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The Servant of the Priest

“Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus” (John 18.10).

The occurrence is recorded in detail by all four of the Evangelists: they appear to have invested it with some degree of importance. John even takes care to preserve the servant’s name. It seems so irrelevant an addition to the story that one wonders if there is more hidden beneath the surface than appears at first sight. It was in all probability the Temple guard under the control of the High Priest, together with a party of Roman soldiers under their own centurion, which set out to arrest Jesus. Without doubt the High Priest’s personal representative would accompany them to ensure that all went according to plan. Peter, the impulsive, would quite naturally pick on this official as the first object of attack in his unavailing defence of his Master. The subsequent action of Jesus is the last of His miracles of which we have any record before His death. Malchus was probably the last human being to feel the kindly touch of those life-giving hands and to experience the thrill of creative vitality run through his body as the healing power flowed into him and made him whole. But would this be the only reason for the prominence given to this apparently quite trivial happening?

Did Malchus become a believer as the result of his experience? Was his name preserved by John because in later years the Christian assemblies had been familiar with the presence of a man who had once gone out to assist at the arrest of Jesus of Nazareth and had ended, like Saul of Tarsus, by becoming a devoted follower?

There is a hint in one of the early Christian writings that seems to indicate that the Christians of the first century knew more about this matter than we do today. Paul tells us in 1 Cor.15.7 that our Lord, after His resurrection, “appeared unto James”, his own natural half-brother, the one who became the head of the infant Church at Jerusalem, presided over the historic conference recorded in Acts 15 and wrote the Epistle bearing his name. Paul adds no detail of that appearance. He speaks as though it was a story already well known to his readers, as doubtless it was. In the document known as the Gospel to the Hebrews which is thought to have been written about seventy years after the Crucifixion and therefore about forty years after Paul’s death, the story then current among the Christians as to Jesus’ appearance to James is given in greater detail. With it is a casual allusion that may constitute a link with the story of Malchus.

“Now the Lord, when He had given the linen cloth unto the servant of the priest, went unto James and appeared to him.” Who was this “servant of the priest” who, according to Christian tradition. was present at the tomb when the resurrection took place? It is recalled that the first witnesses of the resurrection were the members of the guard. who actually beheld the rolling away of the stone,  a feat which was already completed when the women arrived on the scene. (Mark 16.4). These keepers were not Pilate’s soldiers, but were drawn from the Temple guard, as is evident by a comparison of Pilate’s reply, “You have a guard of soldiers, make it as secure as you can” (Matt.27.65), with the action of the guard in reporting the sequel to the priests and not Pilate (Matt.28.11). What is more likely then, that Malchus, the servant of the High Priest, present at the arrest in Gethsemane, should also be present with – perhaps in charge of – the guard at the tomb? And if this is so. what must have been his feelings, when in the very early hours of that morning, the ground heaved and the rocks shook, the great stone closing the tomb, rolled hack, and Malchus and his men, confronted with an altogether unexpected and awe-inspiring sight – “for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men”? (Matt.28.4 RSV).

Whether Jesus Himself appeared to the guard before their precipitate flight, and before the women arrived at the tomb, the Gospels do not say but the incident related in the “Gospel to the Hebrews” may enshrine a verbal testimony which has not been incorporated in the canonical books. Is it possible that this man who suffered at Peter’s hands and was miraculously healed by Jesus was also a witness of the resurrection, knew in a flash that He had indeed triumphed over death, and in the wonder of that meeting became a believer?

Who was it that saw the mighty angel, glorious in appearance. roll back the stone? (Matt.28.2). Not the women – the stone was already rolled back when they arrived. This particular piece of testimony must have come from one of the guards or from one who was present with them. And whose testimony was afterwards accepted by the infant Church and incorporated into Matthew’s Gospel.

Is it the truth of the matter then. that Malchus became a Christian and, although his testimony to the Resurrection is not preserved in the Gospels, something of the wonderful thing that happened to him on that wonderful morning has been preserved in the traditions of the early Church?

AOH

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