Updated 3 hours after original posting.
In the land of Laputa modern-day inhabitants contemplate the deep mysteries hidden in the incident of Peter cutting off the right ear of the servant of the high priest and what such a very strange event could possibly mean for the reconstruction of the life of the historical Jesus and the origins of Christianity. Indeed, this scene is so mysterious that professors fervently desire more minds would deeply reflect upon it and share their discoveries in serious peer-reviewed research publications.
The story in the Gospels is puzzling enough that it ought to be the focus of far more attention than it has been. Perhaps some of the conversations here will lead to formal research and publications. One can hope! (comment by JFM)
Should we believe such an event to be historical? Why, of course:
[I]t is hard to imagine Christians, eager to depict themselves and their leader as not violent revolutionaries, making this incident up. Why would they have done so? Is it not more likely that the incident reflects something that actually happened, and the oddities of the story reflect an attempt to reinterpret the event? (Case of the Severed Ear)
And it contains deep meaning and significance, too:
It has long seemed to me that this incident might have had a significant impact on the way things unfolded for Jesus. If the arresting party was hoping to reason with Jesus and get him to avoid causing a stir during the feast that might draw in Roman troops, or if they were hoping at worst to lock him away until after Passover, they may well have been trying to avoid an eruption of violence, even when provoked. Moreover, for all we know, they may have subdued, or even killed, the person who sliced off the ear (assuming it wasn’t Peter), after which Jesus prevented his followers from doing anything further. Perhaps none or very few of the rest of them were armed. And perhaps this incident was a major reason why the authorities persecuted the subsequent Christian movement, more than anything they believed about Jesus. (Case of the Severed Ear)
One can well imagine the armed Roman and Jewish soldiers being ordered to try first to reason with Jesus to stay calm till after the Passover hoping they didn’t have to actually arrest him.
Here is the scene from the Gospel of John chapter 18 (NIV):
3 So 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.
4 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”
5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) 6 When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
7 Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they said.
8 Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” 9 This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”
10 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.)
11 Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
12 Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him 13 and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.
The above ruminations from the planet of biblical studies are a classic nonsense and are one more example of the farce when scholars completely ignore the reality of the texts they are studying. By reality I mean the nature of the texts. What they actually are. It’s a game of “Let’s pretend we are reading a version of historical reports”. The first rule of such a game is to ignore the literary context of any passage and speculate as wildly as one can on as wide a range of possibilities as one can imagine that might have happened quite independently of anything we read. Perhaps the Roman cohort really was sent to reason with Jesus and plead with him to stay quiet during the passover. Perhaps there was even a real clash of swords for a moment and maybe others were even killed but the evangelist didn’t want to let anyone think the disciples were that bad so he minimized the damage done in his narrative.
Meanwhile, others who have read ahead just a little, even as far as verse 36, have found this:
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
Now that makes it look to me very much as if the incident of Malchus’s ear has the literary function of demonstrating Jesus’ message before Pilate: Jesus has commanded his disciples NOT to fight. Jesus has commanded them to refrain from violence as a demonstration that his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus has the divine power to zap everyone but he is in control and has chosen to die instead. Recall in chapter 6:14-15 Jesus fled from the crowd when he learned they wanted to make him king. (And Malchus is a name meaning “king”, which is interesting.)
Belated note: For the meaning of the lost ear itself see my comment below.
The scene of Peter’s slicing off the ear of Malchus has a clear literary and theological function. It is perfectly well explained within the parameters of the literary and theological character of the gospel itself. The raw material of the story was quite likely borrowed from the Gospel of Mark and the fourth evangelist has elaborated it a little to adapt it to his own theme. Hence the name Malchus and the allusion to “king” appears.
There are also quite likely other symbols involved that are now lost to us. John specifies it was the “right” ear that was cut off. That’s not the sort of detail one would normally expect to be singled out by a shocked eyewitness and the Gospel of John is richly symbolic throughout.
The scene is as much a literary symbol as is Mark’s young man fleeing naked at the arrest of Jesus. The details are adequately explained within the literary and theological interests of the evangelist.
It is a breach of sound method to seek to multiply additional hypothetical possibilities where they are not necessary.
But they are necessary, aren’t they, for the believer who demands the story to be real history.
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