Bible Review 14:2, April 1998

What Really Happened at Gethsemane?

By Jerome Murphy-O’Connor

The scene has stimulated the imagination of great painters. The light of a full moon accentuates the shadows in a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. A lonely figure prays in anguish. Deep in careless sleep, his companions ignore his agony. The swords of the approaching soldiers appear on the horizon. The tension is palpable.

Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is one of the most soul-wrenching episodes in the Gospels: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet, not as I will but as you (will)” (Matthew 26:39).

If the Transfiguration—the moment when Jesus is mystically transformed in the presence of Moses and Elijah—presents Jesus at his highest, here we see him at his lowest. The radiant Lord who stood erect on a mountain peak now struggles for light in the desolation of night. The disciples who were so attentive at the Transfiguration and begged to prolong the golden moment, do not want to hear or see what is happening to Jesus here.

These contrasting images bear reflection. We like to bask in the glory of the superhuman Jesus of the Transfiguration.a He is a savior to be proud of. We do not want to deal with a savior consumed by loneliness, desperate fear and uncertainty. These traits are far too human. Nonetheless, this is the real Jesus.

Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane is recounted in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–42; and Luke 22:39–46).b There are striking differences, however, which I want to explore here. As we shall see, one gospel actually contains two accounts of Jesus’ agony.

What can we say of these varying accounts? Can we determine which was the most original and who copied from whom? Can we reconstruct how the story developed?

Luke’s account is much shorter than Mark’s or Matthew’s (see the sidebars to this article). Mark and Matthew depict Jesus praying three times; Luke has only one prayer. The dominant scholarly hypothesis concerning the relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke claims that when an episode is narrated by all three gospels, Mark, the earliest gospel, is the source; an episode found only in Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, goes back to a hypothetical source scholars call Q.c Applying this two-source theory to the episode in Gethsemane, we find that Luke, with such a short account, must have severely abbreviated Mark. No other suggestion is seriously considered by scholars.1

Such radical surgery on the part of an evangelist would be most unusual, however. He might add or change, but not shorten so drastically. This suggests that the widely accepted two-source theory is not an appropriate framework in which to understand the Gethsemane episode. A very different solution becomes apparent if Mark and Matthew are first analyzed closely.

To help the reader do this, we have printed the text of Mark and Matthew side by side (see the first sidebar to this article). In the second sidebar to this article we analyze a number of the most significant differences.2

The cumulative effect of the variations is to make it appear extremely likely that Matthew copied Mark’s account, clarifying it and tidying it up with minor additions and omissions. Hence, if we are to discover what really happened in Gethsemane, we must focus on Mark.

Mark’s account introduces us to doublets. Although to theatergoers the word doublet may evoke a tight-fitting jacket worn by men in 15th- and 16th-century Europe, to gospel scholars the term is much more mundane; it simply refers to a repeated element.

There are two types of doublets: verbal doublets, a saying or phrase that is repeated in a single gospel; and structural doublets, repeated elements that fulfill the same role in the framework or movement of the narrative.

Mark’s account of Jesus in Gethsemane contains a whole series of structural doublets:

• The place to which Jesus and his disciples come appears twice: the Mount of Olives (14:26) and Gethsemane (14:32a).

• Twice Jesus gives an order to his disciples: “Sit here while I pray” (14:32b), and “Remain here and keep watching” (14:34b).

• The subjective state of Jesus is mentioned twice, first in indirect speech, “He began to be greatly distraught and troubled” (14:33a), and then in direct speech, “My soul is very sorrowful unto death” (14:34a).

• Similarly, the prayer of Jesus appears twice, again, first in indirect speech, “He was praying that if it is possible, the hour might pass from him” (14:35), and then in direct speech, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you” (14:35), etc. This prayer is in fact a triplet, but note the vagueness of the third mention, “saying the same words” (14:39).

• The return of Jesus to his sleeping disciples is twice mentioned in virtually the same words: “He comes and finds them sleeping” (14:37), and “Having come, he found them sleeping” (14:40).

• Finally, the theme of handing over is evoked twice: “the Son of Man is given over into the hands of sinners” (14:41), and “the one who gives me over has come near” (14:42).

Such a consistent series of structural doublets permits only one conclusion: Mark’s gospel combines two stories.

Can they be reconstructed? A number of scholars have answered yes.3

At least one leading New Testament scholar, Raymond Brown, dismisses the whole effort, however: “The theory smacks somewhat of the way modern scholars would work, combining lines from two books propped up on either side of them.”4 In Brown’s view, the variety of proposed solutions betrays the futility of the enterprise. In fact, these successive attempts to account for the doublets indicate that scholars of different backgrounds have recognized a real problem that has escaped Brown.

