Jesus’ Arrest and Malchus’ Ear

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.

But the Gospels treat this ear amputation as no big deal. Mark tersely reports the incident as follows:

Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

Mark report the ear-slicing without comment, or evident interest. He does not bother to tell us who struck the servant – or possibly, he wants to protect the identity of the attacker (more on this later). He does not tell us that the attacker was a disciple of Jesus, though I think such an identity is implied (no one seems to be present at Jesus’ arrest except for Jesus, his disciples and the forces come to arrest Jesus). Mark reports no reaction by Jesus to this armed assault: there is no concern shown by Jesus for the wounded servant, or any criticism leveled by Jesus against this act of violence. Instead, Mark tells us that Jesus rebuked the arresting force for carrying arms.

“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.”

This is indeed a strange thing for Jesus to have said! Since when is it unusual for a police force or a group of soldiers to carry arms? This is what police and soldiers do. If Jesus had been arrested in the temple courts, as he indicated would have been more appropriate, his captors still would have been armed. Besides … why should Jesus be indignant that his captors were armed, when at least one person in Jesus’ party (Luke tells us that there were more than one) was also armed? Indeed, the only person reported to have used arms during Jesus’ arrest was a member of Jesus’ party, yet Mark has Jesus complain about the unused arms carried by his opponents. This is weird, to be honest. It doesn’t sound right.

Evidently, Mark’s account didn’t sound exactly right to Matthew, either. Matthew provides some additional detail to address our concerns:

Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.”

Matthew confirms what we suspected in Mark: it was “one of those with Jesus” who attacked the slave of the high priest. Matthew also adds an important element to Mark’s account: a condemnation by Jesus of violence. This seems only appropriate for the evangelist who reported Jesus telling us during his Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies and not to get angry. But in comparison to the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ condemnation of violence at his arrest is positively tepid. At his arrest, Jesus makes two arguments about violence. The first is that violence leads to violence. This is an important point to make, but it falls well short of Jesus’ blanket condemnation of violence in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ condemnation of violence at his arrest sounds utilitarian: the violence we do unto others is ill-advised, because the same violence may eventually be done back unto us. Jesus’ condemnation of violence here is also worded in an oddly detached manner: a literal translation of Matthew 26:52 might be “those having taken the sword, by the sword will perish.” This sounds more like a proverb than a critique of a specific person whose violence has left a specific man seriously wounded. More troubling, however, is Jesus’ second argument against use of violence: that Jesus might himself call for overwhelmingly violent force (more than 12 legions of angels) where appropriate. Note what Jesus doesn’t say: he doesn’t say that he could summon armies of angels to fight for him if he wanted to, but that he’d never do so, because violence is never an appropriate response in any situation. Instead, Matthew has Jesus say that he chose not to summon angels in this case, because in this case Jesus’ opponents were doing what Jesus wanted them to do (i.e., fulfill scripture). At his arrest, Jesus seemed to allow for violence when he calls for it, against forces opposing his will. This leaves much more room for violence than was apparent from the Sermon on the Mount.

Let’s consider the third Gospel, that of Luke. Like Matthew, Luke’s account of the ear-removal seems designed to address elements missing from Mark’s Gospel:

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.”

It is in Luke – and only in Luke – where Jesus shows concern for the servant of the high priest. From the other three Gospels, we might understand that Jesus was willing to let the servant bleed to death, or die from infection, or remain disfigured.

But while Luke’s Jesus is more compassionate than in Mark or Matthew, Luke’s Jesus does not clearly condemn the ear-slicing. In the translation above, Jesus does seem to order an end to the violence: “No more of this!” These words might be read as a statement by Jesus that the ear removal was wrong. But these words have been translated in different ways. The Greek phrase Luke has Jesus utter is “Ἐᾶτε ἕως τούτου,” pronounced eate heōs toutou. This is not an easy phrase to understand. These three Greek words in order seem to indicate (1) a reluctant permission or allowing, with implied misgiving, such as the way one might point to a lurking danger, (2) a preposition with the sense of “until” or “as far as,” and (3) a demonstrative pronoun like “this” or “it.” A more literal translation of the phrase eate heōs toutou might be “suffer you thus far,” or perhaps “allow you as far as this.” A more modern way to translate this phrase this might be “I’m not going to permit this to go any further,” or even “That’s enough violence and bloodshed for the moment.” It’s really, really hard for me to say which of these readings is best, given my nonexistent knowledge of Greek. But even giving Luke the most generous of readings, his Jesus does not clearly say that the sword-blow was wrong, or even ill-advised. All we can say for certain is that in Luke, Jesus wanted no further sword-play.

