'Carrying a cross'


Something for Holy Week.

Ever wondered about the term, ‘carrying a cross’?

Anyone who has read their Bible at some point would have pretty much encountered the expression ‘carrying the cross’ and have some idea where it comes from: the gospels, which talk about Jesus inviting people to “take up (their) cross” and later, have Jesus “carry His cross” to Golgotha.

But did you know? In classical (non-Christian) Latin literature, nowhere does the term “to carry a cross” - to be more precise, “to carry a crux” - appear. You have texts which speak of people condemned to crucifixion being “led to the crux” (agere in crucem), “lifted up on a crux” (tollere in crucem), or “fastened to a crux” (cruci figere - where we get the terms ‘crucifixion’ and ‘crucify’), but nowhere is a crux said to be carried.

Instead, some of these texts describe such people bearing a horizontal beam known as the patibulum. As the literal meaning of the term suggests (‘spreader’, from pateo, ‘to spread open’, ‘to extend’), victims carry this beam with their arms extended, stretched out on it. These sources describe the condemned to crucifixion as carrying this patibulum first before they were “lifted up on a crux.”

Let him carry the patibulum (patibulum feram) through the city; then let him be fastened to the crux.

  • Plautus, Carbonaria, fragment 2

Whoever will want to exact punishment on a male or female slave at private expense, as he [the owner] who wants the [punishment] to be inflicted, he [the contractor] exacts the punishment in in this manner: if he wants [him] to bring the patibulum(?) to the crux, (se in cruc(em) patib(ulum?) agere volet) the contractor will have to provide wooden posts, chains and cords for the floggers and the floggers themselves. And anyone who will want to exact punishment will have to give four sesterces for each of the workers who bring the patibulum and for the floggers and also for the executioner.

In a nutshell, in classical Latin texts, the condemned never are depicted carrying a crux (whether in the sense of ‘vertical pole/stake’ - its original meaning - or by extension, ‘vertical post with horizontal beam attached’ - what we think of when we say ‘cross’). When they do mention an object the person carried before they were ‘led to’ the crux to be ‘fastened to’ / ‘lifted up to’ it, they consistently refer to it as patibulum and describe the person as carrying it with arms ‘spread open’.

In the gospels, the word used to describe what Jesus and/or Simon of Cyrene carried is stauros. While the basic meaning of stauros is closer to the basic meaning of crux (‘upright stake/pole’), given what we know from these Latin texts, it is more likely that stauros in this instance means patibulum than crux, because we have no evidence (despite popular iconography) that the crux - either the upright stake by itself or the stake joined to the horizontal patibulum (i.e. a ‘full cross’) were ever carried in Roman crucifixions. In other words, when the gospels say that Jesus (or Simon) carried the stauros, they probably meant that He carried the horizontal beam (patibulum) rather than the upright post / the beam and the post conjoined together (crux).

Where it gets confusing is that this one word, stauros, apparently does double duty as an equivalent term for the horizontal beam (patibulum) and the beam (patibulum) joined to a vertical stake (crux) to form a T/t shaped gibbet, on top of its basic meaning of ‘vertical stake’. So basically, you have three possible nuances of stauros.

Did Jesus carry the whole cross or the cross beam?

So where do we get the expression, ‘carry the cross’ from? It essentially all boils down to the Latin translations of the New Testament.

One common characteristic of many early Christian translations of scriptural books and other works into Latin is their excessive literalism: these translations render their source texts so literally, without any regard for how clunky, unnatural and ungrammatical the resulting translation would be. (Think of something like Young’s Literal Translation.)

One particular literalism that apparently stuck among Latin-speaking Christians was using crux as an equivalent for the Greek stauros. Unlike in classical Latin literature, use of the specific word patibulum among early Christian works was very rare; instead, crux (which, by contrast, was a word infrequently used in classical texts) was indiscriminately used to refer to the various nuances of stauros: a full cross and the specific parts of it, particularly the horizontal beam. In this passage for instance, you can see Tertullian use crux to refer to what the classical authors would call patibulum:

Therefore Isaac, with his wood, was preserved when the ram that was caught by the horns in the bramble was offered in his place. Christ, however, carried his wood on his own shoulders, adhering to the horns of the cross with a thorny crown encircling his head.

St. Ambrose, and his protégé, St. Augustine, were one of the few Christian writers to use the word patibulum - or to be more specific, the expression patibulum crucis “the horizontal beam (patibulum) of the crux.” Invoking the same Jesus = Isaac symbolism that Tertullian did, Ambrose writes:

Isaac carried the wood for himself, Christ carried the patibulum of the cross for himself. (Ligna Isaac sibi vexit, Christus sibi patibulum crucis portavit.)

Augustine meanwhile commenting on Psalm 87, says:

“And I,” he continues, “have called upon you, O Lord.” This indeed He did most clearly when hanging upon the wood. But what follows, “All day I have spread out my hands to you,” must be examined how best to understand it. If then in that which says, “I have spread out my hands” we understand the patibulum of the cross (crucis patibulum intellexerimus), how are we to understand, “the whole day?” (…)

Both Ambrose and Augustine lived in the generation immediately after crucifixions were abolished by Constantine, but their references here show that some knowledge of the practice were still current by their time.

