Sunday, January 29, 2012

Gethsemane: Modern Criticism

The classical criticism of Jesus in Gethsemane sees him as pathetically weak and whimpering. In modern times, the criticism has not gotten milder.

Condemning Fear of Death

One of the more polite modern critics of Jesus in Gethsemane, David Friedrich Strauss, says, “From the earliest times this scene in Gethsemane has been a stumbling-block, because Jesus therein appears to betray a weakness and fear of death which might be considered unworthy of him.”[1]

Boasting Their Own Bravery

Others condemned to execution have boasted of their own courage by contrasting themselves to Jesus, insulting him in the process. Lucilio Vanini was an Italian philosopher who was condemned, had his tongue amputated, and was burned at the stake at Toulouse, France in 1619. A witness described his manner.

I saw him in the tumbrel as they led him to execution, mocking the Cordelier who had been sent to exhort him to repentance, and insulting our Savior by these impious words: “He sweated with fear and weakness, and I die undaunted.”[2]

Church Leaders Defecting from Jesus
M. M. Mangasarian was born in Turkey in 1859. He was ordained into the Congregationalist ministry at Robert College in Constantinople. He came to the United States and studied for the Presbyterian ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. He became the pastor of Spring Garden Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1882. In 1909 he published his first book. By that time, he had long since abandoned faith in Jesus. As part of his proof that Jesus is a myth, Mangasarian there writes:
Next, the composers of the gospels conduct us to the Garden of Gethsemane, that we may see there the hero of the play in his agony, fighting the great battle of his life alone, with neither help nor sympathy from his distracted followers. He is shown to us there, on his knees, crying tears of blood – sobbing and groaning under the shadow of an almost crushing fear. Tremblingly he prays, “Let this cup pass from me – if it be possible;” and then, yielding to the terror crowding in upon him, he sighs in the hearing of all the ages, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” precisely the excuse given by everybody for not doing what they would do if they could. . . .
The objection that Jesus' hesitation on the eve of the crucifixion, as well as his cry of despair on the cross, were meant to show that he was as human as he was divine, does not solve the difficulty. In that event Jesus, then, was merely acting – feigning a fear which he did not feel, and pretending to dread a death which he knew could not hurt him. If, however, Jesus really felt alarmed at the approach of death, how much braver, then, were many of his followers who afterwards faced dangers and tortures far more cruel than his own! We honestly think that to have put in Jesus' mouth the words above quoted, and also to have represented him as closing his public career with a shriek on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” was tantamount to an admission by the writers that they were dealing with a symbolic Christ, an ideal figure, the hero of a play, and not a historical character.[3]
Capitulation To Mythology
Of course the answer given in the 20th century for Jesus’ behavior in Gethsemane would be that He is a myth. That was Origen’s answer to Celsus in the 3rd century.
Celsus, in the 2nd century, had rejected Jesus as a myth. That was odd because Celsus was a pious adherent to the myths of classicism. Origen replied, in the 3rd century, that such stories as are told of Jesus are admitted to be true when told of Pagan divinities such as Apollo, so why can they not also be true when told of the Christian Messiah? If Apollo, though a myth, may be accepted, what could be wrong with adding the myth of Jesus?
What kind of answer is that? What kind of truth does that ascribe to Jesus? That is only mythical truth, not true truth, not historical incarnation. Origen’s classical formulation of a defense of Jesus capitulates to mythology. No wonder unbelievers take Jesus as a myth. The church told them to see him that way!
Are We Better? Do We Need Better?
It is easy for us church people to poke fun at the classical and modern critics of Jesus in Gethsemane, just as it is easy for them to mock Jesus. But are we doing any better? Do we know – do we care – what Jesus saw assaulting him in Gethsemane? Do we know what was killing him then and there? We will consider this in the next posting.
As we await that posting, consider this: Does mythical suffering atone for any but mythical sin? Is our sin mythical? If our sin is biographical and historical, then don't we need biographical, historical atonement? If our sin is real, but the sufferings of Christ are mythical, how, then, are we not left in our sin?
1.  David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (New York: Calvin Blanchard; Marian Evans trans. from the fourth German edition), p. 720.
2.  Gabriel de Bartholomaei Gramond, Historiarum Galliae ab excessu Henrici IV. libri III (Tolosae: Apud Arnald Colomerium, Regis & Acadamiae Tolosanae Typographum, 1643), p. 211.
3.  M. M. Mangasarian, The Truth About Jesus, Is He a Myth? (Chicago: Independent Religious Society, 1909), 99-101.


