Questions and Answers


The questions mentioned below are all actual questions I have received in the thousands of mails that have filled my mail box during this last year. Some questions are quite similar, and the answers could also be similar to some extent. It is impossible for me to answer everyone in person, but my hope is that a collective answer such as this might help some of those who have been asking these questions.

Q: For how long time have you been working on this thesis?

A: Nine years. I spent the first three years, 12 hours a day, six days a week, by searching for references and subsequently translating the texts. The following six years were shared by teaching, research and writing the book.

Q: How did you find the references?

A: I began by reading all books specialized on the death of Jesus that I could find, and continued with books on the historical Jesus and a selection of classical and modern commentaries. All references to ancient texts in these books were written down and the texts, especially the terminology used in these texts, were studied. The list of terms was expanded by the Hebrew/Aramaic and Latin counterparts found through a comparative study of ancient translations. The sole reading of ancient texts in translation has also added terms. The terminology behind every form of suspension in relevant texts has been studied. On this basis, I created a search list containing the relevant stems. This list is then used in mainly computer-based searches of the studied text corpus. The context of the hits and parallel texts, if any, were then studied, which ended up with some additional terms as well. This resulted in new searches, and so on.

Q: Are you a Christian?

A: Yes. I became a Christian in the late 80’s and have had an active ecumenical parish life since then.

Q: Are you a pastor?

A: Yes, I was ordained in the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden in 1997. I have been a part-time parish minister during my years of part-time studies or sabbatical years from the university. I got my pastoral education at Götabro Theological Seminary, now a part of Örebro Theological Seminary.

Q: What is your theological profile?

A: This is hard for me to answer for myself. That question should be asked to those who regularly hear me preaching. I feel at home though in conservative and evangelical circles, and I sympathize with many of the old Fundamentals.

Q: Do you believe that Jesus died for our sins?

A: Yes I do. I have never questioned the historicity of the death of Jesus, in spite of numerous headlines in media claiming that.

Q: Has your research affected your belief in the crucified Jesus?

A: No. But it has affected my understanding of how I read the texts of the Bible. I realized that I was reading in things in the texts that were not there.

Q: What happened  on Calvary then?

A: That question is outside the scope of my investigation. I do not draw historical or theological conclusions in my thesis. I am dealing with the level of the texts.

Q: What then is the problem of the texts?

A: The problem is that the texts of the sole event, the passion narratives, are not that detailed as at least I thought they were. As a matter of fact, this observation is not new. Raymon E. Brown describes this feature in his famous Death of the Messiah.

  1. We now come to the centerpiece of passion, the crucifixion itself, more often portrayed in art than any other scene in history – with great variation in the shape and position of the crosses, in how Jesus is affixed to the cross, in how he is clothed, in his expressions of anguish, etc. Yet in all comparable literature, has so crucial a moment ever been phrased so briefly and uninformatively? (...) Not a word is reported about the form of the cross, about how he was affixed, about the amount of pain (Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 2.945).

So Brown identifies the problem, the uninformativeness of the passion narratives, but from my point of view he does not draw sufficient conclusions from his observations, since he still in great detail describes both the punishment of crucifixion in general and the crucifixion of Jesus in particular.

Q: What is your personal understanding of what happened on Calvary?

A: Here, I have as much to say as everyone that reads the Bible. I think that my personal beliefs cohere well with those of most Christians. I believe that Jesus was forced to carry a part or the whole execution device toward Calvary, I believe that he was executed by being nailed (nails implied outside the passion narratives, e.g., John 20.25–27) to it. I believe also that Jesus rose from the death on the third day, that he at this very moment is with the Father and that he will return in glory to judge the living and dead.

        I have in my research nothing to say about the historical or theological side of the salvation of man. As a scholar who deals with philology my interest is ancient text, and the ancient texts usually do not depict in detail executions such as the one Jesus was subjected to. This is also the case in the Gospels. They do not describe the event in length. This is my only point. The non-detailed accounts of the Gospels do not, however, contradict the traditional understanding. So the traditional understanding of the death of Jesus is correct, but we could acknowledge that it is more based on the eyewitness accounts  than the actual passion narratives.

Q: How were the reactions to your research, particularly by Christian organizations? Was it what you expected?

A: I was prepared for some turmoil but not for breaking headlines around the world. Sadly some fellow Christians have misunderstood (with good help by media) what I have done in my research. I do not question the historicity of the crucifixion of Jesus. Neither do I enter the field of theology. As far as the historical and theological questions are concerned I believe as almost every Christian that Jesus was the son of God who was crucified for our sins, that he was raised from the dead after three days, that he is with God on this very day and will return in glory to judge the living and dead.

