Can it be true that Jesus’ followers were armed when Jesus was arrested, and that they put up a fight to defend him, as indicated in the Gospels?  Did Jesus’ disciples believe in armed engagement with the enemy?  Did Jesus???


[[RECALL, in case you haven’t been reading each of the posts in this thread:  I’ve been trying to show how experts in the phenomenon of “memory” can help us reflect on the Gospel traditions about Jesus.  Memory is a much wider and more expansive phenomenon than most people imagine.  Memories involve what we’ve done, what we’ve experienced, what we’ve learned, what we’ve heard, and what we simply recall about the past whether we ourselves experienced it and whether our recollections are just personal or collectively shared by a broader swath of our community (e.g., our “memories” of the Clinton presidency or of the Civil War)  .

When seen in this broader sense, the Gospels contain some “historically true” memories of Jesus but also some distorted or fake memories.  In the current thread of posts I’ve been discussing key passages of the Passion narratives of the Gospels.  All these are taken from my book that discusses such things in large, Jesus Before the Gospels (HarperOne, 2016).]]


Swords in the Garden

In all four Gospels, at least one of Jesus’ followers is armed when he is arrested.   In the Synoptics, this unnamed follower draws his sword and strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear (see Mark 14:47).  In John’s Gospel we learn that the sword-bearing disciple was Peter (John 18: 10).   Jesus puts a halt to his follower’s violent inclination, however, and humbly submits to his arrest.  In Luke’s version he does so only after healing the ear (Luke 22:51).

From the eighteenth century until the present day

(see my discussions of Reimarus in chapter 1 and Aslan in chapter 2), there have been scholars, and non-scholars, who have thought that this incident in the garden is both altogether plausible and indicative of the character of Jesus’ message and mission.  In this opinion, the incident must be historical for a rather simple reason.  What later Christian would make up such a story?   When Christians were telling and retelling their accounts of Jesus’ life in the years after his death, of course they would want him to appear entirely palatable to their audiences.   Nothing would make Jesus more palatable in Roman eyes than the view that he was a peace-loving promoter of non-violence, not a violent insurrectionist against Rome.  If Jesus allowed his followers to be armed, however, that would suggest he was in favor of them carrying out acts of violence.   If later Christians would not make up the idea that Jesus’ promoted violence, then no one could make up the idea that his followers were armed.   Following this logic, the story of the sword in the garden is not an invented tradition but a historical fact.   Jesus’ followers, therefore, were armed.  Moreover, if they were armed, so this reasoning goes, then Jesus must have anticipated and even promoted an armed rebellion.

There’s a good deal of sense to this view and it is easy to see why it is attractive.  Still, at the end of the day I don’t find it convincing.  This is for two reasons, one that is obvious but ultimately unpersuasive, and the other that is less obvious but absolutely (to my mind) compelling.   The obvious objection is that throughout all of our traditions, Jesus is regularly and consistently portrayed as a teacher of non-violence.   “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Love your enemies.”  “Love those who persecute you.”  “Blessed are the peacemakers.”   “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars.”  “The one who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”   Throughout independent accounts of Jesus’ life he is shown to promote loving and submissive non-violence.  Doesn’t that squelch the possibility that Jesus favored armed rebellion and that his followers were armed?

The reason that argument is not totally persuasive is that Christians may have wanted to portray Jesus as non-violent, and remembered him as non-violent, for reasons for their own.  Christians themselves were often opposed by the authorities and would have wanted to stress that they were no threat and no danger.  In their own defense they argued that they were peace-loving people.  But how could they really be peace-loving if they worshiped and strove to emulate a person crucified for insurrection against the state?  The Christian response could have been to emphasize that Jesus execution was a complete miscarriage of justice.  In this view he was a peace-loving rabbi who urged a pacifist message of non-violence.  In theory the Christians could have put this message – extensively – on his lips.

