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Michael Wolter on Jesus’s ἀγωνία in Luke 22.44

After two years of very hard and very rewarding labor, I am particularly pleased that both volumes of my co-translation (with Christoph Heilig) of Michael Wolter’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke are now complete and published as volumes 4 and 5 of the BMSEC series. I have, of course, produced multiple blog posts on these volumes already, but with this post I want to start a new series titled “Wolter Words” (the apparent alliteration is of course illusory), which will focus on one of my favorite aspects of his commentary, namely his tendency to challenge conventional assumptions about the meaning of many words and phrases in the Gospel.

In today’s post, we will look at Wolter’s interpretation of γενόμενος ἐν ἀγωνίᾳ in Luke 22:44.

Before turning to this issue, however, let me briefly comment on two others:

First, it is worth noting that Wolter (II: 483), based on a detailed analysis of the evidence, thinks the arguments for and against the originality of Luke 22:43-44 are quite evenly balanced, so that “we must remain for the time being with a non liquet.

Second, in response to a common misinterpretation of this text, Wolter (II: 479, 485) rightly stresses that when Luke says that Jesus’s “sweat became like drops of blood falling to the earth,” he does NOT intend to communicate that “Jesus sweats blood or that his sweat changed into blood” but rather that “Jesus sweats so profusely that his sweat drops to the ground,” i.e. “The tertium comparationis is … not the ‘consistency of his sweat’ (thus Klostermann 217) but its quantity. There is so much of it that—like when a person bleeds profusely—drops form that fall to the ground. Thus, the thrust of the statement wants to illustrate the intensity of the praying of Jesus and—at least indirectly—the greatness of his ἀγωνίᾳ.”

What then is meant by the phrase γενόμενος ἐν ἀγωνίᾳ? In what follows I will give Wolter’s answer in abbreviated form, alternating between the English translation (II: 483-484) and the German Version (723-724):

ET: That the appearances “strengthen” the recipient of the appearance is also known from many other texts … Elsewhere God also always “strengthens” the mediators sent by him so that they can fulfill their task … Therefore, the fact that Jesus nevertheless  falls into ἀγωνίᾳ, i.e., into inner agitation, need not stand in contradiction to the strengthening by the angel.

GV: Auch dass Erscheinungen den Erscheinungsempfänger “stärken”, ist aus vielen anderen Texten bekannt … Gott “stärkt” auch sonst immer die von ihm gesandten Mittler, damit sie ihren Auftrag erfüllen können … Dass Jesus trotzdem in ἀγωνίᾳ gerät, d.h. in innere Erregung, muss darum nicht in Widerspruch zur Stärkung durch den Engel stehen.

ET: Many interpreters have not been able to reconcile the two with each other. In the wake of Paton 1913 they therefore do not think that ἀγωνίᾳ designates the inner agitation of Jesus but equate it with ἀγών. In this view, the concern is with a “contest” or “struggle” (cf. e.g. Neyrey 1980, 159ff [“victorious struggle”]; 1985, 58ff. [“combat”]; Nolland III: 1084 [“the battle in prayer”]; Brown 1994, I: 189-90; Tuckett 2002, 138-39), which takes place in the “fervent” prayer of Jesus.

GV: Viele Interpreten haben beides nicht miteinander vereinbaren können. Sie sehen darum in Gefolge von. W.R. Paton, Ἀγωνία (Agony), CIR 27 (1913) 194 mit ἀγωνίᾳ nicht die innere Erregung Jesu bezeichnet, sondern setzen es mit ἀγών gleich: Es handele sich um einen “Kampf” (engl. “contest” or “struggle”; cf. z.B. Neyrey*, Absence, 159ff [“victorious struggle”]; Passion, 58ff [“combat”]; Nolland III, 1084 [“the battle in prayer”]; Brown* I, 189f; Tuckett* 138f.), der in dem “inständigeren” Beten Jesu stattfindet.

ET: In doing so, however, they make the error of arguing only with the lexical sense and not paying attention to the syntagmatic connection with γενόμενος; cf. e.g. Vita Aesopi 81 (“They fell into agitation [εἰς ἀγωνίαν γενάμενοι] … and regarded this great misfortune as an important sign”). Elsewhere, too ἀγωνίᾳ designates inner agitation in the face of coming unsalvation … [additional texts are adduced] … Furthermore the talk of Jesus as γενόμενος ἐν ἀγωνίᾳ must be placed in the nexus of all the texts in which there is talk of “coming” or “falling” ἐν ἀγωνίᾳ or εἰς ἀγωνίᾳ (e.g. Diodorus Siculus 14.35.2; 16.42.9; 20.51.1; Josephus, Antiquitates judaicae 6.107; 8.373; 11.326; 13.87 and especially P. Tebt II 423.13-14: “I have commissioned you …; you have not yet given me information about it, so that I have fallen at present into agitation [ὡς εἰς ἀγωνίαν με γενέσθαι ἐν τῷ παρόντι]”).

