“Carrying the Cross . . .”
A case study about the transmission of Jesus’ words
First Observation. There are two versions
The statement that a disciple of Jesus should take up his cross is found in two forms.
1. The first, the so-called positive formulation, is common to Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Greek text of all three evangelists is practically identical so that we are justified to infer one common source for all three. [To keep as close to the original text as possible, I am not translating with inclusive language.]
2. The other form in which the statement appears, the negative formulation, occurs in a different tradition in Matthew and Luke. We do not find it in Mark. Although in this case there are more differences in the words employed, here too we have sufficient reason to suspect a common origin for both Gospel passages.
Biblical research leaves little doubt that the “positive formulation” derives from a written document that was known to all three evangelists and which is known as “Urmark”.
The “negative formulation” was part of another written document, available to Matthew and Luke, which is commonly referred to as “Quelle”.
By a careful examination of these and related passages we can, moreover, deduce with certainty that both documents were translations from earlier Aramaic texts, and that their contents were originally handed down as memorised, oral traditions. In the particular passage we are studying, there is good reason to assume that both the negative and the positive formulations derive from one Aramaic logion [= saying] of Jesus. Let us try to unravel some of its compIicated history.
Second Observation. In Urmark’s version, Jesus requires martyrdom
We may begin by a closer look at the positive formulation, the texts deriving from Urmark.
The verse we are considering is not the only fragment of Urmark relevant to our study. It is embedded in a string of seven passages that formed one unit of instruction. If we take Mark 8,31-38 as our point of departure, we may list them as follows:
These short references may suffice to place the verse in its context.
However, it is worthwhile reading the full text and also the parallels in Matthew 16,21-27 and Luke 9,22-26. It will be seen that both the wording and the sequence of the passages are so similar that it is not difficult to reconstruct the reading of Urmark.
To cut out unnecessary complications, we may even say that for the section that is here involved, Urmark was roughly identical with what we find in Mark today. Mark did introduce some small modifications (e.g., “for the sake of the Gospel” instead of “for my sake” in Mark 8,35), but these need not detain us for the moment. Research shows that what we have in Mark 8, 31-38 is, for all practical purposes, a fragment of Urmark.
Let us recall the verse we are interested in:
It is not difficult to see the meaning of these words within the context of Urmark’s instruction.
Jesus has announced his Passion. When Peter, speaking for us, expresses dismay and reluctance, Jesus teaches that we too should be prepared to share in his sufferings. We should be ready to lay down our life for Jesus’ sake. By such a radical commitment we shall not be the losers because we shall actually regain life in a higher and fuller sense. “Denying oneself and taking up one’s cross” have to be taken literally to fit this context. As Jesus was prepared to die, so we too should, when the need arises, take up our cross and carry it after Jesus to the place of execution. Belonging to Christ requires the radical decision to give up what is humanly speaking our highest good, the right to live.
The self-denial spoken of (in verse 34) as parallel to taking up one’s cross does, therefore, not so much express self-discipline or mortification. It stands for an event, an option, a turning away from worry about oneself, a determined surrender to Christ, never mind the consequences!
The ‘image’ of taking up one’s cross illustrates precisely such an act of the will. The verdict of crucifixion implied more than physical pain and death. The condemned person was branded as a criminal, expelled from society, handed over to the contempt and derision of the crowd. The moment when the cross beam was put on one’s shoulder marked the beginning of a terrible journey, a gauntlet run through jeering and hostile masses, a bitter experience of being literally driven to death. Self-denial requires making this journey willingly for the sake of Jesus. In this way the disciple owns up to Jesus, shows he or she is not ashamed of him (Mark 8,38).
The instruction in Urmark was put together from originally distinct passages to prepare people for martyrdom. We need not look far for the reason. The early Christian community at Jerusalem was subjected to severe persecutions.
This was the ‘Sitz-im-Leben’, the setting, in which the instruction arose.
That the instruction was composed in this particular way after Jesus’ death can be inferred from the fact that the disciples are called upon to remain loyal, not only to Jesus himself but also to his words (Mark 8,38; Luke 9,26). It is only after the Resurrection that Jesus’ teaching, his ‘Gospel’ (compare Mark 8,35) becomes the target of persecution. The chief priests want to stop the apostles ‘preaching in this name . . . filling Jerusalem with their teaching’ (Acts 5,28). In the face of such opposition the disciples are reminded that Jesus tolerates no half-hearted commitment. The disciple should be ready to take up his cross and run the gauntlet with the master.
