Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

218. Sanhedrin Trial (Matt. 26:59-66; Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:63-71)*

Annas, because he could make no progress in his private interrogation of Jesus or because the preparations for the formal trial were now well advanced, sent Jesus, still bound, unto Caiaphas. Doubtless there was attempt at further cross-questioning by Caiaphas, but the gospels say nothing about this. Their next concern is with Jesus before the Council.


This Sanhedrin consisted of seventy, or maybe seventy-one, members. There were two lesser Sanhedrins of twenty-three. It seems likely that these were in the nature of sub-committees, and that there may have been three of these, with the Great Sanhedrin made up by a fusing of all three. There is specific mention of "chief priests and scribes" to underline present fulfilment of Jacob's vivid prophecy: "Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations" (Gen.49 :5; see "Enjoying the Bible," H.A.W. p. 159). It is practically certain that Jesus was brought before the Great Sanhedrin, for two of the matters always explicitly referred to the full council were judgement of a false prophet (as Jesus was certainly deemed to be) and all questions involving the death penalty. This does not mean that all seventy members would be present on this occasion. At that hour of the night or early morning it would be virtually impossible to assemble the entire company. Nor would Annas and Caiaphas wish a full attendance. Doubtless the messengers who were sent out during the night to call these men together were sent selectively to those who, from the chief priest's point of view, were "dependable." It was sufficient to have a quorum of twenty-three members for a formal sitting of the Sanhedrin. Even so it may be taken as fairly likely that some secret sympathisers of Jesus were included in the number. Otherwise it is difficult to explain the human origin (Lk. l:2) of the detailed and vivid accounts of the trial as they appear in the gospels.

Legal irregularities

There were all kinds of irregularities in legal procedure this day. It was laid down that the Great Sanhedrin must never be convened during the hours of darkness, but always (according to Maimonides) between the time of the morning and evening sacrifice. Nor must the Council meet on a feast day. And if a capital charge were being considered, forty days must be allowed for the assembling of evidence for the defence. Also, the Sanhedrin was not to meet on the Day of Preparation.

The Talmud also declared: "In the judgements against the life of any man they begin first to transact about acquitting the party who is tried, and they begin not with those things which make for his condemnation."

Also, if a man was condemned, at least twenty-four hours must elapse between sentence and execution.

It is difficult to reconcile the flouting of these legal principles with the evident anxiety of the rulers to preserve the forms of law in other respects. Perhaps-it is only a speculation-Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea was present, and came out into the open, protesting against the grosser illegalities and inadequacies of evidence.

Somewhere about this time ("forty years before the destruction of the Temple", says one Jewish authority), the power of capital punishment was taken from the Sanhedrin by the Romans and vested in the governor. Thus it may even be that the trial of Jesus was the first to be held under this new rule.

The line of investigation which seemed to offer the best prospect of success was the claim of Jesus to be the Messiah, for on the basis of such a claim Jesus could surely be branded a false prophet; and the same charge, with different emphasis, would also serve for his condemnation before Pilate.


Accordingly, Caiaphas put the direct question: "Art thou the Christ?" But Jesus was not to be trapped so easily. They had no legal right to seek to condemn him out of his own mouth, and of this Jesus gave them pointed reminder: "If I tell you, ye will not believe." He used a very emphatic negative here, and justifiably so, for had he not told them already, in a wide variety of ways?-by his miracles, by the character of his teaching, by his reasoning from Scripture, by his triumphal entry into the city; yet they would in no wise believe.

So the defendant turned accuser: "If I also ask you, ye will not answer me, nor let me go." How is the ellipsis here to be filled out? Possibly thus: "If I also ask you what is the charge against me," or more probably: "What do you believe to be the truth about my claims"-in which case Jesus was saying in effect: 'On former occasions you have not answered my questions; either you would not, because afraid, or you could not, because confuted by my reasoning (Lk.20:1-7,23-26); then why should I answer your questions? But in any case you will not release me!' Thus, finally, Jesus showed that he was aware of their illegality; thus he exposed their ruthless determination to destroy him. Thereafter he was silent before them, until the critical moment when he was put on oath by Caiaphas.

False witness

Since it seemed hopeless to entrap the prisoner by his own words, the prosecution "sought false witness against him" for they knew that no true witness of a damaging character was to be had.

