Over the last umpteen blog posts, I’ve been looking at what we know about Jesus’ arrest. I’ve had occasion to question reports we find in some Gospels. Was Jesus arrested by a large crowd, as in Matthew? No, I prefer the account in John’s Gospel: Jesus was arrested by a mixed group of Roman soldiers and Jewish officials. How about the story we find in all four Gospels that someone in Jesus’ party (possibly Peter) attacked the slave of the Jewish high priest with a sword? No … that story doesn’t seem plausible. I’ve even questioned the idea that Judas betrayed Jesus – betrayed him how, exactly? By telling the authorities where to find Jesus? Jesus himself provides the argument against this form of betrayal, as he himself stated that he was an easy person to locate: “Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me.”
Now that we’ve looked at the details of Jesus’ arrest, we’re ready to address some of the big questions about this arrest. Here’s the first: who ordered Jesus’ arrest? Whose idea was this?
From a traditional Christian standpoint, this is an easy question to answer: Jewish authorities ordered Jesus’ arrest. As early as the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we are told that the Pharisees were plotting how to kill Jesus. But the plot as portrayed in the Gospels only begins with the Pharisees – just about every Jewish authority was out to get Jesus: priests, scribes, elders, you name it. Given the disagreement between these groups in Jesus’ day, the fact that these groups rarely saw eye-to-eye about anything, we might view this reported “plot” with some skepticism. But as the existence of this plot is reiterated so often in the Gospels, it is natural to assume that the leaders of these Jewish groups must have been responsible for Jesus’ arrest.
Indeed, the Gospels confirm that Jewish authorities ordered Jesus’ arrest. Mark tells us:
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him … Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
Here is Matthew’s account, which is similar to Mark’s:
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him … Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to put Jesus to death, for they were afraid of the people. Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he might betray him to them. They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money. So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them.
The report in John’s Gospel differs from that found in the previous Gospels, as it is missing a scene where Judas confers with Jewish authorities. But John has made it clear as early as Chapter 6 that Judas would betray Jesus. John’s account of the decision to arrest Jesus is here:
Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him …
So: all four Gospels agree: shortly before Passover, Jewish authorities decided to arrest Jesus, and kill him. Three of the four Gospels tell us that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is what got the ball rolling. In other words, the Gospels agree with the tradition: there was a Jewish plot to kill Jesus, and the arrest of Jesus was a Jewish decision. What more is left to say?
Quite a bit, actually.
For starters: which Jews had Jesus arrested? The Gospels do not agree. Mark and Luke tell us that it was the chief priests and scribes. Matthew says it was the chief priests and elders. John says it was the chief priests and Pharisees. Quite a difference! Keep in mind that in Jesus’ day, Judaism was in a highly sectarian state – the various groups of Jews could not be counted on to get along. In particular, the high priests (Sadducees) were in conflict with the Pharisees.
Here’s an analogy: let’s say that four historians come along 50 years from now and say that citizens of the United States are to blame for something or other. We ask them: which citizens? Historian one says: Democrats and lawyers. Historian two says: Democrats and college professors. Historian three says: Democrats and Republicans. Would you say that these historians were in agreement? Would you say that this disagreement is trivial? Personally, I think the agreement is significant. If the Gospel authors have a significant disagreement over which Jews ordered Jesus’ arrest, I start to question whether any Jews ordered Jesus’ arrest.
Let’s go a step further. We’ve already concluded (relying on John’s Gospel) that there were Roman troops present at Jesus’ arrest. Is this possible if it were Jews who ordered Jesus’ arrest? We can feel fairly certain that the Jewish authorities did not have the power to command Roman troops. I already noted in a prior post the conclusion of renown scholar Raymond Brown: if Roman troops assisted in Jesus’s arrest, it can only be because they were “ordered to do so by the Roman prefect,” Pontius Pilate. We can see this clearly enough in another Gospel story where Roman troops worked alongside Jewish authorities: in Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’ crucifixion, the chief priests and Pharisees tried to get Roman soldiers to guard Jesus’ tomb. How did they do this? They asked Pontius Pilate to make the arrangement. To get Pilate to agree to a Roman guard, the chief priests and Pharisees argued that Jesus’ disciples were plotting to steal Jesus’ body, so that they could falsely claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. Pilate replied, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make [the tomb] as secure as you can,” which might mean (a) Pilate gave these Jews use of a Roman guard, (b) Pilate had previously given these Jews use of a Roman guard, and here gave them permission to use this guard to secure the tomb, or (c) Pilate refused this request, telling the Jews to instead secure the tomb with their own forces.