Still, the abundant number of such pacifist statements on the lips of Jesus should give us pause and make us suspect they might well represent accurate memories of his teachings, especially in light of the second reason for thinking that Jesus’ followers did not put up an armed defense of him when the crowd came to arrest him.  I think this reason is absolutely compelling.  If Jesus’ followers tried to defend him with a sword, or more than one sword, why weren’t they arrested as well?  If the problem with Jesus is that he was about to lead an armed rebellion, then surely his followers would have been as much of a threat as he, especially if they start whacking away at people’s ears with their swords.

I don’t think Jesus’ followers were armed in the garden when Jesus was arrested.  Why then do we have discussions of the followers’ swords in the various Gospel accounts?   My sense is that the sword attack is a story that was invented by an early Christian (either consciously created or simply generated as someone happened to tell the story and unconsciously elaborated it) who was trying to illustrate Jesus’ teaching, that anyone who “lives by the sword dies by the sword.”

This view will require a short explanation.  Many of Jesus’ best sayings in the Gospels may indeed go back to him:  “Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath”; “Those who are well have no need of a physician but only those who are sick”; “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country.”   A large number of these great one-liners are delivered at the end of stories for which the sayings are particularly apt.  It has long been recognized that, as happens even in modern contexts, sometimes a story will be told in order to set the stage for the delivery of a great, climactic statement.

I think that may have happened in the case of the story of the sword in the garden.   Originally there was a saying, possibly something Jesus actually said, about swords and not wielding them:  “the one who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”   As that saying was rehearsed over the years, there emerged a story that illustrated the point that Jesus’ followers should not arm themselves with swords.  This story was retold until it became the Gospel account that someone wrongly used the sword to attack Jesus’ enemies.  By way of contrast, Jesus himself passively submitted to being arrested.  If I’m right, then the sword fight in the garden is a distorted memory.  If it were an accurate memory it is very hard to see why the disciples were not arrested.

The reason the event was later remembered in a way that was not historical is deeply significant.  Later Christian storytellers wanted to emphasize that even though they worshiped one who had been crucified for crimes against Rome, he decidedly did not urge a political rebellion.  Moreover, they themselves did not oppose the ruling authorities, they did not believe in violence against those in charge, they did not believe in taking up arms in opposition to the state.  During Jesus’ life, some of his followers may have thought that this is what it meant to be among his disciples.  But Jesus was quite clear and explicit. That is not what it meant to follow him.  Following him meant living in peace, both with one another and with the ruling authorities.  Urging or wanting a violent uprising would only lead to death.   Armed rebellion was not the way of either Jesus or his true disciples.

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2023-06-22T09:51:14-04:00June 20th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, Historical Jesus, Memory Studies|

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  1. jscheller June 20, 2023 at 8:46 am

    Bart, as always, your insights are on the cutting edge.

  2. idglenn99 June 20, 2023 at 12:14 pm

    A very thought provoking post. Does Mark’s story of the naked man in the garden and Peter’s trepidation regarding association with Jesus not suggest an attempt was made at a larger arrest, or imply a threat of arrest for the disciples?

    • BDEhrman June 27, 2023 at 9:50 am

      They certainly show that the disciples were probably terrified (in the view of later story tellers), and may support they idea that they did indeed get out of Dodge right away.

  3. mwbaugh June 20, 2023 at 2:55 pm

    This is a very persuasive analysis and it makes a great deal of sense to me. I wonder what you make of the passage that precedes it in Luke. In Luke 22:35-38, Jesus says, “…the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one.”

    I’ve heard 2nd amendment enthusiasts say this passage means that Jesus wanted Christians to be armed. I don’t think that’s it. Could the passage just be there to set up the scene in the garden a few verses later?

    One interpretation I’ve heard is that Jesus is telling the disciples to get ready for a long (metaphorical) journey. Bag and purse make sense in this context and a sword would be for protection against wild animals and bandits. I like the idea of this at a metaphor which the disciples took too literally, but don’t know how likely it is. What are your thoughts?

    • BDEhrman June 27, 2023 at 9:55 am

      I think teh passage could be used to argue that every American household should have at least one sharp knife.

