Nailing the story right

Jesus didn’t die on the cross, scholar says, because the Romans didn’t crucify anyone

A Swedish theologian argues that the idea of Christ’s crucifixion comes from a misinterpretation of the original Biblical account. In it there is no specific mention of a cross—two pieces of wood lashed together—but only of a “staurus,” which, Gunnar Samuelsson claims, is not necessarily a cross but can also mean a pole, and no mention at all of nails. Adds Samuelsson, who has written a 400-page thesis after studying the original texts: “The problem is descriptions 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.” The absence of nails in the Scripture is true enough, although Christ after his resurrection shows the nail wounds to Doubting Thomas, and Christians have always portrayed him as nailed to the cross. That was a long-running dispute between believers and skeptics who pointed to overwhelming evidence that the Romans usually tied their victims to crosses and watched them die from slow asphyxiation, but the discovery, in 1968, of the skeletal remains of a crucified man, complete with iron nail driven through his heel bone, considerably bolstered the Biblical story. Samuelsson’s other claim, that no one at all was crucified, however, is new, and liable to startle other scholars. According to the theologian, ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew literature from Homer to the first century CE describe an arsenal of suspension punishments but none mention “crosses” or “crucifixion” and therefore, “the contemporary understanding of crucifixion as a punishment is severely challenged.” But most experts argue that crucifixion was the general term for those deaths by suspension whether or not crossbeams were involved. Particularly when the victorious Romans were engaged in mass executions—some 6,000 followers of Spartacus were crucified along the Appian Way in 71 BCE after his revolt was put down—a shortage of wood could lead to single poles being used.