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The Severed Ear

Christ Healing the Ear of Malchus, by an Unknown artist, Oil on Canvas, ca. 17th century, The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.

Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson June 12-18: Luke 22, John 18

We are told in Luke 22:49-51: “When they which were about him saw what would follow, they said unto him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword? And one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear. And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him.”

The same story is told in John 18:10-12, except that there are three differences: first, John states that it was Simon Peter who cut off the servant’s ear; second, the servant’s name was Malchus; and third, John does not mention that Christ healed the severed ear. Matthew (26:51-56) also recounts the story but adds: “‘Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?’” (v. 53) But Matthew does not mention Christ healing Malchus’ severed ear. Mark (14:46-50) also tells the story, but again, does not add the detail that the severed ear was healed.

I find this lack of mentioning Christ’s apparently last mortal miracle in Matthew, Mark, and John to be quite fascinating. Indeed, the only one to mention that Christ touched the man’s ear and healed him was Luke, who wasn’t there. Matthew and John were certainly eye witnesses to the event – at least they were present. It is possible that the chaos surrounding the event of Christ’s being taken prisoner was such that they did not actually see the healing. However, it seems quite unlikely to me that Christ’s healing Malchus’ ear would not have been of such impact that all present would have known about it. This assumption makes it even more puzzling as to why Matthew and John did not mention such a momentous miracle. Presumably, Mark was also not there, but many Biblical scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel was based on Peter’s recounting events to him. If this is true and Peter was the one who sliced off the ear, it is even more astounding that Mark failed to mention the miracle of the ear being re-attached.

If we had been eye-witnesses to Christ’s arrest, what would we have seen? All four Gospel accounts use exactly the same words: “cut off his right ear.” None of them said that the ear was cut into or that it was still attached by a piece of skin. It was “cut off.” One must assume that being cut off, the severed ear fell to the ground. Luke says that Jesus “…touched his ear, and healed him.” He does not say that Jesus picked up the ear from the ground and put it back into place. Such an act would have been very difficult as both Matthew (26:50) and Mark (14:46) stated that the soldiers “…laid hands on Jesus, and took him.” If Christ was being held, how was He free enough to pick Malchus’ ear up off the ground and stick it back into place? How could Jesus simply touch Malchus’ ear and heal him if the ear was cut off and was not in place?

So if Matthew and John were actually there, but failed to mention the healing – even though John adds the extra detail of who cut off the ear and whose ear was severed – then who told Luke the story – especially the detail that the ear was healed? Luke apparently obtained his knowledge of the events of Christ’s ministry by interviewing witnesses to those events. One or more of his informants must have told him that Christ healed the servant’s ear. Apparently, that informant was not Matthew or John – and presumably not Peter, from whom apparently Mark obtained his account. By the time Luke was collecting his stories, quite some years after the events transpired, is it possible that the idea of Christ healing the servant’s ear had become a faith-promoting rumor rather than an actual account of what happened?

I am not proposing, a priori, that the miracle didn’t happen, I’m just saying that it is odd that the only Gospel mentioning the miracle was written by someone who was not an eye-witness to the events. If the miracle of healing the severed ear did not happen, it is my opinion that that absence in no way detracts from the Savior’s divinity or from His other miracles.

We will not meet for Where Science Meets Religion discussions during the summer, but will resume discussions the first Thursday in September. Please join us then.

Trent Dee Stephens

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