Audio + Transcript – Passover of Jesus 4: Trials

Talk given in Bootle, 2009 4720words


Details of the timetable and technicalities of the trial before the Sanhedrin, with a detailed explanation of the depth of meaning of key phrases such as ‘I will destroy the Temple’, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Living God?’, ‘Play the prophet’; an explanation of the tight linguistic structure of the trial before Pilate in John’s Gospel, illuminating the significance of the details for us and for the Johannine community living after the fall of the temple, and the consequences of that event, under Roman rule at a time of upheaval throughout their Empire.



Details of the timetable and technicalities of the trial before the Sanhedrin, with a detailed explanation of the depth of meaning of key phrases such as ‘I will destroy the Temple’, ‘Are you the Chirst, the Son of the Living God?’, ‘Play the prophet’; an explanation of the tight linguistic structure of the trial before Pilate in John’s Gospel, illuminating the significance of the details for us and for the Johannine community living after the fall of the temple, and the consequences of that event, under Roman rule at a time of upheaval throughout their Empire.


We were with Jesus as he came out of the garden. ‘Who is it you are looking for?’ ‘I Am He’.

And they’d have led him down the Kedron valley, then back into the city and you remember Peter, misbehaving yet again, had not gone with the others but was trailing along in the dark behind, determined not to let Jesus down.

They took him first to Annas, the old man in the background. He wasn’t at the time High Priest but he had been. He had five sons and some daughters, and Caiaphas, now High Priest, was a son-in-law. But Annas, was it out of curiosity, fascination, we don’t know, managed to get Jesus brought to him first.

It is just worth remembering that Judas had triggered the arrest during the supper. They weren’t ready for it and had to, very hastily get that arrest party together. And there were a lot of other things to organise before being able to have a trial. It is just possible that Annas had a look in first to give the official body more time to organise itself.

When accosted by Annas Jesus remains silent when he is being asked a question that’s not legitimate. It’s significant that during the trial scenes of the silence of Jesus plays back onto the questioners that the real issue at stake is theirs not his. He knows, as Annas knows, that he is not in any official High Priest position and has no right to interrogate him. When he’s asked the question he says: why do you ask me? You’ve got plenty of evidence, you’ve got all the people who’ve known me in Jerusalem, why not go and ask them? And that’s when he gets struck in the face for insolence.

It is much debated how and when the events of the next twelve hours panned out so let me simply share with you what seems most likely.

Jesus is taken on to Caiaphas and a meeting of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin wasn’t a formal, permanent body, but was a group of experienced priests and others who were summoned on particular occasions. We know that amongst the members at the time there were people quite sympathetic towards Jesus, Nicodemus and Gamaliel for instance. It’s worth saying that Caiaphas was ‘on’ as it were, from AD 18, all through Jesus’ adult life.

Now they had to have a night hearing and then another one in the morning because there are three items of Jewish law that are worth remembering if we are to understand the trials of Jesus. One is that a person could not be condemned on his or her own evidence. The second is that you needed two independent witnesses to agree on an accusation. And the third, you couldn’t condemn somebody on the same day that the trial had taken place, you had to have a technical night’s sleep between the hearing and the sentence. That’s probably had a quick night hearing in order then to have another hearing in the morning.

The pressure for time was partly because they wanted to get the whole thing through and done before a lot of the pilgrim crowds started gathering in the city and the Temple in the morning, and as I say there could be up to a million pilgrims at the time of the Passover. If they allowed a popular swell of people who knew Jesus to build up then it’s doubtful they could get their sentence passed. So there was much haste. It also meant that Pilate had to be alerted in order to be up early the next morning and Pilate, like any Roman official, didn’t like being pushed round by these native, Jewish people.

It is worth looking at Mark’s account because it brings out the three main questions that were raised during the trial.

“They led Jesus to the High Priest; and all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes were assembled.” Mark has no mention of the intermediate visit to Annas on the way. “Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the High Priest and he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole Council sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death but they found none. For many brought false witness against him and their witness did not agree.” It has all the signs of them not having done their homework properly and then it going wrong. “And some stood up and bore false witness 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’ and yet not even so did their testimony agree.”

