Friday, May 10, 2013

Truth Trying Trial

Jesus knew that the end was near for Him. Of course, that end was really a beginning, but even the prospect of future glory could not smooth over the rough road ahead for Him. So Jesus either prayed for God to change His fate if God was willing, or instead prayed for the protection of the Disciples and the future believers. Immediately after Jesus finished those prayers (or maybe after praying and when He and the Disciples went to an olive grove across the Kidron Valley) Judas returned to their group, accompanied by men intent on arresting Jesus. Judas identified Jesus to the arresting party by kissing Him, or maybe Jesus stopped the kiss from happening, or maybe Jesus short-circuited the identification process by volunteering Himself for arrest when the party came forward.

It is tough to tell what really happened. The eyewitnesses had Jesus' arrest etched into their minds, but, based on the discrepancies, it appears that those etchings were never proofed for fidelity.

Truth Trying Trial
Most serious skeptics suspect that there was a real man who was the impetus for the Christian religion; some form of a real Jesus. Time will tell if this guy was a self-proclaimed prophet, a mystic, a progressive activist, a conservative activist, a devout and ascetic Jew, or the actual Son of God. We may not know what the real Jesus was, but we do know that Jesus died. Did He die at the hands of Roman justice acting in Judea? If so, what capital crime did this Jesus commit? Let us turn to the Scriptures as they begin to explanation of what happened at the hands of the priests.

After Jesus was arrested, all of the Gospels agree that He was taken to see some priests, but they do not agree on much beyond that. According to Matthew 26:57-72 & 27:1-2 and Mark 14:53-72 & 15:1, the trial at the hands of the priests appears to have begun the evening of the arrest. Yet according to Luke 22:66-71, the trial did not begin until the following morning.

While Matthew 26:57, Mark 14:23, and Luke 22:54 all agree that Jesus was taken to the High Priest for questioning, John 18:12-13 instead records that it was Annas, the father-in-law of the High Priest, who questioned Jesus.

Apparently, just to make it extra confusing, Annas is also bestowed the honor of being called High Priest (even though "there can be only one") while questioning Jesus (John 18:19, John 18:22), but Annas then sent Jesus to the High Priest, Caiaphas, after the questioning (John 18:24)!

Obviously, the technical details of timing and course of events have some issues. What about the content of the priestly trial? Well, let us start with Mark 14:55:
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. NIV
That is not surprising, right? With Jesus being perfectly sin-free, how could they find a legal reason to put Him to death... except for the reasons why they had wanted to arrest and kill Jesus in the first place. As John 5:18 puts it:
For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill [Jesus]; not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but He was even calling God His own Father, making himself equal with God. NIV
For those reasons, they had tried to seize, and even to stone Jesus before (Matthew 12:9-14, Mark 3:1-6, John 5:1-18, John 7:19-27, John 7:28-30, John 7:32, John 7:37-44, John 8:19-20, John 8:56-59, John 10:30-39, John 11:57). So to have Jesus arrested, and yet have the priests scrambling to find some sort of charge to lay on Jesus just does not make sense, let alone not finding any suitable charge to apply to Him. The charge of breaking the Sabbath was enough alone warrant death by stoning, just as God had commanded for the poor man who picked up some sticks on a Sabbath in Numbers 15:32-36.

Yet if we believe Matthew 26:59-62 and Mark 14:55-60, scrambling for charges against Jesus is exactly what the priests did. Ultimately, they were able to get some witnesses to claim that Jesus would (Mark) or could (Matthew) destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. (We discussed this Temple destruction in an earlier post.) Those witnesses either agreed (Matthew) or disagreed (Mark) with each other, but whatever the case, saying such words in and of themselves were not against God's Law, and so they did not carry a death sentence, making that line of questioning pointless. It is no wonder that Luke edited that section out from his Gospel.

