(Malchus’) Ear

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.

Healing: 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.

800px-The_capture_of_Christ_mg_1674The 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


  1. Thanks Ronan. I have not ever thought about it in a way that you presented it I’m not sure I do understand it or even where it plays in the wider narrative. I wonder if there’s any other accounts extra New Testament that would mention the same events?

  2. “We want him to heal everyone who is broken, but he doesn’t.” Indeed, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.

    “The question arises as to why only Luke reports a healing?” Luke the physician? Professional interest? I’m sure there are better theories than that.

  3. Er, not that that’s any kind of explanation…

  4. John Taber says:

    John’s gospel to me tends to go into details where the others don’t, and leave out some detail that one or more of the other gospels cover adequately. I look at the four accounts as windows into what happened, and acknowledge that some things (like teaching a particular parable) might have happened more than once.

  5. DMM,
    I don’t know of any early non-canonical sources for this. Perhaps someone can help?

    Good point about Elijah. I’ve heard the physician theory used in this context, but the point isn’t why Luke would be interested in the healing but why the others weren’t (if it happened).

    As long as we recognise that the gospels offer four windows not one.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    I’m not a NT guy, but am really interested in early Christian healing. The first thing that popped into my mind is Lucan phrase “Physician, heal thyself.” But as you say, Ronan, Luke’s profession isn’t the point. Your last two paragraphs are wonderful, stuff. Thanks.

  7. European Saint says:

    Does anyone else think of the different accounts of the First Vision when they read this? I do/did.

  8. Ronan, black days but the brightest as well. Thanks for this and have a good Maundy Thursday.

  9. Thanks, Ronan; I needed this to start thinking about what I’m supposed to be thinking about this weekend.

  10. Luke’s account of the life of Christ was always the most satisfying to me personally, so I guess I never really thought about why he included something like this when the rest did not. Now that you’ve brought it up it is a shame that (at least in this life) we will never know the answer. I still believe that Jesus healed the ear because in my mind it jives best with what Jesus would have done. So, because of my love for Luke, and my feeling that this is how Christ would have behaved I am going to vote for “it happened”.

  11. Luke himself might have been a slave at one point–I had read most physicians at the time either were slaves or had been. Perhaps he was more interesting in details pertaining to a class of people he had once been in?

  12. This reminds me of the Book of Job. The author or authors seem to have added a prose prologue and epilogue that aren’t congruent with the poem itself. The epilogue has Job living happily ever after but the poem itself takes us into the pit of despair and no substantive answers or miracles are provided. It was almost as if the author couldn’t live with the ragged incompleteness of such an ending, so he added a fairy-tale conclusion. But the poem itself is what is true to life, an in media res tour de force. Sometimes there is healing, sometimes there is not.

    Someone tells the story somewhere of Lazarus after being raised from the dead, imagining that he couldn’t come to grips with what had been done to him, he didn’t know how to live an existence where even death itself was healed. He questioned his own humanity as one who died but did not die, as one who lived an in-between existence (resuscitated but not fully resurrected–he would die yet again) but not an in media res existence, living always in the middle, never the beginning or the ending. He was no longer in media res because he had lived the end but it was not the end because he had been healed. Sometimes even healing can be suffering.

  13. Bryclops says:

    Just off the top of my head, I think it makes sense that Matthew left the healing out. Matthew was writing to the Jews, and they’re not really a sympathetic audience for, “Jesus not only failed to be your political savior, but He healed the oppressor’s ear!” Same probably applies to the forgiveness on the cross.

    Not sure about Mark and John, though.

  14. RJH, like you, I think the evidence against the healing occurring is quite compelling from a source-critical point-of-view. It is plausible that Luke manipulates this account, like he does with the Marcan text, to suit his theological purposes. In other words, there may have been an oral tradition of Jesus healing an ear which the author of Luke felt worked well here – and they are not wrong, it is great stuff. From a narrative point of view it works. Especially because the ‘slave’ becomes linked with the description of being a slave to God’s will in Acts.

    Also, interesting, is why does Mark fail to include the rebuke to the disciples? That fits quite nicely with his narrative for them.

  15. I say it happened. This was in the middle of a MOB showing up to arrest Jesus. For me it is not inconcievable that after rebuking, the other three apostles had their attention drawn elsewhere and only Luke happened to be looking when he healed the ear. I see the gospels as more like their private journals rather than any sort of collaborative effort. The other explanation, remember that many plain and precious truths were lost and also that if everything Jesus did was written down there would not be room in the whole earth to contain the books that would be written.

    (and thank you Ben S for being the one who taught me that that was the REAL “last thing written by John”)

  16. Ron, Luke was, almost certainly, not present at all.

  17. Remember, Ron, that neither “Mark” nor “Luke” were eyewitnesses.

  18. In other words, even if we reject the source critical model and hold to the traditional authorship, we are still left with the only eye-witness as John and he doesn’t include the account.

