The Interrogation (“Trial”) of Jesus before the Sanhedrin
The “trial” of Jesus, which the Gospel Tradition preserves in two episodes—(1) an interrogation by the Sanhedrin and (2) and examination by the Roman governor (Pilate)—has been one of the most hotly debated aspects of the Passion narrative, primarily in terms of the historicity of the differing Gospel accounts. I will not be dealing extensively with all the historical-critical questions, but I address certain points related specifically to the Sanhedrin episode in a supplemental note.
There would seem to be three primary lines of tradition preserved:
- What we may call the core Synoptic tradition, represented by Mark and Matthew
- The Lukan version, which only partly follows the Synoptic, and
- The Johannine, which differs considerably in various ways
Even though many critical scholars feel that John preserves the most accurate historical detail and ordering of events, I will continue the method in this series of beginning with the Synoptic Tradition, represented primarily by the Gospel of Mark.
Mark 14:53-72; Matthew 26:57-75; Luke 22:54-71
The Markan outline of the episode is as follows:
- Vv. 53-54—Introduction, establishing the two scenes:
- (a) The assembly of the Chief Priests, Elders and Scribes—i.e. the Council (Sanhedrin), v. 53
- (b) Peter waiting outside in the courtyard of the High Priest, v. 54
- Vv. 55-65—Jesus before the Council (Sanhedrin, synédrion), which may be divided into three parts:
- Vv. 66-72—Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus
- Vv. 53-54—Introduction, establishing the two scenes:
I will be discussing the scene of Peter’s denial in more detail in an upcoming note (on the Peter traditions in the Passion and Resurrection narratives). It is important to emphasize two facts:
- The essential outline of the three denials, and the basic setting/location, are common to all four Gospels, indicating an extremely well-established and fixed tradition. The three-fold denial can be assumed (on objective grounds) to derive from a reliable historical tradition, since a single denial surely would have been sufficient in terms of its place and value in the narrative.
- The specific details with regard to how each denial took place—where and when it occurred, who was involved, etc—differ considerably between Mark/Matthew, Luke and John. Even between Mark and Matthew, otherwise so close at this point, there are key differences. This indicates that the precise details surrounding the denials were not nearly so well-established, and remained fluid in the way they were presented by each Gospel writer. For a convenient comparative chart showing the many differences in detail, see R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29, 29A (1970), pp. 830-1.
Each Gospel writer understood the dramatic power of the denial scene, and felt free to explore and express this creatively. Consider the slight but significant difference between the introduction in Mk 14:54 and Matt 26:58—the description of Peter in the courtyard is very close, except for the final words which set the dramatic tension:
- Mark creates a vivid visual picture: “…and he was…warming himself toward the light [i.e. in front of the fire]”
- While Matthew has a more psychological orientation: “..and he sat… (waiting) to see the completion [i.e. how things would end]”
The rooster crow of the original tradition is also extremely evocative, indicating that Peter suddenly awakes to realize what he has done. The effect is emphasized by his sudden weeping (in remorse/regret); Matthew and Luke share a detail in common here, specifically stating that Peter went away (outside of the courtyard): “…and going outside he wept bitterly” (Matt 26:72; par Lk 22:62). The rooster crow, together with Peter’s reaction, is the climactic moment of the episode in Mark/Matthew.
Luke (22:54-71) treats the scene differently in the way he has ordered events, placing it first in the episode, ahead of the interrogation of Jesus. The effect of this is two-fold:
- It makes Jesus’ response to the Council (vv. 66-71) the climactic moment of the episode, and
- It joins Peter’s denial to betrayal of Jesus by Judas (vv. 47-53 + 54-62), just as the author does in the Last Supper scene. In the earlier episode this appears to have been done, in part, to emphasize the theme of true and false discipleship, by connecting the prediction of Judas’ betrayal (vv. 21-23) to the prediction of Peter’s denial (vv. 31-34) with a short block of teaching (vv. 24-30) between.
