“Jesus did not die on cross, says scholar”?

This headline, or something like it, appeared around the globe on news sites last year (e.g. The Telegraph, CNN’s religion blog, and others). The story was also picked up (and embellished) by various blogs. Before you check out the links, let me ask you: What’s your gut reaction when you read a headline like that? Are you annoyed or disgusted that yet another ivory-tower scholar is denying the fundamental truths of the Christian faith? Are you in despair at the relentless attacks of the media on the church? Or maybe you’re pleased that the truth of science and reason is yet again prevailing over the religious dogmas of the past two millenia?

What if I told you that the scholar in question was simply reading his Bible in its context? Moreover, what if I told you that his scholarly findings are actually quite helpful for Christian faith?

A short while ago I attended a short presentation by this scholar, Gunnar Samuelsson, in which he explained his method and his conclusions. His question was simple: What do we actually know about Jesus’ death from the ancient historical sources (especially the New Testament Gospels)? Our own modern image of Jesus’ death is full of little details that we’ve absorbed from movies, statues, architecture, crucifixes, pictures, preachers’ illustrations, etc. In particular, we have an image of Jesus’ arms nailed to a horizontal plank of wood attached to a vertical pole. Samuelsson wanted to work out if this image can be substantiated from the Gospels themselves, in the light of other ancient sources. The Gospels talk about Jesus being put on a ‘cross’ and ‘crucified’ — but what do the original words mean? Samuelsson concluded that the words don’t imply that Jesus was nailed to something cross-shaped (or T-shaped). The original word ‘crucified’ simply means ‘stuck on a stick’. So all we know from these sources is that Jesus was nailed to a stick in order to die. Maybe the stick had a cross-beam. Maybe it didn’t.

This doesn’t deny any of the tenets of the Christian faith. Samuelsson himself believes “that Jesus was the son of God who was crucified for our sins, that he was raised from the dead after three days, that he is with God on this very day and will return in glory to judge the living and dead.” He just wants to point out what the Bible says, and what it doesn’t say, about the details.

Why is this all quite helpful for Christian faith?

Firstly, it highlights the fact that the Bible is remarkably silent is about the physical details of Jesus’ suffering. It reminds us that biblical spirituality is very different from a spirituality based on physical objects (e.g. crucifixes), images or movies (e.g. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). The Bible focuses on Jesus’ kingship, his relationship with the Father, his love for his disciples, the mocking, the shame, the abandonment etc. If we want our own spirituality to be biblical, we should focus on the same things.

Secondly, it also shows us that we can’t base our acceptance or rejection of Christianity (or of Christian scholars, for that matter) on media headlines. Headlines are designed to be sensational. In fact, the headline I quoted is effectively a lie designed to get people reading a relatively low-key story. The scholar did not say that Jesus didn’t die on a cross. He just said that we can’t be sure of the shape of the so-called ‘cross’ from the biblical accounts. But the headline, “Jesus maybe died on vertical pole, says scholar” doesn’t have the same zing. You need to read the sources, not the headlines. If you haven’t read the story of Jesus’ death recently, why not check it out now?

14 thoughts on ““Jesus did not die on cross, says scholar”?

  1. Lionel, as I think I shared with you elsewhere, in a public Muslim-Christian dialogue website, (in response to the Muslim billboards), there was a discussion I raised about the historicity of the death of Jesus by execution, which the NT affirms and the Q’uran denies.

    Part way through, one of the Muslim dialogue partners, a very friendly dialogue partner, raised this headline, via a url which said “Bible doesn’t say Jesus was crucified scholar claims”.

    When I checked the article, I discovered they’d adjusted their original headline (but not changed the misleading URL), and more importantly that Samuelsson did not support his claim Jesus was not crucified.

    It took a fair while to get my dialogue partner to come clean and admit this.

  2. Pingback: “Jesus did not die on cross, says scholar”? « Forget the Channel

  3. “Firstly, it highlights the fact that the Bible is remarkably silent is about the physical details of Jesus’ suffering. ”
    I must disagree with this. The bible is really very clear on the amount of suffering that Jesus underwent and endured. From being punched in the face and having his beard tugged out, to being scourged and finally carrying his cross (bar) and being nailed to it. All the language would have been common talk amongst the people it was written to. You would know what being scourged meant and what that would look like, you would have seen criminals nailed to crosses (in various states: Seneca points to this reality when he writes in one place, “I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet” (Dialogue 6:20.3). and you would know that it was the punishment reserved for the worst of criminals, their crimes being painted on a sign. Jesus’ reading “King of the Jews” of course.

    If Jesus was simply nailed to a pole, he wouldn’t have carried it, becuase of the depth the pole would need to be to ensure it wouldn’t topple over with a struggling body fixed to it. It would be too long to carry.

    • Hi Ian; certainly it’s true that Jesus underwent a lot of suffering. Crucifixion was awful, and must have been physically “excruciating”. I’m not denying that.

      What is remarkable, though, is the Bible doesn’t spend much time describing the physical suffering. Of course it does mention some elements of physical suffering, e.g. scourging. But it doesn’t major on the physical details. The Bible focuses much more on the other elements I mentioned. Shame, disgrace and abandonment are the key themes (along with Jesus’ kingship, obedience, and love).

      Actually, your quote from Seneca is quite helpful because it shows how different the gospel accounts are to some other accounts of crucifixion. Seneca goes into the kind of physical detail that we just don’t get in the Bible.

