Easter. The Passion of Jesus XII. The Jewish Trial: Sanhedrin and a bunch of interesting questions.

Part 13, here.
Part 11, here.

You can read the whole series here.

The Jewish Trial: The Sanhedrin.

Jesus is now alone, that is, his friends are gone. Mark says that they led Jesus to the High Priest, and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes were assembled. Peter followed at a distance, into the courtyard of the high priest, he sits with the police, warming himself at a fire (remember, it’s Passover-ish time of year). Mark is setting up the two parts of the narrative he’s going to explore: the interaction with Jesus and the High Priest and the interrogation of Peter. These are simultaneous events, not consecutive. For the trial part, Mark says that “the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death.”

In the Jewish Law commentary (Mishnah, it became operative Law) which becomes more or less fixed by the end of the second century AD there’s a volume titled, Sanhedrin. It’s described as a kind of intellectual enterprise, they are courts of scholars, deciding how the Law applies in various policy issues. Like so much of Jewish tradition after the destruction of the temple, things are different. There is just one Sanhedrin in Jesus’ Jerusalem, and its status derives from the connection to Pilate. There are no chief priests in 200AD. The temple is gone, never to return (except perhaps for the threat of Julian the Apostate after Constantine). It’s a different world. One could think of Mormon high councils in early Utah, vs. their function in the twentieth century. It’s an evolution driven by destruction of political power, but that function always has the overtone of religious thought.[16]

For Mark, it’s an accelerated justice. They’re all ready for Jesus. The High Priest leads the body, and in Mark, it’s at night. Matthew gives a name to the High Priest: Caiaphas. After the Romans took over the region to quiet the infighting of Jews after the Maccabean conflict, they now decided who would be High Priest. Instead of a life appointment, it was changed with some frequency, depending on the Roman governor’s perception of cooperation, or as a demonstration of power. And Caiaphas’s father-in-law, Annas was the previous High Priest and Annas plays a role in Jesus’ trial in John’s narrative.[17] Caiaphus is a skilled ecclesiastical politician (Pilate keeps him on during his whole tenure), but not exactly noble. Chief priests in plural probably refers to the fact that they tended to have limited tenure, and some of the past High Priests were still alive, hence chief priests, though only one was in power at the time. The elders are wealthy nobles, and we have the names of two of them in the Gospels, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea, Matthew says Joseph is wealthy, Nicodemus buys a hundred pounds of spices for Jesus’ burial, and that represents a lot of money.

The Gospel writers portray that the fix is in, there are false witnesses (Mark). Mark says the witnesses say Jesus said that he would destroy the temple made with hands (the word actually refers to the sanctuary, not the whole temple and its ancillary side structures) and in three days make a sanctuary not made with hands. John has YOU will destroy this temple, so did the prosecution misquote him? Mark doesn’t say what’s wrong with this, but possibly he has conflated the solution in his space of testimony: with hands, without hands. Perhaps the falseness is in regard to the interpretation. There are linguistic reasons for believing that the with hands, without hands is really an added explanation for Greek speakers. And it’s a common New Testament motif to see the Christian community as a spiritual structure built on Christ and the apostles (however, the Pauline apostles are a broader category than just the Twelve at Jerusalem), etc.

The interesting thing about the trial is these complaints are not those that Jesus is critiqued for during his ministry. You can make an easy list: not keeping the sabbath is a common one. Associating with sinners is another. But these are from Pharisees, and the Sanhedrin doesn’t seem to contain Pharisees. The things that disturbed the priestly class? Bad mouthing the temple. You could easily end up dead for criticizing the temple (cf. Stephen, and there are a lot of other examples: demolishing the temple in Samaria (125BC), and conspiracies against the high priesthood in Egypt, attempts to kill the Essenes—who didn’t like the Jerusalem temple calendar). And then there are the narrations of Jesus getting angry over temple commerce (debates exist over the nature and historicity of that, but it’s still a possibility and it would fit, and it echoes Jeremiah) and the court probably had mixed reasons, a combination of religious and personal ones.[18] Matthew changes the temple prediction, and doesn’t make it prophecy. He writes “I am ABLE to destroy this temple . . . ” That removes much of the tension in one sense, but keeps the claim to power.