Gethsemane: Classical Criticism

In Gethsemane, Jesus saw a sudden, menacing horror assaulting him. He was completely dazed. He sweat drops of blood. He repeatedly asked his Father to let something he called "this cup" pass from him. He applied at times to his Father and at times to mere human beings for comfort. His soul was so desponding that He would have died then and there had not the angel strengthened him.
What did He see coming at him? What was "this cup?" The world does not know.
Critics of Jesus disapprove, ridicule, or mock him for his behavior in Gethsemane. They compare him unfavorably to others who have faced death, particularly death by execution. The classic example is Celsus.[1]

Celsus weighs Jesus in the scale of classical Pagan ideals of bravery and courage. Compared to classical heroes, Celsus sees Jesus as pathetically weak and whimpering. He used this picture of a "groveling" Jesus to mock the Christian faith. Jesus would, in Celsus’ view, unravel civilization with cowardice.

Socrates, Their Hero

Following in this mode, many have contrasted Jesus and Socrates. Plato reports Socrates' serenity in the face of execution in Phaedo. Socrates was in a prison cell. He took his cup of hemlock "without trembling, or changing color or expression." He "raised the cup to his lips, and very cheerfully and quietly drained it." His friends burst into tears. Socrates rebuked them for their "absurd" behavior and urged them to "keep quiet and be brave." He died without fear, sorrow or protest. In contrast, Jesus complains, quakes, and asks that his cup may pass.

Were their two cups the same?


The criticism becomes sharp and insulting when people compare Jesus not to unbelieving heroes but to Jesus’ own followers. The first case is Stephen. Stephen was killed, martyred. His own people stoned him. First one stone, then another landed. It takes time to die that way.

For a Jew, this was not only pain and death. Stoning meant he was cut off from the covenant, removed from his people. They judged him a blasphemer. They stopped their ears from hearing his speech. They ran at him with one accord. They cast him out of the city. They pelted him for as long as it took for him to die.

How did Stephen behave? He took it. He called on God to receive his spirit. He asked God not to charge them. That seems brave. It sounds calm.

Take It Like a Man

Why couldn’t Jesus do that? Why couldn’t he take it like a man? In Gethsemane, why did he behave so pitifully?

Why did Jesus pray three times for the cup to pass? Why did he whine to his closest disciples about how badly he felt? Why did he tell them of his soul anguish? If he really did sweat drops of blood, why did he carry on so?

Unnumbered followers of Jesus have faced martyrdom, even torture, with courage and serenity. Are the disciples greater than their master? He does not seem to have given them much of an example. Why should they have to do better than he did?

As rough as those last paragraphs sound, I’ve softened the tone, taken off the edge from how the critics talk.

We will see in the next posting that, in modern times, the criticism has not gotten milder.


1.  Celsus was an eclectic Platonist who lived in the second century.  Celsus wrote the first serious criticism of Christianity, Alethes Logos (The True Word or The True Doctrine).  His work is lost, but he influenced so many that in the next century, Ambrose asked Origen to refute it.  Origen did so in Contra Celsum (Against Celsus).  He answered Celsus paragraph by paragraph, quoting what he refutes.  From Origen’s work it is possible to reconstruct more than three-quarters of Celsus’ work.  Celsus brusquely dismissed Christianity as a crude and bucolic onslaught on the religious traditions and intellectual values of classical culture.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dying in a Garden

In Gethsemane, Jesus said, "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death." What death? Where?
Now and Here

