Take Up Your Cross

Take Up Your Cross February 27, 2013

I received a question in an e-mail that seemed worthy of a blog post rather than just a private response. The question was about the depiction in the Gospels of Jesus telling people to not simply follow him, but to take up their cross and follow him.

One question is obviously whether Jesus can be envisaged as having uttered such words. But even for those who answer “yes” the question remains: what if anything would Jesus' hearers, prior to the crucifixion, have understood such words to mean?

One interesting suggestion I remember encountering is the possibility that this could be a reworking of an authentic saying by Jesus about taking up one's yoke, which was then reinterpreted as referring to the cross after the crucifixion.

Taking up one's cross certainly does not seem to have been an already-existing expression, nor is such a saying likely to have existed in that period. It seems as though it was only the reality of a crucifixion that could inspire such an idiom as in the case of Jesus and early Christianity. No one is likely to have used this horrific form of execution as a metaphor, just as we do not find “beheaded,” “put in the electric chair,” or “given a lethal injection” used metaphorically.

Of course, it is not inconceivable that a figure who thought of himself as the Messiah – whether one who would face rejection or one who would soon be victorious – could have called his followers to be prepared if necessary to face execution by the Romans. But possibility is not enough, and a historian will have to conclude that this saying is more likely to be a post-crucifixion invention than an authentic saying of the historical Jesus.

How do readers of this blog understand it? As historically authentic or inauthentic? As literal or metaphorical?


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  • Interesting. My call is that it was a true saying – especially since it is reported twice pre-crucifixion in three gospels.

    There are many other examples of when Jesus has said something cryptic, and the disciples ‘discussed it’ or ‘kept it in their hearts’ and didn’t actually ask about it – or didn’t get a response they understood.(eg, Matt 16:6-12). It was then only after the Resurrection that the saying, which may have been said more than twice, was remembered and made complete and utter sense.

    That is just my opinion of course…

    I do not however see how it can be ‘strictly literal’. Though I once knew a guy who spent his day carrying a cross up and down a busy tourist spot as evangelism. Certainly metaphorical – but this is way beyond a quick blog comment, as there is a literal sense as well I feel (ie, there is actually something we need to respond to)


    • Thanks for this comment. The main thing that I would point out is that agreement between the Synoptic Gospels isn’t necessarily multiple attestation. Often it is simply Mark plus two attestations dependent on him.

      I’m planning on saying more about this tomorrow…in a post which may or may not contradict this one! 🙂

      • Dre’as Sanchez

        Did you write that post?

        • The post I predicted I would write on the next day? Yes. At the top of the page you should see a link to it, as it is the next post after this one.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    OK, I did a little digging around and discovered that in ancient Rome, reference to a cross or crucifixion was commonly used as a profanity. For example “go to the cross” was the Roman equivalent of “go to hell”.

    Also, among Romans, crucifixion was almost entirely used on slaves. Citizens or free people would be beheaded or burned as a form of execution. So, it had a real “ghetto” connotation.

    For the Jews of course, crucifixion was particularly awful given the statement in Deuteronomy 21 to the one who hangs on a tree being double cursed. At the time of Jesus, crucifixions were being carried out daily in Jerusalem. And extra biblical accounts confirm that the condemned were made to carry their own wood through the streets to the place of their crucifixion. So the idea of carrying your cross would have been quite familiar to Jesus’ listeners. One source I read claimed that “carry your cross” may have been a profanity among the Zealots along the lines of the Roman’s “go to the cross”.

    Also, Jesus was not the first Jew with Messianic claims to be put to death by the Romans. I’m not sure if other claimed Messiahs were crucified, but there was Simon of Paraea who was beheaded in 4 BCE. So Jesus could have been preaching in contrast to the other supposed Messiahs who promised great victory that his own ministry would end in the most ignominious defeat. Which would actually be in keeping with his M.O.

    So it seems quite likely to me that Jesus really did tell people to carry their cross. Which was probably a bit confusing, but not as strange as it might seem at first glance.

    • I’m glad you saw the post! If “go to the cross” meant something like the modern English “go to hell,” then wouldn’t that mean that Jesus would have been danger of being understood to mean “Anyone who wants to become my disciple can go to hell”? 🙂

      • Rebecca Trotter

        Well, that is exactly what the early church thought he did! So could be . . . 😉

    • Dre’as Sanchez

      May I get the sources? Hopefully they’re different then what I have found already 🙂
      Thank you

  • Brant Clements

    An argument for the authenticity of this saying might be built on the premise that the historic Jesus went to Jerusalem to mount a deliberate demonstration against the temple and fully expected that he might be crucified as a result. As a call to total commitment the cross metaphor is striking and memorable–moreso in the time of Jesus. Thus it was likely to be remembered and repeated. But Jesus might well have meant it literally.

    In the end it is probably not possible to know with certainty whether these words were spoken by Jesus. Perhaps the more important questionis are what the Evangelists meant by repeating them and what their first audiences would have understood them to mean.

