Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 3 (Lk 22:39-46; Jn 18:1-11)

The Prayer Scene—Mk 14:32-42; Matt 26:36-46; Lk 22:39-46

The Prayer scene in the Garden (or Gethsemane) is one of the most famous and moving portions of the Passion narrative, perhaps because of the powerful dramatic effect of seeing Jesus struggle with human fear and suffering—indicating how far he shared in the human condition (Heb 5:7, etc). The Synoptic Tradition makes this the central scene of the Passion narrative—epitomizing Jesus’ passion, properly speaking. The Markan outline vividly shows Jesus separate from the disciples, taking along with him only three (Peter and the brothers James and John); then he moves further away from them, and prays to God on his own. This movement into prayer takes place by steps:

  • To the disciples: “Sit here until [i.e. while] I speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray]” (v. 32)
    • He moves away, taking Peter, James and John with him (v. 33)
      He begins to be struck (with sorrow) and full (of distress) in (his) mind
    • To the three: “My soul is in pain (all) around until [i.e. to the point of] death! Remain here and stay aroused [i.e. keep awake, keep watch]” (v. 34)
      • He goes forward a little to pray by himself (v. 35a)
        He falls upon the ground (overwhelmed by the moment)

The time of prayer (lit. speaking out toward [God]) begins with verse 35b, where Jesus’ prayer is summarized by the narrator in the context of his Passion:

“he spoke out toward (God) [i.e. prayed] that, if it is possible, the hour [w%ra] might go along (away) from him”

This is then repeated in direct address by Jesus, as part of a three-fold cycle (vv. 36-41a), in which Jesus prays for a time, and then returns to the three disciples to find them asleep. Only in the first instance are Jesus’ words—the essence of his prayer—recorded:

“Abba, (my) Father, all things are possible for you [i.e. are in your power]—(please) carry along this cup (away) from me! But (yet let it not be) what I wish, but what you (wish)” (v. 36)

Following this first time of prayer, Jesus’ address to the disciples (to Peter) is also recorded:

“Shim’on, are you sleeping? Did you not have strength to keep aroused [i.e. awake] for one hour? Stay aroused and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], that you might not come into (the) testing! The spirit has a forward impulse [i.e. is ready/willing], but the flesh is without strength.” (vv. 37-38)

The Gospel writer provides no further words until Jesus’ third (final) return, when he wakes the disciples and gives the climactic declaration in vv. 41-42. The reference to the “hour” (w%ra) is parallel to that in verse 35b and marks the scene as the beginning of Jesus Passion—which will continue with his arrest, interrogation/trial, mistreatment, and death.

The Gospel of Matthew (26:36-46) follows Mark quite closely here, giving even greater definition to the three-fold cycle of prayer mentioned above. Several details serve to enhance and personalize the scene:

    • “he began to be in pain/sorrow…” [a different verb is used] (v. 37)
    • “remain here and keep aroused [i.e. keep awake/watch] with me” (v. 38)
    • “he fell upon his face” (v. 39)

More notable, Matthew records (the essence of) the first two times of prayer, giving us Jesus’ words:

    • 1st: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup go along (away) from me! Yet not as I wish (it), but as you (wish it to be)” (v. 39)
    • 2nd: “My Father, if this (cup) is not able to go along (from me) if not (that) [i.e. unless] I drink it, may your will come to be” (v. 42)

This doubling generally fits what Mark describes in 14:39, but creates a more dramatic moment.

Luke’s account (22:39-46) is rather different from the version in Mark/Matthew, though it clearly derives from the same basic tradition. Much depends on the status of verses 43-44, which are textually uncertain (for more on this, cf. the supplemental note). Commentators are divided on whether or not to include them as part of the original text. I am inclined to regard them as secondary—an ancient interpolation perhaps drawn from authentic (historical) tradition, despite the seemingly legendary quality to the details. If the shorter text is original, then Luke certainly presents a much abridged version of the scene, with two main differences:

    • The three-fold cycle of prayer is replaced with a single time of prayer, followed by Jesus’ return to the disciples.
    • There are two exhortations to pray, which frame the scene (cf. below)

The references to Jesus’ sorrow and distress have also been eliminated—that is, unless we accept vv. 43-44 as original, in which case Luke’s version contains a different (and even more striking) depiction of Jesus’ physical and emotional anguish. The overall tone and tenor of Luke’s account would seem to argue against this portrait in vv. 43-44. The shorter text has a clear chiastic structure (another argument in its favor):

    • Exhortation to the disciples to pray, so as not to come into testing/temptation (v. 40)
      • Jesus withdraws from them and falls down to his knees on the ground (v. 41)
        ——His prayer to the Father (v. 42)
      • He stands up from prayer and returns to the disciples (v. 45)
    • Exhortation to the disciples to pray, so as not to come into testing/temptation (v. 46)

The Lukan form of Jesus’ prayer differs slightly from those in Mark/Matthew, combining elements of both versions (cp. above):

“Father, if you will (it), carry along this cup (away) from me! Yet let your will, not mine, come to be” (v. 42)

This idiom of drinking the cup is a way of expressing the acceptance of one’s destiny, as it has been determined by God. For something of the Old Testament background, cf. Psalm 11:6; 75:9; Isa 51:17, 22; Jer 25:15; 49:12; Lam 4:21. Sometimes the image carries the sense of accepting one’s death, as in the expression “cup of death” in the Jerusalem II Targum on Gen 40:23 (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 1442).

