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With the story of Jesus being arrested after the last supper, the four gospels differ quite a bit.

Matthew 26:47-57 and Mark 14:43-53 simply have Judas arriving with a crowd having swords and clubs, Judas kissing Jesus, Jesus being arrested and a bystander drawing his sword and cutting off a servant’s ear. Then they lead Jesus away.

Luke 22:47-54 shows almost what Matthew and Mark do, yet his is the only gospel having Jesus touching the servant’s ear and healing him.

John 18:3-11 is much different from the other 3. While it shows some additional, very interesting detail, it doesn't show some things the other 3 do.

John’s gospel doesn’t show Judas kissing Jesus or even the two talking with each other. Here Jesus asks the group a question they answer such that Jesus says “I AM”; with that the group actually turns away and falls to the ground. They then repeat their dialogue.

Regarding the sword, John has specifically the right ear of a Malchus being cut off, with Simon Peter being the one who did it. Having Peter put his sword away Jesus says “the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?”

John 18:3-11 (KJV)

Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them. As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground. Then asked he them again, Whom seek ye? And they said, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus answered, I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way: That the saying might be fulfilled, which he spake, Of them which thou gavest me have I lost none. 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. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath

Q: For this story why might the gospels differ so much and in such odd ways?

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I think your second question should be its own question on this site, rather than wrapped up into this question. Both are valid, but the answer to the second is not directly related to the answer of the first question. – ScottS Apr 15 '14 at 14:54
    
@ScottS Thanks for the good suggestion, well taken; I've edited what is above and posted a separate question. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/8892/2873 – John Martin Apr 15 '14 at 16:49
    
The gospels were written by people with different perspectives for probably different audiences (Jew vs Greeks vs Romans vs gentiles, etc), with some things different from the others, but while different, the story remains intact and there is just additional information, but not contradicting information. – Dwight Apr 15 '14 at 19:56
    
John is so widely different because he labors under the need to make Jesus into God, and God can't just be arrested--he's got to do something impressive like making his captors fall over backwards twice. – david brainerd Apr 16 '14 at 5:10
up vote 2 down vote accepted

In the story you point out it makes sense to think about their sources. It seems that Matthew and Mark had almost the exact same source material--probably either well known oral tradition or an actual document that is lost to us. Luke seems to have had the same source as Matthew and Mark, but also some extra information that he decided to include. John, purportedly wrote his Gospel much later. It is clear from his style that John put much more emphasis on the power of Jesus and the wonder he evoked. Throughout his Gospel John leaves out prominent events recorded in the other (Synoptic) Gospels in favor of more colorful stories centered on the spiritual power of Jesus(for example turning the water into wine).

We can't know for sure, but perhaps John had read the other Gospel accounts and wanted to make one specifically for use in his ministry as an evangelist. As an apostle and an eye witness he clearly felt freedom to deviate from other accounts and key in on his own memories informed by his later experiences. Whether John saw his account as corrective or simply amplified isn't clear from the text. Of course, maybe John didn't have the other Gospels available when he was writing. That would account for the lack of explanations about why he wrote things differently.

One thing to remember, the question you pose is surely not a new one. When the early church was forming the canon of scripture they could not have missed these apparent differences. As the Gospels were being written and disseminated they decided to keep all four Gospels in spite of these problems. There were other Gospels they rejected. So the tension between Gospel accounts isn't a new or unhealthy thing.

In this specific case I think the varied accounts helps us see the high drama of the situation. The different witnesses don't directly contradict each other, but they do show the confusion and panicked feeling of Jesus' followers. This is heightened surrounding the death, burial and resurrection accounts. His followers are fearful, scattered and disorganized from this moment on. As a result the witness reports reflect the same thing.

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There are depths within this question. If we consider the nature of the writers of the four accounts it may help put things into perspective.

Matthew (Matthias Levi - described as the son of Alphaeus, although there are problems with this) may have been the author of ‘Matthew’s’ gospel, but more probably ‘Matthew’ is a dedication. Even so the author may still have been relating what Matthias himself had reported.

