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The Betrayal at Gethsemane

2008-08-12 6 min read Research marco

I am reading Christopher Moore’s Lamb, an exciting and amusing book, and the best possible introduction to a new author. I am not very far into it, having barely read to the point where Joshua is back from Kabul, but it got me thinking about Bible classes and Bible studies.

I got my old Bible out (it’s not that old, it just looks like it is because I like thumbing through it a lot) and read randomly. I hit one of my favorite passages, the Naked Man in Mark:

A young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen [cloth]. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen [cloth] and ran off naked. (Mark 14:48-52)

I always found this passage fascinating: the young man is not identified, never shows up before, never shows up later, and serves absolutely no function in the Gospel. How on Earth did he survive the successive edits and copying efforts in the centuries between Mark’s author and the printing press?

What I mean by that is that, obviously, from the time this Gospel was written down to the time the printing press had it in almost infinite, identical supply, each copy of the text was a stand-alone. Someone had to manually sit down and write it as a copy of an original text, and that’s a really hard task.

Have you ever tried to copy something hand-written? I’ve had to do it, once in a while, with texts I had written down and needed to move over to the computer. In my case, it was a handwriting to computer progression, which is easier than this one for several reasons:

  • I was copying my own handwriting
  • I was typing into a computer, avoiding all ambiguity at least on the output side
  • while I wrote, I knew the main purpose of writing was to have a temporary copy for a permanent transfer – that is, the only reason I wrote was so that I could then type my notes on the computer

Yes, despite all these advantages, I would tend to do a series of mistakes. There would be the simple typos, where I meant to write one thing but typed something different. There would be misunderstandings, where I couldn’t quite read a word I had written down myself. There might be bad calls, where I would think I had written one thing but actually wrote another. There would be corrections, where I thought I had made a mistake in writing, and corrected myself in typing. I might be bored or distracted, and type only a portion of what I had been writing. I might think a gloss was in order, and expand on what I had written (either with hindsight, or with the willingness to explain in more detail).

All of these things, it turns out, are things that happened in the copying effort of the Gospels, too. In particular, one would think that an inconsequential detail like the naked man in Mark (not recorded in any of the other three Gospels, despite the fact they add detail in other parts) would survive the copying effort.

While I was musing about this, I decided to read the four accounts of the scene in parallel. And then it struck me as the oddest thing: the glaring hole in the description. The naked man was indeed an inconsequential detail in a story that otherwise, I am afraid to say, makes absolutely no sense at face value.

Let me explain. The story goes as this: Jesus knows he’s going to suffer and die, so he collects his disciples (minus Judas) and goes off to the place called Gethsemane.

Once at Gethsemane, Jesus goes off and prays and tells the disciples to keep watch. Three times will he come back to check on the disciples, and all three times have they fallen asleep. The third time, though, Jesus doesn’t scold them like the first two. He simply says the time has come.

Now a multitiude comes up, armed people with the high priests in front. Then Judas comes forward and kisses Jesus – a conventional sign for the high priests that this person is indeed Jesus. After the kiss, the multitude grabs Jesus and drags him away. He gets to ask why the high priests come after him here, where they could as well have taken him while he was in the Temple, teaching.

Now “they,” presumably the disciples, run away, including the Naked Man.

The story is particularly confusing in Mark, because the sequence of events is a bit jumbled up, and there are parts that are evidently missing (as evidenced by the personal pronoun “they” that changes group twice without logic). The other gospels tell pretty much the same story, but with different details.

One thing, though, is core to the story and is present in all four accounts: Judas came over and kissed Jesus. The kiss is what gave Jesus away.

Here is the illogical thing, though: in all accounts, Jesus then goes on saying that there was no need to arrest him in the middle of the night, since they could have as well done so during the day, in the Temple.

The way most people read the passage, the choice to arrest Jesus at night was due to the desire not to make a big fuss about it. Arresting Jesus in the Temple would have been a gigantic risk, since it was likely that Jesus’s followers would be around.

That I can buy. {xtypo_quote_alt}But why on Earth did the high priests need someone to point out Jesus for them?{/xtypo_quote_alt} After all, Jesus says that they had seen him in the Temple, and the way he talks, they must have been familiar with him.

What’s going on? To make things even more strange, Judas betrays Jesus, but tells the high priests, “whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he; take him, and lead him away safely”

Why did Judas tell the bad boys to lead Jesus away safely?

I can’t find peace in any explanation, especially because professional theologians are so mired in the logic of the various Churches, they invent rationales out of whole cloth just for the purpose of making sure orthodoxy is maintained. Unfortunately, though, this particular story is entirely outside orthodoxy. The people involved and the sequence of events are not the standard story the Church teaches us, and there really isn’t much to go on to find the truth.