John 18:1-11

John’s version of the Garden scene is quite different from the Synoptics, and certainly derives from a separate line of tradition. Yet there are certain elements in common which indicate that both lines rely upon a fundamental set of historical traditions:

    • The general location—a place on the slope of the Mount of Olives, though indicated by different designations. John is unique in describing it as a garden spot across the “winter-flowing Kidron” riverbed (v. 1). There may be an allusion here to 2 Sam 15:23.
    • The arrival of Judas (the betrayal) with a crowd of police/soldiers and attendants of the religious authorities (Chief Priests, etc). The tradition that Judas was familiar with the place (v. 2) may have confirmation from the notice in Lk 22:39.
    • Jesus addresses them (spec. Judas) on their arrival
    • The incident of the disciple who cuts off the ear of the High Priest’s slave with a sword
    • Jesus’ words of rebuke in response (in Matthew & Luke, but not Mark), along with a declaration regarding the necessity of these things (i.e. his arrest) coming to pass
    • Jesus is taken into custody by the crowd

The outline of John’s account is quite simple:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-2)
    • The arrival of Judas with the crowd—their encounter with Jesus (vv. 3-9)
    • Peter’s violent action and Jesus’ response (vv. 10-11)

The central scene is very much unique to John, both in the way Judas is presented, and, even more so, by the depiction of the crowd’s encounter with Jesus (vv. 4-8). The detail in vv. 2-3 reminds the reader of Judas’ former inclusion as one of Jesus’ Twelve closest disciples, and of the betrayal as he arrives with a crowd of attendants (acting as police) from the Chief Priests, along with (Roman) soldiers (a detail found only in John). After verse 5, Judas essentially disappears from the scene; there is nothing corresponding to Mk 14:44-45 par. His role (as betrayer) was to set Jesus’ Passion and death in motion.

By contrast, the encounter in vv. 4-8 between Jesus and the crowd is striking, with nothing like it in the Synoptics (cp. Mk 14:48-49, for the nearest parallel). Jesus has a commanding presence, and speaks with such authority, so as to cause the crowd to shrink back and fall to the ground. His double declaration of e)gw\ ei)mi (“I am [he]”, vv. 6, 8) is certainly to be related to the earlier I AM statements of Jesus in John, and intended here as a declaration of his identity as the eternal Son of God. As such it carries definite Christological weight, and is a far cry from the portrait of Jesus in the Synoptic version of the Garden episode. In this same spirit is the emphasis on Jesus’ control over the disciples—those given to him by God the Father and left in his care (vv. 8-9). His authority protects them from harm in the moment of his arrest.

It is significant that John’s version contains nothing of the Synoptic depiction of Jesus’ distress and anguish; indeed, there is nothing at all corresponding to the Prayer scene (cf. above), except perhaps for the wording of the concluding declaration in v. 11. A closer parallel may be found at an earlier point in the narrative, in 12:27ff:

“Now my soul has been disturbed, and what may I say? ‘Father, save me out of this hour?’ But through this [i.e. for this reason] I came into this hour.” (v. 27)

The Johannine presentation of the disciple’s rash and violent act with the sword is meant to serve as a decided contrast to the calm authority and control with which Jesus acts. John provides several interesting (and unique) details:

    • The disciple, otherwise unidentified in the Synoptics, is Peter
    • The name of the slave—Malchus
    • Agreement with Luke in specifying the right ear

The latter is a natural development of the tradition; the second would appear (on objective grounds) to be authentic historical information. Only the identification of the disciple with Peter is problematic—how and/or why would the other Gospels have left out this key bit of information if it were part of the original tradition? However one judges the historical-critical question, the identification with Peter is important within the Johannine narrative, as it serves as a parallel to Peter’s role (his denial) in the next episode. His rash act with the sword is, in some ways, an extension of his failure in the denial scene. Often in the Gospel tradition, Peter effectively represents all the disciples, and so perhaps we should understand it here.

Even more significant is Jesus’ response to Peter’s act (v. 11). Matthew and Luke also record (very different) responses; John’s version is closest to the declaration by Jesus in Matthew (26:52-54), at least in its initial words:

“Turn your sword away back into its place!…” (Matthew)
“Cast (your) sword (back) into the sheath!…” (John)

In place of the Synoptic reference to the fulfillment of Scripture (Matt 26:54 par), in John’s version, Jesus’ words echo the Synoptic prayer scene:

“…the cup which the Father has given me (to drink), (indeed) shall I not drink it?” (v. 11b)

John’s account also differs slightly in that he separates the actual arrest of Jesus (v. 12) from the main Garden scene, making it part of the next episode—the interrogation of Jesus before the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin)—which will be discussed in the next note.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 28, 28A (1985).

