A scene replayed again and again, different each time.
The books of the Gospel are quite different in how they present this scene, often called the “Agony in the Garden.” In fact, John rebuts it. In each book, Jesus experiences and understands his emotions differently.
Two books, Matthew and Mark, call the setting “Gethsemane.” Luke calls it the “Mount of Olives.” A dictionary tells me that Gethsemane is a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Is that a fact or is that just a tradition that both places are really one and the same? Perhaps it is just a tradition because the text in both Matthew and Mark have Jesus and his group heading to the Mount of Olives and then to Gethsemane. So readers have assumed that both places are the same?
Why a garden? Perhaps because olive trees are cultivated. Thus a “garden”? John calls the location of Jesus’ arrest a “garden.” (John 18:1 and 3 (TNIV)) Not clear if this is the same as Mount of Olives or Gethsemane or neither.
Matthew and Mark both raise the issue of whether God is capable of averting Jesus’ pending crucifixion and differ on it. Mark has Jesus pray to God and state emphatically that God is capable. Here it is “Abba,” the most personal rendition of God’s name. So this is a very personal prayer.
“And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:35-36 (KJV))
Notice that in the first part of this quote the narrator says Jesus prayed “if it were possible,” but Jesus actually prays “all things are possible.” A slight discrepancy.
In Matthew, contrary to Mark, Jesus does not know if it is possible for God to do it:
“And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” Then a few verses later, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” (Matthew 26:39 and 26:42 (KJV))
In this scene from Matthew, the name of the god is less personal – just my Father. Matthew has Jesus say, “If it be possible” in other words, he doesn’t know if it is possible.
It seems to me that the Jesus of Mark suffers more than the Jesus of Matthew just because in the first instance Jesus believes that all is possible for God (God can do it!) but Jesus is waiting for God to act. In Matthew, the connection with God is less personal and Jesus is not really expecting as much because he doesn’t know what to expect.
In the TNIV, Mark shows the intensity of suffering with “He began to be deeply distressed and troubled;” whereas Matthew has the damped down “He began to be sorrowful and troubled.” In my view, “deeply distressed” is a much stronger negative emotion than “sorrowful.” (The RSV has essentially the same description of these emotions in these verses, so I’m not going to research it more right now.)
Both Mark and Matthew have a verse, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (TNIV), which conveys the idea that the sorrow in itself is almost enough to kill him. An alternative translation would be to use “until” instead of “to” so it reads, “overwhelmed with sorrow until the moment of death,” thus retaining the differences in emotional tone between the two books. The Greek can take either translation. (That’s what my dictionary tells me. I don’t know Greek.)
John rebuts all this negative emotion with a Jesus who is almost cheerful by comparison. Certainly motivated to get the job done no matter what:
“Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.” (John 12:27 (KJV)) Then later, “The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11 (KJV))
Jesus rejects the idea of being saved from crucifixion. He has come to this point for a purpose – to be “glorified” and to produce many “seeds.” (Seeds representing what? Maybe parallel sacrifices of the deity in the Pagan tradition were thought to produce fertility in the land – new seeds – and the author is writing something which would be familiar to audiences of that time??). I suppose in Christian tradition the seeds produced are souls which are saved because of the faithfulness of Jesus. A friend suggests the seeds are a flourishing of ideas derived originally from Jesus.
So we have (1) intense agony (Mark), (2) sorrow (Matthew), and then (3) more than just complete acceptance in John – Jesus is very motivated to reach his glory and produce whatever is going to be produced by his sacrificial death. He is ready for action, even though his heart is “troubled.” Not the same as agony. The Jesus of John suffers far less because he is so motivated.
I had noticed the contrast in tone between John and the other two, but until I read Ehrman, I didn’t realize that Luke may also have a very different emotional state for Jesus. “It appears that the account of Jesus’s ‘bloody sweat,’ not found in our earliest and best manuscripts, is not original to Luke but is a scribal addition to the Gospel.” 1 This account perhaps was added to emphasize that Jesus was really human and really did suffer, whereas the original story had Jesus being calm and in control? For example, he kneels and prays; he does not fall with his face to the ground as in Matthew. Of course we can’t know for sure which Luke manuscript is true to the original.
