What Jesus Said and Did: 1) Prayer in Gethsemane

What Jesus Said and Did: 1) Prayer in Gethsemane November 4, 2008

I’ve been wanting for a while now to begin a series on the evidence for various things having been said and done by, to, or in connection with the historical figure of Jesus. Time constraints between now and the end of November will mean that any posts I offer between now and then will be on the brief side. It has been a challenge to decide where to begin. I’ve chosen a case that is by no means absolutely clear cut, but which I hope nonetheless can serve as an example of an instance where the balance of probability is in favor of there being an authentic historical core.

In Mark 14:35-36 we read: Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

I wonder how many modern readers actually register the significance of this from the perspective of later Christianity. By Paul’s time, the church had already made a virtue out of a necessity, making sense of the otherwise unintelligible fact of the crucifixion by claiming that it was an essential act for the salvation of humankind. In the story in Mark, Jesus is depicted as praying for that not to happen.

There is, on the one hand, reason to doubt the story based on the story itself, which claims that Jesus went a bit away from the disciples to pray, and found them sleeping when he returned.

On the other hand, Paul already seems to have associated the address of God as Father in Aramaic with Jesus’ relationship to God as son. The only appearances of this Aramaic word in the New Testament are in the earliest Gospel and in Paul’s letters. And there is no reason Paul would have used the term in writing to non-Aramaic-speaking Christians other than that the term already had some significance for them, presumably in connection with Jesus, the object of their faith and devotion.

On another blog, it has been suggested that even the crucifixion story could have been invented by the earliest Christians, since they viewed it as salvific. I find that to reflect a failure to understand what was going on in the development of early Christianity. But even if we were to grant that point, wouldn’t it provide a strong counterargument to the early Christians having invented the story in Mark 14:35-36?

It is my hope, more than anything else, that this series will provide a jumping off point for discussion. So what do you think?

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  • The Aramaic survival may indicate fairly early traditions about Jesus, but necessarily from Jesus himself? Perhaps a very early Palestinian tradition about Jesus, before the whole salvation and deification things, that was an early attempt to come to terms with the crucifixion. Having Jesus grapple with these issues beforehand, showing human reluctance and ambivalence and ultimately self-relinquishing may be a narrative device to help the early Jesus movement deal with these issues themselves…their coming to terms that this was, indeed, the will of “Abba.”

  • Perhaps the term Abba had special significance in 1C Judaism that the diaspora communities Paul dealt with recognized or resonated with. If there is any truth to the folk etymology of “Jesus Barabbas” then the term Abba was well entrenched at the time. Also, if Mark is written after Paul’s letters have become known (?) then this poignant scene and the use of the term may have been just the sort of literary creation one would expect, echoing Jared’s scenario, above.Given JOhn McCain’s relationship with Abba and his personal experiences at the time, we would benefit from his insight here. 🙂

  • I once did a post on this awhile back:http://toegodspot.blogspot.com/2007/05/priviledged-access-what-those-gospel.htmlAny comments would be appreciated.

  • Thanks for sharing that. It is a good point that the narrative does not imply that they could not have heard the first bit of Jesus’ prayer. If they were anything like me, it may have taken them a few minutes to get comfortable before they could fall asleep! 🙂

  • I know that I tend to be skeptical about speech, perhaps more than the average bear. I have the same skepticism with Thucydides’ speeches as well (although I think they probably capture the nugget of what was said if not the details)…another contested place of speech in scholarship (and here by someone who was contemporary and an actor in the events told).On the other hand, I personally have little concern for the historical Jesus and more of an interest in Gospel portrayals of Jesus (as products of ideology…perhaps as responses to crisis–death of Jesus, destruction of temple, delay of parousia, etc.).

  • Why does Paul translate the word, when all these Christians already knew exactly what it meant?Perhaps because Paul was teaching them a new thing?Just previously, Paul has said ‘Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.’ It was faith that was revealed to Christians, not Jesus. Jesus did not reveal himself.

  • James,Thank you for posting this. I was hoping you would be goodly enough to show your methods and reasons. I do hope you don’t mind that I plan to respond to this over the next few days, offering another interpretation of the evidence; one that I feel holds more of the probability than a historical core. Best wishes,Tom

  • Mind?! I’m delighted and look forward to your post – do share a link here when you’ve posted!

  • As promised…(sorry, it took a few more days than expected with personal life taking priority) http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/2008/11/16/gethsemane/Regards,Tom