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The Problem with Jesus' Arrest and Trial

James Still

There is a problem when dealing with the various contradictory biblical accounts of Jesus' arrest and trial as they relate to each other and Jewish practice of the day. We are told in Mark's gospel that after Jesus enters Jerusalem he is soon arrested praying at the Mount of Olives with his disciples who flee upon his arrest. (Mk. 15)

The High Priest Caiaphas, a Sadducee priest and a Roman-appointee, actively sought to prevent open rebellion against Rome lest it escalate and endanger what little autonomy the Temple priests were given by Caesar Augustus. It was Caiaphas who sent out the Temple police to arrest Jesus, most certainly on grounds that Jesus was seditious (rebellious) against Roman authority.

Our evidence is good that Jesus did act politically seditious against Roman authority:

1. Several of Jesus' disciples were known Zealots, e.g., Simon the Zealot (Lk. 6:15); Simon Peter who was known as "Bar-jona" (Mt. 16:17) a derivation of of "baryona" Aramaic for "outlaw" which was a common name applied to Zealots; James and John shared the nickname "Boanerges" or in Hebrew "benei ra'ash" which is to say "sons of thunder" another common Zealot reference; and the most famous Zealot was Judas Iscariot, "Iscariot" a corruption of the Latin "sicarius" or "knife-man" which was a common Roman reference to Zealots.

2. The Zealot movement was a breakaway from the Pharisees who themselves sympathized with the nationalistic causes espoused by the Zealots and were awaiting a Messiah to seize the throne of Israel. Jesus himself is attributed with many sayings that are Pharasaic in origin, e.g., Mt. 7:12, Mk 2:27, Jn 7:22, B. Yoma 85b (Talmud), Mt. 7:15; and Jesus' own affinity for the poor demonstrate Pharasaic philosophy. Jesus' actions that are not depoliticized in the gospels (partially referenced here) indicate that Jesus sympathized with the Zealot cause.

3. The Zealot Judas, refers to Jesus as "Rabbi" a Pharasaic-title. (Mk 14:45) Many scholars subscribe to the "walks like a duck, must be a duck" philosophy and go as far as to say that Jesus himself was a Pharisee rabbi. The evidence does seem to support this conclusion, although Jesus seems to favor a more apocalyptic flavor of fringe Pharasaic thought. The "Jesus as Essene" theory still captivates many scholars as well--a theory that would also support his role of political Messiah as argued here.

4. Jesus equipped his followers with swords in anticipation of trouble. (Lk 22:36-38) and at least one of Jesus' supporters scuffled with the Temple police to aid in resisting Jesus' arrest. (Mk 14:47)

5. The manner in which Jesus entered Jerusalem was that of a Jewish king who claimed the throne. Convinced that he was King of the Jews and in deliberate fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on an ass's colt. The people greet Jesus with strewn palms and cries of "Hosanna!" the ancient cry of Jewish independence. For Jesus to not have known the seditious actions that this implied, and the political impact that his act caused, would be incredulous to say the least. (This is in direct contrast with the Gospels which attempt to contradict Jesus' action and claim that he was not seeking an earthly kingdom--clearly absurd given the circumstances.)

Jesus was said to have been arrested due to a charge of blasphemy. The evidence for this is highly suspect. We begin to immediately question the gospel-accounts regarding the preliminary investigation and it is likely the gospel writers knew nothing of Jewish law regarding such matters. Additionally, the gospel accounts may be trying to smooth over Jesus political mission since when they wrote they had the benefit of hindsight and knew the political outcome of Jesus' actions did end in failure. The gospel's attempt to depoliticize Jesus while at the same time supporting his brief stint as the King of the Jews by reporting events that they seemed to not understand the Jewish context for. Let's look at the story as Luke relates it and then discuss the context problems.

Luke tells us in chapter 26 that Jesus was taken in the middle of the night to the home of Caiaphas for questioning. Frustrated at Jesus' answers to their questions as to whether or not he claimed to be the Messiah, the scribes and priests hit Jesus in the face and spit on him in disgust. There are several problems with this gospel account:

1. It was against Jewish law for the Sanhedrin to meet outside of the designated Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple and would not have been violated under any circumstance.

