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:
One sword blow, one injury to one person? That doesn’t make sense. Actions tend to produce reactions. Jesus’ followers may have been dedicated to nonviolent resistance, but nonviolence isn’t exactly a principle adhered to by armies and police forces. Yet the attacker (we’ll call him Peter, following John’s Gospel) faced no counterattack. In fact, the Gospels report no response whatsoever to Peter’s attack. Peter was not struck, or arrested, or even disarmed. He was allowed to get away with (attempted) murder.
OK … maybe Peter’s attack was not attempted murder. Maybe he didn’t try to slice off Malchus’ head, miss, and remove his ear instead. But the story is no less strange if Peter intended to remove the ear. Why would he have wanted to do that?
Peter’s ear-slicing was against the law – not just Roman law, but Jewish law. Of course, it was against the law (then and now) to resist arrest, and to slice off people’s ears. It may have also been against the law for a Jew to carry a sword – against both Roman and Jewish law. Is it plausible to think that Peter violated both Roman and Jewish law, in multiple ways?
About that sword-carrying: what was Peter (a fisherman!) doing with a sword in the first place?
- Finally, there’s Jesus’ reaction. Only in Luke does Jesus bother to heal the wounded slave. Only in Matthew does Jesus clearly condemn the attack. And even in Matthew, the condemnation seems half-hearted – merely what Raymond Brown called a “general poetic assertion”: “All those who take the sword, by the sword will perish.” The Roman soldiers listening to Jesus may have agreed with this, enthusiastically. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus wrote, “How glorious fall the valiant, sword in hand, in front of battle for their native land.” Given Jesus’ strong statements elsewhere about loving enemies and turning cheeks, why wouldn’t he have taken advantage of this situation to make a ringing statement about how violence violates his word?
So … what are we to make of this story? Let’s ask the question: what really happened with sword-wielding and ear-severing at Jesus’ arrest? I see three possibilities:
It Happened Just Like the Gospels Say. Let’s try putting all doubts aside. All four Gospels agree that someone like Peter sliced off the ear of the slave of the high priest. Evidently, this story was not unbelievable to the early Christians, or else they would not have told it, and the essential details of this story would not have been repeated in all four Gospels. This story satisfies two of the most important criteria of authenticity used by many historians to verify Gospel stories: the story is multiply attested, and it satisfies the criterion of embarrassment: it does not seem to be the kind of story that early Christians would have made up. The early Christians seemingly wanted to stress the peace-ability of Jesus, how he was wrongly accused and convicted, how he was essentially the kind of law-abiding teacher of wisdom that any good Roman gentile could follow in good conscience. Yeah, the story sounds crazy. But crazy things do happen.
To which I say: uh … no. It’s against human nature for a fight to end with a single sword-swipe, or for an armed force (indeed, the force with superior arms) to absorb a deadly blow without retaliation. Romans and Second Temple Jews were (in different ways) dedicated to the rule of law. The chance that both groups would ignore a clear breach of their respective laws seems awfully remote to me. Add to this that the attack seems out of character for the followers of Jesus (who never resorted to violence against the person of another in any other scene in the Gospels) and that Jesus’ response to the attack itself seems out of character, and the scene just seems impossible to me.
In The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown asks the question, why doesn’t Mark tell us who attacked Malchus? Brown suggests one possible answer: Mark’s Gospel may have been written in Rome, while Peter was still living there, or shortly after his death there. Given Mark’s audience, it might not have been wise to suggest that Peter had attacked duly authorized agents of (Roman) law enforcement, using deadly force. Of course, we cannot know for sure why Mark wrote the arrest account the way he did (or even that he wrote it in Rome). But if Brown thinks that Mark (writing 30-40 years after Jesus’ arrest) needed to describe the arrest scene with due concern for Peter’s well-being (if he was still alive at the time) or reputation (if already dead) – this only shows the kind of peril Peter would have faced at the time of Jesus’ arrest if he had actually sliced off Malchus’ ear in the way described by Mark and the other evangelists.
Yes, crazy things do happen … and for my readers who believe in miracles, perhaps this scene can be explained by a few well-chosen miracles. But in an interfaith context, where we’re thinking like historians, we have to consider the most plausible explanation for “what happened,” and from this perspective the Gospel accounts of the ear-severing are not historically plausible.
It Happened, But In A Bigger Way. We can call this the Resa Aslan Hypothesis. In his book Zealot, Aslan describes the arrest scene – the Garden of Gethsemane – as Jesus’ “hideout”. The arresting party found Jesus there along with his disciples, “shrouded in darkness and armed with swords – just as Jesus had commanded.” According to Aslan, Jesus did not meekly surrender – he and his followers fought the Roman soldiers and Temple Guard in a “brief melee”. While Jesus and his followers were not “taken easily”, their resistance proved “useless”, and Jesus was “seized, bound, and dragged back into the city to face his accusers.”