March 15: Matthew 6:13b

Matthew 6:13b

The final petition in the Matthean version of the Lord’s Prayer, while present in the majority of manuscripts of Luke, is absent a diverse range of witness, including some of the earliest and best manuscripts (Ë75 a*2 B L f1 700 pc vg, and segments of the Syriac and Coptic tradition). As with the other parts of the Prayer where a shorter Lukan version is attested, the longer form is almost certainly secondary, representing a scribal harmonization (to Matthew), of the sort we see frequently in the manuscript tradition. Here the text-critical axiom lectio brevior potior (“the shorter reading is preferable”) holds good. This (final) petition in Matthew (followed by the Didache) reads:

a)lla\ r(u=sai h(ma=$ a)po\ tou= ponhrou/
alla rhusai h¢mas apo tou pon¢rou
“but may you rescue us from the evil”

An Aramaic original, insofar as it valid to reconstruct, might be something like:

av*ya!B= /m! an`l=X#a^ <r^B=
b§ram °aƒƒéln¹° min b§°îš¹°
(cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901)

From the standpoint of the Matthean structure of the Prayer, it is better to consider this line as part of the previous petition (cf. the prior note). This is indicated by the contrastive/adversative particle a)lla/ (“but, rather”), establishing a contrast with the previous request, which had been negative (i.e., what God should not do); here is the corresponding positive request:

    • “May you not bring us into testing
      • but (rather) may you (instead) rescue us from the evil”

The main interpretive difficulty involves the precise meaning of the word ponhro/$ (“evil”). There are three question which must be addressed:

    1. Whether the article here is masculine or neuter
    2. The force of the definite article, and
    3. The nature of the “evil” referred to in the context of the Prayer

Each of these will be dealt with in turn. First, it is worth noting that the adjective ponhro/$ is much more frequent in Matthew than in the other Gospels. Mark has it (twice) in just one tradition (7:22-23), while it occurs just three times in John (3:19; 7:7; 17:5). It is a bit more common in Luke (12 times), with another 8 occurrences in Acts. By comparison it appears 25 times in Matthew, including 8 in the Sermon on the Mount; 5 of the 12 Lukan occurrences are in the parallel “Sermon on the Plain”. Overall, the adjective appears to be distinctive of the sayings of Jesus in the so-called “Q” material—sayings and traditions found in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.

1. The word with definite article is a substantive adjective (i.e. functioning as a noun), but the particular genitive form tou= ponhrou= is ambiguous in terms of gender: it can either be masculine or neuter. It is helpful to consider first the other 7 occurrences of the adjective in the Sermon on the Mount. It modifies masculine nouns in 5:45; 6:23; 7:11, 17-18—”man” (a&nqrwpo$ [implied]), “eye” (o)fqalmo/$), and “fruit” (karpo/$). In all these instances the adjective is used to describe the character of human beings, their attitude and actions. The same is probably the case in 5:39, where the substantive use (with the definite article) most likely refers to the person doing evil, rather than the evil itself. In 5:37 the substantive genitive tou= ponhrou= has the same ambiguity we see in here in the Prayer. The only certain occurrence of the neuter is in 5:11, where it refers to evil that is spoken against Jesus’ disciples. This neuter usage is similar to the plural substantive in Mark 7:23 (“these evil [thing]s”). Thus, it would appear that it is more common in the Sermon to use the adjective as characteristic of a person, rather than a reference to evil itself.

2. An interesting question is whether the definite article simply reflects a substantive use of the adjective (as a noun) generally, or whether it refers to evil in a specific sense. This will be discussed further under point #3 below. However, it is worth keeping in mind the parallel with the noun peirasmo/$ (“testing”); the rhythm and structure of the petition is aided by the inclusion of the definite article—peirasmo/$/o( ponhro/$—creating two nouns at the center of the contrast: “into testing” vs. “(away) from the evil”. But perhaps true definiteness is intended here as well, and meant to be emphasized, i.e. “the evil”. If so, then there are several possible meanings:

    • The evil which we experience or which comes upon us, specifically as sin, in the course of our life on earth
    • The (power of) evil which dominates the current Age, or, in an eschatological sense, is coming upon the world
    • The Evil One—the personification of evil, or the person most characterized by evil and responsible for it, i.e. the figure known as the Satan (/f*c*[h^]), dia/bolo$ (‘Devil’), or Belial (cf. 2 Cor 6:15 and the Qumran texts).

If we look at other occurrences in Matthew where the adjective is used with a definite article, we see that it is used two ways: (1) for specific person(s) who are evil, and (2) for the specific evil things a person says and does. There are actually two sections where these references occur: the teaching in 12:33-37 (cp. 7:15-20 and Mk 7:21-23), and the Kingdom parables in chapter 13. An examination of these is instructive.

