Jill Hamilton meets Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, the scholar with a bold view of what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane

“Jesus had a brief nervous breakdown in the Garden of Gethsemane,” suggested Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, the 77-year-old renowned expert on the New Testament. Tall, very erect, heavily built with a clipped white beard, “Fr Jerry,” as he is affectionately known, looks imposing even when sitting. Although he spoke with an air of authority, the idea of Jesus having a mental collapse after the emotional Last Supper came as a shock to me, as it would to most traditional Christians. But Fr Murphy-O’Connor, like his first cousin, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, can present an argument persuasively.

“Scholars,” he said, “have come a long way from seeing Jesus as a lonely figure in a moonlight-dappled garden whose body and spirit momentarily rebelled.”

He emphasised the wide gap between recent research and how average churchgoers still perceive many events in the life of Jesus.

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Expanding on the contradictions surrounding the diverse re-tellings of Jesus’s final hours, his suffering and extreme anguish of the Agony in the Garden, he added: “When realising the imminence of his own demise, Jesus was deeply distraught and troubled, out of control.”

We chatted over pre-lunch drinks in the austere, book-lined bedroom-cum-study in the quiet confines of the École biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem, one of the numerous stone monasteries in Jerusalem. For nearly half a century Fr Murphy-O’Connor has lived here on the outskirts of the Old City in this colonnaded, palace-like building which claims to be the oldest research institute in the Holy Land.

During his long years here Fr Murphy-O’Connor has built up a formidable reputation. No other priest in Jerusalem is as well known internationally. An esteemed professor of New Testament studies, he has the prestige of being one of the most respected biblical scholars in the world today. Indeed, he is a living legend, almost a landmark in Jerusalem.

The son of a prosperous wine merchant in Cork, he was educated by Christian Brothers and, not wanting to be a secular priest, joined the Dominicans. After graduating from a seminary in Ireland he chose scriptural studies, gaining a doctorate in Switzerland, followed by post-doctoral work at the University of Heidelberg. When he arrived in Jerusalem at the age of 28 he continued the challenging work of interpreting the Dead Sea Scrolls which he had begun in Germany.

Intensely interested in the history and archaeology of the Holy Land, and being very sociable by nature, he gathered together various diplomats, United Nations staff, journalists and priests who met on weekends to hike around various archaeological and historical sites. As a result of the weekend adventures and explorations of these enthusiasts, nicknamed the Sunday Group, Oxford University Press asked Fr Murphy-O’Connor to write an archaeological guidebook, The Holy Land. Since 1980 it has gone into five editions and sold over 100,000 copies. All the royalties, as with his books on St Paul and other publications, go to his Dominican institute.

Jerusalem has remained the focus of Fr Murphy-O’Connor’s life, but he has returned “home” to Cork most summers and keeps closely in touch with his Irish relatives. “We are a big clerical family. Three cousins, including Cormac, and three uncles were priests,” he said with pride.

Last year, as now, he was confined to a wheelchair, yet he managed the five hour flight to Cork. This summer, though, he won’t make the journey. “The trouble is that my good friend, Sister Kay, a nun, who looks after me when I am there, is now very ill,” he said sorrowfully.

Fr Murphy-O’Connor radiated a sense of confident well-being, and it was hard to believe that he is unable to walk far or breathe properly without medical assistance. Having recovered well from a coma seven years ago, he has suffered another health setback. For months he has had endure having a plastic tube from an oxygen machine attached to his nose 24 hours per day. This, though, has not stopped him working long hours each day at his computer, writing and editing. As he is not the sort of person who complains about personal discomfort, his only words relating to his physical disabilities are praise for the medical staff and the devoted students who push his wheelchair to the dining room and to prayer.

Nothing hinders Fr Murphy O’Connor’s sharp intellect. He manages to keep up to date on the latest historical research and critical biblical scholarship which shapes interpretations of events in the Bible. Chapter five, “What really happened at Gethsemane?” in his new book, The Keys to Jerusalem, refers to the debates surrounding the emotional turmoil of Jesus on the night prior to his arrest. The book contains 12 articles on the history, archaeology and theology of Jerusalem. All deal with problems which he thinks have not yet been given satisfactory solutions.

The really fascinating pages are those which analyse the controversy over one of the most soul-wrenching episodes in the gospels, that is, Jesus’s prayer to God in Gethsemane. Fr Murphy-O’Connor even goes so far as to ask the question: “How do we know the words of Jesus’s prayer? If the disciples were asleep and they had no time with Jesus after he was arrested and before he was put to death, how does anyone know what Jesus prayed? Where is the source for the content?”

His answer came as a shock: “They made it up!”

This was the sort of remark one might hear from an atheist or a non-believer, not an august Catholic biblical scholar.

He continued: “The only possibility is that certain disciples projected on to Jesus the emotions that they imagined they would experience if they themselves suddenly realised their death by torture was imminent.”

The notion that the authors of the gospels used imagination, and that their words sometimes only reflect a kernel of the historical truth, was difficult to grasp. As he sat at his neat desk, Fr Murphy-O’Connor spoke of the intensely human Jesus revealed by Mark: “Mark stressed that it is a fully human thing to have a nervous breakdown if you are about to be tortured to death.”

To strengthen his reasoning, Fr Murphy-O’Connor added that modern scholars agree that Mark was the first to write any of the gospels and was, therefore, more likely to have had reliable first-hand sources. The distortion of facts developed, Fr Murphy-O’Connor believes, because “it is clear in the story that the early Church did not want a Jesus that was really human”.

“In contrast, John’s Jesus is always in control. Unlike John, Mark accepted the full humanity of Jesus. Remember, that it is only in the first source used by Mark that Jesus has a brief nervous breakdown.”

He paused: “However, in Mark’s second source there is no reference to this. It suppresses Jesus’s breakdown by making him say: ‘My soul is sorrowful unto death.’ Such a quote makes it look as if Jesus was talking about his internal feelings, yet it is a quotation from Psalm 42.”

He added: “This was all written at the very beginning of thought of who Jesus was and what he felt. Mark’s writings were about 40 years after Jesus died, around the year 70 AD” – the time of the first Jewish-Roman War, when Christians, like Jews, in Jerusalem were persecuted.

“Young men and women in their 20s who had been in the company of Jesus would have been alive in the year 70. So even though Mark was writing 40 years after the death of Jesus, he would have had access to witnesses. We know that Mark combined two sources which, of course, must be earlier than the year 70.”

Halting to ensure that I fully understood what he was saying, Fr Murphy-O’Connor then spoke of how Mark’s second source is similar to the way that John portrayed Jesus at Gethsemane: always completely in control. “Presenting Jesus as a man who loved people and having compassion was no problem. But they didn’t like him having a nervous breakdown, being out of control. It proved to be more than other Christians could accept. Ignorance, they also tried to suppress.”

But can Christians even now accept the human frailty of Jesus, not just his divine nature?

Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s new book, The Keys to Jerusalem, is published by Oxford University Press, priced £65

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