The Case of the Severed Ear

The Case of the Severed Ear September 20, 2014

I’ve been meaning for a while to blog about the story in the Gospel tradition, in which one of Jesus’ followers slices off the ear of the high priest’s servant in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:47  and parallels). Larry Behrendt had two posts on the subject back in August, which I had meant to draw attention to before now. The first pointed out oddities in the story – for instance, Peter attacks a presumably unarmed slave, and yet the response of the arresting party does not involve the use of a sword against him. The second post considers interpretative options, and suggests that the most plausible explanation is that the incident never happened.

I’m not sure I agree – the difficulties are real, to be sure, but it 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?

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.

Being interested in this subject, I was delighted to learn yesterday that Dale Martin’s work on it has been highlighted in Newsweek (HT Chris Keith). I look forward to reading the journal article mentioned there. Take a look at what he has to say, and what other scholars have said in response.

What do you think about the story? Did someone slice off the ear of the high priest’s servant in the Garden of Gethsemane? Why would someone invent it, if you think it was invented? And if there is a real incident in the background, what might be left unsaid in, or covered up by, the story as told in the Gospels?

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  • The gospel traditions seem to have no problems with portrayals of Jesus’ disciples saying and doing the wrong things. These stories usually showcase Jesus as the wise correcting leader.

    Peter gets several of these treatments:

    Mark 8:32-33
    “Get behind me, Satan!”
    Mark 9:4-5
    Peter suggests making 3 tabernacles at the transfiguration; one for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.
    Mark 10:28
    Peter complains, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

    And the ear story is encompassed within the larger story of Peter’s prophecied denial:

    Mark 14:26-31
    Peter’s denial is foretold and he denies it vehemently.
    Mark 14:37-38
    Peter falls asleep while watching in the garden.
    Mark 14:66-72
    Peter denies Christ three times and the cock crows.

    Mark doesn’t specify Peter as the man with the sword, and since the story is surrounded by other references to Peter by name, this makes Luke’s later attribution of the sword to Peter a bit suspect. In either case, the “role” of Peter and the disciples in the gospels, is largely that of rough, unlearned men, often with bad impulses, learning wisdom from their master – often in the form of correction.

    I don’t see why the ear-slicing story doesn’t fit perfectly into this narrative mode. We get to see Jesus heal the servant of an enemy – exactly the way early Christians like to portray Jesus.

    • Just as clarification, it is Luke who later adds that Jesus healed the man’s ear.

      • That’s right! In Mark, Jesus just comments on the weapons brought against him in the garden generally. Thanks for the correction; that adds more credence to your interpretation, I think. Someone cuts off someone else’s ear in the garden fracas, and it later turns into a miracle story!

        I like the bit in Mark about the unknown man running off naked. That sort of odd, incidental detail rings true to me!

        • Kris Rhodes

          Was it in Ehrman’s _Forged_ that I read that odd incidental details were actually a standard technique to add verisimilitude to a tale back then? Maybe not, as I think that book was about the epistles only (need to re-read I guess…) But I’m almost certain I’ve seen this point made somewhere.

          • You might be thinking of a couple of paragraphs in Chapter 3 of Forged, pages 102 and 103 in the hardback edition.

            Ehrman refers to an argument by Norbert Brox that personal details were added to 2 Timothy by the forger to lend it a kind of verisimilitude. Specifically, the writer’s request that Timothy bring his cloak and books on his next visit. Brox demonstrates that such details are common in ancient forgeries (one can find examples in extra-biblical works that all scholars agree are forgeries).

            This sort of personal detail, however, is not in the same category as the odd, seemingly purposeless detail of the disciple who ran off naked in the garden of Gethsemane. The detail of Paul’s cloaks and books is exactly what one would expect a forger to add in order to make the story seem more real. But if someone were making up the Gethsemane story, the naked man detail doesn’t seem like the sort of detail one would add to lend credence to the story.

        • R Vogel

          I was just puzzling over the naked man yesterday. It just gets stranger and stranger….

    • Also as a clarification, it is only John who names Peter as the sword-wielder.

  • I doubt the disciples were nearly as dense as they are portrayed in the gospels. So, somewhat speculatively…

    One or more of them know that Jesus’s life is in danger and start going around “tooled up” in case Jesus is attacked. Jesus’ arrest was far angrier and more chaotic than the gospels portray it (well, how happy would you feel about the immanent prospect of crucifixion?) and one of the disciples tries to kill the high priest’s slave (=armed bodyguard?). The gospel writers include the story, but try to tame it through Jesus’ intercession and the miracle story.

