Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 1, scene 1 - #9. Analysis Covering All Five Parts of Jesus' Prayer in Gethsemane, pp 215-234

(detailed summary)

Analysis Covering All Five Parts of Jesus' Prayer in Gethsemane


When one asks the question of the origin of the scene in Gethsemane, one has to dismiss out of hand the idea that the first Christians would have created this scene out of thin air. For it was a source of scandal, as can be seen from the reaction of the pagan Celsium, who did not understand that a divine being could weep and complain. In the Greco-Roman world, Socrates represented a noble way of dying, and in the Jewish world, the martyrdom of the Maccabean brothers, who voluntarily and courageously assumed torture, was a model. In this light, the heartbreaking scene in Gethsemane could only be seen with contempt.

Mark clearly intervened in the story to give it a dramatic flavour. However, he seems to have resorted to an ancient tradition. How can this tradition be reconstructed? Some biblical scholars have thought of reconstructing two traditions from the doublets found in the story, which Mark would then have merged. But there is no consensus on this approach.

A more promising approach comes from the use of independent sources such as Mark, John, and the Epistle to the Hebrews. For example, Mark and John place the motif of the hour and the cup at the moment when Jesus is about to be arrested and enter the eschatological battle against evil. This tradition took the form of Christian prayer, which was reminiscent of the style of Jesus' prayer. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, this tradition took the form of a hymn inspired by certain psalms, including Psalm 116, where the author suffers and expresses his sorrow. From this tradition, each one printed his theology and Christology according to his audience: Mark emphasized the dramatic side where the disciples and his Father seem to abandon Jesus; John took the direction of a Jesus who is one with his Father, and therefore accepts without flinching his hour and receives the assurance of his Father's victory; the Epistle to the Hebrews presents us with a Jesus who learns obedience through suffering, and thus shares our trials before reaching the sanctuary of heaven, where we will join him.

  1. Varous Approaches to the Scene
    1. Scandal over the Content of the Scene
    2. Problems about the Composition of the Scene
    3. Factors That Are Likely To Be Early Tradition
  2. The Contribution of Hebrews 5: 7-10
    1. The Prayer of Jesus in Hebrews and Its Origins
    2. Hebrews and the Prayers of Jesus in the Passion Narratives
    3. Development of the Different Prayers of Jesus

  1. Varous Approaches to the Scene

    1. Scandal over the Content of the Scene

      1. The well-educated Greco-Roman pagans knew the story of the death of Socrates who, despite his innocence, was forced to drink a deadly poison, which he did without crying and nobly, without asking to be spared, encouraging his disciples not to mourn, since he was about to go to a world of perfect truth, beauty and goodness. As a result, people marked by this image cannot but look with contempt on a distraught and troubled Jesus who, prostrate, asks God to save him.

      2. One can expect a different attitude from people who refer to the Old Testament where earthly life is the only true life and death is an absolute enemy that opens up to a dark existence in Sheol. Yet even in this case, the scene in Gethsemane can be problematic. It is enough to evoke the martyrdom of the Maccabean brothers: Eleazar willingly and courageously accepts to go to the instruments of torture, while the seven brothers and their mother amaze the crowd with their bravery (see 2 Maccabees 6:28; see also Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, 1.33.3; #653; 2.8.10; #153; 7.10.1; #417-18). Jesus' attitude does not compare favourably with such a scene, unless we recognize that his anguish comes not only from the spectre of suffering and death, but also from the prospect of entering into the great battle against evil, the trial that precedes the Reign of God.

      3. A typical pagan reaction is that of Celsius (c. 170), who had Jewish roots and whom Origen fought against. Celsius asks: how can a divine being cry and complain, afraid of death and praying to avoid it? How could his disciples, if united with him, desert him? Why was he caught in hiding and did not foresee what was going to happen to him?

    2. Problems about the Composition of the Scene

      1. Mark clearly intervened in the composition of this story in Gethsemane to give it a dramatic flavour. He accentuates Jesus' alienation from his disciples by making a first separation with the group of disciples, then a second separation with the group of three. He intensifies Jesus' petition to his Father with a double prayer on the hour and the cup and the Greek transliteration of Aramaic words, first "Father" in Gethsemane, and the beginning of Psalm 22 on the cross. The question then arises: Did Mark compose his account from an older source? If so, can this source be reconstructed?

      2. Many biblical scholars believe that our present account is a fusion of two different stories. In fact, there are a remarkable number of doublets that we can list in two columns.

