Palm Sunday of the Passion: trials, failures, and betrayals

Jesus Condemned by michael o'brianThe Jewish Trial Before the Sanhedrin (26:57-68) The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is quite lengthy and so will not be included here. It can be found at the USCCB website.

R.T France (2007, p.1016) writes, “This is the point at which Jesus’ death is sealed; all that follows involving the Roman prefect is only the formal implementation of a verdict already decided by the Jewish authorities.” This is a conflict that has been growing unabated since the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and has reached the point where the religious authorities are simply looking for the basis upon which they can seal Jesus’ fate. But for the moment he is in their power and he Jesus has preciously little to say. The events unfold and Jesus appears as helpless before the hearing by Jewish religious leaders. It is not likely that this is a formal trial that occurs at Caiaphas’ house, but rather an ad hoc meeting of senior people to agree on, first, the need to have Jesus executed (this being a matter of Jewish law), and secondly, an appropriate tactic to induce the Roman governor to impose the death penalty (which would, of course, require a charge of which Roman law could take cognizance). The formal Jewish trial begins, as suggested by 27:1, later when the whole Sanhedrin has assembled. Whatever the official status of the gathering, the Evangelists leave us in no doubt that it was not an unprejudiced hearing, but was convened specifically to “put him to death.”

Yet it is in this scene of apparent helplessness that Jesus provides the climatic statement of who he is in response to the authorities’ urgent demand for Jesus to tell them plainly if he is the promised Messiah or no. Jesus does not answer the question in the direct manner the authorities desire, his answer in v.64, far from retracting any messianic claims, escalates them to a level that the judges cannot ignore – even if they had been inclined to do so.

But even then the judges miss the point. Jesus is not concerned with earthly judgment, his words in v.64 point to heavenly judgment and authority, and to the day when Jesus will come as judge of all. The climax is not here, but anticipates that moment when Jesus proclaims, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me… (28:18) – from now on (26:64).

While the authorities may have missed the point, they do not lack decisiveness. France (1989, p.386-7) writes: “Blasphemy in the Old Testament carried the death penalty by stoning (Lev. 24:10–23); it was therefore in Jewish law a sufficient ground for a capital conviction. The ritual tearing of robes (see Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:5) marked its seriousness, as this action was otherwise expressly forbidden the High Priest, even in a context of personal mourning (Lev. 21:10). Just how Jesus’ words constituted blasphemy is disputed. He had carefully avoided pronouncing the divine name (see on v. 64), which was the later strict definition of blasphemy (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:5). To claim to be Messiah was hardly in itself blasphemous—it might after all be true! But to claim to be God’s anointed in such an improbable situation (helpless, deserted by his followers, rejected by the leaders of God’s people) might well be seen as ‘taking God’s name in vain’, especially when the title ‘Son of God’ has been included in the claim, and when the words of v. 64 are added to this (sitting at God’s right hand in glory), the total claim does indeed constitute ‘an offensive encroachment on the prerogatives of God’—unless, of course, it was true. Jesus’ words thus left only two choices open to the authorities, either to accept his claim or to condemn him for this ‘blasphemy’. They apparently did not find the choice difficult.”

Beyond this, the proceedings descend into undignified abuse. Some scholars have noted that the robe-tearing, spitting and slapping are symbolic acts of disassociation. In this the authorities join the disciples who in fact have and will disassociate themselves with their Lord and Savior.

Peter’s Failure (26:69-75) Jesus’ bold confession before the highest authorities contrasts with Peter’s failure to do the same before their servants. In the background stand Jesus’ words about the importance of acknowledging him before men (10:32–33). In the foreground is the progressive aggravation of Peter’s sin, both in the increasingly public nature of the challenge (one girl—one girl speaking to the bystanders—the bystanders as a group) and in Peter’s response (evasion—denial under oath—cursing Jesus). The importance of the story is that even the great Christian leader of the church failed – and that even the one who denied and curse the Christ repented and became a faithful disciple, entrusted with the mission of Christ.

