Jesus’ Unheroic Moment in Gethsemane – and a return to Vridar/Vardis Fisher

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by Neil Godfrey

Some regular readers will know that I am in the process of translating Bruno Bauer’s criticism of the gospels (scandalous in his time!) into English. I recently completed his discussion of Jesus “soul struggle” in Gethsemane and thought one of his observations worth bringing to more general notice here.

In sum, Bauer notes that heroic figures face their decisive challenges with resolve. They do not collapse into a struggle over whether they have what it takes to endure the fate that awaits them.

The Agony in the Garden, by George Richmond (Wikimedia)

Here is his gist:

Bruno Bauer begins by noting that the author of the Gospel of Luke made a few clumsy adjustments as he attempted to introduce an angel to stand beside Jesus to the scene he was borrowing from Mark and Matthew. In the earlier gospels Jesus prayed three times but how could that happen if an angel — taken, Bauer suggests, from the original temptation scenes where angels in Mark and Matthew came to assist Jesus (but not in Luke’s temptation scene) — came to give him the power and assurance to go through with the coming torment? If the angel appeared at the time of Jesus’ first prayer, then there would be no need for any more prayers, or else the angel’s presence had not been effective.

or should the angel come only at the third attempt, it would be too late, namely, arriving at the moment when the struggle, according to the original account [in Mark and Matthew], was already decided without the intervention of heavenly miraculous power. (Bauer, 214/215)

No, so Luke had Jesus pray just the once. And that once was with the angel so once was enough.

But then Luke ran into other difficulties. He had to find a way, following his earlier gospel narratives, to have Jesus reprimand the disciples for sleeping while he prayed. The trouble Luke failed to notice — at least till after the ink was dried — was that in the earlier gospels Jesus had instructed the disciples to watch with him but they fell asleep on that watch, and hence deserved a rebuke, while Luke had left out that command of Jesus and so there was no justification for his rebuke to the disciples for sleeping. Indeed, Luke even says the disciples fell asleep “because of their sorrow”, but as Bruno Bauer rightly remarks, sorrow keeps one awake; it does not induce sleep. (In the other gospels I notice that it is Jesus who is said to be full of sorrow.)

Further, one little detail I had failed to notice after all these years: BB points out that in Luke Jesus “is taken” to a remote place to pray. In Mark and Matthew he walks off to a secluded spot but in Luke, no, rather…

And he came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his disciples also followed him.
And when he was at the place, he said unto them [not only to three of them as in Mark and Matthew], Pray that ye enter not into temptation.
And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s cast, and kneeled down, and prayed (Luke 22:39-41)

I am reminded of Mark’s introduction where after the baptism of Jesus he writes,

And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness . . . (Mark 1:12)

Image from A Theology in Tension

But let’s cut to the chase, to the point that pulled me up enough to make me rethink everything. BB notices Mark harking back to the prayer of the righteous one in the Psalms:

 I am overcome by the blow of your hand. (Ps. 39:10)

Like all great and sublime moments, it is made up of three parts:

like everything great and sublime, was divided in its course and development by the number three (Bauer, 216/217)

But heroes, as we know from all our other stories, are not like that . . .

on the contrary, we only consider historical fighters great and worthy of respect when they endure their sufferings with calmness due to the self-assurance of their new content and legitimacy, thereby proving that they stand over the external power and authority of the worldly state they fight against, just as they know they have overcome it in the content of their self-consciousness. (Bauer, 216/217)

Why yes, I thought. I have had my moments of despair, my gethsemanes, as have we all. But gasping and crying for help to do what we want is not like simply standing up, taking courage, and going out and facing what we have to face.

I thought of other heroes surely known to any ancient writer of Greek. Hector in the Iliad. He knew he was doomed to die, and others pleaded with him not to go out and face Achilles. They were like Peter imploring Jesus at Mount Hermon not to go to Jerusalem. Jesus then was like the heroic Hector and said, Stand aside, Satan! I must go!

Achilles defeats Hector, Rubens (Wikimedia)

‘Hector!’ the old man called, stretching out his arms to him in piteous appeal. I beg you, my dear son, not to stand up to that man alone and unsupported. You are courting defeat and death at his hands. He is far stronger than you, and he is savage. . . . So come inside the walls, my child, to be the saviour of Troy and the Trojans; and do not throw away your own dear life to give a triumph to the son of Peleus. Have pity too on me, your poor father, who is still able to feel. . . .

As he came to an end, Priam plucked at his grey locks and tore the hair from his head; but he failed to shake Hector’s resolution. And now his mother in her turn began to wail and weep. Thrusting her dress aside, she exposed one of her breasts in her other hand and implored him, with the tears running down her cheeks. ‘Hector, my child,’ she cried, ‘have some regard for this, and pity me. How often have I given you this breast and soothed you with its milk! Bear in mind those days, dear child. Deal with your enemy from within the walls, and do not go out to meet that man in single combat. He is a savage; and you need not think that, if he kills you, I shall lay you on a bier and weep for you, my own, my darling boy; nor will your richly dowered wife . . . .