Latin translations of the gospels mechanically rendered stauros as crux, without any regard for the subtle nuances of stauros and without recoursing to the specific terms used by non-Christian writers. Christians used crux both to refer to the full cross (i.e. horizontal beam + vertical post) and as a synecdoche for its specific parts, such as the patibulum.

Did Jesus carry the whole cross or the cross beam?

The greek word for cross is wide in its meaning, particularly in the verse “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Mt 16:24)

Perhaps someone who has a good knowledge of the greek may fill us in.


It’s all Greek to me :slight_smile:

Still, my understanding of the Scripture is the same as the OP’s; the crossbeam, not necessarily the whole thing.



This is the ‘In a nutshell’ version for all the folks who don’t like to wade through a sea of words:

[LIST]*]In classical, non-Christian Latin texts that talk about crucifixion, you encounter two intimately related terms: crux and patibulum.

*]Crux, in its original sense, refers to an upright stake or post, but in its extended sense, can mean a T/t-shaped gibbet formed by an upright post with a horizontal beam attached to it.

*]Nowhere do these texts speak of people condemned to crucifixion as carrying a crux, whether in the sense of ‘upright post (only)’ or ‘upright post + transverse beam’. Victims are said to be ‘led to cruces’ (that’s the plural of crux BTW), ‘lifted up on cruces’, or ‘fastened to cruces’, but cruces were not something they are said to carry.

*]Instead, you have references to some victims being made to carry what is called a patibulum before they were fastened to their cruces.

*]Patibulum (‘spreader’, from pateo ‘to stretch out / spread open’), as its name implies, apparently refers to a kind of horizontal beam (the people who are made to carry it are said to do so with their arms outstretched and fastened to it), but it also has an extended sense similar to crux: ‘transverse beam + upright post’.

*]From this we can infer that in some crucifixions, the victim was first made to carry a horizontal beam called a patibulum with his stretched-out arms fastened to it. This transverse patibulum might have then been combined with an upright stake, a crux, to form a … crux. :smiley: The victim did not bear a crux; they did not carry the upright stake, nor apparently did they bear the beam already attached to the stake.

*]Christian Latin texts, by contrast, speak of Jesus carrying His crux; the word patibulum rarely appears in the vocabulary of Latin Christian authors. This curious usage of crux could be explained by Latin-speaking Christians using crux as a literal equivalent of the Greek word stauros (σταυρός), which apparently encompasses all possible nuances of both crux and patibulum: upright stake, transverse beam, upright stake + transverse beam.

*]The gospels speak of Jesus (and/or Simon) carrying a stauros and then being fastened to a stauros. Given what we know about crucifixion from the classical Latin sources, it is probable that the stauros Jesus/Simon carried = patibulum.[/LIST]


According to the Gospel writers, Jesus said,

Matthew 16:24
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.

He didn’t say, “take a cross”.

Now, the Greek says, “take up autos stauros”.

Again, “his cross”.

There is an alternative explanation of the phrase, from a Hebrew point of view. To them, the verse would mean, take up your “staff”. Why? It would tie Jesus back to Moses.

Exodus 4:20 And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ***, and he returned to the land of Egypt: and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.

It would also tie Jesus back to the Good Shepherd.

1 Samuel 17:40 And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.

Everyone has heard of a shepherd’s “staff”.

This draws a very different picture, doesn’t it? We see a group of shepherds, following the Good Shepherd. Or a group of kings, following the King of Kings.

HOWEVER, Jesus was known to speak in double entendres. Thus, all these meanings are probably intended by our Lord. Those who take up their staff to follow the Lord, will likely share in His martyrdom:

Mark 10:38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”


Notice that in the lex Puteolana, aka the leges libitinariae or De publico libitinae (by the way, this was a set of regulations for executioners and undertakers found in an inscription in Puteoli - modern Pozzuoli), you have the expression “to lead the patibulum (or patibulatus - the ‘patibulated’ individual) to the crux.”

(A) Whoever will want to exact punishment on a male slave or female slave at private expense, as he [the owner] who wants the [punishment] to be inflicted, he [the contractor] exacts the punishment in this manner: if he [the owner] wants [him] to lead the patibulum / patibulatus (individual carrying a patibulum) to the crux, the contractor will have to provide wooden posts, chains, and cords for the floggers and the floggers themselves. And anyone who will want to exact punishment will have to give four sesterces for each of the workers who bring the patibulum / patibulatus and for the floggers and also for the executioner.

(B) Whenever a magistrate exacts punishment at public expense, so shall he decree; and whenever it will have been ordered, the contractor must be ready to carry out the punishment, to set up cruces, and to provide for free (gratis) nails, pitch, wax, candles, and those things which are essential for such matters. Also if he will be commanded to drag [the cadaver] out with a hook, he must drag the cadaver itself out, his workers dressed in red, with a bell ringing, to a place where many cadavers will be.

In other words, the condemned individual is envisioned as being led to where the crux - in this context, the upright stake - is while carrying the crossbeam, the patibulum. Presumably, upon arrival the condemned is then ‘raised up’ on the crux while still attached to the patibulum, the patibulum and the crux forming a complete T/t cross.

Did Jesus carry the whole cross or the cross beam?

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