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I really don't get it. Why did the soldiers trying to arrest Jesus go backward and fall to the ground in John 18:6? Was it because they realized that he was the I AM? If so, then why did they arrest him anyway?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Nathaniel, Lee Woofenden, Mr. Bultitude, Matt Gutting, Andrew Jul 6 '16 at 21:14

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    Note: Although the existing answers understand the quote to correlate with the tetragrammaton (Ex 3:14), there is a significant scholarly position suggesting that the 'I am' statements in John instead correlate with ănî hûʾ from Isaiah (e.g. 43:10). For more on that, please see this very informative answer given in response to a question of mine on hermeneutics.SE. – Susan May 14 '15 at 6:33
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Here are a few commentaries on this verse from Christian Bible scholars. To a large extent, they agree with your suspicion that the men were reacting to Messiah's use of the words "I AM," and the authority with which he spoke them. Parenthetical notes are the original authors'.

From Elliot's commentary for English Readers:

They went backward, and fell to the ground.—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). (Comp. Note on John 8:24-25.) Guilt trembled before the calmness of innocence. Man fell to the ground before the presence of God. To Judas the term must have been familiar, and have brought back a past which may well have made him tremble at the present. To the officers the voice came from Him of whom they had been convinced before that “Never man spake like this man” (John 7:46). They have come to take Him by force, but conscience paralyses all their intentions, and they lay helpless before Him. He will surrender Himself because His hour is come (John 17:1); but His life no one taketh from Him. For this sense of awe in the presence of Christ, comp. the account of the cleansing of the Temple in John 2:14 et seq.

From MacLaren's Expositions of the Holy Scriptures:

‘I am He!’ When the Band were thus doubly assured by the traitor’s kiss and by His own confession, why did they not lay hands upon Him? There He stood in the midst of them, alone, defenceless; there was nothing to hinder their binding Him on the spot. Instead of that they recoil, and fall in a huddled heap before Him. Some strange awe and terror, of which they themselves could have given no account, was upon their spirits. How came it about? Many things may have conspired to produce it. I am by no means anxious to insist that this was a miracle. Things of the same sort, though much less in degree, have been often enough seen; when some innocent and illustrious victim has for a moment paralysed the hands of his would-be captors and made them feel, though it were but transiently, ‘how awful goodness is.’ There must have been many in that band who had heard Him, though, in the uncertain light of quivering moonbeams and smoking torches, they failed to recognise Him till He spoke. There must have been many more who had heard of Him, and many who suspected that they were about to lay hands on a holy man, perhaps on a prophet. There must have been reluctant tools among the inferiors, and no doubt some among the leaders whoso consciences needed but a touch to be roused to action. To all, His calmness and dignity would appeal, and the manifest freedom from fear or desire to flee would tend to deepen the strange thoughts which began to stir in their hearts.

From Barnes' Notes on the Bible

hey went backward ... - 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.

Other commenters give similar commentary. As for your second question, "why did they arrest him anyway?" I'll give another sample from MacLaren, though the emphasis is mine:

Thus, then, we may see in that picture of our Lord’s surrendering Himself that His trembling disciples might go free, an emblem of what He does for us, in regard to all our foes. He stands between us and them, receives their arrows into His own bosom, and says, ‘Let these go their way.’ God’s law comes with its terrors, with its penalties, to us who have broken it a thousand times. The consciousness of guilt and sin threatens us all more or less, and with varying intensity in different minds. He died because He chose; He chose because He loved. His love had to die in order that His death might be our life, and that in it we should find our forgiveness and peace. He stands between our foes and us. No evil can strike us unless it strike Him first. He takes into His own heart the sharpest of all the darts which can pierce ours. He has borne the guilt and punishment of a world’s sin. These solemn penalties have fallen upon Him that we, trusting in Him, ‘may go our way,’ and that there may be ‘no condemnation’ to us if we are in Christ Jesus.

