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Jesus May Not Have Died on Cross
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Jesus Christ May Not Have Died on Cross

 

 

 

For 2,000 years the crucifix has been a potent symbol of both Jesus Christ's deathand Christianity. Now one Swedish theologian says that despite the crucifix's proliferation in art and literature, there is scant evidence in the Bible or other ancient sources to indicate that Christ was killed on a cross.

Gunnar Samuelsson, an evangelical preacher and theologian, says he spent three years combing thousands of ancient texts to research his recently completed 400-page doctoral thesis "Crucifixion in Antiquity."

What he discovered, he said, "came as a shock." While there were numerous references to "suspension devices" used for executions at the time of Christ's death, he could find no explicit references to the classic T-shaped cross.

"There is no distinct punishment called 'crucifixion,' no distinct punishment device called a 'crucifix' anywhere mentioned in any of the ancient texts including the Gospels," he told ABCNews.com.

Samuelsson 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 earliest versions of the New Testament were written in Greek.

"If you chose to just read the text and ignore the art and theology, there is quite a small amount of information about the crucifixion. Jesus, the Bible says, carried something called a stauros out to Calvary. Everyone thought it meant cross, but it does not only mean cross. We cannot say every instance of this noun, stauros refers to a cross," Samuelsson said.

Suspension devices, basically tall polls or pikes, were routinely used in the ancient world, by the Romans and their contemporaries, both as execution devices and for displaying the bodies of executed criminals and enemies as a public warning.

Part of what tipped Samuelson off to the apparent mistranslation, were routine references to things like fruits and dead animals being "crucified" in ancient texts, when translating the word as "suspended" makes more sense.

For Samuelsson, a 44-year-old pastor who is completing his research at the University of Gothenburg, his faith leads him to believe in the tradition that Jesus was suspended on a cross.

However, he says, "We don't know how those wicked people next to him on the right and on the left, were executed. Or what the devices looked like for people the day before or the day after."

"I am not saying no 'crucifixions' took place I the ancient world. But we cannot find evidence of them in the ancient texts," he added.

Given that the Romans were careful record keepers who wrote detailed and gruesome histories about their military conquests and lengthy legal treatises, it is strange that they would not have written plainly about their execution methods, he explained.

Samuelson says the idea of suspension devices would have been understood in the ancient world and by the contemporaries of Jesus.

"If you were walking around Galilee and heard Jesus say he will be suspended in days. People would have an understanding of the kind of torture involved."

While the Gospels mention Jesus' suspension, none specify a cross, according to Samuelson. Furthermore, the passion is described differently in different Gospels and has been depicted in various ways throughout history.

"In the movie the 'Passion of Christ,' Jesus carries the whole cross on his back. In some scholarly works, he just carries the cross beam. Nails are not mentioned before the passion and only mentioned in one book after he is executed," he said.

Samuelson said he never expected the international reaction his thesis has already received. He originally printed just 200 copies that he thought would be read by family and friends. He said he hoped scholars would be intrigued by his work, but has been surprised by the worldwide attention.

"I'm just another boring pastor. I think Jesus is the son of God. I read the New Testament every day. I'm filled with the Holy Spirit. I keep telling people, this does not mean we have to tear down the crosses in all the churches."



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Jesus' Death as Sacrifice?

Posted: 03/13/2012 10:42 am

Greg Carey

Greg Carey

Far removed from the world of ritual sacrifice, most modern folk find such language confusing, even offensive. Many of us recoil from the theory some Christians espouse, that Jesus' death amounted to a substitution. According to that view, God -- being just -- is bound to punish human sin. Jesus takes our place, enduring our punishment through his agonizing death, and his suffering removes God's judgment. This theory, called "penal substitutionary atonement," requires that someone must get hurt, and badly, in order that mortals may escape God's righteous wrath.

There's a problem with penal substitution. Biblical sacrifices do not represent human attempts to purchase forgiveness; instead, they offer a ritual means of acknowledging the costliness of sin and alienation from God. Through sacrifice, God reaches out to mortals and invites their response.

