Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Agonising over the Agony in the Garden

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane occurs between the Farewell Discourse, ending the Last Supper and Jesus’ (a.s.) arrest.

Matthew 26:36-46
36 So Jesus came, and they with him, to a plot of land called Gethsemani; and he said to his disciples, “Sit down here, while I go in there and pray.”  37 But he took Peter and the sons of Zebedee with him. And now he grew sorrowful and dismayed; 38 “My soul,” he said, “is ready to die with sorrow; do you abide here, and watch with me.”  39 When he had gone a little further, he fell upon his face in prayer, and said, “My Father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass me by; only as Thy Will is, not as mine is.”  40 Then he went back to his disciples, to find them asleep; and he said to Peter, “Had you no strength, then, to watch with me even for an hour?  41 Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing enough, but the flesh is weak.”  42 Then he went back again, and prayed a second time; and his prayer was, “My Father, if this chalice may not pass me by, but I must drink it, then Thy Will be done.”  43 And once more he found his disciples asleep when he came to them, so heavy their eyelids were; 44 this time he went away without disturbing them, and made his third prayer, using the same words.  45 After that he returned to his disciples, and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest hereafter; as I speak, the time draws near when the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners.  46 Rise up, let us go on our way; already, he that is to betray me is close at hand.”

Mark 14:32-42
32 So they came to a plot of land called Gethsemani; and he said to his disciples, “Sit down here, while I go and pray.”  33 But he took Peter and James and John with him.  And now he grew dismayed and distressed: 34 “My soul,” he said to them, “is ready to die with sorrow; do you abide here, and keep watch.”  35 So he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that if it were possible, the hour might pass him by: 36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “all things are possible to Thee; Take Away this chalice from before me; only as Thy Will is, not as mine is.”  37 Then he went back, and found them asleep; and he said to Peter, “Simon, art thou sleeping?  Hadst thou not strength to watch even for an hour?  38 Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing enough, but the flesh is weak.”  39 Then he went away and prayed again, using the same words.  40 And when he returned, once more he found them asleep, so heavy their eyelids were; and they did not know what answer to make to him.  41 When he came the third time, he said to them, “Sleep and take your rest hereafter.  Enough; the time has come; behold, the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners.  42 Rise up, let us go on our way; already, he that is to betray me is close at hand.”

Luke 22:40-46
40 When he reached the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”  41 Then he parted from them, going a stone’s throw off, and knelt down to pray; 42 “Father,” he said, “if it Pleases Thee, Take Away this chalice from before me; only as Thy Will is, not as mine is.”  43 And he had sight of an angel from Heaven, encouraging him.  And now he was in an agony, and prayed still more earnestly; 44 his sweat fell to the ground like thick drops of blood.  45 When he rose from his prayer, he went back to his disciples, and found that they were sleeping, overwrought with sorrow.  46 “How can you sleep?” he asked.  “Rise up and pray, so that you may not enter into temptation.”

Only three of the four canonical gospels mention the Agony on the Garden.  And only the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark identify it as Gethsemane.  The event occurred immediately after the Last Supper, and selected disciples were with him - Peter (r.a.), John (r.a.) and James (r.a.).

The points in the Agony of the Garden about Jesus (a.s.) being in a state of need; sweating like drops of blood, or in the Catholic tradition, literally sweating blood; and being supported by an angel is a direct refutation of an early Christian heresy, Docetism.  Docetism is derived from the Greek ‘dokesis’, meaning ‘apparition’, or ‘phantom’.  According to Docetic doctrine, the phenomenon of Christ’s (a.s.) historical and bodily existence, and by extension, the human form of Jesus (a.s.), was an apparition without a true reality.  It was the belief that Jesus (a.s.) only seemed to be human, but his human form was an illusion.  Docetism was condemned at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.  The Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and Coptic Church regard it as heretical.

There were two main varieties of Docetism.  Marcionism, named after the heretic, Marcion of Sinope, believed that Christ (a.s.) was so Divine he could not have been human.  Since God lacked a material body, he could not physically suffer, and since Jesus (a.s.) was part of the Triune Godhead, he only appeared to be a flesh-and-blood man; his body was a phantasm.  Another version held that Jesus (a.s.) was a man in the flesh, but ‘Christ’ was a separate entity who entered Jesus’ (a.s.) body in the form of a dove at his baptism, giving him the ability to perform miracles, and then abandoned him at the Cross.

This Agony in the Garden was very problematic for the Docetists, since if Jesus (a.s.) was wholly divine and apparently human, he would not be in need.  There is a possibility that this episode, in particular the account from the Gospel according to Luke, was interpolated later or creatively edited to confound Docetic doctrine.  At the same time, the inserted text conveniently fulfilled prior scripture.

Psalm 91:11-12
11 He has given charge to his angels concerning thee, to watch over thee wheresoever thou goest; 12 they will hold thee up with their hands lest thou shouldst chance to trip on a stone.

The Gospel according to Mark is widely believed to be the source of the Gospel according to Luke.  When we compare the two accounts, the one in the Gospel according to Luke appears incongruous in that the pleading is shortened, and Jesus (a.s.) is not in as much anguish as he is in the other two gospel accounts, and yet, it is the only account with the bloody sweat and the angel.  These are not minor details that narrators would leave out.

Any manuscript evidence is inconclusive.  We have older manuscripts that lack these verses.  On one hand, we have evidence from the writings of the Church Fathers that this verse was known since it was mentioned in their discourse in the second century, particularly by Justin and Irenaeus, while omissions are found only in texts dated from the third century.

In any case, whether a later interpolation or an omission, this passage is problematic whether one is a Docetist, Trinitarian or even Arian.  If Jesus (a.s.) prayed for his fate to be averted, then he was praying to God, and he is not of the godhead.  Or if he was strengthened by an angel, then he was subordinate to an angel, which is problematic even for the Arians.  If he agonised over his fate, then his Vicarious Sacrifice was unwilling.  His sweating blood strengthened the Arian argument that he was wholly man and not Divine.  If we consider this in light of all that, perhaps it was an omission by the Pauline Christians.  Or, as some Biblical scholars say, this was definitively Lukan, but certain congregations omitted it out of fear that Jesus (a.s.) would have been accused of cowardice.

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