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.
My guess begins with a common theory about the Jesus, one I’ve discussed here previously: the historical Jesus is best understood as a first century Jewish apocalyptic prophet. I like the description of this apocalypticism that Dale Allison provided in his book Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History:
Although G-d created a good world, evil spirits have filled it with wickedness, so that it is in disarray and full of injustice. A day is coming, however, when G-d will repair the broken creation and restore scattered Israel. Before that time, the struggle between good and evil will come to a climax, and a period of great tribulation and unmatched woe will descend upon the world. After that period, G-d will, perhaps through one or more messianic figures, reward the just and requite the unjust, both living and dead, and then establish divine rule forever.
As Allison and others describe it, Jesus saw himself as a prophet of this coming kingdom. Scholars disagree on whether Jesus saw himself as only a prophet, or whether Jesus also intended to help bring the Kingdom into power, or even to direct its coming. Personally, I fall into the “intended more than a prophet” camp, though I certainly see room for debate.
What does apocalypticism have to do with swordplay at Jesus’ arrest? Well, the question of violence was certainly on the mind of Jewish apocalypticists like Jesus. The present world, dominated by evil forces, was a violent place. As Thomas Hobbes might have described it if he were living in those days, life in first century Israel was nasty, brutish and short. Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire, made subject to oppressive Roman taxation, and frequently faced violence treatment at the hands of the Roman army. Josephus tells us that 2,000 Jews were crucified by the Roman legate Varus to put down a revolt after the death of King Herod the Great, and that so many Jews were crucified during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE (up to 500 a day) that the Romans ran out of wood to make new crosses. But not all violence took the form of crucifixions! Josephus gives us this account of Pontius Pilate’s response to Jewish protests over Temple funds being seized to build an aqueduct:
[Pilate] had interspersed among the [Jewish] crowd a troop of his soldiers, armed but disguised in civilian dress, with orders not to use their swords, but to beat any rioters with cudgels. He now from his tribunal gave the agreed signal. Large numbers of the Jews perished, some from the blows which they received, others trodden to death by their companions in the ensuing flight.
It’s no wonder that Jews in Jesus’ time thought they were living in a world gone wrong!
But if life under the Roman Empire was violent, the coming kingdom of G-d would be peaceful. Jews had long predicted that the age to come would be one where nation would not lift up sword against nation, and people would beat their swords into plowshares. Jesus must have seen the kingdom in the same way. He preached that his followers should eschew violence, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and love enemies. I think Jesus intended for his followers to put this preaching into effect to the extent that they could, but I also think Jesus understood that his ideal of nonviolence and love could not be fully realized until G-d’s kingdom was firmly established on earth. We can see this (unfortunately) in the things Jesus had to say about his own enemies. Jesus did not express “love” for the Pharisees and hypocrites he bitterly criticized.
So … if the present world was violent, and the Kingdom to come would be peaceful, what about the transition from the present to the future? The Gospels are clear on this: the transition would be a violent affair. A very, very violent affair.
Jesus linked the Kingdom to violence. He preached that “the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.” He also preached that those who stood in the way of Jesus and the Kingdom could expect violence. The Gospels tell us: for those who betray the Son of Man, it would be better if such a person had never been born. For those who lead little children astray, “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. False prophets, like trees that do not bear good fruit, will be cut down and thrown in the fire. Entire cities are condemned by Jesus to hell. Jesus’ preaching is full of people thrown into the furnace of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The coming of the kingdom is described in the Gospels as a time of suffering – suffering “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” Jesus said that the kingdom would come like a thief in the night – not something that anyone looks forward to. It would be like the Biblical flood in Noah’s day – as “the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” Jesus’ advice to anyone present at the arrival of the kingdom was to flee. It would be bad for those, sinner or not, who were unable to flee – because they were pregnant, or because it was winter, or because it was Shabbat.
Jesus tells a number of parables about the coming Kingdom of G-d, many with violent endings. In Matthew’s parable of the faithful and wicked servant, when the master returns (i.e., when the Kingdom arrives), the wicked servant will be cut to pieces. In Luke’s Parable of the Ten Minas (a parable told in response to the disciples’ belief that the Kingdom was coming immediately), the King on his return ordered his enemies to be slaughtered in his presence. In Matthew’s Parable of the Wicked Tenants, the wicked tenants were put “to a miserable death” on the return of the landowner. (This is a Kingdom parable, isn’t it?)
I don’t think there’s any doubt about this: Jesus preached that the coming of the Kingdom of G-d would be an unspeakably violent affair. So … at a critical stage of the beginning of this coming Kingdom, at Jesus’ arrest, should we be surprised to see a violent incident? Should we be shocked that a representative of the forces of evil opposing Jesus and come to arrest him, the representative of the high priest who would condemn Jesus, the representative of the Temple that Jesus predicted would be destroyed, would be an early victim of the violence to come? I don’t think so.
Certainly, Jesus did not seem to be surprised by the attack. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus makes no comment whatsoever concerning the attack. In Luke and John, Jesus’ concern seems to be that the arrest go forward, so that prophecy would be fulfilled. Only in Matthew does Jesus condemn violence per se. The account in Matthew raises the possibility that, while Jesus predicted a violent transition to a Kingdom of G-d, Jesus did not want his disciples to participate in this violence. I don’t think the evidence is clear on this point, but it is possible that Jesus expected the future inhabitants of the Kingdom to flee from the violence to come, and not to engage in it.
Ultimately, my point here lies elsewhere. Why did early Christians imagine a violent scene at Jesus’ arrest? Because they imagined that Jesus’ arrest was preliminary to the coming of the Kingdom of G-d, and that this coming would be full of violence. This theory may not make perfect sense. But it’s the best theory I’ve got at the moment.