Third Observation – the version found in Quelle focuses on the cost of discipleship
In Matthew‘s apostolic sermon the passage on carrying the cross is the climax of a threefold demand.
Luke presents three requirements that are obviously related. The third one became separated in the Gospel because Luke inserted two small parables (of the man building a tower and the king marching against his enemy) between verses 27 and 33.
At first we might be tempted to think that the variance between Matthew and Luke in these passages is too great to allow for a common source. But closer inspection reveals their common origin.
Everything seems to point to the conclusion that the texts of Matthew and Luke both derive ultimately from the same memorised Aramaic tradition. When this tradition reached Matthew and Luke as part of Quelle it may already have assumed some of the differences that can now be seen. Other variations may be due to the editorial work of the evangelists themselves.
What was the tenor of this original, triple statement?
From the context in which Matthew places it (Matthew 10,34-36: “Your worst enemies will be your relatives”; also Quelle) and from an internal analysis it would seem that the context is conflict with members of one’s family. If we believe in Christ we should be prepared for opposition from those nearest and dearest to us. Our commitment to Christ requires that, if need be, we go against the wishes of our parents, our brothers and sisters, or our children.
‘Taking up one’s cross’ end ‘giving up ail that one possesses’ are illustrations of the same principle. The situation which such an instruction presupposes can be found in any period of conversion and Church expansion such as took place in the early Church. Those who were inclined to embrace the Gospel often faced disturbing conflicts with family members.
The preachers in reply would put together those sayings of Jesus that could steel the new converts’ determination in the face of such opposition. Quelle contained another triple warning to would-be disciples that is equally tough on attachment to one’s family (Matthew 8,19-22; Luke 9,57-62).
Observation Four. The two versions derive from one logion by Jesus
As we have seen so far, we find the text on carrying the cross in two different sets of instruction.
We may now retrace history one step further. Did the two formulations arise because Jesus himself made the demand in these two forms? Or do they derive from one logion [= one saying] of the Lord?
Evidence points to the second possibility as the more likely one.
We should remember that the instructions of the oral catechesis, as handed down by Urmark, Quelle and other sources, consisted of strings of originally distinct teachings, presented together to inculcate certain doctrines and to facilitate memorising.
Sayings of Jesus were thus editorially linked. Miracles and parables were grouped in convenient units. Words and deeds of Jesus that seemed to be related were collected under the same heading. This makes it quite possible that the preacher who composed the instruction of Urmark inserted Jesus’ logion because it suited his purpose of teaching martyrdom, while another preacher preparing catechumens employed the same logion to strengthen his own theme as found in Quelle.
This possibility becomes a likelihood when we compare both the wording and the meaning of the positive and negative formulations. “To come after me” is the ordinary Aramaic way of saying “to become my disciple”. Saying: “if anyone wants to be my disciple, he should take up his cross” is identical with: “unless a man takes up his cross he cannot be my disciple”.
After all, even though exact formulation played some part from the earliest times, Jesus’ teaching was handed down to preserve its meaning, not exact formulations. Examples abound to show that rigidity of expression was never pursued as the highest ideal either by the teachers of oral catechesis or by those who recorded it in written form and who translated from the Aramaic, or by the evangelists themselves. Moreover, both the tradition of Urmark and the one preserved by Quelle employ the carrying the cross statement in the context of persecution. This too is an indication of a common origin. In short: it is likely that both formulations derive from one original logion of Jesus through which he expressed that would-be disciples should be prepared “to take up their cross” in the face of opposition.
I know from experience that at this point self-styled champions of Gospel integrity will interject: “But Jesus could have made the demand on more occasions. Why always go for a minimum?”
The question may reveal that one has not really understood the way in which Jesus taught. Of course, Jesus repeated his teaching more than once. When he visited, let us say, Sephphoris, he might gather a crowd and narrate some parables of the kingdom: the sower, the leaven in the dough, the mustard seed. He might elaborate some of the details or add explanations. But each parable stayed as a fundamental ‘logion’ [saying], one of the units of Jesus’ teaching which the disciples too would proclaim when they in turn were sent out to preach on their own.
One and the same ‘logion’ could have more applications.
The parable of the lost sheep, for instance, is narrated to give courage to sinners in one version (Luke 15,4-7) and to remind elders of their responsibility in another (Matthew 18,10-14). The text is worked out more fully here.
