JESUS BEFORE THE PRIESTS AND THE SANHEDRIN.
ALTHOUGH sceptics have dwelt with disproportioned persistency upon a multitude of "discrepancies" in the fourfold narrative of Christ's trial, condemnation, death, and resurrection, yet these are not of a nature to cause the slightest anxiety to a Christian scholar; nor need they awaken the most momentary distrust in any one whoeven if he have no deeper feelings in the matterapproaches the Gospels with no preconceived theory, whether of infallibility or of dishonesty, to support, and merely accepts them for that which, at the lowest, they claim to behistories honest and faithful up to the full knowledge of the writers, but each, if taken alone, confessedly fragmentary and obviously incomplete. After repeated study, I declare, quite fearlessly, that though the slight variations are numerousthough the lesser particulars cannot in every instance be rigidly and minutely accuratethough no one of the narratives taken singly would give us an adequate impressionyet, so far from there being, in this part of the Gospel story, any irreconcilable contradiction, it is perfectly possible to discover how one Evangelist supplements the details furnished by another, and perfectly possible to understand the true sequence of the incidents by combining into one whole the separate indications which they furnish. It is easy to call such combinations arbitrary and baseless; but they are only arbitrary in so far as we cannot always be absolutely certain that the succession of facts was exactly such as we suppose; and so far are they from being baseless, that, to the careful reader of the Gospels, they carry with them a conviction little short of certainty. If we treat the Gospels as we should treat any other authentic documents recording all that the authors knew, or all that they felt themselves commissioned, to record, of the crowded incidents in one terrible and tumultuous day and night, we shall, with care and study, see how all that they tell us falls accurately into its proper position in the general narrative, and shows us a sixfold trial, a quadruple derision, a triple acquittal, a twice-repeated condemnation of Christ our Lord.
Reading the Gospels side by side, we soon perceive that of the three successive trials which our Lord underwent at the hands of the Jews, the first onlythat before Annasis related to us by St. John; the secondthat before Caiaphasby St. Matthew and St. Mark; the thirdthat before the Sanhedrinby St. Luke alone. Nor is there anything strange in this, since the first was the practical, the second the potential, the third the actual and formal decision, that sentence of death should be passed judicially upon Him. Each of the three trials might, from a different point of view, have been regarded as the most fatal and important of the three. That of Annas was the authoritative praejudicium, that of Caiaphas the real determination, that of the entire Sanhedrin at daybreak the final ratification.
When the tribune, who commanded the detachment of Roman soldiers, had ordered Jesus to be bound, they led Him away without attempt at opposition. Midnight was already passed as they hurried Him, from the moonlit shadows of green Gethsemane, through the hushed streets of the sleeping city, to the palace of the High Priest. It seems to have been jointly occupied by the prime movers in this black iniquity, Annas and his son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphas. They led Him to Annas first. It is true that this Hanan, son of Seth, the Ananus of Josephus, and the Annas of the Evangelists, had only been the actual High Priest for seven years (A.D. 7-14), and that more than twenty years before this period, he had been deposed by the Procurator Valerius Gratus. He had been succeeded first by Ismael Ben Phabi, then by his son Eleazar, then by his son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphas. But the priestly families would not be likely to attach more importance than they chose to a deposition which a strict observer of the Law would have regarded as invalid and sacrilegious; nor would so astute a people as the Jews be likely to lack devices which would enable them to evade the Roman fiat, and to treat Annas, if they wished to do so, as their High Priest de jure, if not de facto. Since the days of Herod the Great, the High Priesthood had been degraded, from a permanent religious office, to a temporary secular distinction; and, even had it been otherwise, the rude legionaries would probably care less than nothing to whom they led their victim. If the tribune condescended to ask a question about it, it would be easy for the Captain of the Templewho may very probably have been at this time, as we know was the case subsequently, one of the sons of Annas himselfto represent Annas as the Sagan or Nasîthe "Deputy," or the President of the Sanhedrinand so as the proper person to conduct the preliminary investigation.