Mark may well have been the young man who fled from the scene leaving his clothing in the clutches of the arresting group, and may have been the young man in a white robe later at the tomb (Mark 14:51-52 & 16: 5-7). This would fit, as a white robe was not the acceptable garb of a young man, and may point to its being borrowed. This would make him a strong eyewitness inasmuch as the drama of the events, the lateness of the hour and the evident tiredness of the disciples would permit. He was also Peter’s interpreter in Rome and had ample opportunity to compare his account with Peter (Bishop Papias of Hierapolis (60-130 AD) quoted by Eusebius about a century later). Set against this is the textual evidence that he shared some source material with Matthew and Luke. There is also the fact that he was writing in Rome for people who had accepted the resurrection but needed an account of the earlier events leading up to it. Hence his opening title ‘The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God’ (Mark 1:1). His evidence is less concerned than the others with the arrest, crucifixion and resurrection.

Luke was the only one certainly not present. He says in his introduction that he has put together a collection of eye witness accounts.

John is the only one of the four who was definitely present as an eyewitness. As the younger brother of James (always recorded after him in lists, and both of them listed after Simon and Andrew in the fishing partnership and as being rather hot-headed) he was probably one of the younger disciples. Although he should be an impeccable source his account bears strong signs of having been put together from his collected writings after his death at a great age, possibly at the beginning of the second century. Even the order of certain chapters is questionable (5,6 & 7). That is not to say the arrest could have been not have been recorded when he was younger. There is nothing in his account to suggest that the stumbling back of the arrest party was any thing other than natural fear because of Jesus' reputation.

While these may all point to reasons for differences in their accounts we must not fall into the trap of assuming that if an event is not mentioned that it did not happen, or even that the witness is saying it did not. He may not have noticed it, or chose to concentrate on other things.

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I have just noticed that this is on the Biblical Hermeneutics Site and not the Christianity site. My apologies - you will be expecting more references than I have given. I will have to come back later for this. If that is a problem please delete. – Tony Apr 21 '14 at 19:23

The simplistic answer would be to say that each evangelist chose to include historical details that he thought to be relevant, while omitting other details that he knew to be true but felt it not necessary to report. This overlooks the fact that Matthew and Luke are regarded by almost all New Testament scholars to have been substantially based on Mark's Gospel1. A substantial proportion of scholars also believe that John was loosely based on the synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke. These literary dependencies explain the similarities - sometimes even using the same words in the Greek language - as well as the oddness of their differences.

In spite of tradition, none of the evangelists was present although Mark is presumably closest to the original source. Knowing the history of gospel development, we can say that, unless we have evidence to the contrary, the authors of Matthew, Luke and John were unlikely to have known anything about the arrest of Jesus apart from what they learnt from Mark's Gospel.

The author of Matthew knew that Jesus could have called on divine assistance if he chose, and so added one short saying of Jesus to what he learnt from Mark:

Matthew 26:53: Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?

The author of Luke knew that Jesus would not wish the high priest's servant to suffer for him, so added the supplementary detail of Jesus healing his right ear, a miracle that also showed the divine power of Jesus:

Luke 22:51: And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him.

John's Gospel is widely regarded as having been inspired, at least in part, by Luke's Gospel, so it is not surprising that this gospel agrees with Luke that it was the servant's right ear. The author chooses to tell us that the servant was called Malchus and that it was Peter who cut off his ear. At the same time, John sometimes omits minor details that would make his narrative too complex, and in this case omits the interaction with Judas and Luke's mention of Jesus healing the ear, preferring the theologically important words of Jesus:

John 18:11: Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?


Footnote

1Adam Winn (The Purpose of Mark's Gospel, page 1) says the theory of Markan priority is one of the few that has reached a high level of consensus among New Testament interpreters.

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I will focus on the difference between the account in John's Gospel and that in the Synoptics. I will start with two assumptions:

  • John had the text of the Synoptics available before him when composing his Gospel, so that when he deviated from the Synoptics' account he did it on purpose and for a purpose, which was providing not just factual accuracy (which he actually provided) but important theological meaning.

