Chapter 8: The Story: (II) Jerusalem

The Founder of Christianity
by C. H. Dodd

Chapter 8: The Story: (II) Jerusalem

After the dramatic scene which we have just been considering, the gospels begin to introduce a fresh series of place names, which seems to indicate an expansion of the area of movement. Any attempt to plot out a detailed itinerary would be an unhopeful project. Our information is fragmentary, and not easy to combine into an intelligible whole. There is little to suggest any further activity in Galilee, at any rate on the scale or in the manner of earlier days. We hear of journeys outside Jewish Palestine, and of activity in Transjordan, as well as on the borders of Samaria, which lay south of Galilee on the west bank. Some of this probably belongs to the period after the crisis in Galilee, but we cannot be certain.

There are, however, some probabilities. It is clear that after the encounter with the five thousand patriots things could never be the same again, and it is no surprise when Mark tells us that Jesus withdrew for a time into foreign territory. No doubt opposition had been hardening in the synagogues, stimulated by the "doctors of the law who had come down from Jerusalem." There was reason to apprehend hostility from Herod Antipas, whose domain included Galilee; at some point (but we do not know when) Jesus received a warning that Herod was out to kill him, as he had killed John the Baptist.1 But to all appearance it was less the threats of the opposition than the misguided enthusiasm of would-be followers that recommended a temporary retirement from the scene. Things had reached such a pass that any further public appeal in Galilee was inadvisable for the present. A new strategy would have to be worked out.

The fiasco of the abortive rising, we are told, had resulted in widespread desertions. From John’s account we might gather that no followers at all were left except the faithful twelve. But he does not actually say so, and the extent of the defection need not be exaggerated. In any case, for any new departure at this point Jesus must rely on the more intimate group of fully committed disciples, whose loyalty was certain, and who at the same time were capable of being led into better understanding of what he was about. These he led across the frontier, out of Herod’s domains, out of the restrictive atmosphere of the synagogues, and away from the ferment of an overexcited nationalism. The journey into foreign parts was in no sense a mission to the heathen; Jesus wished to remain incognito, so far as this was possible for one of his notoriety. His chief preoccupation was the instruction of the disciples who accompanied him. This concentration upon a select group must not be misunderstood, as if he had given up the idea of the new Israel as an open society, and now restricted its membership to a holy remnant. As the sequel shows, he had by no means abandoned the appeal to the people at large, but it had now to be made on different lines; the part which the Twelve were to play in it was one which would try them more severely; and for this they had to be schooled.

But we should probably conceive this time of retirement in part also as giving Jesus himself an opportunity of seeing more clearly how he was now to proceed in fulfillment of his vocation. Its main lines were fixed from the time of testing which followed his baptism; but the kind of action it called for at any given stage must be determined by developments in which he read the signs of the divine will for his guidance. Between his baptism and his irruption into Galilee with the proclamation of the kingdom of God, as we saw, he had marked time, until the removal of John the Baptist gave the signal for advance. So now, we may suppose, developments in Galilee having closed one door, he had to find out in what way the next step should be taken. Exactly how his mind worked we cannot pretend to know, but two things come out clearly: the objective is to be Jerusalem; and to go to Jerusalem is to face a violent death. The two themes are inseparable in a whole cluster of sayings which are so placed in the gospels as to prepare the reader for the account of the last journey and its tragic outcome.

If the mission of Jesus had as its aim the integration of a new Israel as the true people of God, then sooner or later his message must be presented, and presented in a way that challenged a decisive response one way or the other, at Jerusalem, the central hearth and shrine of historic Israel. The time came when he saw clearly that this would cost him his life. Such was his assessment of the situation, based, we must suppose, on an interpretation of various significant incidents, some of them recorded, others unknown to us.

He is unlikely to have arrived at this shattering conclusion without having been at Jerusalem to see how things were shaping. Mark indeed (followed by Matthew and Luke) has so concentrated attention on the final, and fatal, visit to Jerusalem as to give the impression that he had never previously visited the capital since his public activity began. But an attentive reading between the lines may suggest otherwise. At any rate even Mark’s narrative presupposes that when he entered Jerusalem for the fatal Passover he already had friends and adherents in the neighborhood. John has a circumstantial account of a visit at the Feast of Tabernacles, which fell between the middle of September and the middle of October, some six months before the Passover at which he was to meet his death. He went up, John says, "not publicly, but almost in secret," as if he wished to observe without being observed, taking the temperature of feeling in metropolitan circles.2 But "when the festival was already half over" he was moved to address the crowds in the temple.3 What he said so incensed them that he was in danger of being lynched.4 In the Fourth Gospel this episode is made, after John’s manner, the setting for a whole series of dialogues and discourses which are evidently his own composition, though they contain undoubted reminiscences of earlier tradition, but there seems no valid reason to reject his statement that in September or October Jesus was in Jerusalem, and that the reception he met with finally convinced him -- whatever premonitions he may previously have entertained -- that any advance on the city would meet with implacable hostility. But go to Jerusalem he must. "It is unthinkable," he said with mournful irony, "for a prophet to meet his death anywhere but in Jerusalem." 5

