Who carried Jesus’ cross?

Posted on Apr.09, 2009. Filed in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. Average rating: 7.0 / 10 (Rate It).

When Jesus had been sentenced to crucifixion, he was marched out to the place of his execution, Golgotha. The gospels disagree, however, as to who it was that carried Jesus’ cross.

The synoptic gospels are unanimous in saying that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross:

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. [Matthew 27:32 (NRSV)]

They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. [Mark 15:21 (NRSV)]

As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. [Luke 23:26 (NRSV)]

John, however, has Jesus carry his own cross:

…¬†and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. [John 19:17 (NRSV)]

So who carried Jesus’ cross to Golgotha, Simon of Cyrene or Jesus himself?

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  1. 1

    Both of the standard answers to this claimed contradiction have problems.

    First, there’s the suggestion that Jesus and Simon carried the cross together. The problem with this is that Luke 23:26 says that Simon was made to carry the cross “behind Jesus”, and John 19:17 says that Jesus carried his cross “by himself”, both of which seem to rule out this possibility.

    Second, there’s the suggestion that Jesus and Simon carried the cross in turn. The problem with this is that Matthew 27:32 and Luke 23:26 say that Simon’s help was enlisted “As they went out” and “As they led [Jesus] away”, both of which imply that Simon carried the cross from the beginning.

    I’m not convinced that these problems are insurmountable, but there’s a little more work to be done here than most apologists seem to realise.

  2. 2

    The second harmonization is the one you get from the traditional Stations of the Cross. Jesus began by carrying his cross (station 2). Fell under its load (station 3). Simon is given the cross (station 5). The sequence suggested is also part of JohnPaul II’s Scriptural Way of the Cross only it comprises stations 7 and 8 under that rubric.

    This view has a timeline, so it makes sense to pay close attention to the verbs, their subjects and their tenses to sort it out.

    In Matthew we have a present participle for the phrase “as they went out”. “They” refers to the soldiers. So “as the soldiers were going out” might also work.

    In Mark, we have no description of the going out.

    In Luke, we have no description of the going out, but the Soldiers “led him away” in the second aorist indicative (which can be rendered as a pluperfect). So we have “after they had led him away”.

    In John, we also have a second aorist indicative, but this is applied to Jesus’ going out while carrying his own cross. So we have “Jesus had gone out carrying his own cross”.

    So, putting this all together, here is my ‘mini-diatessaron’ for this passage:

    Jesus had gone out bearing his own cross to the place called “the Place of a Skull”, which is called in Hebrew, “Golgotha”. But as the soldiers were going out, after they had led Jesus away, they found a passer-by coming in from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus). They seized him. They pressed him into service. They compelled him to bear Jesus’ cross. They placed it on him to carry behind Jesus.

    Hey, look! I’m a Gospel Redactor. You can call me WL. (Notice how I went for consistency.)

  3. 3

    John, I think, expects us to understand that Jesus carried the cross all the way.

  4. 4

    You are surely right that a very natural reading of John goes that way (even with the pluperfect reading of Jesus going out).

    Notice, however, that such a reading draws its damning conclusion from what John did not say, rather than what he did say. Why didn’t John say that Jesus started out carrying his own cross, stumbled and then it was given to Simon?

    The short and facile answer is: “I don’t know, he didn’t say.”

    One speculation that comes to mind is that he might not have seen that happen. He might have been close to Jesus when he set out, but then fallen back or been pushed back as Jesus proceeded to Golgotha. In contrast, Peter, Matthew and the rest who fled in the garden (or later, after his denials, in the case of Peter) may have been ahead of the procession and been in a position to see the exchange.

  5. 5

    It is mostly agreed by theologians that John’s Gospel was not written my John, but much later by a member the Johannine community (evidence for this can be seen in John 21:24 which states ‘We [the community] know that his [John’s] testimony is true’). The intention of the author is here to emphasise Jesus’ willingness to give up his life to make the atoning sacrifice, and his oneness with God. This is substantiated by the lack of a request to ‘take this cup of suffering away’ at Gethsemane, and also Jesus’ statement in John 10:18, ‘no one takes it [my life] from me’.

  6. 6

    Actually, I think the wording of John there [“by himself”] might be unique to the NRSV.

    Based on my interlinear Greek Bibles, as far as I can tell, it should really be translated as “carrying his own cross” rather than “carrying the cross by himself.” Which, of course, leaves more room for a second cross-bearer.

    Different translations treat it in just this way:

    NIV: 17Carrying his own cross, he went out…

    HCSB: 17 Carrying His own cross, He went out…

    NASB: 17 They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross…

    ESV: 17and he went out, bearing his own cross…

    Also – and this might be a stretch, I don’t know – I wonder if this could reflect that both the vertical and horizontal beams were being carried? Or are we fairly certain the vertical beam was already in place?

  7. 7

    In Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, Jesus said “TAKE UP YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW ME”.

    He didn’t mean literally christians have to carry a cross. The cross is a symbol that as christians, one should be willing to take up one’s death instrument to follow Him. Meaning that as christians one should be willing to die (die to self, be reborn) to follow him.

    Something is probably lost in translation here, since we are talking about an english translation, and english is vague. For example, Greek has 5 words for the one english word ‘love’.

    Who carried the actual cross doesn’t matter. Jesus probably didn’t carry it Himself, since only criminals carry their cross according to Roman Law. Matt 27:19, mark 15:14, Luke 23:14, and John 19:4 states Pilate thinks Jesus is absolutely blameless. Therefore he would probably ask someone else to carry Jesus’s cross for Him.

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