    I suspect there’s something historic at the core of the story, anyway.

  • James, thanks for reading!

    For me, the most important piece of evidence in “The Case of the Severed Ear” is that only Jesus was arrested. I can’t explain this evidence if Peter or someone else in Jesus’ party sliced off the ear of the high priest’s slave.

    True, it’s not easy to explain how this story came to be invented. My assumption is that this story emerged early in the oral traditions of the early Christians, and oral traditions do not necessarily follow a logic in the way they emerge. The theory I’ve advanced on my blog is that the early Christians were Jewish apocalypticists who expected the end-time to come violently, and thus they weren’t as squeamish about violence as we might be. In this way, the story might have been invented because Jesus’ followers saw his arrest as a key step in the birth of the Kingdom of God, and that they expected some amount of violence to accompany this birth pang.

    I’m pretty sure you and others can shoot holes in this theory of apocalyptic narrative violence. So I’ll fall back on the idea that oral traditions don’t have to emerge in a way that makes sense to us. But the things we take as historical fact — like Jesus being the only member of his movement to be arrested, tried and convicted during that Passover season — do have to be explained.

    • Thanks for commenting! I hope this post will generate some more discussion. 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!

      • Agreed. I’m hoping that Dale Martin’s article represents some of that research. (Haven’t read it yet.)

    • Good point, about Jesus being the only one arrested. Perhaps the answer is in Mark 14:51-53 – they all fled; one was nearly caught, but ran off naked. Sounds like the description of botched arrest, with all the targeted men running off in the dark.

  • maryhelena

    //What do you think about the story? Did someone slice off the ear of the high
    priest’s servant in the Garden of Gethsemane? Why would someone invent it, if
    you think it was invented? And if there is a real incident in the background,
    what might be left unsaid in, or covered up by, the story as told in the

    This is what I think: The gospel ear cutting story is a flashback to a historical incident (re Josephus) of the cutting off of the ear of the former King, but now High Priest, Hyrcanus in 40 b.c.e. The name, Malchus, having a meaning of “my king” from the Hebrew root *melek*.

    Antigonus……..but being afraid that Hyrcanus, who was under the guard of the Parthians, might have his kingdom restored to him by the multitude, he cut off his ears, and thereby took care that the high priesthood should never come to him any more, because he was maimed, while the law required that this dignity should belong to none but such as had all their members entire.

    Antiquities 14. 13.10

    ….Antigonus himself also bit off Hyrcanus’s ears with his own teeth, as he fell down upon his knees to him, that so he might never be able upon any mutation of affairs to take the high priesthood again, for the high priests that officiated were to be complete, and without blemish.

    War 1 ch.13. 9.

    What is left unsaid by the story? The zealot type reflections in the Jesus gospel story are a reflection of the life of the last King and High Priest of the Jews, Antigonus. Which means Reza Aslan has got his time-frame wrong for his zealot Jesus…;-)

  • Andrew Dowling

    “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?”

    While I understand the contrary arguments, the above assumes the reality would have been so widely known that the evangelists (really, Mark) HAD to include it and then reinterpret it. I have a hard time believing that to be the case; the event occurs at night with few witnesses besides the Disciples and the arresting party. It already follows a widely attested story (Jesus’s private prayer in the Garden) that by its very logic (a private prayer by himself) is likely to be ahistorical (at least the contents of it; not that Jesus prayed).

    And if Jesus was really this revolutionary armed leader, it seems completely illogical that Mark would seem fit to erase practically all traces of that from his story but be compelled to mention the ear cutting incident
    Also, it seems clear that if such a violent incident had occurred, further violence would have ensued. Nothing is mentioned anywhere. Also, if Peter was armed with a sword, it’s likely others in Jesus’s party would have been armed. But Jesus nowhere is ever accused of bringing in an armed force to Jerusalem.

    Think the theological implications make it more likely it’s an invention of oral retelling. Jesus telling them to put their swords away is the evangelists telling Christians circa 70AD to not take up arms against their persecutors but follow the example of the suffering Messiah in Jesus. That strikes me as much more likely than the alternative.

    • R Vogel

      ‘And if Jesus was really this revolutionary armed leader, it seems completely illogical that Mark would seem fit to erase practically all traces of that from his story but be compelled to mention the ear cutting incident’

      See, I see this exactly the opposite – the servants ears getting cut off would likely be the only thing that would become widely known and have to be acknowledged. ‘Hey, what happened to Malchus’ ear? Those Jesus freaks cut it off when they arrested him!’ It is completely conceivable to me that some of Jesus’ followers may have been revolutionaries even if he himself was not. So his arrest may have been initially violently resisted until he intervenes.

