Over the past weeks, we have engaged in a close look at Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution, in an effort to figure out how and why it happened, and who was to blame. We are doing this as part of a longer effort to understand the roots of Christian anti-Judaism, and perhaps even Jewish anti-Christianity. So far, we’ve gotten only so far as Jesus’ arrest, concluding that it was probably a joint Jewish-Roman project. Not only was the arresting force (probably) made up of Jewish Temple police and Roman soldiers, but it also appears that the arrest itself was ordered by Jewish leadership (probably the high priest Caiaphas) together with Roman leadership (probably the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate). We’re not sure yet whether the arrest was sought by the Romans (and the Jews cooperated) or by the Jews (and the Romans cooperated).
The next logical question might be, why was Jesus arrested? The problem with this question is, it’s too broad. The question is too broad as a general matter, because every legal system contains prosecutorial discretion: not everyone who breaks the law (or is suspected of having broken the law) is arrested and punished. You may have had the experience of being pulled over by the Highway Patrol for speeding, and as you watched traffic racing by you at speeds well in excess of the posted limit, you asked yourself, why me? The only answer is, why not you? You were speeding (allegedly). The cops can’t ticket everyone who speeds. Law enforcement has the right (up to a point) to arrest some scofflaws and not others. Yes: we can and should protest when prosecutorial discretion is exercised in a discriminatory manner – against racial or ethnic minorities, for example. But the truth is, you’ll never know why you were unfortunate enough to be the one person speeding to be pulled over. Maybe you were driving a red sports car, and the cop didn’t like red sports cars. Maybe it’s the day of the Michigan-Ohio State football game, and you happened to be driving through Ohio with Michigan plates.
If prosecutorial discretion is a difficult question in all cases, it’s particularly difficult in Jesus’ case. Why was Jesus arrested? Jesus gives us the answer: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.” In other words, the question of why Jesus was arrested is a theological question. If Jesus is not arrested, then he is not tried, convicted and crucified, there is no atoning death, no resurrection, no ransom for many, and of course, no Christianity. Jesus himself made it clear: it had to happen the way it happened.
But G-d’s plan for the salvation of humankind is not within the purview of this post. We’re trying to understand Jesus’ arrest in more ordinary terms. So let’s not ask, why Jesus was arrested. Let’s ask instead: what was the charge against him? What law did Jesus (allegedly) break? What crime did he (allegedly) commit? When Jesus was taken into custody, did the arresting officer say to him, “Jesus, we arrest you for the crime of ….”
The short answer to these questions is: we don’t know. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest don’t say why Jesus was arrested. Earlier in the Gospels, where the Gospels discuss the decision to arrest Jesus … there’s no legal charge mentioned there, either.
The longer answer to this question is … long. We’ll need a few posts to get into it. I’ll try to post more often than my usual once a week, so that we don’t bog down on this point. But in essence, to get to the longer and (hopefully) more satisfying answer to this question, we need to skip ahead in the Gospels, past the accounts of Jesus’ arrest, and look at what the Gospels say about Jesus’ trials before the Jewish and Roman authorities. In doing this, I’ll have to skip over important material that we’ll address in later posts.
In this post, we’ll start our examination of what the charges might have been against Jesus when he appeared before the Jewish authorities. We’ll look here only at the first of these appearances before the Jewish high priest and elders. (Luke tells us that Jesus also appeared before the Roman-appointed Jewish ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas.) I am also leaving for later an examination of what charges are mentioned when Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate. What I’m interested in here are the specific accusations made against Jesus at the earliest point following his arrest, as these are the most likely accusations to reflect the original charge against Jesus.
Let’s start with Mark:
They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled … Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death.
Matthew’s version of the trial before Caiaphas is nearly identical to Mark’s:
Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered … Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of G-d and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living G-d, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of G-d.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.”
Luke’s version differs substantially from Mark and Matthew:
When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of G-d.” All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of G-d?” He said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!”
John’s version of events is more complicated than that found in the other three Gospels. John’s Gospel does not describe a single appearance before the high priest and others, but instead contains two appearances, one before the high priest Caiaphas, and an earlier appearance before Annas, the former high priest and father-in-law of Caiaphas. But John tells us nothing about the appearance before Caiaphas – we’re given details only concerning the appearance before Annas:
So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year …. Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Frustratingly, John’s Gospel tells us only that Jesus was questioned about his teaching and his disciples. That gives us no picture of the charges brought against Jesus. Fortunately, the prior three Gospels tell us more. Mark and Matthew indicate that the proceedings against Jesus began with testimony concerning Jesus and the Temple: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” Both these Gospels indicate that the trial went badly for the prosecution on this point, as the witness testimony did not agree. The trial changed course when the high priest asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, and Jesus replied with an alleged blasphemy. It is for this blasphemy, according to Mark and Matthew, that Jesus was sentenced to death.
