Little Evidence Jesus Died on a Cross, Says Scholar

Theunis Bates

Theunis Bates is a London-based journalist. He writes for Time, Fast Company and Business Life.

(June 27) — The crucifix is the defining symbol of Christianity, a constant reminder to the faithful of the sacrifice and suffering endured by Jesus Christ for humanity. But an extensive study of ancient texts by a Swedish pastor and academic has revealed that Jesus may not have died on a cross, but instead been put to death on another gruesome execution device.

Gunnar Samuelsson — a theologian at the University of Gothenburg and author of a 400-page thesis on crucifixion in antiquity — doesn’t doubt that Jesus died on Calvary hill. But he argues that the New Testament is in fact far more ambiguous about the exact method of the Messiah’s execution than many Christians are aware.

“When the Gospels refer to the death of Jesus, they just say that he was forced to carry a “stauros” out to Calvary,” he told AOL News. Many scholars have interpreted that ancient Greek noun as meaning “cross,” and the verb derived from it, “anastauroun,” as implying crucifixion. But during his three-and-a-half-year study of texts from around 800 BC to the end of the first century AD, Samuelsson realized the words had more than one defined meaning.

“‘Stauros’ is actually used to describe a lot of different poles and execution devices,” he says. “So the device described in the Gospels could have been a cross, but it could also have been a spiked pole, or a tree trunk, or something entirely different.” In turn, “anastauroun” was used to signify everything from the act of “raising hands to suspending a musical instrument.”Gunnar Samuelsson says the New Testament is far more ambiguous about the exact method of Jesus' execution than many Christians are aware.

The manner in which Jesus died is further thrown into question by Samuelsson’s discovery that crucifixion may have been an unusual form of punishment in the Roman Empire. Descriptions of crucifixions contained in the thousands of Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Greek manuscripts he examined most commonly referred to dead prisoners being placed on some form of suspension device, or living captives skewered on stakes. The first century Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, for example, wrote about seeing a great many prisoners of war on “crosses” after one campaign. But the scribe then describes how a large number of the dead had been impaled.

“If you search for ancient texts that specifically mention the act of crucifixion [as we understand it today]” he says, “you will end up with only two or three examples.”

That revelation stands in stark contrast to claims that appear in many books on the historical Jesus, as well as more general surveys of life under Roman rule, which state that prisoners were routinely nailed to crosses. (The Encylopaedia Britannica, for example, says crucifixion was an “important method of capital punishment” in Rome.)

Of course, this lack of hard evidence doesn’t mean that the Roman Empire was a crucifix-free zone. Samuelsson suspects that crucifixion was simply one of a great many methods of execution employed across the empire. He notes that Flavius Josephus — a Jewish historian and adviser to three Roman emperors in the 1st century — recorded how Roman soldiers were allowed to use their “wicked minds in various ways to execute” prisoners captured during a Jewish uprising. This suggests that the method of Jesus’ execution may have been decided by legionnaires stationed at Calvary, and not by the state.

“If we put this on the table, and think that the execution of Jesus was the result of the wicked mind of the soldiers at that very point, we can’t know how he could have been executed,” Samuelsson says. “The executions of that day could have taken a completely different form from ones the day before.”

The Swedish scholar isn’t sure exactly why the crucifix went on to become the dominant Christian motif. But this symbol only seems to have become fixed in followers’ minds long after Jesus’ death, as the first T and X shaped crucifixes appear in Christian manuscripts around the 2nd century AD.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Samuelsson’s thesis has caused something of an unheavenly row. While fellow theologians have complimented his highly detailed research, many critics in the blogospherehave claimed that he wants to undermine Christianity. Samuelsson — who believes that “the man who walked this earth was the Son of God, and that he will return to judge the living and the dead” — says this accusation is simply “stupid.”

“I’m really just a boring, conservative pastor and I start everyday reading the New Testament,” he says. “But my suggestion is that we should read the text as it is, not as we think it is.”


7 thoughts on “Little Evidence Jesus Died on a Cross, Says Scholar

  1. Ever wonder whether what you ‘believe’ is what was originally meant to be ‘believed’?
    Earth-shattering, this whole thing about linguistics.
    “Well if English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for (the ex-Governor of Texas).”
    So perhaps The Son Of G-D had a pole shoved up his anus, which was then stuck in the ground–hmm how to worship THAT image, exactly. In a ‘Church’ no less.
    You’ll hafta ask Vlad the Impaler, that Dragula dude.

