Take up your cross daily?

Luke 9 (23-25) says (quoting Yeshua):

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?

Most christians believe and teach that this quote means that a person must be willing to give up their life (and indeed to die) for Yeshua. However, a close reading of this passage along with a sound understanding of Semitic idioms brings the true meaning to light.

First of all, we see the idiom “deny the self.” To the Semitic mind this is a simple enough idiom. It means “to set aside self interest.” This is precisely what is meant by the Semitic idiom “lose oneself.” A form of this idiom appears in this quote in the statement, “whoever loses his life for me…” Interestingly, in this passage, Yeshua uses this same phrase twice. Once to mean "deny the self," and once to mean "forfeit the soul." While the various Greek versions of this passage lose this subtlety, the Aramaic maintains it.

The extant Greek versions all say, in verse 24: apolesê tên psuchên - "[whoever] might lose his soul." In verse 25, they all say: eauton de apolesas - "himself, yet, losing." This shift from using the Greek word psuche for "self" to the pronoun eauton "himself" does two things. One, it undermines the wordplay here, and two it indicates that the intended meaning of psuche is indeed "self."

The Aramaic Peshitta, in verse 24, uses D'NaOB'eD N'PShH - "he is losing [his] self." In verse 25, it says: N'PShH DYN NaOB'eD "[his] soul, yet, he loses."

Plato, the foremost of the Greek philosophers, believed that the soul was a fallen divinity that had prior existence outside the body and that the soul contains all knowledge. He taught that it is up to each person to gnôti sauton - "come to know the self" - through reason and education. It was this self knowledge which led, in Plato's view to "inner harmony." Alternatively, Yeshua believed and taught that the way to shalowm - "harmony" is through service to others and to God, “denying” or “losing” the self. It is the idea of gnoti sauton that Yeshua is referring to here. He uses the word nephish to refer to both to the "self" of the Greek philosophers and the soul of the Hebrews-a clever wordplay.

Now, the word used for “cross” in Greek is Stauros – Greek – “a stake or post” from the Greek word, histemi “to stand.” Stauros does not mean “cross” per se. But, rather, it means “a standing beam.”

The Aramaic word for “to stand” is z’kaf.

In the Aramaic Peshitta, the words used for “take up his cross” are oon’sh’qool z’kifa.

Oon’sh’qool – “and he takes up (as with the hands)”

Z’kifa – n. “cudgel” “club” “rod” from the Aramaic word Z'KAF “to stand.” The word came to mean “rod” because Z’KAF, in addition to meaning “to stand” means “to lift up” or “to take up (as in one’s hand).”

A cudgel or rod was one of the primary tools of the shepherd. The rod specifically was used as a weapon to defend the flock. Idiomatically, to “take up the rod” was to pursue the work of the shepherd and defend the flock.

Thus, to the Semitic mind, what Yeshua was saying was that one must “take up his rod.” Now what does that mean exactly?

The scriptures say:

Exd 4:17 And thou shalt take this rod in thine hand, wherewith thou shalt do signs.

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

Exd 7:20 And Moses and Aaron did so, as Yahweh commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that [were] in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that [were] in the river were turned to blood.

Exd 17:5 And Yahweh said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go.

Num 17:9 And Moses brought out all the rods from before the LORD unto all the children of Israel: and they looked, and took every man his rod.

Num 20:11 And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts [also].

Mar 6:8 And commanded them that they should take nothing for [their] journey, save a rod (rhabdos – “a rod”) only; no scrip, no bread, no money in [their] purse:

To “take up the rod” means to prepare to do the work of God. This at once demonstrates willingness and action.

In other words, in order to follow Yeshua, one need not be willing to die for him, but rather willing to live for him.

A better translation….

"If anyone would follow me, he must set aside his own self-interest and demonstrate willingness to work every day and accompany me. For whoever wants to be selfish will lose his soul, but whoever loses his self interest for me will preserve [his soul]. For, what good is it for a man to gain [even as much as] the entire universe, and yet lose his soul?"


Anonymous said…
Marc, This is a very interesting idea you bring up here: "In the Aramaic Peshitta, the words used for “take up his cross” are oon’sh’qool z’kifa." Can you please provide more information on 1) where you are getting the word z'kifa from and 2) where you are getting the definition from. When I search this passage in Luke using an aramaic lexicon, I do not find z'kifa being used for here, I find instead zqyp (zqīp). please help. I am very much intrigued by your article!!!! --Jason (synsukker@yahoo.com).

