Mark Ward, author of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, discusses how to run a referendum using Logos Bible Software online to quickly sample the opinions—and gather the insights—of Bible study experts.
I regularly come across something in the Bible text that puzzles me. Today it’s a little event in John 18, one that happens when a mob brandishing swords and clubs descends on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus steps forward and asks them, “Who is it that you’re seeking?” They say, “Jesus of Nazareth!” Then the text says,
When Jesus told them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. (John 18:6 CSB)
The text simply does not explain—good narratives don’t have to—why a group of grown men holding weapons fell to the ground at two words spoken by the unarmed man they came to arrest. I had a thought come to me: whatever the explanation we give for their all falling over, it needs to fit with the only purpose I can think of within the narrative for the falling to occur. The falling needs to happen to demonstrate that Jesus is in control, that no man takes his life but that he lays it down of his own accord. (More on this when we conclude.)
But I wanted to see where the commentators landed. Was I hermeneutically out to brunch?
It was referendum time: call in the commentators. And there’s nothing wrong with the way this kind of work has been done for centuries—namely using paper books. But back when I did it this way, I didn’t do it this way. I mean, I never checked more than a maximum of three commentaries. Somehow all the page-flipping required just made for small referenda, hardly worthy of the title. But in Logos, I regularly check six, ten, and sometimes even more commentaries. The Passage Guide makes it so easy; I have no excuse for doing less.
Insight you’ll get with Logos Bible Software online
If you had the commentaries in Logos Bible Software online and could do this, what kind of insights would you have access to?
Here’s what the commentaries I own said about the mob falling down in the garden of Gethsemane in John 18.
N. T. Wright in his John for Everyone says that unless this is comedy (“soldiers tripping over one another in the dark”) what we have here is simply “what people in the Bible do when coming face to face with God” (103).
This is true and insightful, but it doesn’t comment on whether Jesus caused the falling. Next vote.
I looked at Bruce Milne’s The Message of John in the Bible Speaks Today series, and he said that either Jesus’ divine majesty broke in upon the mob, or “they experience[d] a sudden wave of terror as they [we]re faced with actually laying hands on one whose supernatural powers were already legend. . . . Either way there is a perceptible loss of control on the authorities’ part” (253).
Now we’re getting closer to my idea because if the authorities are losing control, then Jesus is gaining it—or rather demonstrating it.
Kruse in the Tyndale series is similar, commenting that “it is clear some revelation of his power and authority must have occurred to make them draw back and fall to the ground” (345). Köstenberger in the Baker Exegetical series, too, says that the event “conveys the powerlessness of Jesus’ enemies” and “highlights Jesus’ messianic authority” (508).
We’re getting closer to a why—or to the why I thought I was seeing.
Then my trip through studied opinions took a detour. I saw what looks to me, 100 years on, as the classic theologically liberal, naturalistic impulse. It was in J. H. Bernard’s 1929 International Critical Commentary volume on John:
The words which follow, “they retired and fell to the ground,”. . . imply no more than that the men who came to make the arrest (some of whom at least did not previously know Jesus even by sight) were so overcome by His moral ascendancy that they recoiled in fear. . . . , and in the confusion they, or some of the crowd, stumbled and fell. Indeed, [the Greek phrase here] might be taken figuratively, as expressing discomfiture only. (586–587)
This was the most dissatisfying comment I read (though cross-references he later listed were helpful). It’s reminiscent of attempts to explain the Red Sea crossing as the fruit of a freak windstorm. It seems to go out of its way to deny that Jesus did anything. In this referendum, this voter is clearly across the aisle from me. (Leon Morris in the New International Commentary on John reports that certain other liberal commentators suggested that maybe it was only Judas who fell, not all the soldiers—but this would mean openly changing the Bible text. Every manuscript we have says “they” fell, not “he” fell.)
