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The Trial Before the Sanhedrin

To study the accounts of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin requires us to have a deeper understanding of the working of that Jewish council.

These considerations show that the account of Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin by Mark (and copied by Matthew and Luke)could not be historical.

The Sanhedrin

Our knowledge of the Sanhedrin comes from the writings of Josephus and Jewish rabbinical literature.

The Sanhedrin, as we mentioned, was the supreme court of the Jewish nation. It is composed of 71 members drawn mainly from priestly families and lay families known for their wealth and racial purity. The high priest under the title of Nasi (prince) presided over the assembly. [1] Two major religious parties were influential in the Sanhedrin during the time of Jesus: the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

The Sadducee constituted the majority party in the Sanhedrin. The high priest himself is a Sadducee. As a religious party, the Sadducees existed between 150 BCE and 70 CE. They do not believe in angels, demons or bodily resurrection. The members are mainly wealthy land owners and people from priestly families. The Sadducees then were people who had a comfortable and good life under the Romans and are the group with most to lose from any disturbance in the equilibrium. They were therefore collaborators with the Romans and supporters of the status quo. History tells us that their fears of disequilibrium were well justified; for after the Jewish revolt of 66 to 74 CE, any Jewish privileges granted by the Romans were lost. The Sadducees, as a religious party disappeared after the Jewish War, a direct casualty of that revolt. [2]

The Pharisees formed an influential minority in the Sanhedrin. As a group they appeared in Jewish history about the same time as the Sadducees. These two groups, however, have unbridgeable theological differences. The Pharisees, like the Christians that were to appear on the scene later, believed in angels, demons and the bodily resurrection. The differences between these two main Jewish parties arose from their attitude toward the oral law. The Pharisees believed that the Torah is to be supplemented by oral tradition that sought to interpret and develop it. The Sadducees, on the other hand, believed that the written law is a closed and final revelation that requires no further interpretation and elaboration. Also unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees were a dispossessed party seeking neither political power nor material wealth. As such, they were very popular with the lay people of Palestine. It was through the efforts of the Pharisees that the Jewish faith was kept alive in the towns and villages throughout the land. Judaism, as we know it today, is a direct spiritual descendant of the theology of the Pharisees. [3]

Very strict rules guide the procedures of the Sanhedrin:

  • Just as in modern courts of law, the council has a special meeting place called the Gazith (Chamber of Hewn Stone), which is part of the Temple. They do not meet anywhere else.
  • Its sessions start at 9am in the morning and close at 4pm in the evening.
  • An interval of 24 hours must elapse before the conclusion of the testimony and the rendering of a verdict.
  • The Sanhedrin is never convened on Sabbaths, religious holidays and especially the passover which was the most important feast in the Jewish calender. This is clearly stated by the Misnah (Sanhedrin IV:1) and Maimonides (Hilkot Sanhedrin XI:2): "Trails involving capital punishment may not be held on the eve of the Sabbath or a festival."
  • The Sanhedrin also does not hold any meeting at night. [4]
Having equipped ourselves with a basic, albeit brief, understanding of the Sanhedrin, we will now proceed to study the trail of Jesus before the Sanhedrin as accounted in the gospels.

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Procedural Errors in the Markan Account

Let us first present the Markan account:

Mark 14:53-65 (Matthew 26:57-67)
[Immediately after Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane]#*
53 They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests and teachers of the law came together...55 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. 56 Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. 57 Then some stood up and gave false testimony against him: 58 "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.'" 59 Yet even then, their testimony did not agree. 60 Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?" 61 But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" 62 "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the son of man sitting at the right hand of the mighty one and coming on the clouds of heaven." 63 The high priest tore his clothes. "Why do we need any more witnesses?" he asked. 64 "You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?" They all condemned him as worthy of death. 65 Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, "Prophesy!" And the guards took him and beat him.

That Mark intended the trail to mean a formal trial before the Sanhedrin cannot be doubted. For this is obviously what he meant in verses 53 and 55 above. This account however, immediately contains difficulties:
  • Error #1: The Sanhedrin convened at the high priest's house
    Mark mentioned that the Sanhedrin met in the house of the high priest while all our other sources on the Sanhedrin tells us that the council does not convene anywhere else except in the Chamber of the Hewn Stone in the Temple. [5]
  • Error #2: The Sanhedrin met at night
    The Sanhedrin was said to have conveyened immediately after Jesus was arrested and taken to the high priest's house. This was after the Passover supper and the prayer at Gethsemane which makes the council meet around 9 to 10pm at night. This is again incompatible with what we know of the procedures of the Sanhedrin which disallows nocturnal meetings. [6]
  • Error #3:The Sanhedrin conveyed on the passover
    To add to the absurdity, this night, if we are to believe the synoptic chronology, was passover eve and by Jewish reckoning already the 15th of Nisan, passover itself. As many eminent Jewish scholars have pointed out, this is simply inconceivable, given the strict ruling of no council meetings on the Sabbath, and on religious feast days, such as the passover. [7] We quote the Jewish scholar, Joseph Klausner from his book Jesus of Nazareth (New York 1925):

    the Sadducees themselves would not have conducted even a simple judicial enquiry either on the night of the passover or the first day of the passover...the mishnah lays it down that capital cases may not be judged on the eve of a Sabbath or on the eve of a festival to avoid delay should the case not be finished that day, since all trials were forbidden on a Sabbath or a festival. [8]

  • Error #4: The Sanhedrin pronounced the death sentence immediately
    Another procedural impossibility is given in Mark 14:64 which includes the sentence: they all condemned him as worthy of death. This means that the sentence was passed on the same day instead of the prescribed interval of twenty four hours. [9] These procedural flaws in the Markan account weighs heavily against any claims of historicity for the episode described there.

