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?
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.
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.
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.
This is, I vow, the last piece I’m going to write about the apostle Paul for a looooooong time.
Initially, I took on Paul as part of an effort to explore the roots of Christian anti-Judaism. I devoted four posts (here, here, here and here) to outlining what I think is a simple position: Paul’s anti-Jewish statements in 1 Thessalonians were intended broadly, and meant to condemn all Jews who had not become followers of Jesus. But whatever negative Paul had to say about Jews, he had equally bad (probably worse) things to say about Gentiles who were not following Jesus. I think this is how we should understand Paul, as someone devoted to the Jesus movement, and critical to all those outside the movement.
In response, I received many comments decrying Paul for the critical side of his program. I think the comments are fair. Paul was an extreme character. Krister Stendahl described Paul’s extremes as follows in his book Final Account: “He was always the greatest: the greatest of sinners, the greatest of apostles, the greatest when it came to speaking in tongues, the greatest at having been persecuted. That is because he wasn’t married. Or perhaps that is why he wasn’t married. Nobody could stand him …”
I love interfaith dialogue. It surprises, and that may be the best thing about it. Our 21st century methods of mass communication (in particular, the Internet) allow us to fine-tune the communications we receive to such an extent, we can largely avoid hearing anything we don’t want to hear. I find interfaith dialogue to be a good way to avoid this problem – in dialogue, either I’m talking to people I wouldn’t normally talk to, or I’m talking to people I’d normally talk to about things I would not normally discuss with them. Either way, it’s good.
I was surprised by the comments I received here on (what I thought would be) my last post on the Apostle Paul and anti-Judaism (I say the “apostle” Paul, because if you do Google searches about Paul and anti-Semitism, you receive a lot of hits about the politician Ron Paul). I thought I’d been critical of Paul in my post, but my criticism paled in comparison to what my commenters had to say! Paul emerged in the comments as a guy full of hate, a tricky “spin doctor,” a purveyor of language of bitterness and resentment. More surprising is that no one entered the discussion to defend Paul.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised. One of my favorite Christian authors, John Dominic Crossan, summarizes nicely how Paul is seen by his critics: Paul “was an apostate who betrayed Judaism,” or “he was an apostle who betrayed Jesus,” or he was both things at once. Both Jews and Christians are prone to look at early Christianity from the perspective that everything good about Christianity comes from Jesus, leaving Paul responsible for anything in early Christianity we don’t like. If nothing else, the over-simplicity of this perspective should arouse our suspicion.
We’ve spent three posts so far examining the anti-Judaism of what is probably the oldest document in the New Testament, Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians. What did Paul mean when he said in 1 Thess 2:14-16 that the Ioudaioi (the Jews, the Judeans) were guilty of murdering Jesus and the prophets, and that they “displease G-d and are hostile to everyone”? In my first post, I looked closely at the text of Paul’s letter, and concluded that we can’t be sure who were the Ioudaioi referred to by Paul: it could have been all Jews, or some Jews, or Jews who lived in Judea, or maybe only those Jews who participated directly in the execution of Jesus. In my second post, I looked at who would have been considered Jewish in Jesus’ time, discovering that Jewishness back then was a “fuzzy” description, where many categories of people (including proselytes, apostates, diaspora Jews, Hellenizing Jews and G-dfearers) might have been considered Jewish, or not Jewish, or partially Jewish, or Jewish for some purposes and not others. In my third post, I considered the fuzzy identity of the members of Paul’s churches. While we commonly refer to Paul’s followers as “Gentiles,” they must have appeared at the time (to themselves and to others) to be a lot like Jews, as they engaged in Jewish activities such as worshiping the Jewish G-d and adopting the Jewish Bible as their own.
We have succeeded, so far, in problematizing what seemed like a simple condemnation: Paul said that the Jews were guilty of terrible crimes and had earned G-d’s wrath. But now we’re not sure which Jews were the target of Paul’s condemnation, or who was seen as Jewish back then, or even whether Paul’s own followers might have been numbered among the Ioudaioi that Paul seemingly accused of these crimes. All this is to make a simple point: Paul’s accusation may strike us today as resoundingly and thoroughly anti-Jewish, but that might not have been what he intended.