This, then, was the way in which the mission of the Servant of the lord was to be consummated. This was how the ideal of self-sacrifice was to be translated into brute fact. Pointers afforded by the outward course of events coincided with the inner promptings of his vocation: he must go to Jerusalem -- and die there. From this point on his actions are those of a man who knows that his life is forfeit, and is indifferent to whatever his enemies may do.

When he broached his plan to his closest followers, Peter’s immediate reaction, as we saw, was to repudiate the whole idea as an unfortunate aberration. But loyalty to the Leader prevailed, and, though without any clear understanding of what was happening, they steeled themselves for the ordeal, and followed him. Mark portrays the mood in which the march began: "They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, Jesus leading the way; and the disciples were filled with awe; while those who followed behind were afraid." 6 He had timed his approach to Jerusalem for the season of Passover, in March or April. It was a time when masses of pilgrims from all over the Jewish world would be present, and his challenge could be delivered with the widest publicity. Moreover, the festival commemorated the liberation of Israel from Egypt -- the birth of the nation. This year’s Passover was to be marked by its rebirth as the true people of God. The setting for the challenge to Jerusalem was eminently appropriate.

How the interval between October and April was occupied or where it was spent we could only conjecture; the differing accounts of the various gospels at this point are hard to correlate. When we are able to pick up a straightforward narrative again the party have just crossed from Transjordan to the west bank; the halting places are Jericho and Bethany, both on the road between the fords of Jordan and Jerusalem.

It is at this point that signs of prior planning begin to appear. So far, it is assumed, Jesus and his company had traveled, as usual, on foot, but when they reached the outer suburbs he called a halt, and (says John) "found a donkey and mounted it" The other gospels suggest that it was not quite so casual as that. Mark has a circumstantial story (copied by Matthew and Luke) about the way the donkey was "found" Apparently it had been left "tethered at a door outside in the street" at the entrance to the village (presumably either Bethany or the neighboring Bethphage), ready to be released to messengers who gave the password, "Our Master needs it." 7 There is nothing improbable in the story, if we assume that Jesus has been in Jerusalem and its neighborhood before, and made contacts there; and there is good reason for believing that he had. Even if (with many critics) we should reject the story as picturesque embroidery, there seems no reasonable doubt that Jesus did ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. It is unlikely to have been a mere matter of convenience. It may best be understood as one more symbolic action, or "acted parable," after the manner of the prophets. What was its significance we may perhaps best ask after looking more closely at the incident itself.

We have to imagine Jesus and his party as traveling in company with large numbers of other pilgrims making for Jerusalem. Among them would be many Galileans. It would appear (in this all gospels are agreed) that Jesus had not been much in Galilee of late, or, if there, not much in the public eye. As he now rode conspicuously among them, his Galilean fellow-pilgrims greeted him with enthusiasm. John may well be right in saying that other pilgrims who had arrived at Jerusalem in advance now heard of his approach and came out to meet him. The last mile or so turned into something like a triumphal procession. "Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord!" they shouted. But cheers were also heard for "the coming kingdom of our father David," and these were ominous. They recall all too clearly some of the poetry of militant nationalism which was current.

Behold, O Lord, and raise up their king, the son

of David,

at the time thou hast appointed, O God,

to reign over Israel thy servant.

Gird him with strength to shatter wicked rulers.

Cleanse Jerusalem from the Gentiles who trample

it and destroy.

In wisdom, in justice, may he thrust out sinners

from God’s heritage,

crush the arrogance of the sinner like a potter’s


crush his whole substance with an iron mace.

blot out the lawless Gentiles with a word.

put the Gentiles to flight with his threats!8

Read "Romans" for "Gentiles" and the contemporary relevance of this warlike hymn becomes plain. The man on a donkey does not easily fit into the picture, His strange entry into the city reminded Matthew and John of a prophecy in the Old Testament. As quoted by Matthew it runs, "Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Here is your king, who comes to you in gentleness, riding on an ass.’" The prophet continues his description of the gentle king: "He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the warhorse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he will speak peace to the Gentiles." 9 As we might put it, he will carry out a program of disarmament and, instead of declaring war on the Gentiles, or "putting them to flight with his threats," he will make overtures of peace to them. If we suppose Jesus to have had this prophecy in mind, then his decision to enter the city in this guise is explained. He was challenging the people to rethink their ideas and their hopes for the nation: "Look on this picture, and on that!" The alternatives were before them.

