Why would anybody make it up? (And other dead horses.)
In a recent post over on Exploring our Matrix, James McGrath wrote:
The depiction of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, in great distress and praying that the cup pass from him, is one that it is hard to imagine being invented by the later church, after they had made sense of the cross as the decisive salvific event in human history. Would they invent Jesus asking for that not to occur? It seems unlikely. But the scene makes no sense if Jesus does not believe that he must under go [sic] something traumatic. (emphasis mine)
That’s quite a bit of “logic” packed into a single paragraph. Somehow we started out with a narrative event in the synoptic gospels and we ended up with a supposed “authentic” historical event simply by applying a thought experiment.
Why does McGrath think it is hard to imagine the “later church” inventing a scene in which Jesus asked for the cup to pass? Because the cross is necessary for salvation. How could the Son of God try to wriggle out of the crucifixion when that’s the whole plan? Why is the Messiah under such distress?
And indeed, the later church, even as early as the gospel of John, did seem uncomfortable with Jesus agonizing over his fate in Gethsemane. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus knows his part in the plan and meets the arresting party head-on:
Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” (John 18:4, ESV)
So McGrath could be correct in saying that the later church would be unlikely to create the garden scene with Jesus apparently trying to avoid death. But what about the early church?
The importance of being obedient
Two early documents (which predate our narrative gospels) in the New Testament give evidence of a belief in a Savior who demonstrated total obedience. In the Philippian Hymn we find this line:
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:8, ESV)
In the book of Hebrews we read:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Heb. 5:7-10, ESV)
It is a core tenet of early Christianity that Jesus became God’s son, took on human form, and obediently faced his suffering and death. We prove our obedience not by doing things we want to do, but by doing things we would prefer not to do. The passages in Philippians and Hebrews tell us that Jesus bore his sufferings. We come to appreciate that facing death was not something he would have chosen to do, unless God had required it.
And note well that the author of Hebrews already understood the sacrifice of Jesus was “the decisive salvific event in human history,” emphatically stating that Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” So we needn’t look to the later church for the first explanations of the death of Jesus.
Mark: “Show, don’t tell.”
The author of Mark’s gospel “narratizes” this early credo with the scene in Gethsemane. Jesus prays in earnest “with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.” In this respect, at least, Mark is in complete agreement with Paul and the author of Hebrews.
We understand that Jesus is in mortal anguish not merely by what he says, but by what he does. We discover that Jesus is truly obedient, because although he would prefer the cup to pass from him, he accepts his fate.
Recall as well that in the story Jesus had walked on about a stone’s throw from Peter, James, and John, who promptly fell asleep. The agony we witness as readers is privileged information — known only to us, Jesus, and to God. Is this a message to “future” martyrs (i.e., Mark’s contemporaries)? Or is it a historical, authentic event witnessed by the dozing disciples?
So would Mark “invent” such a story? He needn’t have seen it that way. Is the act of creating a story that conveys theological truth an invention or an act of piety which shows the world the obedience of the Lord on his way to Golgotha?
Luke’s editors: “Needs more sweat and blood.”
And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:42-43, ESV)
Chapter 22 of the original gospel of Luke most likely did not contain the above verses (42 and 43). Many of the oldest and best manuscripts do not have them, and we have good reason to doubt they were part of the original text. However, it’s clear the addition came rather early. In fact Bruce Manning Metzger in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament writes:
The absence of these verses in such ancient and widely diversified witnesses . . . strongly suggests they are no part of the original text of Luke. Their presence in many manuscripts, some ancient, as well as their citation by Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Eusebius, and many other Fathers, is proof of the antiquity of the account. (p. 151)
(For more information, see Bart Ehrman’s lecture notes on the Imperturbable Jesus.)
So on the assertion that the later church would never invent the scene in the garden because of discomfort with its implications, we have good evidence that some Christians after Luke were not embarrassed at all. On the contrary, they were dissatisfied with the level of anguish in Luke’s story, and added greater suffering and greater apparent self-doubt — so much that an angel had to teleport from heaven and render assistance.
Ignoring the story in favor of the phantom of authenticity
We’ve reached an awkward state of affairs. Here I am, a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, defending the stories of the gospels against those who would shred them, looking for nonexistent clues for the historical Jesus. They can see neither the forest nor the trees, but they’ll be happy to tell you about their reconstructed, plausible lumberjack.
Each quest seems to leave NT scholarship in worse shape than when it started. As we continually point out here on Vridar, many of today’s scholars have largely forgotten the past, barely aware of the intellectual giants who preceded them. They frequently misunderstand basic concepts (e.g., the Documentary Hypothesis, the Messianic Secret), as they furiously ride their hobby horses (e.g., Casey’s Aramaic Sources, McGrath’s Scripture Ninjas, Hoffmann’s Bastard Jesus) into the ground, while ridiculing people they disagree with and patting one another on the back for a job well done.
Is it possible that Jesus, as a human figure in history, believed his own death or suffering was a necessary event in the unfolding of the dawn of the kingdom of God? If so, might he have made arrangements that allowed it to happen, and/or taken steps to provoke it?
McGrath identifies two “camps” with respect to the question of whether Jesus was aware of his own impending death: (1) Yes, since he is part of the Godhead (Christians) and (2) No, since he was merely human (secularists, including historians). At this point, we have to wonder whether McGrath is aware of the history of NT scholarship. We could be forgiven for our suspicions when he writes:
I wonder whether there isn’t a third option, one that treats Jesus as a historical human being, but takes seriously some pieces of evidence which suggest that Jesus understood his death as necessary, and perhaps even took steps to allow it to occur or to provoke it. (emphasis added)
You mean they don’t even read Schweitzer?
“I wonder whether” McGrath has read the standard works of the previous two centuries. Probably the best-known scholar who posited a historical Jesus who decisively set on a path to force the coming eschaton is Albert Schweitzer, who wrote in The Quest of the Historical Jesus:
On leaving Galilee he abandoned the hope that the final tribulation would begin of itself. If it delayed, that meant that there was still something to be done, and that yet another of the violent had to lay violent hands upon the kingdom of God. The repentance movement had not been sufficient. When, in accordance with his commission, by sending forth the disciples with their message he hurled the firebrand which was to have kindled the fiery trials, the flame went out. He had not succeeded in sending the sword on earth and stirring up the conflict. And until the time of trial had come, the coming of the kingdom and his own manifestation as Son of man were impossible. (p. 347-348, emphasis mine)
Towards Passover, therefore, Jesus set out for Jerusalem, solely in order to die there. (p. 349, emphasis mine)
Is it really possible that McGrath thinks he’s breaking new ground here? He could, I suppose, defend himself by insisting that he was writing for a popular audience and throwing out ideas they may not be familiar with. Does that work? Suppose I wrote:
I wonder if there isn’t a third option, one in which the sun is a fixed celestial object, with the earth and all the other planets revolving around it.
I wonder if there isn’t a third option, one in which animals with traits that confer some advantage have more surviving offspring and are therefore “naturally selected.”
I wonder if there isn’t a third option, one in which mass could be converted into energy, perhaps as a byproduct of either splitting or fusing atoms.
Wouldn’t you be tempted to ask if I’ve ever heard of Copernicus, Darwin, or Einstein?
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