Mike Tyson shocked the world when he savagely bit off a one-inch piece of cartilage from Evander Holyfield’s right ear in a boxing match at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 28, 1997. While we can all (vainly) hope he is the last person in history to resort to ear amputation to make a point, he most certainly is not the first.
Around 40 BC, Mattathias Antigonus, the Hasmonean leader, rebelled against Herod the Great. After he was captured, he was brought before John Hyrcanus, the high priest at the time. He had been appointed by Herod the Great and was largely considered to be a corrupt instrument of the hated, illegitimate king. Antigonus didn’t have many resources left at his disposal, but he was determined to make statement about the illegitimacy of the priesthood. He knew that Jewish law required the high priest to be free from physical deformity or blemish, so he waited until the perfect moment when John Hyrcanus was very near to him and…leaned forward and bit off his ear. (Josephus, Jewish Wars, 1.13.9)
This story was most certainly legendary among the Jews who longed to be free from both the oppression of Rome and the corrupt priesthood who had grown wealthy under their protection. When Peter saw Malchus, the servant of the high priest, leading the band of men who had come to arrest Jesus there is little doubt he knew exactly how to make his opinion known about the illegitimacy of the arrest.
“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)” John 18:10
The mental picture painted in the western mind is almost comical. We see Peter draw a large, Roman type sword from a sheath at his belt, panic, flop it about and accidentally cut off Malchus’ ear. It is not exactly heroic.
But the western picture is erroneous. The word for “sword” here is macharia which indicates it was a “short sword”, more of a dagger or knife, really. Most importantly, we must remember that Peter was an experienced fisherman who was skilled with a knife. When he amputated Malchus’ ear, it was no bumbling accident. Josephus tells us the high priest used servants like Malchus to serve as his representative, especially when the work to be undertaken was on the shady side. (Josephus, Ant. 20.8.8) When Peter slipped his macharia from the folds of his robe and sliced off the man’s ear, no one present missed the inference.
But Jesus had his sights on a higher calling. He admonished Peter to put is sword away and healed Malchus. The act free Malchus to continue to serve if he saw fit, but there is no doubt he had much to consider after his remarkable experience. Incidentally, Jesus’ healing had another purpose. It saved Peter from the dire punishment that would have awaited him for the assault, fulfilling Christ’s promise that he would protect the little band of men until the very end.
“This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.” (John 18:9)