A belief common to many first-time Holy Land visitors is that the Garden of Gethsemane is a large plot of land full of trees and shrubs, situated in the quiet of nature, free from the confusion of the Holy City. Nothing could be further from truth…once again, what we see in our minds eye as we read the scriptures is very different from reality. While the area may have been more trees and plants during Jesus’ time it most likely wasn’t the bucolic park-like gardens we are accustomed to.
A Garden Close To Everything
A short distance away, the Temple blocked the sun and the city’s sounds invaded the garden. Today while visiting the garden, one can hear the noise of cars and buses as they discharge Holy Land visitors at the Dung Gate to visit the Western Wall, the Lion’s Gate to walk into the Old City and the City of David to view the new excavations, all just across a small ravine called the Kidron Valley.
Camping Under The Olive Trees
The Mount of Olives, with the Garden of Gethsemane at its base, was an olive tree covered expanse that provided shelter for pilgrims after they arrived in Jerusalem for Temple celebrations. That Jesus retreated to this area time and again is not surprising, He most likely camped there when He journeyed to Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph during the festival days of His childhood. This small grove, with full views of the Temple Mount and much of Old Jerusalem, remains one of the natural areas most faithful to the New Testament scriptures.
A Nighttime Stroll
Matthew, in his gospel, tells us that after sharing the Last Supper, Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn and started walking towards the Garden of Gethsemane. [Matthew 26] This walk occurs after dark when city gates are closed, but apparently a gate called the Essenes Gate, through which nighttime traffic could enter and exit the city, stood near the traditional location of the Upper Room, in the vicinity of today’s Zion Gate. Dubbed the “needle’s eye” by Jerusalem inhabitants, the gate’s size forced camel drivers to unload their bundles and guide their animals through on bended knee, possibly this gate was on Jesus’ mind when He spoke to the rich young ruler in Luke 18; “….easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
So Much To Say…So Little Time
So Jesus and His disciples are walking and talking. After leaving the city via the Essenes Gate which emptied into the Hinnom Valley, they walked around the Pool of Siloam, past the Southern Temple Wall, and into the shadow of the Temple Pinnacle where Satan tempted Jesus. Finally, they passed over the small Kidron Valley to the Garden of Gethsemane, all totaled, about a half mile walk….it had all come down to this night’s walk! Quoting Zechariah 13, “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter,” while walking past those memories of miracles and ministry, Jesus touches on their faith, which He knew was not as strong as they thought, and warned of Peter’s denial. So much to say….so little time left to say it!
On The Way To Bethany
Gethsemane is Greek for Olive Press, geth means press and semane means olives. It is close to the natural route from the Temple over the Mount of Olives to Bethany, the home of Jesus’ best friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The garden today occupies an area approximately 1200 square meters and is next door to the beautiful Franciscan Church of All Nations, built over the Rock of Agony, where tradition holds that Jesus prayed and sweat drops of blood. [Luke 22: 44]
Ancient Olive Trees
Were these trees we see in the Garden of Gethsemane today silent witnesses to Christ’s agony? Israel has many ancient olive trees, in fact, seven Holy Land trees have been determined to be 3000 years old. Carbon dating of the current trees in the Garden of Gethsemane indicate that some of the wood is 2300 years old. We know from Josephus’ writings that the Roman army chopped down all the trees on the Mount of Olives, including the Garden of Gethsemane , during the Jerusalem siege of 70 AD. However, if there is one thing we know about olive trees, it is that new growth regenerates from the roots of a severed tree.
In 2012, an interesting DNA research project was undertaken by an Italian team of experts that showed the garden’s eight olive trees exhibit an identical genetic profile, i.e. they belong to the same parent tree. So it is possible that the trees we see today are the offspring of the ancient trees that sheltered Jesus as He prayed for Himself, His disciples and future believers, You and Me! [John 17]
Olive Oil & Rosary Beads
Today, the Garden of Gethsemane is a working garden. The olives from the garden’s trees are harvested each year, the pressed oil is used for Gethsemane’s sanctuary lamps and the pits are made into Rosary Beads. A wrought iron fence protects the ancient olive trees and garden from the thousands of visitors that pass by. Across the street is a peaceful olive grove also cared for by the Franciscans where it’s possible to sit for a devotion and wander past olive trees with notes tucked into their bark. In the Temple wall, just over the way, the Golden Gate or Eastern Gate is in full view of this grove, a wonderful place to remember Jesus’ gift of grace and to look forward to His return.