Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 1, scene 1 - #4. Prayer in Gethsemane, Part One: Entry And Preparations, pp 146-162

(detailed summary)

Prayer in Gethsemane, Part One: Entry And Preparations
(Mk 14: 32-34; Mt 26: 36-38; Lk 22: 40; Jn 18: 1b)


The action takes place in a garden on the Mount of Olives, a place called Gethsemane, which means: oil press. The disciples in the scene correspond to the Twelve. Jesus wants to isolate himself with three disciples, Peter, James and John. Even though there is no real geographical shift, Mark targets these three disciples because they claim to be exceptional, Peter boasting that he can accompany Jesus to death, James and John claiming to drink the same cup.

Mark probably takes up a presynoptic tradition which interpreted Jesus' stay in Gethsemane in the light of Psalm 42 (Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you troubled within me?), but he accentuates Jesus' distress by using a very strong word, distraught, which only he uses, probably to enable his persecuted community to identify with this situation. This refers fundamentally to the eschatological context to which Jesus referred several times in the course of his ministry, and which requires us to remain awake, constantly ready to face it.

Luke eliminates all references to Jesus' distress, since he is addressing a public marked by stoicism and for whom these expressions of anguish would have been considered sinful. His Jesus lives in deep peace with God and his attitude towards tribulations becomes the model for every Christian. His prayer explicitly asks to avoid trial, but it will not be answered. For Jesus is called to live the eschatological or ultimate confrontation with the devil who opposes his preaching on the Reign of God.

  1. Translation
  2. Comment
    1. The Arrival of Jesus and His Disciples
    2. Jesus Troubled and Sorrowful
    3. The Approaching Trial in Luke 22:40b (peirasmos)

  1. Translation

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

    Mc 14Mt 26Lc 22Jn 18
    32 And they come into the plot of land the name of which was Gethsemane; and he says to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”36 Then Jesus comes with them into the plot of land called Gethsemane; and he says to the disciples, “Sit in this place until, going away, I pray there.”40a And being at the place,1b (after Jesus has gone out with his disciples « across the Kidron valley »): 1b where there was a garden into which he entered with his disciples. [2a Judas... knew this place 2b because many times Jesus had come there together with his disciples.]
    33 And he takes along Peter, and James, and John with him, and he began to be greatly distraught and troubled.37 And having taken along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.
    34 And he says to them, “My soul is very sorrowful unto death. Remain here and keep on watching.”38 Then he says to them, “My soul is very sorrowful unto death. Remain here and keep on watching with me.”40b he said to them, “Keep on praying not to enter into trial.”[12 : 27a (end of the public ministry when Greeks have come, marking the coming of the hour) : “Now is my soul disturbed.”]

  2. Comment

    Luke's shorter story belongs to the one about his arrest. John presents a similar account, but at the end of his ministry. In Mark/Matthew the scene has three stages: 1) Jesus arrives at the scene with his disciples, 2) he chooses three to accompany him, 3) he goes away to pray.

    1. The Arrival of Jesus and His Disciples (Mark 14:32-33a; Matthew 26:36-37a; Luke 22:40; John 18:1b)

      1. The disciples

        1. In Mark the group of disciples is the equivalent of the group of the Twelve mentioned at the Last Supper (14, 17.20). But let us note that he does not mention them anymore from here until the resurrection, because they no longer act as disciples.

        2. Matthew writes "Jesus comes with them" to express the solidarity of the disciples. However, he does not mention James and John, but rather the two sons of Zebedee, to focus only on Peter.

      2. The site

        1. Luke does not mention the name of the place, but simply says "that place", just like John in 18:2.

        2. Mark identifies it with "Gethsemane", a Hebrew/Aramaic word (Gat-šěmānî) which means: oil press. This name has no theological significance and probably comes from historical memory. Luke would not have retained it according to his habit of avoiding exotic words.

        3. John refers to a garden (kēpos), a place where vegetables, flowers or trees are usually found. The Church Fathers saw it as a reference to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1-3), but nothing can support this thesis. Josephus (Jewish War, 6.1.1; #6) reports that the trees on the eastern side of the city were cut down during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. It is therefore no longer possible to locate exactly where was Gethsemane with respect to the Mount of Olives. Since the 4th century, a place at the bottom of the Mount of Olives has been venerated, in particular a rock formation or cave that may have housed a wine press.