Now that claim ‘destroy this Temple (or I will destroy this Temple) and in three days I will build it again, (or it will be built again), came down into early Christian memory as very cryptic and of great importance. They couldn’t understand, what Jesus really meant by it and I think, if we are honest, we’re not quite sure what he did mean by it. As the century moved on they looked back with hindsight at what had taken place, they pondered the resurrection, and then that supreme moment in AD 70 when the Jewish Temple was destroyed and laid waste. For the people of Jesus’ day the Temple and the Holy of Holies at the heart of the Temple, was the true pole of the earth, it was the focus point for all faith and belief. It was the focus point for all faith and belief. It was where God had chosen to dwell amongst his people, but his people as a sign for all the nations. So it had that profound resonance for the Jewish mindset. Then as time passed the Christians began to realise that the risen Christ is now the true temple. You get that wonderfully in some of the later writings of Paul, how it’s in God incarnate in Christ, risen and universally present that the whole of our world’s history is, in God’s mysterious way, finding its true focus and meaning and ultimate purpose. And we are all part of that and called to bear witness to it. What was the Holy of Holies in the Temple, has now transferred to the glorified, risen, body of Christ present in and among us all and the world.

That’s the profound understanding that grew as people pondered and meditated and had meetings like we do. So they, and we, start reading backwards. The original remarks about destroying this Temple, begin to reveal meaning that, at the time, nobody could have understood. We do that so often with events in history. We see with hindsight the significance of things which at the time seemed cryptic or of minor importance. We do that with our own life stories. When they started writing histories of the Second Word War they needed the forty year gap before they could see the significance of what had been taking place. You get that very strongly in John’s gospel, his profound understanding of what had happened in ‘the one in our midst who at the time we knew not.’

Well this remark about the Temple seemed to resonate with Christians even if they had slightly different memories. In Mark’s version: “I am going to destroy this Temple made by human hands and in three days I will build another not made by human hands.” In Matthew, with two lying witnesses, Jesus says: “I have power to destroy the Temple of God and in three days raise it up.” Then in John you get a very Johannine version of it. The Jews say: “what sign can you give us?” and Jesus says: “destroy this temple”- it’s a sort of challenge – “destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up” and John adds: “he was speaking of the temple that was his body, and when he rose they remembered what he’d said.” It’s all got a feeling of people pondering what’s beyond their ken. I hope all of us do that with our faith all of the time!

Then Mark’s account goes on. The High Priest challenges Jesus and says: “have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” He is trying to get Jesus to condemn himself and the High Priest, everyone there and Jesus, knows that’s illegal in Jewish law. So Jesus just keeps silent, which of course makes the illegitimacy of the thing very stark. But then the High Priest takes on his role as High Priest and challenges him: “are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”

‘Jesus Christ, the Son of God’, we just trot it out so easily and so often. He never used the phrase of himself. It appears in the gospel at his baptism, “this is my beloved son” (or “you are my beloved son”) and in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus asks them: “who do people say I am?” Peter says: “we say you are the Christ, the Son of the living God”, but it’s almost certain that that ‘Son of the living God’ is added later with hindsight and that Peter wouldn’t have used the phrase at the time. It’s also used on the mount of transfiguration: “my son the beloved, listen to him”. But the only person who uses it of Jesus, certainly in Mark’s gospel, is the pagan centurion at the foot of the cross.

Extraordinary. Jesus never uses it of himself and I think it’s partly because, in one sense, all human beings are children of God, you and I are children of God. But of Jesus it is true in a unique way. It took Christians centuries to find ways of trying to clarify Christian belief.

When as a junior monk I studied church history we had such a gifted teacher that he could make one totally empathise with those who had held beliefs which, in due time, were judged by the church to be less than the full mystery. (I remember being terrified of missing a class in case I finished up as a Monophysite – Jesus so divine as to be only acting out as human – or a Nestorian – Jesus so human that he was a special case of being a son of God as all holy people are – or a Patripassian or …)

The word ‘dogma’ has the same root as ‘doxology, it meant a formal decision where the full glory of the mystery is prescribed when, always plausible, heresy is trying to narrow it down.

I grew up as a Monophysite Tritheist because that was the sort of language and mindset of Catholics at the time. In fact most western Christians are Tritheists because ‘person’ for us means an independent individual whereas the word ‘person’ was coined by Christian tradition precisely to say I am who I am because of my membership relations. The Triune God is one because of being three Persons, not in spite of.