    • Straw Man

      That’s actually a good point–and not just because I’ve made it myself before. 🙂

      Whenever I’m talking about the relevant section of especially Matthew, I point out that most of the events depicted, occur in the final week of his life, and that Jesus appears to be on an all-out campaign to p**s off everyone. He starts by feeding a multitude and then haranguing the next crowd: “You’re here because you heard there were free eats!” He then goes to Jerusalem, purges the temple, and begins a week of Jeremiah-like ranting in the temple about the “Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (putting them in the same breath as if I said, “Woe unto you, Democrats and Republicans, hypocrites!”).

      In Jesus Christ, Superstar (which I’ve never actually watched, but which I’m dating myself by mentioning), Pilate sings, “Don’t let me stop your great self-destruction…” at the mute Jesus. I remember people being offended at it (as was I, at the time). In fact, though, it puts its finger on something. Everything he did from the feeding of the second multitude onward, reads like a suicide campaign.

      • provocative – the campaign that is, a Jonah moment, a call to repentance, rejected of course.

      • Claude

        Oh, you should watch Jesus Christ, Superstar. If just to watch Carl Anderson as Judas belt out in the finale: “I only want to know!”

  • One wonders both how and when a metaphor becomes currency. Paul certainly applies the cross of Jesus to the faithful as the means to their sanctification. This sacrificial aspect of the cross and the participation in Christ through baptism is clearly an application of the Jesus-event after the earthly life of Jesus and on reflection as to what this life and death must mean.

    The cross metaphor underlines the offering and oblation of each person called into this faithfulness, (cf Romans 12:1) yet its daily application is not meant to ‘destroy’ the believer, but rather ‘destroy’ the flesh in order to (humanly speaking) strengthen one’s determination and confidence in the Spirit. Or carrying on, in order to approach the Holy and do as Paul implies ‘live with God’.

    If Jesus in his earthly life, i.e. prior to the life of the Spirit in the churches, used such a metaphor which as its vehicle, carries both the process of an individual maturing in obedience, and is also the guarantee of participation in a redemptive sacrifice, then his words require a history in the areas of faith, obedience, sacrifice and judgment from the Scriptures and in relation to the maturing and deliverance of Israel. This history is in the psalms. I must admit it is tough to see as the necessary precursor to the phrase ‘take up your cross’. The elements of sacrifice are in Psalm 2, the offering of the king as libation, of judgment in Psalm 75, the cup of red wine to be drunk to the dregs, and there are the images of judgment in the floods (Psalm 29:10, 69:3, 110:7). The maturing in obedience is clear in the joy of the psalms.

    The psalms are used as the conversation between the father and the son in the epistle to the Hebrews, so it is possible to suggest that the cross as metaphor might have been developed in the mind of the son as he meditated on the psalms in his earthly life.

    If the church came to see the Psalter as prefiguring the work of Christ Jesus, (as well as our work in him) then perhaps Jesus himself in his life might have found that conversation in the Psalter a means of his own growth. It is not too difficult to imagine this human one learning from Psalm 22 and Psalm 102:25 (Hebrews 1:10-12) that death and resurrection might be his lot. – in order that he might achieve for the whole body of faith that means of grace into obedience that the church and Israel both perceive in these poems.

    Just a thought stimulated by your question. It’s a good question

  • Straw Man

    Trouble is that the question is ultimately historical. Did he use this expression? “Would he” is the wrong question, although it’s worth asking as background. “Would” I say, in a sermon in southern Georgia, “grab a plate of chitterlings,” meaning that as Christians we should involve ourselves with the least respected or liked segments of society and meet them on their own terms? Who knows? I might, now that I’ve coined it. But as far as I know, I’d be the first to do it. And would it be understood as I meant it? Who knows? The culture of the Deep South is as foreign to me as first century Judea.

    The expression seems perfectly intelligible to me, and I think not just through hindsight. It clearly says that to become righteous is to become reviled, and to march to one’s own doom–and an uncelebrated doom at that. Martyrdom being mostly a later-century concept, he was speaking of an ignominious end rather than a martyr’s end.

    Douglas Adams wrote of events happening 2,000 years after a man said, “Hey, shouldn’t we all be nice to one another,” and was nailed to a tree for it. He meant to jest, but I think captured the message of the cross–and the meaning of Jesus’ expression–better than many a sermon. The expression is deeply cynical, of the literal calumny that falls on anyone who follows real uprightness. It seems identical in meaning to the speech that “a man’s foes will be those of his own house.”

  • Double D

    A parishioner asked me this question today after a sermon on Luke 14:25-33. My sense is that Luke, writing somewhat later than Mark and perhaps Matthew, was seeing the situation for Christians become more dire and the need for realistic commitment increasing. So including Jesus’ call to the cross makes sense. If Jesus actually said this, then it is possibly a case of him giving the answer to a question that no one had yet asked, namely, “What does it mean to follow a crucified Messiah?” When those who heard this saying, and perhaps thought it odd, crude, or awkward, months later heard that the same fellow had himself been crucified and was rumored to have been raised from the dead, they may have thought, “Hmm, didn’t he say something about carrying a cross? Maybe he knew what he was talking about after all.”