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John 18:1-6 (NRSV):

1 After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. 2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. 4 Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” 5 They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. 6 When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground.

Why did they fall to the ground? Was it just a coincidence or the result of a deliberate supernatural intervention?

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    Notes before a formal answer: definitely not a coincidence, but a demonstration of power purposefully recorded by John as the climax of previous failed arrests by the Temple Guard. The purpose of John is to underline that Jesus voluntarily gave himself up and that He was stronger than the 600+ contingent who spectacularly were "bowled over" by two simple words "I am he", connecting this incident with other miracles such as when Jesus simply rebuked the storm to stop. Feb 18, 2021 at 5:54
  • @GratefulDisciple - where does the 600+ number come from? Feb 18, 2021 at 13:09
  • In John 18:3, τὴν σπεῖραν is literally "the cohort", technically 1/10 of a Roman legion, about 600 men. This is according to Ramsey's commentary as well as what I found here. I decided not to write my own answer, Dotard answer is sufficient. Feb 18, 2021 at 16:40
  • @GratefulDisciple Do you believe it was simply the words 'I am (he)' that caused them to be bowled over, or do you think it was a miraculous power nearly-simultaneous with the words? Apr 25 at 7:26

4 Answers 4

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We read in Ps 5:4 -

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.

It is significant that they fell back when they heard what Jesus said, Ἐγώ εἰμι = "I AM".

In the Old Testament, Jehovah’s self-proclaimed title of “I AM” is given special prominence in Ex 3:13-15. While we are told “I Am” was to be God’s name forever, there is no record in the Bible of it ever being used again (in Hebrew) unless we admit the grammatical connection between “I am” and the “Tetragrammaton”, YHWH, commonly translated, “Jehovah”, “Yahweh”, “LORD”, or even “Eternal” in Moffatt’s version. However, the unpredicated phrase, “ego eimi” (= I am), occurs in the LXX in a number places (Deut 32:39, Isa 41:4, 43:10, 13, 25, 45:19, 46:4, 48:12, 51:12, 52:6) and always refers the One and Only Great Jehovah God Almighty.

This present continuous verb, “to be”, is the most common in almost all languages and has several syntactical functions in Greek (eg, see John 1:1 ):

  • Existence, “I am.”, ie, unpredicated (see below).
  • Identification, eg, Luke 1:19, “I am Gabriel”; John 9:9, “I am [that one]”; John 10:11, “I am the good shepherd”.
  • Relationship, eg, Acts 18:10, “I am with you”.
  • Predication, eg, Acts 22:3, “I am Jewish”.

The New Testament shows an interesting and (somewhat) unexpected pattern in the use of the Greek phrase, “ego eimi”, “I am”. The exact phrase “ego eimi” occurs 48 times in the New Testament. It also occurs 11 times as “eimi ego” which has a very similar but still different construction and all are relational or predicative. It occurs in a few other forms such as “ego gar eimi”, “ego men eimi”, “ego ouk eimi” (I am not), etc, a total of 67 times (one or two are disputed). Of the 48 cases of the exact phrase “ego eimi”, “I am”, just 15 are unpredicated and have (with one exception) the syntactical form existence as opposed to identification, relationship or predication. All are listed below (my translation) unless preceded by “not”, eg, Matt 26:22, 25, plus one exception to be noted.

  • Matt 14:27, Mark 6:50 – “Be encouraged. I am.” [To the frightened disciples in the boat.]
  • Mark 13:6, Luke 21:8 – “Many will come in my name saying, ‘I am’”.
  • Mark 14:62, Luke 22:70 – “Jesus replied, ‘I am’”. [He was then accused of blasphemy by the Jews and condemned.]
  • John 4:26 – “Then Jesus said, ‘I am.’” [To the Samaritan woman at the well. There is a reasonable case for this being identification, but that is a matter of taste.]
  • John 6:20 – “But then [Jesus] said to them, ‘I am. Fear not.’” [To the frightened disciples in the boat.]
  • John 8:24 – “If you do not trust/believe that I am, you will die in your sins.”
  • John 8:28 – “When you will lift up the Son of Man, then you will trust/know that I am.”
  • John 8:58 – “Truly, truly, I say to you; before Abraham existed, I am.” [The Jews then tried to stone Him for blasphemy.] Note that this and the previous two mean that Jesus, in the space of this chapter of John 8 uses the unpredicated “I am” idea in the present (v24), future (v28) and past sense (v58). V24 & 28 appears to be tied to believers’ salvation as well.
  • John 9:9 – “Some were saying that, ‘this is [that one]’, and others were saying ‘no, it is like him.’ But he was saying, ‘I am [that one].’” (This instance is clearly identification rather than existence.)
  • John 13:19 – “From now [on] I tell you before the occurrence, that you may believe when it occurs that, I am.”
  • John 18: 5, 6, 8 – “He said to them, ‘I am.’ …Therefore, when He told them, ‘I am’, they fell backward to the ground.” [This occurred when the Jews tried to arrest Jesus in the garden. It could be reasonably argued that this is a case of identification. However, the fact that the arresting mob fell backward suggests that much more is intended here.]

