As we approach Good Friday, I'd like to look back at one kind of gospel text which mentions "the cross", and consider it historically. It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the mindset of the ancient world, where crucifixion was a mark of shame, of public humiliation and terror, and had no religious connotations at all. The ritual humiliation actually began before the crucifixion proper:
Before the execution, the victim was scourged (Mark 15.15; War 5.11.449-51). He then had to carry the transverse beam (patibulum) to the place of execution (John 19.17), and was nailed through hands and feet to the cross (see Luke 24.39; John 20.25), from which a wooden peg protruded to support the body; some of these literary details are confirmed by archaeological finds of the bones of crucifixion victims.(1)
One account - reported of the scourging of another Jewish rebel by Josephus - mentions how he was scourged until the bone showed. This wasn't just whipping, it was tearing at the flesh. It was horrific.
According to ancient historians such as Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, various kinds of crucifixion (e.g., impalement) were used by the Assyrians, Scythians, Phoenicians, and Persians (see also Ezra 6.11). The practice of crucifixion was taken over by Alexander the Great and his successors, and especially by the Romans, who reserved it for slaves in cases of robbery and rebellion. Roman citizens could be punished in this way only for the crime of high treason. In the Roman provinces crucifixion served as a means of punishing unruly people who were sentenced as "robbers." Josephus tells of mass crucifixions in Judea under several Roman prefects, in particular Titus during the siege of Jerusalem; the same also occurred in the Jewish quarter of Alexandria, according to Philo. (1)
In fact, Josephus tells us that after the rebellion failed and Jerusalem fell to the Romans in AD 70, that the Romans ran out of wood for crucifixions, which gives some idea of the horrific scale of that event.
But after the rise of the early Church, as we see in the letters of Paul, "Christ crucified" is taken as a religious act, and it is this which we find in the earliest Gospel, that of Mark, where Jesus has just been speaking to his disciples:
Mark 8.34: And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."
This is the first mention of the word "cross" in Mark. And it also has echoes of events later in Mark's gospel, where a similar wording is used:
Mark 15:21: And they forced one Simon a Cyrenian who passed by, coming out of the country, the father of Alexander and of Rufus, to take up his cross
In Matthew's gospel, the small band of disciples has been replaced with a crowd, but the same saying occurs:
Matt 16.24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
and Luke retains the crowds, but adds the word "daily", clearly making of this a metaphor for the discipline of the daily Christian life by glossing the meaning:
Luke 9.23 And he said to all, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it.
Matthew also has the phrase in another context, linked to Jesus making a division between the demands of family and the demands of following him, which has, in Christian based religious cults and closed denominations (like the Plymouth brethren) been used as a means of forcing obedience over ties of family, and cutting off those family ties:
Matt 10.37 He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.
This is taken up and repeated by Luke:
Luke 14.26 If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
And interestingly, the Gospel of Thomas has this context, and not the other version of the saying:
55 Jesus said, "Whoever does not hate his father and his mother cannot become a disciple to Me. And whoever does not hate his brothers and sisters and take up his cross in My way will not be worthy of Me
But the main problem with this saying is that it has no religious meaning in its context. It only makes sense after the events of the passion when Jesus has been crucified.
At the time before the crucifixion, in the context when it is spoken, it wouldn't have meant anything - Jesus had not been crucified, and no one would have had the slightest idea what he was talking about. It would have been like saying - to take a very English method of execution of traitors:
And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and be hung, drawn and quartered and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."
And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and be burned alive at the stake and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."
If we put it like that, we can perhaps start to see the oddity, and strangeness of the saying, as we have removed the later religious overlay, and the way in which centuries have progressively made the cross a symbol of devotion rather than brutality and shame.
But the reader usually doesn't see this problem, this strangeness, because we read the passage in hindsight, and read back our own knowledge of later events and later theology into the text. It is an anachronism - a saying from a future context put back into a time where it shouldn't exist.
It's interesting that the Gospel of John has a very similar saying, but without the Marcan reference to the cross:
John 12:26: If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.
Equally, when it becomes clear in John's narrative that Jesus has made his mind to die, Thomas calls them to follow him, in a similar way to Mark, but without the reference to the cross:
When it becomes clear that Jesus has fully made up His mind to go, Thomas calls to his fellow-disciples, 'Let us go to die with Him' --an utterance which we may regard as in some sort an equivalent for the Synoptic saying 'If anyone wishes to come after me, he must take up his cross and follow me' ( Mark viii. 34, and numerous parallels). (2)
Hence I think the original saying that Mark uses read something like:
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and and follow me."
After the crucifixion, when the gospels were written "take up your cross" has a meaning bound up with witness and the word we derive from the Greek - martyrdom, and it fits the text perfectly well as a gloss on the original saying. It is this secondary gloss or interpretation which finds its way into Mark, the other Synoptics, and Thomas, but which is lacking in John which may in this case preserve more of the original forms of the sayings.
(2) The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel., CH Dodd, 1953r: 367.
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