Is Jesus' Nighttime Sanhedrin Trial an Aggrandizement of Friday Morning's "Consultation"?

Our earliest rendition of Jesus' nighttime Sanhedrin trial is Mk 14:55-65. Instead, however, might it be Friday morning's daybreak "consultation," in 15:1, that constitutes the initial tradition, with the "earlier" Sanhedrin trial only its belated aggrandizement? The Sanhedrin unit is skeletal, porous, and disjointed, and addresses matters more pertinent to Mark's time than to that of Jesus. Further, its presence leaves Friday morning's daybreak "consultation" redundant, with the identical full complement of three Jewish leadership groups now reconvened for no ostensible reason. When Friday morning's brief "consultation" assumes the role played by the more extensive nighttime Sanhedrin trial, we see that antecedent Christian tradition may have lacked a trial altogether, a sobering realization when we consider the dire impact of the Sanhedrin narrative on later Jewish history.

By Michael J. Cook
Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies
Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati campus
April 2013

Skepticism concerning Jesus' nighttime Sanhedrin trial prevails even in some of the most conservative quarters, as in Roman Catholicism's Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion: "the historical and biblical questions surrounding the notion that there was a formal Sanhedrin trial argue for extreme caution and, perhaps, even abandoning the device."1 Such doubts, however, should not depend upon the customary tabulation of discrepancies between capital trial procedures noted in the Talmud and those the Gospels specify in the case of Jesus. Since we appear to deal here with different kinds of court systems from different eras, recourse to rabbinic jurisprudence may be irrelevant or at the least misleading to this discussion. Far better is to focus alone on Mark's rendition of Jesus' trial,2 for this is sufficient in itself to suggest that Friday morning's "consultation" (15:1) is the initial tradition, with the preceding nighttime Sanhedrin trial only its belated aggrandizement. Deferred until the end of this essay is the question of whether the tradition of Peter's denial of Jesus (14:54,66-72) is also germane to the issue at hand.

Vitally important are what I term the two "delivery" texts. The first, Mk 14:53, in advance of Mark's Sanhedrin paragraph, shows Jesus delivered to the high priest following his arrest Thursday night.3 The second, 15:1, after the Sanhedrin paragraph, presents Jesus' delivery to Pilate Friday morning. I believe these two "delivery texts" were once connected, and reflect the more primitive story-line that Mark inherited. In now rendering the two delivery texts, below, I CAPITALIZE what I deem the editing by Mark so as to facilitate his insertion, between these two texts, of the aggrandizing Sanhedrin paragraph. Readers may find it helpful to revisit the following Biblical excerpt as this essay proceeds (highlighting added):

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

First "Delivery Text" — 14:53 And they led Jesus to the high priest; AND ALL THE CHIEF PRIESTS AND THE ELDERS AND THE SCRIBES WERE ASSEMBLED.

The Sanhedrin Trial:

Segment A — 55 Now the chief priests and the whole council ["Sanhedrin"] sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. 56 For many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree.

Segment B — 57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 "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.’" 59 Yet not even so did their testimony agree.

Segment C — 60 And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus, [Query #1] "Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?" 61 But he was silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, [Query #2] "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" 62 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."

Segment D — 63 And the high priest tore his garments, and said, "Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?" And they all condemned him as deserving death.

Strong>Segment E — 65 And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to strike him, saying to him, "Prophesy!" And the guards received him with blows.


Second "Delivery Text" — 15:1 And as soon as it was morning the chief priests, with the elders and scribes, AND THE WHOLE COUNCIL ["SANHEDRIN"], held a consultation; and they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him to Pilate.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --

The Sanhedrin Paragraph's Problematics

Segment A (vv. 55–56) alleges that "false witness" was brought against Jesus but neglects to specify of what it consisted. As a belated clarification, Segment B (57–59) repeats the entirety of verse 56 — note the words in bold — this time splicing in that missing content (v. 58). Segment C (60–62) spotlights the high priest and Jesus. Yet here Jesus' two speaking opportunities radiate unnaturally opposite demeanors: silence, then stridence. The silence results from harnessing him to Isa 53:7;4 the stridence from harnessing him to Dan 7:13 along with Ps 110:1.5 Segment D (63–64) conveys the pronouncement that Jesus is guilty of the Jewish religious crime of "blasphemy" (contrast "King of the Jews," the Roman political crime of sedition). Segment E (65) concludes the unit.

