Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 1, scene 1 - #3. Transitional Episode: Jesus Goes with Disciples to the Mount of Olives, pp 117-145

(detailed summary)

Transitional Episode: Jesus Goes with Disciples to the Mount of Olives
(Mk 14: 26-31; Mt 26: 30-35; Lk 22: 39; Jn 18: 1a)


Mark, copied by Matthew, inserts a transition scene between the last meal and the arrival at the Mount of Olives. He uses elements that Luke and John place at the last supper, namely the prediction of the flight of the disciples and Peter's denial, presented as a scandal. We must take this last term in its strong sense, i.e. shaking of the faith. But by placing Jesus' prediction at the heart of the positive context of the Eucharistic meal, Luke and John mitigate its dramatic side, which is consistent with the whole of their account of the passion. On the other hand, it is from a theological and pedagogical perspective that Mark uses this prediction of Jesus as a transitional and introductory scene to the extremely dark picture of Jesus' passion, in order to enable his persecuted and suffering community to identify with the weakness of the disciples and the lowliness of Jesus, while at the same time offering Jesus' promise to go before them into Galilee where he will set them on their feet again. All the Gospels draw on the vocabulary of Zechariah 14 and 2 Samuel 15 to describe this prediction, for this Old Testament scene takes place in the same place and allows them to see God's plan.

  1. Translation
  2. Comment
  3. Analysis

  1. Translation

    Parallel passages are underlined. Square brackets [] indicate parallels found in another sequence in the Gospels.

    Mc 14Mt 26Lc 22Jn 18
    26 And having sung a hymn/hymns, they went out to the Mount of Olives.30 And having sung a hymn/hymns, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 39 And having gone out, he proceeded according to his custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples too followed him.1a Having said these things, Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley. [2b ...many times Jesus had come there together with his disciples.]
    27 And Jesus says to them that: “You will all be scandalized because it is written, ’I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 however, after my resurrection I shall go before you into Galilee.”31 Then Jesus says to them,All of you will be scandalized in me this night, for it is written, ’I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after my resurrection I shall go before you into Galilee.”[22:28-34 (at supper, Jesus speaking) 28 "Now you are the ones who have remained with me in my trials; 29 and so I appoint for you, even as my Father appointed for me, a kingdom, 30 so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.[16:1.32 (at supper, Jesus speaking) : 1 "I have said these things to you lest you be scandalized.” ...32 “Why, an hour is coming – indeed has already come – for you to be scattered, each on his own, leaving me all alone. Yet I am never alone because the Father is with me.”] [13:33,36-38 (at supper, Jesus speaking): 33 “My little children ...where I am going, you cannot come.”
    29 But Peter said to him, “Even if all are scandalized, yet not I.” 30 And Jesus says to him, “Amen, I say to you that today, this very night, before a cock crows twice, three times you will deny me.” 31 But he was saying vehemently, “Even if it be necessary for me to die with you, I will not deny you.” And they were all saying the same.33 But in answer Peter said to him, “If all are scandalized in you, I will never be scandalized.” 34 Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you on this very night, before a cock crows, three times you will deny me.” 35 Peter says to him, “Even if it be necessary for me to die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.31 "Simon, Simon, behold Satan asked to test you (pl.) like wheat. » 32 But I have prayed for you (sg.) that your faith might not fail. And you, when you have turned around, strengthen your brothers.” 33 But he (Peter) said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” 34 But he said, “I say to you, Peter, a cock will not crow today until you have three times denied knowing me.”]... 36 Simon Peter says to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now; but you will follow later.” 37 Peter says to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Jesus answers, “So you will lay down your life for me? Amen, amen, I say to you, ’A cock will not crow until you deny me three times.’”]

  2. Comment

    1. Passion Preliminaries in Each Gospel

      1. Mark and Matthew

        The two evangelists present us with an identical sequence. Matthew accentuates the contrasts a little more. The whole is pointing to his imminent death.

        • During the three chapters int Mark (11-13) and five in Matthew (21-25), Jesus encounters increasing hostility.
        • Two days before Easter (and unleavened bread in Mark's), the authorities want to secretly seize him
        • During this time, in Bethany, a woman pours myrrh on his head, a gesture that Jesus interprets as the rite of his anticipated burial.
        • Judas, for his part, goes to the high priests to support the plot
        • Then, we are transported to the first day of unleavened bread, where Jesus takes a meal with his disciples in a large hall.
        • Jesus speaks twice:
          • He announces that one of the Twelve will betray him
          • Then, he takes the bread and the cup and associates them with his body and his blood of the covenant shed for the multitude.