  2. “Impalement was Dracula’s favorite method of punishment. Not only was this method of punishment extremely painful, but Dracula seemed to derive sick pleasure from watching his people being tortured. In fact, wood cuttings from this time period indicate that Dracula often dined surrounded by the decaying bodies of the dead.

    Impalement was initiated by by taking a oiled stake about as wide as a burly man’s arm, and inserting it through the victims buttocks, often until it protruded from their mouths. The stake was purposefully kept dull to keep the victims from dying too soon from shock. The victims legs were tied to two horses while the stake was placed in position. Upon command the horses slowly pulled the victim’s legs until the stake was impaled into the victims body. Mother’s often had additional stakes driven through their chests with their children and infants impaled on the extended portion of the stake. After the stakes were in place, they were driven into the ground and placed around the outside perimeter of Vlad’s castle. Bodies were left in these positions for months, the stench of rotting bodies permeating throughout the kingdom.

    It was reported that the invading Turkish army turned back in horror when it encountered twenty thousand decaying corpses along the banks of the Danube river. Their leader proclaiming “how could we possibly fight a monster that could do such atrocities”.

    Massive impalements such as the one the Turkish army stumbled upon, were by no means uncommon. 10,00 were impaled in the Transylvanian city of Sibiu. on St. Bartholomew’s Day, Dracula had 30,000 merchants impaled in the city of Brasov.”

  3. Imagine playing telephone for 2500 years, or 3000 or 5000…
    seriously, humans.
    No no, he has blue hair. No, no penis, a Vagina! no, no, brown skin, wait! White, white skin, no, Olive complexion, yes, and a cleft chin. Yes it says so right here in Greek. Oh, you mean it was translated thrice even before GREEK? Shit. Maybe it is a Vagina, then. Did I mention the wings?

  4. I’m thinking he was more like a philosophical hippy smoking the good stuff… long hair… sandals… toga outfit… hearing voices in this head… lots of friends hanging around because he’s so generous with his stash…

    Come to think of it, I believe jesus lives down the street from me ?!

  5. The ancient Latin word for cross is “crux,” originally the tow-pole of a wagon. It’s linguistic ancestor is the Greek word “krikos,” meaning the harness-ring through which the peg for a tow-pole passed. So an impalement stake would be a valid execution crux.

    This whole debate would have been a nonstarter had people bothered to look at ancient graffiti dating from the First and Second C. ce in Rome, Puzzuoli and Pompeii. The one in Rome is derived from and is a mockery of The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but the other three are more informative. Two of them indicate that the prisoner was suspended with ropes or nails from a vertical rack shaped like a tee or a mast, and also impaled on a stout, ample “horn” that served as his “seat.” The pictogram graffiti in Pompeii had the letters VIV above the top of the vertical of the cross, presenting the message to the reader, VIV[as in cruce], meaning, “May you live long on the cross/crux” or more accurately the aerial racking-impalement frame. A second graffiti in Pompeii is simply the obscenity, “In cruce figarus,” meaning simply, “Get fixed on a cross/crux.” A simple impalement stake would do. And the graffito in Puzzuoli shows a person secured to a t-cross, struggling to lift him/herself off a “horn” that’s impaling the anus. The peculiar thing about this graffito (which reflects on the tagger’s character) is that the suspended person shown appears to have a smile on his/her face.

    Ancient graffiti Do Not Lie.

  6. Another thing about crucifixion: the Roman practice (certainly NOT the modern definition) may have something to do with the Up Yours gesture. Basically, there is mention of the bracchia macra, the extended forearm, as a term for Priapus’ eternally erect phallus. Crux was also a term for that same phallus. So it is very possible that the Romans insulted each other with the epitet “In cruce figarus!” (a known graffito in Pompeii) while flipping the Up Yours at them.

    • Very enlightening, thank you. It’s interesting how we don’t refer back to the millennia in which Europeans–with DNA the same as today, believed in and had practices so different from Christendom…and act as though there is no memetics at play.
      I love bringing the biggest buttfucker of them all into conversations–Priapus. Haha.
      He strangely silences people. 🙂
      Thanks again for your thoughts.

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