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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Jesus' Prayer in the Garden (Mt 26:36–46 ǁ Mk 14:32–42 ǁ Lk 22:39–46 )


Mt 26:36–46 Mk 14:32–42 Lk 22:39–46
36Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ 37He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and stay awake with me.’ 39And going a little farther he threw himself on the ground and prayed ‘My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ 40Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? 41Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 42Again he went away for a second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ 43Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44So leaving them again, he went and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. 45Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’ 32They went to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ 33He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here and keep awake.’ 35And going a little farther he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if possible the hour might pass from him. 36He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ 37He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ 39And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.’ 42Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’ 39He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ 41Then he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, yet not my will but yours be done.’ [43Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.] 45When he got up from prayer he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, 46and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’

Jn 12:27–9

27‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Other said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’

Jn 18:11

Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’


The account of Jesus' prayer before his passion is a particularly rich example of how the several synoptic evangelists have adapted the tradition they received in order to express their own theology. There are also interesting links to the Fourth Gospel which most probably reflect an oral tradition about the prayer of Jesus at the pre-gospel stage. As a working hypothesis in the discussion of this pericope it will be assumed that Mark is the first of the Synoptic Gospels, used by both the other two.

A long series of scholars has suggested that Mark is here combining two accounts, e.g. one source is 14:32, 35, 40, 41 , the other is 14:33–4, 36–8 . More probable is the view that Mark is spinning out a minimum of material to convey his own message according to his own manner. It is shot through with elements of Mark's own style. As throughout the passion narrative, a principal motif is to make sense of the stunning events by showing that what happens fulfils the scripture. A little hint of this is the allusion to Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in ‘going a little further’ ( 14:35 , as Gen 22:5 ). But especially marked is the reminiscence in Jesus' words of the laments of the persecuted just man in the Psalms (Ps 41:6 in Mk 14:34 , etc.). The accent is on two factors, the obedience of Jesus to his Father's will and—by contrast—the failure of the disciples. Thus, with typical Markan duplication, the prayer of Jesus is given first indirectly (v. 35 ), then directly (v. 36 ).

Probably for the prayer itself Mark is using or imitating already the formulae of early Christian prayer, with the Aramaic abba immediately followed by its Greek translation (ho patēr). This double formula of a particular Aramaic word, regarded almost as a talisman, occurs elsewhere in the NT (1 Cor 16:22; Rev 1:7 ). Jesus' consciousness that God was his Father was treasured by the early community; this usage, stemming from Jesus himself, was greatly extended, especially in John. However, the use of abba for God is not, as Jeremias (1978 ) contended, unique to Jesus, indicating the affectionate relationship of childhood; children called their father abi rather than abba, and abba does occur occasionally in Jewish prayers. As elsewhere, Mark emphasizes the intensity of Jesus' prayer by the triple repetition beloved of popular story telling (see E.1). But, as in Peter's triple denial, he has barely enough material to trick out the full triad: the prayer is given fully the first time; for the second time the prayer is merely ‘the same word’, and on the third occasion it is only the return of Jesus rather than his prayer that is mentioned.

Thus the chief emphasis is on the failure of the disciples to take their share in their Master's final trial. Throughout the gospel they have repeatedly failed to grasp the message of suffering; now they are thrice found asleep while their Master prays, and their definite desertion at the arrest will be confirmed by Peter's triple denial at the moment when Jesus thrice faces his accusers. The bitterness of this occasion is underlined by the special involvement of precisely those three disciples who had been favoured with special revelation at the transfiguration (the link is stressed: again in their abashed confusion: they ‘knew not what to answer’). James and John had also stoutly protested that they could share Jesus' cup (Mk 10:39 ).


In Matthew's account, besides many little characteristic verbal changes of style, three changes of emphasis are visible. Firstly, Matthew tones down the lurid colours in which Mark paints Jesus' agony of mind: for Mark's word for Jesus' almost stunned distress, Matthew has the more seemly ‘grieved’. Instead of Mark's uncontrollable ‘falling [repeatedly, if the imperfect is taken seriously, as though Jesus were simply stumbling] to the ground’, the biblical attitude of reverent prayer is indicated by ‘fell face to the ground in prayer’ ( 26:39 , my tr.). This is in accord with Matthew's generally more dignified, and even hieratic, presentation of Jesus.

Secondly Matthew fills out the second prayer of Jesus. After the Jewish manner of respect for the Lord, both prayers are impersonal: ‘let this cup pass from me’, instead of Mark's direct request, ‘remove this cup from me’. Matthew gives content to the prayer by using the Lord's prayer, which he has set down at the very centre of the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Your will be done’ ( 26:42; 6:10 ). It may be presumed that, since Jesus is the model for his disciples, he will pray the same phrases as he taught them to pray. The intimacy of both first and second prayers is stressed by the affectionate address, ‘My Father’ ( 26:39, 42 ); this perhaps indicates both similarity and distinction between Jesus and his disciples, who are instructed to pray with the plural ‘Our Father’ ( 6:9 ). At the same time, a certain hesitancy is shown—perhaps the hesitancy of respect—by the repeated ‘if it is possible’ ( 26:39 ), ‘if it is not possible’ ( 26:42 ), instead of Mark's confident ‘for you all things are possible’ ( 14:36 ). After this elaboration of the second prayer, Matthew can transfer to the third prayer Mark's minimal account of the second, ‘saying the same words’ (Mk 14:39; Mt 26:44 ).

