When it came time to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Jewish High Priest went a bit overboard. We are not told exactly how many soldiers and thugs the Jewish priest rounded up to make the arrest, but it was significant.
Matthew and Mark describe the arresting force as a ‘great multitude’ (ochlos polus) armed with clubs and swords:
“And while He was still speaking, behold, Judas, one of the twelve, with a great multitude with swords and clubs, came from the chief priests and elders of the people” (Matthew 26:47).
“And immediately, while He was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, with a great multitude with swords and clubs, came from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (Mark 14:43).
Luke describes it as a large group of men (ochlos) without adding the adjective great (polus).
“And while He was still speaking, behold, a multitude; and he who was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them and drew near to Jesus to kiss Him” (Luke 22:47).
It was obvious from these gospel writers that the force used to arrest Christ was huge, but John provides the best clue into how many men were involved and without exaggeration it probably numbered in the hundreds.
3 So Judas, having obtained the Roman cohort and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, *came there with lanterns, torches, and weapons. (John 18:3 NASV)
John uses the Greek word, spira, to describe this band of men. This term referred to a military unit in the Roman legion, a cohort.
It was generally made up of 480 well-trained and armed Roman soldiers but could range in size from 300 to 600 men. Ten cohorts, roughly 5,000 men, would make up a legion.
So literally there were hundreds of Roman soldiers involved in the arrest of Jesus. They were undoubtedly the soldiers assigned to the Tower of Antonia, a Roman fortress constructed in Jerusalem by Herod the Great to protect the Jewish Temple.
According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, the fortress had a large 75-foot tower on one of its corners referred to as the Tower of Antonia that towered over the Jewish temple.
Josephus describes the tower/fortress this way:
The general appearance of the whole was that of a tower with other towers at each of the four corners; three of these turrets were fifty cubits high, while that at the south-east angle rose to seventy cubits and so commanded a view of the whole area of the temple.
“For if the Temple lay as a fortress over the city, Antonia dominated the Temple & the occupants of that post were the guards of all three,” Josephus wrote.
But in his description of the arresting force, John adds that in addition to the Roman cohort, there were also officers.
Who were these officers?
This referred to the Levitical or Jewish police force that was used to provide security for the Temple. They were the temple police who enforced any judgements from the religious court or Sanhedrin.
They were armed, and it was undoubtedly the temple police who arrested the apostles in Acts 5 and had them thrown in a public jail:
17 But the high priest stood up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy. 18 They laid hands on the apostles and put them in a public prison. (Acts 5:17-18 NASV)
So the Jewish priests used an overwhelming force to arrest Christ. Perhaps they were anticipating some resistance from the disciples. It is possible that Judas told the priests that a few of the disciples had purchased swords (Luke 22:36).
But during the Lord’s arrest, Jesus indirectly addressed this Roman cohort stating He could have called on 12 legions of angels, if the Lord had wanted (Matthew 26:53).