All four Gospels record that in the melee that surrounded the arrest of Jesus in the Garden, someone cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest. Mark records it thus:
Mark 14:47 One of the bystanders drew his sword and struck the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear.
The gospels do not record this incident in the same way. In Matthew, the slave’s ear is cut off; Jesus then rebukes his disciples, calling for calm, and rebukes the mob for their clandestine malevolence. In Mark, the slave’s ear is cut off but Jesus only rebukes the crowd. In Luke, all three elements are narrated and a fourth is introduced: Jesus heals the ear. In John, Simon Peter is named as the one who wielded the sword and Malchus is named as the slave. Jesus only rebukes his disciples. There is no healing.
Here is a nice opportunity to do some source criticism, given the elements that are the same and those that are different.
Ear: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.
Disciples rebuked: Matthew, Luke, John.
Crowd rebuked: Matthew, Mark, Luke.
If we give Mark priority, and given the repetition of the incident in all four gospels, we can be historically confident that the arrest was violent and that one of the arresting party was injured. Beyond that, uncertainly prevails. It seems likely that Jesus’ criticism of his captors for their secrecy comes from Mark while his rebuke of the disciples may have come from Q (which is why it is not in Mark). Clearly, Jesus is remembered to have reacted in some way. The naming of Peter and Malchus belongs to the Johannine tradition only. The Lucan report of the healing is similarly a hapax.
The question arises as to why only Luke reports a healing? Had a healing taken place, there is no theological reason why Matthew, Mark, and John would choose not to report it. The healing demonstrates both Jesus’ power and love, themes not at odds with their own theological portraits of Jesus. Yet it is only Luke who reports Jesus great act of love on the cross — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do“ — and thus the healing of the ear is particularly apposite for Luke.
Historically, what are we to make of this incident? Certainly the fact of the injury, and perhaps a rebuke, seem to be clear, but what of the healing? I am skeptical of it because I do not know what to do with the other Evangelists’ silence. I wish it were true because it matches my own view of Jesus’ great magnanimity and a rejection of the healing is a challenge for me. But then so is the Garden: it is a place of doubt and of fear and of humanity and for asking that really important question: Jesus, who are you really? We want him to heal everyone who is broken, but he doesn’t. We want him to always love his enemies, but why should he?
Today and tomorrow are black days indeed