Passion II: Matthew 26:57-27:10

Why Was Jesus Condemned By the Sanhedrin?

Among scholars, one of the lasting controversies about the death of Jesus can be summed up in one sentence: Why did Jesus have to die? This question cuts to the heart of faith in Christ as the Savior of the world. But set aside the theological implications for a moment and place the question in a historical context. Why did the Jewish and Roman officials feel compelled to execute a wandering preacher from the back water village of Nazareth?

One popular answer is actually a logical trap. According to this argument, since Jesus declared he was the “Son of God,” he was either truthful, or he was a fraud or insane (first premise). Since Scripture states Jesus was innocent and sane (second premise), we have only one conclusion: he is the Son of God. The first premise fails since it is insensitive to historical context; it assumes the meaning of the phrase “Son of God” in a Christian context (second person of the Trinity), not in a Jewish context (Davidic king or apocalyptic prophet or rival High Priest). It assumes the unity of the Scriptural canon and does not address each gospel on its own merits. In addition, it does not consider the possibility Jesus died for a number of reasons, not just his claims.

In Matthew, Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah before the Sanhedrin; this admission is only made in Mark 14:61. While he never denied the title, he didn't insist on it, either. When Caiaphas asked him the question, Jesus answered, “You say...” Then Jesus went on to loosely quote Daniel 7:13: “...behold, there came with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.” (World English Bible) So, where did he commit blasphemy? Why was he condemned?

The answer for Matthew can be found in his own gospel. Two statements from Jesus in 26:55 give us a key: “Jesus said to the crowd, “You come out in this way with swords and clubs to take control of ME like a thief? Daily, I sat in the Temple teaching and you did not seize ME.” In other words, Jesus charged the Temple leadership with immorality. And he so far as to preach against that leadership in the Temple itself! So, the leadership made the decision to arrest this popular in secret (not to cause a riot in the Temple), condemn him, then execute him in a way to bring shame on him, his teachings and his followers.

To make this point clear, the study will be out of order, beginning with Judas’ repentance, return of the blood money and suicide.

Death of Judas (27:3-9)

3 When Judas, the (one) betraying HIM, seeing that (HE) was condemned, having regretted (his betrayal) returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders, 4 saying, “I have sinned betraying innocent blood.” The (religious leaders) said, “What (does that matter) to us? You see (to it).” 5 Flinging the silver coins into the Temple, he left and, going outside (the city?), (he) hung (himself). 6 The chief priests, taking the sliver coins, said, “ It is not right (according to the Law) to cast this into the Temple treasury (KORBAN), since it is blood money.” 7 Taking council, (they) bought the Field of the Potters with the (moneys) as a cemetery for foreigners. 8 Because of (this reason), that field is called the Field of Blood until now. 9 So, the (prophecy) being spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, “They took the thirty silver coins, the price being the set value (for the man) which was fixed by (some of the) sons of Israel, 10 and they gave them for the Field of Potters, according to the directions of my Lord.”

27:5 “he hung himself.” The means of Judas death in 27:5 does not agree with the detail found in Acts 1:18:

Now this man obtained a field with the reward for his wickedness, and falling headlong, his body burst open, and all his intestines gushed out.

World English Bible

27:7 “a cemetery for foreigners.” Morally unclean moneys was used for ritually unclean purpose (burying) of ritually unclean people (Gentiles).

27:8-9 “ thirty silver coins...for the Field of Potters” There is no direct verse from Jeremiah about 30 silver coins or a potter’s field. Jeremiah 32:6-15 described the sale of a field; 18:2-3 described potters. Matthew might have also had Zechariah 11:12-13 in mind:

12 I said to them, “If you think it best, give me my wages; and if not, keep them.” So they weighed for my wages thirty pieces of silver. 13 YHWH said to me, “Throw it to the potter, the handsome price that I was valued at by them!” I took the thirty pieces of silver, and threw them to the potter, in the house of YHWH.

World English Bible

The first item that jumps out of this passage is the word “Korban,” a Hebrew word meaning “sacrifice.” The word covered all things offered to YHWH, not simply the slaughter and burning of animals on the altar or the burning of grain on the altar. The prefix “ko” referred to the ritual purity required to offer such sacrifice. The word “kosher” meant items and actions related to such purity. The priestly caste who offered worship in the Temple were known as the “kohanim”. Many of the edicts found in the Torah refer to the purity required of the priest to offer sacrifice.