  • Matt 12:35 presents a contrast between the person who is good and the one who is evil:
    “The good man casts out good (thing)s out of the good treasure (of his heart), and the evil man [o( ponhro/$ a&nqrwpo$] casts out evil (thing)s [ponhra/] out of the evil treasure [e)k tou= ponhrou= qhsaurou=] (of his heart).”
    This wording echoes that of 5:37 in the Sermon and may provide the context for the more ambiguous expression there:
    “And (so) your account must be “Yes, yes” (and) “no, no”, and the thing over (beyond) these (words) is [i.e. comes] out of the evil [e)k tou= ponhrou=].”
    It is often assumed that “the evil” that brings about the oath here is “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Devil; however, the parallel in 12:35 suggests that it may actually refer to the evil (treasure) that is in a person’s heart.
  • By contrast, twice in chapter 13, in Jesus’ explanation of both the parable of the Sower and of the Weeds (vv. 19, 38), the expression o( ponhro/$ (“the evil”) almost certainly does refer to “the Evil (One)”, i.e. the Satan. The evil human beings (“the evil [one]s”) who are separated from the good at the Last Judgment (v. 49) reflect the character of the Evil One himself, even as Jesus’ faithful disciples reflect the character of God Himself (cf. 5:48, etc).

3. Now let us consider further the use of o( ponhro/$ (or to\ ponhro/n) in the context of both the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount. As documented above, the adjective serves the dualistic contrast present in Jesus’ teaching—that is, as a way of characterizing persons who do not follow his teaching, and who act and think in a way that does not reflect God the Father in Heaven. This continues the dualism we noted in earlier parts of the Prayer, especially in the opening petitions which emphasize God the Father as the One in the heavens. Jesus’ true disciples are those who, by following his teaching and example, actually do the will of God here on earth, even as it is done in heaven. The opposite of God’s will on earth is the presence and manifestation of wickedness and evil, which characterizes much (if not the majority) of humankind (cf. 7:11). Most people act and think in an earthly manner, seeking after earthly (and not heavenly) things. This is a fundamental principle that runs through the Sermon and establishes the contrast for how Jesus disciples are supposed to conduct themselves in their daily life (on earth). At the same time, there is an eschatological dimension, to both the Sermon and the Prayer, which emphasizes the coming Judgment and also the suffering and persecution Jesus’ followers will face on earth from the wicked and the forces of evil.

With all of this in mind, it is time to set forth several lines of interpretation for the phrase a)po\ tou= ponhrou= (“from the evil”) in this petition of the Prayer; bear in mind that each interpretation must also take into account the parallel expression “into testing” (ei)$ peirasmo/n):

  1. The evil we experience, in terms of sin and the temptation to commit sin (understanding peirasmo/$ here as “temptation”).
  2. The evil we experience (from others), and to which we must respond and endure–understood generally as mistreatment and persecution; here the “testing” involves our response to such mistreatment, following Jesus’ own instruction in the Sermon.
  3. The “testing” is temptation (which God allows), and “the Evil One” (i.e. Satan/Devil/Belial) is the one who tempts us to follow the way of evil along with the rest of humankind.
  4. The “testing” is the suffering and distress which Jesus’ followers experience on earth, and the evil is that which dominates the current Age (under the control of the Evil One).
  5. A variation of (d) gives greater emphasis to the eschatological context of the Prayer—i.e. the suffering/distress which is coming upon the world, and especially upon Jesus’ followers in the form of persecution and the danger of being deceived, falling from faith, etc.

In the next note I will discuss these options further, along with what it means to be “rescued” by God from this evil.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.

March 13: Matt 6:13a; Luke 11:4b

Matthew 6:13a; Luke 11:4b

In the final petition(s) of the Lord’s Prayer, the focus shifts from sin and evil at the social (and religious) level, to encompass a wider, cosmic dimension. The petition found in all three versions of the Prayer, and which occurs in the same Greek form in each, is:

kai\ mh\ ei)sene/gkh|$ h(ma=$ ei)$ peirasmo/n
kai m¢ eisenengk¢s h¢mas eis peirasmon
“and (we ask that) you should not bring us into testing”

A possible Aramaic version, as might have been spoken by Jesus, is (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 901):

/oys=n]l= an`N^l!u@T^ la^w+
w§°al ta±¢linnán¹° l§nisyôn

The first thing to notice about the Greek text, is that the verb form as changed from a second person imperative to subjunctive: “you should/might…”. This is not as significant as it might seem, since an aorist subjunctive, especially when preceded by a negative particle (mh/) often has the force of an imperative (prohibition); and this is the only petition which makes a negative request of God (“may you not…”), indicating something we would ask God not to do. Still, it is possible that the subjunctive may be intended to soften the idea that we (human beings) are prohibiting God from doing something.

