Monday, July 05, 2010

Chrys Caragounis' Review of Samuelsson on Crucifixion

In a blogpost on 14 June I mentioned a review of Gunnar Samuelsson's thesis "Crucifixion in Antiquity" written by Chrys Caragounis. The review, found here, was very negative (to use mild words). Towards the end he writes:
Sadly, it is the view of the present Reviewer that Samuelsson’s book does not meet the standards of stringent scientific inquiry into Greek linguistic problems. Through the use of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, he may have amassed a long list of texts, which at first sight may look impressive to the uninitiated, but a specialist in Greek linguistics and philology is not fooled by this caricature presentation of the Greek evidence on the question of ancinet crucifixion in general and of Jesus’ crucifixion in particular. The evidence stands clear and cannot be falsified by such dilettantish investigations.

When a reader of our blog, "Z," had read Caragounis' review he made this comment:
Still haven't read the work of Gunnar Samuelsson, but the review confirms my suspicion: He must have forgotten about lots of ancient texts which describe crucifixion.
To which I replied:
I wait to see Samuelsson's reply. The thing is that almost all those texts that Caragounis cites are included in Samuelsson's treatment, which implies that Caragounis has not read Samuelsson's interpretation of those texts. It seems Caragounis has browsed the work, made his own searches and then responded.

Nevertheless, the critique is serious and many points are probably relevant, but I'd like to hear Samuelsson's response. In fact, he now will have time to revise his dissertation on some points before publication (hopefully in the WUNT series).

Apparently Caragounis reads this blog, at least occasionally, and that is something I take pride in. However, he was not pleased with this comment, and, thus, he posted a two pages long reply to my blogcomment, "Tommy Wasserman and Crucifixion" on his website.

I offer here some comments to Caragounis' comments. Perhaps it is not the best timing since I will be on holiday for some time without good internet access, but nevertheless, here it is:

First, C. says I have assumed the role of Samuelsson's advocate. Let me clarify that I would prefer it if Samuelsson's thesis is wrong! (Not for Samuelsson's sake of course.) However, I feel that I owe it to Samuelsson to listen to his reply, he has after all devoted many years to the study of crucifixion, although he has now been criticized sharply by a very competent scholar like C. (which of course makes me worried for Samuelsson's sake).

C. asks this question: "With what right does Wasserman assume that 'Caragounis has not read Samuelsson's interpretation of those texts'? How does he know that?"

I do not know that. What I say is that something *implies* that C. has not read the (whole) book, but that it *seems* he has browsed the book (see further below). Only C. (and God) really knows the truth. However, *I* assumed it because I had spoken to a rather depressed author the day before, and he had that very impression. Now the author of the book of course would know better than me, because I had only read the conclusion, and browsed other parts.

By the way, C. later goes on to ask why, if he has followed such a procedure – browsing the book, searching texts on one's own and responding – would invalidate what he as a reviewer has to say about the dissertation ... Well, the point, if I understand Samuelsson, is that C. is basically reproducing the traditional understanding of those texts, a traditional understanding which Samuelsson criticizes with his new thesis (which may or may not be groundbreaking). It seems to me the question of method becomes rather important. (Again, I am not saying that Samuelsson's method is good but I would have liked to see Caragounis discuss the question of how to select the texts.)

C. asks:
In which way does my citation of a number of texts that Samuelsson treats prove that I have not read what he wrote? ... Here it is not a case that we need more texts about crucifixion (there are about 10.000 texts till the XVIth century and many more till the present day!), but that we need to understand what the texts are saying.

I agree with C., that we need to understand what the texts are saying, and I assume that is what Samuelsson also claims. Here C. mentions "10.000 texts till the XVIth century," and in his review of Samuelsson he similarly says: "Samuelsson treats a smaller number of occurrences, but even these should have been sufficient to clarify the meaning of crucifixion" (p. 2), and, further, "The evidence for crucifixion is altogether too overwhelming to cite here. The examples are innumerable. I shall here content myself with presenting just a few brief texts" (p. 5).

Why does Samuelsson treat "a smaller number of occurences"? Is it a sloppy omission or does it rather have to do with his method? Has C. noted that Samuelsson has searched *all* accessible texts within the defined time span of the investigation, from Homer to the turn of the 1st century? Samuelsson's very method is to not treat later texts. Why? Because Samuelsson thinks they might have been influenced by the death of Jesus. As the title of the thesis implies, Samuelsson studies the *background* to the NT terminology: "Crucifixion in Antiquity. An Inquiry into the Background of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion."

