Over the past weeks, we have engaged in a close look at Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution, in an effort to figure out how and why it happened, and who was to blame. We are doing this as part of a longer effort to understand the roots of Christian anti-Judaism, and perhaps even Jewish anti-Christianity. So far, we’ve gotten only so far as Jesus’ arrest, concluding that it was probably a joint Jewish-Roman project. Not only was the arresting force (probably) made up of Jewish Temple police and Roman soldiers, but it also appears that the arrest itself was ordered by Jewish leadership (probably the high priest Caiaphas) together with Roman leadership (probably the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate). We’re not sure yet whether the arrest was sought by the Romans (and the Jews cooperated) or by the Jews (and the Romans cooperated).
The next logical question might be, why was Jesus arrested? The problem with this question is, it’s too broad. The question is too broad as a general matter, because every legal system contains prosecutorial discretion: not everyone who breaks the law (or is suspected of having broken the law) is arrested and punished. You may have had the experience of being pulled over by the Highway Patrol for speeding, and as you watched traffic racing by you at speeds well in excess of the posted limit, you asked yourself, why me? The only answer is, why not you? You were speeding (allegedly). The cops can’t ticket everyone who speeds. Law enforcement has the right (up to a point) to arrest some scofflaws and not others. Yes: we can and should protest when prosecutorial discretion is exercised in a discriminatory manner – against racial or ethnic minorities, for example. But the truth is, you’ll never know why you were unfortunate enough to be the one person speeding to be pulled over. Maybe you were driving a red sports car, and the cop didn’t like red sports cars. Maybe it’s the day of the Michigan-Ohio State football game, and you happened to be driving through Ohio with Michigan plates.
Over the last umpteen blog posts, I’ve been looking at what we know about Jesus’ arrest. I’ve had occasion to question reports we find in some Gospels. Was Jesus arrested by a large crowd, as in Matthew? No, I prefer the account in John’s Gospel: Jesus was arrested by a mixed group of Roman soldiers and Jewish officials. How about the story we find in all four Gospels that someone in Jesus’ party (possibly Peter) attacked the slave of the Jewish high priest with a sword? No … that story doesn’t seem plausible. I’ve even questioned the idea that Judas betrayed Jesus – betrayed him how, exactly? By telling the authorities where to find Jesus? Jesus himself provides the argument against this form of betrayal, as he himself stated that he was an easy person to locate: “Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me.”
Now that we’ve looked at the details of Jesus’ arrest, we’re ready to address some of the big questions about this arrest. Here’s the first: who ordered Jesus’ arrest? Whose idea was this?
I wanted to write a piece that would be my last word on Jesus and nonviolence. For the time being at least. But I can’t seem to manage to write that piece.
You see … I have been privately questioned by some of my friends for things I’ve written here of late, on Jesus and nonviolence. I have suggested that Jesus’ nonviolence was not perfect. I have suggested that the Temple-cleansing incident was violent. I have suggested that Jesus’ prophecy of the coming Kingdom of G-d was violent. I have suggested that Jesus’ response to Peter’s violence during Jesus’ arrest failed to condemn this violence in clear terms. Why would I want to write all this? Am I worried that there might be a sudden outbreak of worldwide pacifism? That people might beat their assault weapons into plowshares?
I wish I could make my response clear. This is what I want.
In recent posts, I have looked carefully at the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, focusing particularly on the incident where an associate of Jesus (perhaps Peter) used a sword to slice off the ear of the slave of the high priest. I have concluded that historically speaking, this incident probably never happened. For one thing, no one in Jesus’ circle (except Jesus, of course), was arrested or punished in the Gospels. I see no way that the Roman and Jewish authorities would have ignored an unlawful act of extreme violence like this one.
But if the ear slicing incident never happened, then how is it that this incident came to be reported in all four Gospels? We will never have a certain answer to this question. Practically all we know about Jesus and his ministry is contained in the Gospels, and any attempt to look behind the Gospels to an earlier sense of “what really happened” is fraught with difficulty. All we can say for certain is that the story of the ear-slicing must have circulated widely among early Christians before the Gospels were written, or else the story would not have appeared in substantially the same form in all four Gospels.
But the fact that we cannot examine the pre-Gospel Christian tradition with certainty does not mean that we should ignore the development of Christian thought prior to the writing of the Gospels. Or perhaps, we should simply state that practical difficulties like these rarely keep scholars from speculating! So here, I will try to make a reasonably good guess as to why early Christians might have told the story that one of Jesus’ followers reacted with extreme (albeit brief) violence to Jesus’ arrest.
Friend of this blog Anthony Le Donne has written a terrific post on Jesus, militancy and nonviolence that is well worth your read. Anthony’s post is meant as something of a response to the thoughts of Simon Joseph on Jesus’ nonviolence, as well as my own reaction to Simon. In his post, Anthony wonders what my conversation with Simon would look like “if we nuanced it with the category of militancy.” Anthony describes militancy as a subcategory of violence, so that one can be violent without being militant.
