Jesus Beaten by Police: Red Letter Year 12/18

John 18.15-27

15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, as did another of the disciples. That other disciple was acquainted with the high priest, so he was allowed to enter the high priest’s courtyard with Jesus. 16 Peter had to stay outside the gate. Then the disciple who knew the high priest spoke to the woman watching at the gate, and she let Peter in. 17 The woman asked Peter, “You’re not one of that man’s disciples, are you?”

“No,” he said, “I am not.”

18 Because it was cold, the household servants and the guards had made a charcoal fire. They stood around it, warming themselves, and Peter stood with them, warming himself.

19 Inside, the high priest began asking Jesus about his followers and what he had been teaching them. 20 Jesus replied, “Everyone knows what I teach. I have preached regularly in the synagogues and the Temple, where the people gather. I have not spoken in secret. 21 Why are you asking me this question? Ask those who heard me. They know what I said.”

22 Then one of the Temple guards standing nearby slapped Jesus across the face. “Is that the way to answer the high priest?” he demanded.

23 Jesus replied, “If I said anything wrong, you must prove it. But if I’m speaking the truth, why are you beating me?”

24 Then Annas bound Jesus and sent him to Caiaphas, the high priest.

25 Meanwhile, as Simon Peter was standing by the fire warming himself, they asked him again, “You’re not one of his disciples, are you?”

He denied it, saying, “No, I am not.”

26 But one of the household slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Didn’t I see you out there in the olive grove with Jesus?” 27 Again Peter denied it. And immediately a rooster crowed.


We have three things to talk about today. Most obviously, we have Peter’s denial. We also have another appearance of the mysterious other disciple. And we have Jesus subjected to injustice and police brutality.

First let’s deal with the identity of this unnamed disciple, who may or may not be the author of this Gospel. In all there are seven appearances of this unnamed and/or beloved disciple. I take the other and beloved to be the same person and the author, but (like all things in Bible scholarship), there is not universal agreement on any of these points. The simplest explanation would be that the other, beloved, author disciple are all the same and all St. John, son of Zebedee, but we could have anywhere from 1-4 people represented here. Here are the places in question:

  1. At the Last Supper – beloved disciple laying head on Jesus lap (13.21-26)
  2. At the Annas trial here – other disciple who knows Annas and gets Peter in (18.15-16)
  3. At the cross with the Mother of Jesus – beloved disciple agrees to take care of her (19.26-27)
  4. Still at the cross – author disciple testifies to seeing blood and water from Jesus’ pierced side (19.35)
  5. Running to the tomb with Peter – other disciple gets there first, goes in second (20.2-8)
  6. Fishing with Peter – Thomas, Nathanael, John, James, and two other disciples go fishing, then the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus first (21.2-12)
  7. Peter sees the beloved disciple while talking to Jesus (21.20-23), then the text identifies the beloved disciple as the author (21.24)

So the beloved disciple seems to be the author of this Gospel, and is probably (though not necessarily) the same as the other disciple. Identifying all of these with John of Zebedee is a tradition based on what Irenaeus claims Polycarp (an associate of John’s when John was old and Polycarp was young) told him when Irenaues was a boy. The Gospel of John was the last to be accepted as orthodox, so being authored by one of the Twelve (and one of the inner three) gained traction to help that cause. But nothing in the text requires or even suggests this identification. If there is a problem with identifying the other disciple with John, it lies in today’s reading.

Why would a Galilean fishermen have a personal acquaintance with the highest religious leader in all Israel? So much so that he could gain access to a highly private meeting, and more than that, have enough influence to invite others in along too? This is something we might expect from Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, not John of Zebedee. Nothing requires that we accept John as the author and the text intentionally does not name its author. So the bigger question here is why not? Why does the author hide his or her identity? Here are some suggestions:

