Who Ordered Jesus’ Arrest?

zpage065Over 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.

Next: Luke:

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.

  • David

    Something that occurs to me that might warrant a mention – just because a narrative appears in multiple texts (e.g. Gospels) doesn’t necessarily attest to historicity. Actually I’ll go further – it’s not the differences among the accounts which cause me to raise an eyebrow – rather, it’s their striking *similarities*.

    The use of certain turns of phrase (e.g. “arrest Jesus by stealth and kill,” “one of the twelve”) and the structure of the narrative being basically the same, starting with the high priests and continuing with Judas, give it the decided ring of different presentations of a *story*, an oral tradition (or written, if one was in possession of the Gospel of the other). That’s not to say this event didn’t take place, but I think it’s fairly certain that if this were simply several historians giving their accounts of events, the narratives – not necessarily details and facts, but the style, phrasing and structure of each – would be far more different.

    • David, great eyebrow-raise! You are actually referring to two different basic matters in the study of the historical Jesus.

      The first is the so-called synoptic problem. It’s long been recognized that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke share many of the same stories, in many cases written in the same or very similar Greek, and often appearing in the same or a similar order. This is how these three Gospels came to be called “synoptic” (meaning “seen together” in Greek). Scholars have long wondered, how did this come to pass? The dominant theory is that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, and that Matthew and Luke used Mark in the creation of their Gospels. However, there are a number of stories that Matthew and Luke have in common that do not appear in Mark. To explain this, many scholars posit that these authors possessed another Gospel, now lost, that was not available to Mark. This supposed lost Gospel is commonly called the “Q” Gospel. There are prominent scholars who try to solve the synoptic problem without resort to a lost Gospel, but I don’t want to get too deep here into alternate theories.

      For whatever reasons, the authors of Matthew and Luke did not decide to do wholesale rewrites of Mark. Their changes to Mark are more subtle, and arguably, more revealing. If Matthew borrowed wholesale much of Mark’s description of who ordered Jesus arrested, but he changed “chief priests and scribes” to “chief priests and elders,” we can fairly ask why he did that. (Some call this form of analysis “redaction criticism.”) Did Matthew disagree with Mark as to who arrested Jesus? Did he have a different theological or other agenda he wanted to stress? The questions can get interesting.

      This gets us to a second point, about the historical truth value of a story appearing in multiple Gospels. You may remember discussions here about the use by historians of the so-called criteria of authenticity, to determine which stories in the Gospels can reliably be said to go back to the historical Jesus. Well, one of these criteria is the criterion of multiple attestation, which says that a story is most likely to be authentic if it appears in multiple independent sources. And … as you anticipated, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are not generally considered to be independent! A story that appears in all three of these Gospels is generally considered to come from a single source. To get multiple attestation, you’d look to find the same story in John (though you’d buy an argument there that John is independent from the other three Gospels), or Paul’s letters, or in Josephus, or some other source.

      Of course, the above discussion does not eliminate the kind of argument you’re making. You’ll find lots of scholars out there who don’t automatically believe that the repeated stories are the most reliable.

      • David

        Very interesting! Thanks for the explanation.

  • John Brantingham

    This post brings up two questions for me. In the Catholic faith, Good Friday observances always happen from 12-3pm. I was always told they happen at that time because that’s when Christ was on the cross and that 3pm of Good Friday is the most solemn moment of the year. That seems to go directly against what the scripture says, but that might just be the interpretation of my parents and not dogmatic in any way. Do you have any insight on this?

    The second question it is raises is can the differences in the gospels’ accounts have to do with the different mission of the gospel writers. John’s seems most interesting to me because it has less blame perhaps, at least for Judas. Are they taking different political or religious stances?

    • John, terrific questions. The easiest one first. The synoptic Gospels all state that Jesus was crucified on the “third hour,” that on the “sixth hour” darkness descended over the land, and that he died on the “ninth hour.” Everyone I’ve read seems to agree that these times translate to our 9 a.m., 12 noon and 3 p.m., so that some Gospel translations use these times instead of the number of the hour. Matthew and Luke do not mention the time of the crucifixion, but follow Mark on the other two times. John may disagree with the other three Gospels, as John states that Jesus appeared before Pilate on the sixth hour (19:14), but some seem to read John as counting hours from midnight instead of from 6 a.m., in which case John and the other Gospels are in agreement. John does not tell us the time of the crucifixion or of Jesus’ death. In any event, the Good Friday times of 12 noon and 3 pm have great Gospel significance. I did not know the times used for Good Friday services — interesting.