A stoical or an unaffected Jesus changes the emotional kaleidoscope once more. This Jesus of Luke’s suffers even less.
Personally, I rather like the questionable verses in Luke because they have an angel appear and minister to Jesus, strengthening him. If I had to chose between being upbeat (John), being totally distressed and overwhelmed (Mark), being sorrowful and unknowing (Matthew), being stoical (Luke), and having the help of an angel (Luke’s variation), I’d choose the angel. The Jesus with the angel suffers least of all, overall, because of this divine assistance.
We learn something from these four (or five) versions related to the Garden which have varying emotional intensity and flavoring: It is not what is happening to us that matters, but how we react to it. Often if we look for one, we can find an angel to help.
Where am I?
The emotional landscape gets complicated when we realize that Jesus is an unwilling victim in the Synoptics. His will is to live. I suppose traditionally the interpretation has been that he is willing to die as in “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” in both Matthew and Mark, but notice that this phrase follows passages where Jesus castigates his disciples for falling asleep when he has told them to watch and pray. So whose flesh is weak? Maybe theirs? Whose spirit is willing? Maybe theirs? They are willing to stay awake, but sleep anyway.
Clearly “not my will but yours be done” in the three Synoptics shows a difference in wills. Which begs the question of whether Jesus and Abba are capable of disagreeing on such an important matter if the Divine in Jesus is his Higher Self and they are One, and if Abba is the “I am” within, Jesus’ inner consciousness, somehow a part of his very Self. What is this, a split personality, two wills in one will, one saying yay, one saying nay? A difficult theological question to say the least. And in terms of later centuries, when Jesus becomes a god, the same god as God, are we to think that God is having a disagreement with God, one will differing from another, one will subordinate to another, yet each will the same will?
Where is this Abba in relation to us? Can we have separate wills?
This idea of the unwilling victim being destined to die is certainly disturbing, and we can be grateful for Luke and John putting the emphasis not on the circumstances but on Jesus and his attitude. A reality shift happens right there – in his attitude. So what is the will of God? When Jesus opens his mind to let in his vision of glory (John), or he welcomes the angel’s help (Luke’s variation), or he lets go of concern to remain calm (Luke), then God’s will, which is only good for us, can begin to shine through. That’s just an idea that came to me after comparing all these differing Jesus attitudes in the four books. I’ll add that if we only had the examples of Jesus in the Garden scenes in Luke, Luke’s variation, and John, we would be missing the very important contrast of Jesus floundering or in despair. All books are needed for complete understanding, in order to see the full spectrum of possible realities generated simply by attitude.
There is an interesting puzzle in these Garden accounts: who is recording the words of Jesus as he prays, “about a stone’s throw” away from the nearest disciples who are asleep? Who is there who is close enough to hear and awake enough to remember the words of Jesus as he prays three times in Matthew, two or three times in Mark, and once in Luke and is then arrested? Whoever it is, the witness does not record his/her own presence at the scene. Is this a fictionalized account or merely fiction? What part is history, what part mystery?
There is a little riddle included in Matthew. You might miss it the first several times you hear it in church while your mind is wandering (or you are nodding off like the disciples in the story). At least it would seem there is a riddle. Here goes: “If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it . . . . ” (TNIV) If he drinks it, the drink then cannot be taken away. (Hmm?) Or maybe the cup is taken away emptied? What would be the point of that? Notice the verse says, “unless I drink it,” not “unless I drink from it.” Is the cup the container or is the cup the potion? Think about it. Is this verse supposed to be nonsensical? The KJV is quite different and perhaps meaningful, “if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it.” If Jesus does imbibe, then how can it “pass away from him”? I’m just going to pretend I don’t know what this could mean. No, I’m not going to tell you.
I have to ask myself if there is more of this type of quirkiness in the New Testament, but it is invisible to us because it has been translated away by the translators in their efforts to simplify, harmonize, and dogmatize the texts and make them “readable.”
An obvious translation quandary: What does Jesus ask his disciples to pray for – that they will not be “tempted,” or is it “tested” or undergo “trials”? The Greek word used in the Synoptics can be translated any of these ways (as far as I can tell with my dictionary). I opt for “pray you will not be tested / tried,” as that is what Jesus is praying for himself, asking that the coming ordeal can be removed from his future.
