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.