      The second question is one of those questions that devour the lifetimes of theologians and historians. Many (I think most) historians would say that we don’t know who wrote the Gospels, that the Gospels were all written anonymously and that the named authors of the Gospels in our Bibles are all the result of later church attribution. (As in all things in this sphere, there are arguments to the contrary!) But if we don’t know who wrote the Gospels, or where they were written, it becomes very difficult to describe the “mission” of any Gospel apart from what we find written there. We can also have differences of opinion over the meaning of differences we find in the Gospels — should these differences be harmonized, or should we instead appreciate each Gospel for its particular point of view? But the short answer to your question is a general “yes.” A longer answer to your question would have to consider that the “mission” we perceive in a Gospel will reflect not only what that Gospel meant in its own place and time, but also a 2,000 year old history of interpretation, and our individual need for a scripture that will speak to our needs and concerns.

      • John Brantingham

        Those are two fascinating answers. Thank you!

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    super interesting and gosh is it mysterious.

  • R Vogel

    I have aways been a bit hazy about scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, et al. I always found it peculiar that they argued among themselves and turned to Jesus for the support of one side or the other and they both supposedly wanted Jesus dead. Sounds a little convoluted. It would seem to me that the Sadducees had the most to lose, since they represented the elites and so would be most hostile to the revolutionary undertones of Jesus’ message. Jesus ranted a lot at the Pharisees, but from what I have read he actually shared quite a bit in common with them theologically, so his rants may have been more reform-minded than outright polemic. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    I hope I don’t wear out my welcome here, but riffing on my previous theme, I would say that Judas may have betrayed Jesus by telling the authorities (whoever they were!) that Jesus’ disciples (or some of them) were arming themselves. Worried about a replay of the incidents you referred to in 4 BCE and 50 BC, they decide to detain Jesus themselves, perhaps to sit on him until after Passover, find out his actual intentions, or to turn him over to the Romans. When they show up, without Roman support in my account, they are attacked and overcome and the High Priest’s servant is maimed or killed. Now instead of a crazy faith healer making trouble in the temple court they have an armed insurrection that turns violent. Now they have to get the Romans involved. There is probably room in there for more coordination between the Romans and Jewish authorities. But either way I think fear of Roman retribution is more likely what was motivating the Jewish authorities rather than some pathological hatred of Jesus himself. They had both personal status and the welfare of the people to consider.

    • It’s almost impossible to wear out your welcome here. I love comments. The purpose of this site is to foster discussion.

      I’ve read somewhere recently (not sure where) that the Sadducees initially liked Jesus, because they thought that Jesus annoyed the Pharisees. I’m not sure how one would prove this, one way or the other, but I DO think you’re right. If Jesus managed to get the entirety of first century Jewish leadership to unite on any matter, even the matter of opposition to Jesus, then this would have been a miracle as great as walking on water! My own personal guess is that there wasn’t much conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, at least not before Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. I discussed this question earlier this year, when I reviewed Chris Keith’s book on Jesus’ literacy. But yes: Jesus might not have been a self-identified Pharisee, but he shared a great deal in common with Pharisees. I ALSO wrote about this earlier this year …

      As for your “riff” that Judas may have betrayed Jesus by telling authorities that the disciples were armed … please see today’s post on the Dale Martin article on disciples and arms. Your reconstruction of events is interesting: Jesus and his disciples initially repulse a purely Jewish arresting force, so Jesus is not arrested until a second effort is made, this one involving Roman soldiers? That’s possible, though there’s no hint in the Gospels of two attempts to arrest. But in your “two attempt” scenario, it’s even less likely than before that the authorities would have arrested only Jesus.

      Let’s continue this discussion, if you like, over at today’s post.

      • R Vogel

        I will check out the new post, one point of correction: I don’t envision two attempts. What I am saying could have happened is the disciples overpowered the Jewish force, had them in their power, and Jesus, rather than endorse the use of power, turns himself over to them. I think you are right that in order for this to work you have to toss out that Romans were involved in the arrest, so the position you take on John’s narrative is become important. In theory the Romans could have been involved and overpowered, it is not without precedent that the Romans underestimated an opponent and paid for it, but that seems to require a much bigger affair. If you agree with John’s narrative this become more of a problem.

  • Mishel bhan

    Jesus’ Trial. The greatest travesty of justice ever committed was the trial and sentencing of Jesus Christ. Prior to his trial the chief priests and older men of the people took counsel together with a view to putting Jesus to death. So the judges were prejudiced and had their minds made up on the verdict before ever the trial took place. (Mt 26:3, 4) They bribed Judas to betray Jesus to them. (Lu 22:2-6) Because of the wrongness of their actions, they did not arrest him in the temple in the daytime, but they waited until they could act under cover of darkness and then sent a crowd armed with clubs and swords to arrest him in an isolated place outside the city.—Lu 22:52, 53.