Matthew's third concern is to underline the solidarity that should exist between Jesus and his disciples. As always he tones down their failure, here by omitting Mark's critical ‘they did not know what to say to him’ (Mk 14:40 ). He also takes the spotlight off Peter by removing Jesus' intimate and disappointed question to him, ‘Simon, are you asleep?’ (Mk 14:37 ), and by putting into the plural the criticism, ‘could you not stay awake with me one hour?’ (Mt 26:40 ). This now concerns not only Peter but all the disciples. Twice he adds ‘with me’ to ‘stay awake’ ( 26:38, 40 ); they should share in his passion, just as frequently in Matthew Jesus' community will benefit from his permanent presence ( 1:23; 18:20; 28:18–20 ) and will share in his ministry of forgiveness ( 9:8; 18:18 ).


Luke's version of the scene on the Mount of Olives (there is no mention of ‘Gethsemane’; he often omits odd-sounding place-names, and has little interest in the topography of Jerusalem) is drastically shortened and unified. There is only one prayer and one return to the disciples. It is bracketed at beginning and end by the command, ‘Pray that you may not come into temptation’ ( 22:40, 46 ), exemplifying once more the Lukan theme of prayer, and more especially of the disciple praying after the model of the Master. In their persecutions and martyrdom, as in their working of miracles, the Acts of the Apostles will show the disciples mirroring exactly and continuing the life of Jesus into the era of the church. In the passion narrative too this carefully painted imitation comes to view in such details as Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross ‘behind Jesus' ( 23:26 ). All stress has been taken off the failure of the disciples, both by eradication of the triple repetition and by a couple of subtle changes in 22:45: instead of ‘sleeping’ they are now (despite NRSV) ‘lying down from grief’, that is, their sympathy with Jesus is so intense that they could not stay on their feet. Nevertheless, when he firmly ‘stands erect’ after his prayer he comes to them and tells them too to join him in this posture ( 22:45, 46 ).

The most notable difference in Luke is the account of Jesus himself. Quite definitely, though not yet so emphatically as in John, Jesus is in control of his passion and death: he will be arrested only when he has exercised his healing ministry ( 22:51 ) and given the arresting party his consent, ‘This is your hour’ ( 22:53 ), and dies only when he has commended his spirit into his Father's hands ( 23:46 ). So now, Jesus does not collapse onto the ground, but ‘knelt down’, as Christians later do in prayer (Acts 7:60; 9:40; 20:36; 21:5 ). There is no sign of distress: his single prayer is calm and resigned, with the same resignation shown later by Christians (Acts 21:14 ). But there is nothing lacking to the intensity of his prayer.

The verses 22:43–4 are missing in some MSS, but are widely quoted in the second century. If they are considered part of Luke's gospel they contain two features, showing the preparation of Jesus for his passion. Both have analogies in the books of Maccabees to which the genre of Luke-Acts is so similar. First, Jesus is represented as an athlete about to enter a contest, with his adrenalin up, rather than terrified and horror-struck as in Mark. There is no question of sweating blood; it is merely that his sweat flowed like blood. This is the physical condition of those preparing for martyrdom in the books of Maccabees (2 Macc 3:16; 15:19; 4 Macc 6:6, 11 ). Secondly, an angel appears to show that Jesus' prayer is regarded, just as in Mk 1:13 at the earlier testing in the desert, and as two angels came to strengthen Eleazar at his martyrdom (4 Macc 6:18 ). After his prayer Jesus stands confidently upright, and comes to tell his followers to do the same in their prayer during temptation.


John has no equivalent scene of the prayer in the garden, but there are clear echoes of the same tradition. Similarly, he has no scene of the trial before the Sanhedrin (Mk 14:53–64 ), but an echo of this scene appears earlier in the Pharisees' decision to kill him in Jn 11:57 . John portrays the passion of Jesus not as the moment of his humiliation but as the hour of his exaltation and glorification (see JN 18:1–19:24 ). John's Jesus is nevertheless fully human, so that his soul is troubled by the approaching trial ( 12:27a ). However, since it is the moment of his glorification and that of his Father ( 12:28 ), to which he has looked forward ( 2:4; 7:30; 8:20 ) and will look forward ( 13:1; 16:32 ), he thrusts aside the thought of praying to be delivered from it. The image of the cup of suffering seen in the synoptic accounts of the prayer in the garden is also present at his arrest in the garden ( 18:11 ). Here it is explicit that Jesus accepts the cup in an atmosphere of triumph, for it comes at the conclusion of the arrest scene. During this scene his divinity has shone through by his use of the mysterious divine ‘I am he’ ( 18:5, 6, 8 ) and the awestruck reaction of the arresting party in falling to the ground. He can be arrested only after he has given this consent. There are further echoes of the tradition in the Letter to the Hebrews, in the mention that ‘Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death’ (Heb 5:7 ). The echoes of the prayers of the persecuted just man in the psalms are evident here. As already in the wording of the prayer in Mark, Brown (1994: 229) suggests that this prayer ‘came from an early Christian hymn of praise constructed of a mosaic of psalm-motifs’. Behind it would be the same tradition as that of the synoptic and Johannine prayer in the garden.

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