Two aspects of Brown’s criticism, however, are not entirely off target. First, scholars have at times permitted idiosyncratic judgments to influence their reconstructions. More importantly, as Brown points out, none of the proposed reconstructions takes into consideration the order of the doublets. The implication is that a reconstruction that does follow the order of the doublets would be taken seriously, even by Brown. Such a reconstruction is precisely what I propose (see the last sidebar to this article).

The interlocking stories slide apart without difficulty. Each of the sources combined in Mark is a complete story containing but one prayer of Jesus. When combined, this became two prayers, which Mark increased to three by adding “And again having gone away, he prayed, saying the same word” (14:39), which entailed the insertion of “again” in 14:40 and “He comes the third time” in 14:41. The lack of any content for the third prayer betrays that Mark was interested primarily in the number three, although his reasoning can only be a matter of speculation. One possibility, as Brown suggests, is that the triple failure of the disciples to stay awake was intended to balance the triple denial by Peter (Mark 14:66–72).5

Having identified Mark’s two sources, the next question is whether we can determine their relative antiquity. Is Source A older than Source B, or the reverse? Several hints suggest that Source A is older.

First, as stories are retold, they often become more specific as ambiguities pointed out by the audience are clarified. This appears to have happened in Mark.

Source A, for example, mentions “the Mount of Olives” (14:26b) and “his disciples” (14:32b). These give rise to obvious questions: Precisely where on the Mount of Olives, which is quite a large area? And which disciples? Both of these questions are answered by Source B, which locates the episode in “a plot of land called Gethsemane” (14:32a) and names the key disciples as “Peter and James and John” (14:33a). Source B, therefore, is more developed than Source A.

Second, as a general rule, stories that focus on Jesus while leaving the disciples in the background are older than stories that emphasize the disciples’ presence. The earliest stories were told by eyewitnesses who knew what they had seen. The second generation of Christians, on the other hand, had to rely on what they were told; they needed to be reassured that those who told the story knew what they were talking about. Consequently, later stories tend to stress that first-generation disciples were present and involved and therefore were able to report accurately.

Thus, in Source A, Jesus separates himself from his disciples. He tells them, “Sit here while I pray” (14:32b), and moves away (14:35a). In Source B, however, Jesus exhorts his disciples to “keep watching” (14:34b).6 Jesus’ movement away is not mentioned explicitly in Source B. Rather, his departure has to be inferred from his return to the disciples in 14:37. The need for Jesus to be observed is apparent in Source B, although it was frustrated by the sleep of the disciples. The editor’s respect for his source did not permit him to pretend that the disciples remained wide awake, but he used their slumber for a little moral lesson, “Watch and pray lest ye enter into trial” (14:38), which deflects attention from Jesus to the needs of the early Church. On this basis, too, Source A appears to be earlier.

Let us look more closely now at the contents of Source A. It is perfectly plausible that Jesus and his disciples should head for the Mount of Olives after an evening meal in Jerusalem. They were poor Galileans who could not afford to lodge in a city crowded with wealthier pilgrims. The resident population of Jerusalem at that time has been estimated at between 40,0007 and 60,000.8 During pilgrimage feasts, the population swelled to about 180,000.9 Space in the city, therefore, was at a premium.

The close relationship between Jesus and the family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, who lived in the village of Bethany (John 11:1–3), suggests that Jesus made his base with them when he came to Jerusalem.10 It was only 2 miles from the city (John 11:18). Jesus had to climb the Mount of Olives each day to reach the city and again on his return at night (Mark 11:11–12). On the night of the Agony, Jesus and his disciples were returning to Bethany on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives: “And every day he was teaching in the Temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the Mount of Olives” (Luke 21:37).

The traditional site of Gethsemane has much to recommend its authenticity. When the church historian and bishop Eusebius of Caesarea wrote his Onomasticon (an alphabetic list of biblical places with descriptions of their history and geography) at some point between 324 and 336, Gethsemane was already a well-established place of prayer, on the basis of a tradition transmitted by the Christian community of Jerusalem, which had never abandoned the city.11 The site now marked by the Church of All Nations is in fact located at the easiest point to start climbing up the Mount of Olives. Today three roads radiate upwards from that point and come together on the ridge that leads to Bethany. The path that Jesus and his disciples intended to follow is undoubtedly that marked by an ancient flight of rock-cut steps, which may still be seen in the garden of the Russian church of Saint Mary Magdelene,12 just upslope from the Church of All Nations.

On reaching the Mount of Olives, Source A tells us, Jesus “began to be deeply distraught and troubled” (14:33b). Exegetes have struggled to find adequate words to bring out the force of the two Greek verbs used here, ekthambeô and adêmoneô.

