When asked if he is the Messiah, Jesus replied, “You have said so.” If the answer was ambiguous in English, the meaning was not lost on the high priest, he immediately tears his clothes and cried out that Jesus spoke blasphemy (Matthew 26:65-66).
Typically the tearing of clothes is a symbol of mourning, but it was also practiced when someone blasphemed in one’s presence. Davies and Allison cite m. Sanhedrin. 7:5, which “tells of judges who, as a symbolic, ritual act, rend their clothes in response to blasphemy” (Matthew, 3:533) But the high priest was not supposed to tear his clothes (Lev 21:10), although this may not apply if he is not wearing the priestly vestments at the time.
The high priest calls for the group to render their verdict, and they answer that he is “worthy of death” (KJV, “guilty of death”). The word ἔνοχος is used in judicial contexts for a punishment (“worthy of death” in this case). According to Leviticus 24:16, anyone who blasphemes the Lord should be put to death. The chief priest and scribe gathered all agree, what Jesus has said qualifies as blasphemy and that he ought to be put to death.
Could the Sanhedrin execute criminals? Most scholars agree they did not, only the Romans had the right to execute people. This should be nuanced since in Acts 7 Stephen is executed for blasphemy with some official oversight (Saul was giving approval). Stephen’s death might be considered a lynching, an illegal execution. But it was over a religious matter so the Romans might have looked the other way.
The real issue is not whether the Sanhedrin or the High Priest had the authority to kill Jesus, but whether he could risk the political ramifications of executing someone the huge Passover crowd thought was a prophet, and possibly the Messiah. As with the arrest, the group meeting to decide what to do with Jesus does not know whether Jesus has armed disciples hiding out in and around Jerusalem who would be willing to defend him to the death.
This means the High Priest and his group of advisors need to find a way to hand Jesus over to the Romans. If there are armed disciples of Jesus willing to start an insurrection, let the Romans slaughter them! Politically, they can wash their hands of any blame for the death of the beloved holy prophet and teacher.
After the group condemns Jesus, they begin to spit on him and slap him (26:67-68). In Mark, we are told at this point Jesus was blindfolded, and those that hit him taunted him by demanding Jesus prophesy. This is all to mock him for claiming to be the Messiah. The true Messiah, to their mind, would have destroyed those that tried to do this to him. Something like, “You claim to be the Messiah, but this proves you are not! “Cruel and vindictive belittlement” is the fate of the discredited prophet (Nolland, Matthew, 1136). The temple authorities decided to hand Jesus over to the Romans, to Pilate as a politically dangerous insurrectionist who ought to be executed publicly by crucifixion.
Jesus stood before his accusers and boldly confirmed he is the Messiah and he will be the eschatological judge who inaugurates the coming kingdom. At the same time, Peter has been also boldly confirming in the outer courtyard; but his boldness is a denial that he has anything to do with Jesus.
The chief priests sought evidence to put Jesus to death and were willing to use false witnesses. The false witnesses will say Jesus threatened to destroy the temple. As Robert Gundry says, “In Matthew, the Sanhedrin does not face the problem of discovering true testimony” (Matthew, 542).
They find two false witnesses willing to say Jesus claimed he was going to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days. Since the verses in Matthew imply that Jesus said this kind of thing was spoken among Jesus’s followers, it is possible these false witnesses were part of the larger group of followers who heard Jesus teach (probably not the twelve). On the other hand, these could simply be political cronies willing to say whatever the chief priests need to hear (and maybe get a “gift” as Judas did?).
How “false” is this evidence? Jesus did say that he would destroy the temple and that he would build it back up again in three days. In Matthew 23:38, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and says the house “is left desolate.” In Matthew 24:1-3 (the very next paragraph), Jesus predicts that not one stone of the buildings of the Temple will be left on another. Jesus does not state that he will destroy the temple in Matthew 24:2, but the words give the false witnesses something to twist. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus did not directly say he would destroy the temple and build it in three days. He does say this in John 2:19, although John is clear that Jesus is talking about his body, so this foreshadows his own death and resurrection.
Any threat to the temple is a threat against the power of the aristocratic priests and scribes gathered to decide what to do with Jesus. By threatening the temple, Jesus is threatening a powerful group of political leaders.