During the first Christian centuries the church really struggled to clarify, with hindsight, the radical meaning of ‘Jesus Christ’ is the Son of God’. And perhaps the most profound statement of the whole of the last millennium was to say that Mary was THEOTOKOS, that the One humanly born was God incarnated.

Let us return to the trial scene. The High Priest now takes on his formal role as the High and challenges Jesus in the matter of what is really blasphemy. And on this occasion Jesus knows that he has the right to challenge him on that. Again the High Priest asks him come on, ‘are you the Christ the Son of the Blessed One’? And Jesus says: “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 none of us know what that really means.

If you ask most people what Jesus meant by the coming of the kingdom, answers can vary from, three o’clock on Good Friday afternoon, which is a very profound answer and I think I would often give that one. Others say: oh the fall of the Temple when Christ himself became the true centre of God’s presence in history. Others will say: oh the afterlife or the Final Coming. Because there are so many different answers you can probably guess that they are all true, are all different aspects of the same narrative that God is bringing about. But Jesus left these cryptic remarks for his followers as well as his attackers to live with.

The High Priest tore his garments and said: “why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy, what is your verdict?” and they all, and this is typically Mark this, they all condemned him as deserving death. Mark has an extremely stark way of saying things which are slightly over stated because it wasn’t quite as simple as that. “And then some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him saying to him: ‘prophecy’ and the guards received him with blows.”

There were three main charges against Jesus in the Jewish hearing. One concerning the fall of the Temple. One was a charge of blasphemy for claiming to be divine. And a third was to claim to be a prophet when in fact he’s a false prophet. When the Messiah was to come, he would come as a prophet during the feast of Passover and in some traditions he’d come at the same time as a false prophet. It would be the task of the High Priest of the time to discern the true prophet from the false prophet.

On one occasion years ago I asked a number of people who I thought really know an answer to these things, of how do you discern the difference between a true prophet and a false prophet. I said it because at the time Archbishop Derek Worlock in a quiet moment had said to me, you know Tom you’ve got a gift of prophecy and you need to foster it. I said to myself: don’t be absurd and anyhow it might be false prophecy for all I know. So I got really concerned and I went round asking various people I trusted how do you discern between false and true prophecy? One or two very good scripture people said, you can’t discern it except with hindsight. But another said oh yes you can. The true prophet will never speak to order and when the crunch comes will always know how to suffer with the people. The false prophet will always find ways of keeping himself clear.

You will remember that many of the accusations during the trial then became the taunts during the crucifixion. They taunt him on the cross: come on you said you were a prophet so why don’t you step down from the cross and we will follow you. But as I say the true prophet will never prophecy to order. You get that quite often in the gospels of people wanting Jesus to work signs or to prophecy to prove his authenticity, but he’ll never do it and on this occasion during the trial when it’s crucial, he refuses to play that game whereas a false prophet would be willing to play along with that request.

Can I have a little digression? If you hold up one of your hands, fingers splayed, you can think of that first century as divided into three parts (between the fingers). Jesus’ life span ending in his Passover, the early church until the Fall of Jerusalem, and the last three decades. Most of Paul’s letters were written in that middle period. The gospels, as we have them, were in the third period. I mention that because, during the siege of Jerusalem, in AD 70, the Romans wouldn’t allow anyone to leave the city, except those who were dead. And a very ardent rabbi, Pharisee, got himself lowered out of the city in a coffin, went off to Jamnia on the coast, and he and others founded an extremely ardent Jewish renewal movement. They forgot the Temple, and focussed on a careful keeping of God’s law – Torah – on domestic behaviour in the home, and on local synagogue worship. It became a powerful renewal movement. It was then, in the next century, who were responsible for bringing together what we think of as the Old Testament, which was just scattered documents at the time. But that renewal movement became bitterly antagonistic to the growing Christian church, partly because they saw this new movement that had its roots in Judaism accepting Gentiles without demanding the full observance of Torah, partly because they seemed to sit loose to the Law, as Jesus’ was through to in his own lifetime. It was their antagonism towards the end of the century, that led to a lot of persecution of Christians, of them being thrown off their land, even sometimes put to death. It’s a slightly complicated thing to do with Roman law as well because the Roman Empire accommodated a whole variety of different religions, including Judaism, (a tenth of the Roman Empire was probably Jewish.) But they were very sensitive about the arrival of new religions as threats to Pax Romana. Once Christians were accused of being a new religion, then they could incur the animosity of the Roman authorities.