According to the Bible, God offers forgiveness freely. God is ready to forgive people without hurting anyone. (Listen to an interview with theologian Alan Padgett here.) Moreover, God's justice does not amount to retaliation. As Jesus taught, retaliation and punishment constitute inferior models of justice (Matthew 5:38-42). God's justice, or righteousness, involves God's saving action on behalf of humankind. True justice doesn't inflict harm. True justice heals.

The Jewish Scriptures and the Nature of God

Leviticus makes clear that God provides Israel's sacrificial system. A key verse, Leviticus 17:11, insists that God appoints the blood of sacrifices to "cover over" (or atone for) the lives of individuals or the community. That same language, "covering over," lies behind the day of atonement, Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29-34; 23:26-32). As Christian Eberhart shows, the atonement sacrifices did not "punish" animals in the place of humans; rather, they purged sin from the holy places. Priests sprinkled the animal's blood upon the altar, cleansing the impurity of sin through the vitality represented by the blood (Leviticus 1:1-7).

Here's a simple antidote for those who think ancient Judaism was a formalistic religion in which ritual sacrifices appeased an angry God: read the Psalms. There we encounter the same God who is "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6, Jewish Publication Society). Consider Psalm 65:3 (65:4 in the Hebrew): "When all manner of sins overwhelm me, it is You who forgive our iniquities." As Psalm 51:17 famously puts it, "True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit."

Interpreting Jesus' Death

Early Christians faced a monumental challenge in the wake of Jesus' death. Jesus' ministry brought life, meaning and community. But his crucifixion turned everything upside down, to all appearances demonstrating Jesus' ultimate failure to transform the world. In the light of the resurrection, however, Jesus' followers encountered the same life, meaning and community they had experienced in Jesus' presence. Somehow Jesus' death had opened the path to new life. How to explain that?

Christians developed several metaphors to account for the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection. Some emphasized how the cross demonstrated Christ's faithfulness to God, a path vindicated by the resurrection. For others, the cross revealed that God so loved humanity that God's own Son would pass through torture and death in order to accomplish reconciliation. Because Jesus died during the Passover festival, many naturally turned to the model of sacrifice to interpret how something so awful as Jesus' death had opened the way for something wonderfully good.

As Jeffrey Siker has demonstrated (find his essay here), the sacrifice metaphor required some creative work. Jesus had died during Passover. However, Passover does not involve sin offerings; Yom Kippur does. Indeed, the Passover lamb does not even constitute a sacrifice; it is never offered to God. Nor does Yom Kippur require the slaughter of lambs. It seems early Christians interpreted Jesus' death by imagining him as a Passover lamb who also purges and atones for human sin. In no case does the New Testament identify Jesus' sacrifice as a punishment, received on behalf of sinful mortals.

A Metaphor, with Advantages and Limitations

The metaphor of sacrifice holds several advantages. It acknowledges the shocking costliness of Jesus' death. It further acknowledges God's full investment in the human condition, with all the horror and cruelty of which human beings are capable. The metaphor celebrates that through Jesus' death and resurrection human beings find themselves in renewed communion with God. And sacrificial language attests to God's full investment in Jesus' life, all the way through his death and resurrection.

Unfortunately, some Christians have turned this one metaphor (among many) into a dogmatic system in which Jesus "had to die" in order to avert God's wrath. Some even go so far as to imagine God punishing Jesus -- an especially bizarre concept when one takes seriously the doctrine of the incarnation.

Like all metaphors, sacrificial language has its limitations. It captures some dimensions of Jesus' death but not others. It cannot provide a final or complete explanation for Jesus' death.

For example, the sacrifice metaphor cannot account for one of the most basic aspects of Christian experience, the sense that Christ's death and resurrection somehow empower believers to live better lives, to "conquer" sin. Early Christian authors, notably Paul, turned to another metaphor for that. Paul talked about "participation," that believers somehow participate in Christ's death, freeing them from bondage to old, deadly ways. Likewise, believers participate in Christ's resurrection life, experiencing divine power for the here and now. So Paul wrote:

I have been crucified with Christ. But is no longer I who live; rather, Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20, my translation)


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