Biblically speaking, only God can destroy the Jewish temple. Daniel 1:1-2 states that God delivered Jerusalem and the temple items to Nebuchadnezzar. Babylon did not destroy the Temple by their own might and power; God allowed Babylon to destroy Jerusalem.
There are several lines of evidence for this. First, Jeremiah 7:12-15 compares the temple to Shiloh, the sanctuary where God “first made his name to dwell.” Jeremiah says the temple is in danger of being destroyed because the leadership has turned it into a “den of thieves,” the verse Jesus quoted during the temple action (Matt 21:12-13). The Temple Action was a prophetic condemnation of the leadership using language from Jeremiah, the prophet who lived through the destruction of Jerusalem.
Ezekiel sees the glory of God leave the temple (Ezek 10), which allows Babylon to successfully attack and destroy Jerusalem and to destroy the temple because Israel has become like the nations (Ezek 11:1-13). It is probably significant that Jesus departed the temple for the last time in Matthew 24 by traveling east to the Mount of Olives, the same way the Glory of God left the Temple in Ezekiel 10.
The prophets and apocalyptic literature of the first century anticipated the temple’s rebuilding in the eschatological age (Isaiah 60:4-7, 17; Zechariah 6:12-13; Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 77-90). Ezekiel 40-48 describes a future temple in the eschatological kingdom, as does Revelation 21:10, the New Jerusalem is a new city/temple built by God.
1 Enoch 90:28-29 Then I stood still, looking at that ancient house being transformed: All the pillars and all the columns were pulled out; and the ornaments of that house were packed and taken out together with them and abandoned in a certain place in the South of the land. I went on seeing until the Lord of the sheep brought about a new house, greater and loftier than the first one, and set it up in the first location which had been covered up—all its pillars were new, the columns new; and the ornaments new as well as greater than those of the first, (that is) the old (house) which was gone. All the sheep were within it.
Sib. Or. 5.414–433 For a blessed man came from the expanses of heaven 415 with a scepter in his hands which God gave him, and he gained sway over all things well, and gave back the wealth to all the good, which previous men had taken. He destroyed every city from its foundations with much fire and burned nations of mortals who were formerly evildoers. 420 And the city which God desired, this he made more brilliant than stars and sun and moon, and he provided ornament and made a holy temple, exceedingly beautiful in its fair shrine, and he fashioned a great and immense tower over many stadia 425 touching even the clouds and visible to all, so that all faithful and all righteous people could see the glory of eternal God, a form desired. East and West sang out the glory of God. For terrible things no longer happen to wretched mortals, 430 no adulteries or illicit love of boys, no murder, or din of battle, but competition is fair among all. It is the last time of holy people when God, who thunders on high, founder of the greatest temple, accomplishes these things.
Jubilees 1.29 And the angel of the presence, who went before the camp of Israel, took the tablets of the division of years from the time of the creation of the law and testimony according to their weeks (of years), according to the jubilees, year by year throughout the full number of jubilees, from [the day of creation until] the day of the new creation when the heaven and earth and all of their creatures shall be renewed according to the powers of heaven and according to the whole nature of earth, until the sanctuary of the Lord is created in Jerusalem upon Mount Zion. And all of the lights will be renewed for healing and peace and blessing for all of the elect of Israel and in order that it might be thus from that day and unto all the days of the earth.
2 Baruch 31.1–5 And it happened after these things, that I went to the people and said to them: Assemble to me all our elders and I shall speak words to you. 2 And they all assembled in the valley of the Kidron. 3* And I began to speak and said to them: Hear, O Israel, and I shall speak to you, and you, O seed of Jacob, pay attention, and I shall teach you. 4* Do not forget Zion but remember the distress of Jerusalem. 5 For, behold, the days are coming, that all that has been will be taken away to be destroyed, and it will become as though it had not been.
While the evidence is true, (Jesus did say that he would destroy and rebuild the temple), the witnesses twist the evidence to make Jesus sound like a dangerous leader of a revolutionary movement. The decision to kill Jesus is already made. Two witnesses are required to follow the Law, so they find two witnesses to make the trial look legitimate. This is all they need to hand Jesus over to Pilate.
After false witnesses claim Jesus threatened the Temple, the High Priest speaks directly to Jesus, asking him to defend himself. This is to provide the illusion of legality (Matthew 26:62-63). The high priest directly asks Jesus: Are you the Messiah? Jesus does not answer the false accusations, in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophet of the Messiah as a suffering servant, quiet as a lamb sent to slaughter. See Isaiah 53:7; Psalm 38:13-14 (in response to friends’ betrayal, violence, etc.)