I poked fun at Aslan’s version of this story in my review of his book. But in fairness to Aslan, the scene he describes comes pretty close to how the arrest is portrayed in Western paintings. Let’s face it: a melee, or a scuffle, or a rumble, makes for better art than does an abject surrender. (NOTE: as should be apparent from the art I’ve included in the margins here, all I know about art I learned from Google image searches.)
The “melee theory” does solve a number of problems. It gets us past the idea that the violence at Jesus’ arrest was somehow limited to one sword stroke. The scene is more recognizable if Peter’s ear-slicing was a part of something bigger, with forces on both sides facing off against each other, swords drawn and clubs brandished. If this was the case, then there would have been a number of attacks and injuries, with Malchus’ injury simply being the one that got remembered. Eventually, Jesus was able to bring the melee to a halt. As John’s Gospel tells us, Jesus offered to surrender peaceably, in exchange for his disciples being allowed to go free – an exchange that makes more sense if the disciples had all done something arrest-worthy. The Jewish Temple police and Roman soldiers then agreed to Jesus’ offer of truce — after all, it was only Jesus they came for. Malchus was grievously wounded, but he was only a slave, hardly worth the trouble of defending.
But ultimately, the melee theory is no more believable than the single sword-stroke theory. For one thing, no melee is reported by the Gospels. Luke’s Gospel in particular appears to deny the possibility of a melee, having the disciples ask Jesus, “Should we strike with our swords?” Luke thus tells us (as we might expect) that the disciples (except Peter) would only have fought with the soldiers and police on Jesus’ command, and of course Jesus commanded otherwise. Moreover, if it’s hard to explain how Peter could have escaped arrest and punishment after severing Malchus’ ear, it would be that much more difficult to explain how eleven disciples were able to get away with resisting law enforcement authority with armed force. John’s explanation – that Jesus negotiated for the escape of his disciples in exchange for his individual and peaceful surrender – isn’t much of an explanation. Roman soldiers weren’t known to cut deals with scruffy rebel bands. It’s a good rule of thumb: if you are looking to negotiate with police or armed forces, it’s a bad idea to first wage violence against them, and a particularly bad idea to first seriously injure one of them.
If there had been a brief melee, as Aslan imagines, then the eleven disciples (all but Judas) should have died on crosses along with Jesus.
Let’s also remember that in the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus questions why the Jews and Romans have come to arrest him in force. “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” Jesus makes a nearly identical protest in Matthew and Luke. Later, John’s Gospel has Jesus tell Pilate that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world; if it was, then “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” It is odd enough that Jesus would say these things right after Peter’s solo attack on Malchus – of course the Roman soldiers and Jewish police were armed, if only to protect themselves against Peter! But it would be odder still for Jesus to say these things if, indeed, all of his followers did fight to prevent Jesus’ arrest
In short: the melee theory defies both the Gospels and common sense.
The Ear-Slicing Never Happened. This is, I think, the most plausible way to understand Jesus’ arrest. The Gospels tell us that Jesus peacefully surrendered to the authorities, without resistance. They tell us that only Jesus was arrested, and only Jesus was punished. They tell us that the disciples fled, but evidently not from arrest, as the Gospels report no subsequent effort to arrest them. Indeed, within hours, Peter would wander into the courtyard of the home of the high priest where Jesus was being interrogated, and in that courtyard Peter was able to warm himself by the fire next to the very forces who had arrested Jesus!
(NOTE: as a Jew writing in an interfaith context, I’m never comfortable saying that there’s something reported in the Gospels that “never happened.” I have friends and readers who believe, to one degree of the other, in the inerrancy of their canon of scripture. The Gospels are not a part of my canon, which is all the more reason why I want to treat them with great respect. Therefore, to those of my readers who believe that the Gospel stories must all be historically true, I will say simply that I respect your belief, and that what I’ve written here is from a different perspective. This blog is intended to foster dialogue from many perspectives and many faiths. If you think I can approach the Gospels with greater respect and in a way consistent with the purposes and goals of interfaith dialogue, please let me know!)
I think that the Gospel story makes better sense if the ear slicing is not “what really happened.” Dropping this story from the historical account of Jesus’ ministry is consistent with Jesus’ message of nonviolence, and with the practice of nonviolence by his disciples and early followers – both before and after Jesus’ death. It is consistent with the reality of life in Palestine under Roman rule, where those who “lived by the sword” –even for a moment – invariably died by the sword, or on the cross, and in short order. It is consistent with the Gospel theme that at his death, Jesus was abandoned by his disciples, not defended by them.
But if Jesus was arrested without incident, without violence, then how do we come to have this particular story in all four Gospels? Did someone make this story up? Did this small story somehow mysteriously emerge from the oral telling and retelling of the larger story of Jesus’ passion? I will address these questions, as best I can, in my next post. In the meantime … let me hear from you! Do you see a historical possibility that I’ve overlooked? I’ve limited my historical examination to simple degrees and extents of violence (a little, a lot, none). Maybe there are possibilities we should consider beyond this linear view. What do you think?