"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 13 The Passion, Death, and Burial of Jesus (Jn 18.1-19.42)

13.1 Jesus' Arrest (Jn 18.1-12)


This subsection falls naturally into two parts. The first describes Jesus' arrest in a garden on the Mount of Olives, a place identified in Mark and Matthew as Gethsemane (Mk 14.32, Matthew 26.36). The second part tells the story of Peter's attack on a slave belonging to the high priest during the arrest.

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The word translated as 'Wadi' is cheimarroos in Greek (a compound of cheimar, winter, and roos, flowing); it designates a stream that flows only in the winter (usually the rainy season in the eastern Mediterrean). Like an arroyo in the southwestern desert of the US, a wadi consists of a valley and a watercourse, which is dry most of the year. The Wadi Kedron, or Kidron Valley, rises slightly northeast of the Old City of Jerusalem and continues in a generally southeasterly direction through the Judaean desert until it reaches the Dead Sea about 32 km away. Along the way, in Jerusalem, it separates the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives. Hence to reach the garden in which he and his disciples were accustomed to gather, Jesus would have needed to cross the Wadi Kedron from anywhere in the Old City, at this point likely the site of the Last Supper.

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John here shows the Romans as involved with the arrest of Jesus from a very early point in the process, unlike the other gospels. '[T]he cohort' (hē speira, ἡ σπεῖρα in Greek) probably designates the cohort on permanent garrison duty in Jerusalem, in the Antonia fortress (originally built by Herod the Great near the Northeast corner of the Temple), as opposed to one of the four other cohorts normally stationed in the provincial capital of Caesarea Maritima.

The Romans had a number of rules of precedence to be followed by their colonial governors, who were normally drawn from one of the two upper classes in the Roman oligarchy: the senatorial (the uppermost) and the equestrian. The governorship of Judaea was designated to be held by a member of the equestrian class (like Pilate), and one of the rules pertaining to equestrian governors was that they were not allowed to command legions of Roman citizens or have them as troops guarding their territory. Only governors of the senatorial class had that privilege. An equestrian like the governor of Judaea was only allowed to command non-citizen auxiliary troops -- cohorts of light infantry and alae ("wings") of cavalry. Hence Pilate's province was guarded by auxiliaries.

These five cohorts of auxiliaries may have originally been household troops of Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great who inherited part of his father's kingdom with Rome's acquiesence. He was quickly deposed for incompetence and replaced by direct Roman government, at least partly because of Archelaus' unpopularity with the local oligarchy. It appears that those royal troops were converted to Roman auxiliaries, which would have meant that the soldiers would receive Roman citizenship upon completing the terms of their enlistment.

So there was a cohort in Jerusalem, which may have been supplemented at Passover time by extra troops brought by the governor from Caesarea Maritima to keep peace during the holiday. However, a full auxiliary cohort was likely the same size as a legionary cohort, that is, about 480 men. It is beyond belief that Judas and the Temple attendants were accompanied by 480 Roman auxiliaries - that would imply the governor sent either all the forces at his disposal to assist at the arrest of Jesus, or as much as half of them, if the usual cohort had been supplemented with extra troops from Caesarea.

Scholars have tried to solve this problem in several ways, most of which are no more convincing now than when Brown wrote 50 years ago. Some scholars (including Brown) make the point that speira can be used by some secular writers to refer to the Roman maniple (only about 200 men). However, this is done by older writers such as Polybius or by later authors while describing an earlier period (eg, Plutarch in his life of Aemilius Paulus (c 229 BCE– 160 BCE). In the New Testament period such a usage would be anachronistic. At that time the word referred to a Roman cohort and was so used by NT writers like Luke (see, eg, Acts 10.1, where the word refers to the unit known in Latin as Cohors II Italica, the Second Italian Cohort). Some scholars point out that some of the LXX translators use terms like speira to refer to non-Roman military units in books like Maccabees. But it makes no sense to suppose that John, writing in the late first century CE, would use it in that way. It was a well established Greek term for a cohort by then. Some modern writers simply dismiss the possibility that Roman forces would have been present at all or, if present, would have handed Jesus over to Annas, although Brown finds nothing unlikely or unbelievable in that. I am largely in agreement with Brown.1