Caiaphas is frustrated by Jesus’s silence and tries to bind him with an oath: “I adjure you by the living God.” This is a rare word in the New Testament. The verb ἐξορκίζω is only used here and in Acts 19:13-14 (and then in a textual variant, ὁρκίζω appears in the text). The word is used “to compel someone to do something by invoking a transcendent power” (BDAG). This explains why it is used in the context of an exorcism in Acts 19. In LXX Gen 24:3, Abraham compels his servant to swear an oath to God to obtain a wife for Isaac. Remember, Jesus taught his disciples not to swear oaths (Matt 5:37). In this context, Jesus does not swear an oath on God, as the high priest demands. Yet in the following story, Peter denies the Lord with an oath.
The high priest again asks Jesus (under oath) to answer the question: Is Jesus really the Messiah or not? This forces Jesus to claim directly that he is the Messiah or swear by God that he is not the Messiah (destroying his credibility with his followers).
Jesus agrees with Caiaphas but goes well beyond a confirmation that he is the messiah by quoting two messianic passages and applying them to this situation (26:64). “It is as you have said” is the same ambiguous statement that Jesus used when Judas asked if he was the betrayer. In Mark, Jesus simply says, “I am” (Mark 14:62). Brown and Roberts suggest, “if you say so” (Matthew, THNTC, 244).
The second part of his answer shocks the temple leadership. Jesus combines Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 to claim they will not see him until he is standing in judgment as the Messiah. In Psalm 110:1 David is exalted to the right hand of God “until I make your enemies your footstool.” Jesus inserts the “Son of Man” as the subject, the Son of man will be seated at the right hand of Power (God). Jesus regularly referred to himself as the Son of Man during his public ministry, so he is saying, “I am going to be seated at the right hand of God,” like the Messiah in Psalm 110. Read the rest of Psalm 110, the enemies will be shattered on the day of wrath (verses 5-6 are particularly apocalyptic).
Who are the enemies when Jesus quotes this verse? The high priest, chief priests, and scribes. The Temple aristocracy has put themselves into the position of “enemies of God” (like Jeremiah 7). They will be shattered along with the nations “on the day of his wrath.” (Later in Acts, the apostles quote Psalm 2, “why do the nations rage,” and apply it to the persecution coming from the high priest).
Daniel 7:13 is one of the most important passages for understanding messianic ideas in the first century. Jesus has used the Son of Man as a title throughout his ministry. In the context of Daniel 7, the son of man comes on a cloud before the ancient of days to receive authority to judge the nations (the four beasts in Daniel 7:1-8).
Jesus, therefore, does not directly say, “why yes, I am the Messiah.” Instead, he claims to be the Danielic Son of Man who will stand at the right hand of the father in heaven and render justice on the nations who oppose God, inaugurating the eschatological age (including destroying and rebuilding the temple).
The reaction to Jesus’s claim is to charge him with blasphemy (Matthew 26:65-68).
When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane by the temple guard, they led him to the High Priest, Caiaphas (26:57). This is often called a trial before the Sanhedrin as if the full ruling council of the Jews came together in the middle of the night for a formal trial. This is not the case. Rather than a meeting of the whole Sanhedrin, this is a hearing at the home of the High Priest, Caiaphas.
What is the Sanhedrin? The word refers to a Jewish council that met in Jerusalem and was something like a city council. The word comes from the Greek συνέδριον (synedrion). However, there are several possible Hebrew or Aramaic phrases used for the council (for example, term בֵּית דִּין (beit din, “house of judgment”). Sometimes it is simply called “the Great Assembly,” כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה, keneseth haggedolah).
There is some question as to whether the Sanhedrin had an official meeting place in Jerusalem at this time. Josephus says there was a βουλή (boulē ) or βουλευτήριον in Jerusalem (JW 5.144; 6,354), referring to an official meeting place for the Sanhedrin. But Josephus uses the terms Sanhedrin and boulē quite loosely. It is an anachronism to think of the Sanhedrin as something like the US Congress. Based on the later and idealized Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin, the Sanhedrin had seventy members, but as few as twenty-three could make a quorum. Since only a few members are likely present, this is an informal hearing rather than a formal trial.
