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35. Garden of Gethsemane

According to the Gospel of John  of John, after the Last Supper Jesus and the disciples went into “a garden” which was “across the Kidron Valley”. (John 18:1).

Matthew (26:36)and Mark (14:32) name the place – “Gethsemane”. Gethsemane means “[olive] oil press”. The presence of an olive press across the Kidron Valley is not surprising. It is at the bottom of a mountain called the Mount of Olives. Olive trees were grown mostly for the purpose of producing olive oil. Olive oil was used throughout the ancient world, especially as a source of energy, mostly fuelling oil lamps. Archaeological research across Israel revealed hundreds of olive presses from antiquity. Olive presses can be outdoors, but often they are in a building, or a cave. In the past I lived in northern Jerusalem, in a building that was right next to such an installation – an olive press in a cave.

A Byzantine period oil press in a cave found in northern Jerusalem. The olives were crushed by two round millstones. (C) IAA

The event documented in the Gospels took place in the spring. Harvesting and producing olive oil was done in the autumn. That means that Jesus and the disciples could stay at Gethsemane, as it was simply not in use, and probably empty.

Then the book of Luke describes the events best:

On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:39-44).

Pilgrims assembling around the “Rock of Agony”, inside the “Church of all Nations” next to the Garden of Gethsemane. (C) Michael Browning

 Upon his return he found the disciples asleep. But “while he was speaking a crowd came up”, and among them was Judas Iscariot. Judas executed the plan of kissing Jesus as a sign to “chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders” that this is the person they are looking for. Jesus was then taken to the house of the high priest for questioning.

Gethsemane ends its role, and is never heard of again in the New Testament.

In the Byzantine period the “Rock of Agony”, upon which Jesus may have called to the Lord, was identified at the bottom of the Mount of Olives. The Byzantine period church built around the rock was destroyed by the Sassanids in 614, built again by the Crusaders, and again in 1924. The rock itself is still exposed in the church, though surrounded by a crown of thorns of wrought iron.

General view of the garden of Gethsemane. (C) Michael Browning

In the garden next to the church there are a few olive trees, some are about a thousand years old.

The Cave of Gethsemane is about a “stones throw” from the Rock of Agony, as the Gospels indicate. No traces of an olive press were recorded in this cave, but some Byzantine period sources mention round stone beds on which the disciples may have slept. It is quite possible that these round stone beds were really the millstones of the olive press, or its round base. These stones disappeared already in antiquity, perhaps taken by pilgrims as a “holy souvenir”.