      2. Luke

        The Luke sequence is partially similar to the Mark/Matthew sequence.

        • We also have a succession of controversies and the Jewish authorities are seeking to kill him.
        • But we do not have the episode of Bethany, for we pass immediately to Judas who promises to deliver Jesus, an example of a clear and orderly narrative as Luke loves them.
        • On the Day of Unleavened Bread, Jesus also gathered with his disciples in a large hall, but the account of this last meal is three times longer than in Mark/Matthew.
        • The order of Jesus' speech is reversed.
          • Jesus first speaks the words on the bread and the cup
          • Then comes the prediction about the disciples and Peter which has a much more positive tone than in Mark/Matthew

      3. John

        In the fourth Gospel the context is more complex, for Jesus came several times to Jerusalem (2:13; 5:1; 7:10; 11:17; 12:1), so that the events of the synoptics placed during his one stay in Jerusalem are dispersed.

        • A session of the Sanhedrin led by Caiaphas takes place more than a week before Passover, and it is there that the decision is made to kill Jesus to avoid Roman intervention, so much so that he attracts crowds following the resurrection of Lazarus.
        • Six days before the Passover, Mary, Lazarus' sister, pours myrrh on Jesus' feet, and Jesus connects this scene to his burial.
        • The last meal starts with 13:1 and goes through five chapters (eight times longer than Mark's).
        • During the meal, there is the prediction of Judas' betrayal, Peter's denial and the abandonment of the disciples, but no Eucharistic words.
        • The meal is centered on Jesus' love for his people.

    2. Opening, Transitional Verse (Mark 14: 26; Matthew 26: 30; Luke 22: 39; John 18: 1a)

      1. This episode, where one passes from the meal to this place east of Jerusalem, beyond the Kidron (John), on the Mount of Olives (synoptic), a place called Gethsemane (Mark/Matthew), is a transition. Grammatically, the scene is so connected to the above that Mark and Matthew simply say "they", assuming we know who it is.

      2. Mark and Matthew use the verb hymneō which has been translated as "to sing a hymn/hymn", as both singular and plural are possible. The expression indicates only a context of prayer at the end of the meal, nothing more: there is no decisive data that would allow us to link this prayer to the Hallel of the Jewish Passover.

      3. The disciples, mentioned explicitly by Luke and John, implicitly by Mark and Matthew, refer to the group of the Twelve. Note that for Luke, apostles (22:14), twelve (18:31), and disciples (22:39) are often synonymous, even though the group of disciples encompasses a larger group.

      4. The verb "to depart for" (exerchomai) has no precise theological meaning. But the very place of the Mount of Olives has one. Beyond the fact that Luke mentions that Jesus had his habits there (21:37), two passages from the Old Testament are important for our purpose. First, there is the apocalyptic scene of the manifestation of God, which probably serves as a background to Mark's account:
        Zechariah 14: 3-4 : Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward.

        And there is the scene that follows the betrayal of Absalon, David's own son, with the support of his trusted adviser, Ahitophel, as David "departs for" (exerchomai) (2 Samuel 15:16) to go to the Mount of Olives and crosses "the brook Kidron" (in tō cheimarrō Kedrōn).

        2 Samuel 15: 30 : But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot; and all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went.

    3. Fate of disciples (Mark 14: 27-28; Matthew 26: 31-32)

      1. Predicted Scandal and Scattering (Mark 14: 27; Matthew 27: 31)

        1. We are starting a new section (And/Therefore) under the theme of scandal (skandalizō). Literally, the word means: stumble, fall, from which to sin. More fundamentally, the word means: to lose faith. This is what Luke refers to (I prayed for you, so that your faith would not fail, 22: 32), and John refers to in associating it with persecutions and trials (15: 18 - 16: 4). It is also in this context that we must read the dispersion of the disciples: it is the same as a pure denial of Jesus.

        2. The whole scene should be read with the background of the prophet Zechariah. Mark has already alluded to Zechariah 9:9 (Exult with strength, daughter of Zion!. Shout for joy, daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you: he is righteous and victorious, humble, riding on an ass, on a colt, the colt of an ass) in the scene of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and to Zechariah 9:11 (for the blood of your covenant) at the last supper. Now there is Zechariah 13:7: "Strike the shepherd, and let the sheep be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones". For Mark/Matthew it is a dispersion from Jesus and from each other, so that there is no longer a single flock.

