The Jewish Trial Before the Sanhedrin

57 Those who had arrested Jesus led him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. 58 Peter was following him at a distance as far as the high priest’s courtyard, and going inside he sat down with the servants to see the outcome. 59 The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward 61 who stated, “This man said, ‘I can destroy the temple of God and within three days rebuild it.’” 62 The high priest rose and addressed him, “Have you no answer? What are these men testifying against you?” 63 But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him in reply, “You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.’” 

65 Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You have now heard the blasphemy; 66 what is your opinion?” They said in reply, “He deserves to die!” 67 Then they spat in his face and struck him, while some slapped him, 68 saying, “Prophesy for us, Messiah: who is it that struck you?” (26:57-68)

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.