Significantly, according to Mark 13:6 and Luke 21:8, one of the distinguishing characteristics of false christs is their claim to be “I AM”. Unfortunately, there has been a historical parade of charlatans making such false claims.

Thus, with the obvious and rather trivial exception of John 9:9 (and self-exclusory Mark 13:6 and Luke 21:8), all of the “I am” existence statements in the New Testament, including the 7 in John, were spoken exclusively by Jesus, and all were either the basis for absolute trust/belief and reassurance in Jesus, or were a clear declaration of His claim to be the “I AM.”

CONCLUSION

Thus, in John 18 it was Jesus' declaration the He was the great "I Am" that startled the soldiers and knocked them to the ground. Evil could not stand in the presence of a holy God. Contrast this with the reaction of the disciples when Jesus said the same thing (eg) in the boat.

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  • +1 for giving a pretty good formulation of this take on John 18:6. "that startled the soldiers" Would the soldiers have been Jewish? Apr 24 at 23:13
  • Why do you think John 9:9 is 'rather trivial'? If saying 'I am' (and Jesus at John 18 is clearly identifying Himself, similar to how the beggar is identifying himself at John 9) was so startling in that case, why wasn't it at John 9? Apr 24 at 23:15
  • @OneGodtheFather - First question: it is very unlikely that the soldiers were Jewish. However, the leader of the arresting mob and many of those accompanying would have been Jewish.
    – Dottard
    Apr 24 at 23:22
  • "it is very unlikely that the soldiers were Jewish" Would you say only some were startled, then? Apr 24 at 23:26
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    @OneGodtheFather - that is exactly what I said about John 18:6 - it is BOTH an affirmation of Jesus identity BUT the fact that Roman guard and other fell backward (unlike the case in John 9:9) means that much more was going on. Therefore the difference in John 18:6 is the startled appearance of Jesus as the "I Am" which made even the Romans fall backward. Note that those that heard the man in John 9 were almost certainly Jewish but did not fall back.
    – Dottard
    Apr 24 at 23:31
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There has been a large amount of commentary on John 18:6, and there is no settled explanation of why the soldiers and police (if indeed it is meant to be inclusive of all sent to arrest Him) stepped back and fell to the ground.

Perhaps the best commentary I have found on this passage is Meyer's New Testament commentary. He writes among other things

"[T]he falling to the ground of itself, and the circumstance that the text designates those who fell down generally and without an exception, so that even the Roman soldiers are to be understood along with the rest, justifies the view of the ancient commentators, also adopted by Strauss (who, however, as also Scholten, views the matter as unhistorical), Ebrard, Maier, Luthardt, Hengstenberg, Godet, that it was a miraculous result of the power of Christ (Nonnus: οἰστρηθέντες ἀτευχέϊ λαίλαπι φωνῆς). Christ wished, before His surrender, to make known His might over His foes, and thus to show the voluntariness of His surrender."

However, there are those who hold it was not miraculous. Ellicott is an example of this, of which he writes among other things

"There is nothing in the narrative to suggest that our Lord put forth miraculous power to cause this terror. The impression is rather that it was produced by the majesty of His person, and by the answer which to Jewish ears conveyed the unutterable name, “Jehovah” (I AM)."

Cambridge doesn't take sides, saying

"Whether this was the natural effect of guilt meeting with absolute innocence, or a supernatural effect wrought by Christ’s will, is a question which we have not the means of determining."