Exthambeô is often translated “amazed,” but the connotations of “amazement” in current English (entertained, amused) make it inappropriate. The context here demands the element of shock that the verb carries in Mark 10:24 and 16:5–6. It is a matter of “terrified surprise,”13 a dawning awareness that produces “shuddering horror.”14

The usual translation of adêmoneô is “to be distressed, troubled,” but the connotations of the verb established by usage go much further. One commentator has noted that the term “describes the confused, restless, half-distracted state, which is produced by physical derangement or by mental distress…[T]he primary idea of the word will be loathing and discontent.”15

In short, Jesus began to be filled with appalling dread.

The only explanation of this paroxysm of instinctive revulsion is that Jesus had become aware that his death was imminent. But why was the impact so great at this point? I am convinced that he had already come to terms with his death, realizing that his death would be the saving event in God’s plan for humanity.16 After all, Jesus had previously foreseen and predicted his death (Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:33–34). Something must have happened in Mark 14:33 to bring his awareness of his death to a different level. What provoked the shocking shift from the theoretical to the real—a shift that almost broke Jesus?

The most probable answer lies in the setting. Jesus reached the foot of the Mount of Olives by the Kidron Valley (John 18:1). Today both sides of the valley are lined with tombs, Muslim on the west and Jewish on the east, because both religions believe the valley to be the place of the Last Judgment. By Jesus’ time, what is now the village of Silwan was a great graveyard.17 Between it and Gethsemane, two huge tomb monuments (the so-called tombs of Absalom and Zechariah) marked catacombs cut into the cliff.18 They would have been perfectly visible in the full moon of Passover. Jesus had been under direct threat since Caiaphas had decreed that “one man should die for the people” (John 11:50). Weighed down with apprehension, the sight of the tombs lining his route forced the thought of death from his head to his heart. He became profoundly disturbed at the thought, “It might be tonight!”

Jesus manages to control himself sufficiently to tell his disciples to wait while he struggles for self-mastery in prayer. Then, overwhelmed by the hidden fears surging over him, he collapses on the ground.19 Does he pray? “If it is possible.” Jesus’ words in Mark 14:35b suggest he is not even sure that God can help him. His is almost a cry of despair over the nearness of the “hour” of his destiny. The prayer is followed by silence. God has not answered.

Somehow Jesus finds the internal strength to pull himself together. He accepts his destiny while his weary disciples sleep. His questions mock their self-absorption.

If the disciples were asleep, how did they know what was happening to Jesus?20 In other words, where did the information in Source A come from? It is difficult to imagine that it came from Jesus himself. He was arrested immediately afterwards, and there is no hint that he had any opportunity to speak to his disciples before he was put to death. Even if he had, they probably would have talked of other matters.

If Jesus was not the source, then the only possibility is that certain disciples projected onto Jesus the emotions that they imagined they would experience if they suddenly realized their death was imminent.21 As the followers of a crucified criminal, they knew that they were walking a dangerous path and must have reflected frequently on how they would react if threatened with death. The disciples who composed Source A were honest with themselves. They did not flatter themselves about their courage in a crisis. They understood that mastery of the deep-rooted instinct of self-preservation would not come easily and presumed that Jesus felt the same way. They fully accepted his humanity. He was like them in all things except sin (Hebrews 2:17, 4:15). They did not imagine Jesus as a superman, with no fears or frailties.

The intensely human Jesus revealed by Source A—a leader on the verge of a nervous breakdown—proved to be more than some other Christians could accept. In consequence, they wrote a different version of what happened in Gethsemane, which has survived as Source B.

Source B lacks the explicit statement that Jesus “became filled with terrified surprise and distressed from shock” (Mark 14:33b).22 Instead, in Source B Jesus speaks for himself: “My soul is very sorrowful unto death” (Mark 14:34a). On the surface this appears to convey the same emotional state.23 In fact, ancient readers (or listeners) would have recognized the allusions to Psalm 41:6, 12, “Why are you very sorrowful, my soul, and why do you distress me?” and, perhaps, to Jonah 4:9, “I am so weighed down by sorrow, I want to die.” In Source B Jesus is sufficiently composed to make scriptural allusions.

This is a radical shift away from the mood of Source A. The man in intense agony has become calm enough to quote Scripture. The individual suffering a private hell has been replaced by a familiar religious type, either the just man of the Psalms, who suffers persecution yet is sustained by God,24 or the weary prophet, who begs for release by death.25

Jesus’ prayer in Source B (Mark 14:36) contains no hint of the anguished doubt so vivid in Source A (Mark 14:35). In Source B, Jesus, addressing God with the utmost formality as “Abba, Father,” replaces doubt with certitude: “All things are possible to you.”26

The final element in Jesus’ prayer in Source B is, “But not what I will but what you (will)” (Mark 14:36). Nothing remotely resembling this petition appears in Source A. It is the perfect submission to the will of God that is expected of all Christians. Such concentration on the way believers should live has taken us a long way from the stark struggle of Source A. The Jesus of Source B is calm and collected, introducing scriptural allusions to stimulate the theological reflection of his disciples and offering them an example and advice for the living of their Christian lives.

