Was this the way it all happened, or is Matthew indulging in a spot of "creative writing"? After all, he wasn't there, and more to the point nor were Peter or John. So how did he - or anyone - know what happened and what Jesus said in private prayer?
"Now brethren," as certain preachers of my past acquaintance were wont to say, "if you'd keep your finger in Matthew, turn back to 2 Samuel 15."
Here we find a despairing, weeping David on the Mount of Olives (2 Sam. 15: 30). Here David prayed, according to tradition, the words of Psalm 3:2-3. It appears that Matthew was very familiar with both the psalm and 2 Samuel as he wrote the arrest account. Skip ahead to 2 Sam. 15:26 which expresses David's acceptance of whatever might follow: "let him do to me what seems good to him."
The parallels are fascinating, and it would be difficult to deny that while there are also obvious differences, one does not foreshadow the other. An ancient tradition is retreaded for a new audience
I'm indebted for these insights to Thomas Thompson's excellent The Bible in History (1999), now sadly out of print. Thompson writes:
On the night before [Jesus] dies, he fills David's role as pietism's everyman on the Mount of Olives... Like David, Jesus is abandoned by his followers. He suffers despair, and is without hope. He goes to his mountain to pray, paraphrasing David's words in the voice of tradition: 'not my will but yours be done.' ... This is reiterated history...Reiteration is a theme Thompson returns to again and again. There is, he states, not a lot of originality in the scriptures. Their purpose is theological, not historical.
It's a point that seems hard to argue with, except we all tend to "take it as read" anyway, even when we know better. Naïvely citing texts as "Jesus' words" is as common among progressive Christians as fundagelicals, the only difference usually being the texts selected. Yet stories are often recycled, like episodes in various series of the Star Trek corpus. Klingons morph into Cardassians, but the storyline is the recognizably the same.
Apart from indulging in Pollyanna apologetics, just what do we do with that reality?