  1. The author wished to protect their own identity. Coming out as late as this Gospel did, it was not exactly a safe environment for Christians all the time. All of the other central followers of Jesus had met violent deaths by this time. The author may have wanted to avoid a similar fate.
  2. The author wanted to protect the community for which he or she was writing. As we have seen, there were clearly divisions among the first readership of this Gospel. By making themselves anonymous, the author perhaps hoped to speak into that division without worsening the division. The author may also have been thinking about protecting the community from similar persecution as mentioned above.
  3. The author wanted to keep the focus squarely on Jesus, not on the author. It is apparent in the second half of this Gospel, that a personal witness is brought in to lend credence to the information given. Much of this is privileged information, information we have not gotten in the previous three Gospels, and without evidence of an eyewitness, we might be left to wonder how the author could know these things to be true and not just fables. As important as the presence of an eyewitness is, however, too much emphasis on the eyewitness might take away from the central focus on the person of Jesus Christ. Based on everything we’ve seen in this Gospel, that would clearly be incompatible with this author’s central aim. More than that, it might be the case that something about the particular author could have lent itself to distraction. If the author was John, for example, the very ‘star quality’ he would have as an inner-circle follower of Jesus might be its own distraction. Or it could be something much more radical, maybe the author of this gospel was Mary Magdalene. If so, either Mary herself, or later editors, could have decided that a female author was not something most people could except in the ancient patristic world. I don’t want to belabor this point (not here anyway, I will come back to this next year I think), but considering Mary as author of this gospel raises very interesting possibilities, some of which are explored here: (

Whatever the means and reason, the Gospel of John as we have it leaves its author anonymous. This allows us some latitude in considering who the author was and why they are not named. If this interests you, stay tuned, I think this is worth exploring.

The main action of our passage has two parts: the denial of Peter and the first trial of Jesus. I want to save most of what I have to say about Peter until we get to his reinstatement in chapter 21. For now, let me just say that the three “I Am” statements we read yesterday, the three denials we read today, and the three “Do you love me? Yes, I like you, Feed my sheep” statements we will read in chapter 21 go together. I think that is clearly the author’s intention, so we will come back to this in detail just before New Year’s.

The other thing here is the first trial of Jesus. This Gospel is the only one to tell us about this pre-trial. There really was no reason for this interrogation, Annas was not the high priest at the time. But he had been the high priest a generation before and he was followed by five of his sons and son-in-laws. So Annas was the real power ruling all things related to the Temple and the official expression of religion in occupied Palestine. And by all accounts, he was a greedy, oppressive ruler constantly concerned with expanding and protecting his political power and economic mini-empire. It is no wonder, then, that they took Jesus to him first. He was the one actually in charge and the one who probably felt most threatened by Jesus and his teaching.

The last thing to mention today is the episode of police brutality in v. 22. We know where this story is headed, of course, so this can seem like small potatoes. Plus, we have plenty of examples of this sort of thing from the movies and shows we watch. In the Dark Knight, for example, Batman brutally beats the Joker while he is in custody, and we are meant to accept that because the Joker is the personification of evil (his only motivation is chaos, he has no identity or history), which somehow justifies Batman violating his own ethic. We come away thinking the Joker deserved what Batman did to him (and even more). Here we don’t think Jesus deserved this, but he was about to die anyway, so what difference did this make? But think of how inappropriate this is. Imagine a person being questioned by a grand jury and then the bailiff suddenly beating that person.

Or don’t bother imagining. Just the other day, I blogged (click here to read it) about a recent case in Raleigh where Shon McClain who was being held awaiting trial (because he could not afford bail) was killed by police brutality. The officer who killed him was sentenced to 90 days in jail – 90 days for taking another man’s life. A letter to the editor on the N&O website asked why McClain was even in jail. Someone responded in the comments by listing every item in his criminal record, as if this list of previous misdeeds justified his death.

I encounter this attitude so often. My ethics students are generally okay with any level of government wire-tapping. They think only those with something to hide would have a problem with it. By the same logic, only people who are already in trouble have to deal with the police and the potential for brutality. If you put yourself in that sort of situation, you get what you deserve, right? Except here we have Jesus, taking the side of those who ‘get what they deserve,’ Jesus the object of police brutality. And our tendency is still to exceptionalize this – Jesus only gets this treatment because he is doing what we don’t have to do, he is taking our punishment. But as Shon McClain shows us, there is still punishment left untaken, still people who suffer and die at the hands of others, even those entrusted with authority. Some Christians talk a lot about the “wages of sin” being “death” but what they don’t often say is that the sin of one often results in the death of another. Likewise, the other side of that coin, “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” is taken to mean some form of spiritual magic, when what it should mean is that the followers of Jesus can never again look on violence as a logical consequence or as just desserts. How can we worship a God beaten by the police and not have empathy, not stand in solidarity, with all other victims of violence by those in authority? Our heroes are too often purveyors of violence, but our Lord stands with those who receive violence. We should too.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.