In recent years, Americans have been bombarded by one sensational criminal trial after another—each one, it seemed, the "trial of the century." Ironically, this exposure may have given us new eyes for appreciating the details of what Christians believe to be the trial of all time: Jesus bar Joseph v. Sanhedrin.
How would today's legal analysts characterize this 2,000-year-old trial of a carpenter's son from the backwaters of Galilee? What would they single out as the highlights, the crucial turning points? How would they understand the charge brought against Jesus?
Using the last chapters of the Gospel of Mark as their legal brief, the analysts would probably begin with the end—with the blunt fact that the defendant loses the case andgets executed. Then they would zero in on a series of tactical blunders the defendant makes that ultimately cost him his life.
We know that Jesus, after having been betrayed by one of his own followers, was hustled under tight guard to stand before the Sanhedrin, an assembly of Jewish religious leaders whose chief priest at the time was Caiaphas. Fearing the worst, his disciples fled. Peter, however, ventured as far as the building where Jesus was taken for examination. While sitting around a fire with some soldiers in an outside courtyard, Peter feigned ignorance of the controversial teacher being interrogated inside. He knew all too well why his master had been arrested and did not wish to share the same fate.
Because Israel at this time was a puppet Jewish state under the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire, the Sanhedrin did not possess the legal power to sentence a person to death. Only the Roman magistrates could do this. So the assembled Jewish leaders on this Thursday night looked to find some basis for bringing Jesus before the governor—and they tried to do so swiftly since Pilate would be in Jerusalem only for the week of the Passover festival that was just beginning.
To appreciate the importance of this hearing, we must recall the controversy that had attached itself to Jesus' ministry over the preceding three years. Not only had his miracles and his claims to authority made the religious officials in Jerusalem nervous; Jesus' approach to Sabbath practice, healings, exorcisms, and sinners ended up challenging the existing religious structure of Judaism.
In short, Jesus was a reformer of Judaism, calling the nation of Israel to repentance. John the Baptist had done this before him, but there was a major difference: John prepared the way for the era of decisive reform, only calling for a heart ready to respond to the changes God might bring; Jesus claimed to bring that reform. If Jesus were left to lead the people in his unique way, Judaism would never be the same. An official examination before the religious leaders, it is now clear, was inevitable.
It is often suggested that the Jews broke their own legal rules to bring Jesus before the Romans. Often those making this point have used it not to question the breaking of the rules but to show that Mark did not accurately understand Jewish history and blundered in writing his account of Jesus. Or worse yet, Mark and the early Christian community were skewing the facts—creating an anti-Semitic fiction—to slander the Jews by making them, and not the Roman Gentiles, responsible for Jesus' death.
The fact is that these rules, while not written down until about a.d. 170 in the Mishnah, did record an older oral tradition. One section of the Mishnah, titled "Sanhedrin," describes the legal process required in a Jewish trial where the defendant faces possible death. It states that the high priest should not participate in the questioning, the verdict cannot be given on the same day as the trial, blasphemy requires God's name be explicitly pronounced, and someone is required to speak on behalf of the defendant.
None of these things is in the record of Jesus' examination. But recent research—including my own—shows that the Jewish leadership very likely did not view this hearing as a formal trial but more as something comparable to a grand jury inquiry. Since they would not be able to make the decision to put Jesus to death, Jewish rules concerning a capital trial did not apply to this case. All they were considering was whether Jesus could be brought before the Romans as a political subversive. Could he be viewed as such a public threat that Rome would wish to remove him?
A public threat
In an effort to find if Jesus could be tried for a political crime, the questioners began by reviewing Jesus' statements about the temple. Already in Jesus' day the temple had become the center of a "church-state" compromise in which the Romans treated the temple with an exceptional respect. History had taught them that anything less could lead to public chaos or worse.
The ancient Jewish historian Josephus notes several disturbances in Jerusalem during this era that had inflamed the Jewish crowds. One occurred shortly after Jesus' death when a Roman soldier "mooned" the Jewish crowd from a temple portico during a festival, creating a public riot that left the streets strewn with bodies. And both Jews and Romans were ever conscious of the Maccabean revolts, which began in 167 b.c. when a Gentile ruler marched into the temple and sacrificed a pig. The act, representing the enforced Hellenization of Palestinian Jewish culture, so inflamed the Jews that they waged a three-year war to free themselves from Syrian rule.
Even the Roman governor Pilate, who would sentence Jesus to death after he had been handed over to him by the high priest, had brought trouble upon himself by placing banners with eagles on them in Jerusalem to indicate Jewish subservience to Rome. Josephus writes that "when the Jews again petitioned him [to remove the standards], he gave a prearranged signal to his soldiers to surround them, and threatened to punish them with immediate death if they did not end their riot and return to their own homes. But they threw themselves on the ground and bared their throats, declaring that they would gladly welcome death rather than dare to transgress the wisdom of their laws." Pilate, astounded at the firmness of their guarding of the laws, immediately transferred the images from Jerusalem to Caesarea.