i. Accordingly, it was before Hanan that Jesus stood first as a prisoner at the tribunal (John xviii. 13, 19-24). It is probable that he and his family had been originally summoned by Herod the Great from Alexandria, as supple supporters of a distasteful tyranny. The Jewish historian calls this Hanan the happiest man of his time, because he died at an advanced old age, and because both he and five of his sons in successionnot to mention his son-in-lawhad enjoyed the shadow of the High Priesthood; so that, in fact, for nearly half a century he had practically wielded the sacerdotal power. But to be admired by such a renegade as Josephus is a questionable advantage. In spite of his prosperity he seems to have left behind him but an evil name, and we know enough of his character, even from the most unsuspected sources, to recognise in him nothing better than an astute, tyrannous, worldly Sadducee, unvenerable for all his seventy years, full of a serpentine malice and meanness which utterly belied the meaning of his name, and engaged at this very moment in a dark, disorderly conspiracy, for which even a worse man would have had cause to blush. It was before this alien and intriguing hierarch that there began, at midnight, the first stage of that long and terrible trial (John xviii. 19-24).
And there was good reason why St. John should have preserved for us this phase of the trial, and preserved it apparently for the express reason that it had been omitted by the other Evangelists. It is not till after a lapse of years that people can always see clearly the prime mover in events with which they have been contemporary. At the time, the ostensible agent is the one usually regarded as most responsible, though he may be in reality a mere link in the official machinery. But if there were one man who was more guilty than any other of the death of Jesus, that man was Hanan. His advanced age, his preponderant dignity, his worldly position and influence, as one who stood on the best terms with the Herods and the Procurators, gave an exceptional weight to his prerogative decision. The mere fact that he should have noticed Jesus at all showed that he attached to His teaching a political significanceshowed that he was at last afraid lest Jesus should alienate the people yet more entirely from the pontifical clique than had ever been done by Shemaia or Abtalion. It is most remarkable, and, so far as I know, has scarcely ever been noticed, that, although the Pharisees undoubtedly were actuated by a burning hatred against Jesus, and were even so eager for His death as to be willing to co-operate with the aristocratic and priestly Sadduceesfrom whom they were ordinarily separated by every kind of difference, political, social, and religiousyet, from the moment that the plot for His arrest and condemnation had been matured, the Pharisees took so little part in it that their name is not once directly mentioned in any event connected with the arrest, the trial, the derisions, and the crucifixion. The Pharisees, as such, disappear; the chief priests and elders take their place. It is, indeed, doubtful whether any of the more distinguished Pharisees were members of the degraded simulacrum of authority which in those bad days still arrogated to itself the title of a Sanhedrin. If we may believe not a few of the indications of the Talmud, that Sanhedrin was little better than a close, irreligious, unpatriotic confederacy of monopolising and time-serving prieststhe Boëthusim, the Kamhits, the Phabis, the family of Hanan, mostly of non-Palestinian originwho were supported by the government, but detested by the people, and of whom this bad conspirator was the very life and soul.
