Sleeping Disciples


    Joseph Francis Alward  
     © Copyright 2002 


In this article I describe Mark’s parable of the sleeping disciples, and critique portions of a conference paper scheduled for reading by Jeffrey B. Gibson1 to the Mark Group at the Sixth Annual Meeting of  the Society of Biblical Literature conference in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, November 23-26, 2002.



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Last modified on October 31, 2002, 3:27 Pacific Standard Time.


Jesus' Sleeping Servants Parable


Speaking in parables in Chapter 13 about the coming tribulation, the departure and eventual return of the son of God, Mark has Jesus tell his disciples the story about servants who must not fail to serve well their master, and who must not be caught sleeping because their master could return at any time, at any hour.  Here is the parable:


"Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.  It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge...and tells the one at the door to keep watch... because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back...If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.
(Mark 13:32-37)



Mark's Sleeping Disciples Parable


Soon after Mark has Jesus tell his sleeping servants parable, Mark constructs his own parable, one which is the parallel of sleeping-servants parable.  In this parallel parable, Mark makes Jesus the "master," and the disciples are the "servants," and in this story the "servants" do exactly what Jesus' parable above taught them not to do:


He took Peter, James and John along with him...he said to them. "Stay here and keep watch."...Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. "Simon," he said to Peter, "are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." Once more he went away...When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy....Returning the third time, he said to them, "Are you still sleeping and resting? Enough! The hour has come. Look, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!" (Mark 14:32-41) [And then Jesus is arrested, and his disciples flee.]



In Mark's sleeping disciples parable above, the disciples are cautioned by Jesus that while they might intend to serve him well (the spirit is willing), their need for rest (the body is weak) might tempt (peirasmos) them to close their heavy eyes and fall asleep.  Some commentators read peirasmos as a "test, " or "trial."  Either way, Mark 14:38 means the same thing:  Jesus is warning the disciples about the contest between the will of the body to close its eyes, and the will of the mind to remain awake. 


Thus, with either meaning of the word peirasmos, Jesus is telling the disciples to pray that they do not fail the body's test and close their eyes--in other words, succumb to the temptation (or, fail the body's test) and close their eyes.


In Mark's sleeping disciples parable, he has the disciples do exactly what Jesus in his sleeping-servants parable admonished against:  Servants must not sleep while the master is away, and be caught sleeping when he returns.  Thus, just as Mark had Jesus tell a parable that would serve as a warning to his audience, the disciples, Mark then tells his own parable, which is also apparently intended to serve as a warning to his audience--the people of Jerusalem. 


The implied warning from Mark seems to be this: You saw how the foolish servants (disciples) fell asleep, even after just having listened to Jesus' sleeping servants parable, and the result was that their master (Jesus) was lost to the arresting crowd.  If you, likewise, are so foolish as to fail to be watchful, and close your eyes to the truth while Jesus is away [already forty years now], the kingdom of heaven will be lost to you, too.  This, for the most part, is the message Mark wanted to convey with the sleeping servants and sleeping disciples pericopes.



Another Interpretation



Jeffrey Gibson, in a preprint of his conference paper, "Mark 14:38 as a Key to the Markan Audience," 2 submitted to his Kata Markon 3 discussion forum, seemingly attaches to Mark's sleeping disciples passage a depth of meaning that is far greater than is warranted, in my opinion.  A few excerpts from his paper are reproduced below:



"At Mk. 14:38 Mark presents Jesus commanding Peter, James and John to petition God to be kept from 'entering into' a phenomenon denoted by the term [peirasmos]...What, in Mark's eyes, is the object of this petition? What is it that according to Mark these three disciples are to pray for?...I seek to argue here [that] Mark presents Jesus as urging the disciples to ask for in avoid their perpetrating a "testing of faithfulness..."


"Now if, according to Mark, securing divine aid to avoid putting God to the test is the theme of Jesus' own Gethsemane prayer, it is reasonable to conclude that it is also the theme of the prayer that Jesus urges Peter, James, and John to pray."