        3. Each evangelist has his own note. According to his habit, Matthew clarifies things: the scandal applies to Jesus (because of me), it takes place on this very night. Luke softens the angles and wants to keep a positive portrayal of the disciples, so he eliminates the scandal and gives us a scene of congratulations to the disciples: in fact, it is a post-pascal scene that he presents to us. In John, even though his prediction refers to the dispersion of the disciples, it is intended to prevent scandal.

      2. Promise of Jesus' Postresurrectional Return (Mark 14: 28; Matthew 26: 32)

        1. After the negative atmosphere of the prediction, now comes (however/but) the positive atmosphere of a promise of Jesus who will precede them (proagō) in Galilee. The word proagō literally means "walking ahead" and connotes both a sense of priority and leadership. For Mark, Jesus will restore and renew the community he has built up during his ministry.

        2. The expression of Mark 14:28 refers to the words of the young man to the women at the empty tomb: "But go and tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee: there you will see him, as he has told you", Mark 16:7. There has been much debate among biblical scholars about the meaning of these two verses in the context where Mark's original Gospel ends in 16:8, without a scene of an appearance in Galilee. For our part, we will confine ourselves to the idea that Jesus, by bringing his disciples back to Galilee, will be able to gather them together again, and it is there, as they will later learn (16:7), that they will be able to see him.

    4. Fate of Peter (Mark 14: 29-31; Matthew 26: 33-35)

      1. Peter's Protest (Mark 14: 29; Matthew 26: 33)

        1. As happens several times in the Gospels, Peter is the spokesman for the group (see Mark 8:29 where Peter proclaims the identity of Jesus on behalf of others). Likewise, he sometimes challenges the words of Jesus (see Mark 8:32 where Peter protests at the proclamation of Jesus' sufferings). This is what is happening here. The tradition of the koinē, by reading "kai ei" (even though) rather than "ei kai" (even if), has emphasized the idea that Peter would recognize the possibility of scandal in the disciples, but not in himself, insisting on the exception that he is.

        2. As mentioned above, Matthew makes an effort to clarify that this is a scandal "because of you". And he accentuates Peter's contention that "I will never be scandalized".

      2. Jesus' Prediction of Peter's Denials (Mark 14: 30; Matthew 26: 34)

        Remember that this prediction occurred on the way to Gethsemane in Mark/Matthew, and at the last supper in Luke/John's, after Peter had declared that he was ready to follow Jesus to death.

        1. In John, after mentioning Jesus that the disciples cannot follow him now, Peter objects that he is an exception. Jesus' response that he will be able to follow him later conveys an idea similar to Mark/Matthew's where Jesus announces that he will precede them into Galilee.

        2. In Luke, as we have already pointed out, the tone is positive. Luke probably borrows from the Q-source his passage about the faithfulness of the disciples and the promise that they will sit on thrones in the Kingdom. As for the sequel in which Jesus announces the trial all the disciples will have to undergo and Simon's subsequent pastoral role, it probably comes from a pre-Lucanian source.

        3. John and Luke seem to reflect the vocabulary of 2 Samuel 15: David flees Absalon to the Mount of Olives and asks Ittai not to follow him and to return with his brothers.

        4. Mark uses two terms ("today", "this very night") to situate Peter's denial in time: "this night" was understood by the Jews as an indication of the beginning of the day which began with sunset, and therefore had to be clarified with "today" for a non-Jewish audience. Matthew and Luke removed this redundancy, Matthew keeping "that night" understood by his Jewish audience, Luke keeping "today" understood by his Greek audience. In John's case, there is only the mention of the upcoming rooster crow.

        5. The fact that Mark's account includes two crowing of the cock has provoked debate among biblical scholars, some seeing it as a copyist insertion. But it is likely that these two rooster crows reflect Mark's original text. Matthew and Luke have eliminated this doublet as unnecessary.

        6. Why is Mark's story so keen to repeat the crow twice? This probably reflects the Greco-Roman milieu where the rising of the day was associated with the second crow (Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 30-31, 390-91; Juvenal, Satire, 9, 107-8; Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, 22.14.4).

        7. To express the action of denial, the synoptics use the compound verb aparneomai, while John uses the simple verb arneomai. But it is useless to look for a difference in meaning.

        8. With the exception of Luke, the word of Jesus is introduced with "Amen" (twice in John). This gives it a certain solemnity.

