He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Mark 8:34Perhaps one of Jesus’ most familiar sayings, the instruction to take up one’s own cross has been repeated throughout Christian history to encourage the faithful and call unbelievers to salvation.
Recently, a Christian acquaintance of mine gave his own interpretation of this verse:
My personal theory [about taking up one’s own cross] entails this key phrase: “You must be born again.” This is the beginning of faith. You have to believe that he went to the cross and [was resurrected]. Lots of nice folks go to church…and never are “born again.” Now I am not putting these people down in any way, shape, or form, but the born again experience has to be “experienced” before the kingdom of God is revealed to anyone.My perspective on Jesus’ instruction to “take up your cross” is somewhat different. Before I get to that, it’s instructive to consider the phrase historically.
The saying first comes to us in the Gospel of Mark, written around 70 C.E. It was later copied by Matthew and Luke, who used Mark as a source. Matthew changes the wording somewhat, but sticks with Mark’s general theme. Luke copies Mark word for word, but makes one slight change, saying that people must take up their crosses “daily.” This slight change seems intended by Luke to ensure that no one misunderstands Mark to be suggesting that Christians should martyr themselves like Jesus – in other words, Jesus is speaking metaphorically; he’s not commanding people to martyr themselves. One has to wonder if perhaps members of Luke’s target community weren’t encouraging one another to martyr themselves because they thought Jesus had commanded it.
In any case, we also find this saying in the Gospel of Thomas. The Thomas gospel is contentious because scholars disagree on when it was produced. Many believe it is a product of the 2nd century – relatively “late” as Christian scripture goes. Others date it around the time of the four Biblical gospels, and still others suggest that in its original form, it pre-dated the Biblical gospels completely and was written around the time of Paul’s letters, perhaps the 50’s C.E. Regardless of one’s own perspective on the correct dating of the work, many (perhaps most) experts agree that it is independent of the four gospels of the New Testament – meaning that its author was not familiar with those texts and was not using them as source material.
This is important because one criterion that historians use to judge the historical reliability of Jesus’ sayings is the so-called “independent attestation.” If a saying shows up in two or more early texts that are independent of one another, the likelihood is higher that the saying goes back to the historical Jesus. If a saying only appears in one text, or if it appears in multiple texts but those texts are not independent of one another, the saying still might be authentic, but there is less certainty about it. For instance, if a saying appears in Mark and also shows up in Matthew and/or Luke, that still only counts as one attestation because we know Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. Since Take Up Your Cross appears in both Mark and Thomas, it passes the criterion of multiple independent attestations.
This one criterion, however, does not necessarily give the entire story. Historians must also consider whether a saying fits in with historical context. In the case of Take Up Your Cross, this becomes an issue. Obviously, we know that Jesus’ life ended when he was arrested by the Jewish authorities, handed over to the Romans, convicted of sedition, and executed on a Roman cross. Before any of that happened, it is unlikely that followers of Jesus, or even Jesus himself, would have thought to make a religious metaphor out of a Roman execution device. Thus, this saying does not seem to pass the criterion of historical context. It seems far more likely that this saying was produced by post-resurrection Christians, thinking back on the life and death of Jesus. He was crucified on the cross; therefore we, as Christians, must also take up our own crosses.
Some might argue that since Jesus was God in the flesh, and since he routinely predicts his own death in the gospels, and since the gospels themselves are the infallible Word of God, Christians must accept on faith that Jesus, in fact, made this statement. To deny that may seem to some Christians as lack of faith at best, and blasphemy at worst. Indeed, such a position is faith-based, and faith-based beliefs are outside the realm of a historian’s work. I tend to agree with scholar and theologian Marcus Borg, who argues that one can believe on faith whatever they want, but what matters most is what it all means for us as Christians. Believe what you will about the nature of the resurrection, for instance, but what does it mean for you if you are a Christian?
I’ll get to the meaning of the Take Up Your Cross saying in a moment, but for the present, there is one more historical issue to consider. I have noted that while Take Up Your Cross passes the criterion of multiple independent attestations, it does not seem pass the criterion of historical context. However, there is at least one other aspect of historical context to consider.
Put simply, Jesus wasn’t exactly the first Jew to be crucified on a Roman cross. Nor was he the first Jew widely considered by other Jews to have been crucified unjustly. By the time of Jesus’ death, the Romans had been in charge of the Jewish homeland for nearly a century, and countless Jews had suffered martyrdom and persecution under their Roman overlords. This imperial oppression, in fact, was the primary impetus for Jesus’ entire life and message. You can’t possibly understand Jesus without understanding the Roman-Jewish context in which he lived and worked. Jesus’ message was prompted by resistance to the systemic evil of Roman commercialism and oppression, and Jewish high priestly collaboration with that oppression, in the first part of the first century C.E.
The point to be taken here is that plenty of pious Jews had been unjustly executed on Roman crosses long before Jesus ever came on the scene. In that sense, it is not difficult to imagine that Jesus may have used cross imagery in some of his teachings – such as the Take Up Your Cross saying at issue in this essay. If that’s the case, then this may indeed be an authentic saying of the historical Jesus, but I would argue that Jesus was likely referring to these pious Jewish martyrs, and not necessarily to his own future death. It only became about his own demise after he was executed.
So we have seen that Take Up Your Cross passes the criterion of multiple independent attestations, and might also pass the criterion of historical context. If it passes both, then I would be inclined to argue that this saying likely did come from the lips of the historical Jesus. But that second criterion is, for me, tentative at best, and I am more inclined to argue that Jesus probably never made this statement. The strength of the metaphorical cross imagery is simply too strong, too perfect, to imagine that it goes back to Jesus himself. As I noted above, only after his execution would the image of the cross have provided a powerful religious metaphor for Christians. Prior to that, a Roman execution device would hardly have been seen as religiously powerful, earlier Jewish martyrdoms notwithstanding.
As I alluded to above, all of this deals with the mode of the story: is it historically accurate – did it come from the lips of the historical Jesus – or was it created by Christians attempting to understand Jesus in light of his execution and their belief in his resurrection? I’ve given my own, albeit tentative, opinion on this, but what matters most is not the mode, but the meaning. What does the Take Up Your Cross saying mean for us as Christians?
I quoted my friend’s opinion above, and I noted that my own perspective was different. For me, Take Up Your Cross is an instruction that encourages Christians to follow Jesus on the Way. The Way was the euphemism used by early Christians to describe the Christian lifestyle – the path of God’s kingdom as illuminated by Jesus of Nazareth (“Narrow is the gate and difficult is the Way” as Jesus says in Matthew 7:14). In modern English translations, the euphemism is frequently lost because the word is often translated as “road,” giving the implication of a physical street. (Consider the story of blind Bartimaeus from Mark 11:46-52. After being healed of his blindness, many modern translations tells us that Bartimaeus “followed Jesus along the road” as he made his way to Jerusalem. What that passage really says is that Bartimaeus, after being made to see by Jesus, “followed Jesus on the Way” – in other words, he became one of Jesus’ disciples, “taking up his cross,” as it were, and following him to Jerusalem).
“The Way” is Jesus’ lifestyle of compassion and selflessness, love and mercy, openness and togetherness, acceptance and grace. It is a path diametrically, but nonviolently, opposed to the status quo and the powers that be, opposed to the systemic evils of the world, evils that oppress people and mock God’s desire for social justice. It is a nonviolent resistance to oppression and domination, cruelty and coercion – in short, the status quo of human civilization.
This is what “take up your cross” means for me. It means following Jesus on the Way, a path opposed to civilization’s violent and oppressive normalcy of power and greed, revenge and malice, self-interest and avarice.