Lend Me Your Ear: Malchus and “The Bible” on the History Channel (Skinner)

MalchusOn Easter afternoon I was flipping through the channels and came across the series “The Bible” on the History Channel. I had watched the first few episodes when they aired last year, but never actually watched the episode in which Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. I was interested to see that Malchus–a character who appears by name only in John 18:10, had a recurring role as the trusted servant of the high priest. The one thing Malchus is known for is being on the receiving end of a sword wielded by one of Jesus’ disciples. He never even speaks. As happens in much of the series, the character called “Malchus” is a conflation of the various accounts that speak of a “servant of the high priest” who is struck on the ear by a disciple in the garden of Gethsemane (along with some additional screenwritten material that doesn’t appear in the NT). I was paying close attention to how this would be treated because I recently wrote a brief chapter on the character Malchus for this book.

The story of the high priest’s servant having his ear severed appears, with minor variations in all four canonical gospels. In Mark 14 we read, “Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.” The account in Matthew 26 departs little from Mark. Luke alone tells us that Jesus paused to heal the man’s ear (cf. Luke 22:51)–a detail the episode made sure to include. Only in John’s account is Malchus given a name and Peter identified as the perpetrator. One interesting detail that Mark and John share is the use of the double diminutive ὠτάριον (outer ear) rather than the typical οὖϛ (ear) or simple diminutive, ὠτίον (which also refers to the outer ear and is shared by Matthew and Luke). Some have argued that the choice to use this term is intentional, and refers to a portion of the outer ear or possibly the earlobe, though BDAG notes that it was used interchangeably with οὖϛ (ear) in later Greek.

So….armed with this (admittedly) extraneous information, I was watching closely to see how this would be depicted. I must say that I was surprised (and a little pleased) to see Peter slash Malchus across the ear, leaving a large wound on the outer part of the ear rather than having his ear hanging by a thread.


Can We Still Use “Embarrassment” in Some Meaningful Way? (Skinner)

MulletAnyone who reads my posts on this blog (or my previous blog) knows that I have been largely won over by the movement to dispense with the Jesus criteria. However, I’m not completely ready to jettison every potentially good lesson (cultural, literary, historical, etc.) that may have been spawned by discussions about the criteria. I have always been fond of the criterion of embarrassment because I felt that, among other things, it helped us trace historical developments in the gospel traditions. While I think Rafael Rodriguez has made a very strong case that we cannot use this as a means of getting back to the historical Jesus, I’m wondering if we can’t use the concept of “embarrassment” to help us better understand the evolution of certain teachings within the canonical gospel traditions? Let me turn to the paradigmatic example: Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

It has often been said that Jesus’ baptism by John was a source of embarrassment to the early church that is subsequently explained away as the tradition evolves. I think there is something to this, though I don’t necessarily think it “proves” the baptism is historical.

In the Gospel of Mark, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:4) and shortly thereafter, the audience learns that Jesus comes to him and is baptized (1:9). I like to tell my students that after this event, there is no parenthetical note to the audience which reads: “Dear followers of Jesus, do not be dismayed by this turn of events. Jesus was sinless from the foundation of the world. This merely took place as an object lesson for future disciples.” Instead, Mark, simply unaware of later Christological trajectories that would proclaim Jesus as “divine” (e.g. John 1, Hebrews 1, Colossians 1, etc.), proclaims something that was not AT THE TIME embarrassing. Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ baptism only becomes a source of potential embarrassment as the early church engages in sustained theological reflection on the life, vocation, and death of Jesus. It is hard for me to read Mark as an autonomous narrative and not feel that later traditions try to explain (Matthew) or even explain away (John), Jesus’ baptism. For Matthew and John the tradition seemed to be a source of embarrassment, even if Mark had no problem with it.

Recently in one of his podcasts, Mark Goodacre took aim at the criterion of embarrassment, commenting that the early church simply would not have retained something that would have been embarrassing. While I agree with much that he says there, I’d like to suggest a qualification to his point. Many of us make choices at a point in time that is not AT THAT MOMENT, embarrassing, but may prove to be at a later time. To illustrate this, we only need to think back to some of the hairstyles or clothing choices of our younger days. When many of us see photos of our youth we cringe at the sight of ourselves. When I was 21 years old, I had both ears pierced with big gold hoops and hair down to my shoulders. I recently saw a picture of myself from that period and I couldn’t believe how ridiculous I looked. At the time, I thought I looked “cool.” Today I look at myself and wonder, “what was I thinking” (and also, “what was everyone else thinking?”).

My point is this: We often have no way of knowing in the present what we might regret or be embarrassed by in the future. So, perhaps things that were embarrassing to the early church did find their way into the NT, and while we can’t necessarily use those to demonstrate the historicity of a given saying or action in the NT, we can use them to evaluate the historical development of traditions within the canonical gospels. I’m interested in your thoughts on this….


From Text to Community

I have posted previously about my concern over the astronomical leaps some scholars make in identifying the Sitz im Leben behind a given confessional community in the first two Christian centuries. It seems to me that many scholars reject a great deal in a given text but then go on to create fantastic theories of events behind the text and then present those theories with utter assurance of their results. This morning I came across this pertinent quote from Halvor Moxnes on the Gospel of Luke:

How can we move from the text of Luke’s Gospel to the social situation of his first readers? This problem in  Gospel research has not yet been solved. . . .The Lukan text creates a narrative world, and it is this world we examine as we analyze the social relations, ethos, and symbolic universe of Luke. Still, this does not mean that we now have a ‘window’ that opens onto the social situation of Luke’s historical community” (The Social Context of Luke’s Community,” Interpretation 49 [1994]: 379).

One would think that such a straightforward concept would be self-evident, but it is not. And, what Moxnes says is not just true of Lukan studies. Those working in Synoptic, Johannine, and Thomasine studies could benefit from such a measured agnosticism about their community-related conclusions.