Arrived in Jerusalem, he made his way, like most pilgrims, directly to the temple. But for the moment he did no more than look around and take note of what he saw with a view to future action; so at least Mark has it. Then he returned to Bethany for the night. Next morning he was back in the city, prepared to carry out an action designed to be the central point of his challenge to priests and people. It was to be staged within the temple precincts. The outer court was in these weeks before the festival the scene of a market where animals and birds could be bought for sacrifice, and where pilgrims from abroad could change the money they brought with them into currency acceptable for religious dues and offerings. The market was at least countenanced by the priesthood. The temple area was their special domain, its guardianship their exclusive responsibility. Jesus now ordered the traders to leave the place, overturned the tables at which currency transactions took place, and drove out the beasts. He then took control and prevented traffic from using the sacred precinct as a short cut. It was undeniably a highhanded action. It was also a bold one. The priests had a police force at their disposal, and in the castle that towered over the temple area a Roman garrison kept watch. The expulsion must have been effected with a minimum of disorder, and we cannot but conclude that the force which effected it was simply the personal authority that made itself felt when Jesus confronted the crowd. Many of them are likely to have sympathized with his action; others perhaps were overawed. There can hardly have been any conspicuous resistance, or the garrison must have intervened to forestall a riot; it was what they were there for. Jesus took command, and, for the moment, he was obeyed. Making the most of the opportunity he had thus made for himself, he spent the rest of the day teaching the people, who, Mark says, were "spellbound by his teaching." Of its content we are told very little, but perhaps enough to give a pointer to one at least of its themes, as well as to the purpose and meaning of his drastic action.10

It was not intended as a coup d’état, for he took no steps to follow it up. It must have been something in the nature of a manifesto in action. For its significance we must follow any clue that the gospels provide. But first we may note that the very fact that the temple was chosen as the stage for this demonstration made it clear at once that his aims, though he had been acclaimed as a king, were not political; it was the worship of God, not the independence of the Jewish state, that he was concerned with. "Do not turn my Father’s house into a market." With these words, according to John, he expelled the traders, asserting the elementary principle that the worship of God and the pursuit of gain -- and even of funds for religious purposes -- are two things and not one. "You cannot serve God and Money," as he had observed earlier. So much is on the surface, but there is more beneath. One of the ancient prophets -- the same, indeed, who spoke of the "king coming in gentleness" -- also drew a picture of a good time to come when men of all nations will go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts; and on that day the prophet adds, "there shall no more be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts," 11 Jesus was offering symbolically a fulfillment of that prophecy, in line with his basic affirmation that the kingdom of God is here. So at least John understood the scene, and such an understanding coheres with the general tenor of the gospels.

In Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke) the traders, or rather their priestly patrons, are accused of having turned the temple into a "robbers’ cave" -- not a "den of thieves"; that expression, which has passed from the King James Version into our current speech, is a mistranslation. The Greek language has a word for "thief," derived from a root which connotes something underhand, furtive, crafty; but that is not the word used here. It is a different word, which primarily connotes not larceny but violence, and was appropriately used of a highway robber or a gangster. The caves of the Judaean wilderness had long been the strongholds of these miscreants, and of the revolutionaries who were scarcely distinguishable from them, and were called by the same term. The charge that Jesus brought against the traders is not one of sharp practice in business, though with such a valuable monopoly in their hands they perhaps did not waste the opportunity. The charge is that the priesthood was exploiting the sanctity of the temple to make it the stronghold of a powerful and exclusive faction, whereas it was intended to be "a house of prayer for all nations." 12 So a prophet had declared some centuries earlier:

As for the foreigners who adhere to the Lord to worship him, to love his name, and to be his servants . . . I will bring them to my holy mount and make them joyful in my house of prayer. Their sacrifices and offerings shall be accepted on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.

In the prophet’s wn day it was a protest against the morose exclusiveness which was the dark side of the Jewish reformers’ zeal for religion. As such Jesus took it up. We recall that the Son of David was popularly expected to "cleanse Jerusalem from the Gentiles." Jesus wanted it cleansed for the Gentiles.

