Sunday, January 29, 2012

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.


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