Now the fourth gospel is being written in the pain and the experience of a lot of that. And it is so important for us to understand that when the author uses the words ‘the Jews’ he is thinking as much of what the Jews are doing to Christians at the end of the century, as what the Jewish authorities were doing to Jesus in his day. The fourth gospel has led to more anti-Semitism down through Christian history than almost anything else because of its use of the word the Jews, the Jews, the Jews put Jesus to death. And to our ears, famous people like Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas and Luther and others are appallingly anti-Semitic. There are a number of other reasons for it, but that’s one of them. And the Second Vatican Council was the first time that any formal Christian Council has said that the Jewish people as a nation were not responsible for the death of Jesus. Last Sunday our reading was from John, the story of the man healed by the well. When the text says: “The Jews asked the man: ‘who healed you?’” I heard myself reading “The authorities asked...” And I think that’s legitimate really. I think it is part of our task as ministers and any teachers to explain to people this linguistic problem we have.

Pilate was from quite an aristocratic Roman family. He never wanted to come to this outlandish place at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. He’d been on for about three or four years before the Jesus’ incident and he was always in edgy relationships with Caiaphas and the Jewish authorities and Pilate could be extremely decisive and insensitive on some occasions and then get all trembly and frightened on others. This was partly because back in Rome the Emperor Tiberius had gone paranoid and had been exiled to an island and one of the Roman generals was running things, showing his weight and being rather macho. Everyone had become nervous about their positions, trying to cover their backs. So you get that feeling during the trial, as John’s gospel gives it to us, of Pilate, wanting to be sincere on one hand, terrified if he handles things wrong, or right, what’s it going to do back home. And added to that a superstitious unease. You recall how Pilate’s wife had a dream and warned him not to get entangled. Pilate would have taken that very seriously as most people in his era would have done.

Now the fourth gospel presents the trial scene with Pilate, in a very powerful linguistic form. It is called a chiasma. In any oral tradition there are various rules for telling stories in order to keep a hold of the story, but also so that people can take it away in a form in which they will remember it. The rule of three is a typical one, you know an Englishman, and Irishman and a Scotsman. If you had four people you would lose interest if you had two you wouldn’t be up to it. Jesus often uses the rule of three.

A chiasma is a story structure a bit like a pamphlet in which the centre fold is the heart of the story. And 1, 2, 3 pages lead up to it, 5, 6, 7… pages flow from it. And in addition the first page has something in common with the last, the second with the penultimate and so on.

We have the Good Friday services upstairs in the monastery where I live. There’s a curtain half way down the room. And we have sometimes thought of having Jesus and Pilate behind the curtain and us as the crowds in front. And then to read the narrative with Pilate going back to Jesus, out to the crown, back to Jesus, out to the crowd, back to Jesus, out to the crowd because that’s how it’s told.

OUTSIDE 29-32 OUTSIDE 12-16 Jews demand death Jews obtain death

INSIDE 33-38 INSIDE 9-11 Pilate questions Jesus “King?” Pilate talks with Jesus about power

OUTSIDE 38-40 OUTSIDE 4-8 “Not Guilty” “Not Guilty” Barabbas “Behold Man”

INSIDE 19 v 1-3

Soldiers scourge Jesus


In the diagram of the chiasma you start with the top left, outside the Jews demand death. Pilate then goes inside, to see Jesus because the Jews wouldn’t enter the Pretorium lest they defile themselves on pagan territory and wouldn’t be able to keep the feast day that evening. So you get this very dramatic effect of the crowds outside and the growing intimacy between Pilate and Jesus inside. Once you notice it, you notice it, Pilate’s taking Jesus very seriously and listening, while all the time terrified of, his own position.