I should mention that according to New Age philosophy, we are creating or co-creating our own reality by our thoughts. In this view, the three words, tempted, tested, tried would be not synonyms but still part of the same process whereby one strays from optimum thinking and reaps dire consequences. Could the biblical authors have intended this meaning? Is there any explanation for suffering?
I’m going to prattle on a bit about the sweated “drops of blood.” The Catholic CE has “And his sweat became as drops of blood running down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:44 (CCE)) (Pagan imagery of nourishing the Earth with sacrificial blood?) “Became” as drops of blood leaves open the possibility that the sweat turned into blood and is quite different from the TNIV’s “his sweat was like drops of blood.” “Became” brings to mind – “This is my blood” – wine turned into mystical blood – to be taken as fact in the Catholic tradition. Grosvenor’s Analysis tells me that the Greek word for “clot” is in there somewhere but I’m not going to research this more right this minute. In all my years, I’ve never come across an instance where someone actually “sweat blood” so I’ll assume it is physiologically impossible and just an expression, like when someone says,
“I sweat bullets.”
“I was chewing nails.”
“I was ready to tear my hair out.”
“It’s like pulling teeth to talk to him.”
“It’s like talking to a brick wall.”
“It’s like knocking my head against a wall.”
“My whole life passed before my eyes.”
“I was hanging on by my fingernails.”
“I was shaking like a leaf.”
“I had butterflies in my stomach.”
“He got cold feet.”
“She let down her hair.”
“He’s got rocks in his head.”
“He’s a royal pain in the (um) neck.”
“My lips are sealed.”
“Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
Just a figure of speech.
Well, this post has really “gone off on a tangent.” Maybe I better “get back on track.” Why do we speak in approximations and metaphors? Sometimes we have to. So when the New Testament authors say that a “father-god” wanted or “willed” for “his” own “son” to be “killed” and the son had “blood-like sweat” are we supposed to take it literally or assume that it means that God will go to any length to assure that the world gets fixed, we get saved, and glory arrives?
I try to not use figures of speech (or anything not readily translatable) in my writing, knowing that for some of my readers, English is not a first language. Nevertheless, most anyone will have difficulty following this blog unless they know how to speak “Christian.”
Mark has “the hour has come.” Matthew the contradictory “the hour is near.” Luke 22:53 has “This is your hour – when darkness reigns.” (TNIV). I think some of these minor differences are in there just so we can delight in finding them.
Read the Garden passages in all four books with one click: Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46, John 12:23-33, John 18:11 (NIV)
Is it possible to gloss over the differences among the four books of the Gospel and make a composite Jesus? Of course. People do it all the time.
Jesus says to Pilate, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” (John 19:11 (KJV)) I suppose this could be anti-Jewish bias on the part of the biblical author or maybe a reference to Judas. But I have always interpreted it to mean that the one ultimately culpable is God. Can Jesus forgive God? A valid question if the only storyline is of a murderous god who “wills” a sacrifice-of-the-deity, Pagan-style.
What happens to Jesus after the pivotal Garden scene? Is he the man ruled by fate, destiny, the iron will of an implacable and blood-thirsty god? Or is Jesus a man generating his own reality with the help of Benevolence, his very own Abba? In the Barabbas, crucifixion, and resurrection scenes, the authors do not give us lollypops and pat answers; rather, the reader is challenged to discover what happened. In this view of life we cease to be victims of fate and life opens up into endless possibilities.
Frankly I object to a god-character who cannot figure out how to solve a problem (sin in the world) without choosing violence, and it doesn’t seem that Jesus, the man of peace in the story, would choose violence either. While I realize that blood had magical properties for the ancients, shouldn’t we give the biblical authors credit for being at least a little sophisticated? Does the Divine transform our world? How? It may be that the old tradition of sacrificed-lord is there simply as a literary device within which we are supposed to find a new way of mindfulness.
“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2 (KJV))
1 Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, HarperCollins, 2005, p.144, 164, regarding verses 43 and 44 in Luke 22.