One of the greatest challenges for modern readers of the Bible is to enter into the spiritual world of the biblical authors and their audiences. Many modern Bible readers approach the Bible from their spiritual worldview, often not recognizing the influences and trends—cultural, traditional, historical—that shaped their spiritual outlook. The ancients viewed the world much differently than we do. Religion, in the ancient world, was part of everyday life, not a separate component of life. My professor, David Flusser, illustrates this in his fifty-nine “Theses on the Emergence of Christianity from Judaism” when he states: “The idealistic philosophy of the last three centuries has moved Christian thought, even among the semi-educated, further away from the Jewish way of thinking than Patristic medieval thought. The conceptual world of a Christian anti-Semite of the Middle Ages is much nearer to the Jewish way of thinking than the ideas of many well-meaning Christians of today.”
Modern Bible readers, then, frequently infuse their interpretation with a modern spirituality and psychology, not recognizing that the Bible reflects the religious beliefs and practices of the ancient writers. They are sometimes not even aware that such a difference exists, and most often unable to bridge the gap between the spiritual world of the Bible and their expression of faith. We must remain aware of the distance between the thought world of the ancients and ourselves. We need to be careful not to insert modern issues—political or religious—concerns, and sentiments into our attempts at understanding what the Bible meant.
In the nineteenth century, critical New Testament scholars wrote biographies of Jesus. What they produced were psychological biographies. The Jesus presented in these works often reflected the psychology of a nineteenth century Continental European and had very little to do with Jesus from Nazareth, the first century Jew who lived in the land of Israel. Although critical scholarship has, to some extent, moved away from attempting to penetrate the psychology of ancient, biblical figures and authors, like Jesus, many Christians, pastors, and theologians continue to delve into the psychology of Jesus. And, like the failed attempts of the nineteenth century scholars, the Jesus they construct looks strikingly familiar to a modern, twenty-first century Christian, with the political, theological, and cultural outlooks of the person speaking about Jesus, rather than Jesus from Nazareth, who was neither modern, nor Christian.
In this blog, I want to offer a roadmap as to how one should approach entering and engaging the spiritual world of the Bible. To illustrate this path, we want to look at Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46; see also John 18:1). This event in Jesus’ life is routinely interpreted in light of modern theological assumptions and the psychology of a modern person. Jesus’ language recorded in the Gospels demonstrates the depth of his piety and how entirely Jewish his faith was.
Habit is one of the greatest practices for ingraining a discipline into a person’s life. Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” Whether it’s shooting a basketball, hitting a golf ball, writing, speaking, or singing, consistent, intentional repetition leads to improvement and perfection. Religious habit is no different.
Judaism in the first century had developed a number of religious habits. One in particular had to do with prayer. The library of the Dead Sea Scrolls provides prayers and prayer collections indicating that Jews in the first century developed fixed prayers for fixed times. Not everyone within ancient Judaism prayed the same prayers; however, common themes, motifs, and patterns began to emerge within Jewish prayers. Beyond fixed prayers, prayer at set times was a more widespread practice. And some of the prayers offered at these fixed times came from private prayers of individuals offered as petitions, supplications, and benedictions.
Different Jewish groups established set times for prayers. Not everyone followed the same practice however. Some observed morning prayers (Sibylline Oracles 3.591-593; The Letter of Aristeas 305-306); others offered evening prayers (The Letter of Aristeas 184-185). The most common practice, however, was apparently prayer in the morning and evening (Judith 12:5-9; 9:1; 1QS 9:26-10:1; 4Q503; Josephus, Antiquities 4.212). The practice of morning and evening prayers derived from two separate religious practices: the beginning and end of the Temple service (i.e., morning and evening), and the reciting of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), which mentions, “when you lie down (evening) and when you rise (morning).” Some people evidently prayed three times a day, which became the common practice in later Judaism, but during the first century, this showed a heightened sense of piety and was not the norm.
