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The Bloody Sweat and Historical Plausibility


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.)

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  1. Avatar
    achase79  October 22, 2014

    Your discussion of how Luke might have (theoretically) come to know about Jesus’ tears of blood clued me in to a weird thing about the Post-resurrection narratives. In Acts 1, Jesus hangs out with the disciples for 40 days, and teaches them “about the kingdom.” (along with many “infallible proofs” that he was alive.) In Matthew and John also, Jesus shows up and talks with his disciples (although these appear to be shorter episodes.)

    It strikes me that if Jesus did show up after his death and talked with his disciples for 40 days, someone might have thought to take notes, and there would be more than a handful of inconsistent recollections of what he said. After all, at that point they *knew* he was God/the Messiah/something really special. How can we have multiply attested didactic material in the gospels from *before* the crucifixion, but nothing consistent (or even interesting) from the risen Jesus?

    • Avatar
      prestonp  October 25, 2014

      “It strikes me that if Jesus did show up after his death and talked with his disciples for 40 days, someone might have thought to take notes”

      The thought of taking notes wouldn’t have occurred to any of them before this? He performed hundreds of miracles, brought the dead back to life, made wine from water, walked on water, told a stormy sea to cease and it did, fed thousands with a few fish, but not one of them considered writing down his words?

  2. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  October 22, 2014

    Bart If i were gonna respond to Question. Read Good news from Paul start there. Do history of when these were written. Theologian comes yet and beyond absolute certainty is natural but whether you deny is up to you, but one must put on his or her Historical Jesus hat now and again 🙂

    so the line that Jesus drew in the dirt. The day that some one is able to cross that line, will be able to throw a stone? How will you know if you are able? When its in your heart with no hypocrisy. When Jesus calls you, or you have to cross your self? Just Philosophical, and An analogy.

    So on this Luke 22:43-44 there is another Mark, or Mathew where Jesus catches them sleeping more than once. Now If i were a disciple that night, would have been the one staying up. And when an Angel came to him? Now that is so broad huh? That could be any Angel for that matter, Moses? Elijah? Now it says he was in Agony, so don’t think he was laughing when he woke them up once, or numerous times! ( AS IT WERE? no that is not literal but could be. Texual Variant ?

    Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. 43And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. 44And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his SWEAT was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

    I feel I know what Luke 22:42 is trying to say.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 22, 2014

    There are, of course, other similar passages such as if Jesus and Pilate are the only ones in the room, how does anyone know what they said? So on and so forth …..

    • Avatar
      prestonp  October 25, 2014

      Someone may have been listening nearby.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 23, 2014

    I don’t think a believer would see a problem in Luke’s never mentioning that Jesus, after his death, told his disciples things that happened leading up to his death. The believer would surely think that if he spent time with them, that could be taken for granted.

    About “truth”… Certainly, fiction can convey “truth,” if the author has valuable insights about human nature. But if it’s fiction about real people, living or dead, it should be clearly identified as fiction.

    I would never tell children the “George Washington and the cherry tree” story, even making clear it’s fiction. I’d expect them to wonder why people were making up lies about Washington. And I wouldn’t tell them “Santa Claus” is real, either! I remember being very troubled as a child – thinking the “Santa Claus” story made no sense, but not wanting to believe my parents would lie to me.

  5. Avatar
    Steefen  October 23, 2014

    I am so sorry to hear about the 18 years of academic fraud at UNC.
    I’m looking at my Roku3 News. It’s the first news story: “UNC Report: 18 Years of Academic Fraud.”
    Thousands have cheated their way … unearned dean’s lists
    3100 students to keep their sports eligibility
    “as an athlete … I clearly didn’t go to any classes”
    UNC won 3 NCAA titles
    9 employees have been fired

    Is your college/school at UNC clear?

    • Avatar
      Steefen  October 23, 2014

      People will suspect that some basketball players may have registered for classes in religious studies.

      Probably one of the toughest questions this month.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2014

      Very bad tidings indeed. But it looks like it is all past now, and not present.

  6. Avatar
    Steefen  October 23, 2014

    Jesus could have told them after the resurrection.
    Hm, did Jesus even know Luke? So, someone would have had to tell Paul who would have had to have told Luke.