And, yet, in his review C. cites later texts as evidence for crucifixion using a different methodology (again, I am not saying C. is wrong, but it seems to me he, as a reviewer, is not sensible to Samuelsson's work at this point). It would indeed have been interesting to hear what Caragounis says about Samuelsson's method on this point, but that is not what he does in the review (although he does make other very relevant methodological points on p. 3ff.). Instead C. presents "a few brief texts" as evidence for crucifixion. When one reads those texts (and the rest of the review) and has not read Samuelsson's thesis in any detail, one probably reacts as the reader "Z" – Samuelsson "must have forgotten about lots of ancient texts which describe crucifixion."

This very comment (that preceded my comment) made me suspect that the review, in this regard, may not represent Samuelsson's work very well, because, as I have pointed out, Samuelsson actually discusses in detail *all* those texts except those outside the time span for the investigation, and he comes to a different conclusion. Samuelsson's point is that the Greek words under discussion are used in a wider sense than previously assumed (in the time span of the investigation).

Note that Samuelsson is *not* arguing against the major event - that Jesus was executed on Calvary - I think on this point Samuelsson is being constantly misunderstood, especially in the media.

C. further writes in his review of Samuelsson (p. 2):
Such an astonishing claim makes it incumbent on me ... to look critically into the kind of evidence that has led the author to such an extraordinary conclusion, namely, that Jesus most probably was not crucified, but died in some other way. e.g. through some kind of 'suspension' (e.g. p. 372).

Does Samulesson really draw this conclusion, “that Jesus most probably was not crucified” or has C. misunderstood him? Is he not saying that the texts are so vague that one cannot say on the basis of them how Jesus was executed, or to conclude that what happened to Jesus cohere altogether with modern definitions of "crucifixion." Samuelsson therefore chooses to use a wider designation, "suspension" (which, in the case of Jesus' execution, may or may not have been what we think today of as "crucifixion").

C. further says:
Wasserman does not seem to appreciate that I write both as a scholar of Greek and as a Greek user of Greek. I have mentioned, for example, that the words in question have been used in the Greek language continuously till the present day. If some non-Greek students of Greek are uncertain about what Greek words mean, we, at least, who have Greek as our mother tongue, consider that we do know what we mean with the words of our language!

I certainly do not doubt C.'s superior knowledge and command of the Greek language. In fact, I have consulted him a number of times on various issues (the last time on Atticism). However, I think Samuelsson's point is that the Greek terms relating to crucifixion have been affected much by what happened to Jesus (it is a major historical event). Again, a methodological question.

Further, C. cites me saying that his “critique [against Samuelsson] is serious and many points are probably relevant” and C. finds it troublesome that I use a “probably” here, implying an uncertainty on my part. Then he makes a further remark:
[P]erhaps old Riesenfeld was not so wrong after all, when he deplored that with the developments taking place in his time, the day would soon come in Sweden when it would be difficult to find a competent scholar of Greek within the field of the NT.

Okay, I am not so competent in Greek as I would wish (sorry Riesenfeld, but you, if anyone, would probably have been very happy with my textual criticism), but when I said "probably relevant" I was only trying to be humble, because (1) I had not read the entire book; and (2) I had not heard Samuelsson's reply.

Finally, I find it very strange that a "dilettantish investigation" (to use C.'s words) would leave Gothenburg University, which has a long and good tradition of Greek studies. What about the joint seminaries where linguists have read Samuelsson's material? What about the examining board? What about the opponent Erkki Koskenniemi (Åbo Akademi). Were they all, in contrast to Caragounis (p. 10), "fooled by this caricature presentation of the Greek evidence on the question of anci[ent] crucifixion in general and of Jesus’ crucifixion in particular"?, since this dissertation has passed their scrutiny (of course not without criticism, but far from the level expressed in Caragounis' review).

Update (12/7): C. has posted a new reply here. In the comments to this blogpost Christian Askeland captures well what would be my re-response:
Caragounis does not seem to understand Wasserman's basic challenge concerning Samuelsson's method. In point 5, he admits that he did not discuss Samuelsson's minimalist method in his review. One would assume that either (1) he had accepted the method (which he obviously did not) or (2) that he was unaware of it (the assumption of Samuelsson via Tommy Wasserman).


  1. I would not worry too much about C's vitriol. He seems to lay that on anyone who disagrees with him. He is easily offended. After all, he's a Greek; what could non-Greeks know about Greek better than him? But I should stop. Tell S. to ignore such reviews and go about his business--which may not even require a response to such a review.

  2. C proclaims the fact that he is a Greek scholar who actually speaks Greek. There are some really valuable insights he has as a speaker of the Modern Language, but from a methodological point of view one of the points that any modern speaker will be weakest is in lexical development. I am a student in Israel currently, and it is not uncommon for me and my classmates (even some of the teachers) to read a biblical passage and assume that a word means the same thing then as it does today. If the text makes sense there is no reason to question it. There are some strong advantages to being a speaker of the modern language, but I don't think nuanced lexical change is one of them.

