Christopher Fisher on John Cassian’s Literalism

‘John Cassian actually provides an interesting example of a “literal” reading of the Bible that is taken to absurd extent. Apparently there were some monks who misinterpreted Jesus’ command to “take up your cross”:

whosoever takes not up his cross and follows after Me is not worthy of Me; a passage which some most earnest monks, having indeed a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge Romans 10:2 understood literally, and so made themselves wooden crosses, and carried them about constantly on their shoulders, and so were the cause not of edification but of ridicule on the part of all who saw them.

Most people understand Jesus’ command as figurative, as evident by most Christians not engaging in these types of activities. A relevant question in these types of scenarios is “what did the hearers do or think”. Absolutely no person is recorded as hearing this and then picking up a real cross. This seemed to have been a local idiom, probably because the Roman’s liked to use crosses for execution. The idiom would mean, like it does today, that you will be persecuted for your beliefs (or face hardships).

Any time someone reads the Bible, the first thought should be “what is the text trying to communicate to the audience of the text.” Did the hearers understand the text literally or did they take it metaphorically? Did they believe the story was literal (like God talking to Moses) or was the text trying to communicate some sort of spiritual truth? Examples like monks picking up wooden crosses serves as a straw-man argument for people like John Cassian to avoid addressing real criticisms of his interpretation style.’

source: Christopher Fisher, “john cassian on literalism” (realityisnotoptional).