In contrast to the accounts in Luke and John, Mark and Matthew portray the scene of Jesus before the Council in terms of a formal trial, with witnesses and the delivery of a sentence. This portrait informs the structure of the scene, with its three parts.
Part 1—The Witnesses against Jesus (Mk 14:55-59; Matt 26:59-62)
The Synoptic tradition here records that the Council desperately sought to find witnesses against Jesus (to support a sentence of death), but they could find no reliable testimony. The only charge brought against Jesus was a report of a saying regarding the Temple (the so-called “Temple saying”); interestingly, Matthew and Mark differ in the wording of this (as it was reported in the narrative):
“I will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine made-with-hands, and through [i.e. after] three days I will build another (house) made-without-hands” (Mk 14:58)
“I am able to loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] the shrine of God, and through [i.e. after] three days to build (the house again)” (Matt 26:61)
Mark and Matthew both state that this report was made by false witnesses, presumably implying that the report was false (i.e. that Jesus never said any such thing). The closest we come in the Synoptics is Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction in Mark 13:2 par. However, the Gospel of John records a saying by Jesus rather similar to that which is reported by the “false” witnesses:
“Loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (again)!” (Jn 2:19)
If we accept this as an authentic saying by Jesus, occurring at the time of the Temple “cleansing” scene (located close to the Passion narrative in the Synoptics), then the report of the “false” witnesses could certainly reflect the memory of such a saying. The Gospel of John, of course, specifically interprets the saying in 2:19 as referring to the death and resurrection of Jesus himself (vv. 21-22)—an interpretation most appropriate in the context of the Passion narrative. For more on the Temple saying (and cleansing) traditions, cf. my earlier notes and article on the subject.
Part 2—The Question by the High Priest (Mk 14:60-62; Matt 26:62-64)
The initial question by the High Priest (identified in Matthew as Caiaphas) relates to the testimony of the “false” witnesses, and to this Jesus gives no answer (Mk 14:60-61a). The second question is central to the episode (and the entire Passion narrative), as well as serving as the climactic statement regarding the identity of Jesus within the Synoptic Tradition. In Mark, the exchange is:
For more on this saying, see my earlier notes and the article on the title “Son of Man” in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. The Son of Man saying here is an allusion both to Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1—Scripture passages which were enormously influential in shaping early Christian thought regarding the nature and identity of Jesus. As I have argued elsewhere, in the Son of Man sayings with an eschatological orientation, Jesus appears to identify himself specifically with the heavenly figure called “Son of Man” (from Daniel’s “one like a son of man”, 7:13)—who will appear at the end-time to deliver God’s people and oversee the Judgment on humankind. Early Christian tradition associated it specifically with the image of the exalted Jesus seated at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56, etc).
Matthew’s version of the Son of Man saying (26:64) is close to that in Mark, but the question by the High Priest shows signs of development—i.e., it has been shaped to echo the confession by Peter in 16:16:
- Peter: “You are the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God”
- Caiaphas: “I require an oath out of you, according to the Living God, that you would say (to us) if you are the Anointed One, the Son of God!”
For more on the differences in this scene, see below.
Part 3—The Judgment and mistreatment of Jesus (Mk 14:63-65; Matt 26:65-68)
The reaction to Jesus’ response—in particular, the identification of himself as the heavenly/divine “Son of Man” —results in the charge of blasphemy, i.e. that he has insulted (vb. blaspheméœ) God by claiming divine status and attributes. This is the basis for their decision that he is one who holds on him [i.e. against him] the (grounds for) death (énochos thanátou estin). The mistreatment of Jesus is parallel to the more expanded tradition of his being mocked by the Roman guards (Mk 15:16-20 par), and would certainly be seen as a fulfillment of the Passion prediction in Mk 10:32-34 par.
