Jesus sentenced to death by the Senate.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 March 2017

Mark 14.61-64 • Matthew 26.63-66 • Luke 22.67-71

I’m discussing the three synoptic gospels because if you read John, the way it’s worded makes it sorta look like Jesus didn’t even have a trial before the Judean Senate. First Jesus went to the former head priest Annas’s house, Jn 18.13, 19-23 then he went to the current head priest Caiaphas’s house, Jn 18.24, 28 then he went to Pilate’s headquarters Jn 18.28 with the death penalty already in mind. Now, it may have been that in between stops at Caiaphas’s house they went to trial, but John neither says nor suggests so. John was probably written to fill in some blanks in Jesus’s story, but every once in a while like this, it creates whole new blanks.

Anyway, back to the synoptics. My previous piece was about Jesus testifying about himself. Today it’s what Jesus was guilty of, and why they sentenced him to death.

Mark 14.61-64 KWL
61B Again, the head priest questioned him, telling him, “You’re Messiah, the ‘son of the Blessed’?”
62 Jesus said, “I am. You’ll see the Son of Man—
seating himself at the right of God’s power, coming with heaven’s clouds.”
63 Tearing his tunic, the head priest said, “Who still needs to have witnesses?
64 You heard the slander. How’s it look to you?”
Everyone sentenced Jesus guilty, and to be put to death.
Matthew 26.63-66 KWL
63B The head priest told him, “I put you under oath to the living God so you’d tell us:
Are you Messiah, the ‘son of God’?”
64 Jesus said, “As you say, but I tell you: From this moment you’ll see the Son of Man—
seating himself at the right of God’s power, coming with heaven’s clouds.”
65 Then the head priest ripped his robe, saying, “Jesus slandered God.”
Who still needs to have witnesses? Now look! You heard the slander. 66 What do you think?”
In reply they said, “Jesus is guilty and deserves death.”
Luke 22.67-71 KWL
67B They were saying, “If you’re Messiah, tell us.”
Jesus told them, “When I told you, you wouldn’t believe.
68 When I questioned you, you wouldn’t answer.
69 From now on, the Son of Man will be seating himself at the right of God’s power.”
70 Everyone said, “So you’re the ‘son of God’?” Jesus declared, “I’m as you say.”
71 They said, “Why do we still need to have witnesses?—
We heard it ourselves from Jesus’s lips.”

As Mark and Matthew make obvious, Caiaphas was absolutely sure the whole room just heard Jesus commit slander. Mk 14.64, Mt 26.65 Luke only indicates the stuff Jesus said was illegal in some way. Lk 22.71

Problem is, whenever I tell this story to Christians, the idea of what Jesus might’ve done wrong goes right over their heads. They figure, as we do, that Jesus never did anything wrong. Never sinned. 2Co 5.21, He 4.15, 1Pe 2.22, 1Jn 3.5 Therefore any verdict which convicted Jesus of sin was wrong. Which is absolutely right. But they think the wrong verdict wasn’t because the Judeans had misinterpreted the Law, or misunderstood who Jesus was: They think this was a kangaroo court, trying to get Jesus by hook or by crook—by legal trickery, or by breaking the Law themselves. And many a preacher claims exactly that: The priests broke all the Talmud’s rules about how courts were to be held… and never mind the fact the Talmud wouldn’t yet be written for centuries. Really, they’ll accept any evidence this was a sham trial.

But other times it’s because Christians believe the Judean Senate was the old dispensation, and Jesus is the new dispensation, so they were trying him by an out-of-date Law. As dispensationalists they believe Jesus broke the Law all the time. On Sabbath, fr’instance. But thanks to the new dispensation, these acts of willful defiance towards God’s Law no longer counted. Freedom in Christ, baby!—Jesus could’ve straight-up murdered and robbed people had he chose (although they’ve got various explanations why the Ten Commandments, despite being the very heart of the old covenant, still apply somehow). The Senate weren’t aware God was no longer saving them under the old rules anymore, and executed Jesus anyway.

Fact is, Jesus’s trial was perfectly legal under existing law. They got him on slander. Had it been any other person in the universe who said what Jesus did, it totally would be slander. Had the Senate believed Jesus is as he says, they’d have correctly set him free. They didn’t, so they didn’t. So it was a miscarriage of justice. Wrong verdict.

Slandering God.

The term we tend to use is “blasphemy,” which comes from the Greek vlasfimía/“injurious speech.” We mean by it any kind of harmful, insulting, slanderous speech towards God or sacred things. Sometimes sacred people: If you rip on one of God’s prophets, some Christians consider that blasphemy. Other Christians don’t wanna call it that, ’cause they’re uncomfortable using “blasphemy” on anyone or anything other than God, lest it slide into some kind of idolatry.

Now in the United States, we have freedom of speech. Not that there aren’t social consequences for saying stupid things, but unless it’s actual treason, our governments can’t jail or kill you for it. Hence Christians can get away with blaspheming other religions’ gods all we want. It’d get us killed in other countries—and even in this country, it could get us punched in the mouth if we’re jerks enough to go into their temples and denounce ’em. (Which is only fair. We’re not gonna win people to Christ that way anyway.) Likewise people of other religions, or none, can denounce Jesus or the LORD all they wish—and we don’t have to like it, but we can’t persecute ’em for it.

But it was only 225 years ago there was no such thing. If you publicly, even privately, denounced the LORD, expect to get pressed to death under heavy stones. Or hanged from the neck till dead. Or burned alive, choked to death, drowned, drawn and quartered, or otherwise officially executed in various nasty ways. In Moses’s day, stoned to death.