Widespread evidence exists for the recital of the Shema as part of daily practice among Jews during the Second Temple period. According to the Mishnah, the priests in the Temple recited the Shema together with the Ten Commandments by heart after the sacrifice of the daily burnt offering (m. Tamid 4.3; 5.1; m. Ta’anit 4.3; m. Yoma 4.1-2; see b. Ta’anit 16b). During the Greco-Roman period, the Shema was often combined with the Ten Commandments (see Nash Papyrus, 1QS 10:10-14a; and the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 6:4), which indicates this practice existed outside of the Temple. The sages took for granted that Jews recited the Shema along with daily prayers twice a day, morning and evening (m. Berachot 1.1-3), which seems to have been the common practice in the first century (m. Berachot 1.3).
Jews most commonly recited the Shema in the home, which, outside of the Temple in Jerusalem, was the primary place where Jews living in the land of Israel in the first century prayed (see Matt. 6:6). The Dead Sea Scrolls also attest to the daily recital of the Shema among the Qumran sectarians: “At the outset of day and night, I will enter the covenant of God (i.e., reciting the Shema), and when evening and morning depart, I will repeat His precepts (i.e., the Ten Commandments)” (1QS 10:10). The use of mezzuzot and tefillin in the late Second Temple period also indicate the widespread importance of the Shema in the first century (see Matt. 23:5; The Letter of Aristeas 158f; Josephus, Antiquities 4.213; and the archaeological material from Qumran).
Josephus connected the practice of reciting the Shema with daily evening and morning prayers (Antiquities 4.212). According to him, Moses required prayers of thanksgiving upon rising in the morning and going to bed at night: “Twice each day, at dawn thereof and when the hour comes for turning to repose, let all acknowledge before God the bounties which He has bestowed on them through their deliverance from the land of Egypt: thanksgiving is a natural duty, and is rendered alike in gratitude for past mercies and to incline the giver to others yet to come.” Moses, of course, did not command this, but Josephus’ attachment of daily prayers to the reciting of the Shema indicates the commonality of this practice among Jews in the first century and that it was generally considered obligatory. This suggests that Jews attached benedictions before and after the reciting of the Shema. These benedictions originated from private, individual prayers prayed at the fixed times of the morning and evening recital of the Shema, and were brief and simple, which is common of ancient benedictions—being dense and highly stylized, expressing cardinal theological ideas in condensed language. Josephus does not indicate that the prayers attached to the Shema were set, merely the frequency and practice was common.
The Shema is the central confession within Judaism. The reciting of the Shema acknowledged the kingship of God: “Why does the section, ‘Hear, O Israel’ (Deut. 6:4; the Shema) precede, ‘And it shall come to pass if you shall listen?’” Rabbi Joshua ben Qorha said, “So that a man may first take upon himself the kingdom of Heaven and afterward take upon him the yoke of the commandments” (m. Berachot 2.2). In other words, reciting the Shema acknowledged God as king and His right to rule; after that acknowledgement, one can accept his decrees (i.e., the yoke of the commandments). To illustrate this, the sages told a parable interpreting Exodus 20:3, “You shall have no other gods before Me:”
Why is this said? Because it says: “I am the Lord your God.” To give a parable: A king of flesh and blood entered a province. His attendants said to him: Issue some decrees upon the people. He, however, told them: No! When they will have accepted my reign, I will issue decrees upon them. For if they do not accept my reign, how will they carry out my decrees? Likewise, God said to Israel: “I am the Lord your God, you will have no other gods—I am He whose reign you have taken upon yourselves in Egypt.” And when they said to Him: “Yes, yes,” He continued: “Now, just as you accepted My reign, you must also accept My decrees: ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exod. 20:3).
The daily (sometimes multiple times a day) reciting of the Shema reminded Jews of their relationship to God: He’s the king; they are His servants. He makes the rules; they follow them. Accepting His reign is intimately tied to obedience to His will. As His servants, they exist to do His will. One sage taught: “Do His will as if it was your will that He may do your will as if it was His will. Make your will of none effect before His will that He may make the will of others of none effect before your will” (m. Avot 2.4). This habit of reciting the Shema daily reaffirmed and reestablished this orientation within the mind of ancient Jews. It also confirmed the foundation upon which God listened to and answered their prayers: submission to His will.
The kingship of God also appeared in ancient Jewish prayers. An ancient Aramaic prayer, the Kaddish, prays: “Their Father who is in heaven. Magnified (Glorified) and sanctified be His great name. May He establish His kingdom in the world which He has created according to His will. He who makes peace in His highest, may He make peace for all Israel” (see Matt. 6:9-10; Luke 2:14; see also the Kedusah, the third benediction of the ‘Amidah, and y. Ta’anit 64b).