Let us jump over to John 18:19-24, where Annas, the non-High-Priest High Priest, questioned Jesus. Strangely, there are no charges, but rather an inquisition regarding what Jesus had been teaching in general. Jesus rightfully told them to ask the witnesses about His teaching. Other than Jesus getting unjustifiably smacked for that response, that was it. Annas sent Jesus to Caiaphas (John 18:24), and then Caiaphas sent Jesus to Pilate (John 18:28), with no mention of accusations or charges against Jesus, or even any mention of further questioning. Of course, that is not to say that those types of things did not happen. Actually, we should not expect there to be much of any recorded dialog except what was made publicly, because there were no Jesus-allied witnesses to have passed on the events to the Disciples for recording in the Gospels; not that lacking an eyewitness account usually stopped the Gospel writers from filling in the blanks! ;-)

Speaking of filling in blanks, and returning to the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew 26:63-66, Mark 14:61-64, and Luke 22:66-71 each record the line of questioning which finally led to the death sentence by the priests; that which (as noted above) John 5:18 had pointed out long ago about Jesus claiming to be the Son of God. Well, some people are slower than others...

That tardy realization should be the only notable issue with the condemnation of Jesus, but it is not. Check out the High Priest's demand of Jesus in Matthew 26:63 (essentially the same as Mark 14:61):
"I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." NIV
The "Christ" is the Messiah. The problem is that there are no prophesies where the Messiah would be the literal Son of God. At best, you have a metaphorical adoption, like we see in 1 Chronicles 22:7-10, but that is not worth getting upset about, or killed about for that matter. So you have the High Priest acknowledging that the Messiah is supposed to be the Son of God, even though there are no prophesies to that effect... that is not right.

The Messiah as the Son of God is a uniquely Christian interpretation. For the Gospel writers to put these words into the High Priest's mouth shows a willful distortion of the truth based on their own propaganda. To Luke's credit, he did redact that "Son of God" phrase (Luke 22:67), and restructured the conversation to have the "Son of God" title applied separately from the Messiah labeling (Luke 22:69-70). Even so, Luke cannot escape the logical issue of unnecessary questioning, because Jesus had freely admitted to being the Son of God before in front of many witnesses before that trial.


  1. So much content in the Gospels suggests that the authors had an imperfect grasp of Jewish religious traditions. Multiple high priests and that whole we-have-no-law-to-put-a-man-to-death thing suggest that gentiles composed them.

  2. What I find amazing is that no matter how many of these details are pointed out, the Christian response is the same. Different eye witnesses produce different versions of the same story, it should be expected that there would be discrepancies.

    On the other hand, you never know who you are getting through to. My young mind would usually accept those answers for a while, but upon further reflection these things pushed me to look for deeper answers.

  3. Ahab, it does certainly seem to suggest Gentiles composed the Gospels, or perhaps Jews who were somewhat removed from the mainstream traditions. As for the "we-have-no-law-to-put-a-man-to-death thing" though (from John 18:31), I am not sure, but I think that is an interpretation issue. In other words, I do not think that it was "we have no law" but rather "it is not lawful for us [due to the restrictions placed on us by the Roman legal system]".

    Hausdorff, the different witnesses defense should be a good one, as it is certainly reasonable. However, when people suggest that, I like to point out one of those passages where they are almost word-for-word copies from Matthew to Mark to Luke. You will not find that in any real, independent, eye-witness statements. Yeah, hopefully we are planting some good seeds! :-)

  4. I like that strategy. I always feel compelled to argue that some of the differences are too great, that different eye-witnesses of the same event wouldn't come up with such vastly different stories. But I like this, it is sorta the opposite angle on it.

  5. Yeah, if you add to that pointing to the various passages where there is dialog recorded without Disciple-witnesses, such as while Jesus was tempted by Satan, you have a pretty solid defense against the claim that these different Gospels are the product of independent eyewitnesses.

  6. Oh yeah, that is good stuff too. I need to tuck that away into a part of my brain where it will be available when I need it :)