Baker Academic

Friday, November 23, 2012

BREAKING: JESUS HUNG ON A CROSS! – My Challenge to Gunnar Sammuelsson’s No-cross Theory


This week I had the great pleasure of presenting a paper alongside Gunnar Sammuelsson. You might remember Sammuelsson from Newsweek, The Telegraph, CNN, and almost every other major news outlet in 2010. His WUNT monograph, Crucifixion in Antiquity, gained him notoriety and created a bit of controversy a couple years ago. In Chicago on Tuesday, he presented a summary of his monograph (monograph is a fancy way to say “unethically expensive book”) alongside a very helpful power-point presentation. I read most of his very fine book a while back and was grateful for his distillation.

His thesis: There is no reliable evidence that Jesus was executed on a cross.  He examines a massive amount of data and concludes that most of our ideas of a †-shaped cross are based on medieval European art. Even worse, most of the dictionary and encyclopedia work done by generations of scholars have mostly assumed what a crucifixion looked like during the time of Jesus. Definitions of stauro_n have been mistranslated by centuries to mean “cross”. But a proper interpretation of the evidence from antiquity demonstrates that what we have thought of as “crucifixion” is only one narrow way to interpret this practice of execution. In fact, some examples show that being dismembered might have been considered “crucifixion”. Bottom line: being suspended by nails on a †-shaped structure was one way to "crucify", but it was by no means the only way. Given this, we don't really know how Jesus was executed. For a more detailed synopsis see here.

One bit of evidence discussed was the Alexamenos Graffito, a 2nd/3rd cent. inscription that insultingly portrays a Christian worshiping a donkey-headed man on a cross. Here is a photograph of the graffito alongside a cleaned-up drawing: 
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The inscription reads: Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον. This can either mean "Alexamenos, worship God!" Or "Alexamenos worships his god." Presumably, Alexamenos is the man below the donkey-headed god depicted here. The point of this bit of graffiti is clear: the person who carved this drawing doesn't think too highly of folks who worship a crucified god. This, of course, reminds me of my favorite line from Christopher Guest in Waiting for Guffman. The relevance of this inscription for us is that it seems like the donkey-headed person here is being crucified on a T-formed structure.

But what Samuelsson points out is that the title "Christ" is not mentioned here. If so, can we be sure that this is a depiction of Jesus? It occurred to me during his presentation that he makes a very interesting point: I have simply assumed that this is a polemical portrait of Jesus.

Then I thought better. I asked Dr. Sammuelsson concerning the date of the inscription and he cited the normally given window of time. Then I asked if we have knowledge of any other "crucified gods" during this period.  He answered no.  He then said, "This is a challenge against me.... it is a very good one."

Here is my point: the best reading of this drawing is that someone in the 2nd/3rd cent. intended to show the absurdity of worshiping a crucified god. Jesus happens to be quite unique in this regard. He is the only "crucified god", so to speak. Given the strong likelihood that this executed donkey-man is a portrait of Jesus, we have here a relatively early visual of a T-formed cross. After the lecture, Dr. Sammuelsson invited me to remember my question and use it against him. I have done so here.

My challenge does not diminish the value of Sammuelsson's fine work. It still stands as the most comprehensive study of Roman crucifixion to date.

-anthony

6 comments:

  1. I have not read Sammuelsson's work, but I am wondering if he discusses the passage in the Epistle of Barnabas 9.7-8, where the author states that the number TIH (318) symbolizes the name of Jesus and the cross on which he died: 300 = tau; 10 = iota; 8 = eta. This would be a late 1st or early 2nd century claim that Jesus was crucified on a T-shaped cross. Of course it is not evidence but at least it represents a very early Christian tradition.

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    1. this seems like a very interesting bit of evidence. I do not remember whether he deals with this passage.

      -anthony

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  2. What I wanted to know (and it seems like Dr. Sannuelsson is still working on this) is what was Jesus' execution like if not on some sort of t-formed cross and what other visual makes more sense? And what is the relevance? I guess if Jesus was torn to pieces rather than hung on a t-shaped cross that would create a very different picture, but if it was some other "hanging" than what we imagine, how different is it from out previous image?

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  3. In addition to Brice's reference to Epistle of Barnabas as a relevant second century text, I would add mention of Justin Martyr. In his First Apology, chapt. 60, he argues that Plato insightfully misunderstood the OT when found the universe impressed with a χιασμα - the form of the letter χ (Timaeus). Upon initial reading of Justin's argument, it appears that he is observing that the "cross" refers to Jesus. This χ shape is a figuration of the cross of Jesus. It would appear that this argument would only work if Justin thought that Jesus died on a "t" shaped cross.

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  4. The point that Dr. Sannuelsson brings up I think is quite valid. There is no real evidence of whether or not Jesus was crucified on a cross. There is no scientific evidence. All we have to go off of is depictions in art. Maybe Jesus was depicted as being crucified on a cross because it was "better" to be crucified on a cross rather than being dismembered? I'm not sure, but interesting to think maybe there were other possible methods of being crucified.

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    1. You say, "there is no real evidence"... this statement seems entirely unaware of the heaps and heaps of references we have to the contrary.

      -anthony

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