        What I have dealt with in my research is mainly classical philology, that is, I am focusing on written text – and only on written texts. That is why I have left out, e.g., archeology and Christian art. If you embark on the effort to reconstruct historical events or study theological themes, you should embrace every field that is relevant. But, I am not doing history or theology. I am on the preceding step.

Q: The Crucifix is the most important Christian symbol. Is there reason for a change?

A: No (see above). What there is reason to change is our acknowledgement of what we bases our beliefs on. As Protestants we stress that we have the Scripture as only authority for the life of the Church while we conclude with sorrow that the Catholic church has both the Scripture and the tradition as their authority. What I try to add to such a view is that we Protestants also are dependent on the tradition of the church. Let me explain.

        I have no problem to believe that Jesus died in the way that you can see depicted in almost every church – on a regular cross. It is plausible that those who were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ death retold how he died after his resurrection. It became important how Jesus died, what it looked like. These accounts were retold by the Christians with great awe, and they became a crucial part of the Christian traditions.

        But, strangely enough these traditions did not enter the texts of the Gospels when they were subsequently written. So when I say that I believe that Jesus died in this certain way I base that knowledge of the tradition of the church, not mainly on the passion texts. And I think that I am not alone with that. So even an orthodox Protestant does what he might criticize the Catholic Church for, as he relies on the tradition of his church.

        My only suggestion for the church is to read the biblical texts as they are, not as we think they are. The biblical texts are sufficient; we do not need to add anything.

Q: How do you think Jesus died? In other words how would he have probably been executed according to the available evidence?

A: The question of how Jesus actually died, i.e., the area of historicity, is outside the scope of my investigation. My field is classical philology and New Testament exegesis, i.e., the area of text. My question is what knowledge we could derive from the texts themselves. The answer of my thesis is - and this is the provocative and widely misunderstood issue - that it is strikingly sparse, both in the ancient pre-Christian and extra-Biblical literature as well as the Biblical. 

        The overwhelming number of text offer only a noun (e.g., stauros) or a verb (e.g., anastauroun or anaskolopizein). In almost every lexicon or dictionary these terms are said to mean "cross" or "to crucify." But, as I try to show in my thesis, they are used in a much wider sense than that. The verbs refer to some kind of suspension of a human being, living or dead while the noun refers to the suspension device used in such suspension.

        My topic appears almost to be made to be misunderstood. It is so close to  the heart of the Christian fate that is easy to react emotionally instead of logically. But, there is no need to react in such way since I do not question the historicity of the death of Jesus. Neither do I question the traditional understanding of how he died. My question deals with to what extent a traditional understanding of the death of Jesus (i.e., that Jesus carried a crossbeam toward Calvary, but since he could not stand the burden of the cross a passer-by was forced to carry it for him. On Calvary the rest of the cross was awaiting, that the two parts were conjoined, and Jesus was then nailed to the crucifix-like cross) has support in the passion narratives. 

        As a matter of fact, these texts are strikingly silent when it comes to depicting the actual event. The texts say that Jesus carried a stauros, which has a much wider usage in antiquity than just referring to a "cross," towards Calvary, to be stauroun which is used in a much wider sense that just "to crucify." Why Jesus carried a stauros, what that looked like (e.g., was it the whole execution tool or just a part - the "crossbeam"), why a passer-by according to the Synoptics was forced to carry it for Jesus, the text is silent about. The actual execution texts are silent about how Jesus was attached to the execution device. 

        This is the heart of the problem. The text of the passions narratives is not that exact and information loaded, as we Christians sometimes want them to be.

Q: When is the first evidence that nailing prisoners to the cross actually happened?

A: The first evidence of nailed victims is found already in Herodotus' texts (Hdt. 7.33.1; 9.120.4, 122.1). But there the suspension device is a plank or a board (sanis). If you are looking for texts that depict the act of nailing persons to a cross (†) you will not find any text beside the Gospels. Some later texts, such as the novelist Chariton and the historian Josephus, end up rather close in some instances but they do not explicitly depict what you ask for. 

        Romans suspended criminals and defeated enemies in a way that seems fit for the moment. There appears not to have been a fixed methodology called "crucifixion" in ancient Rome.

Q: One of the main problems with the Bible of course is that it is not contemporaneous. Is there much contemporaneous literature to go on when investigating the crucifixion, or otherwise, of characters like Jesus?

A: We have a lot of contemporary literature of various genres from the time of Jesus. The problem is that they all use the mentioned vague terminology. I have only mentioned Greek literature so far, but the problem is present in the Latin literature as well. It is not possible to state that the Latin word crux automatically refers to a cross (†) while patibulum refers to the cross-beam. Both words are used in a wider sense that that.   

Q: Do you think the Jesus depicted in the Bible - or a man at least like him - really existed? Where do you stand from a religious or theological point of view?

