Christian Colligation of Apologetics Debate Research & Evangelism

Paul’s Knowledge of the Garden of Gethsemane Narrative

By Layman


It is often remarked that Paul does not know much about Jesus. It is true that the Gospels give us more detail and information about Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection (and in the case of Matthew and Luke, his birth) than do Paul's letters. Of course, this is largely due to the fact that Paul was writing letters, not narratives. The gospels, as ancient biographies, were narratives. Further diminishing our expectations of finding biographical details in Paul’s letters is that they were, for the most part, "occasional." Paul wrote in response to specific issues of which he had happened to become aware by letter or personal reports. At no time does he purport to recount his full knowledge of traditions about Jesus.

Nevertheless, in addition to echoing many of Jesus' teachings as preserved in the canonical Gospels, Paul's occasional letters demonstrate a familiarity with many aspects of Jesus' life and ministry. I have listed many of these references at the Christian Cadre's blog and in an article, "Earl Doherty's Use of the Phrase 'According to the Flesh'" .

One correlation in particular has raised more questions than the others:

Jesus prayed to God using the term Aramaic term abba * Gal. 4:6; Romans 8:15 16 (Mark 14:36)

I.     Abba Father in Mark

Jesus’ reference to God as abba is from the well known scene of the Garden of Gethsemane, taking place after the Last Supper and Judas' departure to begin his betrayal. Jesus has left the site of the Last Supper.

They came to a place named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, "Sit here until I have prayed." And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, "My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch." And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by. And He was saying, "Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will."

Mark 14:32-36.

As noted above, the term abba is Aramaic -- the language that Jesus actually spoke. This is notable because the Gospel of Mark is written in Greek, the language of its audience. The other Gospels do not use the Aramaic term. Matthew simply repeats the cry to God as to "My Father" and Luke simply to "Father." Mark's retention of Aramaic is particularly notable for two reasons. First, the existence of an Aramaism is generally regarded as evidence of early formation of the relevant tradition. Darrell L. Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus, page 202 ("The criterion of Aramaic linguistic features argues that traces of Aramaic syntax or wording underlying a tradition point to the tradition's age and authenticity."). This indicates that the tradition at least predates Mark. Second, the phrasing is unique. Mark has combined the Aramaic with the Greek in one exclamation. Whether this is because Mark is providing the translation for his Greek speaking audience or because Jesus actually used a more endearing Aramaic term for father (akin to “Dad”) is debated. Ultimately, it is not important for the purposes of this article. What matters is that in all known ancient literature, the phrase "Abba Father" is only used by one other author: the Apostle Paul. In fact, Paul uses the exact same phrase in two of his letters: Galatians and Romans.

II.     An Uncommon Address to God

Not only is Mark’s use of the phrase "Abba Father" unique, but the very notion of addressing God as abba was uncommon. Typical expressions of Jewish prayers employ more esteemed language:

  • "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jaboc, the great, mighty, and revered God, the most high God. . . ." Benediction I (One of the oldest parts of the synagogue service).

  • "Oh Lord of the world. . . ." Taanith 3.8.

  • "O Lord God. . . ." Duet 9:26 (Moses).

  • "O Lord our God and the God of our fathers. . . ." Aboth 5.20.

  • "O Lord, the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. . . ." 2 Kings 19:15 (Hezekiah).

  • "Alas, O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments. . . ." Dan. 9:4 (Daniel).

Though some have gone too far in suggesting abba was exclusively a child's way of referring to his dad, abba was an informal Aramaic term for father. Too familiar, it seems, for most Jewish writers to be used as a direct address to God. Indeed, Jews would not even write the name of God--instead using substitute markings to indicate the divine name.

When Jesus addressed God this way he did something new, for in the literature of early Palestinian Judaism there is no evidence of Abba being used as a personal address to God. To the Jewish mind the use of this familiar household term would have been considered disrespectful in prayer.

William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, page 518.

