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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. Peace2all

    @Truth......Your Albert Einstein story is absolutely false. There is nothing anywhere in any of Einstein's history to show that this actually took place. It has been proven to be an old wives tale that seems to circulating on the web nowadays. Plus this is a common misuse of logic based reasoning by christians to try and 'prove' the existence of God, by using a big name in science. Good try though.....

    July 1, 2010 at 8:20 pm |
  2. JLB

    @Momo: "Omnipotent" does not mean "one". "Mono" means "one". "Omni" means "All" and "Potent" mean "Powerful". Hence, "omnipotent" means "all powerful".

    July 1, 2010 at 8:18 pm |
  3. ChristopherM

    @ July 1, 2010 at 7:48 pm 'the truth!' wrote:
    "An Atheist Professor of Philosophy was speaking to his Class on the Problem Science has with GOD, the ALMIGHTY.
    He asked one of his New Christian Students to stand and . . . (pages deleted) That student was Albert Einstein."
    This is not 'the truth' it is a piece of fiction - check out http://urbanlegends.about.com/od/religion/a/einstein_god.htm if you must. Einstein did not believe in a theistic god, he was rather a quiet boy at school, further - and most importantly - he was a Jew.

    July 1, 2010 at 8:13 pm |
    • Anonymous

      ..and don't you love the irony of posting that under the moniker "the truth"?

      I suspect we won't be hearing from "the truth" again. I'm sure he/she was just dropping a little knowledge on us and moving on...

      July 1, 2010 at 8:19 pm |
    • ChristopherM

      @Anon: "I suspect we won't be hearing from "the truth" again."
      Unfortunately, I'm sure we will.

      July 1, 2010 at 8:34 pm |
    • Peace2all

      @ChristopherM......Very well put. Also, you can find it on 'snopes.com as well. Hopefully, TheTruth! will learn from this.

      July 1, 2010 at 8:50 pm |
  4. Rhonda

    The word Trinity, is also not to be found.

    July 1, 2010 at 8:07 pm |
    • dolfina

      In Genesis God said, "Let us make man in OUR image"...We are triune people, body, mind (or soul) and spirit, as God is 3 in 1, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:15 pm |
  5. Momo

    And.. Jesus was NOT the son of God. God does not have sons or daughters, or wives or in laws... hence the word "omnipotent".. or "one"..

    July 1, 2010 at 8:01 pm |
    • jesus

      God, that ubiquitous invisible-guy-in-the-sky had lots of offspring. Just look at how many historical figures claim to be the result of his intimacy with their mother as well as many others in insane institutions.

      July 2, 2010 at 11:53 am |
    • One Whose Name Means Beloved of God

      "omnipotent" means all-powerful.

      It doesn't say a darn thing about God's ability to procreate, silly.

      July 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  6. jesus

    Actually folks, I was hit and run over by a chariot, driven by James after a night on the town with Mary. It's in the Book of Jesus which was eliminated from the Bible in 330 AD by Constantine at the First Council of Nicea. Apparently that story didn't sell as well as a crucifixion tale and was voted out by the a vote of Bishops along with my personal favorite, The Book of Giants..

    July 1, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
  7. Anonymous

    @the truth:

    Thank you for further muddling this conversation with a blatantly copy-pasted and obviously false feel-good story for christians.

    Next time you want to impress people by name-dropping an intelligent christian, don't use a jewish atheist.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:56 pm |
  8. rh

    I think if you believe all the rest, that the guy was the son of god and all, it's not hard to believe that he was crucified, or if not, that whatever happened was sufficient.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
  9. Momo

    the first gospels of jesus started to appear in manuscripts over 70 years after his death. Who knows what the Church has translated/edited and omitted from the original texts. This man could be correct in his assumptions.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:54 pm |
  10. Momo

    Yes, indeed you have spoken, now please shut up and dont ever speak again.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:53 pm |
  11. Anonymous

    greek_guy:

    He's not claiming anything about the meaning of any word in modern Greek, he is talking about Greek as it was 2000 years ago; "biblical Greek." Languages evolve over time, and rather rapidly.

    It's not difficult to imagine how/why the word 'stavrosis' might have come to mean only 'crucifixion' even if that was not its original meaning. I'm no scholar of biblical Greek, but the premise seems plausible linguistically.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
  12. Rainyside68

    Excuse me, correction: the oldest museum in the world.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
  13. missadr

    I think this guy was trying to be controversial. Or he might have been trying to be offensive. But he just turned out being comical! Really, I laughed my butt off reading this article. I have tears in my eyes from laughing so hard!

    July 1, 2010 at 7:47 pm |
  14. Rainyside68

    He died on a stake, not necessarily on a cross. I was recently at the Uffizi museum in Florence, the oldest museum in the word. There is a large sculpture of christ on a stake not a cross. The sculpture was dated 500 A.D. Evidently it was accepted at that time to believe christ died on a stake.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:46 pm |
    • DaLe

      Apparently 500 A.D. is around the time the first painting of 'Jesus' was painted, in the Byzantine Empire.

      July 1, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
    • dalis

      DaLe The oldest extant depictions of Jesus date from the 3rd and 4th centuries in several Roman catacombs, one of which was recently featured in a CNN story. The earliest icon of "Christ Pantocrator" ("Almighty") dates from the 6th century, but that is a specific kind of image still used in Eastern Christianity. Try to read more than the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article.