A: That a man named Jesus existed in that part of the world and in that time is well-documented. He left a rather good footprint in the literature of the time (see below). Thus, we have both opponents and neutral or sympathetic individuals among the observers. But, when going beyond that notion, that there indeed was a person of that time, who made bold statements about himself, made strange/stupid things and attracted followers who adored him as divine, we move toward the area of faith, and your question are of that nature. In spite of what media around the world have suggested I am not a pagan whose aim is to undermine the Christian faith. I do believe that the mentioned man is the Son of God. I believe that he walked this earth, went back to God and that he will return in glory to judge the living and dead.  

        My suggestion is not that Christians should reject or doubt the biblical text. My suggestion is that we should read the text as it is, not as we think it is. We should read on the lines, not between the lines. The text of the Bible is sufficient. We do not need to add anything.

Q: Is there any doubt at all that Jesus Christ existed? What is the evidence in contemporary literature of the time about his existence? Could you give some sources which prove this?

A: I see no reason to doubt that Jesus existed. In comparison to other ancient individuals he is well represented by the ancient sources. The texts of the New Testament are naturally the primary sources. We have thousands of ancient fragment where the oldest preserved copy (P52) are written some thirty years after the gospel (John) were composed, compared to, e.g., Homer and Herodotus where the few preserved manuscript were written about 1000 years after they were originally written. The preserved sources for Caesars’ Gallic Wars are nine or ten and the oldest were written 900 years after it was originally composed.

When it comes to extra-Biblical sources they change from positive to mainly negative. I say mainly because there is one exception, and that is the Jewish historian Josephus.

Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Joseph. Ant. 18.63f)

Parts of the text are disputed as genuine, but not the parts that attest the existence of a special man named Jesus that had followers. Another Jewish source is the Talmud that mentions Jesus, but in a negative sense.

On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! — ‘Ulla retorted: Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defence could be made? Was he not a Mesith [enticer], concerning whom Scripture says, Neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him? With Yeshu however it was different, for he was connected with the government [or royalty, i.e., influential]. (Talmud, bSanh, 43a)

So Jewish sources attest Jesus’ existence indeed. There are also some Roman texts that need to be taken into consideration.

Pliny the Younger sent a letter to the roman king Trajan and offers a description of the Christian cult. The Christians said,

that it was their habit on a fixed day to assembly before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not te commit theft or robbery or adultery, nor to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded. (Plin. Ep. 10.96)

Tacitus describes some aftermaths to the fire in Rome in c. 64 c.e. Rumors that Nero himself were guilty to the blaze were circulating Rome, and Nero was quick to find his scapegoats.

Nero fastened the guilt of starting the blaze and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians [Chrestians] by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (Tacitus, Ann. 15.44)

Sueton’s contribution is a description of some turmoil in Rome.

As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, [Claudius] expelled [the Jews] from Rome. (Suet. Claud. 25.4)

Thus, that there existed a man called Jesus/Christ in Palestine during the early first century that made bold statements about himself and was executed, and that he had followers called Christians ought to be deemed as certain. The question who he was is although chiefly left unanswered by the extra-biblical texts.

Q: The rigors of academic research demands clear causes and reasoning. Faith by definition is a suspension of reason. How do you reconcile the two?

A: Science is one way of approaching the reality. This way is public and as far as it is possible – neutral. Science is limited to that which could be subjected to an empirical study. Within science we work according to a given set of public and neutral rules, i.e., they could guide every scholar regardless of religious and political ideology. A scholar from one religion or political ideology could verify or disprove the result of research done by a scholar from a completely different ideology. Science is limited to the empirically reachable. The goal of science is not – or should not be – the Truth in the ultimate sense. The goal of science is reach a conclusion regarding the probability or likelihood of a certain hypothesis.

        Thus, science cannot deliver a complete answer to the questions of reality. There are more ways to approach the reality. Science offers one answer, and, e.g., religion another answer, and in search of the Truth all ways should be considered. You cannot within a scientific setting reach the ultimate conclusion of what love is. You can study the results of it, you can interpret texts that describe it, you can interview humans that say that they are witnesses of its power – and you can present a theory of the chemical reactions in the brain that appears to be love. But that is hardly the last word of what love is. You can neither draw the conclusion that love just is a fiction; that love does not exists – since you cannot se it or touch it. Love appears to more than a chemical reaction. That “more” could only be found outside a scientific setting.

        In my scientific study I have come to certain scientific conclusions, but these scientific conclusions are not the equivalent of Truth in the ultimate sense. Within science I am competent, but in the religious sphere I am just another human being searching for truth. When I am studying the bible in a scientific setting I use a whole arsenal of scientific tools to subject the text for a public and – as far as possible – neutral study. When I am reading the bible in a religious setting I take into consideration also the transcendental dimension; that the texts I am studying have a divine dimension; that they contain or represent something much bigger than what could be empirically perceived.