Thus they appealed in tears to their dear son. But all their entreaties were wasted on Hector, who stuck to his post and let the monstrous Achilles approach him. As a mountain snake, who is maddened by the poisonous herbs he has swallowed, allows a man to come up to the lair where he lies coiled, and watches him with a baleful glitter in his eye, Hector stood firm and unflinching, with his glittering shield supported by an outwork of the wall. But he was none the less appalled, and groaning at his plight he took counsel with his indomitable soul. He thought: ‘If I retire behind the gate and wall, Polydamas will be the first to cast it in my teeth that, in this last night of disaster when the great Achilles came to life, I did not take his advice and order a withdrawal into the city, as I certainly ought to have done. . . . But it will be said, and then I shall know that it would have been a far better thing for me to stand up to Achilles, and either kill him and come home alive or myself die gloriously in front of Troy. (Iliad, XXII)

Hector actually did run from Achilles at first, but finally found his resolve and when he saw he was about to die, said:

Alas! So the gods did beckon me to my death! . . . Death is no longer far away; he is staring me in the face and there is no escaping him. Zeus and his Archer Son must long have been resolved on this, for-all their goodwill and the help they gave me. So now I meet my doom. Let me at least sell my life dearly and have a not inglorious end, after some feat of arms that shall come to the ears of generations still unborn.’ (Iliad, XXII)

We have other instances of steel resolve: Socrates does not weep and plead for strength to drink the hemlock. Rather, he consoles his weeping friends. Antigone stood hard as iron against Creon and it is impossible to imagine her weeping for strength and courage to endure her fate.

When I think back on the references to Jesus outside the gospels I don’t recall any notion of “soul struggle”. Paul simply says that Jesus took on a lowly position to die. That was his purpose for taking on flesh. Soul-struggle is completely alien to this biblical concept.

The gospels changed all that.

Jesus had long since predicted his end, and now it was necessary for him, once and for all and perfectly beyond doubt, to express his submission. He could no longer just speak, prophesy, he had to feel, mourn, be anxious, become powerless, in order to reconcile himself with his task through his inner struggle. Precisely the religious interest that determined the initial structure and the enduring foundation of the gospel story, and which made a great and dignified struggle, that is, a struggle in which the opposing forces also appear great and significant, impossible, had to result in the end in the fact that Jesus’ struggle against the opposing powers coincides with his inner soul-suffering. Other historical or epic heroes do not need such a struggle with their weakness, nor can they even collapse in themselves when the tragic conclusion arrives, because they have proven themselves in the struggle with great and significant historical powers and have worked through the shortcomings of their personal one-sidedness even in this struggle. (Bauer, 217)

Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane is not heroic. It is a struggle to obliterate his own self before an idea of a god who demands his non-existence.

As Eric Fromm wrote long back:

[Man] projects the best he has_onto God and impoverishes himself. . . . The more he praises God the emptier he becomes. The emptier he becomes the more sinful he feels. The more sinful he feels the more he praises God — and the less he is able to regain himself. (quoted by Fisher, Orphans of Gethsemane II, 432)

Vardis Fisher spoke of a “lunacy of prayer and tears and pleading” which makes one feel emptier and more sinful, and the more sinful and empty one feels, the harder one prays!

Volume 2 of Orphans of Gethsemane — the biography that led me to name this blog Vridar, the central figure of Vardis Fisher’s “autobiographical” novel.

Jesus had knelt alone to pray: . . . in all the gethsemanes in myth and legend, where all the father-fearing and father-hating Jewish.and Christian sons had knelt in supplication, and were still kneeling, and would kneel, as long as the Desert-Yahweh was driven into their child-souls. (Fisher, Orphans of Gethsemane II, 479)

Think of this:

The pathetic wretched lonely orphan, going off alone into his gethsemane (gath shēmāni, the oil press) to pray, knowing it to be the will of his father that he should die! In his death he would appease the father’s wrath, who was on the point of killing all his children!(Fisher, Orphans of Gethsemane II, 480)

Vridar spent hours talking aloud to himself about “Jesus,” . . . saying, “He was the immolated son — this is the myth of the complete submission of the son to the father with the son-symbol standing for all Christians who submit. He was the orphan: this is the myth of the one who had no love, and went alone into his gethsemane to pray, and prepare to die, because his father willed it. This is the myth of the lonely lost man naked before the universe, and before death and time and all his enemies. (Fisher, Orphans of Gethsemane II, 482)

Bruno Bauer: Book 6, Ch 4 – Jesus’ Soul Struggle in Gethsemane

Fisher, Vardis. The Great Confession: Orphans of Gethsemane, V2. Testament of Man 13. New York: Pyramid, 1960.

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Émile Victor Rieu. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1950.

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