  3. A.-F. Christidis' introduction in _A History of Ancient Greek_ gives an absolutely fascinating overview of the historical context in which the national and linguistic pride for the Greek language developed among native Greek speakers. Its definitely worth reading and puts much of Caragounis' views into historical perspective.

  4. Tommy,

    Caragounis is no doubt a brilliant scholar, but I would guess that his criticism reflects divergent methods (as you suggest). Caragounis argues for "the importance of later Greek for the exegesis of the New Testament". With certain limitations, we can all appreciate this approach and contribution and expect that he would not identify with GS's dissertation. Although I appreciate GS's minimalism, I wonder why it would be necessary here as it attributes an unwarranted suspicion of guilt on the patristic sources. [Thus, without having read the Swedish dissertation, I identify most with Caragounis' approach.]

    Caragounis responds to a Peter Head review of his The Development of Greek and the New Testament with the same concerns, here, asking "Does [Peter Head's] notice give a fair representation of what
    this book is about and what it attempts to do?". Apparently, Gunnar Samuelsson is asking the same.

    Caragounis' comments on Greek and Sweden are inappropriate.

  5. oh yes, too much heat in the house. I haven't read Samuelsson's book, though heard him at that radio show you (i.e. Tommy) posted on the blog recently. I don't think his case changes anything vital about our Christian faith, though I am not convinced by it yet either :)

  6. perhaps a little over sensitive.

  7. Anon: "perhaps a little over sensitive."

    Do you mean C. or TW?

  8. I haven't read Samuelsson's thesis, so it is not clear to me how much of it or what part of his claim is really new. That would be one of the most important things for me to get from a review.

    In this regard, I did not find Caragounis's review to be most helpful, because Samuelsson's claim is still not clear to me even after the review. I felt like this review will be more helpful for those who have read the thesis. As a result (not having read the thesis), it is difficult for me to appreciate many of Caragounis's criticisms of the work. In many cases, Caragounis merely presents texts with translations that are supposed to refute Samuelsson. However, these cases are difficult to evaluate without understanding exactly what Samuelsson's claim is and what Samauelsson had to say about these specific examples. Furthermore, I must confess that I did not find the tone of the review helpful--though it makes clear how Caragounis feels about the work.

    Accordingly, the review keeps me in the same position I had before: I still have to reserve judgment on Samuelsson's case and I am still wondering what the "big deal" is.

  9. Pardon the off-topic comment/question, but is anyone else finding that the comments here (to this post at least) aren't appearing in order ? More than once I've seen a comment appear above previous comments. That will make things very hard to follow as they continue to come in.


    (It will be interesting for me to see just where this comment shows up. It should be just below Dr. Carlson's.)

  10. Anon,

    Yes. I think that they may have been posted in the order that they are appearing, but that they are appearing somewhat randomly. My comment, for instance was posted about 24 hours before it appeared.

  11. Regardless of Caragounis' manner of statement, he does make a valid point: the burden of proof must remain on Samuelsson, given that his claim exists in opposition to a tradition which is virtually unified from the earliest times (cf. in particular the very early Alexamenos graffito of a donkey Christ crucified in the traditional manner).

  12. I'm curious about three things:

    (1) What does Samuelsson do with the implication from "Barnabas"' allegorical interpretation of Abraham's 318 men as a pattern of Jesus on the cross? It clearly shows that the author understood Jesus' cross as T-shaped.

    (2) What does Samuelsson do with John 20:25?

    (3) What does this all have to do with textual criticism? (The interpretation of the numerals "616" in some copies of Rev. 13:18 as a pictogram, perhaps?)

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  13. Alas, the price for the book edited by Christidis (A History of Ancient Greek, 278 USD on amazon) puts it beyond the means of some scholars. I browsed the book and I find it extraordinary. Blessed are those who can find it in a nearby library.
    E. Contac

  14. Professor Caragounis has written a reply to Tommy Wasserman's post. Here is the link.

  15. I meant "a new reply".

  16. Of course, two statements attributed to Peter in Acts say that the Jews "slew [Jesus] and hanged [him] on a tree" (Acts 5:30, Acts 10:39) which implies that they killed him first, then hung (or crucified) his dead body.

    Of course, Galatians 3:13 also says "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:" quoting Deuteronomy 21:21-23, which describes stoning followed by hanging of the dead body on a tree.

    Deu 21:21-23 "And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which Yahweh thy God giveth thee for an inheritance."

    But I rather find my discovery about Luke 12:13-14 more interesting, personally.