The meeting is at Caiaphas’s home, possibly in his courtyard with “the scribes and the elders.” This is a small group of Caiaphas’s close supporters gathered to figure out how to get rid of Jesus without getting blamed for it! This is not an official trial. It is more like politicians making a shady backroom deal.
They did not meet in an official meeting place (if there was one) or call all the council members together because that would give the meeting (and decision) an official look. This meeting is “off the record” to give the political leaders “plausible deniability” when Jesus is executed. Remember, they fear the crowds and seek to arrest him quietly (Matthew 26:3-5).
They do not pretend this is a trial to determine if Jesus is guilty or not; 26:59 says they are looking for false testimony to put Jesus to death. They are not looking for facts, but for a pretext to do what they have already decided must be done.
It is possible this secret trial with no real witnesses alludes to Psalm 27:12 (LXX 26:12) and/or Psalm 35:11 (LXX Psalm 34:11).
Psalm 27:12 (ESV) Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.
Psalm 35:11 (ESV) Malicious witnesses rise up; they ask me of things that I do not know.
When Jesus was arrested and led to the high Priest, Peter followed at a distance and remained in the courtyard of Caiaphas’s home “to see the end” (26:58). This is ironic: Peter was called to follow Jesus. He is still doing so, but not as disciple willing to die alongside his master.
Jesus could defend himself if he wanted to. He says he could ask his Father to send twelve legions of angels (26:53-54). This verse is unique to Matthew’s version of this story. A Roman legion was six thousand soldiers plus auxiliaries, so twelve legions would be a massive force in comparison to the group assembled to arrest him. It is better to see this as an intentional contrast to the twelve disciples who (allegedly) defend Jesus. He has twelve disciples, but he could have twelve legions of angelic soldiers if he asked for them.
In Daniel 7:10, the Ancient of Days sits on a fiery throne to judge the nations, surrounded by “a thousand thousands, ten thousand times ten thousand” servants. Since the Son of Man appears before the Ancient of Days and is given authority to judge, he has command of this angelic host. 2 Kings 6:17 is the classic example of an angelic army sent to defend God’s people. When Assyria threatened to destroy Hezekiah in Jerusalem, God sends an angel to destroy 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (2 Kings 19:35-26). Daniel 10:13 also describes angelic warfare. Angelic armies are also common in other Second Temple literature.
Testament of Levi 3.3 In the second [heaven] are the armies arrayed for the day of judgment to work vengeance on the spirits of error and of Beliar.
1QM 7:5-6 All these shall be volunteers for war, perfect in spirit and in body, and ready for the day of vengeance. And every man who has not cleansed himself of his ‘spring’ on the day of battle will not go down with them, for the holy angels are together with their armies.
Building on the scene from Daniel 7:10, In Matthew 25:31, the Son of Man will come with all the angels with him to judge the nations. Jude 14-15 quotes 1 Enoch, “Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of his holy ones to execute judgment on all.” In Revelation 19:14, the rider on the white horse leads the armies of heaven into battle against the armies of the beast.
Jesus asks the arresting soldiers, “Am I a rebel?” (26:55). Older translations use thief, but the word could be translated as “terrorist.” The word (λῃστής) refers to a robber or a highwayman (BDAG). The same word is used to describe Barabbas as well as the two thieves crucified along with Jesus. Barabbas appears to be more than a robber, but a terrorist and a rebel.
Jesus says that he is not one of these “rebels,” yet in the following stories, Jesus is crucified with robbers and mocked by robbers. He is saying “I am not a rebel, yet you are going to treat me like one anyway.” They could have been arrested at any time since he was teaching in public at the temple for the past five days.
As Jesus is arrested, the disciples fulfill Jesus’ own prophecy from a few hours earlier, that they would all desert him (26:56). Why does the arresting crowd let the disciples run off? Jesus is the focus of the arrest; the High Priest understands that Jesus is the irreplaceable leader of the movement (Nolland, Matthew, 1109). Perhaps the High Priest did not have much respect for Jesus’s disciples. There is no need to take a threat from unschooled fishermen from Galilee seriously. The aristocratic priests probably think Jesu’s followers are a “basket of deplorables.”
Peter does completely abandon Jesus since he is follows the arresting Caiaphas’s home, where he will deny the Lord three times before dawn.