      • Andrew Dowling

        Widely known 40+ years after it happened outside of Judea? (many posit Rome as where Mark was written, which I think is plausible). I just think Mark was writing this story more for the interest of his own audience and not having to oddly insert a historical fact in his narrative.

        • R Vogel

          I think it is widely accepted that even Mark was based on some collection of oral traditions about Jesus, and it would be in those traditions where the historical fact, if it in fact, would have has to be addressed. The author of Mark could have just dropped it altogether, but it there were already stories out there it might have been dicey to do so. I never rule out any possibility, but I have yet to see a compelling explanation of what purpose inventing the story would serve as it seem to contradict a key part of Jesus’ message which leads me to think that it is probable that is is based on some event that the author didn’t feel free to simply ignore.

          Do you have thoughts on who Mark’s audience may have been and why they might find this addition interesting?

          • Andrew Dowling

            It doesn’t contradict the message IMO; following the incident Jesus rebukes the use of weapons and says they are not necessary as he will offer no resistance, exclaiming that the Scriptures must be fulfilled. This is in tune with the larger Markan theme of the Christian way being that of the suffering servant. If Mark was writing around 70AD as generally proposed, both after the Neronian persecution and during the Jewish-Roman war, he’s telling Jesus-followers (tradition has Mark writing from Rome, which I actually still think remains the most plausible destination) to not rise in arms in the face of arrest/persecution but to follow the example of the Lord Jesus.

            I also agree Mark used older oral traditions, but I don’t think an odd incident like an ear getting cut off managed to survive 40 years of “telephone” across language barriers and geographic/cultural locales and other facets of that evening (which would support the idea that some of the Disciples fought the arresting party) got lost with time.

            Something being oddly fitted into a larger story IMO is characteristic of how oral retellings essentially get aspects of the narrative thrown into the “story pot,” like a gumbo as various people re-tell the tale and add/embellish parts for a variety of reasons. A modern example are the myths/stories that grew over 40+ years surrounding the Roswell, New Mexico crash of a “UFO” ie military air balloon.

          • R Vogel

            Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for the use of weapons in the gospel of Mark, only in the other 3. (and a rather lackluster rebuke at that) Luke also has him instructing them to bring swords which needs some sort of explanation (not from you, just in general). It seems strange to me to invent a story of violent resistance, in which no one pays a penalty for said resistance, as a way to promote non-resistance.

            I think we are at largerheads over which is the more probable. It is, however, an interesting episode which elicits a number of questions. Nice chatting with you.

          • I’ve heard someone saying that the “bring swords” thing was just Jesus’ attempting at fulfilling a supposed Messiah-related prophecy about people carrying swords (which one?
            I don’t know), so basically he was trying to have the events fit into His plan to show He was
            the long-awaited Saviour.
            Just another Biblical oddity which leaves me puzzled, I guess.

  • R Vogel

    So my kooky theory, which I am repeating from my comments in Larry Behrendt’s original post (which was great, thanks Dr McGrath for directed us to it!)-

    The scenario that makes the most sense to me is that the Jewish Leaders, perhaps under orders from the Romans or perhaps just wishing to avoid conflict with the Romans after the Temple incident, send out a small force to arrest or detain Jesus. This force likely did not include Roman soldiers. They underestimate either the size or zeal of the Jesus’ followers and are met with violent resistance during which the servant is injured. Jesus’ followers overpower the arresting group before Jesus intervenes to quell the violence. He delivers himself to arresting party so that the scriptures can be fulfilled in exchange for them letting the rest go. Now the authorities have full cause, citing the violent armed resistance, to indict Jesus for sedition. This would also explain why Peter was so fearful of being identified in the courtyard of the high priest. If he gets identified, he could face execution too. If the authorities just let him walk away scott free in Gethsemane, why was he so afraid of being identified just a short time later?

    I think it could still work if Roman soldiers were part of the arresting party, although I am not sure I buy that they were. (whatever John has to say!) If they were trying to keep things on the DL by going in the middle of the night, would taking a large contingent of Roman soldiers really be the way to go? Poking around on the line it seems the word used refers to between 200 and 500 soldiers. Not exactly a small affair. But let’s assume 200. Jesus’ followers may have been far more than just the 11 and had more than 2 swords. The fact that they may have sent so many soldier might reflect that. Romans were often notorious for underestimating their opponents, especially irregulars (reading The Spartacus War right now), and may have been taken unawares. If Jesus’ followers had violently resisted and overpowered a group of Roman soldiers, it would have certainly resulted in his execution. Again, he could have offered himself up on the condition the others were let go – or they could have just booked it out of there.