And, perhaps, we may see a further reason for the apparent withdrawal of the Pharisees from all active co-operation in the steps which accompanied the condemnation and execution of Jesus, not only in the superior mildness which is attributed to them, and in their comparative insignificance in the civil administration, but also in their total want of sympathy with those into whose too fatal toils they had delivered the Son of God. There seems, indeed, to be a hitherto unnoticed circumstance which, while it would kindle to the highest degree the fury of the Sadducees, would rather enlist in Christ's favour the sympathy of their rivals. What had roused the disdainful insouciance of these powerful aristocrats? Morally insignificantthe patrons and adherents of opinions which had so little hold upon the people that Jesus had never directed against them one tithe of the stern denunciation which He had levelled at the Phariseesthey had played but a very minor part in the opposition which had sprung up round the Messiah's steps. Nay, further than this, they would be wholly at one with Him in rejecting and discountenancing the minute and casuistical frivolities of the Oral Law; they might even have rejoiced that they had in Him a holy and irresistible ally in their opposition to all the Hagadôth and Halachôth which had germinated in a fungous growth over the whole body of the Mosaic institutions. Whence, then, this sudden outburst of the very deadliest and most ruthless opposition? It is a conjecture that has not yet been made, but which the notices of the Talmud bring home to my mind with strong conviction, that the rage of these priests was mainly due to our Lord's words and acts concerning that House of God which they regarded as their exclusive domain, and, above all, to His second public cleansing of the Temple. They could not indeed press this point in their accusations, because the act was one of which, secretly at least, the Pharisees, in all probability, heartily approved; and had they urged it against Him they would have lost all chance of impressing upon Pilate a sense of their unanimity. The first cleansing might have been passed over as an isolated act of zeal, to which little importance need be attached, while the teaching of Jesus was mainly confined to despised and far-off Galilee; but the second had been more public, and more vehement, and had apparently kindled a more general indignation against the gross abuse which called it forth. Accordingly, in all three Evangelists we find that those who complained of the act are not distinctively Pharisees, but "Chief Priests and Scribes" (Matt xxi. 15; Mark xi. 18; Luke xix. 47), who seem at once to have derived from it a fresh stimulus to seek His destruction.
But, again, it may be asked, Is there any reason beyond this bold infraction of their authority, this indignant repudiation of an arrangement which they had sanctioned, which would have stirred up the rage of these priestly families? Yesfor we may assume from the Talmud that it tended to wound their avarice, to interfere with their illicit and greedy gains. Avaricethe besetting sin of Judasthe besetting sin of the Jewish raceseems also to have been the besetting sin of the family of Hanan. It was they who had founded the chanujôththe famous four shops under the twin cedars of Olivetin which were sold things legally pure, and which they had manipulated with such commercial cunning as artificially to raise the price of doves to a gold coin apiece, until the people were delivered from this gross imposition by the indignant interference of a grandson of Hillel. There is every reason to believe that the shops which had intruded even under the Temple porticoes were not only sanctioned by their authority, but even managed for their profit. To interfere with these was to rob them of one important source of that wealth and worldly comfort to which they attached such extravagant importance. There was good reason why Hanan, the head representative of "the viper brood," as a Talmudic writer calls them, should strain to the utmost his cruel prerogative of power to crush a Prophet whose actions tended to make him and his powerful family at once wholly contemptible and comparatively poor.
Such then were the feelings of bitter contempt and hatred with which the ex-High Priest assumed the initiative in interrogating Jesus. The fact that he dared not avow themnay, was forced to keep them wholly out of sightwould only add to the intensity of his bitterness. Even his method of procedure seems to have been as wholly illegal as was his assumption, in such a place and at such an hour, of any legal function whatever. Anxious, at all hazards, to trump up some available charge of secret sedition, or of unorthodox teaching, he questioned Jesus of His disciples and of His doctrine. The answer, for all its calmness, involved a deep reproof. "I have spoken openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue and in the Temple, where all the Jews come together, and in secret I said nothing. Why askest thou me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them. Lo! these"pointing, perhaps, to the bystanders"know what I said to them." The emphatic repetition of the "I," and its unusually significant position at the end of the sentence, show that a contrast was intended; as though He had said, "This midnight, this sedition, this secrecy, this indecent mockery of justice, are yours, not mine. There has never been anything esoteric in my doctrine; never anything to conceal in my actions; no hole-and-corner plots among my followers. But thou? and thine?" Even the minions of Annas felt the false position of their master under this calm rebuke; they felt that before the transparent innocence of the youthful Rabbi of Nazareth the hoary hypocrisy of the crafty Sadducee was abashed. "Answerest thou the High Priest so?" said one of them with a burst of illegal insolence; and then, unreproved by this priestly violator of justice, he profaned with the first infamous blow the sacred face of Christ. Then first that face which, as the poet-preacher says, "the angels stare upon with wonder as infants at a bright sunbeam," was smitten by a contemptible slave. The insult was borne with noble meekness. Even St. Paul, when similarly insulted, flaming into sudden anger at such a grossly illegal violence, had scathed the ruffian and his abettor with "God shall smite thee, thou whited wall" (Acts xxiii. 3); but He, the Son of GodHe who was infinitely above all apostles and all angelswith no flash of anger, with no heightened tone of natural indignation, quietly reproved the impudent transgressor with the words, "If I spoke evil, bear witness concerning the evil; but if well, why smitest thou me?" It was clear that nothing more could be extorted from Him; that before such a tribunal He would brook no further question. Bound, in sign that He was to be condemnedthough unheard and unsentencedAnnas sent Him across the court-yard to Joseph Caiaphas, his son-in-law, who, not by the grace of God, but by the grace of the Roman Procurator, was the titular High Priest.