2. The Sanhredrin had an express rule that it could not meet at night because justice must be carried out in the "light of day."

3. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem was probably during the Feast of the Tabernacles, not Passover. (the palm leaves strewn in front of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem would not have been in bloom during Passover) The Sanhedrin would not have met during the eight-day festival for any reason.

4. The Elders of the Sanhedrin would no more strike or spit on an accused person, than would the Supreme Court of the U.S. hearing a case! Luke's account is completely out-of-context and shows remarkable ignorance as to the machinations of Jewish Law.

5. It was not blasphemous to declare oneself a "Messiah" or a "Son of God" any more than it would have been to claim to be an angel. The Pharisees who composed the majority of the Sanhredrin would dismiss such a charge at once since blasphemy could only be applied to anyone who claimed to be God Almighty. Jesus' declaration that he was a Messiah, merely referred to his earthly desire to ascend to the throne of David--an act of sedition against Rome surely, but not one of blasphemy.

If the Gospel of John is to be our authority, his account disagrees with the Synopticists in that the High Priest Caiaphas interrogates Jesus alone and charges him with sedition, not blasphemy, as the Synoptic Gospels allege. Clearly, the pseudipigraphical author of John is not as ignorant of Jewish Law as are the Synopticists for his account is in context with our findings thus far. If Jesus were charged with sedition, then a gathering of the Sanhedrin would not be necessary, the affair would be preliminarily investigated by the High Priest before turning the matter over to the Roman authorities. (Indeed Caiaphas would not wish to involve the Sanhedrin if Jesus really was seditious. In the trial of Peter as reported in Acts, the Pharisees sided against the High Priest and voted to release the accused.)

We can safely conclude at this point that Jesus was indeed supportive of the Zealot movement if not in deed, then certainly in principle. If Jesus were seeking the throne as the evidence suggests, he would have enlisted the aid of the militant Zealots. Also his actions as a claimant to the throne of Israel--which surely would have involved a rebellion of some sort for the Romans were not likely to cede authority quietly--made him guilty of sedition against Rome. Jesus was a patriot for the restoration of Israel. His motives were political and the context of his actions as we find in the more credible portions of the Gospels supports this conclusion.

Further complicating the truth of the Gospel accounts is the motivations and actions of the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, whom Jesus is brought to by the High Priest. Jesus is handed over to Pilate, accused of sedition, and Pilate questions Jesus personally asking him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" to which Jesus replies "I am." For some reason, the priests are said to go on "heaping accusations" against Jesus despite the fact that his sedition was clearly established by Jesus himself. Even stranger still, Pilate seems to not even care that Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews and Pilate "wonders" if Jesus is dangerous. (Mk 15:1-5) At this point the author of Mark is either blatantly ignorant of the facts, or spinning a good yarn for the sake of his overall story.

This account is quite out of context with the monster that Philo wrote Gaius Caesar about, reporting that Pilate was inflexible and "cruel." Further, Josephus reports several occurances where Pilate flagrantly incites insurrection in order to ruthlessly purge it with his soldiers. Pilate was eventually recalled to Vitellius (then Legate of Syria) after a particularly violent attack on the Samaritans in 36 CE, and was ordered sent to Rome in order to stand accusations of the slaughter. (Antiquities 18.4.85) The anti-Semitic Pilate was not the sort of governor that would have acted with even the slightest civility toward a Jew who openly admitted to sedition. Pilate's dismal record of purges and punishments against seditious behavior was anathema and history shows him to be one of, if not the cruelest of the Procurators of Judaea.

These irreconciable problems with the arrest and trial of Jesus show that the Gospel accounts cannot be trusted with the truth of the matter. With the mystique and misunderstanding surrounding Jesus' arrest, coupled with the legend and myth attached to the accounts at later times, the truth may never be fully known. But we can surmise a few things: Jesus was a political figure and a claimant to the throne of Israel. His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem as that of a long-awaited Messiah who would destroy the Romans and seize his rightful kingship ended in failure and crucifixion as a rebel.

 

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