Finally, we turn to John’s Gospel. John gives us an account of the ear amputation that is nearly as disinterested as Mark’s:

Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

John gives us detail we don’t find in the Synoptic Gospels: namely, the identity of the attacker (Peter!) and the name of the servant. But otherwise, John’s account is as remote as Mark’s. As in every Gospel other than Luke’s, John’s Jesus shows no concern for the servant of the high priest. As in every Gospel other than Matthew’s, John’s Jesus issues no principled condemnation of the violence.

And the strangeness of this scene does not stop there.

  • The only violence reported is the single sword-blow by Jesus’ associate. We might imagine (as do some artists, and as does Reza Aslan in his book Zealot) that there was a brief battle or melee where Jesus’ disciples clashed with the force come to arrest Jesus. But the Gospels report no such thing. The Gospels report a single swing of a single sword, resulting in a single injury to a single person.
  • The attack itself is problematic. Peter (or whoever the attacker might have been; let’s call him Peter) struck a blow that could have been fatal and was probably intended to be fatal. How else can we imagine a blow to someone’s head, delivered with sufficient force to sever an ear? If Peter had been a soldier, perhaps he would have possessed the skill to intentionally slice off the ear of the high priest’s slave (let’s call the slave Malchus, even though it’s only John’s Gospel that so names him). But Peter was a fisherman, not a soldier. He struck at Malchus’ head, without warning (some Gospel translations say he did so “suddenly”). It is reasonable to conclude that Peter intended to kill.
  • Alternatively, if we want to imagine that Peter intended only to remove Malchus’ ear, then we have to re-picture the scene. We can do so by imagining that Peter was not wielding the kind of big, heavy sword shown in many paintings of the arrest scene (such as the one at the beginning of this post). An overhead blow from such a massive weapon would have continued through Malchus’ ear and into his neck or shoulder, killing him instantly. As described here, such a blow would pretty much have sliced Malchus in two, so that “Jesus would have had to add one more to the list of folks he raised from the dead.” As Malchus survived the blow, then perhaps Peter wielded a smaller sword, or even a sharp knife, in the manner shown in the two paintings to the right. If so, then it’s possible that Peter truly intended only to wound Malchus. But because the pictured sword is shorter, it means that Peter could not have wielded this blow from a distance – he would have had to overwhelm Malchus first (in something like hand-to-hand combat, as pictured above right), or else attack him without warning from behind (below right).
  • Worse: Malchus was a δοῦλον (pronounced doulon), so described in all four Gospels, and while this word is sometimes translated as “servant,” it most
    certainly meant “slave.”
    As a slave, Malchus was probably unarmed. We’re thus left to understand that Peter used a concealed weapon to attack an unarmed slave, perhaps from behind. To say the least, this is not a pretty picture.
  • If Peter’s actions here are disturbing, the reaction of Jesus’ arresting force is impossible to understand. They reacted by doing nothing. One of their own party had been violently attacked with deadly force, yet the Gospels record no response. Peter was not arrested, or himself attacked, or restrained. He was not even disarmed! Jesus told Peter to “Put your sword back into its place,” Peter did so, and all seemed to be fine with this. I ask if you can imagine anything comparable taking place in the real world. What is the universal police or military reaction when someone resists their efforts by force of arms, even if no damage is done as a result? Resisting arrest is a serious crime, often more serious than the original crime for which the resistor is being arrested. Resisting arrest by force is more serious, by force of arms more serious than that. And the actual use of deadly force to resist arrest should have landed Peter on the cross next to Jesus.
  • Let’s be clear: Peter’s action was battery: the intentional and unpermitted act resulting in harmful contact with the person of another. (Peter’s action may have been more than battery: assault perhaps, or attempted murder, but it was at least a battery). Under Jewish law, some form of punishment was called for: the payment of damages or a fine, or perhaps flogging.
  • There are also questions to ask about Peter’s carrying a sword. As we’ve already noted, it may have been against Roman law for a Jew to carry a sword. But Peter’s sword-carrying may have also been in violation of Jewish law. While the question is debated in the Talmud, it appears that the Talmud position is that Jews are forbidden from carrying weapons during the first day of a Jewish holiday. According to Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ arrest took place on the first night of Passover; according to John, the arrest took place on the Day of Preparation before Passover. Was the Talmud rule in effect during Jesus’ day? If so, would Peter have violated this rule?