        Place : Mount of Olives (14: 26)Place : Gethsemane (14: 32)
        Group of disciples (14: 32)Peter, James, John (14: 33)
        Jesus moves away saying, "Sit here while I pray" (14: 32)Jesus moves away saying, "Remain here and keep on watching" (14: 34)
        Jesus is greatly distraught and troubled (14: 33)Jesus' soul is very sorrowful unto death (14: 34)
        Jesus prays, if it is possible to let the hour pass (14: 35)Jesus prays: "All things are possible; take away this cup" (14: 36)
        Jesus comes and finds them sleeping (14: 37)Jesus comes and finds them sleeping (14: 40)
        "Simon, are you sleeping?" (14: 37)"Do you go on sleeping, then?" (14: 41)
        "Behold the Son of Man is given over" (14: 41)"Behold the one who gives me over has come near" (14: 42)

      3. Several biblical scholars have attempted to reconstruct two pre-martial sources from these doublets. One of them (K. G. Kuhn) will reconstitute a first narrative around the indirect prayer of Jesus and the questioning of all the disciples (part of the left-hand column), giving it an eschatological and Christological flavour, and will reconstitute a second narrative around the group of three disciples and the direct prayer of Jesus (part of the right-hand column), this time giving it a parenetic flavour. But using glue and scissors on barely ten verses, while at the same time triturating and modifying individual verses to fit into the general framework leaves us doubtful. Another biblical scholar (Linnemann) sees it rather as a narrative that has evolved in several stages, the left-hand column being the oldest stage, and the right-hand column being a more evolved stage. In short, there is no consensus, and in the current state of research, it is not possible to reconstruct this pre-martial source with a high degree of probability.

    3. Factors That Are Likely To Be Early Tradition

      1. Without wishing to reconstruct a pre-Mary tradition, we can nevertheless recognize elements that were part of a tradition about Jesus' prayer before he died. The listing of doublets cannot help us, for a certain repetition was part of Hebrew poetry, and Mark himself displays a penchant for various types of doublet.

      2. What is more important in the search for a tradition is the agreement of several independent witnesses, especially Mark, John and the epistle to the Hebrews. All three sources agree that Jesus, towards the end of his life, struggled at the very heart of his prayer with the idea of his imminent death, feeling anguish, without being precise about the place: the epistle to the Hebrews does not mention any place, John spreads his prayer over several chapters (12, 14, 18), Mark places it in Gethsemane and on the cross. Each author has inserted this scene where it fits best with his narrative.

      3. There is an agreement between Mark and John that points to a pre-evangelical tradition: both place the motif of the cup at the moment when Jesus is about to be arrested and enter into the eschatological battle against evil. Around this core, Mark was able to integrate other elements of Jesus' prayer to give us this dramatic picture. John has scattered these elements (12, about the hour to come, the fate that awaits the Son of Man, a reference to Psalm 42 where the righteous see their souls fail, the acceptance of God's will. The two traditions took the form of Christian prayer which kept a memory of the style of Jesus' prayer: Abba (Mark), Father (Mark, John), let you will be done (adapted in Mark), let your name be florified (John), lead us not into trial (Mark), and (probably) all things are possible for thee. In short, we could not determine what goes back to Jesus himself, but we can conclude that tradition understood his prayer through the words of the hour and the cup that he used to evoke God's plan, that it shaped it by having recourse to the psalms and to Christian prayer itself.

      4. As for the disciples, the question cannot be answered: was their attitude part of an ancient general tradition, or was it created out of the interaction of prayer and context? We can only affirm that the tone is clearly parenetic, very similar to the parable of the master of the house who can return at any time of night (Mark 13:34-37).

  2. The Contribution of Hebrews 5: 7-10

    1. The Prayer of Jesus in Hebrews and Its Origins

      1. The text of Hebrews 4:14-16 presents us with a high priest Jesus who is able to have compassion for our weaknesses, for he was tested in everything like us except sin. He goes on to say (5:5) that Christ did not attribute to himself the glory of becoming a high priest because :
        7 who in the days of his flesh, having brought prayers and supplications, with a strong clamor and tears to the One having the power to save him from death, and having been heard from fear, 8 despite his being Son, learned obedience from the things that he suffered. 9 And having been made perfect, he became to all who obey him the cause of eternal salvation. 10 being designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

        The study of the Greek vocabulary of this passage clearly demonstrates its independence from the Gospels. The underlined words describe the key actions of Jesus before his death, yet they are absent from the passion narratives.

      2. What is the source used by the author of the epistle? Several biblical scholars have noted the parallel with the hymn to the Philippians (2:6-11) which also begins with "he who" (hos) and describes Jesus as the one who was obedient unto death and then exalted. Note also the grouping of parallel words (prayers and supplications, clamor and tears) typical of poetic compositions. Finally, four words (prayers, supplications, cry, tears) are found only here in the epistle. In short, it is quite possible that the author is copying an already existing hymn.