    Obviously the earliest followers of the Way would have wanted to downplay the violence, but still had to explain Malchus’ missing ear. (It just didn’t fall off!!)

    • Thanks for sharing this. The incident certainly has potential implications for a much bigger question, namely whether and to what extent Jesus embraced arrest and saw his own suffering as a necessary prelude to the dawn of the kingdom of God. If he said things along those lines, even if he expected God to intervene before he was killed, it would help account for why Christians were able to make sense of his death as something other than yet another failed messianic claimant, in a way that no other movement of a similar sort seems to have in that time period, as far as we can tell.

  • Paul E.

    The comments for this post are no longer viewable, so I hope I’m not repeating anything that was already discussed, but if we read Mark on its own terms without yet looking at the other gospels, is it worthwhile to consider that the swordsman was not associated with Jesus, but was actually a member of the crowd with Judas? Mark doesn’t identify the swordsman, the only people identified with swords are with Judas, there is no retaliation, Jesus rebukes the Judas crowd rather than his followers, and Jesus’ followers flee rather than fight. If we look at it this way, then the servant of the high priest is a follower of Jesus, and cutting off his ear can be seen as a punishment upon his being discovered (cutting off an ear was used in some cultures since ancient times to punish unfaithful servants/slaves).

    Under this view, the other gospels actually offer a radical reinterpretation (or perhaps misunderstanding) of Mark, which may reflect the needs of those later communities.

    • Thanks for drawing this to my attention. We’ve had issues and have not succeeded in completely resolving them.

  • The picture associated with this post has left ear cut off. John says right ear.

    • Gary

      Best catch of the year!

    • Impressive attention to detail!

    • Gary

      Of course, Sherlock Holmes might say, “Jesus is talking with the soldiers, Peter would obviously be behind Jesus. So Peter is facing the soldiers. If Peter cut off a right ear surgically, Peter should be left-handed. Or, maybe, “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth”.

  • arcseconds

    Is it not possible that the purpose of the story (at least in Matthew) is pedagogical? The apostles are often used as foils: they frequently don’t understand what Jesus is saying, and they’re constantly behaving in ways that earn them rebukes.

    The point here might be “don’t take up arms against your enemies, not even if they have come to kill your master, the foremost servant of the living God, look here is Peter doing exactly that, an here he is being rebuked, and the enemey healed!”

    • Absolutely. And even when something is judged historical, that does not mean that it was not told with pedagogical aims, and/or subsequently altered to better accomplish such aims.

      • Paul E.

        We replied pretty much simultaneously, so I missed this when typing, sorry! The “betrayal” and arrest certainly seem historical, but the devil is in the details, isn’t it? The additions of the pedagogical rebukes to Judas and Jesus’ followers seems to indicate a non-historical overlay. I wonder about whether the historical details of the pre-Matthew story were also altered in order to stress the pedagogical point.

        I wonder if there is some value in pursuing the idea that the swordsman was not a Jesus follower in Mark. If the high priest’s servant was actually secret a Jesus follower whom the swordsman from the chief priest identified and immediately punished, it would provide a possible explanation for, e.g.: 1) why the leaders would need a betrayer at all (the HP’s servant was providing false information to the HP about Jesus’ location, e.g.) 2) how Jesus knew who his betrayer was in advance (HP servant told him it was Judas); 3) why the only identified people with swords were from the chief priests; 4) why the strike seems so “surgical” (cutting off an ear is a pretty precise strike; it is also an ancient punishment for a disloyal servant); 5) why Jesus doesn’t rebuke his followers or give them any instructions at all; 6) Jesus’ followers then flee rather than fight; 7) there is no retaliation from the armed crowd, etc. These are just some nascent (and probably at this stage ill-formed) thoughts, but these details have always bothered me about this story.

    • Paul E.

      I agree there seems to be a pedagogical purpose here, especially as contrasted to Mark. Matthew has a more active and engaged Jesus. Matthew’s Jesus rebukes Judas with a rhetorical question designed to make Judas (and by extension the reader) think about what he’s doing. Mark’s Jesus does not. Matthew’s Jesus rebukes his followers and uses it as a “teaching moment” for them, both in terms of non-violence and the ultimate power of god. Mark’s Jesus does not.

      I can’t shake the idea that Matthew’s pedagogical purpose may have shaped his interpretation of Mark. Mark does not specify whether the swordsman was in the crowd explicitly identified as armed, or was a follower of Jesus. What if Matthew either got it wrong or purposely changed the story to make the swordsman explicitly a follower of Jesus?