 at 12:03 am |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      But keep in mind–you are a modern Greek. The language has changed a little in the past 2000 years... Are you familiar with that Greek language?

      No one here would have a clue what someone was saying in Old English even though our English language is derived (in part) from it.

      July 5, 2010 at 11:46 am |
  9. Martin L

    Of course, the biggest irony is that those most annoyed with this Biblical literalists are Bible literalists .

    July 1, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
  10. HeIsGod

    WOW....LOL, the devil is still whining and complaining that Jesus took the keys of life and death away from Satan and the LORD defeated him at the Cross of Calvary!!!! Praise the LORD! How can a mankind really know the mind of God? Satan knows God better than any mankind. HE WAS THERE!!! The devil used to be on of God's angels until he, the devil, got caught up in pride and thought he would be able to rule over God!!! Satan has been twisting and doing all he can in order to deceive many into believing the opposite of what saith the Word of God and he, the devil, has also succeeded at convincing meaning that he & God doesn't exist.

    HMMMMM, why doesn't this article surprises me?

    July 1, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  11. Siger

    Refreshing- the Bible is a cut and paste of various tales and traditions existing in kingdoms close to Israel and Juda. To take it literally is the big imbecility of this time and age. It is a collection of history and poems and hymns that you can find also in the sanskrit language. Jesus never existed it is an image an ideal that was developed by the Sophists while Dionysos cult was celebrated centuries ago in the same manner than the so called idea of Jesus was. Nothing in the new testament makes sense it is full of contradictions and lies of zealots trying to eliminate the sophists who were far more tolerant and bright than the literalists. Unfortunately they won and now we have to live with these funny tales.

    July 1, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
    • DAVINCIKODE

      So many people -especially skeptics- have an 'historical opinion' of the Bible that their level of understanding is simply laughable. Obviously, the point is the Teaching, and not only that, but to follow that teaching with faith and conviction. If that doesn't work out for you, THEN post an opinion. The culture in which the Teaching appeared is totally irrelevant. This is simply trying to sound sophisticated, IMHO.

      July 1, 2010 at 6:45 pm |
  12. Brian

    Well, crucifion's not that bad, at least it get's you out in the open air. You could fare much worse, you could be stabbed!

    July 1, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
    • Mary

      sounds pretty terrible to me. plus it would be slow and agonizing.

      July 2, 2010 at 12:59 am |
    • Jo

      Always look on the bright side of life

      July 5, 2010 at 6:11 am |
  13. Toby

    Suppose a 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 6:30 pm |
    • DAVINCIKODE

      You know what I find absurd. Somebody who doesn't belief he will survive physical death, but still is/pretends to be upbeat about science and life in general. That is the real absurd.

      July 1, 2010 at 6:34 pm |
  14. Monson

    You guys all know what we need?...A huge group reading session!! Woo hoo!! I mean, come on, we're all online, throwing opinions/perspectives/arguments this way and that under some sort of alias where no one will be able to know who you are. Let's all get together for one large reading session of the Bible, the Quran, whatever religious texts that other religions have and have a good ol time. That way, we can actually speak to each other and get to know the people. Let's say next week somewhere in Nebraska, that seems pretty central of the US for everyone and we can all meet there. What do you all say?

    July 1, 2010 at 6:28 pm |
  15. Alfred

    I note that the scholar refers to the accounts written by the Apostles Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. Of course these `Apostles' should not be confused with the 12 people who the bible describes as being with Jesus throughout his ministry. The gospels were all written by different people at least 20 years after the death of Jesus and NONE of them actually met Jesus or were eyewitnesses to anything that happened in his time. So this means of course that the `facts' as presented by the Gospel writers could not be corroborated. There are no surviving accounts at all in fact from ANY source that could be considered eyewitness accounts of ANY events in the New Testament.

    July 1, 2010 at 6:24 pm |
    • dalis

      A note about nomenclature: The Gospels are attributed to the four EVANGELISTS Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, of which two (Matthew and John) were among the twelve APOSTLES and the other two (Mark and Luke) were followers of Peter and Paul and are described as "apostolic men".

      July 1, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
  16. Vendo Thefastlane

    Imagine if all the effort and money and time being used on religion could instead be focused on medicine, reducing poverty, peace work, technological advancement...

    July 1, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
    • dalis

      Vendo Thefastlane Tell me, who DOES spend the money on medicine, reducing poverty, peace work, technological advancement?

      July 1, 2010 at 7:19 pm |
  17. merecat

    He was Impaled on a "pale" an upright stake, as the word implies. The cross was only a later addition as it is the first letter in the False Gods name Tammuz. They lowered the cross part on the T to form the cross.. The cross was known long before Jesus impalement and death, in Pagan Worship where this comes from. He did die for us, Hands nailed over his head together, and his feet together below him. As time went by they would become weak and suffocate. Jesus died before the day was over therefore he didn't have a bone in his body broken to fulfill prophecy. But was stabbed in the side and blood and water came out.. Blood being the sacrificial blood to atone for what Adam lost for us.. Thus the Ransom to save mankind.. NOT ON A CROSS.. A stake or pole.. people finally did their homework!

    July 1, 2010 at 6:05 pm |
    • Tom

      N comment on the bible stuff. But crucifixtion had nothing to do with Roman religious belief. It was a form of punishment, nothing more.

      July 1, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
    • Ravensun

      I don't believe anyone said it DID have anything to do with Roman religious belief.

      But the Christians have assimilated a number of pagan faiths, and the cross in one form or another is a symbol in more religions that just Christianity.

      July 2, 2010 at 4:02 pm |
  18. racnem

    dalis, when I say it's a lie, I mean it is a false teaching. And who would want to deceive the masses? Satan himself. He's been very successful. He has most of the world worshipping an idol. In pre christian times, this was worthy of death. When he comes he judge the living and the dead, it should be interesting. Can people say they didn't know?? Not if they're reading these blogs and their Bible.

    July 1, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
    • verify

      How do you know that this "Satan" is not the one who wrote your bible? What better cover than to pretend to be "God"?

      July 1, 2010 at 6:11 pm |
    • DAVINCIKODE

      @verify

      Satan proclaiming forgiveness, love for neighbors, mercy.. You a stand-up comedian or what?

      July 1, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
    • Noble9

      How would you know it's a false teaching, did you read the ancient Greek? That's what it was originally written in and it's a lot older than you or the king james version.

      July 1, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  19. Peace

    The only "religion" worth practicing is Love. Love should guide your thoughts and actions; love of your fellow human, all the creatures of this earth, and the earth itself which is home to us all. All of this arguing is senseless waste of time and energy. We need to find that which connects us to one another and hold onto that and set aside that which divides us.

    July 1, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
  20. Maria

    I wonder what Bart D. Ehrman thinks.

    July 1, 2010 at 5:34 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.