This is a brief and partial commentary on the events of John 18 up to the arrest of Jesus on the Mt. of Olives. My focus here is on interpreting the historical and cultural context, not so much on discussing theology. Much of this is copied verbatim from a post I published in April 2013 and updated as late as September 2022 (Easter Myths, part 3). I would suggest you read it here, instead, for additional context on Jesus’ arrest.
From the Sacrifices to the Garden
1 After Yeshua had said all this [the prayer of John 17], he went out with his talmidim [disciples] across the stream that flows in winter through the Kidron Valley, to a spot where there was a grove of trees; and he and his talmidim went into it.
—John 18:1 CJB
This is the early morning hours of Friday, Nissan 15.
On the previous day, many thousands of sheep and goats (lambs and kids, in fact) had been sacrificed in the Temple. Two of Jesus’ disciples (probably Peter and John) had been sent into town as representatives of the group. Their first task was to rent a banquet facility (“The Upper Room). Then they took the lamb that they had selected days earlier to the Temple. When their turn came, they were led to the “Killing floor” in the inner temple court—the “Court of Israel”. After a “laying on of hands”, one of them held the lamb while the other slit its throat and drained its blood into a gold or silver bowl held by a priest who was overseeing them. After the sacrifice was complete, they carried the lamb to an adjacent butchering area north of the altar. It had to be skinned and cut into parts. Certain parts were given to the Priests and Levites. Some waste pieces were thrown onto the altar for burning. The remainder of the good meat was wrapped in the skins and carried off to be cooked for the Seder that evening.
The Seder meals began in houses and meeting places all over Jerusalem after the arrival of sundown was announced by a shofar (ram’s horn) blast from the “Place of Trumpeting” on the southwest corner of Royal Porch, where the Muslim Al-Aqsa Mosque stands today. Many of Jesus’ last words to His disciples were spoken at His final Seder and are recorded in John 13–16. The individual Seders generally lasted until around midnight, when all the celebrants would gather on the streets and rooftops to sing the Hallel psalms together. Finishing this, Jesus and His disciples walked out of the city gate, crossed the Kidron Valley and gathered on the Mt. of Olives, at Gat Shimonim (Gethsemane), an olive garden with an olive press.
The Garden and the Threat
2 Now Y’hudah, who was betraying him, also knew the place; because Yeshua had often met there with his talmidim.
3 So Y’hudah went there, taking with him a detachment of Roman soldiers and some Temple guards provided by the head cohanim and the P’rushim; they carried weapons, lanterns and torches.
4 Yeshua, who knew everything that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Whom do you want?”
5 “Yeshua from Natzeret,” they answered. He said to them, “I AM.” Also standing with them was Y’hudah, the one who was betraying him.
6 When he said, “I AM,” they went backward from him and fell to the ground.
7 So he inquired of them once more, “Whom do you want?” and they said, “Yeshua from Natzeret.”
8 “I told you, ‘I AM,’” answered Yeshua, “so if I’m the one you want, let these others go.”
9 This happened so that what he had said might be fulfilled, “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”
—John 18:2–9 CJB
Many commentators take the term “detachment of Roman Soldiers” to refer to a full cohort of 420 or 600 soldiers. The Greek (σπεῖραν) allows this meaning, but more generally, it can refer to an indeterminately sized band of men organized for some purpose. Given the total situation, it makes no military sense to me to assume that it was more than what we would term a “squad”, a handful of soldiers detailed in support of the Temple guards that the Sanhedrin dispatched to collect Jesus. My reasoning is as follows:
First, it was Passover night! There were as many as a million Jews in Jerusalem for the occasion, they’d just had a long, grueling day of milling around the Temple and getting ready for the week, including the sacrifices earlier in the day, and more sacrifices ahead on each day of the week; family ceremonies such as the formal elimination of hametz (leaven) from all Jewish homes that day; and elaborate preparations for the meals, feasts and ceremonies ahead. The Seders themselves adjourned late at night, and most folks were by then exhausted and anxious to go to bed and be ready for the next day of celebration.
The Roman garrison had been beefed up for the occasion. All hands were on deck, because there had been, in fact, unrest all over Israel, and many men would potentially be drunk and boisterous that night. Jesus was not the only threat. The Roman leaders were concerned about open rebellion, not about Jewish blasphemy.
Then consider Gat Shimonim (Gethsemane); it wasn’t a forest, it was a cultivated olive garden, with trees spaced out for sunlight and maintenance, and underbrush kept to a minimum for gathering, transporting and processing olives. There is a full moon every Nisan 15 (by design), so the garden is well lit, and surely many of the people in the garden had torches, as well. What went on that night was in full view of the city and Temple walls. A large number of civilians congregating in the garden would have dictated a need for more troops, but they were there at hand and could be easily summoned. Later that day, Pilate, the Governor, would show little alarm concerning the Nazarene and His band. The Roman military hierarchy there reporting to him would be cautious but would have no reason to make a “show of force”, and reacting to a popular rabbi in such a way would have been an unwise irritant to the people of the city.
No, the show belonged to the Sanhedrin, and between them and Judas, they had a good idea what to expect. The High Priest sent a detachment of Jewish Temple guards, and he himself was probably only represented by his servant, Melech (Malchus). The Romans were a small but professional escort delegation, probably more concerned with making sure the Temple guards didn’t overstep. It was probably Malchus or a senior guard who spoke to Jesus, and the Romans probably never drew their swords, even after the minor scuffle that followed.
10 ¶ Then Shim‘on Kefa, who had a sword, drew it and struck the slave of the cohen hagadol, cutting off his right ear; the slave’s name was Melekh.
11 Yeshua said to Kefa, “Put your sword back in its scabbard! This is the cup the Father has given me; am I not to drink it?”
—John 18:10–11 CJB
According to Luke 22:38, two of the disciples were carrying “swords” that night. One of them obviously was Peter, the other probably his brother Andrew. It is unlikely that either was carrying a military sword; both were fishermen by trade and would be accustomed to carrying knives for tending nets and lines, and for gutting fish. The Greek term used here is machaira, which probably designated a double-edged knife or dirk, a shorter version of a sword design that had been introduced into Israel by the Phoenician Sea Peoples.
Nor do I think Peter was a trained fighter. We know he was impetuous, but was he an idiot? Did he think he could mow down a band of trained Roman soldiers and Temple guards? Was he distraught and attempting to commit “suicide by Roman soldier”? I think that if he had attempted a frontal assault in Jesus’ protection, he would have been reflexively cut to pieces before he drew a drop of blood, and quite likely the slaughter would have extended to the other apostles present, as well. Indeed, there is no textual evidence that any of the soldiers found it expedient to bare their blades.
What I think really happened was that Peter took advantage of the soldiers’ preoccupation with Jesus, slipped around behind Malchus—his intended target—and deliberately sliced off his ear. Why Malchus? Because he was the High Priest’s servant and right-hand man. The High Priest, if he was even there, was protected by bodyguards, but likely nobody was concerned for Malchus. Harming the High Priest would have resulted in quick execution. By merely defacing Malchus, though, Peter was insulting and effectively crippling the High Priest and, to some extent, the Sanhedrin. Why an ear, of all things? Because Peter wasn’t a killer, and taking an ear did the job! Priests, Levites and all other Temple officials were required to be more or less physically perfect. With a missing ear, he would be considered deformed and unfit for Temple service.
Yes, Peter was impulsive. But he was also smart.
So the detachment of Roman soldiers and their captain, together with the Temple Guard of the Judeans, arrested Yeshua, …
—John 18:12 CJB