This false witness, by men who doubtless were bribed for the purpose was already anticipated in prophecies about Messiah: "False witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty" (Ps.27 :12; cp. also 109 :2). "For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity, your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness. None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief and bring forth iniquity" (Is.59 :3,4). Ps.35 :11-13 even suggests that at one time these witnesses may have benefitted from the healing power of Jesus, and still were his enemies.

To these unscrupulous men the stern warning of the Law (Dt.19 :16-21), that a false witness shall pay "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" according to his own malicious report, would be of little consequence. Nevertheless this law did apply. They sought destruction of the Temple of God (Mt.26:61), they paid "tooth for tooth" with the destruction of their own. They conspired for the life of Jesus, and thereby signed their own death warrant. Were they among that great number of Jews whom Titus crucified outside Jerusalem? (B.J.5.11,1).

In two places Mark implied that this seeking of false witness against Jesus was a protracted process. The main reason for this is given: "their witness agreed not together" - "such contradiction of sinners against themselves" (so some Greek MSS of Heb.12 :3). Clearly, from the chief priests point of view, this trial was not running smoothly. If the false witness brought against the prisoner was seen not to "agree together", it can only be because the discordance was so evident that even a prejudiced Sanhedrin could not base a conviction on it. This, again, suggests that amongst those gathered in the assembly was at least one who was both fair-minded enough to see that the evidence was inadequate and also brave enough to expose it as such. Who might this be? The great Gamaliel was probably a secret sympathizer ("Acts", H.A.W., ch.23).

But why did not their witness agree? The chief priests had had all the night, at least, in which to make full preparation of the case against Jesus. It would have been a comparatively simple matter, within hours, to get together two or three rogues and rehearse them thoroughly in the false witness they were to swear to at the trial. The varied and contradictory accusations show that in this respect the enemies of Jesus were caught badly unprepared.

The most likely explanation is that Judas had agreed to be chief witness of the prosecution, and at the last minute had refused to go through with it. Some such hypothesis is necessary in order to explain the chaotic inadequacy of the case against the accused. This testifying against Jesus in court would be the main item in Judas's agreement with the rulers, for the actual apprehension of their enemy would be a comparatively simple matter which could have been carried through without Judas's help, even if it meant waiting for a better opportunity. (For fuller details see the next Study).

"Destroy this temple"

It would seem, then, that the enemies of Jesus were in fear of seeing their prey slip through their fingers. Their exasperation must have been acute. At this crucial point in the trial (so the language of Mark would seem to imply), goaded to desperation, two members of the Sanhedrin, because the case for the prosecution was collapsing, now threw off the role of judge or jury and "came forward" (Mt.RSV)-Mk: "stood up" (s.w. Mk.14 :60), to testify against him:

"This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days."

That Jesus had said something of the sort is clear from John's narrative of Jesus' first cleansing of the temple (Jn.2 :19,20). As Morison emphasizes so forcibly in "Who moved the stone?", this witness by his worst enemies is as good proof as could be desired that Jesus did actually foretell his own resurrection on the third day!

The distortion of the actual words originally spoken should be noted. Jesus did not say: "I am able to destroy ... and to build it..." But he did say: "(You) destroy (take down) . . . and I will raise it up." The reason for the distortions made by these false witnesses is readily seen when the purpose behind the accusation is properly appreciated. It cannot be that they sought the death sentence against Jesus on the ground that he boastfully claimed the ability to raze their massive temple to the ground and to rebuild it single-handed in three days. Such a claim, adequately confirmed, might well qualify a man for a lunatic asylum, but certainly not for crucifixion.

It follows, then, that the gravamen of the charge was either that Jesus claimed power, authority and intention to replace with a new and different system of his own the religion taught by Moses and centred in the temple; or else he was claiming that the true sanctuary of God in the midst of Israel was himself. It could well be that both ideas, inter-related as they are, were seen by these highly intelligent men to be implicit in the words now quoted. A careful consideration of the details in the rest of the trial confirms this view.

But first it is worthwhile to observe that even now "neither did their witness agree together." Even Matthew and Mark do not report the accusation identically. Mark has: "We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will raise another made without hands." It is not conceivable that these additional phrases represent an invention by the false witness. They must have been part of the original saying of Jesus, even though the narrative in John 2 does not include them.