It was on the occasion of this "cleansing," according to John, that Jesus used the words which gave so much offense: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again." As we saw, the temple is here a symbol for a way of religion and a community embodying it, and the saying is a veiled forecast of the emergence of a new Israel out of the corruption of contemporary Judaism. In the light of this, the "cleansed" temple becomes itself a symbol of the new order, in which there is no distinction of Jew and Gentile, but a united people of God offers him a pure worship "in spirit and in truth" (as John puts it elsewhere). A symbol, but only a symbol: the true temple, "not made with hands" (as Mark has it), was yet to come into being. The crisis out of which it would emerge was now impending. The demonstration in the outer court was one more link in the chain of events which brought Jesus to his death -- to his death and to his resurrection, which was also, in his mind, the rise of the new people of God embodied in him.

It was not to be expected that this open challenge to the priestly custodians of the temple should pass unnoticed by them. "By what authority are you acting like this?" they asked. "Who gave you this authority?" 13 It was quite in character for Jesus to meet such a question by asking another. He reminded them of his predecessor, John the Baptist: Was he a prophet sent by God, or only one more sectarian leader? This touched a sore point; the official representatives of Judaism had been suspicious of the Baptist’s goings-on, and yet in view of his immense influence with the people at large they did not care to repudiate him in express terms. "We do not know," was the lame reply. "Then," Jesus retorted, "neither will I tell you by what authority I act." The implication is that there is a kind of authority which is self-authenticating; either you recognize it or you don’t, and if you don’t there is nothing more to be said. The reference to John the Baptist is not a mere debating point. His work had been one of the "signs of the times" in which Jesus saw tokens of the coming of the kingdom of God, and in accepting baptism at his hands he had embraced his own vocation. John’s program, "to prepare a people fit for the Lord," set the course which Jesus had followed. John’s assault on the complacency of official Judaism had sounded a note which Jesus echoed. John had said (negatively) that Jewish descent was in itself no qualification for membership in the new Israel; Jesus now said (positively) that the new temple should be for all nations. He was asking the priests to recognize, belatedly, that the movement which John had initiated and he himself had carried into a new phase, was a work of God. The appeal found no response.

The priests were right in seeing that by his action Jesus had raised the issue of authority. The foundation on which the Jewish establishment rested was the assumption that supreme and unquestionable authority resided in the Law of Moses and could be rightly exercised only by the governing body believed to be in true succession to the lawgiver. At any rate it could be exercised by them alone "until" (as some said) "a faithful prophet should arise" -- one who would hold authority direct from God who gave the Law. Could Jesus be recognized as holding such authority? Were they to look on while he exercised it? It would mean abdication.

Jesus now passed from defense to attack. He appeared publicly in the temple and, in the presence of large audiences, delivered trenchant criticisms of the official representatives of the Jewish religion. The sharp point of his attack is to be found in a parable which reads almost like a declaration of war.

A man planted a vineyard and put a wall round it, hewed out a winepress, and built a watchtower; then he let it out to vinegrowers and went abroad. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce. But they took him, thrashed him, and sent him away empty-handed. Again, he sent another servant, whom they beat about the head and treated outrageously. . . . He now had only one to send, his own dear son. In the end he sent him. "They will respect my son," he said. But the tenants said to one another, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the property will be ours." So they seized him and killed him, and flung his body out of the vineyard.14

Like other parables, this one depicts an incident such as might well have taken place in the existing situation, when growing popular discontent might at any time erupt in open violence. Like others, it invited the hearers to a judgment: "What will the owner of the vineyard do?" Obviously it could be nothing short of a termination of the tenancy and the re-letting of the property. "They saw," says Mark, "that the parable was aimed at them." They must indeed have done so, if they were not peculiarly dim-witted! The prophets had spoken of Israel as God’s vineyard. The religious leaders of Israel knew that they were there to manage it for him. They understood the parable, rightly, as accusing them of gross abuse of their position and, in effect, serving notice of dismissal on them in the name of the Owner; the vineyard would be let to new tenants. In other words, Israel is still the Lord’s vineyard, but the existing establishment is doomed; the new Israel will be under different leadership.

Such is the dénouement of the parable, and such its inevitable application. But the gradual unfolding of the plot -- the fruitless dispatch of messenger after messenger and their sinister reception -- has also its own significance, That God had sent "his servants the prophets" to Israel, generation after generation, to remind them of their obligations to him, was an established part of the interpretation of their history which all Jews were taught. How Jesus thought about the sad story comes out in another saying of his which would seem to belong to the same situation of acute tension, though its tone is more that of regret than of denunciation:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets and stones the messengers sent to her! How often have I longed to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings; but you would not let me.15

The religious leaders, then, can hardly have missed the general purport of the parable, but it must have left them with a question in their minds: if the Owner’s servants are God’s messengers the prophets, who is the final messenger whose tragic fate is the climax of the story? Who is the Owner’s son? It might imply a dangerous claim.