In the light of this history, Jesus' remarks about the temple and his actions would have been considered nothing less than explosive, and it is little surprise that the Sanhedrin focused on this potent issue. Yet Mark 14:53-60 tells us the presentation of witnesses got nowhere with this issue: "Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, 'We heard him say, "I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands." ' But even on this point their testimony did not agree." The Sanhedrin needed to find another avenue of challenge.
A fatal misstatement
At this point Caiaphas moved the inquiry toward another potential political charge. Urging Jesus to defend himself, Caiaphas asked, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?"
Three points in his question are important. First, the term Messiah refers to the promised King of Israel, making the query a political and not just a religious one. Claiming to be Messiah was not necessarily blasphemous; in itself it was not a claim to divinity. But a positive answer to the high priest's question would mean that the leaders could take Jesus to Pilate and claim that the teacher claimed to be a king who would deliver Israel from her Gentile enemies. The hope for such a king was found in the Hebrew Scriptures, was feared by King Herod at the time of Jesus' birth, and was reflected in recent Jewish works, such as Psalms of Solomon 17-18.
Second, the term Son of the Blessed One did not mean all that it does to Christians today. It was a regal title held by God's anointed (2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2).
And third, the Jewish practice of showing reverence for the name of God by not pronouncing it can be seen in the way Caiaphas calls God "the Blessed One." This detail indicates the authenticity of Mark's account.
Jesus' reply gave the leaders far more than they dared hope for. And it was on this point that today's legal analysts would agree Jesus got himself into trouble—of all the questions he had refused to answer, he should have taken the Fifth on this one. Jesus replies simply, "I am," and then goes on to raise the stakes of his claim—"and 'you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,' and 'coming with the clouds of heaven.' "
Combining allusions to Daniel 7:13-14 and Psalm 110:1, he evokes images of a figure who is given authority to vindicate God's people. The phrases seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven make it clear that Messiah was not all that Jesus claimed to be. To come in the clouds was a figure of speech reserved for deity (Num. 10:34; Ps. 104:3; Isa. 19:1).
Though Jesus shared the sense of reverence for God's name by referring to him as the Power, his claim was that he would be placed at God's right hand, serving as the one who represents and vindicates God's people. This was more than saying he represented God's presence to the people as the priest does when he goes into the earthly Holy of Holies. Jesus was claiming his own presence, and authority came directly from above.
Mark records that, at this, Caiaphas "tore his clothes and said, 'Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?' All of them condemned him as deserving death."
Anyone who understands how the Jews felt about the holiness and uniqueness of God's presence would appreciate how unusual (and offensive) Jesus' claim sounded. Neither is it incidental that the New Testament later used the phrase "at the right hand" 14 times to proclaim Jesus' authority as the promised one of God. (A few Jewish works did contemplate the possibility of a great luminary such as Moses or Enoch going into God's presence to aid in his work, but such claims were highly controversial.)
For the Sanhedrin, this Galilean teacher was no great luminary. Jesus simply and confidently proclaimed that this position at God's right hand would be his and that God would justify his claim to that position. In fact, he said that he would one day judge the very leaders examining him. The real trial one day would be his.
The last word
Jesus' answer sets the stage for a story that today would lead the evening news of all three major networks. Speaking over a video clip of the high priest ripping his robe, the analysts would explain how Jesus not only had affirmed he was Messiah—getting himself into political trouble by threatening the existing government leadership—but also had made a second tactical blunder through raising the religious ire of the Sanhedrin by blaspheming their God. This, along with his denying the judicial authority of the Sanhedrin, gave the counsel even more reason to dislike him and push for a death sentence under the Romans.
At this point, Jesus is taken before Pilate. The political charge works and stirs the emotions of the crowd in urging Pilate to release the insurrectionist Barabbas instead of Jesus. Jesus is sentenced and crucified—a figure no more important to world history, so far as anyone can tell, than Barabbas or the other troublemakers who keep reproducing themselves in Palestine.
The legal analysts would describe Jesus' fate as the result of his poor defense strategy. And they would be right, except for one overlooked possibility: that Jesus had spoken the truth about being Messiah, the kind that would judge from the right hand of the Father. Three short days later that truth set Jesus free; God literally raised Jesus from the dead. What had been a very bad Friday suddenly looked like Good Friday. Or as one exceptional legal analyst by the name of Paul saw it, Jesus "was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:4). What better defense could there be?
Darrell L. Bock is research professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary and associate pastor at Trinity Fellowship Church. He lives with his family in Dallas, Texas.
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