The notion of “korban” cannot be overstated in the life of Judaism. The First Commandment (“I am the Lord your God...”) specified a relationship between YHWH and the believer. He is God. That fact alone required the faithful to worship him. “Korban” was both the substance (animal or plant offering) and vehicle (burnt on an altar by a official designated by the community) of that worship. Korban linked the worshiper to that worshiped.

In the context of Matthew 26, “Korban” meant the Temple treasury. The Temple treasury was a charity dedicated to the poor and homeless in the area of Jerusalem; the monies not used for building or maintenance, as these costs were covered by the generosity of the rulers or the rich. Since the charity was attached to the Temple, the collection was considered an act of individual worship, hence the name “Korban.”

Over time, two schools of thought developed on the notion of “korban,” one prophetic (held by the Pharisees) and the other the priestly (held by the Sadducees). The prophetic notion was explained by Micah the prophet:

How shall I come before YHWH and bow myself before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will YHWH be pleased with thousands of rams? With tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my disobedience? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good. Do YWHW requires of you; act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:6-8 (World English Bible)

In this understanding, morality and the attitude in worship trumped the act of worship. In other words, true sacrifice was found in a moral lifestyle and a prayerful disposition. Korban became the responsibility of the individual believer.

The priestly notion of korban stood in stark contrast:

If the High Priest is to [minister to YHWH, whoever] has been ordained to put on the vestments in place of his father, shall offer [a bull fo]r all the people and another for the priests. He shall offer the one for the priests first...[(The elders) shall sprinkle (the blood of the sacrifice) on him and his vestment some of the blood which was on the altar]...[he] shall be [holy] all his days. [He shall not go near any dead body]. He shall [not] render himself unclean [even for his father or mother,] for [he is] h[oly to YHWH, his God]...

Temple Scroll (pp. 195, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, translated by Geza Vermes, Penquin Classics, revised edition 2004)

The Temple Scroll was one of the documents found in the Dead Sea Scrolls that, most scholars agree, was revered by the Qumran community. Indeed, this document helped scholars understand that the Essences at Qumran were scribes from the priestly caste that tried to live a highly kosher life, so, when the Apocalypse came, they would be worthy to replace the corrupt priesthood in the Temple and then offer YHWH pure worship. While they were enemies of the Temple leadership, they shared the same viewpoint of the Sadducees: korban focused on the external and, by definition, required the place and function of the priest. Just as the worship of the Holy One was also holy, those who facilitated that worship were also holy, even to the exclusion of one’s duty to his parents. Korban, in this sense, was external and lay in the exclusive realm of the priests.

So, there were two major notions of kosher at play, both in conflict at times. The prophets held moral purity in highest esteem; it focused on the individual, his duty to live according to the Torah and his attitude of piety. The priests held ritual purity as primary; it focused on the matter and extremal form of the sacrifice offered at the Temple, the place where YHWH dwelt. The priestly notion focused on corporate worship, over that of the individual.

Where did Jesus stand viz-a-viz the notion of “korban?” Consider Jesus’ teaching in Mark:

Jesus said to them, “Full well do you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother;’* and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’* But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is KORBAN, that is to say, given to God”;’ then you no longer allow him to do anything for his father or his mother, making void the word of God by your tradition, which you have handed down. You do many things like this.

Mark 7:9-13 (World English Bible)

In the tradition of the prophets, Jesus held moral purity trumped ritual purity and criticized the scribes who held that duty to God could make void one’s duty to parents. According to Jesus’ logic, God gave the commandments, and, so, none were negotiable. Korban was moral in nature and, so, limited the extent of ritual purity.

The Sadducees, however, saw korban as ritual in nature; hence, the ritual trumped the moral, the external trumped the internal. Reread Matthew 27:3-10 (above) and notice the logic of the leadership. Their concern was not with the morality of their actions, but upon the ritual purity of the monies Judas returned to Temple. They could not mingle the blood money given to Judas with the Temple treasury, for that would have made the treasury (and, by extension, the Temple itself) ritually impure.

So, why did the Sadducees and the Sanhedrin itself want to execute Jesus? He was a bitter critic of the leadership, especially the notion that ritual purity was superior to moral purity. Jesus preached this message in the Temple itself to a receptive, even rabid audience. Clearly, Jesus had to go and go in a way the would discredit him so throughly that his movement would not pose a threat to the order of cult.