Barnes gives some speculative psychological details to fill out the scene from a non-miraculous perspective, and says

"The cause of their retiring in this manner is not mentioned. Various things might have produced it. The frank, open, and fearless manner in which Jesus addressed them may have convinced them of his innocence, and deterred them from prosecuting their wicked attempt. His disclosure of himself was sudden and unexpected; and while they perhaps anticipated that he would make an effort to escape, they were amazed at his open and bold profession. Their consciences reproved them for their crimes, and probably the firm, decided, and yet mild manner in which Jesus addressed them, the expression of his unequalled power in knowing how to find the way to the consciences of men, made them feel that they were in the presence of more than mortal man. There is no proof that there was here any miraculous power, any mere physical force, and to suppose that there was greatly detracts from the moral sublimity of the scene."

Gill's holds a combination of these factors, and says

"Immediately upon his speaking these words, which were delivered with so much majesty and authority, and were attended with such a divine power: they went backward, and fell to the ground"

Interestingly, Expositor's says

"This might have been considered a fulfilment of Psalm 27:2"

which is

"When the wicked came upon me to devour my flesh, my enemies and foes stumbled and fell."

and would be seen as another incident supporting Jesus being the Messiah.

Conclusion

If you believe with Meyer that the 'they' refers to everyone falling to the ground, including not just the leaders of the contingent but all the police and all the Roman troops, it seems difficult to believe something miraculous was not involved.

That Jesus surprised the contingent, or spoke majestically, or that certain listeners might have heard an invocation of God's name ('I am'), does not seem sufficient to explain the response. Rather, this interpretation would suggest a wave of power going out, similar indeed to how Jesus calmed the waters in the boat, demonstrating his authority over nature. Here, He is demonstrating his authority over those who would arrest him, and so showing He is doing so voluntarily.

Another possibility along similar lines is that, unlike the control of nature, the response is due to an unveiling of divine glory, perhaps like the response to angels (cf. Matthew 28). On this view, the 'I am' coincides with an unveiling of Jesus' majesty, and causes the entire contingent to fall back and over.

If, however, you hold the 'they' refers to just some of the people, then a more natural explanation seems more plausible. Perhaps some were surprised, or taken aback at Jesus' use of 'I am' (personally, I find this theory weak, as a beggar uses the exact same term at John 9, and no one seems taken aback - although obviously the context is different here), or their consciences convicted them.

My best guess, agreeing with Meyer, is that the large number of leaders, police, and Roman troops were knocked over supernaturally, coinciding with Jesus' use of the term 'I am he', in order to demonstrate that Jesus was doing so voluntarily.

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The allusion is obscure, as many are, but I believe that John is "proving" that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures by having him fulfill this passage:

NET Bible Exodus 11:8 All these your servants will come down to me and bow down to me, saying, ‘Go, you and all the people who follow you,’ and after that I will go out.” Then Moses went out from Pharaoh in great anger.

LXX καὶ καταβήσονται πάντες οἱ παῖδές σου οὗτοι πρός με καὶ προκυνήσουσίν με λέγοντες ἔξελθε σὺ καὶ πᾶς ὁ λαός σου οὗ σὺ ἀφηγῇ καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα ἐξελεύσομαι ἐξῆλθεν δὲ Μωυσῆς ἀπὸ Φαραω μετὰ θυμοῦ

John's stated purpose in presenting the account that he has is precisely this. He intends to prove by intertextuality, that Jesus is the long promised "branch" etc.:

[Jhn 20:30-31 NLT] (30) The disciples saw Jesus do many other miraculous signs in addition to the ones recorded in this book. (31) But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name.

https://www.blueletterbible.org/nlt/exo/11/8/t_concl_61008

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    This is an intriguing observation and a nice application of John 20:30-31. +1 Feb 18, 2021 at 2:15
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There are several possibilities which are difficult to tell which is right.

  1. They were responding to Jesus using the divine name.

  2. They knew about Jesus' miracles and feared his potential response.

  3. They feared Jesus' disciples would fight and fell into a defense formation with their shields locked together.

Regardless of these reasons, it showed that Jesus was the one in charge of the situation. Jesus gave his life willingly.

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