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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. Leonid Brezhnev

    Have you forgotten that this Jesus, if he was real, was Jewish? He didn't start a new religion. Just was a pacifist.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:25 pm |
  2. jai

    I think there was a Jesus. He was actually a rogue/rebel jewish priest. I think he most likely survived the crucifixion. One has to remember that the bible that we have today has been translated from Hebrew to Latin, Greek and to English. A lot has obviously been lost in those translations. Also, remember that it took years for one man to sit and translate thousands of pages word by word and line by line. Much could have been left out and or skipped over if only by mistake.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
  3. Nathan

    Did anybody happen to catch the "Christians Can Be Jerks" article on CNN the other day? Point validated.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
    • dalis

      Nathan I think several of the posts on this page could be compiled as evidence for an "Atheists can be jerks" article, but there won't be one all because of Craig. Thanks, Craig.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:57 pm |
  4. Gib

    Actually scoto scientist have found biblical events to be true. they have found that the location of the red sea had an earthquake around the time of the exodus which caused a land bridge to appear long enough for humans to cross. the burning bush has also been discovered all with science.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:22 pm |
  5. cbruce

    Crucified, not crucified...doesn't matter. This doesn't "undermine one of the most basic tenets of Christianity" because the basic tenant involves Christ 1) being the literal son of God 2) dying for all of mankind's sins and 3) rising from the dead to ascend into heaven.

    Undermining the foundation of religious iconography, sure...but whatever. It's all symbols and allegories, not meant to be taken literally.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:21 pm |
    • Toby

      I think it's fair to say that the mere fact that no one has ever actually witnessed the resurrection of a dead human being, much less met and talked to a god and definitively ascertained that he indeed exists and has a son named Jesus is about all the evidence I need to dismiss such claims as the fantastic invention of man.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:36 pm |
  6. Noah was a fake??

    Project Von Bora has the map of what Darwin ignored.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:19 pm |
  7. Thorrsman

    Well, let us take a reasonable look at this idea. Jesus–work with the assumption that he existed, please–was executed by the Romans, at the insistance of the local Jewish leadership. The Romans–whether a fault or a virtue–did things in a machine-like, military manner. The most common form of execution used for non-Roman criminals–slaves and subject peoples–was crucifixion. As the Romans executed two criminals with Jesus, and as such executions were used as an example to the locals, in all likelyhood they all three were crucified.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:18 pm |
  8. W00K

    Does it really matter either way? There's no way of anyone knowing for sure. Also, the bible is not pure writings from Jesus' time. It has been changed and manipulated over time. You have to be totally ignorant to not understand that it is not the word of God. But words of men.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:16 pm |
    • Leonid Brezhnev

      The key word here is "ignorant" which most of the "true believers" are. Go ahead...ask them how old the earth is. See what they say.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:17 pm |
    • Thorrsman

      Leonid Brezhnev The overwhelming majority will say "About 4 Billion years" depending on how much they keep up with the current science. Only a tiny minority of them believe the "Young Earth" theory, though the fanatical Atheists like to cite that group as if they represented all Christians.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:21 pm |
    • Leonid Brezhnev

      Ahhhh...there are some aspiring "candidates" for the Presidency that believe the 6000 year b.s. ...and way too many sheeple that take the bible as literal. Uneducated sheeple. A lot.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
  9. Asiablue

    Craig, you seem very sensitive to an opinion you say is wrong. If Christ's manner of death is so unimportant why does it bother you so? Samuelsson's view seems consistent with the materials he studied and fits well with the Quranic view that says Jesus was not crusified at all, though it seemed so to people at the time.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:12 pm |
  10. Nicole

    I agree with you 100%.. what a whack job!!

    July 1, 2010 at 9:07 pm |
  11. dolfina

    Galatians 3:13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree, ...
    The Law always stoned people to death, but those that were found guilty of the most horrible crimes, were crucified. He should read The Historical Jesus and find something that he "believes" in instead of what he doesn't believe in.
    Of course we know that in the "end times" many will scoff and deny Christ and follow false Messiahs. Too sad for them. It's all about choice....as for me and MY house, we will serve the Lord!

    July 1, 2010 at 9:04 pm |
    • Apostle Rick

      God bless you dilfina, who ever you are.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:15 pm |
    • Anonymous

      "It's all about choice....as for me and MY house, we will serve the Lord!"

      Good idea, brainwash your kids too and curse another generation to clouded logic and weak critical thinking skills coupled with a constant sense of guilt and fear of demonstrably man-made conceptions of eternal punishment. And make sure you get them started at an age where they accept everything you tell them without question. Get 'em good and scared so that they never really think it over critically later in life either...

      Where's the choice in that for them?

      July 1, 2010 at 9:19 pm |
    • Thorrsman

      Anonymous
      And you DON'T brainwash your children into rejecting religion without thought? Never mind answering, Atheists, I have found, lie a lot on these matters.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
    • Marlye

      "Who ever you are" I know who you are. It doesn't matter if he was crucified or not. The guy is dead.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:25 pm |
    • dolfina

      a Nony mouse: When you say, "you" you aren't speaking to me. I believe in education, giving children all the possible answers to their questions and then letting them make up their own minds without coaxing or leading them. Be careful when you say, "you to this" and "you do that", it makes you seem stupid.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:35 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Dolfina, read your post and my post more carefully. You clearly state what your and your house WILL do, and began the sentence extolling the virtue of choice. I found that ironic.

      I truly hope that you do believe in education. I think more people need to. I hope yours and all children are presented with potential explanations and given the critical thinking skills to reason about what makes most sense to them.

      If you read my post carefully, I was not accusing you of doing that, but mocking the idea saying "good idea, why don't you do that?"