The dynamic of harnessing Jesus to alleged Jewish Scriptural antecedents reflects common Christian practice only after Jesus' day, signaling this paragraph's artificial, belated construction. To be noticed also is that the structure of the high priest's two questions to Jesus at night seems to parallel that of Pilate's two questions to Jesus following Friday morning's "consultation" (see in bold):

Questioning Jesus' SILENCE
HIGH PRIEST:   14:60 ... the high priest ... asked Jesus, "Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?"
PILATE:        15:4 ... Pilate ... asked him, "Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you."

Specifying Jesus' CRIME
HIGH PRIEST:   14:61... the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?"
PILATE:        15:2 ... Pilate asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

Is this parallel structure coincidental? If not, then was the structure of Pilate's queries literarily modeled on that of the high priest's, or the reverse? I believe the reverse. Given the litany of oddities spotted thus far with the Sanhedrin narration, it is probable that the high priest's questions were structured on those "later" coming down from Pilate. Both the Sanhedrin-paragraph's proof-texting and the structural affinities with Pilate's interrogation of Jesus radiate a sense that Mark is here trying to come up with "filler material" to flesh out a trial that never transpired.

The "Delivery" Texts' Problematics

Hypothetically, were the Sanhedrin/Peter6 complex to "fall out" of the Markan text, the "bookends" closing up the vacuum would be content from the two "delivery" texts: i.e., a drawing of content first from 14:53, then immediately thereafter from 15:1. Were this hypothesis correct, then the missing role of the nighttime Sanhedrin trial would promptly become assumed by early Friday morning's "consultation." Note how succinct, smooth, and natural would be the resulting story-line:

[First "delivery" text] 14:53 “And they led Jesus to the high priest .... [Second "delivery" text] 15:1 And as soon as it was morning the chief priests, with the elders and scribes, ... held a consultation; and they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him to Pilate.”

Not only would Friday daybreak's "consultation" now rise as sufficient to the task (i.e., eviscerating the need and role for the nighttime Sanhedrin trial), but no longer would that Friday consultation seem redundant. For now the Jewish leadership triad — "the chief priests, with the elders and the scribes" — would have to attend only Friday morning instead of also the previous night's trial. And what a substantial proportion of the basic Passion story-line would the two "delivery" texts (as per my rendering) now convey in their own right! All this suggests that what may have been an inherited pre-Markan story-line became elongated by Mark's creative insertion of the Sanhedrin paragraph explaining why the latter seems so choppy compared to an otherwise straightforward, smooth-running narrative.

Why, however, have I truncated each "delivery" text by lopping off the words appearing in CAPS? From 14:53, I have highlighted, "AND ALL THE CHIEF PRIESTS AND THE ELDERS AND THE SCRIBES WERE ASSEMBLED"; and, from 15:1, "AND THE WHOLE COUNCIL [SANHEDRIN]." I contend, as intimated above, that Mark elongated the original "delivery" texts with the words in CAPS so as to aid him in integrating the insertion of his devised Sanhedrin unit. The arguments to follow suggest that my truncations may essentially reverse Mark's elongations, thereby moving us back toward (perhaps even to) the "delivery" texts' original dimensions, contours, and content.