Some have challenged the notion that Jesus' address to God as abba in prayer was unique. Most notable of these scholars is Geza Vermes, who tackles the subject in Jesus the Jew and The Religion of Jesus the Jew. He claims that such an address was customary of "ancient Hasidic piety." Vermes, Jesus the Jew, page 210. But the only real evidence he offers is an episode about Hanin, the grandson of Hon the Circle-Drawer who lived near the end of the first-century BC:

When the world was in need of rain, the rabbis used to send school-children to him, who seized the train of his cloak and said to him, Abba, Abba, give us rain! He said to God: Lord of the universe, render a service to those who cannot distinguish between the Abba who gives rain and the Abba who does not.

BTTaan 23b.

Notably, this passage does not contain an address or prayer to God as to abba. Rather, Hanin is playing on the term the children use to refer to a popular Rabbi. But more important, when Hanin does pray to God, he is quite grand in his opening address: "Master of the universe." As Witherington explains:

Hanin does not here address God as abba in prayer. In fact, what we have is a play on words, so typical of Jewish teachers and hasids of that era. God is addressed with the proper title, "Master of the world." This text does illustrate, however, that abba was used by small children of their elders, in this case a revered teacher or hasid, but it was more commonly used of one's father.

Witherington, The Christology of Jesus, page 216.

Another example offered against the view that Jesus' use of abba was unique is Targ. Ps. 89.27, which contains the phrase, "you are abba to me, my God." But the date of this reference is unclear. However, even if it dates to the time of Jesus, it counts in favor of the uniqueness of Jesus' address to God because the phrase is actually a reflection of a unique, messianic address to God. In other words, such an address would be unique to the Messiah. As Witherington notes:

Note that God promises the Davidic king . . . that he will call on God, saying, 'You are abba to me, my God.'" Even if the dating of this material is early enough, "[w]e would learn that a special and unique person, the Davidic messiah, is promised that he will be allowed to one day to address God as abba, presumably because the Davidic king was thought of as being God's son in some unique sense . . . Even here there is no prayer, but rather a promise from God. This text, if early, would lead us precisely to the opposite conclusion from Vermes's that various people of Jesus' era likely referred to God as abba. On the contrary, this text could suggest that Jesus' use of abba counts as evidence that saw himself as the Davidic messiah.
Witherington, The Christology of Jesus, page 216-17.

Thus, this example actually lends credence to the distinctiveness of Jesus' use of abba.

Of course, even if the Hasidim, a sub-sect of the Pharisees, used the term abba during the time of Jesus, the point remains that such usage was unconventional. As Vermes admits, "the customary style of post-biblical prayer is 'Lord of the universe.'" Jesus the Jew, page 210. Moreover, the Hasidim themselves were condemned for their overly familiar perspective towards God. Finally, Mark does not just use abba, but the phrase “Abba Father.” No scholar has disputed that such a conjoining of the Aramaic and the Greek is found anywhere but in Mark and – as we will now see – Paul’s letters.

III.     “Abba Father” in Paul’s Letters

Paul uses the phrase “Abba Father” in two different letters: Galatians and Romans. The use of this same unique phrase by Paul is striking. But does it indicate knowledge of Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane? A careful examination of Paul's use of the phrase indicates that it does. Paul and Mark were familiar with the tradition of Jesus crying out to God on the eve of his execution.

Now I say, as long as the heir is a child, he does not differ at all from a slave although he is owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.

Gal. 4:1 6.
But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh--for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.
Rom. 8:11 17.

We have already noted that Paul uses the same unique phrase as Mark. By itself this is very telling. But there are several additional features of Mark, Paul's letters, and the phrase that demonstrate Paul's awareness of the Garden of Gethsemane story.

