The following question was raised by a reader on the blog, based on my discussion of the so-called “bloody sweat” passage of Luke 22:43-44, which I maintained was not originally part of Luke’s Gospel (or any Gospel) but was added by later scribes.  Here’s the question

Even if this event of Jesus sweating, as it were, great drops of blood was in the original manuscript, one must wonder how the author knew of it. Luke 22:41 tells us that Jesus left his disciples and went off on his own to pray. Then, after his agony and the angelic assistance, he rises up and goes back to his disciples only to find them sleeping (v.45).  And, according to V.46, “while he was yet speaking” he was betrayed by Judas and arrested. How then, did the author know what had happened? When I was a believer, such questions never occurred to me. They do now. A lot.



This is a great question.  It reminds me that with any passage in the New Testament, there are a wide range of questions that have to be addressed.   Some of these questions stand by themselves, and others are dependent on one another.   But with a passage like this, here are the sorts of questions that have been and need to be raised.

  1. Textual questions. These are questions about what words were originally in the text.   These questions would include the following:  “What did the author originally write?”  “How did later scribes change the author’s text?”  And: “Why did they do so.”    Questions such as these are concerned *only* with what the text said and how/why it got changed – with nothing else.
  2. Literary questions. These are questions that are based on one form of the text or another, that is, one way that a passage is worded or another.   Here the concern is not with what the text said but with what it meant (which is obviously dependent on which words you choose to interpret).   Such questions would include the following:  “What did the author mean by this passage?”  “How is Jesus portrayed in this passage?”  “What theological ideas are being conveyed by this passage?”  “How does the message of this passage compare to what can be found in other passages by the same author?”  “How does it compare with passages found in other authors?”   These questions can be asked of any text that survives – for example, the passage in Luke when these disputed verses are *included*, and, alternatively, the passage when they are *excluded*.
  3. Historical questions. These are questions that are not interested in knowing what the text originally said – they presuppose such questions – or what the text may have meant from a literary point of view.  They are interested in a range of historical issues, which might include the following:  “Is the description of this event historically plausible?”  “If it is plausible, did it really happen?”  “If it is implausible, why did someone make it up?”  That is, “What theological or ideological purpose did the invention of the passage serve?”  And even if it is historically plausible and in fact thought to be historically accurate, one is still left with the historical question “Why did the author choose to mention this event?”  (Here the idea is that billions of things happen in a person’s life.  Among those billions of things that happened to Jesus, why is this event mentioned in particular, as opposed to some of the other things?”


There are other kinds of questions besides these three (textual, literary, and historical).  For example, some people may be interested in raising “canonical” questions.   Those would include this:  “If the passage was not originally part of the Gospel of Luke, but came to be found in copies of Luke used throughout the Christian world down to the present time, should the passage be considered as belonging to the canon of Scripture or not?”   Other people might be interested in “theological” questions, such as:  “What would it mean to have the Son of God suffering deep anguish prior to his arrest?  What does that tell us, theologically, about the character of Christ?”  etc.  Lots of different kinds of questions that can be asked of any passage, and lots of questions of each kind.

So the question that the reader of the blog raised is obviously of the “historical” variety.  And he makes an excellent point.   The text itself indicates that the disciples were not with Jesus when this took place, and that they had, in fact, fallen asleep and so would not have seen what had happened even if they were with him.   After this, the disciples have no contact with Jesus.  He is led off, they flee, and they do not see him alive again, ever.  (Until after the resurrection)

But if that’s the case, they didn’t see this happen, and Jesus didn’t tell them it happened, and immediately after he was crucified.  So how did the author Luke know that it happened?   I think there are only three solutions that have been seriously proposed:  (1) Jesus told the disciples about it after his resurrection; (2) The Holy Spirit inspired Luke and informed him that this is what happened;  (3) “Luke” (whoever he was) made it up.  (Or a story teller before Luke made it up, and the story came down to Luke).

The problem with (1) is that nowhere in Luke or Acts does it indicate that Jesus talked to the disciples *after* the resurrection about what had happened immediately before his death.  The problem with both (1) and (2) is that they require Christian faith – that is, they are theological answers, not historical answers (since history can never depend on particular religious propositions, but only on propositions available to everyone, whatever their religious convictions.)   From a historical perspective, the most likely solution, then, is that someone simply made the story up.

I should stress that even if the story was made up, it could be meaningful – even religiously or theologically meaningful.   It would take a very impoverished imagination indeed to think that they only  things that are “true” are things that happen, and that if something didn’t happen, it can’t be true.   If that were the case, we may as well stop reading great literature.  Because David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, and Adam Bede never happened…..  (If someone replies that it’s different with Christianity, because it’s a historical religion, I would respond that it is not *only* or *merely* a historical religion about historical events; it is in fact much, much bigger than that.)