The Trial before the Sandedrin

57 The (ones) seizing JESUS lead (HIM) to (the house of) Caiaphas where the scribes and the elders gathered (together). 58 Peter followed HIM at a distance up to the courtyard of the high priest, and, entering, he sat down with the (Temple) guards to see the end (of the proceedings). 59 The chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin sought false testimony against JESUS so they might condemn him to death, 60 but (they) found none, through many false witnesses stepped forward. Then two, stepping forward, 61 said, “This (ONE) said, ‘I am able to destroy the Temple of God and, in three days, to build (it anew).’” 62 Standing, the high priest said to HIM, “(Do you) not answer (these charges)? What (is it that) they testified against YOU?” 63 JESUS was silent. The high priest said to HIM, “ I compel you (under oath) by living God, so you might tell us if you are the CHRIST, THE SON OF GOD.” 64 JESUS said to him, “You say (so); moreover I say to you, after (this) moment, you will see the SON OF MAN sitting at the right (hand) of the Almighty and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65 Then, the high priest tore his clothing, saying, “(HE) has blasphemed. What more do (we) have need of witnesses? Look! You have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think (should be the verdict)?” The (ones) answering said, “(HE) is subject to death.” 67 Then, (they) spat on HIS face, (they) punched HIM, and some slapped (HIM), 67 saying, “Prophesy for us, CHRIST; who is the (one) hitting YOU.”

26:57 “Caiaphas” was one “Joseph, son of Caiaphas,” the son-in-law of Annas and was high priest from 18-37 AD. The longevity of his office indicated he was politically well connected, since the post of high priest was appointed by Rome. Indeed, under Annas the patriarch, that priestly clan controlled the high priesthood for almost 50 years under the Emperors.

26:59 The Sanhedrin was the ruling council for the Temple and religious matters in Jerusalem. It consisted of both Sadducees (the party of the high priests and the city fathers in Jerusalem) and Pharisees (civic leaders in local neighborhoods throughout Judea and the Diaspora). The Sadducees were focused on Temple cult while the Pharisees were oriented toward study of the Torah; both camps had their scribes, but the number within the Pharisees far out numbered those associated with the Temple. At full strength, the Sanhedrin numbered 71 members, but as few as 23 could declare a quorum for business. A gathering of the Sanhedrin at night was highly unusual and, so, highly suspect. (Matthew’s note on “seeking false testimony” only heightened the suspension; the trial would be prejudicial and, so, illegal according to the Law.) We do not know what Matthew meant by the phrase “entire Sanhedrin.” Did he mean all 71 or just enough to create a quorum?

“they might condemn him to death” is literally “they could execute him.”

26:60 “two, stepping forward...” According to the Law, two witnesses were required for a court to condemn a person to death on a serious charge.

26:64 “...you will see the SON OF MAN sitting at the right (hand) of the Almighty and coming on the clouds of heaven.” This passage referred to Daniel 7:13, where the prophet saw the definitive sign of the end times, the coming of the Son of Man figure. In 26:64, the Son of Man sat on the divine judgment throne (usually associated with the Final Judgment) and his coming appearance. While Jesus did not directly answer the question of Caiaphas about his identity (his answer could be seen as ambiguous), he did declare the judgment of the Sanhedrin against him as the turning point for the end times. Once he was condemned in Matthew, the council would see signs of the eschaton.

26:65 According to the Misnah, a Jewish chronicle of Law rulings written in the third century AD, a blasphemer needed to utter the divine name (YHWH) in order to be condemned. The use of the phrase “the Power” (also called “the Almighty”) could have been interpreted as such an utterance. Again, according to the Misnah, the judge in a case of blasphemy was to stand and rend his clothes as a sign of a guilty verdict; the clothes were to never be wore again.

26:66 “...(they) spat on HIS face, (they) punched HIM, and some slapped (HIM)...” These were meant at insults.

26:67 “Prophesy for us, Christ...” This was statement was meant to be ironic, since it was the prophecy of 26:64 that was the basis for the condemnation of Jesus.

The stage was set for the trial. Witnesses were produced to testify against Jesus, but, according to the text, their “facts” were contradictory. Finally, two stated, “He will tear down the Temple and in three day rebuild it.” In light of John 2:19, it is clear Jesus used that phrase openly in reference to himself and his mission, but the contractions came in exactly how the statement was phrased, especially in the question of who would tear down the “temple.”