As with the Gospel of Mark, Paul’s use of Aramaic indicates that he is drawing on a tradition learned, ultimately, from a Palestinian source. Few people in Paul's audience, even among the Jews, would have spoken Aramaic. Moreover, although there are over two dozen Aramaisms in Mark, they are rare in Paul's letters. Though rare, Paul uses two Aramaisms in Romans 8:15 and Gal. 4:6 in addition to the Aramaic abba. Both Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6 use the Aramaic term krazo to mean “cry out.” Paul uses the Aramaic phrase in conjunction with "Abba Father." Both times he uses that phrase but nowhere else in his letters.

One of the intriguing agreements between these two texts is the use of the verb 'cry' in connection with the 'Abba' address for God.... [I]t is notable, first, that Paul uses it on both occasions when he refers to 'Abba' and nowhere else of Christians praying; this may suggest a traditional link of the verb with use of 'Abba.' Second,... the only occasion where an evangelist retains the Aramaic 'Abba' is in the Gethsemane story (in Mark), and this may be because 'Abba' was especially associated with Gethsemane and was especially important in the memory of the church. . . . And [] although the Gospels did not use 'cry' of Jesus' prayer, Heb. 5:7 does use the word (in its noun form) quite probably with Gethsemane in mind: 'Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears.'

David Wenham, Paul: Follower of Jesus or Founder of Christianity?, page 278.

IV.     God’s Son in Mark and Adopted Sons in Paul’s Letters

In Galatians and Romans Paul relates the use of the phrase "Abba Father" to the fact that Christians can become a Son of God and obtain the same presumption in approaching God as Jesus had. Jesus had such right by his nature, Christians obtain it by adoption. This adoption is manifested by the Christians' ability to cry out "Abba Father."

That this cry is remembered as something that Jesus did is suggested by Galatians' association of it with Jesus' earthly ministry: Just before Paul refers to crying out “Abba Father”, he states that “when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law . . . that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Gal. 4:4. Paul also notes that Christians were empowered to pray abba father because they were empowered by the "Spirit of His Son."

In Romans, the focus on being adoptive Sons of God like Jesus is even more explicit. Christians are not only children of God, but "fellow heirs with Christ" who suffer and will be gloried "with Him." Again, crying out "Abba Father" is a sign of being like Jesus, of doing what he did. But since approaching God as a father is forbidden by those who are slaves under the law (no slave would so address his master), Christians must be transformed by the Spirit before they can approach God with the same presumption that Jesus did.

Paul probably saw the prayer as an echo of Jesus' own prayer style, and thus as proof that those who so prayed thereby attested that they shared his sonship. The point can be stated briefly. The retention of the Aramaic ('Abba'), even when the Greek equivalent is attached, clearly indicates a prayer form well established prior to its transposition into Greek (hence the almost formulaic ring of iv.6 = Rom viii.15). And since that transposition happened at an early stage, the reason for the cherishing of the Aramaic form most probably reaches back behind the earliest Aramaic speaking community (if there ever was an only Aramaic speaking community in the first place). That ties in to the tradition that "Abba" was a characteristic prayer form of Jesus himself. But this is precisely the implication here: that the Spirit of the Son prays the prayer of the Son and so attests sonship of those who thus pray; hence also the further thought of Rom. viii.17 not only heirs, but "heirs together with Christ.

James D.G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians pages 221 22.

V.     Suffering Son

A further indication that Paul has Jesus' prayer in the Garden in mind is that he places the crying out of "Abba Father" during a time of suffering, as the Gospels portray Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane. Indeed, that the Christian identifies with the complete sequence of Jesus’ time of suffering to the resurrection is explicit in Romans ("if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him"). The clincher that Paul has Jesus’ own expression in mind in Romans 8 is that he connects 1) the Christian’s expression of “Abba Father”, 2) a time of suffering and crying out, and 3) a struggle between the spirit and the flesh (“we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh--for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live”).