GV: Dabei machen sie jedoch den Fehler, nur mit der Wortbedeutung zu argumentieren und nicht die syntagmatische Verknüpfung mit γενόμενος zu beachten; vgl. z.B. Vita Aesopi 81 (“sie gerieten in Erregung [εἰς ἀγωνίαν γενάμενοι] … und hielten dieses große missgeschick für ein wichtiges Zeichen”). Auch anderswo bezeichnet die innere Erregung angesichts eines kommenden Unheils … [zusätzliche Texte sind angeführt] … Darüber hinaus ist die Rede von Jesus als γενόμενος ἐν ἀγωνίᾳ in den Zusammenhang all jener Texte zu stellen, in denen von ἐν ἀγωνίᾳ oder  εἰς ἀγωνίᾳ “geraten” oder “kommen” oder “fallen” die Rede ist (z. B. Diodorus Siculus 14,35,2; 16,42,9; 20,51,1; Josephus, Ant. 6,107; 8.373; 11,326; 13,87 und vor allem P. Tebt. II, 423,13f: “Ich habe dir aufgetragen …; du hast mir darüber noch nicht Auskunft gegeben, so dass ich zur Zeit in Erregung geraten bin [ὡς εἰς ἀγωνίαν με γενέσθαι ἐν τῷ παρόντι]”).

ET: It would therefore be a truncation if one wanted to reduce Jesus’s ‘strengthening’ to the empowerment to “fervent” prayer. The aforementioned linguistic contexts do not make the  ἐκτενέστερον προσεύχεσθαι of Jesus an expression of his ἀγωνία but rather let it become the reaction to it (cf. Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 366: “We had the souls no longer in us but they had gone forth ὑπ’ ἀγωνίας in order to implore the true God…”).

GV: Es wäre darum eine Verkürzung, wenn man Jesu ‘Stärkung’ auf die Befähigung zum “inständigeren” Beten reduzieren wollte. Die vorgenannten sprachlichen Zusammenhänge machen das ἐκτενέστερον προσεύχεσθαι Jesu nicht zum Ausdruck seiner ἀγωνία, sondern sie lassen es zur Reaktion auf sie werden (vgl. Philo, Leg. Gai. 366: “Wir hatten die Seelen nicht mehr in uns, sondern sie waren ὑπ’ ἀγωνίας herausgetreten, um den wahren Gott anzuflehen, …”).

In short, for Wolter attention to the syntagmatic connection of ἀγωνία with γενόμενος shows that the phrase means “als er in inneren Aufruhr geriet” (GV: 720) or “when he fell into inner turmoil” (ET: II: 479) rather than signaling that he is engaged in “victorious struggle,” “combat,” or “battle in prayer”.

Addendum: Luke 22:44 in the 2016 ESV Translation:

Not too long ago, there was a minor eruption in the blosphere when Crossway announced that “Beginning in the Summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway—in much the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769)” (quoted from Scot McKnight; cf. Christianity Today).

While I did not follow this controversy in detail at the time, my work on Wolter’s commentary did make me sensitive to the change made in Luke 22:44:

2011: And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

2016: “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

While it is not exactly clear to me how the translators are interpreting this verse in the two cases, it seems to me that the 2016 translation might move a bit closer to Wolter’s understanding. However, if Wolter’s analysis is correct, it would probably be preferable to revise the 2016 ESV translation further and to translate γενόμενος ἐν ἀγωνίᾳ with “having fallen into inner turmoil” or “having come into inner turmoil” or “when he fell into inner turmoil” (Wolter II: 479) or “when he fell into inner agitation.” Moreover, since Crossway wisely ended up reversing its initial decision (see here), it is at least conceivable that they could reconsider their translation of this verse if the ESV translation is revised again in the future.

For a more complete list of changes that have been made to the ESV, see here and here.

For a small sample of the many blog posts on the controversy over the ESV’s initial statement about the finality of the 2016 ESV translation, see e.g. Anderson/Alsup, Kevin Antlitz, Denny BurkJoe CarterAmy GannettSusanna KrizoClaude Mariottini, Scot McKnightRachel MillerCarolyn MoorePorter/Yoon.

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German Mondays: Thank you for making it to the end of this blog post! I hope to be able to write at least one Monday blog post each month. Best, Wayne