      Seriously, I think the earliest Christians were living lives of conflict and opposition, even though they were supposed to be following the ultimate peacemaker. They began explaining that this would not have caught Jesus by surprise. He knew that it would be “war out there” after he died (they began to claim), and so said “get ready for it.” It doesn’t mean he meant for them literally to start attacking their opponents with swords, any more than when before my last debate a friend of mind said, You’re gonna slaughter him…. (ny opponent’s friend probably said the same thing to him…)

      • tsiappoutas January 23, 2024 at 4:47 pm

        It’s interesting what Jesus replied when they asked him about the knives. Luke 22:38 in the original (SBLGNT) 38 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν· Κύριε, ἰδοὺ μάχαιραι ὧδε δύο. ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Ἱκανόν ἐστιν. He basically told them ‘Enough said’, as in ‘you don’t get my point, i’m not talking about real knives, i’m just telling you it’s going to be tough out there, be prepared’ (like Prof. Ehrman suggested above).
        If he wanted to tell them that the two knives are enough, he would say ἱκαναί εἰσιν, feminine plural, like the μάχαιραι. The way it’s translated as ‘enough’ or ‘it is enough’ can mislead some readers to think that the two knives were enough. Which would give more than enough reason to pro-gun people to load up (‘if carrying is good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!’).
        And he was, of course, talking to 21st century Americans to get at least one sharp knife per household too!

  4. dabizi June 20, 2023 at 4:53 pm

    “My sense is that the sword attack is a story that was invented by an early Christian (either consciously created or simply generated as someone happened to tell the story and unconsciously elaborated it) who was trying to illustrate Jesus’ teaching, that anyone who ‘lives by the sword dies by the sword.'”

    Good grief! This explanation is as strained as any i have ever heard by any pastor about a biblical story that seems odd.

    If the later storyteller was trying to illustrate that anyone who lives by the sword dies by the sword, then it is funny that whoever wielded the sword in the garden did not in fact die by the sword. Weird way for the “later storyteller” to make a point.
    Your explanation does not quite work.

    • BDEhrman June 27, 2023 at 9:55 am

      I see you’re enjoying my exegesis generally. 🙂

  5. wbhiggins June 20, 2023 at 5:29 pm

    Professor Ehrman. In reality did the Temple guards have any authority to arrest Jesus outside of the Temple Mount? I would think it would have been within their authority to detain Jesus for overturning the money changers tables on the Temple grounds, but they chose not to, odd. If a Jew would have seen his neighbor Jew working on the Sabbath and reported it, would or could the Temple guards go out to his house and arrest him? Did they have jail cells on the Temple grounds for such infractions? Was there such a thing as a non-practicing Jew in 1st century Israel? If so, how were they treated by the Temple authorities?

    • BDEhrman June 27, 2023 at 9:55 am

      I’m afraid we don’t really know about any of this. (At least I don’t!)

  6. Upozi June 20, 2023 at 6:08 pm

    Josephus says that the Essenes, who were honoured for their peacefulness carried weapons for protection from bandits so carrying a sword might not indicate violence against the state. On the other hand the apostles sent out to preach don’t carry weapons. Peter is also characterised as impulsive and a bit of a loose cannon. Maybe the story is aimed at Peter. Except he is only named by John.

  7. TomTerrific June 20, 2023 at 8:09 pm

    Was Paul a citizen of Rome?

    I was told so in a Methodist SS class many, many years ago. In one of your Misquoting Jesus podcasts you said he wasn’t a Roman citizen. This citizenship meant that he was martyred by beheading rather than the usual method which was much more painful and a perk, if you will.

    • BDEhrman June 27, 2023 at 9:57 am

      The book of Acts says he was. Paul himself never says. I think it’s highly unlikely, given what we know about his socio-economic class and background.

  8. Dean June 21, 2023 at 4:50 am

    Maybe because I’m an ex-Muslim and I look at the life of Jesus through that lense, but Muhammad preached peace in Mecca until he went to Medinah where he had an army and then he began to fight back. I read the statements of Jesus about peace and turning the other cheek in the same way. Jesus wasn’t necessarily a pacifist, he was just waiting for the right time. Gandhi also preached non-violence in India but not because he was a pacifist as many believe. He just didn’t think India could defeat Britain in war. It’s just hard to believe that Jesus would’ve been a true pacifist who opposed any kind of violence when much of the Hebrew Bible is Yahweh leading the Israelites/Jews into battle.

