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John's Version of the Trial Before the Jewish Authorities

Having seen earlier that the synoptic accounts of the Sanhedrin trial is unhistorical it is now time to look at John's version of events.
  • The fourth evangelist's version of the trial before the Jewish authorities is radically different from the synoptic accounts.

  • A detailed analysis of the account shows that the whole story is a creation of the author(s) of the gospel of John. There are three main problems with the account:

Together these three issues make a very strong case that the author of John probably know no more than the authors of the synoptics as to what transpired that night - which was close to nothing.

John's Version of the Trial Before the Jews

First let us look at the passage in full:

John 18:12-31
12 Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish official arrested Jesus. They bound him and 13 brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. 14 Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it would be good if one man died for the people

15-18 [Account of Peter's first denial]

19...Meanwhile the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. "I have spoken openly to the world," 20 Jesus replied. "I have always taught in synagogue or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. 21 Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said." 22 When Jesus had said this, one of the officials near by struck him in the face. "Is this anyway to answer the high priest?" he demanded. "If I had said something wrong," 23 Jesus replied, "speak up about it. But if I spoke the truth, why did you hit me?" 24 Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas, the high priest

25-27 [Account of Peter's second and third denial]

28...Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" 30 "If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed it over to you." 31 Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him with your own law." "But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected.

It must be stated that, prima facie, John's account of the "trial" of Jesus is inherently more plausible then the accounts in the synoptics. First, there is no account of a procedurally impossible night time trail before the Sanhedrin. Second, John's chronology makes the Passover fall on a Sabbath, the interrogation on Thursday night is not subject to the same objections as the accounts in Mark, Matthew and Luke. According to John what transpired was just some hasty overnight interrogation by Annas and Caiaphas.

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The Identity of the High Priest

In John 18:13 Jesus was described as being brought to Annas, who was the father-in-law of the high priest at that time Caiaphas. This is correct historically, for according to Josephus, Annas had been deposed of the high priesthood in 15 CE by Valerius Gratus. Caiaphas was the high priest from 18 to 36 CE. However the following narrative is inconsistent. After interrogation (narrated in 18:19-23), we are told that Jesus was then sent to Caiaphas (18:24). This means that Caiaphas, the high priest, could not have been present during this interrogation. Yet in 18:19, we are told that it was the high priest who questioned Jesus!

Then after being told that Jesus was sent bound to Caiaphas' house (18:24), nothing is mentioned about what happened there. As immediately after Peter's second and third denial (18:25-27), the narration continues by stating that Jesus was sent from Caiaphas' place to Pilate (18:28).

Some theologians have tried to harmonized this account. John Marsh, in his book Saint John, suggested a few , mutually contradictory, ad hoc explanations: [1]

  • The title "high priest" in 18:19 may have been "loosely applied" to Annas

  • The reference in 18:19 could have been to Caiaphas after all and either
    • 18:24 have been misplaced and should have been in its proper place after 18:13
      or
    • Caiaphas was present in Annas' house and the reference in 18:24 refers to Jesus being sent to Caiaphas' house for a more "formal" investigation.
All the above show a clear mark of desperation and even Marsh admits that none of the above attempts "is entirely free from difficulty." Let us list the "difficulties" each of this attempt at resolution lies.

  • For the title to be "loosely applied" to Annas can only mean that whoever wrote the account no longer has any idea of who the high priests was.

  • The suggestion that 18:24 comes after 18:13 meets with a formidable difficulty: it is not supported by the majority of manuscripts. It is supported by only two very late minuscule manuscripts (12th century) and one fifth century version (the Sinaitic Syriac). These three variant manuscripts can easily be understood as that of the copyists trying to improve on what they see to be a problem with the flow the text. This have led textual scholars to conclude that the current verse sequence as it stands in the gospel is the original order. [2]

  • The suggestion that Caiaphas was doing the interrogation at Annas' house also has its problems. If one reads the whole interrogation (18:19-23), the verse immediately following ("Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas, the high priest") does not fit this at all. For the term "then Annas", seems to imply it was Annas that was doing the interrogation prior to this. Furthermore the story of Peter's first denial (18:15-18) narrated how the "other disciple" who, together with Peter, were following Jesus from some distance, "went in with Jesus to the high priest's court". (18:15) This shows that Annas' place (18:12) is synonymous with the high priest's place! Finally suggesting that a more "formal" investigation took place subsequently at Caiaphas place faces the same difficulty as we have pointed out earlier in the case of the synoptic accounts of the trial - the procedural rules of the Sanhedrin disallow nocturnal sessions.

These difficulties cannot be resolved and showed that there is an ambiguity in the current text as we have it as to who is actually the high priest. If this text is original as it stands - it shows that during the time the account was penned down it was no longer clear who was high priest during that time.

