Jesus’s pre-trial trial.

John 18.12-14, 19-24

In the synoptic gospels, right after Jesus’s arrest, the crowd took him to the head priest’s house. But John stated they actually took him to the former head priest’s house; that of Khánan bar Seth, whom historical records call Ananus, and whom the KJV calls Annas.

There, the Gospel of John relates, the courtyard was where Simon Peter denied Jesus, and inside the house there was also a bit of a pre-trial trial. Annas wanted to check out this reported Messiah for himself. After all, what if he actually was Messiah? What if he suddenly called down 12 legions of angels Mt 26.53 and took his kingdom by force? Annas may have already made up his mind about Jesus, but he wasn’t stupid; he still needed to meet the man.

John 18.12-14 KWL
12 So the 200 men, the general, and the Judean servants arrested Jesus and tied him up.
13 They brought Jesus to Annas first:
Annas was the father-in-law of Joseph Caiaphas, who was head priest that term.
14 Caiaphas had advised the Judeans, “Best that one person die for the people.” Jn 11.50

Backstory time: After Herod 1 had overthrown the king/head priest Antigonus Mattathias in 37BC, he took the title of king—but couldn’t take the title of head priest, ’cause he was Idumean. Only descendants of Aaron could be head priest, y’know. Lv 6.22 But Herod claimed the right to appoint the head priest, and did. In fact he appointed a bunch of head priests; he kept firing them if they didn’t do as he wished.

Annas became the 11th appointed head priest (the ninth guy to hold the job) since Herod became king. He was appointed by the Syrian legate Publius Sulpicius Quirinius in the year 6, and held the office till the year 15. Commentators aren’t always aware of this, and assume Annas was the hereditary head priest. Then they express amazement that Annas “managed to get” four sons and a son-in-law appointed head priest after him: Eleazar (16-17), Caiaphas (18–36), Jonathan (36–37, 44), Theophilus (37–41), Matthias (43), and Annas (63). Plus his grandson Mattathias (65–66).

It sounds impressive that so many of Annas’s family members succeeded him… but remember, head priests could only be descendants of Aaron. The Romans couldn’t just appoint anyone to the job, or the Jews wouldn’t consider ’em legit. Hence all the sons of Annas in the job… and for that matter, five sons of Boethus, another descendant of Aaron.

Still, both Luke and John referred to both Annas and Caiaphas as head priests. Lk 3.2, Jn 18.19, 24 Whether that’s because Judeans still thought of Annas that way, or whether he got to keep the title much as our presidents do, he was still an influential Judean. And his house was a handy place to stash Jesus till Caiaphas could gather the Judean senate for trial.

Does Jesus have a secret agenda?

In the other gospels, Jesus largely stood there and kept his mouth shut while his accusers made a ruckus. In John, he was pretty talky.

John 18.19-21 KWL
19 So the head priest Annas asked Jesus about his students and teaching.
20 Jesus answered him, “I boldly spoke to the world.
I always taught in synagogue and in temple, where every Judean gathered.
I said nothing in private, 21 so why do you ask me?
Ask the listeners whom I spoke to. Look, they know what I said.”

True, in John Jesus hadn’t taught anything in private, or anything he didn’t care to repeat publicly. But that’s not true in the other gospels. He didn’t care to interpret his parables publicly. Mk 4.11, 34 He ordered more than one person he’d cured to keep their mouths shut. Mk 1.43-44 When Simon Peter figured out Jesus was Messiah, Jesus ordered his students to not say anything about it. Mt 16.20 He did have private teachings, and if we compare this statement to the events of the other gospels, it looks like Jesus didn’t tell the truth.

But since Jesus doesn’t lie, that can’t be what happened here.

We have to remember what Jesus was being accused of—and therefore what he was being questioned about, and the context of his answer. The Judeans believed he wasn’t Messiah, but pretending to be. A phony claimant who’d lead Judea astray—a pseudomessiah. (Some Christians use “antichrist” to mean pseudomessiah, but properly an antichrist is against Christ, not a fake Christ.) After the Romans took over, various pseudomessiahs kept cropping up, leading rebellions… and getting crushed, and getting a lot of Judeans killed with them.

