The Ear of a Slave: A Redaction Critical Analysis for Those Who Have an Ear to Hear

Mark 14:47 tells of a brief episode where Jesus is being arrested and an anonymous follower, wanting to defend him, cuts off the ear of a slave of the high priest. Jesus doesn’t say or do anything in response to this. Is the reader of Mark to approve of this act? Is this sort of violence acceptable? The text provides the reader with no direction on the matter. The problem is amplified in Mark as there are no explicit teachings elsewhere advocating non-violence. Perhaps the reader is to commend the zeal of the one defending Jesus? The episode of Jesus’ arrest ends with all of those who follow Jesus running away (Mark 14:50). This presumably includes the anonymous person that cut the ear off of the slave. Perhaps the example of the one wielding the sword is an example of how the disciples should have responded? Does the action of this anonymous follower suggest that Jesus might have been saved if the disciples not been cowards? Because there are no evaluative statements from either the narrator or Jesus it is impossible to say what we are to think. If the reader concludes that the one cutting off the ear was in the wrong, because there is no healing, the reader is left with no redemptive response to this act of violence. The reader is left with a story in which the action is morally ambiguous and which results in someone being permanently disabled.

This episode occurs in all three of the synoptic Gospels. (It also occurs in John, but this article will not consider John’s unique perspective on this story.) The dominant view in scholarship is that Matthew and Luke both use a copy of Mark as they write their Gospels (see “The Synoptic Problem,” Daniel Wallace). This odd episode in Mark provides an excellent opportunity to learn something about Matthew and Luke. By considering how they use Mark as a source, we can see something about what is important to them. By contrast, we can also see some of Mark’s unique features better.

What does Matthew do with this episode? Matthew adds two sayings to Mark. The first is “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). This saying removes the ambiguity that was in Mark’s version. While the reader of Mark might be uncertain whether this act of violence against this slave was morally acceptable or not, the reader of Matthew is left with no room for doubt. Violence for Matthew in not an acceptable response. Matthew 5:38-42, 43 makes the case for a non-violent response to opposition explicit. Hence, we know that this in important to Matthew. Matthew presumably did not appreciate Mark’s ambiguity and wanted to make sure important values were clearly presented. We can be forgiven if we cannot clearly say what the point of Mark 14:47 is. What does this episode accomplish in Mark? Matthew’s reader, unlike Mark’s, has a clear answer: those who seek to advance their cause through violence will themselves perish through violence – even if their cause is just.

The second saying Matthew adds (Matthew 26:53-54) removes the possible conclusion that might be drawn from Mark that Jesus needs anyone to help save him. In Matthew Jesus has access to more than 72,000 angels. Not only is the violence of the anonymous follower condemned, it is unnecessary. Jesus in Mark was a wonder worker through much of his ministry, but when it comes to the Passion narrative, he does not appear to have any unusual strength. Indeed, at times he seems overcomes by weakness (Mark 14:32-42). This may have bothered Matthew, and by adding the statement about the twelve legions of angels makes it clear that while Jesus appears to be in a position of weakness, he is not. In fact, he enters into the Passion narrative in a position of significant strength.

The arrest of Jesus in Mark “is written” (Mark 14:49b). This is another way of saying that it is destined by God. It is not a freakish aberration from the plan of God, but a central part of that plan. Here Matthew agrees with Mark. Matthew underscores Mark’s perspective by including this statement (Matthew 26.56) as well as adding an additional statement to this same effect (Matthew 26:54). 

Like Matthew, Luke develops the Markan narrative by adding material. Earlier that evening, just after the Last Supper, Luke’s Jesus asks the disciples “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They answered him, “No, not a thing.” He responds, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:35-36). Here, Jesus reminds them of the times they went out as itinerant preachers without any supplies and that they experienced no lack (Luke 9:1-6, 10:1-12). That was then, but this is now – and the situation is different. What was sufficient in the past is no longer enough. In response, the disciples realize they have two swords already and show them to Jesus, to which Jesus responds, “it is enough” (Luke 22:38). Jesus’ response is unclear, and this lack of clarity sets the stage what comes later.

When Jesus is being arrested, one of his followers asks whether they should use the swords they showed him earlier (Luke 22:49). Without waiting for an answer, one of them strikes and cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest (Luke 22:50). The reason he does this is presumably because he believed it is what Jesus wanted. He may have thought this because of what Jesus had earlier said (Luke 22:36, 38), which means Jesus is indirectly complicit: his earlier obscurity is in part to blame. Why would Luke do this? Perhaps it underscores the danger in misunderstanding the words of Jesus?

“The Betrayal of Christ,” (1596-97) by Cavalier d’Arpino

Luke’s Jesus, like Matthew’s, advocates non-violence (Luke 6:27-31). In this present scene, Luke (like Matthew) eliminates Mark’s ambiguity and has Jesus condemn the violence. Luke’s Jesus says, “No more of this!” While perhaps less pithy than Matthew, it nevertheless makes the point clear.

In neither Mark or Matthew’s Gospels does Jesus heal this unfortunate slave. Luke is presumably not satisfied with what he finds in Mark and adds a healing. Is the slave healed in Luke because Jesus is implicitly responsible for the violence?

For Matthew and Luke, Mark sets things in motion by writing a quirky episode that begs to be re-written and clarified. Matthew and Luke presumably revere Mark, or else they would not have based their own literary productions upon it as they did. However, they were also presumably troubled by Mark’s edges and ambiguities. Mark’s quirky obscurity inspired Matthew and Luke to re-write what they found.

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