Regardless of what Matthew meant by “you have a guard,” it’s clear from Matthew that the Jewish authorities did not command Roman troops. Even deploying a few soldiers to guard a tomb required Pilate’s authorization. Clearly, when it came to deploying a larger force of soldiers to secure Jesus’ arrest, Pilate (or someone close to him) must have authorized this deployment, particularly since this contingent was led (according to John) by a Roman Χιλίαρχος (pronounced chiliarchos, a “chief captain” with command over 1,000 soldiers).
If Pilate ordered the use of Roman troops to capture and arrest Jesus, does this mean that it was Pilate who ordered Jesus’ arrest? Not necessarily. As we saw in Matthew’s scene of the guard at the tomb, it was possible for Pilate to offer (or refuse to offer) up Roman troops in support of a Jewish initiative. So it is possible that the Jewish authorities ordered Jesus’ arrest, and then turned to Pilate for help. But there are reasons to think that the arrest of Jesus was Pilate’s idea. First: there is no indication in the Gospels that the Jewish authorities asked for Roman help in the arrest of Jesus. Nor does there appear to have been any reason for Jewish authorities to ask for Roman help in this case. As we’ve already discussed, Jesus and his disciples were not militant, and his arrest was not a difficult matter. We should also question whether the Jewish authorities would want to give Pilate the impression that they needed Roman military help to exercise their routine authority. We have to assume that the Jewish authorities wanted to give Pilate the impression (particularly during the Passover season) that they had the situation at the Temple mount well in hand. Power elites like to retain their power; the Jewish high priests should not normally have sought to share this power with Rome. And when Rome seized power over the Temple mount (as happened with some regularity during the Passover season), the results could be disastrous for the Jews.
Let’s layer in one additional fact that is evident from the Gospels: the trial of Jesus before Pilate took place early in the morning. It would have to have been early morning, as Mark’s Gospel indicates that Jesus was crucified at 9 a.m. While the Gospels do not indicate the exact time when Jesus appeared before Pilate (Mark says it was “very early in the morning”), the general consensus seems to be that this appearance took place at about 6 a.m. This would have been shortly before sunrise, which suggests that Jesus’ trial was arranged with Pilate in advance, before Jesus’ arrest. Otherwise, we’d have to assume that the Jewish authorities could command access to Pilate whenever they liked, at a moment’s notice, even before daybreak, waking him from sleep.
It thus appears that the decision to arrest Jesus, just like the arrest itself, was a joint Jewish-Roman operation. We’re dealing here with probability, not certainty, but it’s highly probable that the Jewish authorities consulted with Pilate before Jesus was arrested. Whether this consultation was at Pilate’s order or the Jewish authorities’ request, we cannot say for certain. But it appears that three things came out of this consultation: the parties decided that Jesus should be arrested, that Roman troops should participate in the arrest, and that a trial should take place before Pilate early the next morning.
One final consideration: throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ Jewish enemies are shown as out to get Jesus, seeking his arrest and execution, but they hold back, because they are afraid of the Jewish crowds. “They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd.” “Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest [Jesus] … but they were afraid of the crowd.” The Gospels state that the Jewish authorities were particularly afraid to arrest Jesus during the Passover holiday: “’Not during the festival,’ they said, ‘or the people may riot.’” At this time of year, Jerusalem would have been crowded with pilgrims – the city’s population might have been six times its usual size, or perhaps even larger than that – the Jewish author Philo reports that more than a million Jewish pilgrims would descend on Jerusalem during a typical Passover. The fear that the Jews might riot during Passover was no idle fear. By some reports, 3000 Jews were massacred by Roman troops during the Passover in 4 BCE, after the Jews had pelted soldiers with stones. Josephus reports that a Passover riot in about 50 CE resulted in Jews “being beaten out of the temple,” resulting in 10,000 deaths.
But according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus was arrested during Passover, on the first night of Passover. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus was arrested the night before the first night of Passover. Does this timing make sense, if the Jews (afraid to arrest Jesus even under ordinary circumstances, let alone during the riot-prone holiday of Passover) were the ones who ordered Jesus’ arrest? Does this story make more sense if it was the Romans, if it was Pontius Pilate (never portrayed in the Gospels or anywhere else as fearful of Jewish rioting), who ordered Jesus’ arrest?
I’ll leave these questions hanging for the moment. We’ll be in a better position to address these questions later in this series, once we’ve looked carefully at Jesus’ trial. For the moment … let’s simply say that the decision to arrest Jesus appears to be a joint decision by Jewish and Roman authorities. Perhaps the Jews took the initiative here, or perhaps the Romans did, but ultimately, on some level, the Roman and Jewish authorities decided in advance to work together to arrest Jesus and bring him to trial.