Peter Defends Jesus in the Garden

At the Last Supper, Jesus predicted the disciples would all fall away, even Peter. Peter, as the leader of the disciples, denies this vehemently! Jesus declares to Peter that not only will he deny him, he will do so three times before the night is out! Jesus says Peter would disown him in only a few hours, not dawn. Westerners miss this since we start the day at midnight and usually associate a rooster crowing with dawn. The rooster was used to mark the changes in watches during the night, thus it is only a few hours until Jesus is arrested.

Malcus earPeter’s statement might be a reaction to a ‘slur” on his loyalty. Peter is willing to fight to defend the Lord, he is ready to be killed defending the Lord, he is completely loyal. Remember Peter is the first disciple to grasp who Jesus was, in Mark 8 it was Peter who declared that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Even though at that time he understood properly, he does not understand here that the Messiah was going to suffer and die, he will defend the Lord, and die by his side. But that is not the plan, the Messiah is to be abandoned. Peter is speaking as a representative of the disciples, after he speaks, all the disciples join in with him in declaring their loyalty.

Yet when the time for action arrives, Peter does attempt to defend Jesus and wounds a servant (John 18:8-11). When the soldiers arrive to arrest Jesus, Peter attacks the servant of the High Priest, cutting off his ear with a short dagger (μάχαιρα). This servant, Malchus, is named in John’s Gospel, although he is unknown to us. The name appears in inscriptions, although almost exclusively for Gentiles and Nabatean Arabs (BDAG).

Why attack the servant of the High Priest? It is possible he was leading the group to the garden to arrest Jesus. Malchus was not a slave carrying a torch for the people in charge, he was the personal representative of the High Priest. JoAnn Watson points out “The servants of the high priest were known to perform the underhanded dealings of the high priest” (“Malchus (Person),” ABD 4:487).

It is likely that this is a badly aimed attack rather than an attempt to maim the man so he was no longer permitted to enter the Temple. Maiming priests by cutting off their ears is well known in the Second Temple Period. Rather than a blundering attempt to save Jesus, this may have been a calculated attack on the man in charge of the arrest. Rather than killing him, Peter humiliated him and rendered him useless as a servant of the High Priest.

Peter’s actions are sometimes dismissed as laughable, but they represent the actions of the most zealous of Jesus’ followers. Jesus wanted to protect them by giving himself up to the arresting guards, but Peter seizes the moment and “starts the revolution.” Even if this is a colossal failure, it is better than the response of the rest of the disciples! Jesus orders Peter to put his sword away, telling everyone that he intends to “drink the cup the Father has given him,” is a reference to the cup of God’s wrath, the crucifixion which he is about to face.

Peter is therefore not a bumbler who can’t do anything right, but the most faithful of Jesus’ disciples and seems willing to attack an important and potentially powerful member of the High Priest’s household.

3 thoughts on “Peter Defends Jesus in the Garden

  1. This entire scene, like that of the “cleansing” incident, is a fascinating puzzle. I doubt we can ever discern the reality of these (and others) with the story-creation and agenda-driven nature of the Gospel texts.

    But there is an impossible mix here, as in the Resurrection accounts, for the harmonizers who want to equally honor and validate all the accounts…. If John’s acct. is to be trusted, then Peter would have been highly unlikely to have even escaped arrest… with supposedly a whole detachment (at least a few hundred) of Roman troops plus Temple guards, well armed… the idea of overwhelming force, knowing (rightly, per the Gospels) that Jesus’ small band WAS armed and might resist (right, again). If Malchus was indeed at the front of the group (which makes sense), and Peter lunged or swiped at him, probably aiming for a fatal head blow, how is it the large contingency did not arrest at least him along with Jesus… even if the others drew back and didn’t resist? I can’t see, given the Romans’ MO, how they’d have let Peter either “slide” as non-threatening, or quickly slip away, given they must have quickly surrounded the group…. they weren’t new to this kind of stuff!

    Granted, it’s possible.

    But then, how could Peter quickly re-appear where no doubt some of the same, or recently-informed guards were, around a fire (making at least some light, as there had been from torches just prior) and not be recognized and/or questioned by authorities beyond the alleged girl? (And arrested at that point!)

    It all just doesn’t cohere. And if it were the only aspect of the entire Passion narratives to be such, maybe “ignorable”. But there are so many, many other conflict points and various signs that most of this is dramatic story-creation (with points being made.)

    I don’t really concern myself with trying to figure out what really DID happen, but the mix of features, especially that of recording Jesus’ checking and instructing to have swords, recording some kind of armed resistance… all shows that the other Gospel picture of a very pacifist Jesus also developed cannot and should not (historically and in its theological implications) be taken alone. The full story cannot allow putting fully aside the revolutionary and “by force” (whether immediately, by the disciples, or in expectation of the people’s and God’s actions in response to their initiative) aspect of what Jesus saw his mission as. Nor can it, BTW, endorse any modern… American or Israeli, etc… use of force to “restore the Kingdom to Israel”! (I personally lean much stronger to the pacifist side… believing the times justifying either personal or state-sponsored violence are rare… much rarer than in our domestic or foreign policy of basically all of U.S. history.)

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  2. What were the other disciples doing at the time when Peter attacks the servant of the high priest? It almost seems that they are sitting back and allowing Jesus to be taken. Is this out of revelation that Jesus is the Messiah and that He must do this in order for the world to be restored to right standing with God? It does not seem to be the case as they would not even attend the crucifixion, neither did they even expect Jesus to raise from the dead after three days (John 20:20). Peter is the only disciple who is recorded to do anything to defend Jesus from being taken.
    This is just a thought, but could it be that Peter’s action of cutting off the ear of the representative of the high priest was a very calculated attack. If Malchus was no longer able to enter the temple, he would no longer have authority. If Malchus no longer had the authority of the high priest, they would not be able to take Jesus with them. Peter plans to cut off the ear in a strategic attempt to save Jesus from being taken. Jesus recognizing what just happened steps in and heals the man’s ear (Luke 22:51). The high priest’s representative received his authority back, and Jesus could walk into his crucifixion.

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