      3. Peter's Rebuttal (Mark 14: 31; Matthew 26: 35)

        1. In Mark and Matthew the scene ends with the protests of Peter and the disciples and their desire to die with Jesus, and therefore in a positive tone. In Luke and John, it is the opposite: the scene ends in a negative tone with the announcement of Peter's denial.

        2. Mark uses the word ekperissōs (more abundantly, excessively), an adverb that we have translated as "vehemently", to translate Peter's reaction. This word is found only here throughout the New Testament. Matthew probably found the term too strong and eliminated it.

        3. "Even if it be necessary (deō) for me to die with you". The word deō (it is necessary) is usually used in the Gospels to express God's will. There is something ironic about finding this word in Peter's mouth, as if he is willing to do God's will, when in fact he will not be able to.

  3. Analyse

    1. Jesus' Predictions about the Disciples and Peter: Placing and Role

      1. Why does Mark/Matthew have a scene of transition to the Mount of Olives, when Luke and John place the announcement of the abandonment of the disciples and the denial of Peter at the Last Supper? There is no point in trying to discuss where the scene may have taken place historically as some biblical scholars have done, arguing that it could not take place on the way to the Kidron because the path was too narrow and only allowed single file walking. We must place ourselves on the literary level. The atmosphere of the Eucharistic meal, in spite of Jesus' evocation of the gift of his life, is clearly positive, so that the dramatic aspect of the disciples' abandonment and Peter's denial of Luke and John is largely mitigated. Moreover, the latter will avoid the too painful and harsh aspects of the passion and crucifixion. On the contrary, in order to keep the drama that is being played out in full force and to avoid softening its angles, Mark isolates the picture of abandonment and denial to make it an introduction to the whole dark story of the passion.

      2. One may then ask: why does Mark insist so much on the scandal of the disciples by introducing the passion narrative with two pessimistic predictions? Some biblical scholars have thought that Mark wanted to tarnish the image of the disciples and Peter that was revered among the early Christians. Rather, we must look here at Mark's pedagogical approach to his persecuted community, where many had not been able to get through the ordeal. By showing the fragility of the disciples and of Peter, he warns Christians of the difficulty of the path they have chosen and that they will have to carry their cross. At the same time, by introducing this scene with Jesus' promise to precede him into Galilee where he will rebuild the community, he gives hope to his audience that he will be able to find those who have failed the test.

      3. The two predictions serve another purpose related to the mystery of the person of Jesus: Mark/Matthew emphasise the lowering of Jesus who lives in anguish in Gethsemane and will end his life by repeating the psalm on the abandonment of God. While emphasising Jesus' humanity and weakness, Mark presents us with a Jesus who surrenders to God's will through prophetic announcements of what lies ahead. Here again we see Mark's pedagogy that allows his community to identify with Jesus as it takes up its own cross and prays to be spared from it.

    2. The Origins of the Predictions

      1. Seeing how well the two predictions fit Mark's theology and allowed him to introduce the passion scene, some biblical scholars considered them as a pure creation of the evangelist. This is forgetting that John, independently, presents a similar scene. Rather, it must be admitted that Mark drew on an earlier tradition, one that was no doubt different from John's.

      2. Some have refused to give any historical value to the predictions about Judas, the flight of the disciples and the denial of Peter in the name of the rationalist argument that predicting the future is impossible. First of all, it must be admitted that the grouping of all these predictions around the last supper, the last evening, has something artificial about it and is more in keeping with the needs of Christian preaching. Apart from the prediction of Peter's denial, the other predictions could have taken place at other times. And it is less a question of knowing the future, than of knowing human weakness.

      3. As for the events themselves, it would be difficult to understand the Christian community to have voluntarily created the figure of Judas, one of the Twelve chosen by Jesus, or the flight of the disciples venerated by the community, or the denial of Peter, the pillar of this community. Of course, the composition of the scene is theatrical, with three denials before the crowing of the cock, even as Jesus testifies before the priests; this is more in keeping with the needs of preaching, without questioning the historical value of the denial itself.

      4. The influence of Zechariah 14 and 2 Samuel 15, whose scene is on the Mount of Olives, has also been noted. It should not be thought that it was the Old Testament that brought about the creation of these passages. It is rather the opposite. The Old Testament has helped us to understand events that point to human weakness and to answer the question: how can all this correspond to God's plan? But Mark and John did it in their own way.

Next chapter: Prayer in Gethsemane, Part One: Entry And Preparations

List of chapters