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#178 Was Jesus Crucified on a Cross?

September 13, 2010

Hi, Dr. Craig and distinguished RF-Crew.

I have a question regarding a well known swedish theologian and the research he recently conducted concerning the crusifixion of Jesus. In his work Gunnar Samuelsson reports that there is little or no evidence supporting the claim that Jesus was hung on an actual cross, as portrayed by traditional christianity.

He claims there is no evidence the romans executed people in this manner at the time, and also that the greek word for cross, "stauros", just as well could mean "pole".

I must say i fail to see the significance should this turn out to be the case. If the lamb of God had his hands upright or to the sides when he died for our sins, seems altogether rather irrellevant. However, the great fervor of Mr. Samuelssons argumentation, and the many forceful responces to his work render me simply unable to deny the serious implications of this discussion.

What would it mean to the christian society if one of the central beliefs concerning the death of our saviour turned out to be a misrepresentation? Not everyone thinks it doesnt really matter. Humanists in sweden cites Mr. Samuelssons work, and the discussion seems to create a disbelief in the bible as the word of god. This is my great concern regarding the matter.

My question is simply: what grounds do we have to doubt the traditional view of the crusifixion?

Is it really more likely that Jesus was hung/nailed on a pole rather than nailed to a cross as Mr. Samuelsson states?

Does it actually matter?

Best regards


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Dr. craig’s response


I think your initial reaction, Karl, was and remains the correct one: this is an interesting claim which is of no historical or theological significance. In short, it doesn’t matter.

Why not? Well, very simply because in his dissertation “Crucifixion in Antiquity” Samuelsson is not calling into question the historical veracity of the New Testament documents; rather he’s saying that later generations of Christians have misunderstood the documents. He’s like those New Testament scholars who argue, for example, that Jesus was not born in a stable but in a Jewish home, which typically included a space for the animals under the same roof. When Luke says the kataluma was full, the word means, not “inn,” as traditionally translated, but “guest room.” Because the guest room was already occupied, Joseph and his family were given space in the section of the house where the animals were quartered. This hypothesis may explode the images of Jesus’ birth we’ve grown accustomed to in nativity scenes, but it does nothing to challenge the historicity of the Gospel accounts. On the contrary, it aims to help us understand them more accurately.

Similarly, Dr. Samuelsson’s contention is that the Greek terminology used in the New Testament like stauros (cross) and stauroo (crucify) doesn’t enable us to infer that Jesus was crucified on a cross rather than on some other sort of frame. It could have been shaped like the English alphabetical letter “T,” or “X,” or “Y,” or “I.” None of this calls into question the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion (understood as his being nailed to some sort of wooden frame until expiration), nor the reliability of the Gospel accounts of his execution.

Samuelsson is correct that the relevant words have a range of meanings. But word studies in isolation from context shed little meaning on a text. For example, suppose you hear on the morning news, “The police shot the suspect while trying to escape.” If you do a word study on the English word “shot” or “shoot,” you’ll find that someone might be said to be shot with a gun, or a bow and arrow, or even a slingshot! But when taken in the context of the news report, there can be no doubt that that the word means that the suspect had been shot with bullets fired by the policemen’s guns. It will be thus the context that determines the meaning of stauros in any given case.

Part of the problem in knowing just how Jesus was crucified is that we have very little information preserved from antiquity about how crucifixion was done. In fact, the Gospel accounts, which are themselves remarkably reserved in their descriptions of the event, are about the most detailed descriptions we have of crucifixion from the ancient world! But the description of Jesus’ carrying his cross is consistent with the Roman practice of forcing victims to carry the crossbeam of the cross to the place of crucifixion. The nailing of Jesus’ hands and feet to the wooden frame is suggestive. In John 21. 18-19 the kind of death Peter would suffer is prefigured with the words “you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” The second century pagan author Artemidorus similarly refers to criminals being “crucified high and with hands outstretched” (Oneirocritica, I. 76. 35). The outstretched hands naturally suggest a lateral extension. Artemidorus confirms this when he later says, “the cross is made of pieces of wood and nails like a boat, whose mast is similar to a cross” (II. 53. 3). Peter’s pre-figured death is likely crucifixion, the same death that his Lord had suffered. Jesus was therefore likely similarly crucified with outstretched hands, which rules out an I-shaped frame. The plaque bearing the charge against Jesus (a detail which is universally recognized as historical bedrock) was nailed to the frame above his head, which rules out T-, X-, or Y-shaped frames. Thus, the details of the Gospel crucifixion narratives are all consistent with the traditional understanding that Jesus was crucified on a cross-shaped frame.

This is how the early church understood the crucifixion narratives, as evident from the earliest engravings and pictographs of the cross going all the way back to the first century. Samuelsson’s dissertation focuses exclusively on philology (linguistics) and takes no cognizance of archaeology or art history.

The fact that Swedish humanists are trying to exploit Dr. Samuelsson’s work against his intentions says one of two things about them: either they haven’t understood him or else they are not men of integrity, but mere propagandists who are happy to twist someone’s work if it serves their ends. Public furor does not imply that there are serious implications to Samuelsson’s thesis after all. There are a number of cherished beliefs about Jesus which have no basis in the Gospel accounts: for example, the idea that three kings from the East visited Joseph and Mary on the night of Jesus’ birth (cf. the visit of the magi in Matthew 2.1-12) or that Jesus’ mother Mary received Jesus’ body when it was taken down from the cross, as represented in the Pieta. Dispelling these popular misconceptions does nothing to undermine the credibility of the Bible as God’s Word. On the contrary, it helps us to understand it more accurately.

- William Lane Craig