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3. The Primitive Traditions
Another angle of the facade

Another angle of the façade
of the Basilica at Gethsemane

Can we localize the property or garden mentioned by the evangelists as situated beyond Kidron in the direction of the Mount of Olives ? In his Commentary on Matthew, Origen (d. 253) takes care to stress the importance of the geographical data in Matthew and Mark. He writes, "Given a knowledge of Hebrew terms, the name of the property, Gethsemane, helps us understand the locality. It is not without reason that Matthew and Mark have taken care to give the name of the property" (Patrologia Graeca 12, 1740).
The rock of the AgonyAnother view of the rock of the Agony

The rock of the Agony in the Basilica at Gethsemane
The memory of the name was not to die out. About one hundred years after Origen, Eusebius (c. 333) notes that it was still in use. In his Onomasticon he writes, "The faithful at present still betake themselves there to pray" in the property of Gethsemane "where Christ had prayed before his Passion."

To be sure, the expressions, "at present, still" do not mean that this tradition went back to apostolic times, even though Eusebius was personally convinced of this fact. Between the apostolic period and the third and fourth centuries, it was possible for a tradition to grow up and become solidly established, a new tradition which was not simply the result of fraud but which satisfied the simple wish of the faithful to commemorate the great episodes in the life of Jesus in definite spots, even though the actual site had been forgotten. As time passed, the place chosen by Jerusalem Christians to recall the Gethsemane of the Gospels could have received the seal of authenticity. There, the faithful of Eusebius' time went to pray.

Granted the incredulity of pilgrims of old (even though some of them were theologians), it has become the fashion nowadays to call in question, and even to reject out of hand, all traditions attached to the sacred places. Those who have studied the problem of their genuiness have been satisfied with stressing the importance which the first Christians necessarily attached to the Gospel memories. Actually, we should not overlook the tenacity of religious, tribal and family traditions which is a constant reality in history. Modern generations, concerned with the present and the future, find this somewhat difficult to understand, but it still persists amongst so-called primitive peoples. The fact that Christians lived on without interruption on the sites of the Redemption guaranteed the faithfulness of this transmission, especially in an instance such as that of Gethsemane where the name has never been changed.

Whatever the case, Jerusalem Christians, at the beginning of the fourth century, went to pray in that place where tradition had it that Jesus himself had prayed during his Agony. It is certain that, thanks to the topographical data given by the evangelists, the mistake--if there is really question of a mistake -- cannot have been very serious.

About 390, St. Jerome rendered Eusebius' Onomasticon into Latin. However, he was not a servile translator but adapted his text to the contemporary situation. Eusebius had written, "Gethsemane: the property where Christ had experienced his Passion. It is situated near the Mount of Olives. The faithful at present still betake themselves there to pray". This is how the same notice, re-written by St. Jerome, reads: "Gethsemane is the place where the Saviour prayed before his Passion. It is situated at the foot of the Mount of Olives. At present, a church has been built there." About 410, the pilgrim Etheria styled this church "elegant," and, as a result of the excavations of its ruins in 1920, there is no doubt as to where it stood. It was to the right of the pathway leading up the Mount of Olives.

map of 1486

Map by Bernard von Breydenbach
dating to 1486 - detail of Gethsemane

Regarding the spot where Judas betrayed Jesus, and where the arrest took place, Christians of the fourth century situated it to the left of the same pathway. There exactly the Anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux, in 333, saw "the rock where Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus." The spot was lower in the gully than that of the prayer of Christ in agony. Etheria writes, "And from there (the church of the Agony) they proceed on foot, chanting hymns and in company with the bishop, to Gethsemane, little children not excepted... On arrival at Gethsemane, an appropriate prayer is read, a hymn sung and the Gospel passage on the arrest of the Lord is read."

The path followed by the Bordeaux Pilgrim in 333 was probably the road of steps hewn from the rock which went down out of the Eastern Gate, now called the Golden Gate, crossed Kidron and led to the Mount of Olives, veering somewhat to the right. Some traces of it were still to be seen recently near the Greek church of St. Stephen, to the right of the road to Gethsemane. In the garden of the Russian church of St. Mary Magdalene, there are other steps of this ancient road. The middle road over the mountain follows more or less closely this route.

We should note that, while Eusebius and St. Jerome call Gethsemane the property where Christ prayed before his Passion, Etheria restricts this title to the site of the arrest. It is possible that the name "Gethsemane" was originally applied to the spot where a press stood and was then gradually given to the whole area.

From this comparison of ancient traditions, we must situate the Agony and the arrest of Jesus in two separate plots or groves. This would explain the use of the words "to go out" in John (18:4). Seeing that it omits the Agony scene and immediately describes that of the arrest, the Fourth Gospel may be making reference to the exit from the grove of the Agony when Jesus and the three close companions went back to rejoin the eight apostles whom they had left in the other orchard.

Presbytery, rock of the Agony and apse
of the Basilica at Gethsemane

However, later traditions allow of another explanation. About 530, the pilgrim Theodosius writes in his report: "The Valley of Josaphat is situated there. There Judas betrayed the Saviour. There is to be seen the church of the Lady Mary, mother of the Lord. There the Lord washed the feet of his disciples and ate with them. There are to be found four seats on which the Lord sat with his disciples..." This place is in a cave..." Now, it is precisely in a cave that the Piacenza Pilgrim, in 570, sites the scene of the betrayal: "We went down from the Mount of Olives into the valley of Gethsemane, where the Saviour was betrayed. This spot has three seats on which he sat..."

These traditions are confirmed by the librarian of Monte Cassino monastery, Peter the Deacon (12th century). In his work, which is a compilation of ancient documents, we read: "Beyond the Kidron gully there is a grotto with a church above it."(note: It would seem that a church was never erected above the grotto.)

It is in this locality, situated at the beginning of the valley of Josaphat, that the Jews arrested the Saviour on the fifth day of the week after the Supper... Not far from here is the spot where the Saviour prayed, when his sweat became like drops of blood."

As Jesus was accustomed to retire with the apostles into the Garden of Gethsemane, the cave could given shelter against the sharpness of Palestine evenings and the winter rains. It is possible that the presence of the cave there was the very reason they chose this spot.

So, with the majority of experts, we can conceive Jesus and his three close companions as leaving the grove on the right of the pathway and crossing to the left-to rejoin the other eight apostles in the cave where they were sheltering. When Judas came, Jesus, "knowing well what was to befall him" uttered the words, "Rise up, let us go on our way; already he that is to betray me is close at hand." ´Then he "went out" of the cave and confronted the traitor (Mt 26:46; Jn 18:4). It would seem that, though originally associated with a rock, the betrayal and arrest were soon localized in the cave close by.

© franciscan cyberspot - text written by Albert Storme



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