Thursday, July 1, 2010

Crucifixion Questioned by Swedish Scholar

This study investigates the philological aspects of how ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew/Aramaic texts, including the New Testament, depict the practice of punishment by crucifixion. 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 terminology 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. The immense knowledge of the punishment of crucifixion in general, and the execution of Jesus in particular, cannot be supported by the studied texts.

An American Muslin paper this week was quick to write about  new Christian research by Gunnar Samuelsson:
“When the Gospels refer to the death of Jesus, they just say that he was forced to carry a “stauros” out to Calvary,” he told AOL News. Many scholars have interpreted that ancient Greek noun as meaning “cross,” and the verb derived from it, “anastauroun,” as implying crucifixion. But during his three-and-a-half-year study of texts from around 800 BC to the end of the first century AD, Samuelsson realized the words had more than one defined meaning.

“‘Stauros’ is actually used to describe a lot of different poles and execution devices,” he says. “So the device described in the Gospels could have been a cross, but it could also have been a spiked pole, or a tree trunk, or something entirely different.” In turn, “anastauroun” was used to signify everything from the act of “raising hands to suspending a musical instrument.”
I became curious this week also when I found a link to a Swedish paper.  Swedish Scholar The comments were interesting in this paper. People wanted to turn the discussion to their own religious or non-religious bias. Muslims went on and on with their comments and so did atheists. Someone Twittered that now Mel Gibson will have to remake part of his film "The Passion" if Christ died on a pole instead of a cross.

Speaking of Twitter, that Gunnar Samuelsson of Gothenburg University is creating a media frenzy. On his Twitter account he describes his bio as "Exhausted father of all too big family, university teacher and new baked doctor of the New Testament with an all too large doctoral thesis." One blogger says Gunnar belongs to the Svenska Missionssällskapet, Swedish Mission Society and articles describe Samuelsson as a "committed Christian".

Is there a crucifiction in history? A  Catholic Blog says so. The blog also gives this article. Crucifixion Antiquity So does ask Answer Bag.

In the same Catholic blog Solo Scriptura is mentioned. Steve Cavanaugh comments that "Mr. Samuelsson is a Protestant who believes in Sola Scriptura. And this is a good illustration of why an individual’s reading of Scripture, apart from the Tradition of the Church, is a bad idea!"   One Roman Catholic says that perhaps Samuelsson "could read the WHOLE of scripture, rather then cherry picking, which most Sola Scriptura enthusiasts oddly tend to do." Another blogger there said about Samuelsson: "And they all go on like that, sola scriptura!"

What is wrong with Sola Scriptura? In John 20 Thomas wanted to see Christ's nail-pierced hands. There was a sign above Christ's head when he was crucified. Christ told us to take up our cross and follow Him. Jehovah Witnesses and Muslims and Catholics are blogging.  So is the Evangelical Textual Criticism Site who are wrestling with the paper. They have been discussing Chrys Caroagounis's article Was Jesus Crucified? Chrys says,
Samuelsson's book does not meet the standards of stringent scientific inquiry into Greek linguistic problems...This dissertation has interest primarily for the mass media, which are hungry for the scandalous, the populistic and whatever lacks seriousness. Sober New Testament scholarship will see through its threadbare character and set it aside as another attempt to create impressions. I feel sorry for Gunnar that he has expended so much toil for a result that cannot stand closer critical scrutiny.
I believe the Roman Catholics are correct about the crucifixion, and the Protestant Samuelsson needs some more research. I guess if he has a lot of mouths to feed, he is getting his day in the media sun and that will help him. But, folks,  we need New Testament scholars to help here!

P.S. I asked a scholar and got an answer 7/10/10. Dr, Larry Hurtado, Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at the University of Edinburgh since 1996, answered my questions on his new blog (see link in resources).

Martin Hengel’s book covered a lot of the same territory, surveying references to crucifixion over the Roman period: Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977)
Sure, there was no one way of crucifying. Essentially, prisoners were turned over the a group of soldiers, and it seems they were told to make it painful, shameful, and use their imagination. We do, however, know some things, including the discovery of the remains of a crucified man at Giv’at ha-Mivtar, with an iron spike driven through his ankles. We also know that at least by the early 2nd century Christians referred to Jesus’ cross as T-shaped (e.g., Epistle of Barnabas), and presecribed Christian prayer practice as standing with arms outstretched “like a cross”.

For further reading, a few items:
J. A. Fitzmyer, “Crucifixion in Ancient Palestine, Qumran Literature, and the New Testament,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 40 (1978)
Erich Dinkler, “Comments on the History of the Symbol of the Cross,” Journal for Theology and the Church 1 (1965)
G. Q. Reijners, , The Terminology of the Holy Cross in Early Christian Literature, as Based Upon Old Testament Typology, Graecitas Christianorum Primaeva, no. 2 (Nijmegen: Dekker & Van De Vegt, 1965)
Jack Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church, rev. ed. (1969; reprint, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992)
Hurtado concludes: "No serious scholar in relevant fields of early church and ancient history that I know of doubts that Jesus was crucified. Of course, this is a difficulty for our Muslim friends."

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