Now the Jewish authorities knew it was no good handing Jesus over to Pilate with an accusation of blasphemy or for being a prophet or whatever, because Pilate would say: ‘those are religious matters, go and deal with them yourself.’ In fact for blasphemy the Jewish authorities could stone a person as they did Stephen. So the Jewish authorities have shifted the accusation to: This man is claiming to be a king. In other words to give it a political challenge, which no Roman Governor could afford to ignore. So Pilate goes back to Jesus and says what’s all this about you being a king? You know you don’t look like one, what does it mean?

I have to admit to you that reading this the other day I realised I still don’t know what it means, for Jesus Christ as King. If you ask people you get completely different answers, oh it means Lord of my heart or it means king of the universe. But what does that mean? The feast of Christ the King was introduced just after the First World War and was a Christian faith challenge to nationalism and worshiping the state and worshiping human authority in the state. In other words all human authority is subject to something beyond itself and will only exercise itself properly as a humble service not as a playing God business.

Pilate then goes outside again and says to the gathering crowds that he can’t find anything threatening in Jesus and would it do to free Barabbas. Now we are just going to miss out the entire inside bit and come up the right hand side. Pilate comes out with Jesus looking like an absolute wreck, about as far from being kingly as you can imagine, except with the cruel taunt of wearing a crown of thorns. He is more or less saying to the crowd: come on come on, do you really think this is a king in any threatening way? Just look at the man. And he then goes in again and has that conversation with Jesus about the nature of power and the sort of power that Pilate holds and that it’s always held in trust from one greater that oneself. (You’ll notice that balances across from the previous question about what it meant for Jesus to be king.)

Then the finale, (on the top right hand). Pilate gives way and does that pathetic act of washing his hands. And there is a final gesture against the Jewish authorities, the mini placard which would’ve been carried behind Jesus to the place of crucifixion.

It is an extraordinary thing to have pinned up. Jesus Christ the King of the Jews, and put in three languages to make sure everyone can understand. It was a pathetic final thrust at the Jewish authorities, he himself having given way.

Now, I missed out the centre page of that chiasma as it’s called. Chiasma is I think the same root word as scissors, it means a crossing or crossing point like an X hence scissors. And in this a way of telling there is a crossing point at the centre. The soldiers scourge Jesus and taunt him and tease him. If you understand that’s how John has structured the story, it means that that centre piece is of crucial understanding for the author and the other episodes are of building up to it and flowing from it. All my life I presumed that the scourging of Jesus and the taunting was just an unfortunate incident and the story was perfectly ok without it. But when I was introduced to this way of telling the story I realised that it has profound significance. Have you ever read a book by Mary Renault called The King Must Die? She did a careful study of a lot of early cults of the tradition that when the old boy is taken off, when the old king is retired and the new regime takes over, what do you do about the old boy or the old girl? And a very profound tradition grew up in which the previous ruler, once retired, took on to himself the sins of the people and was ritually killed. (It’s a bit like the scapegoat). By his ritual death he redeemed the people from the sins of his reign so that the new regime could have a new fresh start. Well of course as time went on, not all rulers looked forward to that and so it tended to mean that kings or queens would stay on a bit beyond their appointed time. One way of avoiding that was to have a slave who was dressed up in royal attire, took the place of the royalty and was ritually slaughtered. That became a blind man’s bluff sort of game that was played and it’s thought that the Roman soldiers, with their meeting up with different cultures in the Middle East, had come across this, the king must die game, that in the case of Jesus, who by now looked quite absurd of course, they thought well here’s somebody who has claimed to be a king let’s play the game. So the Roman soldiers were playing out a game which they’d picked up on their travels and we all know I mean it’s so easy for western soldiers in a foreign country to have a despising attitude to the local people, and certainly that would have been true of Roman soldiers posted to outlandish places away from their families and homeland.

If it is the case that the soldiers were playing out the King Must Die we can only begin to imagine its significance for the beloved disciple. The layers of meaning from the superficial to the deeply mystical. No wonder that six decades later he puts it at the centre of his trail account.

And they led Jesus away…

Prophetic Trajectories of Hope from San Salvador to Liverpool: A Celebration of the ministries of Oscar Romero, Austin Smith, Tom Cullinan and Kevin Kelly.

 

A talk by David McLoughlin,
Emeritus Fellow of Christian Theology
Newman University 

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