Thus, Gibson is asserting that Jesus is not asking the disciples to pray that they're not tempted to close their eyes while he is away, but to pray that they don't tempt, or test, God's faithfulness. 



Rebutting Gibson's Interpretation



Below are four main objections I have to Gibson's argument that Mark was having Jesus ask the disciples to pray that they not tempt or test God's faithfulness.


1.  A Prayer to Avoid Testing God Breaks Continuity


One  reason to cast aside Gibson's thesis is that Jesus' request for prayer is sandwiched inside references to the disciples' physical inability to remain awake.  The following outline contrasts the orthodox interpretation to Gibson's:


 Physical endurance:  Disciples found sleeping, "Could you not stay awake?"

 Then, Jesus asks disciples to pray


          a.  that they not succumb to body's need for sleep ?




          b.  that they don't test God's faithfulness ?


 Physical endurance:  Jesus explains, "the body is weak."


 Physical endurance: Disciples were again found sleeping because "their eyelids were heavy."



Which makes more sense: (a), or (b)?


Any other meaning for the prayer request besides a prayer for physical strength breaks the natural continuity of the passage, and goes completely against common sense.  Why would Jesus completely and so abruptly change the subject from physical endurance to ask the disciples to pray that they not test God, and then immediately return to the topic of physical endurance?  It doesn't make sense.



2.  Why Didn't Jesus Ask Them to Pray Before He Found Them Asleep?


Now, common sense presents another problem with Gibson's interpretation:  If Jesus wanted his disciples to pray that they don't test God, then why did he wait to ask them to do this until after he found them sleeping?  Common sense tells us that the trigger for the prayer request was the fact that the disciples were found sleeping. 


Perhaps if Jesus had overhead the disciples discussing how they might test God's faithfulness, then it would have been appropriate for Jesus to ask them to pray that they never do this again, but that is not what happened.  Jesus found them asleep, even after he had warned them in the parable that this was something they should not do while waiting for the master (Jesus) to return, and that is why he asked them to pray that they not to that again.  Jesus request for prayer is part of Mark's larger request to his audience that they not fall asleep spiritually while waiting for Jesus' return. Few things in the Bible seem clearer than this, but Gibson does not agree.



3.  Jesus' Prayer Was Not About Testing God

Gibson, in the second excerpt above from his paper, offers Jesus' private lamenting prayer at Gethsemane as support for his thesis.  If it's true, Gibson says, that Jesus was asking in his prayer for help avoiding testing God, then why shouldn't we conclude that was what he wanted his disciples to do, too?  Well, in my opinion, it is not true that Jesus lamenting prayer was a call for divine aid to avoid having to test God.  I explained why I believe this in a post to the Kata Markon discussion forum on October 15, 2002.  That post is found in Appendix A.  A relevant excerpt is below:


Just as David expresses the hope following his betrayal that he will prevail, but recognizes it's the Lord's decision to make ("whatever seems good to [God]"), then so does Jesus express the hope  following his betrayal that his agony will be relieved, but accepts that it is "not my will, but yours [whatever God wants]." 


All that Mark is doing here is what he has done throughout his gospel stories:  He is trying to show the reader that many of the heroic events in the lives of the divine figures of the Old Testament are being reenacted in the life of Jesus. 



4.  Mark Could Not Have Had Psalm in Mind   


Immediately following Jesus' request that the disciples pray that they not test God--according to Gibson, Jesus then reminds his disciples that "the body is weak."   What does a "weak body" have to do with testing God's faithfulness?  It just doesn't make sense.  If the phrase, "the body is weak," does not clearly refer to the physical problem of sleepy disciples keeping their eyes open, and thus being tempted to close them, then what else could it mean? 


Gibson's explanation of the connection between the weak body and testing God is based on something he thinks he sees in Psalm 78:   In Psalm 78:37-41 the words pneuma (spirit), sarx (flesh),  asthenes (weakness),and perasmon (tempt) appear, and these four words also appear in Mark's sleeping disciples parable.  Gibson infers from this connection that Mark must have expected his readers to be reminded of this Psalm when they thought about his sleeping disciples story.  Thus, according to Gibson, since that Psalm is about testing God, he concludes that Mark 14:38 is about testing God, too, otherwise, why would Mark have wanted them to think about the Psalm? 