Matters now moved fast. The priests had evidently decided that Jesus was too dangerous a person to be left at large. John indeed has a circumstantial account of a meeting of the great council which resolved on his death. The discussion, he says, was opened by a speaker who drew attention to the influence which Jesus was exerting on the public, and the danger that his activities might lead to a move by the Roman authorities which might be disastrous to the Jewish community. The debate was wound up by the high priest Caiaphas, who stated the case bluntly as he saw it: "It is more to your interest that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should be destroyed." 16 In the nature of the case this cannot be taken as anything like "minutes of the proceedings," but there is little doubt that it accurately puts the case as the priests saw it. Jesus must be "liquidated" to avert the danger of disturbing the extremely delicate balance by which Judaea enjoyed a limited autonomy under Roman rule. It seemed to the council that there was here sufficient ground for action; at any rate they could put him under arrest, and that was an action which the governor might be expected to countenance, since it could be represented as being in the interests of public order.

If the authorities were to act, they must act quickly, if possible before Passover, which was now very close at hand. The city was already filling up with pilgrims. Many of these might be found to sympathize with Jesus, and if an attempt were made to arrest him publicly they might well riot in his support, and bring about just that military intervention which it was the object of the exercise to avert. Jesus, well aware of the danger, was now taking care not to be found in the city after nightfall; he either stayed with friends at Bethany or bivouacked on the Mount of Olives, where the little company would easily escape notice among the numerous groups which camped out there for the festival. The projected arrest, therefore, was quite a problem. An unexpected solution now presented itself. One of the twelve disciples who were nearest to Jesus was found to be willing to assist the authorities in effecting a secret arrest.

The motive which led Judas Iscariot to an act which has made his name a byword for the basest treachery is probably beyond discovery. Matthew indeed has a circumstantial story of his driving a bargain with the priests, and he even knows the exact amount of money that changed hands. But here we may reasonably suspect a certain amount of embroidery, the more so since Matthew has also an edifying story about the traitor’s remorse and grisly end -- a story, by the way, inconsistent with another account of his death which is found in the Acts of the Apostles, not to mention a third divergent account which we know to have been handed down traditionally in the early church. It was natural enough that legend should have grown about this monstrous piece of treachery. Mark and Luke say simply that Judas approached the priests with an offer to betray his Master, and that they thereupon promised to pay him for his services. John knows nothing of any financial transaction. He says, as does Luke, that the act of Judas was inspired by the devil; that is to say, it was a piece of sheer irrational evil, the motive for which was beyond their comprehension; and that is probably as much as they knew about it. No doubt money may have passed, but it is unlikely that so human, if so sordid, a motive as plain avarice had much to do with it. In the unsavory ranks of traitors to their country who have been exposed in recent years it seems that, while in most cases some consideration was offered and accepted, there were few for whom gain was the dominant or sufficient motive. Some deep-seated psychological maladjustment, a chip on the shoulder, thwarted ambition, misdirected idealism -- these and other motives were at work. It would not be difficult to imagine ways in which some such motive might have influenced Judas, given his background and the situation in which he now found himself. But all this would be mere guesswork. We don’t know nor probably did those who first told the gospel story. "The devil put it into the mind of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him"; 17 that is about as far as we can get.

The way was now clear, and the priests could go ahead with their plan for a speedy and secret arrest. One evening in that week Jesus and his twelve disciples met, with due precautions, at a house in Jerusalem where a room had been privately reserved for him, we may surmise by a sympathizer who did not wish to come out into the open (there were probably many such). Here they had supper together, for the last time, as it turned out. And indeed the air was heavy with forebodings. This was no ordinary meal. Although the day was perhaps not the official date for the celebration of Passover (it is known that the official calendar was not universally observed at this time), yet for them is was (or else it took the place of) the solemn Passover supper; and the historic memories which the festival recalled were present to their minds, arousing the deep emotions with which these memories were laden. But the words and actions of Jesus gave a new significance to the occasion. There were bread and wine on the board; of the profound meaning which Jesus attached to the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup something has already been said, and need not be here repeated.