Mark must have been aware of how different the two Gethsemane stories were. Why then did he combine his two sources rather than choose between them? The simplest answer is that he was not willing to throw away a scrap of the tradition about Jesus. He could see no justification for preserving Source B at the expense of Source A, or vice versa. Human nature being what it is, one might suspect that Mark personally preferred Source B, but he also knew his audience and recognized that, when combined, Source A would be interpreted in the light of Source B.

Having examined both of Mark’s sources, we are now in a position to appreciate Luke’s shorter narrative, which resembles Sources A and B individually to the extent that each has only one prayer of Jesus (see the last sidebar to this article), as opposed to the three prayers in the final versions of both Mark and Matthew.

Luke’s text is an extraordinary combination of elements that reflect different parts of Source A and Source B of Mark (see the last sidebar to this article). It would appear that Luke tried to be faithful to both sources, but without combining them as Mark did.

Luke’s version also contains two distinctive elements: Jesus’ bloodlike sweat (Luke 22:44), and the angel (Luke 22:43). Some scholars argue that these elements were added a century or so after Luke’s gospel was composed. This is not the place to debate this highly technical problem, but I am inclined to agree with Brown that on balance the evidence favors the view that they always belonged to the gospel.27

A sweat of blood is not physically impossible.28 Luke, however, does not speak of a sweat of blood but of a sweat so profuse that it was like blood The cause of this sweat was Jesus’ “agony.” To us this suggests intense suffering, but to a first-century reader it would have evoked a struggle for victory.29 Luke mentions the drenching perspiration to underline the intense internal struggle that demanded every ounce of Jesus’ concentration and energy.

Where Mark’s Source A presents a Jesus who is “deeply distraught and troubled,” Luke, with his refined sense of graphic artistry, is much less explicit, simply referring to bloodlike sweat. And Luke betrays his preference for Source B by introducing the angel before mentioning the bloodlike sweat. Someone interested only in telling the story would have used the natural order of problem (the “agony”) followed by solution (the appearance of the angel). By mentioning the angel first, Luke ensured that his readers would not take Jesus’ “agony” too seriously. After all, what could possibly happen to Jesus when a powerful heavenly figure was there to comfort and fortify him?

Further evidence for Luke’s preference for the perspective of Source B is provided by Jesus’ posture as he prays. As we have noted, in Mark 14:35 Jesus collapses; in Matthew 26:39 Jesus assumes the classic Jewish position of reverence, with his face to the ground. Luke, for his part, has Jesus “drop to his knees,” a totally controlled posture that had become the standard position for Christian prayer when Luke wrote.30

The angel in Luke’s version softens God’s silence in Source A and God’s refusal to answer Jesus’ prayer in Source B. The divine response in Luke is still negative, but God relents to the extent of strengthening Jesus to drink the cup of suffering: “An angel from heaven appeared to him, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43).

Reading the accounts in the probable order of composition, we see Jesus’ acceptance of his fate becoming progressively more perfect. The culmination of this process is to be found in John’s version.

John usually does not repeat events that have been adequately described by the other evangelists, but evokes them in a different context by means of a highly specific allusion.31 That is the case here. John anticipates Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane: “Now is my soul distressed, and what shall I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again!’ The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said, ‘An angel had spoken to him’” (John 12:27–29).

The connection of this passage with the Gethsemane episode in the other gospels is clear:32 “My soul is distressed” evokes Psalm 41:6, 12 in exactly the same way as Mark’s “My soul is very sorrowful” (Mark 14:34a); a petition concerning “the hour” resembles Mark’s “if it is possible ‘the hour’ might pass from him” (Mark 14:35); and the angel appears in Luke’s account (Luke 22:43).

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ submission to the will of his Father is so perfect that he will not even ask for deliverance. He refuses to utter the prayer attributed to him by Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus explicitly acknowledges that throughout his ministry the divine will has guided him to this moment. Why should he at the last minute refuse the whole purpose of his life? On the contrary, he glorifies the Father, and this time there is a positive response from heaven: “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again” (John 12:28). With this reference to a past moment of glorification, John evokes the Transfiguration, which he does not describe explicitly elsewhere.33

With John we have come very far from the lonely figure in the moonlight-dappled garden, whose body and spirit momentarily rebelled against what he knew to be the inexorable plan of his Father for the salvation of humanity.