The phrase, "to death,"[1] is not a figure of speech. It is not a look forward to the cross where death lay shortly ahead of him. Jesus tells the three disciples plainly how the physical effects of his sorrow felt. He felt like he was dying then and there in the garden. Were this to go on, he would not make it from the garden to the cross.
The Greek translated as "even to" is heos (heh'-oce). This word is a conjunction, and here it is joining time and place. The death of which Jesus speaks is now and here.
The New American Standard Bible translates both Matthew and Mark as, "to the point of death." Jesus' sorrow already is at the point of death. The sorrow and the death are together at the same point.
The Message paraphrases it, “I feel bad enough right now to die.” That’s close, but the word order is backwards. It should be, “I feel bad enough to die right now.” The Contemporary English Version says, “I feel as if I am dying.” That, too, is close, but the "as if" either should be deleted or replaced. It should be either, "I feel I am dying," or "I feel that I am dying."
Richard C. H. Lenski says,
Jesus tells how sad he is, "until death," and we shall soon see that this phrase conveyed the actuality: Jesus was now on the very verge of death.[2]
Sorrow and Sleep; Sorrow and Death
Can we appreciate such sorrow?
When Jesus returned to where He had left the disciples, Luke tells us, “He found them sleeping from sorrow.” From sorrow. From sorrow they slept. Their sorrow accounts for their sleeping.
His sorrow accounts for his dying. Lenski says, “The fact that the entire struggle carried the body of Jesus close to dissolution is apparent from the start.”[3]
Strengthened to Suffer
“Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him.”[4] This was strengthening, but not comforting. This was only to keep Jesus from dying too soon, in the wrong place, in the wrong way, and without suffering fully for our sin. In the garden, Jesus felt "death coming before its time.”[5]
Jesus must die on the prophesied day, at the prophesied place, by the prophesied method. He must innocently suffer the fullness of our sin. This strengthening was to his dying body, which was weak, for his spirit was “indeed willing.”
To fortify Him for this, “there appeared an angel unto Him from heaven strengthening Him”—not to minister light or comfort (He was to have none of that, and they were not needed nor fitted to convey it), but purely to sustain and brace up sinking nature for a yet hotter and fiercer struggle.[6]
Lenski says,
There is a tendency to make this strengthening spiritual and not physical. But this is unwarranted. Bengel is right, it was non per cohortationem sed per corroborationem, not stimulating the spirit of Jesus by exhortation but strengthening his exhausted body by means of new vitality. The body of Jesus was about to give way and expire in death under the terrific strain; the prayers reveal the mighty power of Jesus' spirit. This angel, we may say, performed the same service as did those mentioned in Matt. 4:11. The angel's coming for this purpose was the Father's answer that he, indeed, willed that Jesus drink the cup, that he accepted the submission of Jesus' own will in this regard, and that his strengthening would fully enable also Jesus' body and human nature to do their hard part.[7]
Now Agony
The angel having provided power to Jesus’ weak, dying body, now Luke brings into play the word agonia. Luke says, “Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly.”[8] With his dying body strengthened, he can enter into agony.
Think how this sequence fills the word agony with more than we would suppose or could imagine. The willing spirit of Jesus matches that agony with more earnest prayer. Agony and earnest. This is our Savior. The assumption of our sin is under way.
Lenski says,
The new strength that was imparted by the angel brought the agony of the struggle to its highest pitch. The mind and the body that were sinking lower and lower beneath the strain rallied powerfully to face the full horror of the curse and the wrath that were impending.[9]
Agony means an intense struggle for victory. Agonia was used among the Greeks as an alternative to agon, which was first a reference to “a place of assembly,” and then became a reference for the contests or games that took place there, and then came to denote the emotion of those contests. It speaks of extreme and prolonged efforts in wrestling, then of the severe mental and emotional level of the conflict as anguish and agony.
Sweating out Life
Now that the strengthening of his body by the angel enables his flesh to survive past what it otherwise could have done, past what would have been his point of death, now that Jesus meets agony with earnest, now Luke tells us Jesus sweat drops of blood. The life is in the blood.[10] Jesus is sweating out his life.
Neither Luke nor any other Bible writer ever uses the word agonia anywhere else. This they reserve for Jesus whose agony is unique, and comes after He would have been dead.
What did Jesus see? What was the sudden, assaulting, menacing horror that threw him into ekthambeo - "sore amazed" in King James English -- and beyond, into dying then and there in the garden, and surviving only by the strengthening of the angel, into agonia? That run-on sentence is like the run-on terror that struck Jesus, from shock to shock to shock ... for us.
What was killing him?
1.  Matt 26:38; Mark 14:34
2.  Richard C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1943), p. 1038.
3.  Richard C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1946), p. 1076.
4.  Luke 22:43
5. Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, Luke 22:39-46.
6.  Ibid.
7.  Lenski op cit. (on Luke), p. 1076.
8.  Luke 22:43.
9.  Lenski op cit. (on Luke), p. 1076.
10.   Gen 9:4-5; Lev 17:11, 14; Deut 12:23; Jn 6:53-64.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Gethsemane: Slow, Careful Steps

In the first posting of this series on Jesus' suffering in Gethsemane, we saw that, ekthambeo — "sore amazed" in King James English — is an amazement of thorough terror.