ii. Caiaphas, like his father-in-law, was a Sadduceeequally astute and unscrupulous with Annas, but endowed with less force of character and will. In his house took place the second private and irregular stage of the trial. (Matt. xxvi. 59-63; Mark xiv. 55-65.) Therefor though the poor Apostles could not watch for one hour in sympathetic prayer, these nefarious plotters could watch all night in their deadly malicea few of the most desperate enemies of Jesus among the Priests and Sadducees were met. To form a session of the Sanhedrin there must at least have been twenty-three members present. And we may perhaps be allowed to conjecture that this particular body before which Christ was now convened was mainly composed of Priests. There were in fact three Sanhedrins, or as we should rather call them, committees of the Sanhedrin, which ordinarily met at different placesin the Lishcat Haggazzith, or Paved Hall; in the Beth Midrash, or Chamber by the Partition of the Temple; and near the Gate of the Temple Mount. Such being the case, it is no unreasonable supposition that these committees were composed of different elements, and that one of them may have been mainly sacerdotal in its constitution. If so, it would have been the most likely of them all, at the present crisis, to embrace the most violent measures against One whose teaching now seemed to endanger the very existence of priestly rule.
But, whatever may have been the nature of the tribunal over which Caiaphas was now presiding, it is clear that the Priests were forced to change their tactics. Instead of trying, as Hanan had done, to overawe and entangle Jesus with insidious questions, and so to involve Him in a charge of secret apostacy, they now tried to brand Him with the crime of public error. In point of fact their own bitter divisions and controversies made the task of convicting Him a very difficult one. If they dwelt on any supposed opposition to civil authority, that would rather enlist the sympathies of the Pharisees in His favour; if they dwelt on supposed Sabbath violations or neglect of traditional observances, that would accord with the views of the Sadducees. The Sadducees dared not complain of His cleansing of the Temple: the Pharisees, or those who represented them, found it useless to advert to His denunciations of tradition. But Jesus, infinitely nobler than His own noblest Apostle, would not foment these latent animosities, or evoke for His own deliverance a contest of these slumbering prejudices. He did not disturb the temporary compromise which united them in a common hatred against Himself. Since, therefore, they had nothing else to go upon, the Chief Priests and the entire Sanhedrin "sought false witness"such is the terribly simple expression of the Evangelists"sought false witness against Jesus to put Him to death." Many men, with a greedy, unnatural depravity, seek false witnessmostly of the petty, ignoble, malignant sort; and the powers of evil usually supply it to them. The Talmud seems to insinuate that the custom, which they pretend was the general one, had been followed in the case of Christ, and that two witnesses had been placed in concealment while a treacherous discipleostensibly Judas Iscariothad obtained from His own lips an avowal of His claims. This, however, is no less false than the utterly absurd and unchronological assertion of the tract Sanhedrin, that Jesus had been excommunicated by Joshua Ben Perachiah, and that though for forty days a herald had proclaimed that he had brought magic from Egypt and seduced the people, no single witness came forward in His favour. Setting aside these absurd inventions, we learn from the Gospels that though the agents of these priests were eager to lie, yet their testimony was so false, so shadowy, so self-contradictory, that it all melted to nothing, and even those unjust and bitter judges could not with any decency accept it. But at last two came forward, whose false witness looked more promising. They had heard Him say something about destroying the Temple, and rebuilding it in three days. According to one version His expression had been, "I can destroy this Temple;" according to another, "I will destroy this Temple." The fact was that He had said neither, but "Destroy this Temple;" and the imperative had but been addressed, hypothetically, to them. They were to be the destroyers; He had but promised to rebuild. It was just one of those perjuries which was all the more perjured, because it bore some distant semblance to the truth; and by just giving a different nuance to His actual words they had, with the ingenuity of slander, reversed their meaning, and hoped to found upon them a charge of constructive blasphemy. But even this semblable perjury utterly broke down, and Jesus listened in silence while His disunited enemies hopelessly confuted each other's testimony. Guilt often breaks into excuses where perfect innocence is dumb. He simply suffered His false accusers and their false listeners to entangle themselves in the hideous coil of their own malignant lies, and the silence of the innocent Jesus atoned for the excuses of the guilty Adam.