Luke 22:54-71 and John 18:12-27
As noted above, Luke has the scenes in reverse order from that of Mark/Matthew, resulting in three distinct parts:
The question of whether Luke has the more correct historical order of events is discussed in the supplemental note on the Trial episode. I mentioned the significance for the author of joining together the failure of the two disciples—Judas (the Betrayal, vv. 21-23, 47-53) and Peter (the Denial, vv. 31-34, 54-62)—to bring out the theme of true discipleship, found in vv. 25-30 and the double exhortation of the Lukan Prayer scene (vv. 40, 46). The unique detail of Jesus turning to look at Peter following the rooster crow (v. 61a) probably should be taken as parallel to the words of Jesus to Peter in vv. 31-32—a sign of care and concern. The connection also serves to enhance the dramatic moment when Peter realizes what he has done, and how it had been foreseen by Jesus (v. 61b).
The Lukan version of the Council scene, though clearly drawing upon the same basic tradition as Mark/Matthew, is presented in a very different form. Apart from the morning setting (v. 66a, cf. the supplemental note), Luke’s version has the following differences:
- There is no reference to the witnesses or Temple-saying (see above), thus removing the sense that this is a formal trial.
- Luke presents the Council as a whole questioning Jesus, rather than the High Priest specifically (vv. 66b, 70a [“they all said…”]). The Council plays a similar collective role in Luke’s version of the Roman trial scene (23:13ff, 18ff).
- The question involving the titles “Anointed One” and “Son of God” is divided into two distinct questions, separated by the Son of Man saying by Jesus (vv. 67-70):
- “If you are the Anointed One, say (it) to [i.e. tell] us” (v. 67)
- Jesus: “…but from now on the Son of Man will be sitting out of the giving [i.e. right-hand] (side) of the power of God” (v. 69)
- “Then you are the Son of God…?” (v. 70)
Historical considerations aside, this arrangement may be intended to make a theological (and Christological) point—namely, that Jesus is something more than the Anointed One (i.e. Messiah) as understood by the traditional figure-types of an expected end-time Prophet or Davidic ruler. The allusion to Psalm 110:1 reminds us of the interesting tradition, set in the general context of the Passion (the last days in Jerusalem), in which Jesus discusses the meaning and significance of this verse (Mk 12:35-37 par). For more on this, cf. my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed” (esp. Part 8, and Part 12 on the title “Son of God”).
While the form of the Son of Man saying is relatively fixed between the Synoptic Gospels, that of Jesus’ initial answer to the question(s) by the Council differs markedly. In Mk 14:62, Jesus gives a clear affirmative answer: “I am”, while Matthew’s version (26:64) is much more ambiguous— “You said (it)”, and could be understood in the sense of “You said it, not me”. Because Luke records two separate questions, Jesus gives two answers:
The second Lukan answer seems to combine both the Markan and Matthean forms—truly an interesting example of variation and development within the Gospel tradition.
John’s account of this episode differs again from the Synoptics (its relation to the Lukan order/arrangement of events is discussed in the supplemental note). The two main points of difference are:
- There is no scene of Jesus before the Council, as in the Synoptics; rather we find different interrogation scene in the house of the chief priest Annas (formerly the High Priest A.D. 6-15). The introductory notice (18:13) states that Annas was the father-in-law of the current Chief Priest Caiaphas (A.D. 18-36). Verse 19 is ambiguous, but the reference in v. 24 indicates that Annas is the “Chief Priest” interrogating Jesus (see also Luke 3:2).
- Peter’s denial is intercut with the interrogation scene:
Clearly John’s Gospel is drawing upon a separate line of tradition. The interrogation scene in vv. 19-24 is surprisingly undramatic, compared with the Synoptic version, but it fits the essential portrait of Jesus in the Johannine Passion narrative. As I discussed in the earlier study on Garden scene, the depiction of Jesus’ calm and commanding authority is set in contrast to Peter’s rash and violent act with the sword. The intercutting in verses 12-27, I believe, serves much the same purpose—to juxtapose Jesus’ calm and reasoned response to the interrogation (vv. 20-21) with Peter’s reaction to the ones interrogating him.