The verb used is ei)sfe/rw (or, more properly, –ene/gkw as an irregular verb form), meaning “carry into, bring into”. It is relatively rare in the New Testament (just 7 other occurrences), sometimes being used in the sense of bringing someone forcefully into a room, or into custody, etc (Lk 5:18-19; 12:11). The noun peirasmo/$, often translated “temptation”, properly means “test(ing)” (cf. the related verb peira/zw). The idea of believers being “tested” sometimes has the positive connotation of coming through the test as a proof of their character, their faith and trust, etc (James 1:12; 1 Pet 4:12-13; Rev 2:10); however, more commonly, the negative sense of temptation to sin and the danger of falling away from the faith is in view. Almost certainly, the latter aspect is intended primarily here in the Prayer. And, if the negative sense is intended, then it raises the problematic theological question of how (or why) God would bring someone into “temptation”. I have discussed the matter briefly in an earlier note on the Prayer, however, it is necessary here to go into the matter in more detail.

To begin with, we should keep in mind the conjunction kai/ which begins this petition, connecting it with the two prior. The Lukan sequence of three petitions (instead of the Matthean four) gives us a more concise set, which relate to different aspects of the life and existence of human beings (believers, in particular):

    • “may you give to us our bread…”
    • “may you release for us our sins…”
    • “may you not bring us into testing”

I would suggest that, in the Prayer itself, the word peirasmo/$ refers, not so much to temptation (to sin), as it does to suffering and distress. Consider the following thematic outline of the petitions in this regard:

    • Daily Life—Our daily needs for physical life and health, etc
    • Religion—Our moral and religious obligations, emphasizing the forgiveness of sin and guilt we hold before God
    • Suffering—The physical and spiritual distress we experience as disciples of Jesus (believers) in the world

This emphasis on peirasmo/$ as suffering and distress helps to explain, I think, the similarity between this petition in the Prayer, and the words of Jesus in the garden at the time of his Passion. Two traditions, in particular, should be noted:

  • First, the prayer Jesus makes to the Father:
    “Father…may you carry along [pare/negke] this drinking-cup from me…” (Mk 14:36 par, cf. verses 33-35 for an expression of his distress)
    The verb parafe/rw (“carry along”) has a similar sense as ei)sfe/rw (“carry/bring into”), expressing the same idea of suffering, from two perspectives: (i) a time of suffering coming to Jesus (or the disciple), and (ii) the disciple coming into a time of suffering; in both instances God is the one who brings this about. And, just as Jesus prays that this time of suffering might not come to him (however necessary it might be), so it is right and proper that his disciples (believers) follow his example and pray that they might not come into the time of suffering.
  • Second, the instruction Jesus gives to his disciples:
    “You must keep awake and speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], (so) that you might not come into testing” (Mk 14:38 par, cf. verses 34, 37)
    The phrase “…might not come into testing” (mh\ e&lqete ei)$ peirasmo/n) is very close in form to that in the Prayer. The context suggests that peirasmo/$ here refers not to the temptation to sin per se, but, rather, that the disciples might find protection from the time of darkness and distress coming upon the world (v. 41; Lk 22:53). There is a strong eschatological aspect to this idea (cf. Mark 13:4-23 par) which is often lost for Christians reading the Gospels today. The (end-time) distress which is about to come upon Jesus’ followers includes the very real danger that people will be deceived and led astray, abandoning their faith as suffering and persecution intensifies (cp. Jesus’ prediction in Mk 14:27 par with 13:9-13, 22 par). Only the disciple who endures and remains true to the end will be saved (v. 13 par).

The line of interpretation given above more or less avoids the problematic notion, often discussed, that God might bring believers into temptation (i.e. to sin), quite contrary to other teaching we find in the New Testament (see the famous statement in James 1:13-14ff). However, if one decides that the petition does, in fact, refer to temptation (to sin) in the customary sense, it remains necessary to explain what this might mean in the context of the Prayer. Several possibilities may be adopted by commentators in approaching the issue:

    • God is ultimately responsible for all things, controlling all events which we experience; this is applied to temptation as well, even though He is not the one who (directly) tempts us. In other words, this petition simply asks that we be kept away from sin and temptation, but expresses it in a manner that emphasizes the will and power of God.
    • God may choose, by his sovereign will, to bring us into times of testing (including temptation to sin); even though these might be necessary (Jesus himself was tempted), it is natural that we would wish to avoid such moments. Far from being sinful, or cowardly, it is a sign of faithfulness to express our human fears and desires to God.
    • Temptation involves a legitimate testing by God of His people (for the Old Testament background of this, cf. Exod 16:4; 20:20; Deut 8:2, 16; 13:4; 33:8; Judg 2:22, etc; Fitzmyer, p. 906); as a result, some will fail and fall away, but the true disciples, the faithful remnant, will pass the test. This petition, like others in the Prayer, refers not so much to the temptation of the individual believer as it does to the Community as a whole. There is a natural wish that the Community not have to experience the reality of temptation and sin with the effects it has on the communal identity of Christians. In other words, even if an individual is not immediately affected, sin brings suffering and distress to the Community.

Other possible ways of addressing the question represent, to a large extent, variations on the three given above. I believe that first of these would best represent the ancient worldview and manner of thinking shared by Jews and early Christians at the time.

