The Jewish community refers to the Seder (Passover meal) as a "night of watchfulness" taken from Exodus 12:42. The idea of "watching" is that of guarding or protecting.
"It was a night of watching by the LORD, to bring them out of the land of Egypt; so this same night is a night of watching kept to the LORD by all the people of Israel throughout their generations." (RSV)
In Matthew's and Mark's version of that Passover night that Jesus was arrested, there is a possible reference to a rabbinic rule dealing with falling asleep during the Passover feast.
The rule stated in the Mishnah reads:
"R. JOSE SAID: IF THEY FELL, INTO A LIGHT SLEEP, THEY MAY EAT; IF THEY FELL FAST ASLEEP, THEY MUST NOT EAT."
The Talmud goes on to explain what is meant by a "light sleep":
"What condition is meant by ‘A LIGHT SLEEP’? Said R. Ashi: A sleep which is not sleep, a wakefulness which is not wakefulness. E.g., if he answers when called, cannot make a reasoned statement, yet recollects when reminded. Abaye was sitting [at the Passover meal] before Rabbah. Seeing him dozing he remarked to him, ‘You, sir, are sleeping.’ ‘I was merely dozing.’ replied he, ‘and we have learnt: ‘IF THEY FELL INTO A LIGHT SLEEP, THEY MAY EAT; IF THEY FELL, FAST ASLEEP’, THEY MUST NOT EAT.’" (Mas. Pesachim 120b).
The rule states that if a person merely dozes and wakes up when called, the Passover meal can be resumed. If, on the other hand, the person falls into a deep sleep, i.e., the person is unable to answer or respond when called, the Passover meal cannot be resumed. The act of sleeping was not necessarily frowned upon in all cases, especially if it occurred late in the meal, i.e., after all four cups of wine had already been taken, for it was understood by the rabbis that a heavy meal has the possibility of producing sleep.
Now, look at the story in Mark 14:36-46, where Jesus tells the disciples to watch while he goes to pray. Upon returning, he finds them asleep. The implication in verse 37 is that Peter is just dozing, for Jesus gives a command that the reader assumes Peter heard. When Jesus comes back the second time, Mark makes an interesting notation in verse 40: "neither wist they what to answer him." With that phrase it is explained that they heard Jesus but didn't know how to answer him due to their sleepiness. In the portion of the Talmud quoted above, one way of determining if a person was either dozing or sleeping (light sleep vs. heavy sleep) was if he answered when his name was called, but could not make a reasoned statement, then the person was just dozing. Mark makes a very distinct reference to this rule. When Jesus comes back the third time, it's clear to him that they are completely asleep and thus their Passover meal and union is finished.
Mark's intended audience was Jewish and therefore they would have been familiar with this rabbinic rule of sleeping during the Passover meal. Matthew is also a very Jewish book, and while he doesn't use the particular phrase that Mark did, he does mention that their "eyes were heavy." Compare these versions in Matthew and Mark with that found in Luke. The differences are interesting and many, but the intended audiences were also different.
Luke's primary audience were the Gentiles who were probably unfamiliar with the Passover feast in general, and certainly unfamiliar with any rabbinic rules against sleeping. Whether Luke was unfamiliar with the rabbinic rule himself or left it out assuming his Gentile audience wouldn't understand it is not important. The differences between the two versions goes to highlight an important understanding in the study of the Gospels and that being that they are based on midrashic commentary. According to the Judaica Encyclopaedia midrash is a Jewish method of interpretation that involves the "study and investigation of the inner and logical meaning of a particular text as opposed to its plain and literal reading." This form of interpretation is not so much concerned with exactly WHAT happened, but more concerned with WHAT IT MEANS. Understanding this form of interpretation will greatly enhance one's study of the New Testament. Thus the differences found in Luke are not important when one realizes that Matthew and Mark have interpreted the event in its midrashic form.
With the disciples being fully asleep, the understanding is now clear to the Jewish audience -- the Passover meal cannot be resumed, it is over. Jesus recognizes this himself in Mark 14:41. With the Passover meal being officially over for Jesus and the disciples, the night of watching has come to a close. Remember that watching is meant as guarding, protecting, or keeping vigil. As God kept watch over the Israelites on the night that He led them out of bondage, all of Israel is to remember that night by keeping watch in honor to Him. Now note what immediately happens in Matthew's and Mark's version of the Passover feast when the "night of watching" has come to end:
And he cometh the third time, and saith unto them, Sleep on now, and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise up, let us go; lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand. And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas, one of the twelve, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.
In conclusion, while it is possibly correct that Jesus wanted the disciples to stay awake so that he could feel that they were with him completely in mind, sharing in his struggle, the request no doubt had a greater purpose. Jesus didn't want the disciples to fall asleep so that the Passover feast would not come to a early close. It was only after the third time that Jesus doesn't disturb the disciples or even tries to wake them.
"Sleep on now, and take your rest: it is enough, the hour is come."
Daube, David. The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, (c)1956
Encyclopaedia Judaica, CD-ROM edition, Judaica Multimedia, (c)1997
The Soncino Talmud, Davka Corp & Judaica Press; CD-ROM edition
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