      Rainyside Perhaps there's a clue in Christian language. I don't know Greek to definitively know the root of "stauros", but the oldest latin translations of the Bible use "crux" and were written at a tie when crucifixion was still being practiced. In Old English, the word for a crucifix was "rood", which means a "pole". The word passed out of usage in England when the Protestants removed the rood screens from all but a few of the churches – because they contained images of the crucifix.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:05 pm |
  15. Thomas Anderson

    About what the Christian story amounts to (which most so-called followers of it have probably not even given any thought to with their brains engaged, and would probably even argue this, again without engaging their brains and looking at what the book is trying to say) is that God deliberately made man incapable of not sinning when he created him, and then when he sinned, God said it was the human being’s fault and now the blood of bulls and goats would not suffice; the sinner now owed Him his life for his sin. So, God would have to kill him for his sin; or someone who had not sinned would have to give his life in his place. In other words, God just had to have somebody’s a_ _. What about his own innocent son? Oh, that’s fine! I’m just taking SOMEBODY’s a_ _. So the Son says, I really don’t want to if there is any other way; but Your will be done. So, His will is to spill His blood.

    And the One Who spilled His blood was His loving Father, the source of all love, Who is always “There for you,” some say.

    Oh, but it was carnal men who killed Him? The book says Jesus said they knew not what they were doing. So, again, like the theme of God’s hardening the Pharoah’s heart so that he would be mean to the Israelites, He blinded the men to kill Jesus so that prophecy would be fulfilled. How good and righteous!

    And then He was only dead for three days and three nights, the book says (Yeah, they argue this too; someone ask me WHICH book says anything like any of that...), and then he was okay again. And then again, He existed from everlasting to everlasting. Even though He died once too...

    He was in the beginning with God and was God, but He was God’s Son at the same time. (Where was Mamma?)

    And righteous Abraham was supposed to be willing to kill his own son, even though he didn’t tell his son he was willing to kill him...

    I understand the Muslims really love the mentality of that Abraham story, with its theme of “Do what you are told without worrying about understanding.” (Yes, the Musims have a version of that Abraham story.)

    And even some of the very elect will in the last days have their heads chopped off. Sounds like some real love and protection there.

    Just a really great Book...!

    July 1, 2010 at 7:41 pm |
  16. Moody

    That they (the wrong-doers) said (in boast), 'We killed the Christ Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah';- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them [or it appeared so unto them], and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not: Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise."
    —Qur'an

    July 1, 2010 at 7:41 pm |
  17. Lini

    Did you know that many early Christian groups did not believe that Jesus (pbuh) was crucified or resurrected? These early Christians heard the message of Jesus (pbuh) and they concluded that his resurrection was not necessary for salvation and in fact, he did not die. Almost 2000 years ago, Christian leadership decided that these early Christian groups’ understanding of Jesus’ (pbuh) life and mission were incorrect and they declare it heresy. Well 600 years after Jesus (pbuh), a man born in Arabia made a proclamation that was in agreement with the claim that Jesus (pbuh) was not crucified. Today at least 1.8 billion people believe that Jesus (pbuh) was not crucified, while at least 2.1 billion people believe that he was crucified. How do we come to the truth? Do we accept the verdict made 2000 years ago or do we start a new investigation? Today using the same evidence available to those of the past, we can come to our own conclusion on this matter. The Bible contains the key witnesses to this case and I will use their testimony to prove that “Jesus was not Crucified.”

    -I.D. Campbell, "Jesus Was Not Crucified"

    July 1, 2010 at 7:38 pm |
  18. saved10965

    Why is this person trying to take the bible apart? Is Christianity such a threat to him that he is dedicated to tear it apart and discredit it? I haven't seen any of the other religious books being examined like this. What is his motive? If Christians want to believe the bible, then so be it. We have our own examiner's of the bible. They are called pastors.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:32 pm |
  19. evoc

    Crucify also means putting someone to death by binding them to a cross. Even the 'impaling of a hand' with an object is crucifying. I think this scholar studied himself into a corner.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:28 pm |
  20. JLB

    Craig says, "Christianity doesn't even hinge on the method of Christ's death!.... What Christianity hinges on is his resurrection, his defeat of death, giving hope for us all to do the same through him and through him only."

    Actually, it depends on which denomination or branch of Christianity you practise or believe in. Some denominations emphasize the nature of Christ or emphasize his birth (i.e. that he was the son or human embodiment of God, that he was divine or sacred). Other denominations are based on his teachings (i.e. love your fellow man, personal relationship with God, etc). Other denominations are "hinged" on his death or "sacrifice" (i.e. Christ dying for your sins, the sacrifice of God and/or Christ to provide a means of salvation for believers). Other denominations emphasize the resurrection (i.e. proof of his divinity, evidence of life after death, etc.).

    There are five major branches of Christianity (and thousands of denominations) and the main difference between the five branches is on what they are "hinged". There have been massive wars, torture, and millions of people have died because christians cannot decide amongst each other on what Christianity should be based.

    July 1, 2010 at 7:21 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.