Certainly transparent here is the case with AND THE WHOLE COUNCIL ["SANHEDRIN"], in 15:1, blatantly an editorial mistake by Mark. The entire Sanhedrin convened by the high priest is the chief priests, elders, and scribes; no other group remains to whom "and the whole council" can refer. Now in 14:55, this rendering is entirely suitable, for here Mark indeed opens his created Sanhedrin unit with that very phrase, "the chief priests and the whole council [Sanhedrin]." Here the elders and scribes are yet to be mentioned, so they do indeed remain available as referents for Mark's "and the whole council." Yet not so in 15:1, where "elders" and "scribes" have been designated as already present. With the full complement of potential groups now already noted in 15:1, no other leadership group remains to whom "and the whole council" can refer. Adding "AND THE WHOLE COUNCIL" to 15:1 is thus a tell-tale editorial fingerprint that Mark was struggling to ensconce and cement his own “Sanhedrin trial” into a context where originally it neither appeared nor now easily fit. In attempting to smooth out the seam, he actually made it glaring.

As for my lopping off the words in CAPS from the first “delivery” text, 14:53 — "AND ALL THE CHIEF PRIESTS AND THE ELDERS AND THE SCRIBES WERE ASSEMBLED" — obviously, if Mark wished to craft a nighttime Sanhedrin trial, he needed to secure attending personnel! Spotting the chief priests + elders + scribes original to the second "delivery" text (15:1), did Mark simply extend that triad's hours of Friday morning service backward, early enough so they would already be on hand when Jesus was brought to the high priest the preceding night? Of further interest here is that, in all of Mark, only in the two delivery texts (14:53; 15:1) are "elders" sequenced directly after "chief priests" — everywhere else sequenced after "chief priests" are "scribes" (not "elders").7 At the least, that this oddity appears twice consecutively, and only here, opens for conjecture that Mark elongated 14:53 by copying chief priests + elders + scribes in that order directly from 15:1, the second "delivery" text. In this fashion did Mark adroitly secure the earlier personnel he needed to serve as the audience at his invented trial.

In sum, the "delivery" texts, in an earlier if not original form, lacked the material in CAPS. The latter are added by Mark's editing.

What Might Have Induced Mark to Create the Trial?

Did Christians come to find the original tradition of a mere daybreak "consultation" Friday morning woefully inadequate for the Son of God? After all, it did not even begrudge Jesus the opportunity to attend let alone to speak! Aggrandizing the "consultation" into a full-fledged trial, the previous night, by the Sanhedrin, supreme court of the land, would also be a means to symbolize the complicity and culpability of the entire Jewish nation.

A formidable challenge in inventing such an aggrandized trial would of course be to formulate the content of what transpired. Sparking selection of such details could be any of the multiple problems Christians in Mark's own community were facing, whose wide variety could also well explain why the Sanhedrin proceedings appear so disjointed.

First is the overarching concern of Mark's community when he wrote (ca. 72 C.E.): Christians' security vis-à-vis Rome. This problem was a function not only of Nero's persecution of Christians (64) but even more alarmingly of the Jews' Great Revolt against Rome (beginning in 66, and extending beyond the time of Mark's composition). How discomfiting must it have been for Christians to be known to Rome as followers of a Jewish subversive founder from a Jewish land widely associated, especially now, with fanatical rebellion, and a figure who had been executed by the Roman means of crucifixion! Lest the stigma of their crucified Lord adhere likewise to Jesus' later followers, here was reason enough for Mark to design a Sanhedrin trial that displaced Rome with Jewish leaders as the villains of the Passion; that displaced Pilate with the high priest as the original pronouncer of Jesus' death; and that displaced sedition, "King of the Jews," a political crime of concern to Rome, with blasphemy, merely a Jewish religious crime of no concern to Rome. Moreover, it did not help that Christians could easily be confused with Jews, in Roman eyes, given that both groups shared Jewish scripture, facets of Jewish belief and practice, and, for some, even Jewish family ties.