      3. The action

        1. "And (kai) they come into the plot of land". Mark is the one who uses the most "and" (kai) to connect the elements of the story together, but it should not be given any particular meaning. The same is true of his use of the plural verb, or using the present tense to describe a past action.

        2. In the synoptics, the main reason for Jesus to go to Gethsemane is to pray. Some biblical scholars have seen in Matthew's modification "Sit in this place (autou)" rather than "Sit here" as a reference to the sacrifice of Isaac ("And Abraam said to his servants, Sit ye in this place (autou) with the ass, and I and the lad will proceed thus far, and having worshipped we will return to you", Genesis 22:5).

        3. "And he takes along (paralambanō) Peter, and James Peter". We have the impression that there is no real geographical displacement, since afterwards, Jesus seems to address all the disciples. In any case, Mark intends to separate the three disciples from the others. And if Jesus, immediately afterwards, goes even further, it is a way for Mark to dramatize his progressive isolation from the support of his disciples.

      4. The named disciples

        1. Mark names the three disciples (Peter, John, James) because they are an important part of his story. They were present in the scene of the transfiguration where we find the same vocabulary ("beloved son" 9:7; "Father" in Gethsemane), the same reaction of Peter and the disciples ("he did not know what to say" 9:6; "their eyes were heavy, and they did not know what to say to him" 14:40). Matthew accentuated this parallel, but in a different way. It is different in Luke, but in his account of the transfiguration he nevertheless retains an expression from Gethsemane ("they were heavy with sleep" Luke 9:21).

        2. What is the significance of the presence of Peter, John and James? Mark includes them in three scenes: the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus (5:37-42); the transfiguration (9:2-10) and here in Gethsemane. In fact, they do not receive any special revelation, but they are witnesses: witnesses of the demonstration of power before a dead girl, witnesses of the word of God at the transfiguration and the word of Jesus that he will have to suffer, witnesses now of his anguish and weakness. And each individual is important. Peter, who said he would not be scandalized, John and James, who claimed they could drink the cup of Jesus (10:35,38), are now asleep and unable to watch for a single hour with Jesus.

    2. Jesus Troubled and Sorrowful (Mark 14:33b-34; Matthew 26:37b-38)

      1. The atmosphere suddenly changes from a Jesus who makes predictions to a Jesus who asks for the support of his relatives and their prayers, where he feels "fear and anxiety", where he finds himself in a state that the epistle to the Hebrews describes as "violent clamour and tears" (5:7).

      2. Mark first uses the verb ekthambeō (to be greatly distraught), which he is the only one to use (4 times) in the entire New Testament and the only other case in our Bible is found in Sirach 30:9 (LXX: "Cocker thy child, and he shall make thee distraught (ekthambeō): play with him, and he will bring thee to heaviness). This word expresses deep confusion, with physical repercussions, before a terrifying event. This word is so strong that Matthew preferred to substitute it lypeō (to be sorrowful). Mark then uses the word adēmoneō (to be troubled), which is rooted in being separated from others and causes anguish; this word is quite unique and only Matthew is content to repeat it (it is totally absent from the Septuagint).

      3. Why does Mark insist on the deep distress in Jesus? It has to do with the fate that awaits him, prepared by his enemies, of which he expressed his consciousness earlier (14, 20.24.27). The context directs us to the feeling of being abandoned. But this distress is certainly related to the eschatological context of his suffering and death from which he prays for deliverance.

      4. "My soul (psychē) is very sorrowful (perilypos) unto death". The soul here refers to the whole person, its "I". This word has a connection with Psalm 42 (LXX): "Why are you cast down, O my soul (psychē), and why are you troubled (perilypos) within me?". The presynoptic tradition probably read this psalm with Jesus in Gethsemane in mind. But how to interpret the "to death"? Four hypotheses have been put forward by the biblical scholars:

        1. Death means the degree of sadness, as in Psalm 55:5: "My heart is troubled within me, the pangs of death fall upon me".
        2. It is a consecutive death: the sadness brings it close to death.
        3. Death has a final meaning: the sadness is such that Jesus would prefer to die.
        4. Death has a temporal meaning: the sadness will last until his death.

        First of all, it is unthinkable that Jesus would want to die while he prays to avoid death. It is more likely that points i and ii are closest to Mark's meaning. A similar presentation can be found in Sirach 37:2: "Is it not mortal sorrow for a man that a fellow man or a friend who becomes an enemy?" (Let us remember the role of Judas).