    Jesus was then taken first to the house of Annas, the ex-high priest, who still wielded great authority, his son-in-law Caiaphas being the high priest at the time. (Joh 18:13) There Jesus was questioned and was slapped in the face. (Joh 18:22) Next he was led bound to Caiaphas the high priest. False witnesses were sought by the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin. Many such witnesses came forward but could not agree on their testimony, except two who twisted Jesus’ words recorded at John 2:19. (Mt 26:59-61; Mr 14:56-59) Finally Jesus was put under oath by the high priest and questioned as to whether he was the Christ the Son of God. When Jesus answered in the affirmative and alluded to the prophecy at Daniel 7:13, the high priest ripped his garments and called upon the court to find Jesus guilty of blasphemy. This verdict was rendered, and he was sentenced to death. After this they spit in his face and hit him with their fists, taunting him, contrary to the Law.—Mt 26:57-68; Lu 22:66-71; compare De 25:1, 2 with Joh 7:51 and Ac 23:3.

    After this illegal night trial the Sanhedrin met early in the morning to confirm their judgment and for a consultation. (Mr 15:1) Jesus was now led, again bound, to the governor’s palace, to Pilate, since they said: “It is not lawful for us to kill anyone.” (Joh 18:31) Here Jesus was charged with forbidding the paying of taxes to Caesar and with saying that he himself was Christ a king. Blasphemy against the God of the Jews would not have been so serious a charge in the eyes of the Romans, but sedition would. Pilate, after making futile attempts to get Jesus to testify against himself, told the Jews that he found no crime in him. Discovering, however, that Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate was happy to send him to Herod, who had jurisdiction over Galilee. Herod questioned Jesus, hoping to see a sign performed by him, but Jesus refused. Herod then discredited Jesus, making fun of him, and sent him back to Pilate.—Lu 23:1-11.

    Pilate now tried to release Jesus in harmony with a custom of that time, but the Jews refused, calling for the release of a seditionist and murderer instead. (Joh 18:38-40) Pilate therefore had Jesus scourged, and the soldiers again mistreated him. After this, Pilate brought Jesus outside and tried to get his release, but the Jews insisted: “Impale him! Impale him!” Finally he issued the order to have Jesus impaled.—Mt 27:15-26; Lu 23:13-25; Joh 19:1-16.

  • Mishel bhan

    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?



    Joseph Caiaphas was the high priest during Jesus’ earthly ministry. (Lu 3:2) He was the son-in-law of High Priest Annas (Joh 18:13; see ANNAS) and was appointed to office by the predecessor of Pontius Pilate, Valerius Gratus, about the year 18 C.E., although some say as late as the year 26 C.E. He held the office until about the year 36 C.E., longer than any of his immediate predecessors, this being due to his skillful diplomacy and cooperation with Roman rule. He and Pilate were reportedly good friends. Caiaphas was a Sadducee.—Ac 5:17.

    A ringleader in the plot to do away with Jesus, Caiaphas prophesied, though not of his own originality, that Jesus would shortly die for the nation, and to that end he gave his wholehearted support. (Joh 11:49-53;18:12-14) At Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas ripped his garments and said: “He has blasphemed!” (Mt 26:65) When Jesus was before Pilate, Caiaphas was undoubtedly there crying: “Impale him! Impale him!” (Joh 19:6, 11); he was there asking for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus (Mt 27:20, 21; Mr 15:11); he was there shouting: “We have no king but Caesar” (Joh 19:15); he was also there protesting the sign over Jesus’ head: “The King of the Jews” (Joh 19:21).

    The death of Jesus did not mark the end of Caiaphas’ role as a chief persecutor of infant Christianity. The apostles were next haled before this religious ruler; they were sternly commanded to stop their preaching, were threatened, and were even flogged, but to no avail. “Every day in the temple and from house to house they continued without letup,” Caiaphasnotwithstanding. (Ac 4:5-7; 5:17, 18, 21, 27, 28, 40, 42) The blood of righteous Stephen was soon added to Jesus’ bloodstains on the skirts of Caiaphas, who also armed Saul of Tarsus with letters of introduction so the murderous campaign could be extended to Damascus. (Ac 7:1, 54-60; 9:1, 2) However, not long thereafter Vitellius, a Roman official, removed Caiaphas from office.

  • Omega Sin

    it seems jealousy and the power of currency has played deciding factors in
    history since the dawn of mankind.