Having employed the nighttime trial as an aggrandizement of the original nondescript Friday morning "consultation," Mark would then have done well to jettison altogether the "consultation" from 15:1, since by now it had lost its raison d’être. What could warrant a reconvening of the identical full complement of three Jewish leadership groups whose hours of service Mark had already so unduly extended backward into the previous night? Instead, Mark's retention of the no longer needed "consultation" leaves us with but another tell-tale clue that the Friday morning "consultation" had indeed been the sole original tradition, with the Sanhedrin trial only the later devising by Mark himself!

Peter's Denial (14:54,66-72)

What then of the story of Peter's denial — editorially bifurcated so as to embrace the Sanhedrin trial (14:54 before it, vv. 66-72 after)? Peter's denial is positioned as a literary foil for Jesus' steadfastness: Jesus is "passing" his trial inside the Sanhedrin (14:55-65) simultaneously with Peter's "failing" his own trial outside it. Peter is untruthful, and preoccupied with his own security (warming himself at the fire; then lying to ward off arrest), versus a Jesus who is preoccupied with fulfilling God’s will by remaining truthful even if leading to his death (cf. 14:36: “not what I will, but what thou wilt”). That the Sanhedrin and Peter trials are choreographed in this fashion — i.e., as conjoined in function — validates why, in our experiment, Peter's denial was "dropped out" along with the Sanhedrin composition. This also enabled us to "close up" the two delivery texts so as to glimpse what may have been the original story-line. Can the further case be made that the story of Peter's denial, like that of the Sanhedrin, reflects problems in Mark's day, not Jesus'? I believe so.8


I have proposed, then, that the basic tradition Mark inherited related how, on the night of Jesus' arrest, the high priest simply received the captive Jesus (with no trial planned, or ensuing); then, on Friday morning, the high priest convened a (mere) "consultation" to report the matter to the not-previously present "chief priests, with the elders and scribes." Then Jesus was delivered to Pilate who, examining him briefly, consigned him to the cross. This means that Friday morning's "consultation" was the original and functional equivalent of the Sanhedrin unit that only later became formulated and introduced to displace it.

That Mark imported, from Pilate to the high priest, the very structure of questions posed to Jesus inside the Sanhedrin betrays Mark's duress to secure sufficient "filler material”; so also does Mark's harnessing of Jesus' speaking opportunities to the later practice of Christian proof-texting. These factors explain why the proceedings within the Sanhedrin trial seem so choppy as well as relatively sparse.

This essay has allowed no recourse to the claimed discrepancies between the Gospel accounts about Jesus in particular and capital procedures in general enumerated in rabbinic jurisprudence. Rather, the argument has properly proceeded entirely from inside Mk 14-15 itself.


1 Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1988, Section C.1.c.

2 Focus on all these matters must be primarily on Mark's rendition since the Sanhedrin trial episodes in Matthew and Luke depend on him. While it is unclear whether John knew of Mark's Sanhedrin trial, suggestive is that John seems to adopt the interspersing of Peter’s denial with the high priest’s interrogation (not formal Sanhedrin trial) of Jesus (the interspersing likely a specifically Markan innovation). Nor should we accord attention to Sanhedrin 43a: that a rabbinic court condemned Jesus. Here the Talmud relies on Gospel traditions, so it is circular reasoning to treat it as an independent, confirmatory source. Further, the Talmud's intent here is to refute the Gospel contention that Jesus was treated unfairly, obviously a late retrospection different from the matter that concerns us here.

3 It is unclear whether the created Sanhedrin trial should be assigned to late Thursday evening or to soon after midnight (or extending from the former through the latter).

4 Isaiah 53:7: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth."

5 Daniel 7:13: " … with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man"; Psalm 110:1: "The Lord says to my lord: 'Sit at my right hand ….'"