  9. ibdabob June 22, 2023 at 12:54 am

    In Matthew 10:34 Jesus states to the disciples that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. And at the Lord’s supper (Luke 22:36-38) just before his arrest, Jesus instructed that they should sell their cloak and buy a sword and the disciples responded that they had 2 swords. It seems like these passages would be problematic in your reasoning. Your thoughts?

    • BDEhrman June 27, 2023 at 9:36 am

      Yes, those are key statments that need to be explained. For BOTH it matters what the saying means. The first appears to have been generated within the ealry Christian communities that were explaining why, if Jesus was a peacemaker, those who followed him were facing such opposition, even within their own families. jesus assures them now that this is what it’s like: his followers will be “at war” even with loved ones. I don’t think jesus himself likely said that. The second relates to it: if you’re going to defend Jesus, it’s gonna involve a fight. That doesn’t have t obe literal, of course; after my last debate someone told me that I knocked his lights out (someone probably told my opponent the same thing about me!). But in fact I didn’t lay a finger on him. In some ways what is more interesting in the Luke passage is Jesus’ response: “It is enough” Two swords to fight the mob of armed guards? What?? Jesus may be saying that the victory will come only with God’s help, cause there’s no other way for his followers to win.

  10. jmnelson June 23, 2023 at 1:57 pm

    Story inconsistent with context. The roman soldiers were armed, likely with both knives and swords. Before the ear hit the ground, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus and his followers would have been killed or severely wounded.

  11. R_Gerl June 23, 2023 at 11:52 pm

    To me, the plausibility of any of Jesus followers being arrested depends on the orders given to the arresting officer. If the high priest’s instructions to the arresting officer was “Please bring me this Galilean, I just want to talk to him to see what his intentions are” then the arresting officer, and his attendants, probably wouldn’t arrest Peter if Peter put his sword down when told to do so. But if the instructions to the arresting officers was “Please arrest this Galilean insurrectionist so that he can be executed” then the arresting officers would probably have arrested Peter and company too, even if they didn’t have swords. So even if Jesus was a pacifist, his followers could have carried swords for defensive reasons. Like killing dangerous animals as they travel by foot throughout the provinces. Or maybe Jesus did feel that his followers needed swords to serve the son of man when he arrives.

  12. RICHWEN90 June 24, 2023 at 9:19 am

    Anybody who can wield a sword, especially the sort of sword that would have been common at that time, with such accuracy and precision, to slice off an EAR without taking a big chunk of the head and some shoulder along with the ear, would have to be a super samurai! Is there any evidence that any of the disciples were highly trained and expert swordsmen?? It stuns me that anyone at all could think such a thing actually happened.

    • BDEhrman June 26, 2023 at 11:38 am

      I guess technically it doesn’t say what other damage the sword did to the poor fellow. But hopefully Jesus took care of the shoulder/arm as well. Or maybe it was one of those precision knives….

  13. Hannibal Lecter June 26, 2023 at 10:27 pm

    I wonder if there was significance to an ear instead of, say, a finger. Jesus symbolically restored the servant’s ability to hear, and possibly be saved one day, by Jesus’ messages.

    • BDEhrman June 27, 2023 at 9:46 am

      Yup, good wonder. I’ve wondered too!

  14. bsteig July 1, 2023 at 3:39 pm

    Professor Ehrman,

    I have a different opinion: Some of the Jesus followers in the garden and with the group all the wherever they went. In those days, all transactions — except those among some close friends or relatives — were “cash and carry” (what else could they be?). One of the followers carried the bag of coins, and several others had to be armed with swords and knives others to deal with those “highwaymen” who attack with the purpose of robbery. These were also the days before police existed on the roads and caravan trails.

    Bill Steigelmann

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