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“Lend Me Your Ear” – The significance of Malchus in the Fourth Gospel

September 3, 2010

I am currently writing a little piece for a book on Johannine characters and my assigned character is Malchus, the servant of the high priest who loses his ear to the sword of Peter in 18:10-11. As always, I am fascinated by character development in the Fourth Gospel and Malchus is no exception. Several insights are guiding my reading of the text:

  1. In John named characters often, if not characteristically, represent misunderstanding of or opposition to Jesus. (By contrast, anonymous characters are greater models of faith – Jesus’ mother, the Samaritan woman, the Beloved Disicple, etc.)
  2. Agents – characters who exist almost solely to advance the action of the narrative – are generally anonymous in the Fourth Gospel. Malchus is not.
  3. Character development in John’s Gospel is almost always accomplished through speech or action rather than direct description, but again this is reversed in the case of Malchus. 

His name is given, his vocation is provided (servant of the high priest), and his spatial location is provided. In the end, the brief encounter between Malchus and Peter accomplishes at least three things: (1) it continues to highlight Peter’s impetuous nature; (2) it provides the narrator another opportunity for Jesus to express his commitment to the will of the Father (see v. 11); and (3) it re-emphasizes that for Jesus to be “glorified” it will take a journey to the cross rather than a violent uprising.

It’s amazing how much the Fourth Gospel accomplishes both literarily and theologically with so little.

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