Posted by: mattcolvin | December 7, 2018

Daube on Malchus’ Ear


Sword-of-St-Peter-in-Poland
Above: Peter striking Malchus from The Capture of Christ, Gregoire Guerard (c. 1520, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon)

Some years ago, I wrote a blog entry on the episode in which, during the arrest of Jesus by the crowd from the chief priests and Pharisees with Judas, Peter swings his sword at cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest. (Mt. 26:47-56, Mk. 14:43-52, Lk. 22:47-53, Jn. 18:2-12) I want to rewrite and expand my observations here.

It is a curious episode for many reasons. First, there is the fact that none of the synoptic gospels actually names Peter as the disciple who wounded the servant of the high priest. Nor do they name the servant. It is only John’s gospel that gives us both these names: the servant is Malchus (John 18:10) and Peter is now named as the perpetrator.

Why this difference? Richard Bauckham helpfully points out that in the synoptics, Malchus is referred to as “the servant of the high priest” (τὸν δοῦλον τοῦ ἀρχιερέως), with the definite article:

“The high priest certainly had many more servants or slaves than one, and according to John 18:26 more than one such were members of the arresting party in Gethsemane. Commentators have therefore been hard pressed to explain the definite “the” in this case. Perhaps the meaning is that this servant of the high priest was the officer in charge of the arresting party. He was the most important person in that party, but his name may have been remembered in the early Jerusalem church not simply for that reason but also because the injury to him remained, so to speak, an unsolved crime of which Peter was the as yet undetected perpetrator. Malchus was an influential person in the high priest’s entourage with a personal grudge against the disciples of Jesus.”

(Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 194-195.)

Thus, the synoptists, writing soon after the events of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and in an atmosphere of fear and persecution, omit Simon Peter’s name in this episode as a matter of protective anonymity. John, writing later, has no such concern and therefore freely names both Simon Peter and Malchus (John 18:10). It is also possible that Malchus had by that time become a Christian himself and was known by name to the disciples. (There are also other speculations, such as that Malchus was also in charge of the guards at Jesus’ tomb.)

A second question is this: are we to think that Peter struck Malchus’ ear at random, rather like Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear because it was at the right height and was sticking out of his head? Perhaps Peter was aiming to cleave his head in twain, and missed, striking a glancing blow on the side of the head that removed his ear?

The question is addressed by Daube (“Three Notes Having to do with Johanan ben Zaccai”, CWDD vol. 1, 433ff) and Rostovtzeff (Οὖς δεξιὸν ἀποτέμνειν. ZNW 33, Issue 2 (1934), 196-199). They point out that in Josephus, Antiquities 14.13.10 §366, the Maccabean priest-king Antigonus II chose the ears as a target for mutilation to disqualify his rival Hyrcanus II:

But being afraid that Hyrcanus, who was under the guard of the Parthians, might have his Kingdom restored to him by the multitude, [Antigonus] 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.

In another passage of Josephus, Bellum 1.13.10 §270, the same episode is described differently:

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.

So we have a Hasmonean priest mutilating the ears of his predecessor and rival, precisely in order to disqualify him from the high priesthood.

Daube and Rostovtzeff point out that the same action was taken by Yohanan ben Zakkai, a rabbi from the 2nd Temple period, roughly contemporary with the apostle Paul. The Tosephta (t.Par. 3.8) records “the Sadducean High Priest arrived in a state of cleanness, contrary to Pharisaic principles. Johanan ben Zaccai performed the traiditonal rite of the Elders and indeed displayed exceptional courtesy: ‘How fit are you for the High Priesthood!’ Then, however, when the High Priest came up from immersion, with all preparations complete to deal with the red heifer, the Rabbi slit his ear, thus disabling him from cultic service.” (Daube, CWDD 1, 431)

What Peter did to Malchus was by no means random. Both the targeting of the high priest’s servant and the type of injury inflicted were quite deliberate. “It was a very well-chosen insult. The wound was of a type which, had it been inflicted on the servant’s master, would have forced him from office. And there can have been nobody who did not understand.” (Daube, 434)

This observation leads to a further detail: as Rostovtzeff notes, there is variation among the words used by the four gospels for the wounded body part of Malchus: Luke calls it τὸ οὖς; Matthew, τὸ ὠτίον; while Mark and John use the term τὸ ὠτάριον. The two latter terms are diminutives, and Horst (TDNT 5.558-559) notes that, though they simply mean “ear” in much Hellenistic Greek, some scholars have seen them as words for the earlobe. There is also a distinct Aramaic term,
ˀdnwny, found as a variant of ˀdn in the Peshitta to capture this Greek diminutive. (It is likely that this is also the part of the ear that would also have been pierced with an awl for the ritual in Ex. 21:6.)

It was not, then, a random slashing, but the targeting of a very small, but ritually significant body part, clearly communicating intended insult to the high priest himself.

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