Scholars have long noted the similarity of this prayer and the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray (Matt. 6:9-10). The opening benedictions of Jesus’ prayer, in fact, form a parallelism in which each phrase—May Your name be sanctified, May Your kingdom come, May Your will be done—offers a variation of saying the same thing. God’s name is sanctified (magnified) whenever His will is obeyed: Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar said, “Whenever Israel does the will of the Ominpresent, then His name is magnified (sanctified) in the world, but whenever Israel does not do His will, His name is profaned in the world” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exod. 15:2, emphasis added). At the same time, His rule (kingdom) is established when people obey His will: “If Israel kept the words of the law given to them, no people or kingdom would rule over them. And what does the law say? ‘Take upon you the yoke of My kingdom and emulate one another in the fear of God and practice kindness to one another’” (Sifre on Deut. 32:29, emphasis added; Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael to Exod. 19:1; Avot de Rabbi Nathan version A, 17; Matt. 22:43-40; Mark 12:38-34; and Luke 10:25-28; Josephus, Antiquities 18:117).
This was the piety of the world of Jesus. The daily habit. A faith that expressed itself in the daily remembrance and confession of God’s sovereign kingship. People sought to accept upon themselves His rule and submit obediently to His will. And, frequently, as Josephus indicates, Jews attached private prayers and blessings to their recitation of the Shema. Prayers that referred to the kingship of God, submission to His rule, and obedience to His will. Jesus identified the Shema as the “greatest commandment” (Matt. 22:43-40; Mark 12:38-34; and Luke 10:25-28), and the prayer he taught his disciples to pray contains the request for the establishment of God’s rule as His will is obeyed on earth as it is in heaven. The piety of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples grew, in part, from the daily habit that he was raised with in his home of the reciting of the Shema, accepting God’s rein and submitting to His rule. What impact did this daily habit have upon the life and obedience of Jesus?
The Gospels record Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, prior to his arrest by the chief priests (Matt. 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46; see also John 18:1). This is one of the most dramatic moments in Jesus’ life as he wrestled with the will of the Father. The Gospels do not depict this moment as a struggle between Jesus’ human and divine natures; rather, they portray this event as a righteous individual, who knew the death that approached him (Luke 9:44), and sought to remain faithful to God’s will (see Testament of Moses 9.5-7).
Matthew and Mark identify the location of Jesus’ prayer as place called Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36; Mark 14:32). John describes it as a garden (18:1), across the Kidron valley, on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39). The Mount of Olives is a hill line oriented north-south on the eastern boundary of Jerusalem in the first century. The Kidron valley separates it from the walled city of Jerusalem in the first century. It forms the eastern watershed of the hill country around Jerusalem. From the top of its ridge, you can see the steppe land of Judah, which slopes down into the Jordan Rift valley towards Jericho and the Dead Sea. The land east of the Mount of Olives sits in the rain shadow of the Judean hill country characterized by deeply eroded chalky slopes and infertile soil with a lack of water. This difficult region historically served as a refuge for political figures and spiritual ascetics.
The traditional location of the “Garden of Gethsemane” sits on the lower slope of the western side of the Mount of Olives. The tradition identifying this as the location of Gethsemane dates to the Byzantine era (4th-6th century A.D.), and cannot be considered definite. Nevertheless, according to the Gospels, Jesus prayed that final night somewhere on the Mount of Olives. The drama of the moment can only truly be felt when one stands in that location. From the bottom of the western side of the Mount of Olives, one can leisurely walk to the top of the ridge in twenty minutes. Another twenty minutes and you are in the eastern wilderness, a place of refuge for those seeking asylum from the authorities. When Jesus prayed that night, “not my will but Yours be done,” he physically sat in a geographical location that presented him with a doorway of escape. An hour walk would have taken him to freedom! He could have avoided Caiaphas, Pilate, and the cross.
