Baker Academic

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Assessing Jesus' Trial without the Talmud

I just got an email in my inbox from my friend Michael Cook. He writes:
Dear Colleagues,
I've been asked whether a Jewish scholar could assess Jesus' Sanhedrin trial with no recourse whatsoever to Rabbinic Literature -- to the discrepancies often tallied up between general capital trial procedures noted in the Talmud and those the Gospels specified in Jesus' case. 
I myself happen to deem rabbinic jurisprudence entirely irrelevant to this subject -- maybe that's why the question is sometimes posed to me. For those interested in my recommended alternative approach, please consult my brief 2,700 word essay just posted on the Internet, and titled: 
"Is Jesus' Nighttime Sanhedrin Trial anAggrandizement of Friday Morning's 'Consultation'"?
With all good wishes. Michael
(Rabbi) Michael J. Cook. Ph.D.


  1. (1) Unlike Rabbi Cook, I don't see an inconsistency in Jesus's ignoring false testimony against him and in his answering direct questions to him about who he is.

    (2) It's not clear that Mark thought there was a re-convening of the Sanhedrin early Friday morning. He could just be stating that the same body that held the hearing is now considering what to do.

    (3) I guess it's possible that Peter's denial was fictional. But to make up such a story about one of the pillars of the Christian community? It's difficult to believe that such a story would be accepted by the community, unless there was already an oral tradition that it had occurred. If we reject the notion that Peter's denial was fictional, then I think such a story only makes sense in the context of the courtyard of the high priest, which validates the Sanhedrin trial or hearing.

    (4) Mark, like the other Gospels, makes it clear that Jesus was popular among the Jewish population at large, and that it was only among the Jewish political leadership that he was not accepted. Thus the need for a night-time trial, in order to keep it secret from the Jewish population. If Mark had wanted to distance the Christian community from the Jewish community, one would think that he would have had the entire Jewish population reject Jesus, instead. Thus, I think Rabbi Cook's reasons for rejecting the Sanhedrin's trial as historical seem rather weak.

    (5) Further, we understand why the Sanhedrin's theological interest in Jesus would be different from Pilate's political interest in Jesus, and why they would react the way they did to Jesus telling them he was the Son of man of Daniel 7. It's the sort of thing that rings as historically true.

    1. Bilbo –

      (1) I don’t think you have described Rabbi Cook correctly here. He’s not merely drawing a distinction between Jesus ignoring false testimony and answering direct questions. Rabbi Cook also points out that Jesus also ignored a direct question from the Sanhedrin about the false testimony, and from Pilate on having an answer. In fact, Jesus is silent throughout, except to answer two questions regarding who his is. But I think I agree with you, I see no reason why Jesus might not have decided to mostly remain silent.

      (2) You argue that Mark’s Friday morning “consultation” is a continuation of Thursday night’s trial. If so, what was there to consult about on Friday morning? Per Mark, the Sanhedrin condemned Jesus to death on Thursday night. So come Friday morning, what was left to consider? I think here that Rabbi Cook has made a strong point.

      (3) I’ll skip this one.

      (4) I agree that Mark portrays Jesus as being popular with the crowd … up until chapter 15, that is. By this point, the crowd has turned against Jesus. In any event, it makes no sense to me to argue that the authorities tried Jesus at night in order to keep things secret – not when Jesus’ torture and execution were themselves conducted in the usual public way.

      (5) This is too complicated a question to discuss in a blog comment.

    2. (2) The Sanhedrin thinks Jesus is guilty of blasphemy, but such a charge will not suffice for Pilate to pronounce the death penalty. They must decide what other charges they will present.

      (3) Both Mark and the other Gospels state that the Jewish authorities wanted to arrest Jesus in secret, because of fear of the Jewish crowds. I suspect that Mark and the other authors were referring to the Jewish Galilean crowds, which would have been present and surrounding Jesus during the day. To try to arrest Jesus then would have been rather risky and unpredictable. Would the Galileans start an uprising? The problem was that when evening approached, Jesus and probably most of the other Galileans retired to Bethany and surrounding areas, out of the immediate reach of the Temple guards. To try trekking that distance and arresting him at night and returning to Jerusalem would also have required great risk. Jesus helps the authorities out by staying in Jerusalem Passover night and then remaining isolated in the garden of Gethsemane. Judas is then able to notify the authorities where they can find Jesus alone, with only his immediate disciples surrounding him.

      So the arrest can be carried out in relative secrecy. Next, what to do with Jesus? Again, waiting until daybreak and having a public trial would be very risky. The Jewish Galileans would have returned by then and who knows what might happen? So a summary trial of some sort is held -- enough to provide some semblance of legitimacy so that all Jewish political and religious authorities can agree that Jesus deserves death. When they turn Jesus over to the Roman authorities, what they want is a seal of approval from the Temple authorities, so that both Judeans and Galileans know that this isn't just Roman interference in Jewish matters.

      Whatever crowd there was against Jesus would most likely have consisted of Judeans or Jerusalemites, who weren't as familiar with the Galilean, perhaps even people bribed by the authorities. By the time the Galilean crowd returned to Jerusalem, the trial would have been over, and perhaps the execution would have already taken place. Or at any rate, the Galileans would have been too insignificant a group to oppose both the local authorities and Rome.

  2. Further, if Mark wanted to tone down the Christian community's ties to Jewish Messianic hopes, it seems the last thing he would do is have Jesus admit to both the Sanhedrin and to Pilate that he was the Messiah, the king of the Jews!

  3. I've come up with a new hypothesis about the "trial" of Jesus before the chief priests. Is it plausible that they were originally only looking for political charges that they could bring before Pilate that would result in the death penalty for Jesus? When the high priest asks Jesus, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?" he is asking Jesus a political question. The "Son of the Blessed" phrase was understood only as a figurative title of the Messiah, the king of the Jews, not a literal one. Jesus answers, "I am, and you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven." He admits that he is claiming to be the Messiah, the king of the Jews, and thus giving them their grounds for accusing Jesus before Pilate of political crimes against Rome. But then, the second part of Jesus's statement seems to be directed to the title that the high priest used. Jesus is saying in effect, "That title isn't figurative, it's literal." And now Jesus has given the council grounds for bringing the theological charge of blasphemy against him, which is something they were not originally looking for. And now there is a need for an official, religious trial before the Sanhedrin, which must be performed according to strict standards. Thus there is a reconvening of the council at daybreak.

    I am curious if my hypothesis has any merit.