Anthony never defines what he means by militancy. Instead, he illustrates the militancy-violence distinction by using the historic examples of Muhammad Ali and Richard Nixon. Muhammad Ali was, among other things, perhaps the greatest boxer of all time. As a boxer, he was capable of great violence (as is evident from this picture of Joe Frazier taken after a fight with Ali), but he also refused to fight for the US army in Vietnam. “I ain’t got no quarrel with the VietCong,” Ali famously said. He also said the following, words which may speak more clearly to the distinction Anthony wants to draw between violence and militancy:
No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.
In my last post, I described the story of how, during Jesus’ arrest, someone associated with Jesus (perhaps Peter) sliced off the ear of the slave of the Jewish high priest (named as Malchus in the Gospel of John). This has to be one of the strangest stories in the New Testament, made stranger by the fact that the Gospels (particularly Mark) and most New Testament commentaries describe the story as no big deal. Peter sliced off Malchus’ ear? Of course he did!
Last time I described the many reasons I think this story is strange. You can review my earlier post to get the gory details. Here is a brief summary of the strangeness:
It often amazes me, what portions of the New Testament receive comment, and what portions are lightly discussed. Take, for example, the incident during Jesus’ arrest, when someone slices off the ear of the servant of the high priest. This has to be one of the oddest stories found in the Gospels, but this oddness is rarely talked about.
This incident deserves more attention for many reasons. For one thing, it is (I believe) the only time that anyone associated with Jesus commits an act of violence against the person of another. Arguably, Jesus committed acts of violence during the Temple-cleansing incident, when he overturned the tables of the money changers and others selling animals for sacrifice, and “drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple.” But the Gospels do not report that Jesus struck or injured anyone in the Temple cleansing.
In contrast, during Jesus’ arrest, someone associated with Jesus sliced off the ear of someone else in Jesus’ arresting party. Under any normal circumstances, slicing off someone else’s ear is considered a serious, violent attack. Slicing off an ear is a common feature of torture. The victim of an ear amputation (particularly in ancient times) might die from blood loss or infection (the painter Vincent Van Gogh nearly died from his infamous ear-severing incident). Even today, the surgical reattachment of a severed ear is not a simple procedure.
Let’s return to the topic I began in a post earlier this month on the arrest of Jesus. There are thoughts I’d like to add to that post, inspired in large part on comments I received here and some additional research I performed to address those comments.
Who Arrested Jesus
In my prior post, I noted that the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) describe the force that arrested Jesus as a Jewish ochlos (a “crowd,” or “multitude”), while John’s Gospel describes this force as a mixed group of Jewish Temple police and Roman soldiers. I wrote that John’s description seems more plausible to me. All of the Gospels seek to portray the arrest as stealthy: under cover of night, intended to avoid the protest of Jesus’ many admirers. But there is no stealth in gathering a “crowd” to arrest someone! It makes much more sense to imagine Jesus being arrested by a smaller, more conventional force, perhaps a dozen or so Roman soldiers and Temple police, which is what I think John is describing.
I apologize for not posting last week. I have a good excuse – ten days ago, my old trusty Lenovo laptop blue-screened. If you’re not a PC user, you don’t know how terrifying those blue screens can be! And this was not your ordinary, annoying, blue screen in the midst of a key sales presentation kind of mishap – my PC repeatedly blue screened at the beginning of startup. Yucch. So I’ve spent much of the past week configuring a new computer to do all of the odd things I do (including some esoteric legacy computer software writing and maintenance). Hopefully, I’m back in business (and if any of you have questions about Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 or Windows 8.1, I’m your go-to guy!).
Today’s post will be shorter than usual (you can leave “Hurrah!” as a comment below if you’re so inclined). We talk a lot here about the Historical Jesus. Last year I wrote a detailed review of Reza Aslan’s book about Jesus as violent zealot revolutionary, so I figure I owe some space to the opposing point of view. My current favorite voice in favor of Jesus’ nonviolence is Dr. Simon Joseph, Adjunct Professor of Religion at Cal Lutheran. Dr. Joseph’s latest book is The Nonviolent Messiah: Jesus, Q, and the Enochic Tradition, a book that is currently on my virtual nightstand.
In the next few weeks, I hope to continue my series on anti-Judaism in the New Testament, focusing on the difficult and challenging topic of anti-Judaism in the Gospels. This topic is difficult for many reasons, and one big difficulty is the necessity of addressing how Jesus died. This difficulty does not give us an excuse to skip over this topic, at least not if we want to understand Christian anti-Judaism. If “the Jews” actually killed Jesus, as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians, then Paul simply described “what happened,” and it would be hard to accuse Paul of being anti-Jewish for merely reporting the truth. But much scholarship today indicates that the Romans (or Pontius Pilate) killed Jesus (albeit with some cooperation of some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem), and if we take that scholarship seriously, then Paul’s accusation is wrong and we have cause to examine his possible motives.
I think the question of who killed Jesus deserves a careful exploration. Here, I’ll start with a seemingly simple question: who arrested Jesus? The Gospels give us four accounts.