But that majestic silence troubled, thwarted, confounded, maddened them. It weighed them down for the moment, with an incubus of intolerable self-condemnation. They felt, before that silence, as if they were the culprits, He the judge. And as every poisoned arrow of their carefully-provided perjuries fell harmless at His feet, as though blunted on the diamond shield of His white Innocence, they began to fear lest, after all, their thirst for His blood would go unslaked, and their whole plot fail. Were they thus to be conquered by the feebleness of their own weapons, without His stirring a finger, or uttering a word? Was this Prophet of Nazareth to prevail against them, merely for lack of a few consistent lies? Was His life charmed even against calumny confirmed by oaths? It was intolerable.
Then Caiaphas was overcome with a paroxysm of fear and anger. Starting up from his judgment-seat, and striding into the midstwith what a voice, with what an attitude we may well imagine!"Answerest Thou NOTHING?" he exclaimed. "What is it that these witness against Thee?" Had not Jesus been aware that these His judges were wilfully feeding on ashes, and seeking lies, He might have answered; but now His awful silence remained unbroken.
Then, reduced to utter despair and fury, this false High Priestwith marvellous inconsistency, with disgraceful illegalitystill standing as it were with a threatening attitude over his prisoner, exclaimed, "I adjure Thee by the living God to tell us"what? whether Thou art a malefactor? whether Thou hast secretly taught sedition? whether Thou hast openly uttered blasphemy?no, but (and surely the question showed the dread misgiving which lay under all their deadly conspiracy against Him)"WHETHER THOU ART THE CHRIST, THE SON OF GOD?"
Strange question to a bound, defenceless, condemned criminal; and strange question from such a questionera High Priest of His people! Strange question from the judge who was hounding on his false witnesses against the prisoner! Yet so adjured, and to such a question, Jesus could not be silent; on such a point He could not leave Himself open to misinterpretation. In the days of His happier ministry, when they would have taken Him by force to make Him a Kingin the days when to claim the Messiahship in their sense would have been to meet all their passionate prejudices half way, and to place Himself upon the topmost pinnacle of their adoring homagein those days He had kept His title of Messiah utterly in the background: but now, at this awful decisive moment, when death was near-when, humanly speaking, nothing could be gained, everything must be lost, by the avowalthere thrilled through all the agesthrilled through that Eternity, which is the synchronism of all the future, and all the present, and all the pastthe solemn answer"I AM; and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven." In that answer the thunder rolleda thunder louder than at Sinai, though the ears of the cynic and the Sadducee heard it not then, nor hear it now. In overacted and ill-omened horror, the unjust judge who had thus supplemented the failure of the perjuries which he had vainly soughtthe false High Priest rending his linen robes before the Truedemanded of the assembly His instant condemnation.
"BLASPHEMY!" he exclaimed; "what further need have we of witnesses? See, now ye heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?" And with the confused tumultuous cry, "He is ish maveth," "A man of death," "Guilty of death," the dark conclave was broken up, and the second stage of the trial of Jesus was over.