In Daniel 2 :34 a stone cut out of the mountain "without hands" represents a king of divine origin; it would be so understood by Nebuchadnezzar, for Enlil-"The Great Mountain"-was the Babylonian Jupiter. It was surely to this Scripture that Jesus referred. These words are twice repeated in the New Testament in the sense just suggested-that Jesus was the true sanctuary of God in the midst of Israel: "Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands" (Acts 7 :48). And: "Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands . . ." (Heb.9 :11). The deeper meaning behind the Lord's words here has been expounded in Study 22.

It would seem, then, that whilst the main idea behind the claim of Jesus, sensational and damaging enough in itself, was clearly seen, "neither did their witness agree together" (literally: Even thus their testimony was not equal). Presumably there was such discrepancy as to time and place and detail as to make it easy for any councillor present, who was not intent on getting the prisoner condemned, to expose the weaknesses by a few common-sense objections (cp.Jn.7:50,51).

When such irregularities were evident in a trial, Jewish law required that the case be abandoned. But not in any circumstances was Caiaphas willing to consider doing that. In the face of all this, whilst Jesus "held his peace, and answered nothing" (praying silently? Ps.109 :4; ls.53 :7; 1 Pet.2 :23?), Caiaphas "stood up in the midst," i.e. at the centre of the great semicircle in which the Sanhedrin was arranged, and to goad Jesus into reply: "Answerest thou nothing to what these witness against thee?" The remonstration carried the implication that the accusation just made about destroying and re-building the temple was a terribly serious one.

On oath

Faced with continuing silence Caiaphas cried out: "I adjure thee by the living God that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God." The commentators, to a man, interpret this as a last desperate resort by a schemer who saw the case for the prosecution collapsing and his victim slipping through his fingers, and who therefore with blatant illegality had recourse to a hypocritical expedient. For example, Wieand puts it thus: "The high priest is exasperated." Burgon's phrase is: "Whereupon Caiaphas lost patience," whilst Maclean in the Cambridge Greek Testament says: "Nothing remained but to force him, if possible, to incriminate himself." Such an interpretation is itself an expedient.

Actually, this illegal interrogation had strict reference to the accusation already brought. This is implied by the phrase: "the high priest answered and said unto him." Since Jesus had kept silence, this "answered" most likely connects with the allegation made by the false witnesess. In what now followed, every detail was strictly relevant to the accusations they had made.

To put the defendant on oath and to interrogate with a view to eliciting self-condemnatory admissions were both utterly illegal processes. Nevertheless Jesus, following the spirit of a higher law, accepted the oath; for Moses said: "If anyone sin in that he hetireth the voice of adjuration, he being a witness, whether he hath seen or known, if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity" (Lev.5 :1RV). So Jesus felt bound to give answer, even though, most illegally, he was being made to bear witness against himself.

Also, specially relevant here is 1 Kings 8 :31,32 where Solomon's prayer has the words: "If... an oath be laid upon him to cause him to swear, and the oath come before thine altar in this house: then hear thou in heaven, and do, and judge thy servants, condemning the wicked, to bring his way upon his head; and justifying the righteous, to give him according to his righteousness." True, Jesus was not "before the altar", but since he was claiming to be the true sanctuary, he must reply. Not to do so would be to deny the truth of his own claim. And-although the mills of God ground slowly in this word of vindication and judgment—according to this Scripture God did "condemn the wicked, bringing his way upon his own head," and He did "justify the righteous to give him according to his righteousness." But outwardly, that day, justice was not done, neither did it at all appear to be done.


The full force of the words of Caiaphas and their relevance to what had already transpired have been almost entirely lost through their very familiarity. The phrases made deliberate allusion to God's great Covenant with David (2 Sam.7). In it there was explicit promise of a Christ, a King of the Jews, who would not only be son of David ("out of thine own bowels"), but also Son of God ("I will be his Father, and he shall be my Son"). This promise came in a context of building a house for the name of Jehovah, not "a temple made with hands," but a sanctuary of God which should consist of men who would be both seed of David and sons of God (verses 5,6,11). Both House and Kingdom were to be established through David's divine son. It was to this Promise and the claim made by Jesus to be true House of God in Israel that Caiaphas' desperate adjuration referred. Hence also the form of the oath: "I adjure thee by the living God", that is, by the God of the living creatures, the God who sits enthroned above the Cherubim.

Let Jesus now give an explicit "Yes" to this question, and the Council had a case against him. If "No", then here was an ignominious end to his Messiahship.