Aside from the fact that Gibson's argument is circular, there is a very good reason to disbelieve that Mark had Psalm 78 in mind when he wrote his sleeping disciples story.  In the verses below, the author is noting that the Lord does not bother to kill the faithless because they are mortal, so they will die anyway. 


Yet he...did not destroy them...he restrained his anger [for]  He remembered that they were but flesh (sarx), a passing breeze that does not return.  (Psalm 78:38-39)



The Psalm reference to sarx is about transience and mortality.  Thus, if we are to accept Gibson's claim that Mark wanted his audience to think of this verse when they read Mark 14:38, then we will have to believe that Jesus' prayer request was followed by a reminder to his disciples that they were not immortal:  
"Pray that you don't test God.  Remember, you are not immortal."
What kind of sense does that make? 
Does it not make much more sense to believe that Mark merely was having Jesus explain to his disciples that they needed God's help to gain the strength needed to remain awake, because the body (sarx) was weak in a physical sense, and not because their flesh would not last forever?


"Pray that you don't close your eyes.  Remember, your body is weak."






We should claim no more than that Mark was having Jesus tell his disciples to pray that they not succumb to the temptation to close their eyes, lest they be sleeping when the son of God returns--in this instance, returning from praying to God.  Mark explains parabolically to his audience that they face the same danger as faced by the disciples:  Perhaps they might lose patience while waiting for Jesus' return and let their eyes be closed in a spiritual sense, too, just like the foolish disciples, and thereby lose sight of God and his kingdom.


In Mark 14:38, Mark has Jesus say that the disciples' willpower is not enough to keep their eyes open, ("the spirit is willing"), but  the fact  that their bodies are weak means they might succumb to the temptation (peirasmos) to close their eyes, and that this is a parabolic teaching to Mark's audience that they must not fall asleep spiritually while waiting for Jesus to return.


Gibson's suggestion that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray that they not test God's faithfulness just doesn't fit into the context of the pericope. Furthermore, if Mark really wanted his readers to understand that Jesus didn't want his disciples to test God, then he would have written this passage in a way which would readily be understood by his readers.  Why would Mark write in a manner so indirect--if we can believe Gibson--that we would have to wait two thousand years for his "true" intentions be made clear to us?


I would think that if Mark wanted us to know that he was having Jesus warn his disciples against putting God to the test, he easily could have had Jesus speak plainly about testing God.  There's ample evidence that gospel-writers of that age knew how to do this.  Consider, for example, Luke's Peter in Acts 15:10, who said, "Now therefore why tempt ye God (nun oun tis peirazo theos)...?"  Luke knew how to speak directly about tempting God.  Why would Mark not also know how?  If Mark really did wish for his audience to know that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray that they not tempt God, rather than pray not to let their eyes be closed, would he not have known that generations of readers would not be able to figure that out from what he wrote?

A Kata Markon forum member responded in some detail to questions regarding the translation of Mark 14:38 and the meaning of peirasmos.  (See Appendix C.)   

1.  Jeffrey B. Gibson, D.Phil. (Oxon.), DePaul University; Lecturer in Humanities at Wright College/ Roosevelt University/Columbia College, and Lecturer in New Testament Institute for Pastoral Studies at Loyola University, Chicago.  Curriculum vitae: 


2.  Online file no longer available.


Note #1 added Monday, October 21, 2002, 9:00 am California time:  Gibson's paper seems no longer to be available.