At this point, I hope you’re beginning to see the ear-severing story as a strange one. We have many reasons to wonder if it could have happened in the way the Gospels describe. As this piece is already a long one, I’ll pause for a week or so before I consider expert explanations for what might have occurred in the way of sword-fighting during Jesus’ arrest. In the meantime, my question for this week is: what strikes you as odd in this story? Is there anything about this incident that doesn’t seem quite right to you?

  • fritzpatrick

    I could never understand why Jesus allowed, even recommended, the two swords in the first place.

    • I kind of doubt he did. But we have to account for how the Gospels came to say he did.

  • Chris Eyre

    I’m as baffled as ever. But I must say that a voice at the back of my head insisted that “eate heōs toutou” should be translated “enough, already”.

    • I am SO annoyed with myself that I didn’t think of that translation.

  • Robert

    It is a strange story. While it may be a legend based on some factual event that can no longer be reconstructed in realistic detail, I’m more inclined to see it as perhaps symbolic. There are elements of the story that reflect a messianic interpretation of Zecharaiah, which are also seen in a Qumran text:

    CD 19,7 When the oracle of the prophet Zechariah comes true, “O sword, be lively and smite 8 my shepherd and the man loyal to Me—so says God. If you strike down the shepherd, the flock will scatter. 9 Then I will turn My power against the little ones” (Zechariah 13:7). But those who give heed to God are “the poor of the flock” (Zechariah 11:7): 10 they will escape in the time of punishment, but all the rest will be handed over to the sword when the Messiah of 11 Aaron and of Israel comes, just as it happened during the time of the first punishment, as 12 Ezekiel said, “Make a mark on the foreheads of those who moan and lament” (Ezekiel 9:4), 13 but the rest were given to the sword that makes retaliation for covenant violations.

    Mark obviously has this prophecy of Zechariah in mind in this context. See already Mk 14,27: And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ Note also the setting of the Mount of Olives in Zecharaiah 14,4 (twice).

    So in this pesher novelization of of messianic prophecy, what might Mark have in mind with the servant of the high priest’s ear being cut off? Perhaps it is meant to be an symbol of the evil high priest being made unworthy of service in the temple, just as the rending of the temple veil at Jesus’ death is a portent of the temple’s destruction which Mark’s Jesus has already predicted in Chapter 13. In explaining this story, Gundry makes an allusion to Josephus’ accounts of Antigonus cutting (Antiquities 14,366) or biting off the ears of Hyrcanus (Jewish War 1,270) to render him unworthy of future high priestly service. I think that could make some sense if we see Mark as fleshing out a story which fulfills messianic prophecy in the life of his messiah.

    • Robert, I’m working on a follow-up post on Malchus’ ear, so your comment here is timely. Yes, we certainly have to consider the possibility that this story is meant to be understood symbolically, not literally. I think that the business with swords must have been meant on a symbolic level (perhaps in addition to a literal meaning). I am more skeptical about the ear-slicing being meant as a symbolic critique of the high priest, or the priesthood in general. If this is what Mark meant, it most certainly seems that the other evangelists missed this meaning, seeing the ear-slicing instead as an act in Jesus’ defense. There’s no indication in Mark that this slave of the high priest personally performed any ritual Temple function that required him to have both ears. Raymond Brown notes in The Death of the Messiah that elsewhere in his Gospel (7:3-4), Mark feels the need to explain a simple rule of Jewish purification, the washing of hands before a meal. If Mark didn’t expect his readers to understand hand-washing, I don’t think he’d expect his readers to understand the significance of the ear-slicing. Besides … we don’t have any Gospel indication that Jesus approved this action, so it’s hard to connect up the action to Jesus’ beliefs or program regarding the Temple.

