🔼The name Gethsemane: Summary
- Oil Press
- From (1) the noun גת (gat), press, and (2) the word שמן (shaman), either eight or to grow excessively fat.
🔼The name Gethsemane in the Bible
Surprisingly, the name of the famous garden of Gethsemane is mentioned only twice in the Bible, and in one context. Both Matthew and Mark report that Jesus and the disciples went to Mount Olivet, and then proceeded to a field (χωριον; used also in John 4:5, Acts 1:18, 4:34, 5:3, 28:7) called Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed his three agonizing prayers and was finally arrested (Matthew 26:36, Mark 14:32).
Luke only mentions Mount Olivet, but adds that Jesus went to that location (τοπος) habitually (Luke 22:39), which is how Judas managed to find them (John 18:2). John has Jesus pray his prayers at the Last Supper, and then travel with his disciples beyond the torrent of the ominous Kidron, to a garden (κηπος) into which they entered (John 18:1). In John's gospel, Jesus' arrest follows immediately his entry into the garden.
Why the gospel writers stressed the fact that Jesus was arrested in a garden may not immediately clear, but perhaps it's to reflect back on the garden of Eden, where all the trouble began. The betrayal of Christ could thus be seen as parallel to the unlawful eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (compare Genesis 3:6 to 1 Corinthians 11:27), and the death of Christ at Golgotha as parallel to the mortality of all creatures (Genesis 2:17, 1 Corinthians 15:22).
One of the elements of the gospel, of course, is that mortality is a mere temporal state; at some point in the future of mankind, individual humans will no longer die. Since mortality (and thus the need to reproduce) defines us and drives much of our actions, becoming immortal must inevitably entail a complete revision of our most fundamental identity. It's quite possible that the gospel writers suggest that the new mankind will relate to olive oil or wine the way the individual humans of today relate to olives or grapes (Revelation 14:19-20).
In 2012, the National Research Council of Italy Trees and Timber Institute and academics from five Italian universities conducted an investigation of the age of the olive trees presently found in the garden of Gethsemane. According to professor Antonio Cimato, the tests showed that these olive trees are (a) in excellent health, and (b) the oldest living plants cited in scientific literature, dating back to the twelfth century AD and possibly before (Reuters, October 2012). The latter statement is rather curious because Tom Harlan demonstrated (also in 2012) that a certain Great Basin Bristlecone Pine found in the White Mountains in California is more than 5,000 years old. Before that (1950's), the record holder was a similar tree, which had lived more than 4,800 years old, as established by Edmund Schulman (and not the hallowed General Sherman giant sequoia in California, which is a crisp 2,500 years old). In Utah, a clonal colony of aspen called Pando is thought to be a single living organism of 80,000 years old. A cluster of olive trees in Bechealeh, Lebanon, called Sisters is rumored to be older than 6,000 years, but rumors, besides drive prices up also have the tendency to add a few millennia to an already assumed age.
In light of the above, the findings of the nevertheless great age of the Gethsemane olive trees should probably not be considered with too much fanfare; they probably say not so much about the essential meaning of the garden of Gethsemane and a lot more about the enthusiasm of the people who were assigned to tend it over the ages.
🔼Etymology of the name Gethsemane
The verb יגן (yagan) probably meant to beat or press, since the derived noun גת (gat) describes a wine-press.
The second part of our name comes from the root שמן (smn), and may either mean olive oil or eight:
Verb שמן (shaman I) means to grow excessively fat (or arrogant or dull; anything that creates the emergence of a visible external excess). The identical root שמן (shaman II) has to do with the number eight. This is certainly curious but it is part of a larger system: the verb שׂבע (saba') means to be sated or saturated, whereas the word שׁבע (shib'a) means seven.
From שמן (shaman I), the adjective שמן (shamen) means fat or rich. Noun שמן (shaman) describes the overflowing fatness of the land. Noun שמן (shemen) refers sometimes to general fatness, but mostly it specifically denotes olive oil, which in turn symbolizes the richness of a country and its culture. Plural noun אשמנים ('ashmannim) describes an overly stout class of men. Likewise noun משמן (mishman) denotes a stout or vigorous one. Noun משמן (mashman) denotes a dripping fat portion of food.
From שמן (shaman II), nouns שמנה (shemoneh) and (shemonah) mean eight. Adjectives שמני (shemini) and שמנית (sheminit) mean eighth. Plural noun שמנים (shemonim) means eighty.
For a meaning of the name Gethsemane, both NOBSE Study Bible Name List and Spiros Zodhiates (The Complete Wordstudy Dictionary) read Oil Press, and yes, that's perhaps the most proper translation. But note that it also means Eight Presses, or Press Of The Eighth, and presents a similar enigmatic duality as the name Elizabeth, which means both God Is Oath and God Is Seven.