Saturday 21 December 2013

Two Men on the Mount of Olives

(An earlier version of this post appeared back in 2010.)

Matthew tells the story of the night Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives (Mt. 26: 36-46). The Master talks to his companions about the coming betrayal before inviting his closest disciples to share the moment with him. They, of course, famously fall asleep instead. Jesus prays fervently alone, pleading with the Father. Finally, resolved to go through with whatever must come to pass, he rises only to be confronted with arrest.

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, fleeing for his life from Absalom (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 when he composed 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 L. Thompson's The Bible in History (1999):
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.

What this actually means for the contemporary reader is left up in the air. If the Gethsemane account is in fact "historical fiction", does it matter? What about the Christmas narratives? The miracle stories? The Resurrection account? How far down does this onion peel?

There are wonderful progressively minded believers who are more than happy to find the "facts" irrelevant, and thus liberated cut their faith free from such historical embarrassment. A decaffeinated - dehistoricized - faith that looks like the original product but lacks the pungency and kick.

But, to follow the analogy, real coffee drinkers might well ask, what's the point?

1 comment:

  1. The whole gospel story comes from the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. By placing certain passages from the LXX in a particular order, all the gospel writer had to do was provide a narrative...result, a biography of a Jesus who seems to fulfill passages of the LXX. Little do most people realize that Jesus IS those passages...