  • John's intention was that his Gospel be read in conjunction with the Synoptics, not to replace them.

That said, to apprehend the theological meaning of the account of Jesus' arrest in John's Gospel we need to take into account three data items:

First, the isolated statement "I Am" (Ego Eimi), with which Jesus identifies Himself twice in the passage, appears in 4 previous verses in John's Gospel:

  • «for unless you believe that I Am, you will die in your sins.» (Jn 8:24)

  • «When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I Am, and that I do nothing on my own;» (Jn 8:28)

  • «Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am.» (Jn 8:58)

  • «I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it comes to pass, you may believe that I Am.» (Jn 13:19)

In all these verses it is clear that Jesus applies to Himself the proper Name of God in the first person revealed in Ex 3:14: Ehyeh, "I Am". This is particularly evident in the first, second and fourth verses, in which Jesus notes the importance of {believing/knowing} that "He Is", echoing Isaiah 43:10 y 48:12.

Second. The Greek term "fell" (epesan) is used 5 times by the Apostle John in Revelation in the sense of "fall on their face" to worship: 5:8, 5:14, 7:11, 11:16 and 19:4.

Third. By the time of Jesus, the proper Name of God in the third person revealed in Ex 3:15: YHWH, "He causes to be" if vocalized YaHWeH, was uttered by only one person, the High Priest, on only one day of the year, the feast of Atonement (Yom Kippur), 6 times when making a sacrifice for his own sins, one time when drawing the lot for the he-goats, and 3 times when loading the iniquities and transgressions of the sons of Israel on the he-goat to be sent to the desert (Lev 16:20-22). The prayer used by the High Priest for the latter function, and the people's response, are in the Mishna, tractate Yoma, chapter 6:

He then came to the he-goat which was to be sent away to Azazeil and forcefully leans his hands on it and confesses. And so he would say: Please O YHWH, they have done wrong they have transgressed they have sinned before You - Your nation the House of Israel, Please, O YHWH, forgive them for their doing wrong, for their transgressions and for their sins, as is written in the Torah of Moshe Your servant: “For on this day He will effect atonement for you to purify you before YHWH” (Leviticus 16:30). And when the priests and the people who were standing in the courtyard heard the fully pronunced Name come from the mouth of the High Priest they would kneel, prostate themselves, fall on their faces, and call out: Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever. He gave it over to the one who was to lead it [to Azazeil].

http://www.emishnah.com/moed2/Yoma/6.pdf

http://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Yoma.6

From these data, the meaning of the fall to the ground of the party that had come to apprehend Jesus when He said "I Am" for the first time is crystal clear: Jesus is the High Priest who is carrying out the true Atonement prefigured by the rite in the Mosaic Law, and that at the time of loading the iniquities and transgressions of men on the victim that will carry them, pronunces the proper Name of God, with the difference, with respect to an ordinary High Priest, that:

  • since Jesus Himself is the victim, He bears and carries our iniquities and transgressions Himself,

  • since Jesus Himself is God, He pronounces the proper Name of God in the first person.

Finally, the third time when Jesus pronounces the proper Name of God in the first person as true High Priest of the true Atonement is not recorded in John's Gospel but in Mark's, in the reply to the High Priest

Again the high priest was questioning Him, and says to Him, "Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" And Jesus said, "I Am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven." (Mk 14:61-62)

To validate the interpretation of this "I Am" as the third uttering of the divine Name in the first person by Jesus as High Priest of the true Atonement, we must note that, in the Jewish rite, immediately after the High Priest finished his prayer uttering the divine Name by a third time, the goat was taken to the desert. Similarly, immediately after pronouncing the third "I Am" in Mk 14:62, Jesus started to be spit, striken, mocked and slapped by the Jews (Mk 14:65).

Acknowledgment: I learned of this theological meaning of the passage from a site on the revealed Name of God by a Jewish scholar:

http://www.exodus-314.com/home/introduction/exodus-314-in-christianity.html?id=39

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