      July 1, 2010 at 9:42 pm |
    • nulbyte

      dolfina, you have failed to understand the point in its entirety. It is summed up quite nicely at the end of the article. The scholar is not trying to divide anyone, nor does he deny the accuracy of the crucifixion. In fact, he specifically states his believe that the crucifixion is true.

      He is merely pointing one of many nuances of the classical language that few truly understand. Being a language spoken a thousand years ago, all of these nuances are not well understood even by many linguistic scholars, let alone laymen.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:45 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Thorrsman:

      Obviously that is a concern and it would be hypocritical to do as you describe and at the same time criticize those doing the same on the opposite side. And it is unrealistic to say that someone would be able to raise children without the children picking up some of the parents' values and ideas.

      That being said, telling your children that you don't believe that there is anything supernatural about our existence isn't exactly the same thing as telling a young, impressionable child that a magical creator is watching them at all times and if they're not good they will burn for eternity. One is potentially psychologically damaging, the other is... well, not.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:57 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Dolfina,

      I just re-read your original post. That doesn't sound like a household where a lot of critical thinking is happening.

      Your second post is a lot more rational and well thought out, if misinformed. It caught me off guard for a moment. Now i remember why i reacted so negatively at first.

      July 1, 2010 at 10:01 pm |
  12. chan

    eh, I think you should read the article again...He doesn't think anything should be changed or didn't happen. He's saying it just wasn't in the Greek or whatever. This article is contradictive to the the person the article is about is saying.... He states what hes saying yet the article trys to steer you towards what everyone would automatically think; and get defensive about.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:02 pm |
  13. josh

    Why doesnt anyone ever research the pedophile prophet mohammed?

    July 1, 2010 at 9:02 pm |
    • dolfina

      You got that right, that he was a white man and not a very nice man at that....or why do Buddhists not eat meat when it is a fact that the buddha choked to death on pork?

      July 1, 2010 at 9:06 pm |
    • Asiablue

      Why don't you? You clearly don't know what you are talking about. About as little as dolfina does regarding the Buddha.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:15 pm |
    • dolfina

      Asiablue, I know the script says he died of mushroom poisoning, or pig's delight. But he was fat, bloated died, and is still in the ground.
      Remember that "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord"...doesn't matter to you know cuz you are so cool, time will tell.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:30 pm |
  14. X

    > Just because you spend a lot of time reading and studying, doesn't make what you're studying correct.

    You just debunked anyone who studies any tome in great detail - like the Bible.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
  15. Leonid Brezhnev

    This Jesus was not your god. There is no god. Jesus was schizophrenic. He thought he was 3 different people. He claims he got his own mother pregnant. How about that...an incestuous god. Of course, there is no convincing fanatics like yourselves, so go ahead and worship your mythical being if it makes you feel better.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:01 pm |
    • dolfina

      "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no god"

      July 1, 2010 at 9:07 pm |
    • Apostle Rick

      You cannot take your next breath without God's permission. Keep that in mind. Any way whay does this matter to you. I mean I'm defending my relationship with my God what are you defending????

      July 1, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
    • Leonid Brezhnev

      'Smatter, Ricky boy....didn't god give you an answer to my questions?

      July 1, 2010 at 9:19 pm |
  16. Apostle Rick

    Matt is the perfect example of what Christ said would happen in the last days that many would be decieved by false prophets. This is awesome cause God's word never lies. Believe it or not- fire burns, believe it or not poison kills, believe it or not- the shadow of a lion can"t hurt you, believe it or not there is a God and if you don't repent you will go to hell.
    Now, I can never find a way to argue down you who don"t believe. But I believe in the Lord God Almighty, all knowing and all forgiving. I believe that goodness shall be triumphant in the end and that evil shall be vanquished.
    Repent Matt.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
    • dolfina

      Amen brother! As the Bible says, "there is a way that seems right unto man, but the end, thereof, is death"

      July 1, 2010 at 9:08 pm |
  17. Peace2all

    @sternmann.........Please see my response to Starman.....I am not sure what you mean when you say..."Don't deny the obvious..."?

    July 1, 2010 at 8:53 pm |
  18. Peace2all

    @Starman.....I think the whole point of this article by this religious scholar was to find out from ancient texts....what does the Bible 'really' say..... Did you not get that...?

    July 1, 2010 at 8:47 pm |
  19. Christopher

    I just want someone to explain to me how did Chris die "for" our sins??? It didn't erase our sins, it didn't make us any better as people, etc... so what did it accomplish if it happened?

    Also, if Adam and Eve were the first man and woman who did all of their children mate with????? Just curious really.

    July 1, 2010 at 8:46 pm |
    • dolfina

      "Christ took upon Himself the curse of the Law". He was perfect man, tried in every way that we are, and as the Old T., and torah even says, "He was despised and rejected and took upon Himself the sins of the world". The evil, sickness and every wicked thing was "imparted to Him" on the Cross. That is the meaning of the phrase when He died, "It is finished"!

      July 1, 2010 at 9:11 pm |
    • Marlye

      Incest. That's probably where the word started with Adam and Eve's children. I never understood the whole dying for sins theory either. I've always thought that the guy just died from a Roman acupuncture treatment gone bad.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:14 pm |
    • DaLe

      The story about Adam and Eve might be partially a story about the creation of the solar system we live in. Adam as Sun, Eve as Earth, Snake as Word.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:26 pm |
  20. Tommy

    Why are these people only after Jesus. There are so many other religions... why don't they pick on some of those also and then they'll know what they are really getting into.

    July 1, 2010 at 8:21 pm |
    • Peace2all

      @ Tommy......Would you please elaborate a bit further on your post, as I am not clear as to what you are trying to convey...

      July 1, 2010 at 8:33 pm |
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