Marc Thomas said…
Jason, Thank you for your comments. I am interested in your thoughts on the subject. In quoting the Aramaic here, I have taken the liberty of changing the letters to a phonetic form. Both the Old Syriac and the Peshitta, at (Mark 16:24) have(Romanized): "wnshqwl zqyph". Rather than use a letter for letter transliteration, I have modified this to the phonetic "oon’sh’qool z’kifa" I prefer to use the "oo" in place of the "w", since the sound of the double "o" is more similar to the ancient Aramaic "waw" than the modern "w." Also, I prefer the "k" to the "q" for phonetic purposes. The final "h" is better transliterated as "a" or "ah" in a phonetic form. The "p" and "f" are also interchangeable, since the soft "p" sounds just like an "f." So, my version "oon'sh'qool z'kifa" is phonetically the same as (and easier to read than) the common form, "wnshqwl zqyph."

The CAL database defines the word as "a palisade" or "a stake." The verb form is "to stand up." Like the Greek word that it translates, it means anything held "upright" to include a cudgel or club, a scepter, or a walking stick, etc. It also came to be used as an upright on which someone might be hung or impaled.

My point here is to offer an alternative understanding for this statement which fits within Yeshua's world view and does not rely upon the knowledge of his impending death. While he may have predicted his own death, and even that he would "take up" the "cross" on which he would eventually die, it is unlikely that any crowd of people would understand this analogy. At the same time, all Hebrew listeners would immediately understand the concept of "taking up" the "rod." After all, he desires that we live for him first and foremost.

Your thoughts?
Anonymous said…
Marc, thank you very much for the clarification. I am inclined to agree with your assessment. Could you please advise how you determined the Peshitta word in this verse is zqyph and not zqyp? The online translation tools give it as zqyp, not zqyph.

Below is a an alternate translation of the passage(w luke 14:27 added in). Note the correction to the verb tense of follow, which combined with your correction bring this passage to life:

"Anyone who does not forsake their own self, pick up their staff each day, and continue to follow me is not worthy of me, and cannot be my disciple. Whoever wants to find their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it."

Marc Thomas said…
Jason, I should have cited Matthew 16:24 rather than Mark.

The word is rendered zqyph in the "Old Syriac Gospels" at CAL-The COMPREHENSIVE ARAMAIC LEXICON at the Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion - http://cal1.cn.huc.edu/

Also, it is rendered the same way at www.peshitta.org

the root is zqp, with zqyp being a child root. The suffix -h, I believe is third person (of him) or "his staff."

I like the alternate translation. This verse (translated in this way) is really at the heart of Christianity. Frankly, the classical interpretation has never made much sense to me. Thanks again.
Anonymous said…
Thanks. Found it on CAL. This is a great tool.
Anonymous said…
hi, new to the site, thanks.
George Maggard said…
As a student of history before I excepted Jesus as my LORD, I came across this explanation of the saying "take up your cross". When the Roman soldiers went on long marches they took all their equiptment and tied it to a cross-like frame which they carried on their backs.In otherwords they took everything they owned and carried it with them to do battle. Is the christian soldier to do the same?
George Maggard,
Brother, I am certain Yeshua does not want us to follow the example of the Romans but instead to learn from their example and mistakes. Matthew 10:5-23 provides sufficient information when it comes to ministry with the remaining assessment being found all throughout the book of Acts.
Yeshua was setting the bar once and for all for those who decided it was worth their effort to follow Him. This bar is not easy nor is it fun yet it is the way to achieve that goal of eternal life as we must all remain on that narrow path instead of taking the wide road with everyone else.

Richard Mathewson
Ordained Minister
Professor of Biblical History
D. J. Mingo said…
Excellent Post
D. J. Mingo said…
Excellent post . . .
Marc Thomas said…
Thanks for the encouragement D. J.
Shoshana said…
Correct, take your your staurus wrongly translated 'cross' and follow Yeshua means set aside your self interests and take the staff of SALVATION that Yeshua gives us to follow Him so close that the dust of His feet covers our garments. We follow Torah the way He and His disciples did it; not to be saved but precisely because we are saved. His staff comforts us on The Way. Besides, nobody walked with a heavy cross back then, they walked with a patibulum or cross piece...

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