      3. Many early Judeo-Christian hymns were often Old Testament pastiches, and here we have an example. In fact, we can detect the echo of several psalms: Ps 31:23 (And yet you heard the voice of my prayer when I cried to you.); Ps 39:13 (Hear my prayer, O Lord, give ear to my cry, do not remain deaf to my tears); and especially Ps 116 (v. 1: because he has heard my voice and my supplications: ; v. 3: suffered distress and anguish v. 6: when I was brought low, he saved me; v. 8: For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling ); note that at the end of Psalm 116, the psalmist thanks God for hearing his supplication and promises him a sacrifice of praise. It is therefore quite plausible that the description of Jesus' prayer to be saved from death in the epistle to the Hebrews comes from a Christian hymn of praise built from a mosaic of psalms.

    2. Hebrews and the Prayers of Jesus in the Passion Narratives

      1. How does the epistle to the Hebrews shed light on the passion narrative? First, its meaning must be clarified. "In the days of his flesh" refers to the last days of his ministry, a period of suffering. The meaning of "having been heard from fear" is not clear, for "fear" may refer to reverential fear as well as anxious fear, but the fact remains that the author hears about an anguished prayer. He contrasts a man who knows the trial and, facing death, prays urgently for salvation from it, with a divine being greater than Moses and the angels (1:8), who "being made perfect", i.e., entered the heavenly tabernacle (9:11-12) and sat down at the right hand of God (1:13). He was not spared from death, but nevertheless he overcame death.

      2. Let us compare the Hebrews with the prayer in Gethsemane and then with the prayer on the cross where Jesus repeats Psalm 22:2 (Mark/Matthew).

        1. Hebrews and the Gethsemane prayer

          Jesus is called SonJesus addresses the Father
          Contrast between "in the days of his flesh" and "the One having the power"."the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"
          "Tears""my soul is very sorrowful"
          "to save him from death""if it were possible, that hour would pass away from him"
          The prayer is addressed to "the One having the power (dynamai)"."if it is not possible (dynamai)"
          "having been heard""But an angel from heaven appeared to him, strengthening him"; "And there came a voice from heaven, 'I have glorified him and will glorify him again'". (John 12:28)
          "from fear""and he began to be greatly distraught and troubled"
          "Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death" (Hebrews 2:9)."My Father, if it is not possible for this to pass if I do not drink it, let your will be done"
          "after being made perfect""I have glorified him and I will glorify him again".
          "he who was tried (peirazō) in all things (Hebrews 4:15).Keep on watching and praying lest you enter into trial (peirasmos)"

          Despite a number of similarities, there are notable differences

          • The Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of a "strong clamor", whereas there is nothing like it in Gethsemane.
          • In the Hebrews Jesus is saved from death in that he is victorious, which is not mentioned in Gethsemane.
          • In Gethsemane, it cannot be said that Jesus "learned obedience from the things that he suffered", even if he is on his way in that direction.

        2. Hebrews and the prayer on the cross

          HebrewsOn the cross
          "a strong clamor (kraugē)""cried (boaō) with a loud voice (phonē)"
          Use of Psalm 116Use of Psalm 22: 2
          "clamor... to the One having the power to save him from death""My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
          "having been made perfect (teleioō) "« After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, (teleō) he said in order to fulfill the scripture (teleioō)" (John 19: 28)
          "But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God" (Heb 10: 12) There is little mention of burial among the deadIn John, there's little mention of a stay with the dead; "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.(John 12: 32)

          In short, the epistle to the Hebrews has more similarity with Gethsemane than with the prayer on the cross. But there is nevertheless a relationship of the epistle with both prayers, even if there is no direct dependence.

    3. Development of the Different Prayers of Jesus

      1. Before the writing of the Gospels according to Mark and John, there was a Christian tradition that retained the memory that Jesus, at the end of his life, struggled with the idea of his impending death expressed in the image of the hour and the cup, and with the idea of being abandoned by God. Mark developed this tradition according to his theology and his audience by placing this dramatic scene at the beginning of his passion story, in the context of the disciples' failure to follow him and God's failure to answer his prayer. Only when he dies will victory come.

      2. John takes another direction where Jesus makes it clear that he does not want to be saved in this hour, that he wants to drink the cup, and receives in his lifetime the assurance of victory, for he and the Father are one.

      3. The Hebrews takes up the theme of Jesus' debate with the idea of his impending death, without using the images of the hour and the cup. It seems to use the language of an ancient Christian hymn which echoes the suffering psalmist and expresses his moan (e.g. Psalm 116). The epistle thus accentuates its own Christology where Jesus learns obedience through suffering, and thus shares our trials before reaching the sanctuary of heaven, the precursor of the Christian life.

Next chapter: The Arrest of Jesus, Part One: The Initial Encounter

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