The trial in Luke’s Gospel proceeds differently. Luke’s account omits any mention of Jesus and the Temple, focusing solely on the question whether Jesus is the Messiah. Luke’s trial scene also omits any mention of blasphemy. In Luke, Jesus appears to have been sentenced to death solely for claiming to be the Messiah.
We thus have three possible charges against Jesus at his arrest: (1) He blasphemed. (2) He claimed to be the Messiah. (3) He threatened to destroy the Temple. Which of these charges, if any, seem to be plausible historically? We’ll look at the first two of these possible charges here, and the third (the most complex) in my next post.
Was Jesus Charged by the Jews with Blasphemy?
I think we can dismiss the charge of blasphemy relatively quickly. Yes: the question of whether Jesus committed blasphemy at his trial is complicated. This question has been the topic of serious study, and it will require detailed analysis (another day!) in order for us to understand the issues. For the moment, let’s simply acknowledge the possibility that Jesus did commit blasphemy at his trial. But there is no evidence that Jesus was arrested for blasphemy. Mark and Matthew both indicate that the Jewish trial of Jesus was initially focused on a different issue, Jesus’ statements about the Temple. While both Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels contain accusations of blasphemy made against Jesus during his ministry, these accusations concerned Jesus’ ability to forgive sins, and not (as during the trial) Jesus’ identity as Messiah, Son of Man or Son of God. Moreover, these Gospels do not claim that Jesus was questioned about these earlier incidents of alleged blasphemy – it does not appear that the Jewish authorities at Jesus’ trial even knew of Jesus’ (alleged) claim that he could forgive sin. Instead, Jesus is convicted in Mark and Matthew of a blasphemy he committed at the trial.
(NOTE: Luke’s Gospel contains essentially the same accusation we find in Mark and Matthew, that Jesus was accused of blasphemy during his ministry – but not during his trial – because he claimed the power to forgive sin. John’s Gospel contains a different accusation of blasphemy against Jesus, that he claimed during his ministry to be G-d. The claim of blasphemy in John is related to the one we find in Jesus’ trial in Mark and Matthew, that Jesus purportedly claimed an exalted status. But again, we have no evidence that the blasphemy mentioned in John was the reason for Jesus’ arrest.)
So, regardless of whether Jesus was convicted of blasphemy, it appears that he must have been arrested for some other (alleged) crime.
Was Jesus Charged by the Jews with Claiming To Be The Messiah?
Luke’s Gospel indicates that Jesus was initially questioned about whether he thought he was the Messiah. Was it a crime under Jewish law to claim to be the Messiah? Well … how could it be? The Jewish people (or more accurately, many Jewish people) have been eagerly awaiting the coming of the Messiah for more than 2,000 years. How can the Messiah come if the Messiah cannot tell us who he (or she!) is? The scholars I’ve read all agree: it was not a crime under Jewish law to claim to be the Messiah – not even a supposedly false claim of messiahship was against Jewish law. “It was not a crime in ancient Judaism to claim to be Messiah,” declares the conservative Christian website BibleGateway. ThinkApologetics.com proclaims: “According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense, [or] even a blasphemous claim.” Ed Kessler writes on the BBC website that “To claim to be the Messiah, if it was an offence against Judaism at all, was certainly not (as the Gospels contend) an offence against Jewish law for which Jesus could have been put to death.”
So: let’s sum up where we are: we’ve looked at two of the three possible charges that the Jewish authorities might have brought against Jesus. We’ve concluded that Jesus may have been convicted for blasphemy, but this was not the charge against him that led to his arrest. We’ve concluded that Jesus was not charged with claiming to be the Messiah, because claiming to be a Messiah was not a crime. We’re left with a third possible charge, that Jesus was arrested for anti-Temple activities. Evaluating the historical plausibility of this charge is a complex matter. It deserves a post of its own. And a post of its own it will get! Next time.
In the meantime, ask questions! What do you think of the arguments I’ve made so far? Are there scholarly arguments and opinions that you think we should consider at this point? Do you think I’m wasting my time, that understanding the charges against Jesus is beside the point? Discuss!