  17. I read C´s latest response and I just don´t happen to get why he happens to be so overtly emotional in the way he responds to the criticism. no doubt he is an amazing greek scholar, but his heated response was not all that scientific either - something he criticized Tommy Wasserman of. Oh well.

  18. Caragounis does not seem to understand Wasserman's basic challenge concerning Samuelsson's method. In point 5, he admits that he did not discuss Samuelsson's minimalist method in his review. One would assume that either (1) he had accepted the method (which he obviously did not) or (2) that he was unaware of it (the assumption of Samuelsson via Tommy Wasserman). In either case, Caragounis' critiques on Samuelsson would be irrelevant.

  19. beowulf2k8: "Of course, two statements attributed to Peter in Acts say that the Jews "slew [Jesus] and hanged [him] on a tree" (Acts 5:30, Acts 10:39) which implies that they killed him first, then hung (or crucified) his dead body."

    One may get that impression from reading the KJV. However, the modern translations are right to use "hanging" or "by hanging". The aorist participle following a main verb (that has a rather generic sense) has the function of specifying how he was executed, not of telling what happened next.

  20. Used for a participle, I would interpret the aorist as referencing anteriority. E.g., "having hung (him) on a tree." I would avoid labeling it "generic," although "generic" could suit other instances of the aorist.

  21. CA: "Used for a participle, I would interpret the aorist as referencing anteriority. E.g., "having hung (him) on a tree." I would avoid labeling it "generic," although "generic" could suit other instances of the aorist."

    In case it was not clear, I mean the main verb is relatively generic and the participle is relatively specific, in other words διεχειρίσασθε does not specify how the killing was carried out, whereas the subsequent adverbial participial clause does. I claim they refer to the same event and I see Burton, Moods & Tenses, 3rd ed. §447 gives essentially this explanation, even giving Acts 5.30 as his example.

    Tony Pope

  22. Sorry, Tony. I misread your comment.

  23. The development of the tradition can be traced by accurately dating the representations and their use. For instance the relatively late development and use of the altar cross comes as a surprise to many traditionalists. Anachronistic assumptions seem to come naturally. And none of the later representations, not even the so-called "very early Alexamenos graffito of a donkey" work as a proof of the method or instrument of Christ's crucifixion. It will be interesting to read the book. Thank you for posting on it.

  24. I haven't read S. either. But I would add to Snapp's questions the following points:
    1) In Barnabas, not only do we have the symbolism in chap. 9 of the cross being figured by the letter tau, but we also have the discussion of the cross in chap. 12, in which the author adduces two different passages as prophecies of the crucifixion that mention outstretched arms. This is probably at the latest barely more than a century after Christ's death.
    2) In the mid-2nd century Justin Martyr in Dialogue chaps. 90-91 also refers to Moses' outstretched arms as a prefiguring of the cross, and then describes the cross as having a crossbeam in a rather detailed description where he tries to relate it to a unicorn horn. Without his description, one might imagine that appealing to a unicorn horn as a type of the cross would support the interpretation of it as a stake without a cross beam, but Justin's detailed description does not allow that at all. In both Justin and Barnabas (but especially Justin), it is not just that the cross might have been cross-shaped, but that there's no apparent consideration for the possibility that it might have been anything else.

    It's conceivable that these 2nd century authors (plus others only slightly later than they, including Irenaeus and Tertullian), had already succumbed to an anachronistic understanding of the cross. But to suggest that would be to see that anachronism taking hold very quickly. It would be difficult for it to have become all that prevalent at a time only a few decades at the most prior to the authorship of the Epistle of Barnabas, when some of those who had seen the crucifixion were still living. And if Jesus were not crucified on a cross with an actual crossbeam, what would cause the tradition that he was to take hold so early, and spread over such a wide swath of christendom so quickly, and not just as an incidental detail, but as one given prophetic significance and neither questioned as to its historicity nor defended against charges that it might have been otherwise?

    Another earlier, though less clear, reference is Jesus telling Peter in John 21 that he would stretch out his hands, and the narrator's claim that this signified the manner in which Peter would die. There's at least enough of a possibility that this refers to Peter's stretching out his hands on a cross to warrant discussion.

    If S. wishes to defend the thesis that the cross on which Jesus was crucified did not necessarily have a crossbeam, then that's a historical claim that would need to be defended against these points. If he chose only to deal with texts about crucifixion that were prior to Jesus' crucifixion, and wishes to sweep away other texts that present a legitimate challenge to his thesis, then his methodology is flawed, and he should be challenged not just for issues that arise within the methodolgy he uses, but also for adopting a methodology that is not suitable for resolving the historical question he wishes to as high a degree of certainty as possible.

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