Jesus remained silent, and that silence forced the High Priest’s hand. “I put you under oath before the Living God, are you the Christ?” Jesus answered with the enigmatic “You say...” (already discussed in the previous study). Then Jesus add the prophecy of the end times based upon Daniel. But, here, Jesus plunges the knife into the role and status of the high priest and, by extension, the Sadducees. “...from this moment on, you will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds...” Notice the place Jesus gave no place for the priesthood in the Kingdom. He, in effect, reduced the role of the priestly caste to that of the observer in the events of the End Times. In the eyes of Jesus, the priests were no better than anyone else; they had no inherent place in the worship of YHWH that the Kingdom would provide. Jesus denied the korban of the priests.

This view was the polar opposite of the Sadduccees and the Qumran community. For them, the presence of the divine in the Temple made the role and function of the priesthood not only necessary, but imperative. After all, a large number of the commands from the Torah concerned with the priests and proper worship. They were intimately intertwined in the korban the Law required.

Now we can understand the reaction of Caiaphas, even if it were staged. Jesus was condemned, not because he blasphemed against God; no, he blasphemed against the priesthood. And he represented a clear threat to the status of that priesthood.

The stage was set for the cynicism of the Temple guards. Jesus was insulted with the same title others gave him and the way he spoke before the judgment. “Prophecy, Christ. Who slapped you?”

Peter Denies Jesus

69 Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard and one slave girl came up to him, saying, “You were with JESUS of Galilee.” 70 (He) denied (the statement) before all, saying, “I do not know what you are saying.” 71 Going out to the (courtyard) gate, another (slave girl) saw him and said, “This (one) was with JESUS THE NAZARENE.” 72 (He) denied (it) with an oath, “I do not know the man.” 73 After a little (time), the (ones) standing (around), approaching, said to Peter, “Truly, you are also among the (ones following Jesus) for your speech clearly makes you (so).” 74 Then, (he) began to curse and to swear (an oath), “ I do not know the man.” Immediately, a cock crowed. 75 Peter remembered the words of JESUS, saying, “Before the cock crows, three times you will deny ME,” and, going out, (he) sobbed violently.

26:69, 71 “a slave girl...another (slave girl)...” Matthew heightened the shame of Peter through the interrogation of the lowest in society, a slave girl. In a male dominated, gender segregated society, responding to such questioning was a sign of weakness and an implicit admission of guilt.

The die had been case. The followers deserted the Master, now shame would follow. Matthew framed that shame in the starkest terms possible. Peter, the leader, denied Jesus before the least in Jewish society, a slave girl. As the note above mentioned, his address to such a person of low place, his need to defend himself against her accusations, made his denial an admission of guilt and an act of shame. With the turn of Peter, the male followers in essence stepped off the state, only to return after the Resurrection. (There would be an exception, Joseph of Arimethea, but he would not appear until after the death of Jesus.) Jesus was now alone.

Stylistically, Matthew could now move to the trial before Pilate.

Jesus Before Pilate

27:1 Being early (morning just after dawn), all the chief priests and the elders of the people took council against JESUS as to have HIM executed. 2 Binding HIM, (they) led HIM away and surrendered (HIM) to Pilate the governor.

27:2 “Pilate the governor” Pontius Pilate was the fifth prefect of the Roman province called Judea (26-36 AD). While the canonical Gospels describe Pilate as a reluctant judge in the case of Jesus, both the Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo (who was a contemporary of Pilate) spoke of governor as a ruthless and corrupt official. Their accounts seems to have some merit; Pilate was recalled to Rome in 36 AD to face trial on corruption, but escaped judgment when the emperor Tiberius died before he could be tried.

The Roman justice system had no place (or even concept) of a district attorney, a state office to present the accused to justice. Private citizens would present defendants before the rulers for judgment. Guilt was assumed, but there was the chance for the defendant to “talk his way out of” the charges. In other words, the justice system depended upon the rhetorical skills of the accusers and the accused; a trial was a debate between two parties in which life could hang in the balance.

So, the chief priests and elders of the people took Jesus to Pilate. The charge would be the political ramifications of the title “Christ.” The leaders wanted Jesus condemned as the “King of the Jews.”

Reflect on your place and your attitude in worship. Do you focus on the place of the community and the presider? Or do you focus on your prayer and disposition? While, most of the time, these don't conflict, how would you respond if they did?