The new dimensions might have been alluded to by Jesus himself; they might also result from the further reflection and maturer experience of the disciples. But however far the Holy Spirit might lead such elaboration, it would all be seen as deriving from the one ‘logion’ of the Lord. In this sense there must have been one logion of Jesus on carrying the cross.
Observation Five. We can roughly reconstruct Jesus’ original logion.
What did Jesus himself actually say? What were his own words? It is useful to review the various hypotheses that have been proposed by scholars.
View 1. To begin with, there are a number of scholars who maintain that the original logion referred only to self-denial: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself. The image of carrying the cross, they maintain, was added later after the experience of Jesus’ passion.
View 2. Other scholars believe that Jesus did not mention the cross explicitly. They give a number of reasons.
The question is, they say: would Jesus say this kind of thing and how would he say it in Aramaic? Also: following in the footsteps of the Master while ‘carrying the cross’ seems to be an essential dimension of the logion: how could it be so if the Master’s own ‘way of the cross’ was not yet clearly known?
For all these reasons a logion that would ask each disciple to take up his own beam of the cross and follow the Master would not seem to be excluded in the pre-Resurrection period.
View 3. Some scholars think that Jesus must have said something that was so close to ‘taking up one’s cross’ that it could spontaneously be given this new meaning after Jesus’ Passion. Could it have been taking up his ‘yoke’ (Matthew 11,29)? But the jump in imagery here seems too big: Matthew 11,19 speaks of Jesus’ yoke, the logion of one’s own cross.
An interesting alternative to this has been put forward by E. Dinkler. He suggests that Jesus may have said: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take on his tau“. This saying would be understandable to his contemporaries, Dinkler says, because it would immediately recall the scenes described in Ezekiel 8-9. The prophet (called ‘the Son of Man’) is shown the sins of idolatry committed by Jerualem. God decides to punish the city, but he sends an angel to mark those who have remained loyal to him: they receive a sign, the tau [= the letter T], on the forehead (Ezekiel 9,4-6). The vision concludes with a glimpse of God’s glory.
This reconstruction of Jesus’ logion may seem new and startling. But it is not without its merits.
However, Dinkler’s suggestion only remains a hypothesis. And it has its weaknesses too. In Ezekiel 9,4-6 the stress is on God marking his friends, not on the friends marking themselves. And if Jesus used Ezekiel’s vision as source material for his teaching, why is it never quoted by later New Testament authors?
View 4. Finally, quite a few authors strongly defend that Jesus’ logion contained the explicit demand of “lifting up one’s beam of the cross and walking with Jesus to one’s crucifixion” (Kahmann, Moule, Schniewind, Schürmann, etc.)
The Sitz-im-Leben of Jesus’ logion would then come close to what we have seen was the interpretation of Urmark.
Thus we complete the circle. It is not possible to reconstruct with certainty the exact wording of Jesus’ logion. Perhaps Jesus said something very challenging which, after Calvary, was immediately understood by the disciples as being identical with ‘taking up one’s cross’. If so, we don’t know what this something was.
The best case, perhaps, can still be made out for thinking that Jesus did actually refer to crucifixion, that he coined the words of the logion in the form we find in Urmark. After all, is he not known for many other unexpected, incredible statements:
Conclusion. While the matter is still being debated among scholars, the likelihood remains that Jesus foresaw his death by crucifixion and demanded from his followers that they be prepared to die with him. This was the real origin of the logion.
Fifth Observation. We should focus on what Jesus meant rather than his exact words
Although the Gospels transmit Jesus’ teaching faithfully, they do not always preserve the very words of Jesus (the so-called ‘ipsissima verba‘). What they guarantee is to give us the mind of Jesus, what he meant.
The need to translate from one language to another, to adapt from one cultural situation to the next, called for a flexible approach. With our Western and twentieth-century mentality we exaggerate the importance of the historical moment that stood at the beginning: as if a snapshot of Jesus would be more valuable than his living presence in the Eucharist, as if a sound-recording of Jesus’ Aramaic sermons would bring us closer to his mind. Such historical material, however interesting in itself, would almost certainly fail to convey the heart of the Gospel – which is a living word.
It is the interpretations given by Urmark, Quelle and the Evangelists that reveal to us the true sense and fullest depths of Jesus’ saying.
Incurring the risk of labouring my point, I should like to work this out by means of a comparison.
Coins are pieces of metal cast to bear an image; banknotes are sheets of paper with their value printed on them. The official imprint is essential; without it they would be worthless. Now, we might ask historical questions such as:
The answers to such questions, however interesting and relevant for financial experts, do not determine the current validity or value of the money.