Mark: the High Priest asked Jesus if he had any answer to these charges. Jesus is silent and perhaps this is theological, a reference to the suffering servant of Isaiah 52, 53, who goes to his death in silence. Then Mark has the High Priest ask Jesus directly,

Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, I am, and you will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of the Power, coming with the clouds of heaven. And the High Priest tore his mantle and said, why do you still need witnesses, you have heard his blasphemy, what is your decision? They all condemned him as deserving death.

Blasphemy was a pretty broad category in this era and included various types of irreverence. In later centuries it becomes very precise: you have to mention the name of God for one thing. There’s an interpretive problem here over what the text means by Messiah. In Mark’s era, this probably means the unique Son of God as Christians understood the term. Jews of 70AD would see this claim as blasphemous and this imperils the position of Christians as Jews and the critique of Christians by Jews is altogether different than the one in 30AD (centuries later, the picture is further complicated by divisions over Christology). This later Jewish critique is found in John’s Gospel, which was written well after these difficulties between Jews and Jewish Christians had blossomed.

In Jesus’ own time, what might the High Priest have meant? The picture is different there. There isn’t a Christian proclamation. What is the Christological picture there? Perhaps the High Priest’s main intention is to put the title of King on Jesus. That might be interesting to the Romans who care much more about politics than religion. Judea had a king at the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great. But that was a political matter with Rome and it came from the Jewish support for Julius Caesar and through subsequent rulings by Augustus, making Herod an ally king.

Now Matthew changes Mark in Jesus’ answer to Caiaphas. Jesus doesn’t deny he’s the Messiah, but he doesn’t confirm it exactly. He says, “so you say.” And it’s hard to know what tone is in play here with Matthew. Perhaps this reflects the reinterpretation of Messiah in Matthew’s era, ca. 80AD, say. Whatever may have been said in such a trial, the questions about temple and Messiah are probably a good distillation of the thoughts of Marks’ time as far as Jesus was concerned and at least part of the reason why the authorities disliked him. I’ll come back to this.

At this point in Mark, Sanhedrin members hit Jesus, slap him, spit on him, and challenge him to prophesy, and this may have been a point for requiring death. The Law was very strict for false prophets. The part about the temple desecration and Messianic claims may have been uncomfortable, but false prophecy was without question a more serious issue=instant death (Deut. 13, 18). Centuries later, the Talmud appeals to this issue as the reason for crucifixion. He’s identified as a sorcerer. There’s no way to know if this was in play in 30AD however. But it is interesting. To this slapping, spitting, and taunting, Matthew adds back in the charge of being Christ. We find out later that Mark tells of a temple veil being torn, the sanctuary is destroyed in effect, at Jesus’ death. So the alleged prophecy comes true.


[16] The Sanhedrin Mark writes of seems to be a temporary council, called into being at need, possibly made up by different characters at different times. When Josephus speaks of the Sanhedrin, it’s like Mormon government pre-high council era, 1831-1834. Ad hoc groups of 12 or 24 high priests decided issues. Josephus: a Sanhedrin, not *the* Sanhedrin. The priests were probably always members, wealthy influential elders claimed a space. Numbers probably varied. Another problem is where the Sanhedrin met. The issues of location seem confused by the precise era when Jesus died.

[17] Caiaphas remains in office for the whole time Pilate is in office, 26AD-36AD. The high priesthood was controlled by families. Annas was High Priest, Joseph bar Caiaphas was High Priest, and Annas had five sons and a grandson who also had a stint at the high priesthood. It’s a dynasty, and the rabbinic literature is negative in discussing the high priesthood in the era. They are seen as corrupt, operating in a pay for play system with the Romans. [Helen Katherine Bond, Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus?; Brown, Death of the Messiah, 2:340-58; 429-60; James VanderKam, From Joshua to Caiaphus: High Priests after the Exile, 467.

[18] Brown, 1:422.


  1. Interesting series, WVS. Great insights into the Gospel accounts. Unfortunately, you are also a master of the comma splice.

  2. Yeah, I apologize for the editing or lack of same. I just wrote this up as it came out of my head more or less. Then split it up into parts. It’s not a literary masterpiece for certain. No time for that.

  3. Clark Goble says:

    The best blogging is when it’s more like a conversation rather than a paper. No one speaks fully grammatically. Keep up the great posts WVS.

  4. Thanks, Clark.

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