Jesus Is Transferred to Roman Authority (27:1-2) At the conclusion of their all-night hearing the religious authorities must now find a way of having their verdict implemented. The death penalty could be imposed only by order of the Roman governor and a charge of ‘blasphemy’ would carry no weight with him. It was therefore necessary that the elder took counsel over an appropriate charge, and also, no doubt, over appropriate persuasive tactics. They could not expect an easy time of it, as Pilate the governor (AD 26–36; his official title was ‘praefectus’) was notorious for his obstinacy in refusing to accommodate to Jewish prejudices, his portrait in non-Christian Jewish sources being considerably less flattering than that in the Gospels (See Josephus, Ant. xviii. 55–62, 85–89).

The Death of Judas (27:3-10) This story interrupts the sequence of Jesus’ trial. It can hardly fit chronologically between the decision to hand Jesus over to Roman authority (which is apparently its immediate cause) and its sequel in vv. 11ff., as it shows the priests apparently in the temple, with leisure to debate the buying of a field. But Matthew has appropriately inserted here the tradition of what happened to Judas, perhaps in order to form a suggestive contrast with the fate of Peter. Each is thus seen to have fulfilled Jesus’ prediction (26:24 for Judas; 26:34 for Peter), but Peter’s bitter weeping (of repentance?) contrasts with Judas’ despairing remorse and suicide. Matthew’s focus on Judas (26:14–16, 21–25, 47–50) is thus brought to its climax in a grim warning of the results of deliberate apostasy (as opposed to Peter’s temporary lapse under pressure).

The modality of suicide, hanging, is nowhere else mentioned in the NT – there is however a notable OT hanging: Ahithophel, King David’s friend who betrayed him when the Davidic kingdom was under attack (2 Sam 17:1-23). For Matthew, the story becomes another expression of the conflict between kingdoms and the lot of those who cast themselves with the wrong side – here it is Judas who has chosen other than the kingdom of the Son of David.

Even though Judas seemingly died in private despair, he stands apart from the high priests who sought to kill Jesus, collected false witnesses, but have no remorse or regret. At least Judas knew he had chosen wrongly. [See Notes on Mt 27:5 and Mt 27:7 below regarding blood money and the potter’s field].

Matthew 26:57 took him to Caiaphas…scribes and elders: Given the context of the longer narrative, it is clear that this encounter begins during the nighttime hours. By later Mishnaic law a capital trial could not be held during the night, and so it is possible that the ‘trial’ took place in two stages, first an informal, hastily convened gathering to determine the charge against Jesus, followed by a more formal verdict pronounced by the full Sanhedrin in the morning. But perhaps it is more likely that Matthew and Mark are speaking of a single protracted sitting which finally reached its verdict at day-break

Matthew 26:64 You have said so: Many scholars hold that this answer is an idiom which is affirmative in content (I am the Messiah, Son of God) , and reluctant or circumlocutory in formulation (but I am only telling you because you asked.)

Matthew 26:74 to curse and to swear: some translations adds “on himself” which are not in the Greek, and the verb used (katathematizō, equivalent to Mark’s anathematizō, to ‘pronounce anathema’, cf. 1 Cor. 12:3; 16:22) does not elsewhere refer to a curse on oneself except where (as in Acts 23:12, 14, 21) this is explicitly stated. Did Peter then actually pronounce a curse on Jesus (as later Christians were required to do as proof of their apostasy)? If Matthew and Mark have understandably refrained from stating this explicitly, it is the probable implication of the words they have used.

