Gethsemane and the Cross

VIII. THE FAILURE OF THE WILL AT GETHSEMANE (MK. 14:32-42//MT. 26:36-46//LK. 22:39-46) AND ON THE CROSS (MK. 15:34//MT. 27:46)

 ‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man…
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord…
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s son, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.’

~ The Wisdom of Solomon, 2:12a, 13, 16b-18~

Throughout the Synoptic narratives, Jesus is portrayed as trusting in the will of God and accepting the reality of his own passion predictions. The reader of the Gospels would therefore presume that Jesus was fully prepared for the fulfilment of this prophecy and that he would bravely confront his fate and submit to the will of God. Instead he appears in Gethsemane cowering in great fear and distress, a condition that is emphasised by the author of Mark who offers a rare insight into Jesus’ emotions by using the verb ἐκθαμβεισθαι, a term which denotes extreme fear and anguish (Mk. 14:33). Having withdrawn from the disciples to pray, Jesus immediately falls upon the ground in the Markan version (Mk. 14:35) and on upon his face in the Matthean version (Mt. 26:39) and both of these gestures indicate a submissive and desperate approach to God that does not appear elsewhere within the Gospels. In contrast, the author of Luke is reluctant to reveal too much regarding Jesus’ emotional state and he has Jesus simply kneel down to pray (Lk. 22:41), however the supplementary verse 44 that is added by some ancient authorities emphasises the distress and fervour in which Jesus prays: ‘and being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling upon the ground.’

Surely the evangelists must have realised that there was an enormous discrepancy here between the self-confident Jesus who acknowledges his impending fate throughout the Gospels and the fearful Jesus who begs God for salvation from his impending death in Gethsemane? The author of John appears to be aware of this inconsistency and he chooses instead to present a stronger and more resolute Jesus who rejects the temptation to make a request for salvation and confidently accepts his messianic fate by stating ‘what shall I say? Father save me from this hour? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour’ (Jn. 12:27).

Since the evangelists indicate that Jesus is capable of summoning this spiritual power whenever it is required (cf. the healing of the centurion’s servant in Mt. 8:5-13//Lk 7:1-10), the reader of the Gospels can safely assume that Jesus is able to draw upon spiritual powers with guaranteed and immediate results. If Jesus had previously been accustomed to receiving immediate spiritual assistance, then the sudden termination of this magical ability may account for his distressed and helpless condition in Gethsemane and his desperate attempt to manipulate God to reconsider his fate (Mk. 14:35-36//Mt. 26:39//Lk. 22:42). The prayer that is addressed to God in all three Synoptic accounts is a confused and conflictive combination of persuasive coercion and humble submission to God. First there is a request for compliance (‘if it be possible’ Mk. 14:35//Mt. 26:39, ‘if thou art willing’ Lk. 22:42), then the desired action is demanded (‘take this cup away’, Mk. 14:36//Mt. 26:39//Lk. 22:42) and finally there is a submission to the will of God (‘not as I will, but as you will’, Mk. 14:36//Mt. 26:39//Lk. 22:42). The insistent tone of the central request (‘take this cup away’) is immediately softened by the addition of the conjunction ἀλλὰ in all three Synoptics, which serves to refocus the prayer on God’s own will and detracts from the potential interpretation that Jesus was attempting to influence the will of God. In addition, whereas the author of Mark has Jesus reiterate the same words in his second prayer attempt (Mk. 14:39), the author of Matthew uses Jesus’ second prayer to correct a coercive reading by presenting a softer and more submissive version of the first prayer: ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done’ (Mt. 26:42). This combination of aggressive coercion and submissive prayer is similar to the manipulative techniques employed by the magicians in the magical papyri who, in fear of the wrath of the gods or in order to appeal to their narcissistic side, abandon their demanding extortions and adopt complimentary prayer-like imprecations, nevertheless maintaining the intention to manipulate the gods to agree to their demands. We have previously encountered examples of this prayer-petition formula in this study, but one text from the magical papyri is particularly relevant for comparative purposes in this instance. In PGM XII. 192-89a, entitled a ‘favour charm’, the magician compliments the god and asks that the god will grant him favour. Although the magician’s overall intention is to coerce the god into granting him immense power, the charm concludes with the statement: ‘Give [me graciously] whatever you want’ (XII. 189).

Furthermore, as Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is attempted on multiple occasions (three times in Mt. 26:39-44 and twice in Mk. 14:35-39), this behaviour is very similar to the multiple repetitions and persistent demands that are characteristic of the magician engaging in spiritual magic in the ancient world. For example, Eli Edward Burriss comments in his study of the magical elements in Roman prayers that ‘repetition characterises the magic incantation’[73] and it is most often the case that the magician in the magical papyri is required to repeat an incantation for a number of times before it will take effect.[74] An association between repetition and incantation is also made by the author of Matthew who has Jesus warn the disciples ‘when you are praying, do not babble on like the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words’ (Mt. 6:7-8). It is perhaps with this repetitive magical behaviour in mind that Marcion attempts to protect Jesus against a charge of magic by asserting that he acted by ‘his word alone, without repeating it’, thereby suggesting that to repeat a word would have dubious and possibly magical connotations.[76]

If Jesus’ words in Gethsemane are to be understood as an attempt to coerce God, then the absence of a positive response from God to his request, i.e. Jesus’ salvation from the distressing situation at hand, could be blamed on either the petitioner (Jesus) or the petitioned (God). When magical operations fail to be effective, the blame often lies with the performer of the rite who has incorrectly applied his techniques or deviated from the precise instructions of his magical text. Can we likewise assume that Jesus did not address God in the correct manner and therefore his petition failed? Alternatively, the prayer itself may have been valid and the failure of a response was attributable to God. The failure of a god or spirit to respond to the magician’s demands suggests that the spirit or god that has previously been accountable for empowering the magician to perform miracles is not present or that it has abandoned him. The ancients believed that a spirit, particularly a powerful spirit such as a god or a supreme demon, could withdraw its compliance or break the bonds by which the magician was able to manipulate him and consequently a Faustian withdrawal or nullification of power was a common occurrence in the ancient magical tradition.