These notes on the Lord’s Prayer commemorate the start of the new feature “Monday Notes on Prayer” on this site.

March 1: Matt 4:1-11 par; 6:13; Lk 11:4

A traditional text from the Gospels for the First Sunday in Lent is the narrative of the Temptation of Jesus (parallel accounts in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13, along with a brief summary note in Mark 1:12-13). The themes of fasting and renunciation—denial of self, submission to God’s will, and endurance of testing—were deemed especially applicable to the season of Lent. In many parts of the world, strict Lentan rules are still in force, though among Protestants seasonal fasting has largely disappeared. And, although the three temptations Jesus faces in the narrative are, in one sense, unique to his Person (“if you are the Son of God…”), believers may still follow his example and also gain strength by the account.

The narratives in Matthew and Luke are very close, and are generally regarded by critical scholars as deriving from the common collection of sayings and traditions designated as “Q” (Quelle, source). In any case, it is clear that a common tradition is at work. The greatest difference between the two involves the order of the temptations:

LUKE:

1.       In the desert (vv. 2-4)

2.       High mountain (vv. 5-8)

3.       Wing/pinnacle of the Temple (vv. 9-12)

MATTHEW:

1.       In the desert (vv. 2-3)

2.       Wing/pinnacle of the Temple (vv. 5-7)

3.       High mountain (vv. 8-10)

The order in Matthew is often considered more likely to be original, for two main reasons: (1) the gradual ascension from desert floor to high mountain, (2) the declaration ku/rion to\n qeo/n sou proskunh/sei$ kai\ au)tw=| mo/nw| latreu/sei$ (“you shall worship [lit. kiss toward] the Lord your God and he alone you shall serve”) is a more suitable climax. This may well be case; however, I tend to prefer the Lukan order: (1) the climax on top of the Temple in Jerusalem seems particularly appropriate in the context of the Gospels, (2) there seems to be an intensifying in the nature of the temptation:

    1. Satisfying physical need (hunger)
    2. Gaining Worldly power and ambition
    3. Testing God

Not surprisingly, a few (versional) manuscripts apparently modified Luke to match Matthew’s order, and there may well be a tendency so to harmonize the accounts; but this is entirely unnecessary. For here is truly an example where the differences between the Gospels are complementary, and both should be held up together as containing important points of emphasis.

For a moment I would like to turn to the brief account in Mark 1:12-13, where it states kai\ eu)qu\$ to\ pneu=ma au)to\n e)kba/llei ei)$ th\n e&rhmon, “and immediately the Spirit casts him out in the the desert…” This is quite striking (Matthew and Mark use very different language in their account), and for me it brings to mind the famous petition of the Lord’s Prayer kai\ mh\ ei)sene/gkh|$ h(ma=$ ei)$ peirasmo/n (“and you should not bring us into testing”), Luke 11:4b, and identical in Matthew 6:13a with the accompanying imperatival phrase a)lla\ r(u=sai h(ma=$ a)po\ tou= ponhrou= (“but drag us away [i.e. rescue us] from the evil”).  Here I find three major interpretive questions, which I will discuss briefly:

1. What is the precise meaning of peirasmo/$?

Generally the Greek word would be translated “test, testing, trial” (from peira/w, “attempt, try, try to do [something]”). It can have: (1) a general, or neutral sense; (2) a positive sense (i.e, of “proving” someone or something); or (3) a negative sense (i.e., temptation). In the New Testament, the negative sense is more common, and probably is so intended here; however, I would still caution against translating the word as “temptation”, for the more general English “test, testing” is a better fit—the overall context, not translation of individual words, ultimately determines the meaning. Certainly, the positive sense of testing/proving would seem unlikely: otherwise, why, indeed, would we pray for God not to lead us into it? Some scholars have thought that here peirasmo/$ refers to an eschatological testing or “tribulation” preceding the final Judgment; this is possible, but, I think also unlikely. In virtually every instance in the New Testament where ‘testing’ is mentioned in an eschatological context, the positive aspect of ‘proving’ (do/kimo$, doki/mion) is present (cf. 1 Peter 1:6; 4:12, etc). Here in the Lord’s Prayer, I would say that a sense of ‘testing’ involving sin, evil, and/or present suffering is required.