As far as I can see, it is most likely that when John referred to hē speira ('the cohort'), he meant the one normally stationed at the Antonia fortress. How he imagined a whole cohort could have been present in the Garden of Gethsemane that night, I can only explain as a confused recollection of a very confused and disturbing time. Perhaps to him it really seemed as though a whole cohort was there, dragging Jesus away. How did Roman auxiliaries come to accompany the attendants sent by the chief priests and Pharisees? Presumably Pilate sent them at Caiaphas' request to prevent unrest at the festival - Pilate and Caiaphas seem to have had a good working relationship and Caiaphas may have been cleverly laying the foundation for his later argument as to Jesus' revolutionary tendencies at the trial before Pilate, by implying that his police needed to be backed up by Roman auxiliaries due to the danger posed by Jesus and his followers. It seems that the Roman troops assisted the Temple attendants to deliver Jesus to the home of the high priest and then returned to their barracks at the Antonia. If so, there is no need for their officer to know that Jesus was interrogated by Annas and Caiaphas or in what order.

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As discussed in the comments on Jn 7.32, the hupēretai, or Temple attendants, were servants or other lesser officers, such as those who served the priests in a temple. In ch7 they were sent from the high priests and Pharisees, as here, to arrest Jesus and bring him to them, likely to appear before the Council. Here, guided by Judas (who knew the habitual behaviour of Jesus and his disciples) and backed up by Roman troops, they were sent to arrest Jesus and bring him to the high priests for questioning. They are often referred to as 'Temple police' in translations of the New Testament. See the further comments to Jn 7.32 for a discussion of the chief priests.

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The use of "I am" (ego eimi in Greek) here and also in vv6 and 8 represents the last of the seven absolute I AMs in this gospel - see the discussion above in the Introduction. By using the Greek words ego eimi here absolutely (that is, without any predicate), the evangelist makes it possible for us, the readers, to see in Jesus' words both the surface reply, "I am he", and the echo of Exodus, "I AM", the name of God.

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Who are being referred to as "they" here in verse 6? Grammar alone can only tell us that the antecedent of the pronoun is (as also in vv3, 4 and 5) the group who were guided by Judas to the garden on the Mount of Olives. Can we be any more precise? If we can, it might enable us to say whether it was the Temple attendants or the Roman auxiliaries who were taking the lead according to John's tradition. Verse 6 itself is helpful to us here: there it appears, as it does in the incident between Simon Peter and the high priest's servant, that the Temple attendants, who would have been Jewish, rather than the Roman auxiliaries, were taking the lead in arresting Jesus. When the men with Judas hear Jesus' reply, they step back and fall to the ground. This signals to us that they too hear in Jesus' words the name of God. Their reaction to that shows both that they recognise the divine Name and that they respond to it as holy.

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This fulfillment formula is usually reserved for the words of Scripture. But here it is applied to words spoken by Jesus. This elevation of Jesus' own words to the status otherwise reserved for the words spoken by the Lord through the Hebrew Scriptures is part of a general elevation of the staus of Jesus himself. As can be seen in the letters of St Paul, written several decades before this gospel, Jesus was quickly referred to or addressed in prayer as "Lord", a title previously reserved in the Hebrew Bible and in normative Judaism for Yahweh, for God Godself. But if the words of the Lord spoken through prophets in the Tanakh call out for fulfillment, and find that fulfillment in the life of Jesus, there seems no reason not to seek similar fulfillment for the words of the Lord Jesus. See Brown 1970 p 811.

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The military tribune, or chiliarchos in Greek, was a Roman junior officer, who would have been one of the military staff in command of a cohort. The office was normally held not just by a Roman citizen, but by one of the aristocratic equestian class. It was often not the start of a military career, but a political one, as the former tribune would seek election to one of the offices of the so-called cursus honorum, or 'course of honours', a sequence of civilian offices including those that led to appointments as provincial governors or to their staffs both in the Republic and Principate. So this nameless man very likely had his feet on the first rungs of the ladder leading to high office in Rome when he encountered Jesus and his disciples in this incident. It's tempting to speculate about his encounter with the people and places involved in the Passion of Jesus, and whether it had an effect on his life. Unfortunately we will never know any more about him than is in this verse.

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1 See Brown 1970 pp 807-8, Carson 1991 p 577, Keener 2003 pp 1078-80, Lincoln 2013 p 443, Thompson 2015 pp 362-3, and Mark Chancey, Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (Cambridge University Press, 2005) 48-9 for various discussions of these questions and Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek English Lexicon (Oxford, 1968), sv σπεῖρα and JH Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1929) for lexical information.