Easter. The Passion of Jesus VIII. Gethsemane part 6. Is it twelve or three? Draining the Cross of Meaning.

Part 9, here.
Part 7, here.

You can read the whole series here.

Gethsemane 6.

In Mark, after Jesus comes to Gethsemane, he takes Peter, James, and John with him a little further on, and then he leaves them and goes off by himself. This separation with the three occurs in other spots. Sometimes Andrew is included so you have two sets of brothers and Jesus. Mark 5 has Jesus raising the daughter of Jairus from the dead in the presence of Peter, James, and John. The Transfiguration has the three with him. In Mark 13, it’s Peter, James, John, and Andrew hearing Jesus teach on the Last Days. These four always appear at the beginning of lists of the disciples. As far as the rest are concerned, during Jesus’ ministry, they are basically invisible.

Peter, James, and John are the most remembered figures among the Twelve, the rest don’t really stand out in Acts or the Letters (Paul notes Peter and John). In the Gospels, the Twelve have a symbolic meaning, they will judge the twelve tribes, and Acts 6 suggests their governing status in the church, and their very basic Jewish practices. When some Christians are persecuted by Jews in Jerusalem, the Twelve (and probably the other “Hebrew” disciples) are not harassed.

There’s great drama in Mark’s story of Gethsemane, the separation from the 12 and then the 3 (some think this double separation represents a joining of 2 traditions). Jesus is alone, and they can’t help him, though he wants them to pray, it’s not clear what they are praying for. Jesus says, so you don’t enter into temptation. This is an obscure thing, but it may be a figure like the one that appears in the Lord’s Prayer. A reference to the eschatological Trial to come, the end times. The visual effect is inherent here and it’s been the object of artistic work in song, painting, and dramatic plays. I quoted a passage from the Book of Mormon that refers to this moment of torture in the last part, Luke’s bloody sweat image. An 1829 revelation (D&C 19) to Joseph Smith reads:

16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—
19 Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men.

It’s a little strange that this passage and the Book of Mormon angelic recitation have been used to drain the meaning of the Cross–to make it almost an afterthought. One source for this odd branching of theology is probably James Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. And perhaps it also stems from some continuing desire of Latter-day Saints to draw boundaries between Restored Christianity and Traditional Christianity.

Mantegna: Agony in the Garden. (Image: Wikipedia)

Mantegna: Agony in the Garden. (Image: Wikipedia)

Placing Gethsemane as the real and only atonement shows strongly in Marion G. Romney speeches (see for example his Oct. 1953 address: the Atonement of the Savior, but a number of his conference talks in the period have the same dimension). I think the idea is misguided and strains these passages to the breaking point. For example, the passage above really suggests that the cup is yet to come after Gethsemane. Indeed, this is the Johannine chronology of the Passion (Jn 18:11).

Recently some Latter-day Saints have weaved a complex of meaning here that is really unjustified by these passages and it’s this: somehow, the sins of mankind were atoned for in Gethsemane (today someone recited to me a new Primary song that encodes this), while the curse of Adam (human death) was revoked by the death on the Cross. I think the scripture points to the cross as not just an image. It’s the supreme moment and the ultimate Christ is there, linked inextricably with the empty tomb, but they are in many ways, one and the same. There is the reconciliation.

Mark describes Jesus as becoming greatly distressed and troubled (KJV: sore amazed, and to be very heavy). He’s tremendously shaken–Exceeding sorrowful even unto death (a quotation from Jonah), Matthew leaves out the greatly distressed, and Luke leaves out the whole thing. This is a very strong emotion and Luke does not like this, it’s too extreme. For Mark, Jesus is shaking in horror. Mark then inserts a Psalm (42:6; also 88:3?). And this Psalm became a medium to understand what is happening with Jesus. The Psalms form much of the Scripture background for the Passion stories.

I mentioned before that Mark writes that Jesus asks the three to watch with him, and the explanation may be a reference to the end of Mark 13:

Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning [Mark is going through all the Roman time marks, hours] lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch. (RSV)

There is an eschatological meaning here as there is in Mark’s recitation of Jesus’ prayers. I’ll come back to this in part 9 a bit.


  1. Jason K. says:

    I think that Mormon resistance to the cross contributes to our struggling to understand Paul, for whom the cross is central.

  2. This series is helping me understand these events in such a more complex way. Even when I don’t comment, know that I’m reading. Thanks, Bill.

  3. Jason K. says:

    Echoing what Ardis said, I caught up on this series today and found the experience very rewarding. Thanks, Bill.

  4. Thanks Ardis, Jason.

  5. And I agree, Jason, about Paul I mean. It’s the heart.

  6. Not only does resistance to the cross misread these New Testament passages, it also ignores the fact that in the Book of Mormon the cross is the place where the atonement is emphasized. This is true in second Nephi, and especially in third Nephi.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    I’m not sure it drains the meaning of the cross, but it’s pretty hard to see the cross as having some mystical or strong meaning beyond it being the way Christ was killed. His unjust death seems the key event even for Paul. Now Paul draws out from that a lot more. But if atonement is our focus, it seems hard to understand why the manner of his death matters that much. Further atonement as becoming one seems to require Christ understanding us in some strong sense in order to help us.

    From a Mormon theological perspective then the key events are some sort of understanding and comprehension that allows something omniscient or near omniscient while Christ is still human. While Mormons might err in attributing too much of this to Gethsemane I’m not sure it’s an error to focus on that aspect of Christology.

    The second focus for Mormons is the resurrection and while the reason resurrection is such a problem isn’t terribly clear for Mormons, that Christ enables it is. But the image for that is the open tomb not the cross.

    The final focus for Mormons seems to be the opening up of the spirit world. But that’s not really a part of the gospels and is much more found in Peter’s epistles.

    Now as I said there are issues here. Not the least of being what is the significance of Christ being unjustly killed. I don’t think Mormons focus on that as much as we should whereas it’s undeniably a big focus for the gospels. However I think it makes sense this is more of a focus for the gospels and for Paul given the Jewish expectations of what a Messiah should be like (which we simply don’t share).

    To draw an analogy, a problem Mormons have when talking to non-Mormons is our whole focus on the Church being true. It’s a big deal to us but not to others. It’s important to us in part because it differentiates us from these other groups but also due to the context in the 1820-30s when many of our key texts were produced. In the same way the Messiahhood of Christ as contrasted with expectations especially among the more zealous pharisees was a big deal at that time.

  8. Clark, I think you’ve pretty much missed the point. here. I’ll try and think of a better way to say it. Maybe in a later post.

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