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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. don

    very interesting. Though, John 20:27 would show, as the originator of the position above would probably agree, that Jesus Christ was crucified and not just hung.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
    • Nancy, the fat

      ...and you read it in the original language then?

      July 1, 2010 at 9:47 pm |
    • Leonid Brezhnev

      Are you saying he was well hung?

      July 1, 2010 at 9:47 pm |
    • Marlye

      Well hung? no wonder he was so popular!

      July 1, 2010 at 10:11 pm |
    • Jo

      I know God is real, 'he' created humor...and that's funny.

      July 5, 2010 at 6:58 am |
  2. beLIEve

    whatever you want to beLIEeve in your own brain is up to you. personally, i believe Mary was not a virgin, which made Jesus just an ordinary Joe.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:43 pm |
    • Winston Sumirsan

      Ordinary Joe Jesus did Extraordinary act of Love (Agape). So, Mother Mary is great then.

      July 3, 2010 at 2:07 am |
  3. Nancy

    RE: Matt Umm, you just compared fictional Easter Bunny books written for children to historical texts/manuscripts written by proven reputable sources which have helped found entire religions and our current theological/educational system....who's the idiot?

    Nothing in the bible can be considered "historical". And no, there are NO "proven, reputable sources". Where do you get this crap from? No one knows who wrote the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Everything in the bible is AS fictictious as what one reads in books about the easter bunny.

    In fact, there is NO PROOF that Jesus actually existed.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:40 pm |
    • Nancy

      There's no proof that you existed.

      July 1, 2010 at 9:41 pm |
  4. Leonid Brezhnev

    Did you also know that according to the southern baptists, when the "rapture" comes, only baptists will be "saved". Not the Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, etc. Just the Baptists. PRAISE GAWD!

    July 1, 2010 at 9:39 pm |
  5. Tawhid Ahmed Rana

    Why does it matter? Only important is his teaching to man. Can we not follow an ordinary man who was just a man who born and die? Why we must have to see or hear a "miracle" to believe in? Look around you, everything is a miracle. Even you!

    July 1, 2010 at 9:38 pm |
  6. gheezy

    i dont get why christians say he died for "our sins". at that time there was no christianity, and at that time everyone turned their backs in Jmmanuel, so how can you say he died for our sins, it was people like you that put him to death in the first place.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:36 pm |
    • kiti

      Both the Romans and The Jews at that time believed in sacrifice to the god(s) would 'atone' (wipe away ) their sins. Paul took that belief and ran with it.

      July 1, 2010 at 11:36 pm |
  7. Leonid Brezhnev

    I made an error....I should have said 1400 or 1500 years ago. My mistake. Am I being punished by your god?

    July 1, 2010 at 9:34 pm |
  8. Pro Bono Publico

    The Quran on the alleged crucifixion of Prophet Jesus: 4:156-159 "That they rejected Faith; That they uttered against Mary A grave false charge; That they said (in boast): 'We killed Christ Jesus The son of Mary, The Messenger of Allah.' But they killed him not, Nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to 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. And there is none of the people of the book (Jews and Christians) But must
    believe in him (Jesus) Before his death; And on the Day of Judgment He (Jesus) will be a witness Against them."

    3:55 "Behold! Allah said: O Jesus! I will take thee And raise thee to Myself And clear thee (of the falsehoods) Of those who blaspheme; I will make those Who follow thee superior To those who reject faith, To the Day of Resurrection: Then shall ye all return unto me, And I will judge Between you of the matters wherein ye dispute."

    July 1, 2010 at 9:34 pm |
  9. I'm Brian and my wife's Brian too

    Always look on the bright side of life...

    July 1, 2010 at 9:34 pm |
  10. Leonid Brezhnev

    You know, there was no such thing as this "hell" until 4 or 5 hundred years ago. The Jews don't believe in a hell...unless it's living with your in-laws...

    July 1, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
    • Goddess :)

      privetsvuu 🙂

      July 1, 2010 at 11:31 pm |
  11. jeff

    If he could make people believe he turned water into wine, faking his death would be pretty easy. He was probably a con-man if he realy existed.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
  12. Ryan

    They're all just fairy tales so what does it matter? Besides, the cross is a pagan symbol that christianity adopted as a part of their stories.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:33 pm |
  13. Leonid Brezhnev

    IT IS A FAIRY TALE!!!! A story for the sheep. Not real. Embellished for your entertainment.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:31 pm |
  14. Kl0509

    Jehovah's witnesses have been stating this fact for years. Hence, the words stauros and xylon in thhe original greek are literally translated as torture stake or tree.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:31 pm |
    • jason

      Finally someone recognizes this fact! But the media is only interested when its a scholar making this claim. Anyway, its a good support for the witnesses of Jehovah either way 🙂

      July 1, 2010 at 9:59 pm |
  15. The gift of God (samuel)

    I guess that Jehovahs witness had it right all the time

    July 1, 2010 at 9:30 pm |
  16. Green Blue

    Regardless, Jesus was executed as a criminal. He still died for our sins. If He is to do it today, it could be hanging, firing squad, beheaded, electric chair, etc. So, finding that Jesus might not have been 'crucified' is simply another academic exercise at best. He is still the Son of God, our Savior and Lord. Of course, it might cause a lot of re-modeling of churches. Well, it could create some more jobs.
    I wonder how they suspended 3 persons on the hill, gave him vinegar, pierced his side, and broke the legs of the other 2 persons?

    July 1, 2010 at 9:30 pm |
  17. Leonid Brezhnev

    Are there any actual historic texts that can verify this actually happened? I don't mean the bible, either, as it is not factual nor accurate nor historical. I don't recall any noted historians of the day commenting on this at all.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:29 pm |
  18. gheezy

    I can agree that he was real and was crucified, but coming back from the dead after 3 days is a bit far fetched since no one else in recorded history has done that. However, I can buy that Jmmanuel was in a coma/stupor and eventually came to in 3 days.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
  19. coreyrob26

    It really doesn't matter if he was or wasn't. The majority of the bible is still one big fairytale.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:28 pm |
    • Nancy, the fat

      So some parts aren't a fairy tale then. Which parts?

      July 1, 2010 at 9:45 pm |
  20. jeff

    @Bob Ramos, So what 2 days of torture that's just a very bad weekend for our sins, big deal, I know many people who have suffered alot worse and alot lot longer.

    July 1, 2010 at 9:27 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.