Some scholars wonder why the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' trial (possibly a brief hearing) seem to contradict later Jewish laws. But in the first place, it is unlikely that these first-century aristocrats were as concerned with legal procedure as later rabbis were. It is also unlikely that they would have agreed with all the careful stipulations of later rabbinic legal theories. Perhaps most important, the Gospel writers probably intended to convey breach of procedure, not to pretend that the mock trial and abuse they depict were standard Jewish custom (see Hooker 1983:86; Rhoads and Michie 1982:120-21). Based on what we know of first-century Jerusalem leaders' practice, the Gospels' portrait of Jesus' trial actually fits quite well (see E. Sanders 1992:487). The Romans usually executed only those brought to them as condemned by the local aristocracies.
The people respected the law teachers, elders and priests as their spiritual leaders (representatives of these groups constituted the Sanhedrin), but here most of these spiritual leaders prove too hostile to Jesus to concern themselves with legal ethics. Although exceptions historically existed (Mk 15:43), the overwhelming picture of religious leaders in the Gospels provides a warning to us today. Many follow those in eminent positions, and if we in authority positions in the church dare forget whose servants we are, we can easily become enemies of our own Lord, vying for the power and honor that rightfully belong to him alone (Mt 21:38).
Most obviously, Jewish law opposed false witnesses. The biblical penalty for false witnesses in a capital case was execution (Deut 19:16-21). Cross-examination of witnesses was standard in Jewish law (as in Susanna 48-62; m. 'Abot 1:9), and apparently the examiners did their job well enough here to produce contradictions they did not expect. In the end, the witnesses could provide only a garbled account of Jesus' proclamation of judgment against the temple (compare Jn 2:19; Acts 6:14), which could have seemed to the Sanhedrin political reason enough to convict him (see comment on 21:12-17; R. Brown 1994:458). But the high priest ultimately must choose another tack; even a court as slanted as this one will not admit evidence from witnesses whose testimony is inconsistent (see Trites 1977:186; Stauffer 1960:123-24). Thus for the Jewish court (as opposed to Pilate) the chief priest seeks a new charge in Matthew 26:62-68: blasphemy (Blinzler 1959:170).
Jesus' answer is probably a reluctant yes (Catchpole 1971:226; Marshall 1990:86). He is the Messiah--but this was the priest's choice of wording rather than his (see F. Bruce 1972b:176 n. 45). Now that there remains no need to continue the messianic secret, Jesus reveals publicly that he is God's Son (again, 27:54; compare Kingsbury 1983:122; Perrin 1976:95; Hooker 1983:58-59). But Jesus must define that sonship, not allow the leaders' cultural preconceptions to define it for him (compare comment on 4:1-11). Thus by responding in scriptural allusions (26:64), Jesus defines his mission in terms his interrogators cannot misapprehend: he is both Son of Man (compare Dan 7:13-14; Mt 24:30) and Lord (Ps 110:1; Mt 22:44; see Dodd 1961:91). Jesus was greater than merely a messiah, a son of David (22:44).
By declaring that "from this point forward" (not simply in the future as in the NIV) he would reign (26:64), Jesus may seem to the Sanhedrin to claim that he is going to rule politically despite their power over him. But undoubtedly he means that his reign opens not with power but with the cross. In the words of the Fourth Gospel, the time has come for the Son of Man to be lifted up and glorified (Jn 12:23, 32-33; compare Is 52:13 LXX). Yet the ultimate fulfillment will be when even his enemies will see him at his coming in triumph as heavenly ruler (Mt 26:64; compare 24:30; Rev 1:7). That is, though they claim to judge Jesus now, he will ultimately prove their judge (see Kingsbury 1983: 124)--a claim certain to enrage unbelieving leaders who demand honor.
Such words would be offensive, but even if false they were not technically blasphemous (m. Sanhedrin 7:5). Nevertheless, most uses of blasphemy were nontechnical (R. Brown 1994:522-23), and the high priest might admit whatever he needed as blasphemy. Because the priestly aristocracy perceives Jesus as a political threat to the temple establishment and the peace of the nation, and because the charge of threatening the temple remains unproved by strict standards of investigation, they need another basis for conviction quickly. Again the leaders twist the rules to get the job done. By whatever means they construe his words as blasphemy, the high priest stands to rend his cloak as custom required when one heard blasphemy (m. Sanhedrin 7:5), following a traditional custom in mourning (as in 1 Macc 4:39-40; 5:14; 11:71).
The spirit of Jewish law opposed condemning a criminal on his own admission, but the Sanhedrin treats Jesus' words here not as admission of a crime but as a crime itself--blasphemy--to which they themselves are witnesses, obviating the need for other witnesses (Blinzler 1959:137; Stauffer 1960:125). Although the spirit of Jewish law probably prohibited witnesses from participating in sentencing the accused (Blinzler 1959:135), the court acts as witness. Finally, whatever else may have been illegal, the physical mistreatment of a prisoner certainly was; this would have shamed Jesus as well, for such treatment was inappropriate to the status he had claimed.
This sort of irony runs throughout the narrative. The religious leaders condemn Jesus for blasphemy for claiming simply what God had claimed about him all along (Mt 3:17; 17:5; see Kingsbury 1983:151). From Jesus' condemnation as "God's Son" (26:63-68) to the centurion's recognition that Jesus really is God's Son (27:54), the dominant christological title will be "King of the Jews" (so Kingsbury 1983:151). This title constitutes a double irony: those who apply it intend it ironically, but the Gospel tradition inverts the irony so that they have described him accurately. God's irony is vital: even in the deepest of trials, God provides hints of his coming triumph to those with the eyes of faith. If Jesus accurately prophesied his hardships, one can likewise depend on the victory he promised.
Click the button below to continue.
Want to get the most out of Bible Gateway? Find out why Bible Gateway Plus is the ultimate toolkit for anyone seeking to grow closer to the Word. For less than the cost of a latte, Plus membership gives you access to a complete digital Bible study library and reduced banner ads. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.