      Might the ear-slicing be symbolic in a different way? Mark likes the phrase, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Perhaps he’s saying something about the priesthood’s failure to understand some critical component of Jesus’ message? Granted, this argument suffers from the same problems I noted above …

      I think I am coming to the conclusion that the ear-slicing did not happen, and that the story came into popular social memory for unknown and unknowable reasons. So, your thoughts on ear-slicing as ritual disqualification are as good as any I can offer at this moment. Thanks for offering them up.

      • Robert

        Yeah, I wouldn’t bet my life on this possible symbolic meaning. I certainly don’t mean it literally, as if we should assume that the high priests servant would have performed temple duties. Nor do I see it as allegory with each detail having a precise meaning that the reader is expected to decode. I would see it more as a prophetic portent, just as the rending of the temple curtain is not itself the destruction of the temple, but a portent of what is to come. It just shows that something is amiss with the high priest sending his servants to arrest Jesus and then to turn him over to the Gentiles.

        As for Mk 7, certainly there were Gentiles in Mark’s audience that would need an explanation of some Judean/Jewish customs, but I doubt his entire audience was made up of former Gentiles. Perhaps even Galilean or Hellenistic diaspora Jews in Mark’s audience would appreciate some exaggerated humor at the expense of overly strict Judean scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem. Mark’s geographical introduction (Mk 7,1-3) suggests that Judean is likely a better translation here than a reference to all Jews here.

        The other gospel writers rarely appreciated some of Mark’s irony and creativity. We do not know just how traditional or creative Mark was. There are some significant indications that he was a very creative author, but with most of the material being accepted as mere historical narrative by the later gospel authors, but who themselves were not afraid to change and develop when it suited their purposes. Even John, who was highly attuned to symbolism, and who does seem to appreciate some of Mark’s creative theological narrative, still assumes, for example, that Jesus’ prophetic opposition to the temple was historical, but he places it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry rather than at the end. I think the gospels are only primary evidence of the views of their authors, and very poor evidence for the life of the historical Jesus. Would Mark have written of Jesus prophecy against the temple, if the temple had not been destroyed in his own time?

  • richardrichard2013

    Hello Sir

    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.”

    the following questions may be irrelevant to the post you have made.

    1. in each gospel jesus does healing miracles. how is it possible that the others dropped the healing miracle?

    the earliest version of this account says,
    “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.”

    does this jesus sound like he would heal the wounded guy?

    • Richard2, you’re correct, the account of Jesus’ healing of Malchus’ ear is found only in Luke. As I’m talking here only about the Historical Jesus, the Jesus that can be known using the methods of the historian, I can’t actually talk about whether Jesus really performed miracles. Miracles may occur, but historians do not have the tools to prove the occurrence of miracles. Historians CAN discuss whether people came to believe that Jesus performed miracles.

      So it’s only in this context that I can discuss why the ear-healing miracle is found only in Luke. The two most likely answers are, in my opinion, that only Luke had heard about this miracle (more likely), or only Luke thought it was important enough to mention (less likely). There is, I guess, a third possibility, that the Gospel authors other than Luke were aware of accounts of the ear-healing miracle, and rejected them as untruthful, perhaps thinking that Jesus would have had no interest in the well-being of the slave of the high priest. This seems unlikely to me. We have no hint in the Gospels that Jesus approved the ear-slicing — both Matthew and John portray Jesus as critical of the ear-slicing, even if he’s not nearly as critical as we might have expected him to be.

      You might want to take a look at my post today on Dale Martin’s recent article, where he argues that Matthew, Luke and John were “embarrassed” by the ear-slicing incident, and sought to tell this story in a way to distance Jesus from this act of violence. Martin writes that “Luke, more than any of the others, goes to lengths to explain away any rebellious or political significance of the idea that Jesus’ disciples may indeed have been armed at his arrest.” Martin says that Luke informs us of the ear-healing “just to make sure we know Jesus himself meant no harm.”