So he said "Yes"-"Thou hast said" is not to be read as a half-evasive "That is what you are saying about me." The parallel in Mark 14:62 shows Jesus to be asserting an uncompromising affirmative: "I am" (cp. Jn.19:7)

Son of man

He could have stopped there. Worldly prudence and self-interest counselled that he should. But this was the very core of his message to men. He must "witness a good confession" before these Jewish leaders as he was also to do before Pilate: "Hereafter shall ye see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power." This was a direct reference to Psalm 110, a prophecy which proclaims not only the kingship but also the priesthood of the Messiah. As David had sat in the presence of Jehovah to pray for his people and for the fulfilment of the Covenant (2 Sam.7 :18) so also Jesus-only in a far more effective sense than could ever be true of David. And was it unreasonable that one who knew himself to have such a destiny should claim to be himself God's dwelling-place among His people? Thus in quoting Psalm 110 Jesus was, in effect, saying to his adversaries: 'You may choose now to deem my claims the height of blasphemy. But I have already fulfilled many Scriptures and before long it will become evident to you that others yet more glorious belong to me and will be fulfilled through me!'

This assertion of priesthood would be specially galling to high-priest Caiaphas, for what access did he have to the divine presence? A few brief minutes, at most, on each Day of Atonement, and in a Holy of Holies which was bereft of ark, mercy-seat, cherubim and Shekinah Glory, and which contained nothing but a block of stone. No wonder the words of Jesus provoked a violent reaction. And so also with many of the elders, for, less than a week earlier, Jesus had quoted them the same Scripture in proof of his own virgin birth and divine sonship (Mt.22 :41-46), and had had from them no confutation (Study 166).

But, on oath, Jesus also said; "Ye shall see the Son of man . . . coming on (with) the clouds of heaven." Here was the Biblical basis (Dan.7 :13) to his claim, now being branded as blasphemy, that he would share the very presence of Almighty God and with that divine Glory would come again as king of "a kingdom that shall not be destroyed."

Inherent in this declaration of Jesus there is a certain difficulty which has been glossed over in the common version. Correctly translated the words are: "Henceforth (literally: from now) shall ye see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power . . ." The words "shall ye see" are to be taken as referring to spiritual understanding and mental grasp of truth concerning Jesus, as in his other declarations: "Henceforth ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of man" (Jn.l :51); and: "From henceforth ye know him, and have seen him" (Jn.14 :7). In these the Greek is the same. Only by such interpretation can contradiction with other words of Jesus be avoided: "Ye shall not see me henceforth until ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Mt.23 :39).

Probably from the moment when terrified soldiers came with a message of earthquake | and angels, and certainly from the ensuing Day of Pentecost, the truth of Christ's priesthood and kingship was inescapably "seen" by all the men who had condemned him. "Henceforth" they knew for certain that he was their Messiah.

The allusions which Jesus had made to Psalm 110 and Daniel 7 were immediately recognized: "Then said they all, "Art thou then the Son of God?" His claim to be the Messiah was now utterly unmistakable.

The picture of this entire Council of venerable elders all on their feet shouting at Jesus is a terribly impressive one, and so also is that of their triumphant satisfaction when Jesus returned yet another point-blank affirmative: "Ye say that I am."


Thereupon with melodramatic solemnity "the high priest rent his clothes." This rending of garments may have been a formality prescribed as an open condemnation of a specially heinous offence, but certainly-as in so many places in this part of the gospel story—the action was alive with dramatic irony. Caiaphas, this is your own open proclamation that your own office as high priest in henceforth abolished, and by your own act!

A high priest was not to rend his garments in mourning, not even for the death of a son (Lev. 10 :6; 21 :10). But now in the mind of Caiaphas there was only an evil gladness that at last this "Son of man, Son of God" would be sure to die before the day was dead. Certainly the early church would come to appreciate the unconscious symbolism here. The words of Jesus-"Henceforth shall ye see . . ." surely require that Caiaphas would also. According to the bald facts of history, he was deposed by Vitellius in A.D. 36 or 37, but actually his priesthood ended with the rejection of Jesus. The contrast with the seamless (priestly?) robe of Jesus (preserved untorn and worn again after his resurrection?) is very striking. (Study 227).

