Anti-Christian Statement Something to Get Riled Up About?

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Is what sounds like a blatantly anti-Christian statement something to get riled up about?

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Gothenburg University theologian Gunnar Samuelsson, described as a “committed Christian” by the Telegraph, has a new theory that is decidedly at odds with what Christians believe: Samuelsson doesn’t think Jesus died on a cross. Rather, what we think of as the “cross” may have been something else, and Jesus may not have died on it anyway, Samuelsson’s controversial hypothesis suggests.

Before we respond to the theory itself, consider the context Samuelsson provides for his viewpoint, as quoted in the Telegraph:

“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.”

Samuelsson’s starting point seems both reasonable and agreeable.

Samuelsson’s starting point seems, on the whole, both reasonable and agreeable: a sola Scriptura view and an acknowledgment of extra-biblical confirmation of Christ’s historicity. And he is right to point out that Christian belief sometimes incorporates details that are not actually based in Scripture (though they may still be fully compatible with Scripture)—such as that there were three wise men, or that the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve consumed was an apple.

But from that starting point, Samuelsson departs to the following destination:

“[W]hat’s even more challenging is the same [that “we do not need to add anything”] can be concluded about the accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. The New Testament doesn’t say as much as we’d like to believe. The text of the passion narratives is not that exact and information loaded, as we Christians sometimes want it to be. If you are looking for texts that depict the act of nailing persons to a cross you will not find any beside the Gospels. . . . [D]escriptions of crucifixions are remarkably absent in the antique literature. The sources where you would expect to find support for the established understanding of the event really don’t say anything. Consequently, the contemporary understanding of crucifixion as a punishment is severely challenged.”

Samuelsson argues both that the word translated “cross” in the Gospel accounts may mean something else—viz., “pole”—and that extra-biblical sources cast doubt on the Gospel accounts because they do not document crucifixion as a method of execution nor show how Jesus would have been attached to the object in question.

But that Jesus died on a cross comes straight from Scripture.

But that Jesus died on a cross, by contrast, comes straight from Scripture; consider the plain reading of such verses as Matthew 27:57–60, Luke 23:46, John 19:38, John 20:25, Acts 2:23, Galatians 3:13, Colossians 2:14, and many others, and it’s impossible to deny the historical death of Christ on a cross except by disputing a whole slew of words throughout the New Testament as mistranslated. That, of course, would mean Samuelsson is single-handedly challenging generations of Greek scholars—which makes us more than a little skeptical of his claims, and even of his readings in the extra-biblical literature around the time of Jesus.

The alternative is that Samuelsson is committing eisegesis: annulling the plain reading of the infallible New Testament accounts because of what fallible, extra-biblical sources tell him (or do not tell him, in this case). Even if that is true, however, we note that there are extra-biblical sources that document the practice of crucifixion.

We should certainly be cautious with our interpretation of Scripture, separating what the Bible tells us from extra-biblical legends and traditional elaborations that may or may not be true and that may or may not be compatible with Scripture (Acts 17:11). In this instance, however, Samuelsson has exceeded appropriate skepticism and is undermining sound biblical doctrine with unbiblical “evidence.”

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