Here, I discuss the Gethsemane scene in the Gospel of Mark. (I did not discuss it in my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text.) I continue to assume that the Gospel of Mark was originally a performed play; the text we know is Mark’s narrative rewrite of the script.
The Gethsemane scene is traditionally explained by its religious meaning: it is about discipleship. That is true but superficial. Here I take another tack, and imagine the performance of the scene.
Summary: I speculate on Mark’s reason for using “Gethsemane” only in the narrative. The Gethsemane scene provides the reason for the actors playing James and John to exit the stage prior to the trial, where they are not needed. The Gethsemane scene, with its theme of testing, parallels the Temptation scene within the pre-Passion material. When arranged in a chiasm, the entire play treats the trial and its sequelae as an epilogue, functionally equivalent to the John the Baptist prologue. And, of course, the Gethsemane scene increases the suspense and the pathos: will Jesus be able to go through with his mission on earth?
Preliminary: The place name “Gethsemane”
The name “Gethsemane” was added to the narrative text. It was not spoken during the performance of the play. The audience does not need to know it. It has no consequences later in the play.
There is no evidence that “Gethsemane” refers subtly to a real-life place in the world of the audience. (That recognition would likely produce laughter—not what Mark wants from the scene.)
On the other hand, we cannot infer that the name had no meaning at all. One possibility is that “Gethsemane” was a location in another play or a poem or song. Or a play on words. Only a tiny fraction of the high culture of antiquity has survived; popular culture is and was inherently ephemeral.
The scholarly consensus is: “The name is derived from the Aramaic ܓܕܣܡܢ (Gaḏ-Šmānê), meaning “oil press”. Matthew 26:36 and Mark 14:32 call it χωρίον (chōríon), meaning a place or estate.” I note that in reality, an oil press located adjacent to and outside the Temple walls, could well have been the source of sacred Temple anointing oil. Especially an “estate,” which implies an orchard as well. Perhaps by using the name “Gethsemane,” Mark reminded the reader of Jesus’s status as an anointed being—at once national king, heavenly high priest, Temple sacrifice. If so, he agonized in the place where the anointing oil was grown and pressed. Such a reminder would have certainly enhanced the play as well. But—in my theory—Mark wrote in Rome for a Greek-speaking audience. Those attendees who did not understand Aramaic would have missed the point and been embarrassed by their ignorance. That is another reason why Mark used the name “Gethsemane” only in the narrative.
The chiasm of Jesus’s monologue weaves an end and a beginning
Jesus’s monologue alternates between a focus on the disciples (A, Bb, D, B’, A’a) and a focus on Jesus’s own feelings (Ba, C, Db, C, B’b,).
A “Sit here while I pray.”
B “My soul is deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”
C “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me, yet not what I want but what you want.”
D “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
C’ “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me, yet not what I want but what you want.
B’ “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.
The center of the chiasm applies to both Jesus and the disciples: D’b: “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
These interwoven concerns give the audience the feeling that something is ending—the relationship of Jesus and the disciples. Simultaneously, something is beginning that Jesus will endure alone: “the hour has come.” Mark accomplishes this within one short speech.
Exit of James and John
As I mentioned above, the Gethsemane scene provides the actors playing James and John the motivation to leave the stage: they are embarrassed by their faithlessness. (Note: I believe that Mk 14:50 “All of them deserted him and fled” is not original. It follows the arrest scene. It is vague, allowing for the presence of various kinds of followers. And Mark’s text is not clear about where these other followers are present onstage during the arrest scene, as they were not in Gethsemane. I discuss this in the book.)
Mark left a clue that James and John exited as Jesus was being arrested. In Gethsemane, Jesus says: “14:41: And he came the third time, and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough (apechei); the hour has come; the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”
Michael Turton comments on apechei: “The word apechei has many meanings but most apt is probably the fact that it is a technical term meaning “paid in full” that was written on bills in the Hellenistic world.”
That means that Jesus’s address to the disciples had the resonance of: “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Your services are paid in full; the hour has come (for you to leave).” As perhaps spoken during the conclusion of business transactions. So the exit of James and John is subtly previewed and the audience is not surprised when the actors exit. (By the way, my reading absolutely forestalls any appearance of these disciples after the resurrection…)
The Gethsemane scene within the play as a whole
Here we see that the Gethsemane scene was parallel to the Temptation scene within the chiasm of the play as a whole.
Did this matter to the audience? I suspect that the chiastic structure inherently provided resonances and parallels that Mark could use during the play. One example from the chiasm below: In Gethsemane Jesus unexpectedly calls Peter by his earlier name “Simon” (Mk 1:16). I think that Mark wanted to remind the audience of the calling of the fishermen. (Can you think of a better reason?)
The original order of Mark 1 (see discussion in my book)
|Mk 1:1-11, 1:14a||Jesus enters, John the Baptist announces the coming of Jesus, then baptizes Jesus. John is arrested.||1 Prologue w/its own Chorus|
|Mt 4:1-11||Satan tests Jesus (GMatthew version)||2 Jesus is tested|
|Mk 1:35||Jesus prays in a deserted place, thereby filling in the audience on his plan for his sojourn on earth||3 Jesus reveals his plans for his sojourn on earth|
|Mk 1:40-45||Jesus heals a leper. Chorus re-enters. Three fishermen enter with a boat.||4 Entrance of the Galilean Chorus, Entrance of the Three|
|Mk 1:14-20||Jesus calls the three fishermen; later named as disciples Peter, James, and John*||5 The Three disciples are introduced|
*I believe that the character Andrew is not original.
Parallel scenes in Mark 14-15
|Mk 14:32-42||Gethsemane scene: Jesus is tested, the Three are tested||5 The Three disciples are called to their last task 3 Jesus reveals his plan to accept death 2 Jesus is tested|
|Mk 14:43-52||Jesus is arrested; James and John run away. Peter is arrested separately (and may have been the person who slashed the slave’s ear).||4 Exit of the Two (James and John)|
|Mk 15||The trial||1 Epilogue w/its own Chorus|