But he turned his back on the doorway of escape and went to the cross in submission to the will of the Father convinced of a just God who vindicates the righteous (Deut. 32:36, 43; Sifre on Deut. 32:43; 1 Macc. 7.15-17; 2 Macc. 7.30-38; 4 Macc. 6.26-29; 17.21-22; Testament of Moses 9.1-10.2; Wisdom of Solomon 5.1-2; Testament of Abraham 13.1-5; Luke 22:68-69; 23:46; Rev. 6:9-11).
According to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), before Jesus’ arrest, he instructed his disciples to “pray so that you will not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40, 46; see also Matt. 26:41; Mark 14:38). His words of instruction reminiscent of the prayer he taught his disciples to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13). Such pleas for deliverance were common within ancient Jewish prayers (see 4Q213a; 11QPsa 19; 24.8-13; b. Berachot 16b; 60b). Jesus, however, prayed knowing what faced him, “not my will but Your will be done” (Luke 22:42; see also Mark 14:36; Matt. 26:39) echoing the words he instructed his disciples to pray: “May Your will be done” (Matt. 6:10; 26:42; see also m. Avot 2.4; t. Berachot 3.7). Submission to God’s will glorified God on earth (see John 17:1-4); it established His rule. It demonstrated that one loved God with all one’s heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:5).
About a hundred years after Jesus’ death, during a period of war between the Jews and Romans, a Jewish sage by the name of Akiva was prohibited by the Romans from teaching Torah, on pain of death. He refused to submit to their decree choosing rather to remain faithful to God and His will. The Romans executed Akiva flaying him with iron combs. He taught that the phrase “with all your soul” in Deuteronomy 6:5 meant “even if He takes away your soul (life)” (b. Berachot 61b; see m. Berachot 9.5). In fact, the story is told that Akiva’s execution coincided with the time for the reciting of the Shema. As he was having his flesh scraped from his bones, he replied,
“All my life I read this verse and said, when will I have occasion for these three: ‘And you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.’ I loved Him with all my heart. I loved him with all my money. But whether with all my soul I could not test. But now, when ‘with all your soul’ came, the time of reciting the Shema has arrived and my mind has not wavered, therefore, I am reciting and laughing” (y. Berachot 9:6).
Submission to His will establishes His reign.
When Jesus faced his approaching death, he intoned the words of submission to the will of the Father that he instructed his disciples to pray. But what kept him in that moment from running to the east taking the door of escape into the wilderness? What caused him to turn away from his escape and embrace the will of the Father?
Christians often treat Jesus, even in his vulnerable moments in Gethsemane, as a type of Superman. “Well he was God, so of course, he submitted to God’s will.” Such reasoning is never reflected by the Evangelists. The Incarnation did not give Jesus superhuman will.
In stressful situations, humans revert to their known behaviors and practices. During a basketball game, a player doesn’t have time to practice or think about the mechanics of the shot. They have to shoot and rely upon the hours and repetition to take over. A singer, standing in front of a crowd, cannot begin to practice his or her solo. Rather, when the conductor brings the baton down, the singer must trust the hours of repetitive discipline and practice.
People often think that true spirituality is how one lives in the big moments of life. But we fail to realize that our performance, our obedience, in the big moments is conditioned by how we disciplined ourselves in the ordinary and mundane moments of existence.
Jesus submitted to the will of the Father in Gethsemane, standing at the door of escape, because he had made it a daily habit to submit to God’s rule and reign in his life. In a moment when he could have run, his discipline of daily submission to God’s will took over. And because of that habit that was part of ancient Jewish piety the world has never been the same.
We need to be careful not to define spirituality by the big moments. We should not despise the daily and mundane that provide us the opportunity to submit to God’s kingship and His will. If we are the recipients of Jesus’ obedience, which came about because of his daily discipline, I wonder how those around us would benefit if emulated the practice of our master?
 Within Judaism today, the central prayer is the ‘Amidah, also called the Shemoneh ‘Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions). While some of the blessings within this prayer date to before Jesus, the prayer itself was formed after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (A.D. 70), meaning after Jesus. Jesus was likely familiar with some of the blessings found in the ‘Amidah, or blessings with similar themes and motifs, but he would not have prayed the ‘Amidah.
 The Old Testament already alludes to the practice of certain individuals praying at fixed times (Dan. 6:11; Ps. 55:18).
 Marc Turnage, Windows Into the Bible (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2016), 399-409.