Did Mark Invent Jesus’ Trial Before the Sanhedrin?

Some skeptical Biblical scholars say that Mark’s account of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin is pure fiction. There are several aspects of the hearing that doesn’t fit with what we know about Jewish customs regarding capital trials. Mark supposedly biffs it on several points: 

  • The Sanhedrin couldn’t hold trials at night. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1)
  • They could only have hearings in the temple, not in the high priest’s house. (M. Sanh 11:2)
  • They couldn’t conduct court cases during Jewish holidays, and Jesus’ tribunal allegedly happened during Passover. (M. Sanh 4:1) 
  • There was no 24-hour waiting period before sentencing. (M. Sanh 4:1) 
  • The blasphemy charge requires the use of the divine name, and Jesus never uttered it. (M. Sanh. 7:5)

Ouch. If Mark didn’t understand the customs of the time, then we have a Gospel writer just inventing stories. And if Matthew, who allegedly was a disciple of Jesus was using a faulty source, then there’s a big problem here. (Matthew 26:57-67) What can we say in response to all of this? 

Consider the Death of James

First of all, let’s consider the martyrdom of Jesus’ brother James. James’ judicial killing wasn’t recorded by a Christian first but by the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus wrote

“But this younger Ananus, who, as we told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent…He assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, whose name was James, and some others. When he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them over to be stoned.” (Antiquities 20.9.1)

James’ death goes to show us that Jewish leadership didn’t always play by their own rules or the rules of Rome when it came to murdering people. 

Was Jesus’ Trial a Capital Trial? 

Otto Betz, a German Biblical scholar, argues that Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas at night wasn’t a capital trial and wasn’t subject to the normal customs. Writes Betz: 

The Jews did not have the ius gladii under the Roman administration; it was reserved for the prefect (War 2.117; Ant 18.2; John 18:31; 19:10). In the provinces, however, the local courts were kept intact and often cooperated with the Roman prefect. Therefore, in the trial of Jesus the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem may have formed a kind of consilium iudicum which did the investigation of the case (cognitio) and prepared the accusation (accusatio) for the court of the prefect. That is why the nocturnal hearing of Jesus, carried through by a commission of the Sanhedrin under the high priest (Mark 14:53–65), and the morning session of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:1) should not be treated as unhistorical creations of the Christian community; these events fit the legal situation in a Roman province of that time.” (Jesus and the Temple Scroll, p. 87-88)

Pardon the fancy Latinisms. In other words, this gathering wasn’t a formal Jewish capital case. Instead, they were looking for some dirt on Jesus that they could bring before Pilate to show that he was a threat to Rome. So what was their case? 

They said Jesus was a threat to the Jewish temple. (Mark 14:58) The Romans were very interested in the Pax Romana, and Mark tells us that the Jews misconstrued his words into making Jesus out to be a terrorist threat to the temple. The temple was a very socially sensitive location and a threat the peace in the area. Their testimony only needed to credible enough to eventually present take it over to Pilate as Rome’s representative. 

It’s interesting to note that nothing in the Synoptic Gospels supports this pretense of accusation. John’s Gospel does help us fill in the details: “So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” (John 2:18-20)

John gives us the original statement of Jesus, but he doesn’t mention it coming up in Jesus’ trial. The Synoptics give us the accusation but not Jesus’ words about the temple. It’s hard to say that either copied one from the other or they probably would have given us fuller details. These two pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. 

Did Jesus not utter the divine name? 

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.” (Mark 14:61-64)

Some Biblical critics say that what Jesus said here to the high priests hardly amounts to blasphemy. Calling yourself the Son of Man doesn’t equate calling yourself God. Or does it? 

Jesus is quoting Psalm 110 and Daniel 7, and these passages do refer to the Son of Man as being a heavenly figure whom the nations shall serve. The title ‘Son of Man’ was Jesus’ favorite self-designation, and he assumed his Jewish audience would know what he meant when he used it.

The Son of Man in Daniel

The book of Daniel refers to four beastly kings who would come before the Son of Man would come and rule over the fifth kingdom, which was the everlasting kingdom of God. Here’s Daniel 7:3-14:

And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and behold, there came up among them another horn, a little one, before which three of the first horns were plucked up by the roots. And behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things.

“As I looked,

thrones were placed,
    and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
    and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
    its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
    and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened.”

1 Enoch, a popular book in Jesus’ time, also identifies the Son of Man as the Messiah. (1 Enoch 48, 52:4) Even the later rabbis identified the ‘son of man’ in Daniel as the Messiah. (Sanhedrin 98a, Numbers Rabbah 13:14) This Messiah was no mere earthly king but a heavenly king reigning over a heavenly kingdom. 

The Son of Man Shares Divine Honors

Even the agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman agrees that the Son of Man receives divine honors. Dr. Ehrman writes“Now the ruler anointed by God is not a mere mortal, he is a divine being who has always existed, who sits beside God on his throne, who will judge the wicked and the righteous at the end of time. He, in other words, is elevated to God’s own status and functions as the divine being who carries out God’s judgment on the entire earth. This is an exalted figure indeed, as exalted as one can possibly be without actually being the Lord God Almighty himself.”

And here is the more conservative NT scholar Darrell Bock: “What is emerging is a developing consensus that the key to the blasphemy resides not in the mere use of a title, but in the juxtaposition of Ps 110:1 with Dan 7:13 to apply to a human figure an unusually high level of heavenly authority.” (Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism and the Final Examination of Jesus, p. 21)

Saying that you share in the nature of God would have been understood as blasphemy. So what these skeptical complaints amount to is just an ignorance of the historical context. The trial Mark has in mind isn’t likely a capital one, so it’s not subject Jewish law. Jesus claimed to be the High Priest and Sanhedrin’s divine judge. Such a claim would have made Jesus — in their mind either insane or a horrible liar — and someone worthy of death. Their kangaroo court was a pretext to hand him over to the Romans to get what they wanted. These charges of historical gaffes miss the Mark. (Lame pun intended.)

Sources and recommended resources:

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