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.


1 comment:

  1. Christ's agony and horror was the thought of sin being poured on His pure soul. He Who was separate from sinners, Who knew no sin, Who did no sin and in Whom no sin was found shrank back in horror from being made a sin-offering and suffering the separation He dreaded from the Father. Mangasarian is an apostate who should stick to fiction.