      When you mention that Jesus’ beard was pulled out, I assume you’re not talking about the actual story of Jesus’ death but reading Isaiah 50:6 as a detailed prediction of Jesus’ suffering? I’m OK seeing Isaiah prefiguring the suffering of Jesus, but even so, it’s clear Isaiah’s focus in this passage is also on disgrace rather than physical agony.

      I don’t think we have enough information to make any firm conclusions about whether or not Jesus could have carried a pole long enough to be impaled on. I can envisage that he could carry a pole that long, at least for some distance. It depends on the weight of the pole, the form of crucifixion, etc.

      Anyway, I’d encourage you to check out the links on Samuelsson’s website if you want to follow it up further. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Hmmm. One needs to be careful when determining what the scripture actually says or does not say, and what it implies. A “cross” is certainly implied (eg the carrying of the cross beam & the nails (plural) in Jesus’ hands, the Romans’ general practice). The argument that Jesus didn’t die on a “cross” is straight Jehovah’s Witness doctrine. The JW’s translation of the gospels has Jesus dying on a “torture stake” and says that we are somehow blasphemous by using “cross” imagery.

    • Dear Jason,

      I agree wholeheartedly that we need to be very careful about what the Bible does and doesn’t say. So let me ask you a few questions:
      1) Where does the Bible mention a cross beam?
      2) How does the existence of the nail-marks tell us that the device on which Jesus died was cross-shaped?
      3) How do you know that the Romans’ general practice was always to use a cross-shaped device?

      PS I’m not at all familiar with this doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the real problem with the JWs is their denial of the historic creeds, such as the Apostle’s Creed. The exact shape of the device on which Jesus died is not a key feature of these creeds or (as I’m arguing) of the Bible, so I certainly wouldn’t want to insist on it in any dispute with JWs.

      • I may be wrong but I thought perhaps Jason’s point was that a stake would require one nail but a cross would require two, and there’s one NT reference to multiple nails (John 20:25) and the context implies multiple nails in the arms. In the end, however, I agree that the shape is unimportant and I’ve been rather perplexed at JWs who have mentioned this.

        • Hi Martin, as I read it, Jason is arguing that the only way to account for the existence of plural nails in Jesus’ hands is that he was nailed to a cross-beam. This ain’t necessarily so. I could easily envisage a situation, for example, where each of Jesus’ hands (or wrists) was nailed individually to a vertical stake, in order to ensure that all his weight wasn’t being carried by a single nail.

          I know this all sounds pedantic, especially since we’re talking about something so powerful and significant (the suffering and death of our Lord and Saviour). But in this discussion, accuracy is important, because it’s so easy to let our cherished mental images overtake what the Bible is actually saying. Remember, Samuelsson’s not denying that there was a cross-beam, he’s just saying that you can’t tell either way from the historical evidence. If somebody wanted to refute him, it wouldn’t be enough to say that the evidence is consistent with a cross-beam (which of course it is). They’d have to make a stronger logical point: that the evidence is inconsistent with the absence of a cross-beam. I can’t see that Jason has made this point.

  5. My concern is that when you delibrately use provocative headlines to delve into serious theological discussion such as described in the article, it presents a danger for young christians and those seeking answers to the reality of Jesus and His life, that it can become a stumbling block to them. There is a real need to consider the nature of our intent when chucking these headlines around and what damage it may cause. Many people in the world will jump on headings such as this and when we become pedantic in our responses it only creates justification in those who are lost, that the Bible cannot be trusted. Lionel, your reply above even has your interpretation as to what happened and the themes it conveys, so do I believe you or do I go back to Scripture and believe what it says.

    • Hi Graeme, good on you for being concerned for our weaker brothers and sisters. Online communication is fraught with dangers and misunderstandings, isn’t it? As you know from reading the article, it was actually my intention to help people to deal properly with headlines such as these, to read such articles carefully and to strengthen their faith – the question mark in the title was intended to signal this for people who are weak in faith. I hope it’s done that. But if you or anyone knows any young Christians or people seeking answers who have been led astray by my headline, I’d love to talk to them.

    • do I believe you or do I go back to Scripture and believe what it says.

      I hope and pray that people will go back to scripture, read it carefully in light of what I’ve said, weigh up whether you think I’ve got it right or not, and believe the Bible.

  6. In the article from the telegraph Gunnar S. states and I quote…
    “My suggestion is that we should read the text as it is, not as we think it is. We should read on the lines, not between the lines. The text of the Bible is sufficient. We do not need to add anything.”
    I agree with this, so when these guys suggest that Genesis should not be read on the lines but between the lines to account for the creation account leaves me wondering at their selectivity and prejudice when postulating their new ideas and theories.
    Lionel I certainly do understand your intentions in your article. I hope you understand that my intention is to discuss and debate.
    Thanks for your response

  7. Surely ststements such as ‘Take up your cross and follow me’ at least imply an actual cross might be involved somewhere?

    • Hi Malcolm – Samuelsson’s claim is that the word commonly translated “cross” in our Bibles doesn’t necessarily mean “a pole with a cross-piece”. It might simply mean a “pole”. It was a certainly a device used for brutal, humiliating executions; and for public humiliation of people who were already dead. But we can’t be certain about its exact shape.

      No matter what the exact shape of the thing was, Jesus’ comment is still very jarring and emphatic. He means the Christian life is like taking up our “humiliating execution device”. It’s a way of speaking about giving up our lives and souls for his sake and for the gospel, rather than trying to preserve them.

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