2. What does it mean then to “bring into” (ei)sfe/rw) testing?

The verb form (ei)sene/gkh|$) is a subjunctive, and not an imperative; however, the (aorist) subjunctive + mh/ takes on the force of a prohibition “you should not….” which is similar to an imperative. The petition is that God should not bring (or lead) us into testing; but, if “testing” is understood in the negative sense of “temptation” (to sin), then this would seem to present a major theological difficulty, already recognized in the early Church—that God should be said to “tempt” believers (see virtually the opposite notion explicitly stated in James 1:13). No simple answer can be given, other than to suggest that in the Lord’s Prayer, in keeping with the form of a basic prayer, peirasmo/$ should be understood (and translated) in a very general way (as “test” or “testing”). Despite the profundity of the Prayer, it remains very concise and simple in form—it is not meant to present a detailed theology (much less a theodicy!), and, I believe, ought to be understood as covering more ground here than simply “temptation”. Testing, particularly of a sort that we would naturally wish to avoid—involving some form of suffering, or the possibility of moral failure, and the like—will surely be part of every believer’s experience. I would also say that it is a most natural, human response, the expression that we would prefer not to go through such testing. Since God guides the paths of all believers, certainly, it is He who brings us into testing. Far from being sinful, or cowardly, I consider it faithful to express our human fears and desires to God. Surely, there is no better example than Jesus himself who prayed first “Abba, Father, all things are powerful [i.e. possible] to you; bring along [i.e. take away] this cup from me”, adding, “but not what I wish, but what you [wish]”.

3. How should we understand to ponhro/$?

Increasingly today, commentators interpret this phrase—literally, “the evil”—as “the evil (One)”, that is, Satan. This is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, at least in terms of the thrust of Jesus’ original words. However, this is far from clear as the Prayer now stands in the Gospels. Again, I suggest it is better to keep the sense (and translation) of the Greek as simple and general as possible—i.e., “the evil”, including the malevolent actions of humans and devils alike. As with the rest of the Prayer, the language is simple and striking: “but drag us (away) from the evil”. Once more an imperative is used—if there is some caution, or uncertainty, in the request not to be brought into testing, there is none here: as it has been traditionally rendered…”deliver us from evil!”

In the Greek Church, the First Sunday of (Great) Lent is the “Feast of Orthodoxy”—celebrating the victory of Orthodoxy against heresy. The immediate historical context was the Iconoclastic controversy in the Byzantine Church. Icons are images—of Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and other famous Saints—which decorated church buildings and were used in worship. Some leaders began to denounce the practice, thought, in the wake of the Islamic conquests, to have brought down God’s judgment on the Byzantine Empire. Use of Icons was outlawed, resulting in oppression and persecutions, until the council of Nicaea in 787 (last of the so-called ‘Ecumenical Councils’) restored their use, and again, decisively in 843. While the whole issue of icons and images may seem strange and hard to understand in the West (especially in Protestant circles), it has been, and remains, deeply felt in Eastern Churches as a vital part of faith and practice. Icons related to Holy Week—the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ—hold a special place in the tradition.

January 17: The Temptation

January 17 is the traditional date to commemorate St. Anthony (Antony), c. 250-356 A.D., the most famous of the so-called Desert Fathers and a pioneering figure of early Monasticism. He was born somewhere in Middle Egypt (the town of Coma, according to Sozomen’s Church History I.13). As a young man, inspired by the teachings (Matt 6:34; 19:21) and example of Jesus (see below), Anthony sold off his possessions, gave away the money, and embarked on the solitary, ascetic life. Over time, he moved further and further away from his home region—first under the tutelage of an older hermit, then alone in an empty tomb vault (until he was 35), and then for many years in a deserted fort along the Nile (the “outer mountain” at Pispir). At about this time he began to attract disciples around him whom he instructed in the ascetic way (cf. Athanasius’ Life §14-43). Later on, he moved further out across the eastern desert to a favorable location at the base of a mountain (the “inner mountain”, site known as Deir Mar Antonios), where he would reside the rest of his life, while making occasional visits elsewhere and himself receiving many visitors. In spite of this popular ideal of ascetic simplicity, by all accounts Anthony was well-read and familiar with Greek philosophy, fully able to engage in philosophical and theological discussion; according to Athanasius (Life §68-80), he was also a staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy (against Arianism). At least partly due to Anthony’s influence, the monastic way of life began to flourish in Egypt, the settlement at Pispir maintaining a prominent position.

The lasting popularity and fame of Anthony was due in no small measure the biography written by Athanasius (the Life of St. Antony), composed within a few years of the Desert Father’s death (356). It proved to be a “best-seller”, and, after the New Testament, perhaps the most widely read writing from the early Church. Athanasius himself (celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Churches on Jan 18), was a towering figure, holding a position in the East at least comparable to that of Augustine in the West. He was born in Alexandria at the end of the 3rd century (c. 296), and, as a relatively young man, attended the Council of Nicea in 325. Soon after (328), he was consecrated bishop of Alexandria, he became perhaps the most prominent and renowned theologian of his time. He was a staunch defender of the Nicene formula defining the Person of Christ, and fought hard against ‘Arian’ (and so-called ‘semi-Arian’) influence. Indeed, much of what we know of Arius and early “Arianism” comes from Athanasius’ history and famous orations. Battling for Nicene orthodoxy, he became an ambassador and diplomat, seeking to gain support and allies to the cause, working to draft creeds, organizing councils and meetings with high officials; with the changing tides of (Imperial) religious politics, he was forced into exile numerous times, always to return, until his death in 373. With the accession of emperor Theodosius in 379 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Nicene formula (and Athanasius’ theology) eventually won the day. Athanasius’ influence was extensive, as indicated by his many surviving writings, most famous of which are: his treatise on the Incarnation; his Defense of the Nicene Council; the Apology, History and Orations against Arianism; his Easter letters, the 39th of which helped establish the canon of Scripture; and, of course, his Life of Anthony. A well-known creed (the Athanasian) bears his name, testament to his many years of theological and apologetic work.