  19. Yes, but for an eyewitness, I find John’s accounts of most scenes to be either laboriously detailed or scant at best. I’m still convinced it happened, but I am okay if I find out I am wrong when I die. Pretty good thing to be wrong about, imo.

  20. Thanks, RJH.

  21. Russ FRandsen says:

    I am a fan of textual criticism. We can learn a lot. However, Ronan jumps to the farthest extreme, suggesting that many details are embellishments if they do not show up in Mark or an assumed Q source. Source criticism is notoriously imprecise and cannot bear that much weight. Luke, himself, explains why his Gospel is more detailed, and perhaps more reliable than the other Gospels: “1 FORASMUCH as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, 2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word; 3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, 4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed. (New Testament | Luke 1:1 – 4)” Luke tells us he made a detailed study, seeking out eyewitnesses, and reviewing the rather numerous sources that others had written so that others (Theopholis – admirer of God) could know with certainty. Many reasons might exist why some writers included some details and others not – including the possibility that not all the writers were familiar with all the facts. That does not necessarily mean that the details they report are embellishment. Perhaps all the details are not correct (think about the difificulty of reporters getting the facts straight today with all of the great means of communications we use today), but I am inclined to trust the details given us by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

  22. Russ,
    You cannot say “I am a fan of textual criticism” and then confidently assert “I am inclined to trust the details given us by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” A fan of textual criticism would not so easily harmonise the gospels, taking everything as true. You, sir, are no fan of textual criticism!

    You’ve also mischaracterised my position. I do not suggest “that many details are embellishments if they do not show up in Mark or an assumed Q source.” For example, I can accept that John’s naming of the protagonists may be accurate despite its non-existence in the Synoptics. With the healing, the issue is not just that only Luke reports it but that, if it happened, the others chose not to report it. That’s a strange editorial decision to me. It may have happened and I hope it did and I admit that the dissonance is uncomfortable.

  23. I’d recently considered the possibility that the cutting off the ear and healing were figurative. Could it be that this is a poetic embellishment of the apostle swearing at someone in the mob (possibly someone he knew well), using “the sword of his mouth”, and Jesus healing by apologizing and “healing” the ear that was cut?

  24. Though I can’t guess as to why the other gospels do not account for the healing, I believe it really happened. Not only did Jesus demonstrate his power, mercy, and compassion to his enemies (and to all present)–and this was the final miracle he would perform in his mortal ministry–He healed Malchus to protect his apostles and prevent a brouhaha from escalating. Prior to the incident, Jesus requested the mob, “If therefore ye seek me, let [the apostles] go their way.” But Peter rashly struck first and his blow could have initiated a barroom brawl (and they only had two swords against “a great multitude of swords and staves”).

    Jesus took decisive action. He rebuked Peter, scooped up the cartilage, (I presume he didn’t provide another ear and leave the hacked ear on the ground) and restored it whole. Undoubtedly, these actions distracted the crowd, apparently fearful of and awed by his authority, appeasing any desire for retaliation. The crowd then takes Jesus under custody and leads him away while the apostles flee the scene.

    It is interesting to note that Mark is the only gospel stating that the disciples all fled. By healing the servant, Jesus accomplished protecting his apostles and preventing further bloodshed.

  25. Malchus ear is a parable were Peter = The Church, The sword = The word of God, Malchus = The Priest(i.e. Sadducees and the Pharisee), Malchus [ear] = Spiritual ear, Jesus = The Holy living word of God, and He(Jesus) used both hands to put back is ear which = the last 2000 yrs. That is a short example. Hope it made sense. If you would like to know more about understanding parables please visit Scriptural(dash)Truth(dot)com.

  26. No thanks, Rick. I’m OK with my understanding of parables.

    I took a divinity school class in college about interpreting parables, and the professor made the point that parables work best when they are relevant to the people to whom they are addressed – and when those people understand them to be parables. I agree with that professor, especially since I have read interpretations of parables that I think are silly, non-representative of anything the people of the time would have believed and/or dangerous in their conclusions.

    I am fine with you interpreting an event described as having happened literally as a parable (since I read multiple stories in the Old Testament that way), and I am fine with you believing the interpretation above for yourself, but, frankly, if it is an example of how you interpret Biblical stories, I will not be visiting your site. That sort of interpretation simply doesn’t speak to me in any meaningful way.

    Sometimes stories are nothing more than summaries of actual events, with no deeper meaning intended by the story tellers. I believe this is one such case – even, again, as I have no problem with you believing as you do.

  27. John knew Malchus and was known in his house. Could we give him more credit because of that?

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