In summary, MacLaren's answer is that they still arrested him because it was his divine will to be arrested in place of his disciples, and also to suffer and die in their place, and indeed in our place.

  • @Max You're welcome! It's a good question. As a note, I relied on the biblehub website to write this answer. The website has a tool that allows users to simultaneously consult multiple commentaries for a single verse. In addition, interlinears, codices, and other resources on the same verse are easily accessible by links in a tool menu. Try it out! – Andrew May 13 '15 at 17:50
  • Out of the scholars quoted in this answer, only Elliot's commentary for English Readers seems to agree with the men reacting to Messiah's use of the words "I AM". Anyway the notion that that simple expression had any sort of authoritative meaning during the first century is patently ridiculous. A more likely reason is that the soldiers, upon realizing that that is Jesus, were fearful of what he might do based on what they had heard about him (the reported miracles) rather than simply his use of the term "I AM". – coderworks Jul 4 '16 at 14:21
  • @coderworks I'm sure the authors of these commentaries would be happy to hear your criticism if they weren't all long dead. – Andrew Jul 5 '16 at 2:49
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In first century Greek parlance, ego eimi (ἐγώ εἰμί "I am") was used to refer to the God of the Jews, in the belief that this was the meaning of the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH, which was thought to mean "I am that I am." John's Gospel, written in Greek, often uses plays on words and, in this case, has Jesus say "I am" when the priests think he is telling them that he is God. They are so stunned by what they see as blasphemy that they fall backwards. Thus, John is mocking the priests, who do not know that Jesus is God, but the readers had already learnt this information.

  • This has the rudiments of a good answer. It would be greatly helped by incorporating some supporting references into the answer itself, both for the first point (about the meaning of ego eimi in first century Greek parlance) and for the second point (about detachment being stunned by the blasphemy). Also, I expected that the "Hebrew Tetragrammaton" link would lead to an explanation of that term, but instead it led to a supporting reference on the usage of ego eimi that you had explained. – Lee Woofenden May 14 '15 at 1:47
  • @LeeWoofenden I have rearranged my references and added some clarification. (I'm sorry, I tend to assume that the tetragrammaton does not need explanation, a fault on my part.) – Dick Harfield May 14 '15 at 4:39
  • Just to be clear, my issue on that point wasn't that the Tetragrammaton needed explaining (it may or may not), but that a "Tetragrammaton" link led to an explanation of ego eimi--which could be a bit confusing. – Lee Woofenden May 14 '15 at 4:54
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To apprehend the theological meaning of this passage we need to take into account three data items:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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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"I" look at the passage as these soldiers were "a band of men and officers FROM the chief priests and pharisees" (ref John 18:3). This "band of men" probably didn't know who Jesus was and were fully expecting a battle of sorts. These men were going on a command from the chief priests. The chief priests were not there, as they were too afraid and sent soldiers instead. I'm sure the nerves of these men were on a VERY high alert as were all involved, with the exception of Jesus. "I" think the "falling to the ground" was a way of describing their surprised action when Jesus, without hesitancy, admitted who he was, without any sort of aggression or doubt. These were somewhat scared soldiers expecting a fight, and their reaction was of alarm. "I" think this was just the best way the writer could describe the soldiers reaction, as we also can't take other passages in the scriptures literally.

  • As for the question of "why did they still arrest him." The soldiers were purely acting on duty. They did what they were told. I'm sure they were pleased when he went willingly in lieu of the battle they were most likely expecting. – Fletch Jul 30 '15 at 19:04
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The band of people were staggered by the open admission of Jesus when asked who He was because of the sheer weight of the truth of His being in place of being devious about Himself by lying! and remember He said ego eimi which is I AM.That's the POWER of unadulterated truth.Why did Saul fall of the horse when he was basked in heavenly light during his journey to Damascus in Acts 9:3-6 at his conversion. The presence & power of Jesus slays people to a stupor when confronted by sinful humanity even now.

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