Strange Doings in Gethsemane

A reading from the Gospel According to Mark, Chapter 14:50-52 (Douay-Rheims) shows something very odd and strangely out of place happening during Jesus’ violent arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane:

50 Then his disciples leaving him, all fled away.

51 And a certain young man followed him, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and they laid hold on him.

52 But he, casting off the linen cloth, fled from them naked.

According to the revealed Word of God, then, during the confusion as  Jesus was being hauled off after his arrest, the Romans briefly nabbed but could not hold onto some young guy wearing only a bedsheet.

Who was he? What on Earth was he doing there? It seems that must have been some party there in the Garden of Gethsemane. Spring Break in Jerusalem, perhaps? Actually, probably not. But at least that would explain why nobody heard an armed mob of men coming for them.

The big question is: Why didn’t they flee?

Agony – or something else

Seriously, however, this points out a real mystery surrounding the famous “Agony in the Garden”. Gethsemane sits atop the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem with a clear view of the city, and it was Passover, or the day before. This means that the Moon was nearly full and shining all night; anyone on watch at the Garden could have easily detected even a small group of men with torches headed towards them, much less a Roman cohort of 360 armed soldiers on the march.

It would have been easy for Jesus and the gang to slip away long before the Romans got there. They could have made a quick hike to Bethel, where his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived, to pick up some supplies. Jesus could then disappear into the Wilderness of Judea – which, after all, he’d spent some time in already and presumably knew it well – without a trace.

Obviously, that didn’t happen because the group was occupied doing  something else. The Gospels, of course, all claim that the lads were enjoying an after-dinner siesta and Jesus was off praying.

Yet the Scriptures relate the very words Jesus said – and record him rousing Peter, James, and John several times. How did the Gospel writers then come to know what he prayed if they were snoozing away? Did Jesus tell them all about it after the Resurrection? Or could there have been another reason?

The tale sounds, frankly, like a cover story. It reads like all the disciples later agreed on an alibi which cleared them of wrong-doing, depicting them and their after-dinner excursion as simple, harmless, and totally innocent. “We were all asleep, Centurion, and the Rabbi, well, he was off by himself praying as he often does. We definitely weren’t plotting anything.” For some reason, the boys just couldn’t hold their eyes open, even though Jesus had recently predicted his imminent death.

That something was indeed up is indicated in Luke 22:34-39. Right at the end of the Last Supper, Peter vows to defend the Lord – which, in his unofficial role of bodyguard and leader, made sense for “Rocky” to do. Yet, Jesus tells him he’s going to fail spectacularly but then seemingly orders them to get ready for action. Why, if he was already resigned to his fate?

34 And he said: I say to thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, till thou thrice deniest that thou knowest me. And he said to them:

35 When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, did you want anything?

36 But they said: Nothing. Then said he unto them: But now he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a scrip; and he that hath not, let him sell his coat, and buy a sword.

37 For I say to you, that this that is written must yet be fulfilled in me: And with the wicked was he reckoned. For the things concerning me have an end.

38 But they said: Lord, behold here are two swords. And he said to them, It is enough.

39 And going out, he went, according to his custom, to the mount of Olives. And his disciples also followed him.

Why just two swords? That’s certainly not enough to start a fight, but it might be enough for guards to fend off an intruder. Could it be that they were going to be doing something important in the Garden they did not want to be interrupted by outsiders?

Whatever it was, if Peter was supposed to be on duty, he blew it hours before the cock crowed – as did James and John. Indeed, the entire group was taken by complete surprise. In the commotion, Peter whipped out a sword and struck off the right ear of the High Priest’s servant (John 18:10).

(Note that to attack the right side of an individual is not natural for a right-handed person. The left side of a facing opponent presents the easiest target. So was Peter a southpaw, or did he strike from behind? If the latter, that’s another sign of the unexpectedness of the event.)

This action demonstrates, however, that the disciples were not totally meek little lambs. Aside from “Rocky”, they included Simon the Zealot (the Zealots were the radicals that led the fatal revolt against Rome forty years later) and Judas Iscariot – the latter name might not refer to family or origin but to the “sicarii” – “daggermen”. These were cold-blooded assassins who would knife collaborators in crowds and disappear – terrorists, in other words.

Though Jesus famously hung out with people on the fringes of society, his life, betrayal, and death show that he was not the rebel the people wanted. So over the millennia, many other explanations have been attempted by sleepless theologians and apologists for these events, ranging from a sleepwalker to a guy crashing in the Garden who was startled by the noise. In ancient times, heretics called Carpocratians even tried to persuade people that Jesus had been getting it on in a gay orgy.

One of these apparently presented evidence from a supposed secret edition of the Gospel of Mark to a Christian leader named Theodore, who anxiously wrote for clarification to the greatest Early Father (and one of the first Christian scholars) of his age, Clement of Alexandria (active 180-202). Clement reassured him that the Gospel had been corrupted: he indicated that what happened was actually a non-sexual initiation, possibly some kind of secret baptism ritual.

This is indeed possible, as the Garden was watered by a brook named Cedron (John 18:1). Why secretly? It is interesting to note in this regard, that Jesus is never shown to baptize anyone in any of the Gospels. He is said to have baptized “more than John” although the author admits it was actually his disciples doing it, not him (John 4:1-2). In fact, Jesus is not described as having dunked even his chief disciples and significantly, nobody later boasts that they were baptized by him (despite Paul’s ambiguous statement in 1 Cor. 1:12).

A seventeenth-century copy of Clement’s reply to Theodore was discovered in the library of Mar Saba, an ancient monastery just up the arroyo from Qumran, by a scholar named Morton Smith. This document is now generally known as Secret Mark. It quotes several verses that are no longer found in the Gospel of Mark we have today, including a version of the Lazarus story, which – if true – proves the New Testament has been, shall we say, “edited for content” after completion. And likely, as we shall see, for good reason.

The incident at Gethsemane indicates that the Gospel story is not so simple. We may never really understand all that happened that week in Jerusalem, but this is a sign of deeper things. We’ll deal with this later, so stay tuned.

Remember that name, Clement of Alexandria. We will return to him again, as his writings provide the first glimpse into the lost secret teachings of Jesus.

[A shorter version of this was first published in April 2012 in the Renegade Catholic blog.]