For commercial use it is adequate to recognise a pound note for a pound note and to know that the government guarantees its value. The historic moments of designing the face of the banknote, of fixing its serial number, of endorsing it with the signature of the chief cashier, and of stamping the watermark have gone into a banknote.True! But for me the value of the note in my hands is that I can make payment with it.
The same applies to the Gospels. They came about through a long historical process. What matters is their value as Jesus’ guaranteed message:
The disciple should be prepared to take up his cross and follow Jesus.
We have seen that both in Urmark and in Quelle this was understood to imply a decisive and public commitment to Jesus in face of opposition and persecution. We should be ready to be expelled from society and even put to death for our allegiance to him. Tension with our friends and relations should not make us waver. We should profess our stand regardless of the consequences and not be ashamed of belonging to Christ. This is the basic requirement implied in the self-denial and carrying the cross of the disciple. This is what Jesus meant.
Sixth Observation. Luke does not water down Jesus’ demand when he says we should ‘carry our cross daily’
Concepts that are originally strong and unique have a tendency to be given ever wider interpretations. In this way they are gutted and eroded; eventually they may become meaningless.
When we say, “Everybody has to carry his cross”, we think of the whole gamut of human suffering: from losing a parent to having a toothache, or having to put up with a talkative aunt! Some spiritual authors write as if God set up a special despatching office for ‘crosses’. First he may send you some small ones, to test your strength. If you manage them well, he may send you bigger ones. Good customers may even learn to strike a spiritual bargain. “God, I offer this cross for so-and-so.” The readiness to suffer and to take gallantly the hardships that come our way is, of course, highly commendable; at least, if it does not spring from a disguised spiritual masochism. But does it correspond to the biblical notion of carrying the cross?
The origin of our speaking of ‘crosses’ in this way may lie with Luke 9,23. There we read that the disciple should deny himself and take up his cross daily. Why should the evangelist add the word ‘daily’ if not to bring Jesus’ principle down to the everyday life of the Christian? May we then not legitimately speak of our ‘daily crosses’? Did Luke not intend to include the toothache and the talkative aunt? In spite of appearances, the answer is No.
The addition of the word ‘daily’ is characteristic of Luke. He does want to stress the ‘here and now’ of the work of redemption: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19,9). Luke’s Gospel introduces ‘today’ nine times against Matthew’s twice and Mark’s once.
The whole passage of Luke 9,22-26 is dominated by two key concepts: loss of life and social rejection. Christ begins by stating that he himself will be rejected and put to death (vs. 22). The disciple should be prepared to take up a similar cross (vs. 23), should lose his life for Christ’s sake (vs. 24-25), should not be ashamed of Christ or his words before the people (vs.26). The Urmarkian theme of publicly owning up to Christ in spite of persecution has been fully retained. Luke’s addition of ‘daily’ does no more than remind us that rejection and the need to carry the cross of shame will never leave us. Commitment to Christ will entail a loss of face for his sake among neighbours, relatives, colleagues and acquaintances. Luke’s interpretation no doubt reflects the precarious position of the hellenistic Christian communities for which he was writing.
My remarks about the way in which we speak about our ‘crosses’ may have been somewhat facetious. After all, if this is how people want to express a profound conviction that all hardships offer the opportunity to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings” (Colossians 1,24), they are free to do so. But it is scripturally more correct to restrict the image of carrying the cross to situations where we are called upon to suffer for confessing Christ publicly. This is closer to what Jesus himself had in mind. And ‘not to be ashamed of him before people’ is as incisive and pertinent a challenge today as it has ever been.
Reflection on carrying one’s cross and incarnation
By his crucifixion Jesus did not pay ‘blood money’. His death was not demanded by Almighty God to make reparation for the sins of humankind as is sometimes wrongly understood. Instead, Jesus freely accepted death, and then such a horrendous death as crucifixion, because he wanted to express his solidarity with us to the last drop of blood. It was an act of love. Read here why the medieval ‘satisfaction theory’ is wrong.
Through his death on Calvary, Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, identified himself fully with all the pain and suffering we human beings have to undergo. It was the pinnacle of incarnation.
But Jesus wanted to continue his presence among us. He achieved this in two ways:
By carrying our cross with Jesus we continue his work of incarnation.
© John Wijngaards
Much of the text in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly is based on publications by John Wijngaards, in particular:
Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.