Some critical-historical scholars have suggested that the original story merely mentioned Annas as the high priest with no mention of Caiaphas. A later redactor, noticing this error, made four additions to the text in an attempt to correct this. In 18:13 he added the phrase "who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas" to correct the error of who was the high priest. Furthermore adding the fact that Annas was the father-in-law of Caiaphas provides a reasonable excuse as to why it was that Jesus was sent to the former. He added 18:14 to tie it in to an addition made earlier in John 11:49. He added 18:24 and 18:28. Once these four additions are removed, the passage reads very smoothly: [3]

John 18:12-28 [Reconstructed]
Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish official arrested Jesus. They bound him and brought him first to Annas, the high priest that year. The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. "I have spoken openly to the world," Jesus replied. "I have always taught in synagogue or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said." 22 When Jesus had said this, one of the officials near by struck him in the face. "Is this anyway to answer the high priest?" he demanded. "If I had said something wrong," Jesus replied, "speak up about it. But if I spoke the truth, why did you hit me?" Then the Jews led Jesus to the palace of the Roman governor.

In both cases (whether the text is original as it stands or whether it was edited at a later date) the fact remains that the author (or authors) thought either that there were two high priests during that time or that Annas was the high priest during that time. Both these mistakes were also made by Luke (see Luke 3:2 and Acts 4:6).

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The Artificial and Contrived Nature of the Interrogation

Furthermore the account of the interrogation and what follows are clearly artificial and details seems to be constructed out of Old Testament passages. This is what the scholars of the Jesus Seminar had to say about the interrogation by Annas:

The exchange between Jesus and Annas is clearly the product of the imagination of the fourth evangelist. Jesus' remarks in vv. 20-21, in response to Annas' question about his disciples and his teaching, pictures Jesus as in complete control: he had always taught in public to anyone and everyone who would listen, so what he had said should not be a mystery to so eminent an authority as the high priest (Annas is referred to as the high priest in vv. 19,22). The slap on the cheek by one of the police was to remind Jesus of the respect he should have for that exalted office; it is also reminiscent of the treatment received by Micaiah when he prophesied truthfully but negatively about King Ahab, in contradiction to what the other court prophets had said. Zedekiah, one of the false prophets, slapped Micaiah on the cheek for speaking contrary to the other prophets and against the king (1 Kgs 22:5-28). [4]

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The Right to Carry Out Capital Punishment

Finally that when the Jews handed Jesus over to the governor, they were told by Pilate to try the Galilean prophet themselves. The Jews objected to this by saying that they had no right to execute anyone. This completely contradicts what we know from other historical sources.

It is a historical fact that the Jews did have a right to pass a sentence of death for a religious crime. There is archaeological evidence to support this. Archaeologists discovered incised stone notices of the Jerusalem Temple which warns of the death penalty for any Gentile who trespass the temple's exclusively Jewish areas. These stone notices can be found in the Archaeological Museum at Istanbul and in the Rockefeller Museum at Jerusalem. The stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8-60), if historical, also supports the case that the Jews have a right to carry out capital punishment. [5] [a]

The mistakes regarding the high priests, the artificial nature of the interrogation and the mistakes regarding the right of the Jews to apply capital punishment shows us why many scholars assert that the account in the gospel of John did not come from an eye witness but is an invention of the author(s). [6]

We thus have irreconcilable difficulties in all the different versions of the trial before the Sanhedrin (and in John's case- before the interrogation by high priest and his father-in-law). In none of this account do we have any strong reasons to accept their essential historicity. In fact we find many reasons to reject them all as false.

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Notes

a.Some scholars (see for instance Robin Lane Fox’s The Unauthorised Version Penguin 1992 :page 293) have claimed that this inscription and the example of the stoning of Stephen merely refers to the right of the temple authorities to lynch someone to death.. It is ludicrous that this could actually be suggested, that putting someone to death without a formal trial is permissible to the Roman authorities but giving them a fair hearing was not.

References

1.Marsh, Saint John: p591
2.Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: p251-252
3.Funk et.al., The Acts of Jesus: p429-431
Guignebert, Jesus p462-463
Ludemann, Jesus After 2000 Years: p560-561
4.Funk et.al., The Acts of Jesus: p430-431
5.Brandon, The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth: p90-92
Guignebert, Jesus: p463
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p204
Wilson, Jesus:The Evidence: p103-104
6.Crossan, Who Killed Jesus: p114-117
Funk et.al., The Acts of Jesus: p429-431
Guignebert, Jesus p462-463
Ludemann, Jesus After 2000 Years: p560-561

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