    Let’s go through this right quick:
    Jesus knew John but he was the last person to write.
    Jesus did not know Luke. friend of Paul.
    Jesus may have known Mark, friend of Peter.
    Jesus knew Matthew because he was one of the 12. (This is odd because I think in Jesus, Interrupted, you, Dr. Ehrman implied that the book of Matthew wasn’t written by a literate tax collector, Matthew.)

  7. Avatar
    John  October 23, 2014

    I have the same issue with Jesus in the wilderness. Who observed or reported the temptations? Jesus does not say what happened.

  8. Avatar
    prestonp  October 23, 2014

    “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.” Dr Bart

    25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2014

      You’re quoting John. I’m talking about Luke and Acts.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  October 24, 2014

        You’re quoting John. I’m talking about Luke and Acts. Dr Bart

        It is true whether it is found in Luke, Matthew, Mark, Paul or Acts?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 26, 2014

          I’m not asking what’s true. I’m asking what Luke’s views were. They aren’t the same as John’s.

  9. Avatar
    prestonp  October 23, 2014

    “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.” Dr Bart

    Which disciples were not with him?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 24, 2014

      The text indicates that none of them were with him — he had gone off by himself.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  October 24, 2014

        Surely he could have told them. An immeasurable vastness of things he said and did were left out of the books about him. And someone, not one of the inner circle or a disciple at the time, may have heard him and seen him who could tell them all about it.

        He may have gone off by himself for a while. A disciple may have awakened, moved close enough to see and hear him for a few moments, and returned and fallen asleep again. We don’t know how close they would have to have been to be considered as “close” as he needed.

        • Avatar
          prestonp  October 25, 2014

          This is the guy who was born to a virgin. Not exactly your average bear.

          “Criticism” is totally dependent upon a single, unproven, irrational, flimsy concept that none of Christ’s thousands of eyewitness disciples came from or lived in an urban area.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 26, 2014

            Actually, very, very little criticism is related to that issue. Even in the Gospels, though, Jesus never visits urban areas, and none of his followers is said to be from any of them (e.g., Tiberius or Sepphoris, the only two large cities in Galilee).

          • Avatar
            prestonp  October 27, 2014

            None of his disciples came from or lived in urban areas and that proves his disciples were unable to read and write. That being the case we know that none of his disciples wrote the new testament. Because that is true we know that nothing was written down by his disciples for 60 years. They told stories that were passed on to others who passed them on and were then passed on to some people who wrote some things down, That which was written down was modified by various scribes and others.

            That none of his disciples could read or write is the reason we have thousands of variants and other errors in the new testament. And, again, we know they were illiterate because none was from an urban area. At least, Dr, that is what I have learned about your position from reading and listening to your books, so far.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 27, 2014

            No, the fact that the disciples were illiterate has nothing to do either with textual variants or with discrepancies in the NT.

      • Avatar
        richard  October 26, 2014

        “i know u guys are very happy and full of joy to see me alive but let me tell you what happen before i died, i was sweating blood.”

        why would one want to spoil the happy atmosphere ?

  10. Avatar
    richard  October 27, 2014

    one wonders why a post resurrected god would want to spoil the happy atmosphere with how he was in agony and sweating blood. why would he want to do that when all the agony and suffering would be irrelevant to his current state?

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  October 28, 2014

    Bart Ehrman: No, the fact that the disciples were illiterate has nothing to do either with textual variants or with discrepancies in the NT.

    Steefen: The fact has not been established that the 12 were illiterate. The fact has not been established that the disciples with Greek names were illiterate. The fact has not been established that a tax collector whose records probably would have been in Greek could be illiterate. The fact has not been established that Jesus could not read the Torah at 12 or later when he read that the scripture was fulfilled with your hearing.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  October 28, 2014

      We cannot say that 100% of the 70 Jesus sent out were illiterate.

  12. Avatar
    Prizm  February 26, 2015

    This verse puzzled me as a Christian. I couldn’t figure out if jesus was sweating blood or not. The verse is a bit obscure. His sweat ‘became like’ drops of blood, his sweat was ‘as it were’ great drops of blood. Every translation I read does not outright tell you that he actually sweat blood. It’s unclear whether it was heavy sweating so that it looked like he was bleeding, or whether it actually was blood.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 28, 2015

      I think the drops are big, like drops of blood. It doesn’t say that he “sweated blood” — even though this passage is where the term comes from.

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