Supper over, the company left the house and made for a familiar spot, an enclosure on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, across the valley from the east gate of the city. Judas Iscariot had already slipped away, on some errand, it was supposed, which fell to him as treasurer of their modest common fund. The others seem to have been in a mood of mingled exaltation and bewilderment; they felt they were in the midst of momentous happenings, but had little inkling of the real nature of the crisis that was upon them. "Pray that you may be spared the hour of testing," Jesus said. He himself was not to be spared. "Horror and dismay came over him, and he said to them, ‘My heart is ready to break with grief.’ " 18 So Mark has written, for once permitting the language of emotion to breach the severe reserve of his narrative Jesus now left his friends and withdrew "about a stone’s throw," to fall into solitary and agonized prayer. After some time he rejoined them, calm and resolute. "Up, let us go forward; my betrayer is at hand." And even as he spoke, lights were seen among the olive trees. and a posse of armed men approached, with the traitor Judas at their head. There was a brief attempt at resistance, but Jesus quickly put a stop to it and gave himself up. The disciples scattered, and Jesus was in the hands of his enemies.

The arrest had been effected, as the priests had desired, without attracting attention or giving any opportunity for a rescue by possible sympathizers. The Prisoner was now to be brought to trial In the account of the proceedings given in the gospels we have, in appearance, reports of two separate trials, one before a Jewish court, the other before the Roman governor, each ending in condemnation on a capital charge -- but a different charge in each. We have to bear in mind the ambiguous standing of the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin. In its own estimation it was the sovereign assembly of the nation of Israel, with authority to administer the law delivered by the Almighty to Moses on Mount Sinai, from which there was no appeal. In cold fact, Judaea being a Roman province, it was a municipal organ of administration, with powers just as wide as Rome allowed, and no wider. Under the liberal policy of the empire, which allowed a fair degree of local autonomy, the Sanhedrin exercised wide jurisdiction as a court of justice, especially in matters arising out of the peculiar practices and institutions of the Jewish religion. But the governor had ultimate responsibility. In particular, he kept in his hands all cases involving a capital charge. This was a principle in force throughout the empire. The only known exceptions, where a local court had the power of life and death, were a very few free cities, incorporated in the empire by treaty, not by conquest. Jerusalem was certainly no free city, and there is no sufficient evidence that the Sanhedrin enjoyed any such improbable privilege. It may, on occasion, have acted ultra vires, and a governor may have saved himself trouble by looking the other way; some such apparently irregular cases are cited. But in the case of Jesus of Nazareth there were reasons why no irregularity must appear.

The priests had a double aim in view: Jesus must be removed by death; he must also be discredited. The death sentence therefore must be legally and formally pronounced by the governor. The surest way to secure such a sentence would be to cite the Defendant on a charge of political disaffection. But such a charge would by no means discredit him in the eyes of the Jewish public; quite the contrary. It was for the Sanhedrin to show that he was guilty of an offense against religion. The prestige of the court would secure respect for the verdict. Yet in fact the Sanhedrin could act only as a court of first instance. And that is what the gospels say it did. Although the council appears to have pronounced the Prisoner guilty and liable to the death penalty, the priests came into the governor’s court, not as judges seeking confirmation of their verdict, but as prosecutors. So the gospels all agree. The proceedings before the council therefore take on their proper character as a preliminary investigation to determine the charge to be preferred before the competent tribunal. Such was the legal position, though in the eye of orthodox Jews the judgment of the native court was valid in itself, and Jewish tradition in the Talmud assumes that the death sentence was passed by the Sanhedrin; understandably, it ignores the role of the governor altogether.

The arrest had been made in the dead of the night. Naturally, the council was not in session. But one man at least was awake; and expecting the result: Annas, the éminence grise, no longer High Priest, but lurking formidably in the background, while his son-in-law Caiaphas discharged the sacred office by grace of Pontius Pilate. Before him the Prisoner was immediately brought for private and informal questioning. "about his disciples and about what he taught." So John (alone among the gospels) reports, noting that a disciple of Jesus who was acquainted with the High Priest had found his way into the house -- which we may possibly take as a hint that he had good information at this point.19

Meanwhile, we must suppose, steps were being taken to acquaint members of the Sanhedrin with the successful arrest and to secure a full attendance at a hastily summoned meeting. It must have taken some time, and we should probably accept Luke’s statement that the full session, with the High Priest himself presiding, took place in the morning. This would bring it into conformity with the rules of procedure, as they are known from Jewish sources. If the session was held at night, as might appear from Matthew and Mark, then the strict provisions of the Law were infringed, and by the High Priest himself. Perhaps they were, but it is more likely that the writers of the gospels have telescoped events. They were not concerned with nice points of legal procedure, nor indeed with chronological precision. Their narrative faithfully portrays the movement of the drama, with its fundamental unity and continuity, even though in fact the interval between the arrest and the session of the council, and between that and the trial before Pilate, may have been more considerable than appears.