Matthew 26:75 Peter remembered… While the other Gospels all at least imply the subsequent rehabilitation of Peter (it is most explicit in John 21:15ff.), Matthew will not mention him by name again. Perhaps, in view of Peter’s subsequent history, he assumes that it is obvious; and no doubt he expects his readers to cast their minds back to passages like 16:17–19; 19:27–28. He may even have given deliberate hints to this effect in 12:32 and in the ‘acted parable’ of 14:28–31. Here, however, Peter’s failure and remorse are unrelieved, and Jesus’ shocking prediction in vv. 31–34 is amply fulfilled.

Matthew 27:2 handed him over to Pilate: It is often said that the Jewish leadership did not have the authority for capital punishment during Roman occupation and notably during the prefecture of Pilate. This notion has been disputed by several scholars, however, their cited sources all seem to point to exceptions. The statement of John 18:31 seems to represent the historical situation that the Jewish leaders needed to have Pilate implement a death warrant against Jesus.

Matthew 27:3 deeply regretted: The NAB avoids the pitfall of other translations which sometimes translate metamelomai as “repented,” which is not the word usually so translated in the New Testament (which usually implies a resulting forgiveness); its only other New Testament uses are in 21:29, 32; 2 Cor. 7:8; Heb. 7:21. It is thus appropriate to convey the idea of remorse without suggesting Judas’ salvation.

Matthew 27:4 innocent blood is a familiar Old Testament expression, occurring for instance in Jeremiah 19:4. The question of responsibility for the ‘blood’ of Jesus will recur in vv. 24–25, where the same words will be used, together with the formula of dissociation. Look to it yourself. So Judas, despite his remorse, is unable to off-load his guilt; but at the same time the return and use of the blood-money also implicates the chief priests and elders, thus adding to the accumulated blood-guilt already spelt out in 23:29–36.

Matthew 27:5. Flinging the money into the temple: echoes Zechariah 11:13; there it was a gesture of defiance by the rejected shepherd against the authorities of the nation, and here too the implication of the word for temple (naos, properly the inner sanctuary, where only the priests were allowed to go) may be again to implicate the priests, who will now be obliged to pick up the blood-money. hanged himself is a word used nowhere else in the New Testament, but in LXX 2 Samuel 17:23 it describes the suicide of Ahithophel, David’s friend who betrayed him; did Matthew therefore deliberately use it of the betrayer of the Son of David? The question of how far this is physically compatible with the gruesome account in Acts 1:18 has been the subject of much lurid imagination, but Matthew’s matter-of-fact statement does not suggest that he was interested in the precise cause of death.

Matthew 27:7 to buy the potter’s field: The priests’ decision to buy the potter’s field with the price of blood is basic to the fulfillment of Scripture in the next verses; but it also provides a suggestive derivation for the traditional name Akeldama, Field of Blood, which Acts 1:18–19 also associates with Judas’ death, though in a different way. The traditional site of Akeldama is in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potter’s clay (hence the previous name, ‘potter’s field’?). If Matthew knew this location, the association with Jeremiah 19:1–13 would be obvious, since that passage is about burials in the valley of Hinnom, which has become a ‘place filled with innocent blood’, to be called the ‘valley of Slaughter’, the whole scene being focused on a ‘potter’s earthen flask’. But the potter also appears mysteriously in Zechariah 11:13, as the recipient of the thirty pieces of silver ‘in the house of the LORD’. The Syriac version of Zechariah, by altering one letter, reads ‘treasury’ for ‘potter’, and it is often suggested that Matthew knew both readings and has exploited the variant in his ‘exposition’. But the ‘treasury’ plays almost no part in his narrative—it is the ‘potter’ and the ‘house of the Lord’ (both in the Hebrew text) that form the central features of these verses, and which therefore are the key to the claim of fulfillment. The treasury, perhaps the source from which the money had been paid to Judas, would be the natural place to deposit money left in the temple, but its use as blood money made it unclean. A burial-ground (itself an unclean place) was a suitable use for it.


  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007) 90-100
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 463-97
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 503-40
  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 976-1095
  • T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 364-410
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 361-407
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 898-902
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 620-97
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 313-58
  • Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 335-369


  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

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