I read this article today. Gunnar Samuelson, an evangelical preacher and theologian, has concluded in his doctoral dissertation that the traditional Christian teaching that Jesus was crucified on a cross as historically conceived is misguided at best. He says in a tweet that he is an ordained minister in the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden.
In his dissertation abstract he states,
A survey of the ancient text material shows that there has been a too narrow view of the “crucifixion” terminology. The various terms are not simply used in the sense of “crucify” and “cross,” if by “crucifixion” one means the punishment that Jesus was subjected to according to the main Christian traditions. The term… more inology is used much more diversely. Almost none of it can be elucidated beyond verbs referring vaguely to some form(s) of suspension, and nouns referring to tools used in such suspension. As a result, most of the crucifixion accounts that scholars cite in the ancient literature have to be rejected, leaving only a few. The New Testament is not spared from this terminological ambiguity. The accounts of the death of Jesus are strikingly sparse. Their chief contribution is usage of the unclear terminology in question. Over-interpretation, and probably even pure imagination, have afflicted nearly every wordbook and dictionary that deals with the terms related to crucifixion as well as scholarly depictions of what happened on Calvary (emphasis added).
So what are we to make of Samuelson’s conclusion? Three initial responses come to mind. First, Jehovah’s Witnesses will love this. Second, on a matter as foundational to Christianity as the death of Christ, it is unlikely that this conclusion is new. This is an informed suspicion, but I may be wrong. Third, according to the article on abcnews.com,
Samuelson devoutly believes the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but says for generations people have misinterpreted and mistranslated the Greek word ‘stauros’ to mean crucifix, when really the term just means a suspension device, which might have been anything such as a ‘pole or a tree trunk.’
The statement suggests that his thesis has to more do with the means of Christ’s death rather than its significance. Nevertheless, his conclusion opens the door to other questions and I think unintended doctrinal consequences. There is something important about a symbol that corresponds to its signficance (for example, the bread and wine in Communion). To do away with the cross (even as a symbol) is to remove the glory, the ground of boasting, for the Christian and the Christian gospel. Does Galatians 6:14 still carry the same weight with Samuelson’s conclusion? “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
I imagine we will hear more on this. Incidentally, the chapter “The centrality of the cross” in John Stott’s classic The Cross of Christ is a worthy read on this subject.