Clinging to the Old, Rugged Cross?
Did Jesus really die on a cross?
Swedish scholar Gunnar Samuelsson, in a recently published dissertation, argues that he might not have. Now, that way of phrasing the question intentionally causes shock (and this is how I have see the question put in several news outlets). What Samuelsson is claiming is that Jesus was a real person, he was tortured and put to death by the Romans, but that the instrument of his day was unlikely to have been a “cross” — you know, T-shaped, one long pole stuck in the ground, cross-beam, and of course, the nails to hold him there.
The question is not, “did Jesus die?” but, “what did he die on?” According to this research, the vocable σταυρός does not mean specifically “cross” but any instrument of torture which kills, be it a pole or a stake. According to Samuelsson, “The ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew literature from Homer to the first century AD describe an arsenal of suspension punishments but none mention ‘crosses’ or ‘crucifixion.’” Pretty strong statement. The book I’ve referred to over the years on this topic has been Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Hengel has some very helpful observations on the “folly of the cross” (1 Cor. 1). But as I skimmed through it again, his references to actual crucifixions in the ancient world are, as Hengel acknowledges, actually times when people were impaled on a pole. Or nailed to a board, which they then drug around until they died. Hmmm.
This does problematize a familiar text — Doubting Thomas wants to see the nail-marks in Jesus’ hands and feet in John 20. So far as I can tell, all the classical Greek and biblical Greek lexicons that I have checked give the gloss “nail” for the word used there (ἧλος) — the word dates back to Homeric Greek. I don’ t know what Samuelsson does with this (I haven’t seen the book yet).
I don’t know what to make of this — I see Samuelsson’s point: we “fill in the blanks” when we read, thinking we already know what it says. But there are no soldiers with hammers actually mentioned in the passion narratives of the gospels. Yes, Jesus carries something, and he is “crucified” — but the question being asked is what, exactly, was he carrying? On what, exactly, did Jesus die? How would a Roman soldier draw the picture?
Finally, unfortunately, Samuelsson has been very frequently misunderstood and misquoted on this. A recent article in the British Daily Telegraph shows him trying to make himself clear on what he is saying:
Mr Samuelsson said: “That a man named Jesus existed in that part of the world and in that time is well-documented. He left a rather good foot-print in the literature of the time.
“I do believe that the mentioned man is the son of God. My suggestion is not that Christians should reject or doubt the biblical text.
“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.”
So this is not some kind of Davinci Code, Gospel of Judas goofiness. It is a sincere Christian scholar seeking to understand the biblical texts accurately. He just has hundreds of years of artwork, pious reflection, and Mel Gibson movies working against him.