Friday, April 19, 2013

False Prayers

At the Last Supper, Jesus metaphorically shared His body and blood with His Disciples through sharing bread and wine. According to John, Jesus explained that seeing Jesus and seeing God was one and the same. He also explain that, because people had witnessed His teachings and miracles, people were guilty of their sins for not believing in Him. In the same time frame, Jesus revealed that Peter would deny knowing Jesus three times that same evening. According to Luke, Jesus then told the Disciples to prepare for His absence by buying swords.

False Prayers
We all understand what an eyewitness is; someone who has seen, heard, and/or otherwise experienced an event first-hand. So what do you call someone who did not hear what was said by someone, and yet records what was said by that person? The word "liar" comes to mind. When those made-up words coincide with one of the most important moments in Christian history, then what do you have? Let us explore that answer, as we look at Jesus' final prayers before His arrest.

Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46, and John 17 all record Jesus' prayers that He made before being betrayed by Judas. Surprisingly, these accounts vary quite a bit as to what actually happened. We will let Mark set the stage for us...

From the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26), Jesus and the Disciples went to Gethsemane (Mark 14:32). (In case you are wondering, no one is really sure where Gethsemane is, but most scholars place it near the base of the hill of the Mount of Olives.) There, Jesus told all but three of the Disciples to wait, and then took those special three with Him somewhere else, where He told them to stand watch, while He went off by Himself to pray in a greatly distressed state (Mark 14:33-35). According to Mark 14:36, Jesus prayed:
"Abba, Father," He said, "everything is possible for You. Take this cup from Me. Yet not what I will, but what You will." NIV
This is an incredibly fascinating prayer, in many ways. Let us explore a few of those facets, quickly.

Note that "everything is possible" for God. Both in context and in the all-inclusive term "everything", this highlights one of the critically points that I have often argued with apologists; Jesus' death on the cross was not mandatory for our Salvation! If everything is possible for God, then so is granting forgiveness without the blood of animal or man, guilty or innocent.

Next, note how Jesus asked to get out of this fate fast approaching Him. If prophesies must be fulfilled, and the prophesies allegedly pointed to Jesus' own crucifixion, then it was pointless for Him to try to escape His fate. He should have known that escape was impossible, because God cannot lie (despite everything being possible for Him), especially regarding prophesies and promises. Because if God can lie, then what real assurance does anyone have in an eternal Salvation? Changing up God's Plan to let Jesus off the hook would effectively make God's words untrue... at least if you really think that the Old Testament prophesies were about Jesus! ;-)

For the next important facet to explore, we must take into account the next couple of verses. In Mark 14:37-38, Jesus returned to find those three Disciples closest to Him to be asleep. So, if they were asleep, who was the eyewitness to Jesus' prayer? Who was it that remembered and recorded Jesus' words? The answer is "nobody". Through this scene's very setup, the recorded words are blatantly works of fiction, because the anecdote describes both Jesus going alone to pray and any possible eyewitnesses as having fallen asleep.

Strangely enough, Mark records that Jesus went away two more times to pray, with each time Jesus returning to find the three Disciples asleep, and on the third time Jesus announced that His betrayer was there (Mark 14:39-42). It seems a bit odd that Jesus would do this triple prayer session, and find the Disciples thrice sleeping as well, other than, in a way, it parallels Peter's triple denial which Jesus had just prophesied.

On to Matthew 26:36-46. Matthew essentially copied Mark, but he did make some changes. Among the more interesting changes was that in Matthew 26:39, "everything is possible" gets changed to "if it is possible". That partially fixes the one theological issue that Mark created of forgiveness without crucifixion, but it does still portray Jesus as being ignorant of the need to fulfill prophesy and the necessity of His role, which threatens the case for claiming that Jesus was divine. Another, less-significant but notable change is that in Matthew 26:42, a second prayer from Jesus is recorded; again sans eyewitnesses.

In Luke 22:39-46, we again find Luke to be a consistently better editor than Matthew. Luke attempted to fix several of the issues seen in Mark and Matthew. Luke dropped that major stumbling block of mentioning possibilities, with Luke 22:42 rendering Jesus' first prayer there as:
"Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done." NIV
No more wondering about what is possible. Jesus is only asking for something according to God's will. Of course, it can, or should, be easily argued that God's will was already known through those previously-mentioned Old Testament prophesies, leaving Jesus' prayer still essentially pointless.

Luke also realized just how silly the scene was described by Mark and Matthew. So he edited out Jesus separating the three particular Disciples form the group only to leave them behind while He prayed apart from them, changed the "keep watch" command to a command for the Disciples to pray, and reduced the number of the prayer sessions and findings of sleeping Disciples to one instance.

However, Luke did not catch the issue of recording Jesus' prayer without eyewitnesses. In fact, he even went a step further in story enhancement, adding an angel who ministered to Jesus in His time of grief (Luke 22:43). Given that the Disciples were asleep at this time (Luke 22:45), they must have dreamed up both Jesus' prayer and this angel. ;-)

Finally, we come to John 17. John records a final prayer as well, but at a completely different location, at a completely different time, and of a completely different nature. In John's version of Jesus' prayer, it happened at the scene of the Last Supper, and before they went out into the olive grove (John 18:1). Plus, this prayer was presumably done in front of all of the Disciples, which then makes it possible for the prayer to have been remembered, as well as making it remarkable that none of the other three Gospels recorded that such a prayer took place.

As for the topic of the prayer, well, as you may remember from a much earlier study of John's Gospel, Jesus had mocked the idea of asking for an escape from His fate, so you will not find that. Instead, John's version of Jesus' prayer is closer to what we would expect from a God-turned-man, in the sense that there is no sniveling for His own safety, but rather there is a concentration on a call for protection and unity of others, both for the Disciples (John 17:9-19) and for those that would later believe the Gospel (John 17:20-23).

While John's version is better than the other three, it is far from perfect. For example, it suggests some rather odd enigmas, like how Jesus is the one who grants eternal life (John 17:1-3), and yet God needs to further sanctify people beyond what Jesus is capable of doing (John 17:17-19).

Also, Jesus was explicitly not praying for the world (John 17:9), and yet Jesus prayed for unity among believers so that the world would believe as well (John 17:20-23). Of course, in the light of this prayer, it is rather amusing just how non-unified and schismatic the church is! Even Jesus cannot get an answer to His prayers!

Then there are linguistic issues to consider, like how the phrase "the world" is mentioned only fifteen times in the other three Gospels combined, and yet John records the phrase "the world" seventeen times in this one chapter!

All of that to say that no matter which Gospel you look at to find Jesus' last prayer before His arrest, you will find evidence suggesting that it is most likely a work of fiction. Well, you will find that evidence if you are really looking for the truth, that is. And if it is not the truth, but it is told with the intent of making you believe it, I believe that makes it a lie.


  1. Who recorded Jesus' prayer is definitely an interesting question. Whenever these problems were brought up in my church growing up, the answer was that God relayed it to the authors. It doesn't matter that the disciples were asleep, God filled in the blanks later. Of course, that doesn't solve the problem that the different gospels don't agree about what was said :)

  2. Exactly, Hausdorff. I could buy off on divine inspiration, if that divine inspiration actually provided a consistent story! :-)