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.

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  1. Erik Herrmann June 25, 2010

    Interesting, but impaling and walking around with plywood do not seem to be options either. Simon was able to carry the cross first and then the text is clear about the stationary nature of the crucifixion (on Golgotha, between to thieves, one on his right and one on his left, with those who pass by the spot) and some level of elevation (“… come down from the cross”; sponge on a reed, etc.).
    Wondering if the Gospel of John is excluded from Samuelsson’s data — there Jesus speaks of being “lifted up” and tells Peter that “you will stretch out your hands … to show what kind of death he was to glorify God.”)
    Funny, Jehovah Witnesses make a big deal about stauron being a torture stake rather than a T-like cross.

    • Jeff Kloha June 25, 2010

      Agreed, walking around nailed to a board doesn’t fit the descriptions in the gospels. Again, I haven’t seen the book yet, so I don’t know what Samuelsson suggests actually did happen. He might be arguing that “crucifixion” on a σταυρός / “pole” involved dragging the pole to the location and then being “lifted up” on that, left to hang in torture until death.

      I also wonder about the very early depictions of the cross as a “T-shaped” object — The Epistle of Barnabas, typically dated somewhere around or just after AD 100, uses the shape of the Greek numeral for 300 (the letter τ) to argue that Jesus was present in the Old Testament:

      “For it says, ‘And Abraham circumcised from his household eighteen men and three hundred.” What then was the knowledge that was given to him? Notice that he first mentions the eighteen, and after a pause the three hundred. The eighteen is ι (=ten) and η (=8) — you have Jesus — and because the cross was destined to have grace in the τ he says “and three hundred.” So he indicates Jesus in the two letters and the cross in the other.”

      Now, say what you want about the exegesis, but the author of Barnabas does not say that the iota (ι) looks like the instrument of Jesus’ death, but the tau (τ).

      Another fairly early depiction is in a manuscript of John, P66, dated to around 200. In that manuscript, the word σταυρόν is abbreviated in what are called nomina sacra (I can’t put links in replies, but look it up in wikipedia). The shape on the nomen sacrum for this word is unusual in that the bar indicating the abbreviation is actually written to look like what we think of as a cross. I can’t find an image of this on the web, though. I have photo plates of the manuscript in my office, if you want to stop by.

      Now, this evidence is, granted, 100-175 years after the death of Jesus. The question is, though, why would they have viewed the “cross” as a T-shaped implement when, so the argument goes, neither the gospels nor the ancient world knew of “crosses” shaped like that?

      I look forward to the book. If nothing else, it forces us to a closer read of the text, rather “reading” the movie of the story that we’ve created in our minds, with a full cast of characters and sharp details of the event. It has always struck me that the descriptions of the crucifixion itself are actually very brief and not very fleshed out. They leave a lot of room for the artists and preachers to create.

    • Abraham July 7, 2021

      “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” (John 3:14) Actually, the very vivid image John puts in his Gospel is of being hung on a pole and not a cross.

  2. Paul Robinson June 25, 2010

    There is also the famous second century graffito mocking a believer by showing him worshiping a crucified donkey. The cross is clearly T-shaped.I wonder what Samuelsson does with this. Crosses were not always cross-shaped, to be sure, and Hengel does speak mostly of impalements. But it would be odd for Christians and pagans (presumably a pagan drew this caricature) to suddenly invent in text and art a cross-shaped cross that had never existed before.

  3. Tim Boerger June 25, 2010

    The first thing that popped into my head was the Alexamenos Graffito, but I see that Prof. Robinson beat me to it. Am I right in thinking that’s the earliest pictorial depiction of a crucifiction we have?

    • Tim Boerger June 25, 2010

      I mean, of course, “crucifixion.” Man, my brain must be checked out tonight…. 🙁

  4. Josh Schroeder June 28, 2010

    The first time I came across the notion that Christ was killed by the Romans but not on a cross was the Jehovah’s Witnesses who assert that Jesus was nailed to and killed on an upright pole, not a cross. But their claim is based in no small part that they see the cross as a pagan symbol.

    I’m interested to learn more about Samuelsson’s background. Not that I think he’s some kind of secret JW, but what has previously shaped his faith and thought that would lead him down this line of inquiry.

    • Josh Schroeder June 29, 2010

      Checked with the man himself – he’s an ordained minister in the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden.

      From the Wikipedia article at :
      The Mission Covenant Church of Sweden (Swedish: Svenska Missionskyrkan), founded in 1878, is a Swedish Reformed free church. It is the second-largest Christian denomination in the country, after the national church, the Church of Sweden. Prior to 2003 it was called Svenska Missionsförbundet (literally Swedish Mission Covenant, though the official English name already was Mission Covenant Church of Sweden at that time). The Swedish Salvation Army (Svenska Frälsningsarmén (SFA), which is a separate organisation from the international Salvation Army, which also operates in Sweden) is a non-territorial district of the Mission Covenant Church.

      The Mission Covenant Church of Sweden has its origins in, and continues to share quite a close relationship with, the Lutheran Church of Sweden. As a movement they have roots in Pietism and the spiritual awakenings of the nineteenth century. The denomination is a member of the Swedish Free Church Council, the International Federation of Free Evangelical Churches, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. When Swedish Covenanters emigrated to the United States and Canada in the last half of the nineteenth century they formed the Evangelical Covenant Church. The denominations are independent of each other but have maintained fraternal ties.

  5. Jeff Kloha June 30, 2010

    Josh — thanks for checking. It seems pretty clear to me that Samuelsson is not some sort of closet Jesus-hater or Jehovah Witness (to call Jesus the Son of God — in the Daily Telegraph — pretty much clinches that one). It seems to me he is asking basic historic and semantic questions.

    SInce this is really a linguistic issue — what is the referent of σταυρός — I mentioned this to my daughter, who is thinking of studying linguistics in college (not at my urging, I’m encouraging her to try to make some money). She asked a couple of questions, then said something like: “It seems like it doesn’t really matter what he died on, the point of the story is that he died for us.”

    On the Alexamenos graffito, I had considered mentioning that, but I seem to remember some debate about whether the donkey figure is intended to represent Jesus, and indeed whether the object is actually a cross (in our way of imagining a cross). So I did not include that, but it is worth raising.

    Having said all that, whether or not Samuelsson is correct is another matter. Chrys Caragounis, a prominent Greek scholar in Sweden and friend of Jim Voelz, posted a rather condemning review of the book:

    • Marc July 2, 2010

      The review is very condemning and affirms my initial reaction to Samuelsson’s thesis, which is, it may be true that crucifixion on a cross may not always mean on a “t” shaped apparatus but that does not necessitate an alternative. It just means that crucifixion on a cross may not always mean on a “t” shaped apparatus.

  6. Gunnar Samuelsson July 15, 2010

    Dear Friends,

    If you want further information about my doctoral thesis, Crucifixion in Antiquity, please visit my website

    Gunnar Samuelsson

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