Taking Up the Cross

As they led him away they took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country; and after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus Luke 23:26).

Historians generally agree that this would have been just the crossbeam, not the whole cross which would have weighed between 2-300 pounds. Vertical beams, they suggest, were a permanent sight around the outskirts of Jerusalem as crucifixion was common. (There is a counter-argument to this point claiming that the chief priests in Jerusalem would never have permitted the Roman authorities to leave the contaminated blood of criminals in a public venue. Also, close examination of the Shroud of Turin possibly reveals scars caused by Jesus having carried the vertical beam). If, however the historians are correct about the weight of the whole cross, I think it must then have been only the crossbeam that He carried.

Placed on Christ’s shoulders and tied to his forearms the chief executioner would have recognized that the beam was too heavy for someone who had been as severely tortured with excessive blood loss as what Our Lord had experienced. The formal procession was led by Roman trumpeters and was a formal public event. It might have seemed odd to some since Passover celebrations had just begun and the Sabbath was a only a few hours away. 

In a symbolic sense, Jesus often used the image of a procession preceding a crucifixion to describe the ultimate price of discipleship:

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27).

Elsewhere, Jesus broadens the symbol to reflect a daily commitment:

Then he said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23).

While three of the four evangelists make only a brief reference to Jesus’ march to Calvary, St. Luke had discovered additional details:

…A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him. Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’ At that time people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ (Luke 23:27-32).

This is a forewarning of what would befall Jerusalem and many Jewish villages in Palestine when the Roman legions laid siege in AD 70. Jesus was not understating the horrors that awaited Jerusalem.†

If the majority of scholars are correct that Luke was writing after these events took place, the inclusion of this materiel supports Luke’s specific purpose in writing his gospel as well as The Acts of the Apostles. Recall that Luke’s writings constituted a letter written to a man named Theophilus:

“…I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, Most Excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Luke 1:3-4; see also 9:23).

The title “Most Excellent” informs us that Theophilus was a high-ranking Roman official and a convert to Christianity. The Roman hierarchy generally saw the followers of Jesus as just one of the many competing Jewish sects. In the book of Acts, Luke describes the consequences of the strategy of the early Christians in targeting the synagogues throughout the Empire for the purpose of evangelization. It often led to civil unrest, and the Roman authorities would intervene on behalf of the Jews.

It is possible that Luke wanted to demonstrate that as the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, and open to gentiles, Christians, both Jewish and gentile, should be distinguished from the seditionists and recognized by the Empire with the same respect that it had given the Jewish religion.


†For an account of the rebellion and to better understand the history and politics of the 1st-century, I highly recommend reading The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus. For a brief introduction see HERE.

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