JMason – Marshall on Jesus’ prayer

Marshall claims to want to do “not simply a word-study but a study of the concept of prayer” in the gospels.

From the outset of his article Marshall assumes that St. Matthew based his writing on Mark and a Q source (which was also used by St. Luke). From this he makes a variety of suggestions about who wrote what in the gospel and whether Matthew was likely to have inserted his own thoughts about prayer into the work. He concludes the “there is…nothing in any of this to suggest an independent development of the topic of prayer in Matthew’s gospel.”

My thoughts on this initial discussion are that no serious Christian should care what Marshall concludes, since the questions he asks are at best irrelevant to the reception of the inspired text, and at worst they are destructive to the piety of the faithful and seek to cast doubt on the received tradition of the Holy Church. I don’t blame Marshall in particular for this, since it seems simply to be the stock and trade of the “Scripture scholar”. I also confess that from this point I am skeptical about the value of any conclusions which Marshall will draw since they will evidently rely on forcibly treating divine revelation as if it were the meandering thoughts of middle-eastern peasants.

The remainder of the commentary has value mostly as a catalogue. Marshall notes where prayer is mentioned and the barest details about its context. With regard to Mark 1:35 “And rising very early, going out, [Jesus] went into a desert place: and there he prayed,” Marshall notes that it suggests that Jesus got up earlier that morning than the other people…

Some of Marshall’s comments suggest that he considers the gospels to be basically inventions: “Here Jesus is portrayed,” “the actual words [are] taken from Psalm 22,” and “Jesus is depicted as…”

It seems to me that more fitting language would be: “we see Jesus,” “the gospel informs us that Jesus does,” or “Jesus quotes from Psalm 22…”

Marshall combines his confident trust in the fallibility of the gospel narrative with a confidence in his own (and his peers) interpretation of the real meaning of words and events as well as the moral import of what they contain. He knows, for example, that prayers for divine blessing are “petitions for God to do good to other people” including those who crucified Jesus (although he isn’t sure who inserted the part about Jesus praying for his persecutors into Luke’s gospel). He suggests from a reference to certain hypocritical prayers in Mark 12:40 that long prayer in general is a questionable practice. (So much for the monastic life.) In reference to a lack of distinctions made in Luke 18 he makes claims as to the worthlessness of casuistic reckonings about morality.

Marshall seems determined to read the gospels (and sections within them) in isolation from each other and from the Old Testament: He says, for instance that “there is nothing in Luke 11:5-8 that suggests that importunity, or continued and intense effort, is required for prayers to be heard by God…” and goes on to make a page of conclusions based on that understanding.

Marshall is not just confident in his interpretation of the text, but also in which parts are late scribal additions (as for instance Mark 9:28: “And he said to them: This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”) It is somewhat curious, given his obvious certainty about its invalidity, that he spends a few paragraphs condemning this line as a “folk-memory” .

Marshall does not understand the perduring presence of Christ in the Eucharist, suggesting in reference to the Resurrection that Christ left his disciples from this point. He concludes based on this assumption that fasting does not have much value in relation to prayer. He also seems confused as to the implications of the Hypostatic Union (or at the least uses very imprecise language), claiming that at Gethsemane “Jesus had to be content that the Father’s will, rather than his own desires, would be fulfilled.”

In the end Marshall does draw some general points about Jesus’ prayer in contrast to traditional Jewish prayer: 1. Jesus shows, particularly in the exclusive company of his disciples, his special of relationship of Son to God the Father. 2. Jesus’ prayer revolves around the coming of the kingdom of God and its implications. 3. His prayer has to do with a transformation of the notion of the temple, the center of worship.
Marshall offers the conclusion that prayer is not solely about getting what we want or not, but that it involves coming into contact with the Divine will.