For Jesus in Gethsemane (Mark 14:33), the cause of the terror "must be sought, not in what might be passing in his soul, but in appearances from without which forced themselves upon him; something approached Him which threatened to rend His nerves, and the sight of it to freeze the blood in His veins."[1]

There was something outside himself that he saw. It appeared suddenly. It approached him. It already was approaching him when first he saw it. It got the drop on him. It forced itself upon him. It was a menacing horror. Jesus saw a living nightmare.

What did He see?

A Natural Question

That question does come popping naturally into our minds. It is natural to want that answer immediately.

If we jump too hastily, though, the conclusion we draw could be wrong. Gethsemane is a deep garden, and Jesus suffered there in the night. Less than a handful of nights ever were darker. Our steps should be slow and careful, taking full advantage of each beam of light the Word shines into that darkness.

Two Sorts of Faulty Interpretations

There are two sorts of common, faulty interpretations of Jesus' suffering in Gethsemane.

One sort is interpretations by Jesus' critics. It is easy for them to criticize Jesus' behavior in Gethsemane because they never face up to what Jesus suffered there.

The other sort is the too-pat answers often given in the Church. Those answers are too pat because they do not get at what suffers in his suffering. Those answers do not appreciate as well as they should Jesus as suffering in our place. How far does that go? The typical answers do convey truth in the light of Jesus as Surety, but they take practically no account of Jesus as Mediator. While I don't want to neglect Jesus as Surety, neither should we neglect him as Mediator, and the lengths to which He went to be that for us.

Jesus, the One Suffering

The key to Gethsemane is that it was Jesus, not someone else, suffering there.

Take a look again at the observations we've made so far and see how Jesus himself becomes the key to the mysteries of Gethsemane:
  • The cause was not from within Jesus.
  • The cause was from outside Jesus.
  • He saw something — a terror, a horror, a nightmare — forcing itself upon him.
  • Whatever He saw caused him to be "sore amazed."
What, to Jesus, is alien, not from within himself? The critics never think of that.

What, to Jesus, is a terror, a horror, a nightmare? The Church thinks of this, but too little.

Both the critics and the Church rush to conclude that the forthcoming floggings and crucifixion are what put Jesus, by looking forward to them, into a state of being "sore amazed."

But the forthcoming floggings and crucifixion would be, in Gethsemane, thoughts passing through Jesus' soul, contemplations of physical suffering and death ahead. We have already observed that such is not the cause of Jesus' ekthambeo. The cause of the terror "must be sought, not in what might be passing in his soul, but in appearances from without which forced themselves upon him."[2]  The forthcoming floggings and crucifixion would be things future, not the immediate, assaulting menace of ekthambeo. In Gethsemane, something was presently approaching Jesus, so that is was not future, and it was not a contemplation, but an occurring fact.

Light, and More Light

The few beams of light from the Word that we have observed so far already are helping us to avoid misinterpretation. Are there more such beams? Is there more help in the Word?

Before deciding what Jesus saw, in the next posting we will make another helpful observation. We will observe what Jesus was referring to when He said his soul was sorrowful unto death.

What death? Where?


1.  Frederick W. Krummacher, The Suffering Saviour: Meditations on the Last Days of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977 printing of 1855 English translation from the 1854 German original, pp. 106-107.
2. Ibid.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

"Sore Amazed": What Does This Mean?

