It’s widely agreed that Paul very rarely quotes directly from the Jesus tradition, but this almost certainly leads to underestimating how much of it he knew. Here I want to suggest that Romans 8 provides some reason to think he knew something like the Gethsemane story narrated as part of Mark’s passion narrative.
Since Jeremias, at least, it has become commonplace to assert that Jesus regularly addressed God as “Abba”. There are problems with both claims for uniqueness (we know too little) and intimacy (it does not mean “Daddy”) associated with that word, especially in its more popular forms. However, it is clearly the case that the Jesus tradition as we have it remembers that word specifically as the anguished prayer of Gethsemane, and nowhere else.
In Gethsemane according to Mark (14:32-42), Jesus is shown praying in anguish and distress, and the “Abba” prayer is specifically related to seeking obedience. Something similar seems to underpin the theology articulated by the writer to the Hebrews:
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Heb 5:7-9)
in Romans 8, we find a similar range of themes being brought together.
- For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption (14)
- When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (15-16)
- If, in fact, we suffer with Christ so that we may also be glorified with him. (17)
- the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. (26)
The themes of suffering with Christ, groaning wordless prayer, calling God “Abba”, and being obedient as a son to God, are all interwoven. It seems to me that points towards the possibility that Paul is drawing on the same Jesus tradition Mark narrates and which is also developed by the writer to the Hebrews
If so that would also, of course, suggest a widespread inclusion of the Gethsemane story in primitive Christian passion narratives.