(Jn. 18:3) Was a Roman cohort really necessary?

CLAIM: John writes that Judas brought a “Roman cohort” with him and the Pharisees and chief priests to arrest Jesus. Merrill Tenney writes, “The Greek word for ‘detachment of soldiers’ (speira) has been traditionally rendered ‘cohort,’ from the Latin cohors, which denotes a tenth of a legion, or about six hundred men.”[1] Is it really historically plausible that the Pharisees would have hired a 600-soldier battalion to arrest just one man?

RESPONSE: Several observations are in order:

First, there may have been a mob in addition to the soldiers. Matthew and Mark note that a mob of people also came out to see Jesus arrested, carrying “swords and clubs” (Mt. 26:47; Mk. 14:43). Was this the same group as the Roman battalion, or were they different? If this was a separate mob, then this would make sense of the Roman battalion. They would have been sent to quell a potential riot.[2]

Second, the Temple police had tried (and failed) to apprehend Jesus before. John had already mentioned that the Temple police hadn’t been able to arrest Jesus (Jn. 7:32, 45-47). It appears that they finally called in the reinforcements.

Third, if Jesus really was a miracle worker, then this would account for the battalion. These people were not modern-day atheists. These were first-century believers in the supernatural (i.e. pagan Romans or monotheistic Jews). Thus, hearing of Jesus’ miraculous reputation, they might have feared that he would be very difficult to arrest. This would make sense of verse 6, which states, “When [Jesus] said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.” Apparently, even the Roman soldiers were scared of arresting Jesus. In fact, they had good grounds to be scared. If Jesus had wanted to, he could’ve easily conquered this battalion (Mt. 26:53).

[1] Merrill C. Tenney, “John,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: John and Acts, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), p.168.

[2] Andreas Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), p.505.