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.
Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. The men seized Jesus and arrested him. Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” Then everyone deserted him and fled.
Mark identifies one person among the “crowd” who arrested Jesus: the “servant of the high priest.” Otherwise, Mark identifies the group arresting Jesus only as “a crowd armed with swords and clubs.” (More on those swords and clubs in a bit.) But Mark is more specific in identifying who sent the arresting force: “the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders,” i.e., Jewish leaders. We might conclude from this that the people who arrested Jesus were also Jews.
Next, let’s consult Matthew:
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend. Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Most scholars assume that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ arrest is based on the (presumably) earlier account in Mark. From this assumption, we can see the changes Matthew made to Mark’s account of this arrest. Like Mark, Matthew describes the arresting force as a “crowd armed with swords and clubs,” a force that includes the servant of the high priest. Like Mark, Matthew has Judas betray Jesus. Like Mark, Matthew has an unknown companion of Jesus lop off the ear of the high priest’s servant with a sword. Matthew adds to this story; for example, Matthew has Jesus rebuke the ear-slicer with the famous pronouncement about living and dying by the sword. But in all respects important to us here, Matthew ‘s account of Jesus’ arrest is nearly the same as Mark’s.
Next, let’s see what Luke has to say:
While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”
Most scholars assume that Luke’s account was written around the same time as (but independently from) Matthew’s account, and (like Matthew) is also based on Mark. But Luke’s story of Jesus’ arrest differs from Mark’s and Matthew’s in interesting ways – for example, Luke never has Judas plant that kiss on Jesus, and in place of Jesus’ rebuke to the companion who slices off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Luke has Jesus heal the servant. But for our purposes, Luke makes three important changes to the story – he eliminates the reference to the Jewish leaders who sent the crowd to arrest Jesus, and instead identifies at least a portion of the arresting crowd: they are “the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders” – all Jews. And Luke fails to tell us what weapons the arresting crowd was carrying.
Not surprisingly, the Gospel of John gives us a different story:
Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons. Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they said. Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.” Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus.
John agrees with the other three Gospels on significant points. Judas is shown as Jesus’ betrayer. Jesus’ companion (identified here as Peter!) separates the high priest’s servant from his ear. There is Jewish involvement – the arresting forces include Jewish officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. And as in the prior three Gospels, Jesus surrenders peacefully, acknowledging that the arrest is somehow supposed to happen (in Mark, the arrest is to fulfill Scripture, in Matthew to fulfill the writings of the prophets, in Luke because “darkness reigns” and in John because Jesus must drink the cup his Father gave him). But the differences between John and the preceding Gospels are remarkable. For example, there is no reference to Judas’ kiss in John. John’s dialogue between Jesus and the arresting forces is new. In John, it is Jesus who arranges for the escape of his disciples (in Mark and Matthew, the disciples flee, seemingly abandoning Jesus).
John differs from the other three Gospels in ways directly significant to our inquiry. John describes the arresting forces as a mixed group of Romans and Jews – both “soldiers” and “officials from the chief priests and Pharisees.” (Like Luke, John does not separately identify who sent these forces to arrest Jesus.) And John describes these forces as carrying “torches, lanterns and weapons,” without identifying the weapons they are carrying (the reference to “swords and clubs” from Mark and Matthew is missing).
So … who arrested Jesus?
Before addressing the big question, let’s look at some smaller points. There are odd aspects of this story that we need to recognize. First is the identification of the arresting force in Mark, Matthew and Luke as a “crowd” – an ochlos (ὄχλος) in Greek. I’m no Greek scholar (can’t read it or write it), but from a concordance it’s obvious that ochlos is not generally used to describe a military or police force. English New Testament translations sometimes translate ochlos as “crowd,” sometimes as “multitude,” and occasionally as “people” or “the people.” Ochlos is never used in terms of an organized group, let alone in the sense of a group performing a military or police function. In Mark 4:1, it is an ochlos that gathers around Jesus at a lake, forcing him to leave dry land and teach the crowd while sitting in a boat. In Luke 13:17, it is an ochlos that celebrates when Jesus defends his healing of a woman on the Sabbath. In Revelation 7:9, it is an ochlos “from every nation, tribe, people and language” that stands before the Lamb. So, how can it be that an ochlos arrested Jesus in Mark, Matthew and Luke? It is as if these three Gospels are describing Jesus being arrested by a mob! Only John describes the scene as it is generally imagined: Jesus and his disciples are confronted by Judas, a cohort of Roman soldiers, and a handful of others.
The use of the word ochlos contradicts another element in the story: Jesus’ asking the arresting forces why they didn’t arrest him in the Temple while he was teaching. Jesus’ question is not answered directly in the Gospels, but the traditionally assumed answer is that the Jewish leadership did not dare arrest Jesus in the light of day, in front of the adoring Jewish crowd (ochlos?). Instead, the Jewish leadership plotted to arrest Jesus at night (“when darkness reigns,” as Luke wrote), by stealth. But in what way is it “stealthy” to assemble an ochlos to arrest Jesus? Isn’t it the ochlos that the Jewish authorities were trying to avoid by arresting Jesus at night?
