Jesus accused with false testimonies.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 March

Mark 14.55-59 • Matthew 26.59-61 • Luke 22.66 • John 2.18-22

All my life I’ve heard preachers claim Jesus’s trial wasn’t just irregular, but downright illegal. What basis do they have for saying so? Next to none.

It’s because they interpret history wrong. They point to rulings in the second-century Mishna and the fifth-century Talmud. They assume the first-century Jewish senate actually followed those rulings. That’d be entirely wrong. The Mishna consists of Pharisee rulings and traditions. The Talmud is a Pharisee commentary on the Mishna. Now, who ran the senate in Jesus’s day? The head priests. Who were Sadduccees. And the Sadducees believed Pharisee teachings were extrabiblical, and therefore irrelevant.

So when the Mishna declares trials shouldn’t take place at night (although Luke actually says it took place during daytime Lk 22.66), and declares there shouldn’t be same-day rulings, preachers nowadays declare, “Aha! This proves Jesus’s trial was illegal!” Just the opposite: It proves Sadducees did such things. The Pharisee rulings were their objections to what they considered Sadducee injustice.

Since Jesus’s trial convicted an innocent man, of course we’re gonna agree with the Pharisees’ rulings. But they’re from the wrong time, and the wrong people. They don’t apply, much as we’d like ’em to. The Sadducees followed their own procedure properly. Hey, procedure is no guarantee there won’t still be miscarriages of justice.

Well anyway. On to Jesus’s trial.

Luke 22.66 KWL
When it became day, the people’s elders gathered with the head priests and scribes.
They led Jesus into their senate.

In the temple structure on the western side, the Judean synédrion/“senate” (KJV “council,” CSB “Sanhedrin”) met in a stone hall arranged much like the Roman senate: Stone bleachers were arranged in a half-circle so they could all face the emperor’s throne—though here, there was a head priest instead.

For a trial, the Pharisees dictated two scribes should write everything down, though there’s no evidence the Sadducees did any such thing. Scribes and students sat on the floor. Plaintiffs and defendants stood. The Pharisees declared the defendant oughta go first, but in all the trials in Acts, it looks like the reverse happened. Ac 4.5-12, 5.27-32, etc. Either way Jesus didn’t care to say anything, so his accusers went first. And they committed perjury. Yeah, perjury was banned in the Ten Commandments. Dt 5.20 Well, perjurers still show up in court anyway.

Mark and Matthew relate that part of the trial.

Mark 14.55-59 KWL
55 The head priests and the whole senate questioned anti-Jesus witnesses, in order to execute him.
They were finding out nothing.
56 Many perjured themselves about Jesus, and the testimonies didn’t match.
57 Certain plaintiffs perjured themselves about Jesus, saying,
58 “We heard Jesus say this: ‘I’ll destroy this handmade shrine,
and within three days I’ll build another, non-handmade shrine.’ ”
59 (Their testimony didn’t match either.)
Matthew 26.59-61 KWL
59 The head priests and the whole senate questioned anti-Jesus perjurers, so they could execute him.
60 They found nothing, though many perjurers came.
Two finally came, 61 saying, “This Jesus said, ‘I’m able to destroy God’s shrine
and within three days rebuild it.’ ”

Now you might recall Jesus did say something like this. Wasn’t told correctly, though. We find that story in John.

John 2.18-22 KWL
18 So in reply, the Judeans told Jesus, “What sign are you showing us so you can do this?”
19 In reply Jesus told them, “Break down this shrine. In three days I’ll re-raise it.”
20 So the Judeans said, “This shrine took 46 years to build, and in three days you’ll re-raise it?”
21 Jesus was speaking about the shrine of his body.
22 So when Jesus was raised from the dead, his students remembered he said this.
They believed the scriptures, and the word Jesus said.

We know it’s all the same story, ’cause in John Jesus used the word naón/“shrine,” instead of the usual word yerón/“temple.” He wasn’t talking about knocking down the whole temple; nor even the literal temple, nor the shrine—the primary temple building. He meant if they broke him down—if they killed him—he’d rise from the dead within three days. Jn 2.21-22

The other gospels didn’t provide Jesus’s proper context. If we didn’t have John, we wouldn’t be sure whether Jesus truly said any such thing. Christians would forever debate it… ’cause it kinda sounds like a Jesus-saying. Destroy a shrine; in three days he’ll rebuild it; if by “shrine” Jesus meant himself (as John says he did) it kinda works. Although ton naón túton ton heiropoíhiton/“this handmade shrine” Mk 14.48 doesn’t apply to him so neatly, ’cause his pre-resurrection body wasn’t handmade either. But remember: That was a misquote.

Listening to perjurers.

Back to the preachers who claim Jesus’s trial was illegal. They like to point to the fact more than one psevdomartyría/“fake witness,” or perjurer, was permitted to testify in the trial. What, they wanna know, is up with that? Why weren’t these guys prosecuted for perjury? According to the Law, if you committed perjury and were caught, you were to receive the same sentence you were hoping to have inflicted on the defendant. Dt 19.19 If it was a capital crime, like the one Jesus was accused of, they should receive capital punishment. Try to get him killed; get killed themselves.

Thing is, it’s only the authors of the bible who called them perjurers. That’s because they knew it was false testimony. The senate, not so much. Maybe the people who found the witnesses knew they were frauds; maybe not. Lots of people had an axe to grind about Jesus, and plenty of ’em could have come forward with the claim, “I heard Jesus say [something incriminating]”—true or not.

What they needed for conviction was for two of these witnesses to have independent, matching testimonies. What happened, however, was out of all the witnesses they brought in, only two sorta matched: The guys who said they heard Jesus threaten to knock the shrine over. Nothing else could be corroborated. So, according to the Law, nothing else could be admitted as evidence. Dt 19.15 No matter how many witnesses they scraped together.

We don’t know how long Jesus’s trial was. We know it was still proí/“early” when they took him to Pilate, Jn 18.28 so still part of the morning watch, which lasted for the first three hours after sunrise. So, between 5:25 a.m. and 8:33 a.m. (I’m being way more precise than they.) Maybe Jesus didn’t have to stand through three full hours of false witnesses; maybe only the two. Even so: It’s no fun to stand there, silent, as person after person stands up and accuses you of things you neither said nor did.

And even though none of the testimonies were enough to get Jesus sentenced on their own, the fact many people were willing to stand up and denounce Jesus would still poison the mindset of the senators against him. That’s just human nature. If your mind wasn’t already made up, and steeled against such stuff, when we hear enough negativity, we start to get negative. Hear enough accusations, and we start to wonder whether there’s something to all their accusations—though Jesus couldn’t be convicted of any of this stuff, it still kinda looked to them like he was a bad hombre, and maybe they shouldn’t accept anything they found, no matter how small. Like some odd comment about knocking down the shrine.

Jesus, who knows how people’s minds work, Jn 2.24 didn’t need to be told this. He could watch the senate’s attitudes turn against him.

Plus it’s no fun to get verbally ripped apart, especially when you know they’re lying—but even if it’s all true. If you’ve ever experienced that sort of bullying, you know how frustrating it can be. It likely took a lot for Jesus to keep his mouth shut. Yet he did. Mk 14.61, Mt 26.63 He knew it wouldn’t make any difference; he knew the day would end badly.