6 To repeat, discussion of the tradition of Peter's denial is deferred to this essay's end.

7 The case in these remaining six instances: Mk. 8:31; 10:33; 11:18,27; and 14:1,43.

8 Key here was the problem of defections from, and denials of, Jesus by Christians of Mark's day. For the Second Coming remained delayed even as eyewitnesses of Jesus now began dying off, especially in the 60s. Further, the persecution of Christians by Rome, also in the 60s, must have intensified denials of Jesus by those skeptical Christians now demoralized if not disillusioned (cf., e.g., Mk 8:34-38; 13:5-6,9,11-13,21-23; 14:18-21,27-31). For further such argumentation, see Michael J. Cook, Modern Jews Engage the New Testament (Woodstock: Jewish Lights, repr. 2012), pp. 108, 134, 136-38, 146-47, 170, 185-86, 189-91, 272, 322n11.

Comments (1)

Hope I'm not too late to comment.
Very interesting and great fun as usual. However, as usual we look at the same thing but do not see the same thing. Where you see a creaking structure of interpolations I see a well-conceived literary whole.
The milieu of Mark, Rome after 70 with many a pub smashed up in the course of Jewish and Christian theological discussions conducted in Mark's Latin- and Aramaic-influenced Greek, must indeed be important. Many of Mark's characters must be based (in a manner perhaps illuminating, perhaps confusing for the Real History of Jesus)on people he knew in Rome - the angry Jews, full of confusion and foreboding over the fate of the Temple, the Romans recovering from a recent crisis of royal authority, the Christians dealing with lapsed members and informers. Mark's job was to get something into the public arena that would sound conciliatory towards Romans and would pursue the argument that the Christians and no other group with Jewish roots was the legitimate heir of the prophecies and promises. Information would have been imperfect. He needed to work fast.
It isn't surprising that he wasn't sure of the composition of the Sanhedrin and so used the rather choppy phrases that he does in chapter 15. The impression of uncertainty, even of ignorance, that is conveyed here doesn't particularly suit your view that this verse comes from an earlier 'Ur-Markus' layer: an Ur-M would have been better rather than worse informed, surely?
Mark's style is somewhat choppy and awkward but this is his way of keeping the narrative moving fast and of giving it that remarkable air of indignation over events. He achieves the effect of someone pouring his heart out over a wrong done to him. The rush of the narrative sweeps aside doubts and questionings. We're talking about an all-time cross-cultural best-seller here, of course, super-top-rank world literature.
I don't see that it's dramatically unhelpful to have the Whole Council reconvene in the morning. It makes the Night Session a self-contained, taut, rather terrifying scene of religious judgement. The judgement is pronounced in God's name and is acted upon to a certain extent. The secular act of delivery to Pilate is set apart.
Part of the effect is to create a space in which Jesus can speak. ('Stridency' is a rather loaded word. He speaks calmly and prophetically. Maybe more notice should be taken of the inversion of the order of silence and speech in two trial scenes, whose overall movement is silence before clamor, speech in response to question, speech in response to question, silence before clamor. Two speeches, one Jewish and one Roman, are dramatically essential.
The fulfillment of the Jewish prophecy remains for the future, though it responds to the False Witnesses, who surely reflect Jewish remarks in those Roman pub discussions: 'You lot are descended from crackpots and traitors who wanted to destroy the Temple and then work a miracle'. It's important for Mark to respond with due sarcasm to this line of propaganda. That, rather than because he is interpolating, is why he points these ideas up with his usual inspired choppiness.
When Pilate, the man who moves among kings, arrives on the scene, he speaks at once, in spite of himself and of Jesus' battered condition recognising that Jesus is a king among the Jews. Jesus' reply 'That's what you say' is a prophecy fulfilled in short order and also a hint that 'I'm not just their King, I'm yours too'. Pilate keeps saying and saying that Jesus is King of the Jews, struggling not to admit the full truth. He says that the Jews say it, he causes his subordinates to say it. The working class Romans who now enter the picture begin saying it in coarse mockery but end up, or one among them does, by seeing the full truth via the Hellenistic royal salutation 'Son of God'.
It's a very subtle literary structure, you know.

#1 - Martin - 05/04/2013 - 11:30

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