The Life of Anthony helped to create and define the popular image of Egyptian Monasticism and the character of the Desert Fathers: a life of uncompromising austerity and asceticism, self-denial, enduring hardship and deprivation, bodily discipline, intense spiritual warfare against demonic visions and attacks, miracles, a deep-seated wisdom and personal integrity which attracted many people, and so on. It is a peculiarity of the time that a number of these retiring solitaries ended up becoming celebrities—visitors from miles away would come to receive advice and instruction, inspiration and blessing, from men such as Anthony, Evagrius Ponticus, and Simeon Stylites. A flourishing literature sprang up which recorded the sayings, discourses, and lives of these “Desert Fathers”. It is extremely hard for Christians today, in the modern West especially, to appreciate just how powerful and appealing all of this was to the serious and spiritually minded believer. While having much in common with Greco-Roman ascetic philosophies of the period, the monastic or solitary way of life, typified by the Desert Fathers, was viewed simply as a natural extension (one might say, the purest form) of the New Testament ethic of Jesus and the Apostles.

In this regard, there can be no doubt that the descriptions of the Desert Fathers enduring temptation and demonic attack were shaped, to a large extent, by the Gospel narrative of the Temptation of Jesus. The simplest (and most primitive) form of this is found in the Gospel of Mark:

And straight away [i.e. right after the baptism] the Spirit casts him out into the desolate (region) [i.e. desert/wilderness], and he was in the desolate (region) forty days, being tested under [i.e. by] the Satan, and he was with the (wild) beasts, and the Messengers ministered to [i.e. attended/served] him. (Mk 1:12-13)

Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) preserve the same tradition (by way of Mark, according to the common critical view), but ‘expand’ it by added a separate tradition—a dialogue or disputation between Jesus and o( diabo/lo$ (“the Accuser”), from diaba/llw (“throw through/across”), i.e. the (one) “casting (accusations) across”. In Matt 4:3, the term o( peira/zwn (“the [one] testing”, i.e., “the Tester/Tempter”) occurs instead of o( diabo/lo$. The figure confronting Jesus in these episodes acts more as a Tester/Tempter than Accuser. The Matthean and Lukan accounts are quite close overall, clearly deriving from a common tradition (part of the so-called Q [Quelle/”source”]), the main difference being in the order of the three tests. Luke has created a much stronger dramatic framework, both in the opening—

And Yeshua (being) full of the Holy Spirit turned back from the Yarden, and was led in the Spirit in(to) the desolate (region), forty days being tested under [by] the Accuser… (Lk 4:1-2a)

and closing—

And having finished with every test, the Accuser stood [i.e. went] (away) from him until a(n opportune) season. (Lk 4:13)

as well as enhancing the role of the Accuser (v. 5-7). It is probably the Lukan version which best accords with the ascetic traditions attributed to the Desert Fathers.

Interestingly, even though there are (moderately) ascetic teachings and passages in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels here, there is no mention at all of this Temptation scene. The Epistle to the Hebrews provides the only specific mention of Jesus’ being tested/tempted (Heb 2:17-18; 4:15; 5:2), though it can be inferred fairly from the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:13; Luke 11:4) and 1 Cor 10:13 as well. However, the emphasis in Matt 4:1-11 and Lk 4:1-13 here is not merely the testing/tempting that is common to all human beings, but that which relates specifically to Jesus’ nature as the incarnate Son of God—cf. Matt 4:3/Lk 4:3. Even here, the Christological point was, in a sense, passed on into Eastern Orthodox theology, in the doctrine of theosis (“deification”) of the believer—for the self-denial and purification (asceticism) required by the true believer is preparatory to (and functions in tandem with) the sanctifying gift of God’s grace, with the goal of union with God (in Christ and through the Spirit). This synergistic emphasis is generally foreign to mainstream Western (and Protestant) Christian thought, but is fundamental to an understanding of monasticism and Eastern Orthodox spirituality.

There is a collection of seven letters apparently written by St. Anthony. Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 88) and other Eastern Fathers mention such a collection; however, scholars have debated whether the seven which have come down to us are authentic or pseudonymous. They are sometimes considered too reasoned, moderate, and philosophically oriented to come from ‘simple’ ascetics such as Anthony. However, by all accounts, many of the Desert Fathers were much more well-read than the popular picture might suggest. One need only consult the works of Evagrius Ponticus, for example, or the Conferences of Cassian, to see that many had a strong knowledge of Greco-Roman and early Christian philosophy. The writings of Origen, in particular, were valued highly by the monks of Egypt and Palestine (until they were condemned as heretical in the 6th century). For a translation with commentary on the seven Antonian letters, cf. S. Rubenson, The Letters of St. Antony, Fortress Press 1990, 1995.