The first instance of blasphemy in the bible went like so.

Leviticus 24.10-23 KWL
10 An Israeli woman and Egyptian man’s son went out in the midst of Israel’s descendants.
The Israeli woman’s son fought with an Israeli in the camp.
11 The Israeli woman’s son slandered the LORD’s name, showing God contempt.
They brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Šelomít bat Divrí, tribe of Dan.
12 They set ben Šelomít under guard, till the LORD’s mouth clarified things for them.
13 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 14 “Bring the curser outside the camp.
All who heard: Place their hands on his head. All the community: Stone him.
15 Declare to Israel’s descendants, saying, ‘Man, man!
When he curses his God, he bears all his own sin!’
16 The slanderer of the LORD’s name dies, dies. All the community: Stone him.
Alien same as native, who slanders the LORD’s name, dies.
17 When a man strikes down a human soul, he dies, dies.
18 If he strikes down an an animal’s soul, he pays back soul for soul.
19 When a man gives injury to his neighbor: As he did, so do to him.
20 Break for break. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. What injury he gave a human, thus give him.
21 One who strikes down an animal pays it back. One who strikes down a human dies.
22 One ruling for everyone, alien and native alike. I’m your LORD God.”
23 Moses declared this to Israel’s descendants. They brought the curser outside the camp.
They stoned him with stone. Israel’s descendants did as the LORD commanded through Moses.

We don’t know precisely how Šelomít’s son “injured the LORD’s name.” It’s distinct from merely cursing God—which he also committed—and it’s clearly not an unintentional misrepresentation, but a deliberate act of injury on his part. Something where the Israelis recognized this guy had to suffer a consequence.

They just weren’t sure what the penalty was till the LORD spelled it out: He considered it on the same level as attempted murder. Šelomít’s son attempted to defame God in such a way as to ruin people’s relationships with him. Maybe it was heresy, like claiming God was no different nor better than some Egyptian pagan deity. Maybe it was atheism. Maybe self-righteous Israelis were treating him like crap for being half-Egyptian, and he decided to get back at ’em by slamming their LORD. Or for whatever reason Šelomít’s son was pissed at God and wanted others to abandon him too. We can speculate all day long, but in the end the LORD considered it damaging enough to warrant the death penalty.

Of course you know how we humans are: We’ll take this idea, and rather than reserve it only for the most extreme cases, only for unrepentant last resorts, we’ll inflict it on anybody who talks about God in a way we simply don’t care for. We’ll abuse it. ’Cause we can.

So did Jesus say anything which was injurious to his Father on that level? Something which’d destroy faith? Drive people away from worshiping or trusting or obeying the LORD?

Not even close. All he said was something the Judean senators didn’t really like, and since they were the ones who had the power to declare what slandered God and what didn’t, they gracelessly abused that power and declared Jesus a slanderer. Which meant death penalty.

Refusing to believe in the Son of Man.

To Sadducees like the head priest, Daniel’s vision of a Son of Man wasn’t bible.

Sadducees were cessationist: They believed God turned off the miracles after the Exodus. They believed the Prophets were clever guys and good poets, but no more inspired than William Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson. They believed angels were human messengers, not spirits. They believed when you died, you ceased to exist; there was no afterlife, no resurrection. They believed Messiah was a myth invented by super-patriots, and the Son of Man was a pipe dream invented by delusional visionaries. And not how God worked anyway.

The other main group in the Senate, the Pharisees, did believe in the Son of Man, but were pretty sure he wasn’t human. Even if they did ponder the idea Jesus was Messiah, most of ’em considered Messiah a different guy than the Son of Man altogether. Messiah was a great earthly king, but the Son of Man was a cosmic supernatural being, like an angel but more important. The Qumran sect, and some Pharisees, realized the two were somehow connected, if not the same guy. But they were the minority, and the Pharisees in the Senate certainly objected to the idea Jesus was either guy.

Like I said, had it been anybody other than Jesus who said such a thing, he would be guilty of slandering God. If Moses had claimed it; if King David, or John the baptist, or Jesus’s mom. What human can claim to be a great cosmic figure whom God puts in charge of his kingdom? David could claim to be a Messiah, a God-anointed king, same as Saul before him and Solomon after him; but hardly the Messiah, the king who was meant to rule forever. Other than Jesus, anyone who makes such a claim is either a nut or a beast.

So the Senate erred on the side of caution and figured Jesus was a pseudochrist, one of the many fake Messiahs who tried to start a revolution and wound up getting taken out by the Romans. Thing is, these pseudochrists kept testing Rome’s patience. One of these years (more accurately, about 36 years later), the Romans would have enough of the pseudochrists and raze Judea to the ground. Caiaphas knew this day was coming, which is why he advised doing away with Jesus. Jn 11.49-50 And in making a big show of how much the Senate totally didn’t approve of Jesus, lest the Romans get the wrong idea.

So the death of Jesus totally made sense from their short-sighted, limited point of view. And they’d made sure to kill him legally. True, they couldn’t stone him to death Moses-style, but the Romans could kill him for them. Just as good.

Jesus wasn’t naïve to the political necessities of his day. He was fully aware they weren’t ready for him to take his rightful place as their king. He knew they didn’t believe in him. He came to his own people, as John put it, and they didn’t accept him. Jn 1.11 Instead they killed him. Which had to be infinitely frustrating for him: He wanted to save them, wanted to gather them like a hen gathers chicks, Mt 23.37, Lk 13.34 and they couldn’t handle him.

So, he’ll have to wait till his second coming. Mt 23.39, Lk 13.35