4. Gibson's use of Psalm 78 to support his "testing God" thesis:

Third, that the disciples are on the verge of "testing God" is the specific import of the saying that Mark has Jesus utter immediately after Jesus urges them to "keep awake", "watch", and pray MH ELQHTE EIS PEIRASMON, namely, the saying that the "the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" (TO MEN PNEUMA PROQUMONH DE SARC ASQENHS, Mk. 14:39). It should be noted that in its conjunction of the terms "flesh" (SARC), "spirit" (PNEUMA) and "testing" (PEIRASMOS) not only with each other but with the theme of the "weakness" (ASQENHS) of those purportedly dedicated to God, the saying is an allusion to Ps. 78 (LXX) -- especially vv. 39-41 where the same terms appear (in reverse order) in conjunction with the theme of the weakness and the disobedience of nominal Israel.  Now this Psalm not only recites the dark events during and after Israel's wilderness wanderings when Israel doubted the efficacy of God's ways to deliver them from "the foe" (cf. vv. 17-31 [compare Exod. 16-17]; 26-32 [compare Num. 11:31-35]; 56-66). It defines itself, and was intent [sic] to be used as, as a warning to "coming generations" within Israel not to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors who "did not keep in mind [God's] power or the day when he redeemed them from the foe"(v. 42) and thereby "put God to the test" (cf. vv. 18; 41; 56). Given this, the question arises: Why would Mark have Jesus allude to this Psalm unless those to whom the allusion is addressed are in need of hearing what the Psalm has to say?



Appendix A

This email exchange below is in large part identical to the post I sent to Kata Markon on October 15, 2002, with some changes.



"…how else should Jesus' anguished words ending with '[but] not my will but yours', be interpreted except as a prayer for divine aid to avoid putting God to the test?"



I don't see the need to make this passage that complicated, or meaningful.  I think you may be attaching an undeserved sophistication to the Markan author, as well as a depth of meaning to the passage that is not there, in my opinion.  I don't see why this pericope has to have anything whatever to do with testing God.  I believe the simpler explanation for "not my will but yours" is that the author was just having Jesus imitate David's lament.


As I have suggested more than once in this forum, there is ample evidence that some of the stories about Jesus in the Markan gospel are an examples of the type of aemulatio (emulation) that Dennis MacDonald described so well in his book, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, (Yale University Press, 2000).  While MacDonald suggests that Mark had Jesus emulate Odysseus, I see a much clearer connection to the Old Testament heroes, Elisha, Elijah, Moses, David, and Yahweh.  For example, Mark seems to have adapted the fishes and loaves story from Elisha's multiplication of the loaves, but made Jesus better.  He likewise had Jesus intend to pass by the boat, in emulation of the Lord's passing by Moses.  There are other examples, but the one which is relevant to your Gethsemane analysis is David's lament after having been betrayed by his counselor:


Then the king said…"If I find favor in the LORD's eyes, he will bring me back and let me see...his dwelling place again. But if he says, `I am not pleased with you,' then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him." (2 Samuel 15:25-26)


Just as David expresses the hope following his betrayal that he will prevail, but recognizes it's the Lord's decision to make ("whatever seems good to [God]"), then so does Jesus express the hope  following his betrayal that his agony will be relieved, but accepts that it is "not my will, but yours [whatever God wants]." 


All that Mark is doing here is what he had done throughout his gospel stories:  He is trying to show the reader that many of the heroic events in the lives of the divine figures of the Old Testament are being reenacted in the life of Jesus.  Mark created these fictional stories--or, at least they were created in the oral tradition from which Mark derived the tales--in order to give the impression that this "Jesus" person must be the son of God.  How else could one explain why all of these divine-like things happen to him? 


Thus, in my opinion, Jesus' lamenting prayer has nothing whatever to do with a request for divine aid to avoid putting God to the test, as Gibson has asserted.  Instead, it is just one more item in a long list of items in the life of Jesus manufactured by Mark to convince his audience that Jesus was the son of God.  Readers who are interested in seeing the evidence to back up my claims will find it in the articles on the web site shown below.


I am aware of your views on "parallelmania," and agree that the practice of seeking parallels can be carried too far, but in this case I think the parallels between David's lament and Jesus' agony at Gethsemane are too strong to dismiss.  If you wish to see a stronger case for Mark's emulation of David in this case, you will find it in the article, "David and Jesus."


Other articles by Joseph F. Alward on Mark's gospel are found on the web page,
"A Skeptical View of Christianity and the Bible".           



