Obedient Unto Death: Philippians 2:8, Gethsemane, and the Historical Jesus

In: Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
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  • 1 Butler University, USA

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Despite the extensive attention that has been given to Philippians 2:6–11 in relation to its Christology, the possibility that v8 alludes to the story about Jesus in Gethsemane has received only cursory mention when it has been considered at all. Philippians 2:8 and the Gospel tradition converge in depicting Jesus choosing to be obedient to God even to the point of death, in the absence of an interpretation of that death as itself salvific. The historical allusion, offered in the midst of a heavily theologized Christological statement, offers an excellent test case for an approach to history which accepts that fact and interpretation are inseparable, and yet still proceeds under the conviction that critical historiography remains possible.

  • 6

     See also Christine Jacobi, Jesusüberlieferung bei Paulus? Analogien zwischen den echten Paulusbriefen und den synoptischen Evangelien (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015), ebook sections 4.2, 5.3.3, and 6.2, on connections between the imperative to be watchful in the Gethsemane story and 1 Thessalonians (print edition pp. 123–188).

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  • 7

    Collange, Philippians, p. 120. J.B. Lightfoot mentions Gethsemane in commenting on Phil. 3:10. See his Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (London: Macmillan, 1888), p. 151.

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  • 8

    Daniel L. Migliore, Philippians and Philemon (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014), p. 59.

  • 10

    Alfred Plummer, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to The Philippians (London: Robert Scott, 1919), p. 47. Interestingly, Jean-Francois Collange, The Epistle of Saint Paul to the Philippians (London: Epworth, 1979), p. 99, briefly mentions the possibility of seeking to escape apprehension at Gethsemane being in view in Phil.2:6.

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  • 11

    Markus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians (London: A & C Black, 1997), p. 139.

  • 12

    Carolyn Osiek, Philippians and Philemon (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), pp. 62–63. Osiek also points out the centrality of obedience to what follows in the letter (p. 69). See ­likewise Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 216.

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  • 27

     See further James D.G. Dunn, A New Perspective on Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), pp. 22–34, 121.

  • 29

    Barbara Saunderson, “Gethsemane: the missing witness”, Biblica 70 (1989), pp. 224–233 (231–233) notes the likelihood of increased activity on the Mount of Olives during holidays that saw increased numbers of pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. On the one hand, increased numbers of people moving between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives might have obscured the nature of one approaching group coming to apprehend Jesus. On the other hand, the same increased activity would have facilitated Jesus’ escape if he had sought to avoid apprehension. It is also perhaps worth mentioning that the custom of closing one’s eyes when praying may not go back to the first century. Matthew 26:39 mentions Jesus falling on his face, but does not specify that he remained in that position throughout his time of prayer.

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  • 32

     See Scot McKnight, Jesus and His Death (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005), pp. 127–128, for the cup, at various places throughout the Jewish Scriptures, as symbol of divine judgment, and thus the “Final Ordeal.” Also Downing, “Jesus and Martyrdom,” p. 287, on the imagery as it appears in the Martyrdom of Isaiah.

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  • 34

     Cf. McKnight, Jesus and His Death, pp. 6–7; Michael J. Thate, Remembrance of Things Past?: Albert Schweitzer, the Anxiety of Influence, and the Untidy Jesus of Markan Memory (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), pp. 297–302; Joel L. Watts, Mimetic Criticism and the Gospel of Mark (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2013), pp. 33, 234.

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  • 38

     See Karl Olav Sandnes, Early Christian Discourses on Jesus’ Prayer at Gethsemane (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2015), p. 114. In addition to the words and behavior of Jesus, the failure of the disciples also adds to the probability that the story has a historical basis. See for instance Joel B. Green, “Gethsemane,” in Craig A. Evans (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 224–225.

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  • 39

    Paul Middleton, Radical Martyrdom and Cosmic Conflict in Early Christianity (London: T&T Clark, 2006), p. 158. See also Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution (New York: Harper One, 2013), pp. 56–65.

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  • 40

    Theissen and Winter, Quest, pp. 239–241, call this the “criterion of resistance to tendencies of the tradition.” Contrast Rafael Rodriguez, “The Embarrassing Truth about Jesus,” in Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne (eds.), Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T&T Clark, 2012), pp. 132–151 (143–4), which on the one hand cannot escape the “common sense” character of this criterion when applied wisely and judiciously, yet on the other, fails to recognize that ongoing conflict with opponents who also recalled the past can explain why the developing tradition did not simply drop material such as the accusation of demon possession.

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  • 41

    Anthony Le Donne, Historical Jesus: What can we know and how can we know it? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 134; “Theological Memory Distortion,” pp. 167–168. There he also writes (165), “the historian’s task is not simply to sift through the facts (from which they will create their own interpretations), but to account for these early interpretations by explaining the perceptions and memories that birthed them.”

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  • 43

    Allison, Constructing Jesus, pp. 13–17; Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p. 884; Dunn, New Perspective, pp. 69–70.

  • 48

    McKnight, Jesus and His Death, p. 116.

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