Now to the redoubtable D. A. Carson, on my side of the aisle (or rather, I on his), whose John commentary in the Pillar series is often considered the very best available. Carson sees the arresting band as “staggered by [Jesus’] open self-disclosure on a sloping mountainside in the middle of the night. . . . Their physical ineptitude was another instance of people responding better than they knew” (579). I love Carson’s commentary, but I’m left a little disappointed in this one case—because he didn’t have the same thought I did as to the purpose of this event, and it’s always nice when Carson says what you already think.
I finish with Calvin, the only commentator I read who stated clearly that Jesus is the one who knocked the mob down. And he follows this up with a clear statement of exactly what I thought I saw in the narrative, exactly what I turned to this referendum to (hopefully!) help validate:
[Jesus] replies mildly that he is the person whom they seek, and yet, as if they had been struck down by a violent tempest, or rather by a thunderbolt, he lays them prostrate on the ground. There was no want of power in him, therefore, to restrain their hands, if he had thought proper; but he wished to obey his Father, by whose decree he knew that he was called to die. (191)
Calvin’s follow-up comments are eloquent and profound. I am always amazed, when I dig into Calvin’s commentaries, at how current he sounds. Everything he wrote could have been written yesterday. Biblical commentating has advanced in 500 years, surely, but Calvin set it on its path, and sometimes he can’t be beat.
Especially when he agrees with me.
It took me about 15 minutes to go through all these commentaries in Logos, plus a few more I didn’t mention for space reasons. I don’t know how long it would have taken me with paper commentaries because I simply never would have done it.
It’s possible to be so lost in commentators’ quibbling and quoting that you come out with nothing but confusion. But the answer can’t be reading only one commentator—or none. The existence of multiple shades of opinion on a given Bible passage doesn’t mean no one is right. It means you and I have good reasons to be humble and pray for the Spirit’s illumination—of our hard work in the study.
I prayed and worked and worked and prayed, and I did come out with something solid: Jesus was demonstrating to all present that he was laying down his life, not having it taken from him. After avoiding persecution on multiple occasions, he goes to Jerusalem on purpose, despite warnings, precisely because he wants to provoke a confrontation. And that’s just what he gets. He performs an act of physical violence in the temple, but he elicits only verbal sparring in return—serious verbal sparring, the kind in which the Jewish leaders are trying to trap him. He ups the ante in the verbal sparring, both by answering wisely and by going after the Pharisees (in Matthew 23) with the most blistering tongue-lashing in Scripture (outside, perhaps, of Ezekiel 16). They still don’t respond openly, for fear of the people.
And now as Jesus’ opponents come under cover of night, to a private place, they assay to lay hands on their creator—and he knocks them down with the two most powerful words there are: “I AM.” This moment is pregnant with meaning and bursting with power. There is no way that the people merely stumbled and fell in their surprise at hearing “I am.” It was ambiguous, in any case: strictly speaking, he was just identifying himself as the Jesus of Nazareth whom they sought. And those in John 8:58 who heard these very words in an unambiguous context—Jesus was very clearly echoing Exodus 3—weren’t knocked down. No, physical divine power suffused those words and flattened Jesus’ enemies like the people in the first 10 rows at a Benny Hinn crusade, only one need suspect no flim and no flam. Jesus did this to make a point, one he states explicitly elsewhere a few chapters prior:
No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father. (John 10:18)
That is the point of this small verse. Even in the moment in which Jesus is given over to Satan’s power, he is the one doing the giving.
- Bible Study: How to Go Deep into God’s Word
- How to Do a Bible Word Study in English the Easy Way
- How to Use the Contents Sidebar in Factbook
- How to Display Footnotes in Journal Articles in Logos
- How to Find Text Comparison Notes Punctuation Differences
- Apollos Old Testament (AOT) and Pillar New Testament (PNTC) Commentary Collection (26 vols.)
- New International Commentary – Old and New Testaments (NICOT) (NICNT) (48 vols.)
- Tyndale New Testament Commentary (TNTC) (21 vols.)