* The Garden
* The Rock
* IV century
3. The Primitive Traditions
Another angle of the façade
of the Basilica at Gethsemane
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 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
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 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
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
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