In the absence of proper kings of Judea, that left the head priests as the top guy in Judea, more or less. They ran the temple, ran the senate, ran Jerusalem. Not the governors Rome sent them; those guys were only there to collect taxes and crush rebellions. So the head priests worried about rebellions. They worried Jesus might lead yet another rebellion. They also knew it was only a matter of time before the Romans had enough, sent in the troops, and flattened Jerusalem. (The Romans had done it to other cites before, y’know.) Hence the senators fretted, “If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.” Jn 11.48 KJV As, it turns out, the Romans finally did in the year 70.

Don’t get the wrong idea; the head priests did this just as much (if not more) out of self-interest as national interest. Some of ’em actually did believe they were doing God’s work. But as Sadducees, they largely believed God stopped acting back in bible times, didn’t believe any of the books past Deuteronomy, and didn’t believe in angels either. So they neither knew the scriptures nor God’s power, as Jesus pointed out Mk 12.24 —though he didn’t say they didn’t know God. They barely knew God. It’s why they couldn’t recognize his Son.

Annas’s questions were very likely about Jesus leading another rebellion. Which, Jesus wanted to make clear, was not at all what he taught. Never taught any such thing. He wasn’t there to overthrow the Roman Empire with swords and soldiers. He was there to overthrow it with grace and love. That’s what he taught, and had taught it so plainly it alienated those who prefer swords and soldiers. Heck, he’d taught it while they were arresting him! Mt 26.52

In these teachings, the ones in question, everybody could confirm it’s precisely what Jesus taught. He didn’t have some secret revolutionary agenda which he only discussed in dark places. He boldly, openly proclaimed God’s kingdom—and less boldly, less openly, let slip he happened to be its Messiah/king. But everything he did wasn’t gonna bring down the Romans upon Judea. On the contrary: Rejecting Jesus as Messiah simply opened a bunch of spaces for various new pseudomessiahs to rise up and run wild. And that was gonna trigger the Jewish War in less than 40 years.

As if Annas cared to hear it.

Jesus’s reply suggests a level of frustration on his part. Closed-mindedness always annoys him. Mk 3.5, Jn 8.43-45 Likely he’d given Annas straight answers—“Yes, I taught that. No, I taught no such thing”—yet Annas stubbornly persisted otherwise. If you recall elsewhere in John, when people wouldn’t believe Jesus, he pointed to other things, like John the baptist, Jn 5.33 like the miracles he performed, Jn 5.36, 10.25 like the Father himself. Jn 5.37, 8.18 Here, he was doing that again: “You don’t believe me? Ask anybody. I said all this stuff in public.”

Still didn’t believe him though. The priests already had their minds made up: Jesus was a pseudomessiah, and they needed to be rid of him. That’s why Annas’s underlings had no qualms about hitting him: He’s never gonna be exalted to a position where his name’s above every other name, and every knee in the cosmos bows to him. Ain’t gonna be no repercussions of giving him a slap.

John 18.22-24 KWL
22 Once he said these things, one of the bystanding underlings gave Jesus a slap,
saying, “You answer the head priest this way?”
23 Jesus answered him, “If I speak evil, testify about the evil. If I speak good, why rough me up?”
24 So Annas sent Jesus, still tied up, to the head priest Caiaphas.

It’s why Christians tend to call Jesus’s trial a show trial, kangaroo court, mockery, farce, hypocrisy, rigged: If the judges are already decided about the verdict before they ever hear testimony, what’s the point of the trial? They were just going through the motions to make everything appear proper. Annas’s behavior exposes what was really going on: Jesus was already judged, and doomed.

If Jesus had any doubts about this, Annas’s pre-trial interview solidified this for him. No wonder he didn’t bother to speak up when he later stood before the senate: No point. He’d just suffer in silence, and await his inevitable death sentence.