The account of the hearing before the Sanhedrin is not without difficulties. The reports in Matthew and Mark (variants of the same) differ in some points from Luke’s, and John does not report the hearing.20 At best we are at a disadvantage in having no more than a very brief précis, in Greek, of proceedings conducted in Hebrew, which may have been quite lengthy. Mark’s account is fullest. He indicates that the object was "to find some evidence against Jesus to warrant a death sentence," and this is probably not far from the truth. But the forms of law were scrupulously observed. Several charges were preferred, of which Mark specifies only one, that of a threat to destroy the temple. This was a perversion of something which Jesus had actually said, as we have seen. But the witnesses could not agree upon the form of words they professed to have heard, so the charge lapsed. It was a principle of Jewish law that the evidence of "two or three witnesses" was required for a conviction. Nor did the other charges find the necessary consentient evidence. Nevertheless Jesus was offered the opportunity of replying to them, which he declined. The High Priest then interrogated him directly: "Are you the Messiah?" Here serious difficulties begin, for, as we have seen, the gospels do not entirely agree about the reply he gave. In any case, the High Priest construed it as a confession that he did make such a claim. Not only so; he gave it as his opinion that the words used were blasphemous. The court unanimously concurred, and the Prisoner was convicted of blasphemy, a capital offense in Jewish law.

Wherein the "blasphemy" consisted it is not easy to say. It is not clear that a claim to messiahship was in itself necessarily blasphemous. Presumably the offense lay in the implications of the language used. Elsewhere in the gospels the charge of blasphemy is particularly associated with two matters in which Jesus gave offense to Jewish religious feelings: he pronounced the forgiveness of sins,21 which seemed to mean usurping the divine prerogative of judgment, and he "called God his own Father" (as distinct from the sense in which he was the Father of all Israelites).22 There may be an echo of both in the language used in the account of the interchange between the High Priest and his Prisoner. Jesus was asked, not only whether he was Messiah, but whether he was the Son of God. In Mark the two are combined, but in Luke he is asked first, "Are you the Messiah?" (to which there was no reply), and then "Are you the Son of God?" (to which he replied, "It is you who say that I am" -- a noncommittal answer capable of being construed as an admission). It looks as if the expression, "Son of God," was not treated as a simple synonym of "Messiah," but was understood to be loaded (as Jesus used it) with startling implications. And these seemed to be emphasized when he went on to speak of "the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God," and associated this with the antique vision of final victory, in which "one like a son-of-man" is invested with universal sovereignty. If it appeared that in speaking of the Son of Man he was referring to himself, which (as we saw) would be consistent with common usage of language, then there might well seem to be here matter of blasphemy, in the sense of an outrageous affront to the most deeply held beliefs and sentiments of the Jewish religion. Whether it could be brought under any statutory definition of the crime is a question to which we have not the material for an answer. And indeed in what I here put forward there is already some reading between the lines. At any rate, the upshot of the investigation was that Jesus stood before the Jewish public tainted with a crime at which they shuddered. But Caiaphas had also succeeded in finding a charge which could be brought before the Roman court; for "Messiah" could readily be translated into "king of the Jews" and that was something that the governor could not ignore. Of the charge of blasphemy we hear nothing further; that was something of which the Roman court could not take cognizance.

Jesus, then was cited before the prefect on the charge of claiming to be "king of the Jews," or, in other words, of being a leader of rebellion against the emperor. There were possibly two supporting charges (so at least Luke says, and he may well be right) : subverting the people, and forbidding the payment of tribute. These perhaps, were stock charges against a nationalist agitator. The case therefore was presented as political from first to last, without any ostensible religious overtones. There is no improbability in the impression which the gospels convey that the prefect would have been glad to decline jurisdiction, as he could have done if the charge were reduced, or modified, so that it would come within the competence of the Jewish court. Matthew indeed has a dramatic scene in which Pilate calls for a basin of water and publicly washes his hands. Perhaps we should not take this as matter of fact, but that the prefect would have liked, metaphorically, to "wash his hands" of the affair is credible enough. He had learned by bitter experience how easy it was to fall foul of the susceptibilities of his incalculable subjects. But if the priests insisted on the capital charge he was bound to proceed with it.