If we consider Jesus’ relationship with his spiritual power-source as a magician-familiar spirit relationship, then the failure of a response to the request made by Jesus in Gethsemane could suggest that there is no spiritual respondent to perform the required action. Indeed, Jesus’ statement ‘not what I will, but what you will’ (Mk. 14:36//Mt. 26:39// Lk. 22:42,) implies that either he is reaffirming his position as a servant of God or that he is attempting to redress a potential reversal of power much like a magician discovers that he no longer has command over the gods and, fearing that the gods will punish him for their mistreatment, offers himself in fear and humble submission to them, stressing that his will is no longer binding but their own will can now be realised.

Regardless of the lack of a response from God in Gethsemane, the author of Matthew reveals that Jesus still considered himself capable of summoning spiritual aid as he boasts to one of his disciples ‘do you think that I cannot appeal (παρακαλέσαι) to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels’ (Mt. 26:53). By having Jesus demonstrate his expectation of an immediate response and using the Greek verb παρακαλέω, which carries a prayer-like tone but also has a strong sense of invocation, the author of Matthew suggests that Jesus faces his impending crucifixion as an arrogant magician who maintains a firm belief that his spiritual powers are at his immediate command. If Jesus was previously assured of immediate spiritual assistance and firmly believed that his will alone could produce miracles, then the lack of a positive response to his prayer in Gethsemane and on the cross may indicate that he is now incapable of manipulating his spiritual power-source to react to the summons of his will, or the spiritual power that has been under his command has now abandoned him. Certainly Jesus’ outraged statement on the cross ‘why have you forsaken me?’ (Mk. 15:34//Mt. 27:46) suggests that he was anticipating that his demands would be met before he encountered the cross, i.e. he was expecting his request for salvation to be granted, his mountain to be moved. 

The identity of the spirit to whom Jesus’ cries out to on the cross is subject to a considerable degree of confusion amongst the Gospel authors themselves. While both the authors of Matthew and Mark identify God as the intended receptor of Jesus’ words, they also unashamedly mention that those standing near to the cross believe that Jesus is calling upon Elijah (Mk. 15:35//Mt. 27:47). Since some of the prophets, such as Elijah, were believed not to have died but to have ascended to heaven, we could perhaps consider that Jesus was hoping to receive remote spiritual assistance from Elijah. However, Jesus’ words are not a request for assistance but a cry of abandonment. In addition, confusion regarding the recipient of Jesus’ plea is further exacerbated in the Gospel of Peter which states that the words spoken by Jesus on the cross were ἡ δύναμίς μου, ἡ δύναμίς μου (‘my power, my power’, 5:19).

If the Gospel writers intended to signify that a spiritual power had abandoned Jesus in Gethsemane and in his final moments on the cross, then perhaps the story of the crucifixion describes the abandonment of a magician by his attending spirit or a magician’s failure to continue exploiting a spirit to obey his commands. If this absent power is to be identified as a spirit who was escaped from magical bondage, then those near to the cross may not have misheard when they thought that Jesus was crying out to Elijah (Mk. 15:35//Mt. 27:47) or his opponents may have been entirely justified when claiming that Jesus was empowered by the magical manipulation of a spirit such as John the Baptist, Beelzebul, Elijah, or an indiscriminate spiritual attending power. Alternatively, if the spiritual power that had been empowering Jesus in his ministry and had ultimately abandoned him on the cross is to be identified as God or the Holy Spirit (as implied in Jesus’ response to the Beelzebul accusation in Mk. 3:28-29//Mt 12:31-32), then we must assume that either this withdrawal of power is to be understood as part of a larger salvific master-plan consciously willed by God or that it signifies the liberty of a divine spirit that has been freed from magical bondage. Either way, the vulnerable figure of Jesus who appears stripped of his magical powers and desperately petitioning his God in the final stages of the Gospels reveals what is perhaps the greatest fallacy of magic: although the magician believes he has dominion over the gods, they are simply humouring the magician, appearing to be compliant and yet capable of withdrawing their power at any moment.

Extract from Helen Ingram (2007) Dragging Down Heaven: Jesus as Magician and Manipulator of Spirits in the Gospels, PhD, The University of Birmingham, UK.



[73] Eli Edward Burriss, ‘The Magic Elements in Roman Prayers’, CPh 25. 1 (1930) p. 51. For more on the magical connotations of repetition, see Burriss, Taboo, Magic, Spirits: A Study of Primitive Elements in Roman Religion (New York: Macmillan Company, 1931), particularly Chapter VI ‘Incantation and Prayer.’
[74] For example, in PGM VII.505-28 the performer is required to ‘speak the formula 7 times’ and ‘do this for 7 days’.
[76] Tertullian, Against Marcion, IV. 9.

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