      5. « Remain here and keep on watching (grēgoreō)". This last verb is in the present tense imperative, emphasizing continuity. The interpretation of the biblical scholars can be grouped into five points:

        1. This would be the vigilance proper to the Easter vigil where rabbinic law required that at least part of the community should not sleep.
        2. Jesus asks to watch so that his disciples may be witnesses to his prayer and suffering.
        3. One must be careful not to be surprised by the enemy that comes
        4. It would be a call for solidarity so that Jesus would not be alone.
        5. Jesus' call would refer to the attitude required in the eschatological context of Jesus' death.

        It is the latter case that is most likely. It should be pointed out right away that grēgoreō will return three times (14, 34.37.38) just as in the parable of the doorkeeper called to watch over the end of the eschatological discourse in chapter 13. Let us remember. This parable begins with "Be on your guard, keep watch, for you do not know when the time will come", and presents us with a master who entrusts his house to a doorkeeper and warns him that he may return in the evening, in the middle of the night, at the crowing of the cock, or in the morning. The context of Gethsemane, where Jesus returns more than once to his disciples, refers to this parable. And this call was to resound in the ears of Mark's community, which was undergoing persecution or was subject to opposing forces.

    3. The Approaching Trial in Luke 22:40b (peirasmos)

      1. It will have been noticed that Luke does not offer any portrait of a Jesus in distress. On the contrary, he remains in control, and if he asks the disciples to pray, it is to accompany him in his prayer. Of course, his Jesus acknowledges that the Son of Man will have to suffer, but he never describes this inner reaction to suffering; throughout his life, Jesus lives a deep peace with God.

      2. One of the aims of the evangelist is to propose Jesus as a model to all those Christians who suffer or die as martyrs. It is the least that Jesus himself lives out what he preached: "When they bring you before the synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how to defend yourself or what to say" (Luke 12:11). Above all, Luke must have been aware of the impact that a portrait like Mark's could have on his Greco-Roman audience. In an environment marked by stoicism, where the expression of emotions such as grief in the face of suffering was considered a sin of irrationality and the expression of a lack of self-control, such a portrait would have caused scandal. An exemplary attitude towards death was that of Socrates. Also, if it is allowed for women or crowds to weep over him (23, 27.48), it is not allowed for Jesus in the eyes of Luke.

      3. "Keep on praying not to enter (eiserchomai) into (eis) trial (peirasmos)". Here Luke, in his own way, takes up the eschatological tone of Mark. In order to emphasize this trial, Luke mentions it three times during this evening: 22, 28.40.46. The double use of eis, as a prefix to the verb and as a preposition, brings out the idea that the important thing is not so much the help required during the trial, but the avoidance of the trial.

      4. But what exactly does this test refer to? First of all, let us remember that at the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus undergoes the trial for 40 days in the desert. There is a biblical background to this scene, since this is what Moses (see Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8) went through. It is customary for God to test the righteous, as He did with Abraham. In the beginning, it is God who is at the source of these trials, which take the form of a test to verify the faithfulness of believers. But gradually, other people are at the origin of these trials, including Satan. But in this scene of Luke, there is something more serious at stake, which is related to the eschatological trial.

        1. Explicitly in Luke, Satan is the agent of this trial, but nevertheless God intervenes to allow this struggle so that the Son can come out victorious.
        2. The scene is similar to what we find in the Qumran writings where there is a struggle between light and darkness (1 QS 3, 20-25).
        3. There is an echo of the eschatological perspective in Revelation, for example, when the Church of Philadelphia says, "Since you have kept my commandment of constancy, I in turn will keep you from the hour of trial (peirasmos) which will come upon the whole world to test (peirazō) the inhabitants of the earth" (Rev 3:10).
        4. But before the final trial, there are also all these trials on the road, as these words to the Church of Smyrna show: "I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." (Rev 2:9-10).
        5. For Luke, the devil opposes the proclamation of the Reign of God. He intervened at first to test Jesus in the desert, and now he comes back for a frontal attack, using Judas and even the disciples.
        6. So Gethsemane is a crucial moment, it is the final test for Jesus and his disciples. Jesus' prayer therefore asks not to enter the trial (peirasmos), a prayer that will not be answered. And the disciples, while fleeing, will not drink the cup that Jesus is called to drink. For this peirasmos contains something extra human, and only God can protect from its most destructive effects.

Prayer in Gethsemane, Part Two: Jesus Prays to the Father

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