The temperature of national feeling was always high about the Passover season, and it was hardly exceptional that at this very time there had been disturbances which called for police action. Three "bandits" (as the gospels call them, using the official term for what we might call "freedom fighters") were in custody awaiting execution, among them their leader, one Barabbas. And now the governor was asked to deal with another prisoner, Jesus of Nazareth, who (so the priests alleged) claimed to be king of the Jews. Was he, then, perhaps the real ringleader? What evidence was offered we are not told, nor are we informed in detail about the course which the interrogation of the Prisoner took. It has been reduced to the simple question, "Are you the king of the Jews?" to which, according to all gospels alike, Jesus gave the noncommittal reply. "The words are yours. John adds that he put in a plea in his defense: he could not be regarded as a leader of revolt. because he had no followers in arms. Since John himself says that the examination was held in camera, he can hardly have known exactly what was said. But the defense would have been a valid one, corresponding with the facts, and Pilate could easily have drawn the inference for himself, that, whatever may have been intended by the claim to royalty (which Jesus did not disown), the Prisoner was not a danger to the state. If so, that would account for his reluctance to convict, in spite of a prima facie presumption of guilt involved in the claim itself.

Moreover, Pilate had formed the impression that Jesus was a popular figure. So, as a conciliatory gesture to the populace -- and perhaps also as a snub to the priests, whom he obviously disliked and despised -- he offered to give the Prisoner an unconditional discharge. But he had miscalculated. "Not this man; we want Barabbas!" the crowd shouted, incited, we are told, by the priests. Nowadays we know all too well how easily a "spontaneous" popular demonstration can be staged by interested parties, and the clamor for Barabbas need not be given more weight than this. But the prefect was driven into a corner. When he still hesitated, the priests played their trump card: "If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar." The implied threat is obvious. Pilate had already more than once put himself in the wrong with the local authorities, and had reason to fear what in fact happened in the end, when he was recalled to Rome to answer their complaints before the emperor He dared not oppose their wishes any longer. After all, the Prisoner had made a technically treasonable claim which he refused to deny when given the opportunity, and the law must take its course. So sentence of death was pronounced.23

Jesus was led to the place of execution in the company of two of Barabbas’ desperadoes -- three "bandits" to be punished for their crimes by Roman justice was what the public was intended to see. All three were crucified, after the brutal Roman practice. No fouler or more agonizing form of torture, perhaps, has ever been devised. The day wore on; Jewish law required that the bodies of the crucified should be removed before Sabbath began at sunset. Jesus was found to be already dead; his fellow sufferers were dispatched. His body was saved from the indignities commonly reserved for executed criminals, and he was given decent, though hasty, burial through the good offices of a well-to-do sympathizer. After sunset, the people of Jerusalem, and the numerous pilgrims up for the feast, turned to the celebration of Passover; for this was the day set for it in the official calendar.


1 Luke 3.31. It was Pharisees who gave the warning; were they friendly? or was it an attempt to bring pressure to bear? One of the unanswered questions.

2 John 7. 1-10.

3 John 7.14.

4 John 7.30, 8.59.

5 Luke 13.33.

6 Mark 10.32.

7 John 12. 14-15, Mark 11. 1-10.

8 The quotation is from the (so-called) Psalms of Solomon, 17. 23-27.

9 Zechariah 9.9, quoted in Matt. 21. 4-5, John 12.15.

10 Mark 11. 15.17, Matt. 21. 12-13, Luke 19. 45-46, John 2.13-19. John has placed this incident at an earlier point, but this is dictated by the order of thought rather than by chronology. I have discussed it in The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel. pp. 300-303, and Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel. pp. 161-162.

11 Zechariah 14.21. The word translated "trader" could also mean "Canaanite," the Canaanites (known also as Phoenicians) being the great trading people of the Mediterranean; but the prophet has just invited "all the nations" to Jerusalem, and there seems no reason for a last-minute exclusion of the Canaanites.

12 Isaiah 56.67, quoted in Mark 11.17. Matthew and Luke, in copying Mark, have left out "for all the nations," missing the point.

13 Mark 11. 27-33.

14 Mark 12. 1-12.

15 Matt. 23.37. Luke 13.34.

16 John 11. 47-53.

17 John 13.2 and similarly Luke 22.3.

18 Mark 14.34.

19 John 18.13-23.

20 Mark 14. 55-64, Matt. 26. 59-66, Luke 22. 66-71.

21 Mark 2.7.

22 John 10. 33, 86. compare 5.18.

23 Trial before Pilate: Mark 15. 1-15, Matt. 27. 11-26, Luke 23. 1-25. John 18. 28-29. 16.