Appendix B



The following is a post I sent to the Kata Markon forum on October 21, 2002:


I present in this post a condensed version of my argument against Gibson's interpretation of Mark 14:38.  Readers will find the complete argument at Sleeping_Disciples.htm


In Mark 13:32-37, Jesus tells the story of the type of failure servants must not be guilty of:  closing their eyes while the master is away.  There is not the slightest hint in this parable that Mark wanted the readers to think of the servants' failure in terms of their testing God.  No one will deny that the second parable at Mark 32-42 was meant by Mark to read in light of the first parable, so since there is zero reference to testing God, how could Mark ever have expected his readers to impute that meaning to Mark 14:38, as Gibson thinks they should have?  Did he expect his audience to undertake the comprehensive rumination, and extensive and deep probing of the Greek, while reading between the lines, that Jeffrey Gibson has done?  Of course not.  Mark would have wanted them to see and accept the direct, surface meaning of the words he had Jesus speak.  Why make it hard on his audience?


The message in the sleeping servants parable is very simple:  Keep awake while the master is away.  Since this parable is obviously the antecedent to the parable Mark tells of the sleeping disciples, the absence of any reference to testing God is strong evidence against Gibson's interpretation.


The message in Mark's sleeping disciples parable in Chapter 14 is exactly the same as the message in the sleeping servants parable in Chapter 13, and just as simple, just as direct.


In constructing his parable, Mark was mindful that Jesus was already about seventy years late in keeping his promise to return with the angels and the trumpets in the heavens.  People were starting to wonder whether Jesus was ever coming back, and were losing their faith.  Naturally, Mark would have wanted to warn them not let their eyes be closed to the message of God, and to be patient and continue to wait for Jesus' return, and not be tempted to abandon their faith (close their eyes). 


To present this warning to his audience, Mark told them a story about the disciples doing exactly the thing that Jesus warned against in his sleeping servants parable:  closing their eyes while Jesus was away, because the temptation to do so was so great.  The message would not be lost on the audience:  they should keep their eyes open, waiting for Jesus to return, even though they may be tempted to abandon him. This interpretation is so simple, so sensible, so direct, that it is very hard to understand how anyone could think that it is more complicated than this, no matter what they think they see in the underlying Greek. 


What I believe Gibson and others have done is to construct a very convoluted "how-it-can-be-much-more-complicated-than-people-think" scenario based largely on a possible interpretation of a single Greek word.  They see things that have not been seen even by the greatest scholars of our time, and was beyond the understanding of all of those translators that Sid Martin mentioned. To accept their "testing God" interpretation, one is forced to abandon the far more natural and sensible one, and to ignore completely the fact that the antecedent parable has nothing whatever to do with testing.  Basically, these folks are blinding themselves to the obvious simplicity of Mark's message, seeing things with their hearts--not their minds--in the manner of the "Bible code" people, who need the Bible to contain messages hidden to everyone but them. 


Now, we know what Larry Swain thinks about this simpler interpretation; he rejects it, evidently, as does Gibson.  Now, Gibson's other supporter on this issue in this forum (the only other one I know about), Mark Goodacre, has yet to present his views, at least not since I first offered my observations to the forum, so let me ask Mark this:  Do you believe with Gibson that 14:38 is NOT a request by Jesus that his disciples pray that they do not fall asleep--essentially pray that they do not lose the contest being body and mind?  Do you instead believe with Gibson that 14:38 is a request by Jesus that they pray that they do not test God?  If the latter, what do you do with Jesus' reference to the body being weak, and how do you explain the fact that the antecedent parallel seems to have nothing to do with testing God, and only to do with staying awake--showing patience--while the master is away?