This struggle between the spirit and the flesh recalls Christ’ example while in the Garden; where he chose to follow the spirit. Though Jesus desired that God would “remove this cup from me,” he submitted, saying “not what I will, but what You will.” Mark 14:36. Additionally, there is an even closer parallel to the struggle between the spirit and the flesh that Paul discusses in Roman -- the example of the failure of the disciples to stand watch with Jesus in the Garden. When Peter, James, and John fell asleep and failed to pray, Jesus scolded them: "Keep watching and praying that you may not come into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Mark 14:38. And there is more.

Not only does the Romans 8 context of the 'Abba' cry emphasize the cross and the Christian as sharing in the sufferings of Christ (being reminiscent of Gethsemane in that way); it is also very much taken up with the question of the conflict between the Spirit and the flesh. In the immediate context of the 'Abba' statement, as we have seen, Paul speaks of 'the deeds of the body' and of the 'Spirit' (v. 13), and earlier in the chapter he has spoken of the conflict of 'flesh' and "Spirit' and of the 'weakness of the flesh' (vv. 3, 5-9). In the previous chapter, especially in 7:14-25, Paul described graphically the weakness of the flesh in a situation of spiritual context: 'I can will what is right, but I cannot do it' (v. 18).

Wenham, op. cit., pages 278-79.

There is a final Pauline passage that may indicate familiarity with the Garden of Gethsemane story. In Philippians 2:8, Paul states, "[b]eing found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Conceptually, the theme of Jesus demonstrating obedience by submitting to death on the cross is something stressed by in the gospel’s presentation of the Garden of Gethsemane story. Moreover, there are some verbal similarities with Phil. 2:8 and Matt. 26:38/Mark 14:34’s reference about being obedient “to death.”

Clearly, the context of identifying with Jesus as crying out to God as "Abba," along with the sharing in his suffering and resurrection, as well as a focus on the spirit/flesh terminology, powerfully link Paul with Mark's Garden of Gethsemane narrative.

VI.     Conclusion

The evidence that Paul and Mark's narrative of the Garden of Gethsemane are referring to the same event is strong. Both authors are referring to an older, preexisting tradition. The distinctiveness of the phrase, "Abba Father" is so unique that its usage by Paul and Mark is almost certainly not a coincidence. That Paul's reference to the phrase has Jesus’ own crying out to God in mind as its origin is reinforced by the context in which he employs the phrase. The very ability to cry out "Abba Father" is a sign of becoming an adoptive Son of God as Jesus was the Son of God. Not only that, but it is the very Spirit of Jesus that enables us to cry out to God on such a familiar level. The earthly location of Jesus' use of "Abba Father" is attested by Galatians' describing the event just after stating "God sent his Son, Born under the Law, Born of a Woman." Romans associates the scene with Jesus' time of suffering before his resurrection, which certainly fits the Garden of Gethsemane scene.

Having established the strong likelihood that Paul is referring to Jesus’ prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane which is narrated in the Gospel of Mark, what are the consequences of such a determination? First, it provides additional evidence for the authenticity of the Garden of Gethsemane tradition and, with it, the idea that Jesus prayed using a unique form of address stressing his special status in relationship with God. Second, it provides yet another detail from the life of Jesus to which Paul refers, further damaging the notion that Paul had no interest in the life of Jesus. Third, the nature of the reference is instructive in that even when Paul refers to the life of Jesus he does not do so by repeating the narrative. This lends support to the view that Paul’s purported “silence” about the life of Jesus is due to the fact that “he takes knowledge of Jesus’ teaching for granted. . . . Paul did not need to quote from it often because he and his readers have been taught it and know it well.” Wenham, op. cit., page 5. Because Paul had already passed on the narrative of the Garden of Gethsemane to the church in Galatia, he could make a point using the episode and the call to God as “Abba Father” without repeating the entire story. Perhaps more significant is that Paul can assume the church in Rome – which he had not founded – were just as familiar with the story. If that is true with this story from Jesus’ life, it is most likely true of other “echoes” of Jesus’ life and teachings that can be found throughout Paul’s letters.

Questions or comments concerning this article or the use of this article should be directed to Layman.

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