With this post we begin a new series. We will be meditating on Jesus in Gethsemane.
The King James Version uses an odd phrase to describe Jesus’ experience in the garden of Gethsemane. “And he taketh with him Peter and James and John, and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy.” (Mark 14:33)
“Sore amazed.” What does that mean? That is 1611 English. Did people in 1611 know what “sore amazed” meant? Probably. But we don't today.
Other Uses of the Phrase
Perhaps other uses of the phrase would help. The phrase “sore amazed” appears in Mark 6:51 like this: “And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased: and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.” That happened when Jesus walked on the windy sea in the fourth watch of the night. They thought he was a ghost coming towards them, and they cried out. Is that what it means to be sore amazed?
This experience of the disciples on the sea tells us something about the phrase “sore amazed” in 1611 English. It tells us something that heightens an interest in the phrase and in what happened to Jesus in Gethsemane. But there is both a problem and a catch. The problem is, the phrase appears in total only twice. Mark 6:51 is the only other use of the phrase for comparison. That is not enough. That catch is, in the two verses, Mark 14:33 and Mark 6:51, the translators are translating different Greek words.
Other English Translations
Another approach is to read Mark 14:33 in other English translations. In the New King James Version the clause reads, “He began to be troubled and deeply distressed.” The English Standard Version is similar, "greatly greatly distressed and troubled." The word “troubled” does not sound like a match with “sore amazed.” Are we to take as the answer that, not to worry, sore amazed does not mean all that much, it just means troubled?
Weymouth’s New Testament says, “began to be full of terror.” The Montgomery New Testament has it the same way. The New Living Translation says, “He began to be filled with horror and deep distress.” Sore amazement. Fullness of terror. Fullness of horror. Williams’ New Testament says, “He began to feel completely dazed.” Jesus completely dazed? What’s going on?
It’s All Greek to Me
Apparently, we won’t resolve this in English. We need to get at the original language. We can lay the Synoptic accounts of Jesus in Gethsemane side by side (Matthew 26:36-44, Mark 14:32-39, and Luke 22:39b-46), pick out the words that describe his state, look up what Greek words they translate, and study those words.
The words are:
  • lupeo (loo-peh'-o)
         Matthew 26:37
  • ademoneo (ad-ay-mon-eh'-o)
         Matthew 26:37, Mark 14:33
  • perilupos (per-il'-oo-pos)
         Matthew 26:38, Mark 14:34
  • ekthambeo (ek-tham-beh'-o)
         Mark 14:33
  • agonia (ag-o-nee'-ah)
         Luke 22:44
The word translated as “sore amazed” is ekthambeo. There is another word, thambeo, but here Mark uses the more intensive form ekthambeo. It means “to throw into terror or amazement; to alarm thoroughly, to terrify or astound.”[1]
A Sudden, Assaulting, Horrifying Terror
This is not an ordinary word for being troubled or distressed. Frederick W. Krummacher says Mark,
makes use of a word in the original which implies a sudden and horrifying alarm at a terrific object. The Evangelist evidently intends to intimate thereby that the cause of Jesus’ trembling must be sought, not in what might be passing in his soul, but in appearances from without which forced themselves upon him; something approached Him which threatened to rend His nerves, and the sight of it to freeze the blood in His veins.[2]
There was something outside himself that he saw. It appeared suddenly. It approached him. It already was approaching him when first he saw it. It got the drop on him. It forced itself upon him. It was a menacing horror. Jesus saw a living nightmare.
The text says, “he began to be sore amazed.” This reinforces the suddenness of the object’s appearance. Frederick S. Leahy says of the Man of Sorrows, “Christ has known sorrow before this, but the assertion that in Gethsemane he began to be sorrowful indicates a sudden steep decent into the billows of distress.”[3]
Stop the Bus
Something happened that brings us completely out of our depth. Can this even been studied? Should we be treading here? This “is not a place for hurried theological tourism,”[4]
And yet, Jesus chose to have Matthew, Mark, and Luke record it for us. We sense that it has such a distinct bearing on our redemption that we dare not pass it by. Our behavior should not resemble a pick pocket, who snatches salvation from Jesus' pocket and puts it in the bank, without recognizing the suffering that put such wealth into his pocket and ours.
We have done what we can for one day. We will meditate on this further on another day.


1.  The New Strong’s Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, Strong’s Number 1568, p. 80.
2.  Frederick W. Krummacher, The Suffering Saviour: Meditations on the Last Days of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977 printing of 1855 English translation from the 1854 German original), pp. 106-107.
3.  Frederick S. Leahy, The Cross He Bore: Meditations on the Sufferings of the Redeemer (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), p. 1.
4.  Ibid., p. 12.