The intense relief of Caiaphas that now at last the prisoner's condemnation was assured, is evident not only in the rending of garments but also in his triumphant appeal to this tribunal of justice: "He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? Behold, now ye have heard out of his own mouth. What is manifest to you?"-the Messianic glory he claimed, or his blasphemy? (There is a biting sarcasm here in Mark's phrase which is past translation).

In their hearts these men knew how completely true was the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God (Lk.20 :14,19). Yet as a ground for condemnation they could wish for nothing better. The murder of the Son of God was now legalised. Strictly speaking, the Sanhedrin had no power to condemn Jesus to death. All they could do was to pronounce him deserving of it. "Guilty of death" (Mt.26:66) is, strictly, "liable to death" (Lev.24 :23; Df.18 :20). They must seek ratification of this from the Roman governor.

Beating and Mockery

Their evident relief at being now a big step nearer their objective thereupon expressed itself in astonishing fashion: "Then did they spit in his face, and buffet him." This spitting in his face proclaimed him a disowned son of Israel (Num.12 :14); and the smiting re-enacted the indignities meted out to Samson by the Philistines (s.w. Jud.16 :25 LXX). A greater than Samson among men worse than Philistines!

Between them, the synoptists harness almost every word they can muster to describe this vile experience: "beat, clout, throw(l), flog, punch." the phrasing in both Matthew and Mark requires the meaning that the elders themselves treated Jesus in this abominable fashion. The picture of these dignitaries descending to such contumelious behaviour is almost past imagining, yet it was already written in the prophets: "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting" (ls.50 :6). In Ps.22 :16, "the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me," the key word describes the Jewish Council; and in verse 13 the word "mouth" (Heb. and RV) emphasizes its unanimity — "they all condemned him." Jacob had prophesied: "Simeon and Lev! (scribes and priests) are brethren; instruments of violence are their financial agreements ... for in their anger they slew a man, and in their self-will they houghed an ox (sacrifice)" (Gen.49:5,6).

And Jesus himself, instructed by such a Scripture, had forewarned his disciples: "The Son of man shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spit upon" (Lk.l8:32).

The men of the temple guard, who had custody of Jesus, naturally took their cue from their masters; they blindfolded him and then "smote him with the palms of their hands, saying, prophesy unto us, thou Christ, who is he that smote thee?" (cp. Lk.7 :39). Bar-Cochbah the false Messiah of A.D.135, was treated in precisely this way by his Roman captors. But there is one important difference: one day Jesus will prophecy, identifying those who smote him!

It would appear (from Mt.27 :1 and Lk.22 :66) that the Sanhedrin was formally and briefly re-convened when daylight came, in order to ratify their evil scheme pushed through in the hours of darkness. There was, apparently, a rule not only that meetings of the Council should take place in daylight but also that a man be not condemned at the session at which he was tried. Thus is provided another interesting commentary on their strange determination that this trial be, as far as possible, fully legal. Even so, there were illegalities in plenty. There was also need, doubtless, to plan how most effectively to present their case before Pilate, so as to ensure a capital sentence.

The original text possibly implies that a brief consultation was all that was necessary. In any case there must be no loss of time if the crucifixion of Jesus was to be carried through that day, before the Passover sabbath came on. So it was with a haste that was unlike all known processes of law that Jesus was hurried away to Pilate, so that together Jews and Gentiles might contrive the death of the the only begotten Son of God.

Notes: Mt. 26:59-66

All the council. At this time practically the entire Sanhedrin would be in or very close to Jerusalem because of Passover.

False witness A Mishna passage tells how in a trial on a capital charge a special warning was addressed to witnesses and a great curse if they should fail to speak truth
The living God. Many Scriptures suggest the meaning: "the God of the living creatures", e.g. Deut.5 .-26; Josh.3:10, 11; 2 Cor.6 :16; Heb.12 :22; Rev.7 :2. Note also the relevance of this challenge to the Lard's claim to be the sanctuary of God destroyed and raised up.

Art thou the Christ? etc. Verses 63-67 have a parallel in Lk. 22 :66 ff. So it has to be concluded that Lk. has deliberately misplaced these verses (as in several other instances); but why is not clear.

Mk. 14:55-64

Another. Gk: alias. Yet heteros would seem to be more appropriate!

Made with hands. In LXX this always refers to idolatry; contrast Is.66:1, 2.
Again seems to imply an interval—for consultation?
His garments. Mk. uses the word which in LXX means priestly garments, and not under-garments (as many commentators say).
Covered his face; Ps.69:7.

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