Jesus’ question to the arresting forces raises a second question: if Jesus was regularly in view during the day, teaching at the Temple and otherwise engaging in his public ministry, exactly what role did Judas play in Jesus’ arrest? In all four Gospels, Judas is identified as a “traitor” or “betrayer,” and in Mark and Matthew, Judas is there to identify Jesus to the arresting forces. But why? Didn’t they know who Jesus was? In Luke and John, Judas is said to lead or guide the arresting forces, which might mean that Jesus’ nighttime locations were unknown to Jesus’ enemies. But if Jesus was to make his normal public appearances the next morning, why couldn’t the arresting forces simply wait a few hours to arrest Jesus?
So long as we’re noticing odd details in the arrest story, how about the business of Peter (or some other unnamed associate of Jesus) slicing off the ear of the servant of the high priest? How did he manage to get away with that, without being arrested or killed on the spot?
I think it’s fair to say that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest were not written with the modern historian in mind! These are not so much “just the facts, ma’am” kinds of accounts, but instead contain legendary details that must have served the interests of the early church. Why have a “crowd” arrest Jesus? Perhaps because Jesus’ trial would also end at a scene with a Jewish “crowd” (again, an ochlos) demanding Jesus’ death. Perhaps Mark and the other Gospel writers wanted to “bracket” Jesus’ trial with mass Jewish participation at start and finish. Perhaps this was a literary invention of the Gospel writers (or earlier redactors of Jesus’ story), intended to make a figurative or theological point about Jesus (and the Jews).
But let’s go back to my original question. Who arrested Jesus? Mark and Matthew do not say directly. Luke says that there were chief priests, officers of the temple guard and Jewish elders present, but does not say if the ochlos consisted solely of these Jews. John says that Jesus was arrested by a smaller cohort of Jews and Roman soldiers. I think John’s is the most believable account, as it is most specific and the only account that has Jesus arrested by a conventionally-sized organized force. John’s account is also the one consistent with the reportedly stealthy nature of the arrest (i.e., if Jesus was arrested by a mob, there really was no stealth involved). Finally, John’s account is most consistent with one other element of the story: the mention in Mark and Matthew that the arresting force carried “swords and clubs.”
If Jesus was arrested by a purely Jewish force, then the Gospel mention of “swords and clubs” becomes problematic, because it is not clear that Jews were allowed to carry swords in Roman-occupied Palestine. (I say this knowing that Jesus ordered his followers to carry swords, and that at least one of Jesus’ followers – Peter? – was reportedly armed with a sword when Jesus was arrested. Then as today, not everyone obeys the laws governing deadly weapons.) But we know for certain that Roman soldiers carried swords. The historian Paul Winter suggests that the Gospel reference to “a crowd carrying swords and clubs” should be understood as a veiled reference to the identity of two distinct groups that joined forces to arrest Jesus: there were sword-carriers (Roman soldiers) and club-carriers (Jewish temple police). The Gospel writers might have been reluctant to draw explicit attention to Jesus being arrested by Roman soldiers, as they were interested in portraying the early Christian movement as being no threat to Rome. So they lay this detail between the lines, so to speak. But for whatever reason, John felt no reluctance to identify these two groups explicitly.
Is this explanation consistent with all of the Gospel evidence? No. But I think it accounts for this evidence in a better way than any other explanation.
But why would Jews and Romans have joined together to arrest Jesus, when either group was capable of doing so on its own? Again, Paul Winter has the best explanation: the arrest was primarily a Roman affair. Winter, like many scholars, thinks that Jesus was arrested for sedition, for being the self-proclaimed “King of the Jews” in actual or perceived challenge to Caesar’s rule. Sedition was a Roman crime; whatever trial there might be would be a Roman trial, and the punishment (crucifixion) a Roman punishment. In Winter’s words, Jews were involved because “a preliminary investigation was required for which the Romans used local officials, Jews, who by reason of their knowledge of the local conditions and language, were better equipped to carry out any necessary inquiries.” This Jewish collaboration raises all of the uncomfortable questions of motive and intent that collaboration always raises. But it’s probably fair to say that the Romans were interested in arresting Jesus for crimes against Rome (sedition), and that the Jews who cooperated with Rome in this matter were motivated primarily by a desire to cooperate with Rome.
Yes … my conclusion here goes against traditional Christian thought (and not a little bit of scholarship) that imagines “the Jews” (or Jewish leadership) as leading the effort to kill Jesus. In truth, we’re too early into our investigation of Jesus’ death to best describe the nature and extent of Jewish involvement in Jesus’ death. So, let’s confine our focus to the question at hand. Who arrested Jesus? Our best answer, based on the available sources: Jesus was arrested by a combined force of Jews (probably Jewish temple police) and Roman soldiers. But as Jesus was accused of a Roman crime, and the better armed of these two groups were the Romans (the guys with the swords), I think the best view is that Jesus’ arrest was by Rome, with Jewish collaborationist assistance.
Which raises the question: is the Gospel portrayal of Jesus’ arrest by a Jewish ochlos an example of Gospel anti-Judaism? What do you think?