"Obscure Swedish scholar" Gunnar Samuelsson says that according to the Gospels, Jesus was not crucified. All that can be said with authority is that he shouldered "some kind of torture or execution device" on his way to being "suspended" on a hill, according to an article on CNN's belief blog posted by Richard Allen Greene, newsdesk editor of the CNN Wire.
I'm not sure why CNN calls Samuelsson "obscure." According to his Twitter profile, he is an "exhausted father of all too big family, university teacher and new baked doctor of the New Testament with an all too large doctoral thesis." He also happens to be a pretty talented nature photographer. Photographer and gutsy researcher do not an "obscure scholar" make.
Even if CNN means Samuelsson's theory is obscure, the post admits he has devoted 12 hours a day for three years to his thesis. I've certainly done nothing of the sort, but it has often struck me that the Hebrew translations of Matthew that I have seen cited, as in Hebrew Gospel of Matthew by George Howard (though not these ones) refer to Jesus' crucifixion as talu oto al etz, or "hanging him on a tree," or gallows, the same expression used in Esther chapter 9 to refer to Haman and his sons being hung on gallows.
This sounds very similar to what Samuelsson describes in the CNN piece: "This word is used in a much wider sense than 'crucifixion' ... It refers to hanging, to suspending vines in a vineyard."
This is all a far cry from claims like John Denham Parsons' in The Non-Christian Cross that Jesus was impaled rather than crucified, but is sure to be equally controversial.
Surely aware of the controversy, Samuelsson is careful with his words:
Samuelsson wants to be very clear about what he is saying and what he is not saying.
Most importantly, he says, he is not claiming Jesus was not crucified - only that the Gospels do not say he was.
"I am a pastor, a conservative evangelical pastor, a Christian," he is at pains to point out. "I do believe that Jesus died the way we thought he died. He died on the cross."
But, he insists, it is tradition that tells Christians that, not the first four books of the New Testament.
The CNN piece doesn't get into it, but of course there is a biblical precedent for stringing corpses out as warning to onlookers. According to Deuteronomy 21: 22-23, the corpse of a particular sort of sinner is hung on a tree, but it must be buried that day. One wonders if there is a connection between that text and the sort of thing Samuelsson describes.
I wonder, though, to what extent does the question whether Jesus was crucified or "suspended" matter? If you are a Christian, do you care how Jesus was killed per se, or only that he was tortured and killed? If you are not Christian, do you find relevance in the conversation at all?
More on the thesis here.
Follow Menachem Wecker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mwecker