Appendix C


Sid Martin, an attorney from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who has a "longstanding interest in Christian origins and the Gospel of Mark," responded to Gibson's challenge to me to explain why I believe that "tempt," or "temptation" is an appropriate translation of "peirasmos" in Mark 14:38.   Gibson, in two posts on October 19, wrote:


I wonder if you could back up your claim that PEIRASMOS means "temptation" and not "a test/ trial"? (Kata Markon, October 19, 2002)


To aid Joe in the question I asked him about showing me evidence that PEIRASMOS ever meant "temptation", I decided to reproduce the data which needs to be examined if some resolution of the question is to be attained, i.e., a listing of all the instances of the use of PEIRASMOS before the middle of the second century CE.  (Kata Markon, October 19, 2002)


In response, Martin wrote,


Forgive me for being a little confused but doesn't "temptation" simply mean "testing" or "trying" in a moral sense? A person's character is "tested" or "tried" when one is faced with a choice between what is morally right and what is personally appealing. One is "tempted" to do what is easier or more profitable or more sensually satisfying. One passes the "test" or "trial" when one refuses to give into "temptation," i.e., to fail the test by choosing the lesser good or the greater evil. Without the "temptation" there is no "test" so that in reality they are the same thing. Just as ore may be assayed to see if it has the chemical composition of gold, so too a person may be tested by temptation to see if he has the "right stuff." One can also be tempted in a prudential sense by choosing immediate gratification over a person's greater interests; breaking one's diet is a good example.

In the context of Mark 14:38, the sense is clearly that the disciples are to watch and pray and not give in to the temptation to sleep - the easier, more satisfying course of conduct - rather than pass the fatigue test and stay awake. Note God's Word, "Stay awake, and pray that you won't be tempted." Many a soldier ordered to stand guard late at night has known what it is to say that the soldier's spirit is willing to do his duty but the long day's march has made his exhausted flesh too weak to watch. Indeed, Mark is very likely alluding to this military model. Falling asleep at one's post would, I am sure, be an instant death sentence in the Roman army.

Perhaps it would be helpful if Jeffrey would share with us his concern that PEIRASMOS be rendered "trial" or "test" rather than "temptation" which, to my mind, is at best a distinction without a difference, especially where the context suggests that the test or trial of one of moral character, i.e., temptation. Jeffrey rests his case on the LXX nisah = a "test", a "trial." Brown-Driver-Briggs (based on Gesenius) has as the third definition "test, try prove, tempt [but not in modern sense of the word]." Does anyone know what the "modern sense of the word" is, other than a test of character?

If Joe is mistaken in his translation, it is a mistake that the majority of translators make. See KJV, RSV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, NLT, ESV, KJ21, ASV, TEV, NCV, CEV, as well as Young, Phillips, Darby, Webster, Green, Wesley, Weymouth. This was Jeromes's translation, "in temptationem," and following the Vulgate, Douay-Rheims and Knox. Cognates of temptation are found in French, "tentation" (Segond, Jerusalem), Italian, "tentazione" (CEI, LND, IBS), Spanish, "tentacion" (RVR1960, NVI, RVR1995, DHH, RVA, LBLA, CST-IBS), and Portugues, "tentacao" (NVI, IBS, PORAA). Luther chose "Versuchung" as did his revisers (1912, 1975, 1984) and successors (Elberfelder). The Staatenvertaling, "verzoeking," and the IBS
"verleiding" are equivalent. Scandanavian versions are all of the "frestar/frestele" variety (SVL, SV1917, DN1933, DNB1930, Nor-IBS), while Russian has "iskushyeniye" (Russv, IBS). In all of these languages, the terms used have the sense of resisting temptation, i.e., passing a test of moral character.

The use of "test" or "trial" to render PEIRASMOS is decidedly out of the ordinary, if not idiosyncratic. The only prominent English translation to do so is NRSV which has "time of trial", although there is nothing about "time" in the Greek. Such usage may reflect a desire to simplify the language to the point of being rather overly colloquial, as in the Basic English "not be put to the test," Contemporary English "won't be tested," Worldwide English "will not do wrong," and Biblia en Lenguaje Sencillo's "la prueba." Notable is the IBS's Hoffnung fuer Alle which has "damit ihr die kommenden Tage ueberstehen koennt." This reflects a view that the temptation/test/trial is yet to come, rather than being present in the natural urge to sleep. Such may foreshadow a future peirasmos, but the main sense is more immediate.

Martin is the author of the articles, "Withdrawal to the Sea", and "Mysteries of the Kingdom."