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Other Difficulties with the Markan Account

However procedural flaws are not the only problem with the Markan account of the trial of Jesus. In Mark 14:58 we are told that some people came forward with false testimony. Yet what they falsely claimed Jesus said, according to Mark, was precisely what the gospel of John claimed that Jesus did say: [10]

John 2:18-19
Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."

We also have a passage in Acts (6:14) which seems imply that the above statement was actually uttered by Jesus.

Another problem with the Markan account is associated with the question asked by the high priest in Mark 14:61. Remember that Christ is simply the Greek word for messiah. Mark had the high priest made the association of being a messiah with being the Son of God. No Jewish priest, let alone the high priest, would have made that connection in the divine sense in the gospels. The Jews simply did not consider the messiahship to have a divine status. [11]

Furthermore the high priest's assertion (Mark 14:64) that Jesus committed blasphemy in his reply (Mark 14:62-63) makes no sense. It was not an offence for a Jew to claim to be the messiah because eventually, according to their belief, someone has got to be he. It is no blasphemy, though of course it could be a mistake, in claiming the title of messiah for oneself. [12] The claim Jesus made, as being seated at the right hand of God does not necessarily have any divine connotation for himself, as the Jewish scholar Rabbi Morris Goldstein stated:

Use of the phrase "Son of the Blessed" or "Son of God" was no capital crime. The reference to sitting at the right hand of power (Mark 14:62) is not greatly different from King David's allusion to himself sitting at the right hand of God (Psalms 110:1), at all events, it is nowhere indicated as blasphemy. [13]

And finally Mark 14:65 had members of the Sanhedrin spitting and striking Jesus. This is another patently absurd claim as another Jewish scholar, Hyamm Maccoby noted:

As to the reports that members of the Sanhedrin spat on Jesus and stuck him, this is just as incredible in the proceedings of that highly dignified body as if it were reported of the high court of England or the supreme court of the United States. [14]

In short almost every point in the Markan account of the nocturnal trial of Jesus is incompatible with what we know of the Jewish council. In short Mark's account is fiction; and poor fiction at that!

In the morning, according to Mark the Sanhedrin met again:

Mark 15:1
Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders and the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and turned him over to Pilate.

This account is subject to some of the procedural difficulties we have already noted for the nighttime trial. Namely that it was held on the passover and that a decision was reached less than twenty four hours after the conclusion of the testimony. Another difficulty, a question asked repeatedly by skeptical scholars, is this: if Jesus was condemned for blasphemy (i.e. a crime in Judaism) why was Jesus not sentenced to death by stoning or strangulation in accordance to the Jewish Law? [15] The Torah is unambiguous about this:

Leviticus 24:10-23
Now an Israelite woman's son...blasphemed the name and cursed. And they brought him to Moses...And the Lord said to Moses; "...He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him..." So Moses spoke to the people of Israel; and they brought him who had cursed out of the camp, and stoned him with stones.

Neither Mark nor Matthew attempted to explain why Jesus was handed over to Pilate and sentence to die by crucifixion. For crucifixion was essentially a Roman penalty. [16]

In Luke's account, the nocturnal trial in Mark was omitted but Luke's story of the trial in the morning is still subject to the same objection as against Mark's, for the trial was conducted on passover day itself, something we have seen as impossible. Luke's story of the trial before the Sanhedrin is as unhistorical as Mark's.

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1.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p380
Hinnels, Dictionary of Religions: p285
Nineham, Saint Mark: p400
2.Hinnels, Dictionary of Religions: p279
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p71-72
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p86-87
3.Hinnels, Dictionary of Religions: p251
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p72-74
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p86
4.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p380
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p202
5.Ibid: p202
6.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p381
Guignebert, Jesus: p463
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p202
7.Guignebert, Jesus: p463
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p202
Nineham, Saint Mark: p400-401
8.quoted in Yerby, Judas, My Brother: p515
9.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p381
Guignebert, Jesus: p463
10.Nineham, Saint Mark: p406
11.Ibid: p406
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p407
12.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p203
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p103
13.Morris Goldstein, Jesus in the Jewish Tradition, Macmillan, New York 1953 quoted in Wilson, Jesus:The Evidence: p103
14.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p202
15.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p384
Guignebert, Jesus: p463
Nineham, Saint Mark: p403
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p141
16.Guignebert, Jesus: p463
Nineham, Saint Mark: p403

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