The palace of the high priest, Joseph Caiphas, was surrounded by soldiers with lances and had lights the whole night. They had Jesus detained in the neighboring palace of old Annas, as they awaited a swift decision on his case. Caiaphas’ servants were all over the barrio of Zion, informing the 70 members of the Highest Tribunal: a special session was to take place that dawn of Friday….
Tano: Master Joseph!… Master Joseph!
Joseph of Arimathea: Who is it…?
Tano: This is Tano, the servant of the High Priest.
Joseph: What the hell do you want at this wee hour?
Tano: The illustrious Caiphas wants you to go to his palace right away. The Sanhedrin is having an emergency meeting.
Joseph: About what, may I ask?
Tano: I guess it has something to do with the Galilean, Jesus, who’s making a lot of noise. They arrested him and will judge him.
Joseph: At this time?… They can’t pass judgment at night. That’s illegal.
Tano: I dunno about that, master Joseph… I was just instructed to tell you. Goodbye!
Joseph of Arimathea, one of the 70 members of the Highest Tribunal, hurriedly dressed up and headed for the palace of the High Priest. In spite of the time, the magistrates met in the conference room: a spacious room whose walls were embroidered with the best cedar from Lebanon. On woolen cloths were engraved the words of the sacred Law of Moses. On the floor of green marble were benches in the form of a horseshoe, where the great men of Israel would be seated: the elders, the heads of the wealthiest and aristocratic families of the capital; the Priests with tiaras on their heads; the Scribes and doctors of the Law, with their old parchment, whose fingers were stained with ink; the Saducees who were attired in Roman style; the Pharisees, with their inquiring eyes….
Joseph of A.: Where’s Caiphas, Nicodemus?
Nicodemus: I don’t know, Joseph…! He’s probably signing the death sentence in the house of his father-in-law, Annas… He’s losing no time, do you understand?
Joseph of A.: All I know is that all this is illegal. You cannot pass judgment on anyone at night.
Nicodemus: What do you think, Joseph? Can we do something?
Joseph of A.: What can we do, Nicodemus. They comprise the majority.
Three huge lamps hanging from the ceiling in the form of a ring, illuminated the hall… Finally, two servants opened the doors at the end of the hall and Joseph Caiphas, the High Priest for that year entered. He came to the meeting with all the sacred ornaments that the Roman governor had been keeping in the Antonia Tower and which he returned only during the holidays: the pure woolen tunic without seams; the pectoral (breastplate) with twelve precious stones and a white tiara, with a golden plate where was written: “Consecrated to Yahweh.” The members of the Sanhedrin rose to greet him with profound reverence… Caiphas, with raised hands, blessed them, crossed the hall and headed for the presidential seat…
Caiphas: There are more than twenty-four of us here. The trial may now begin.
The assigned scribe presented the case…
Scribe: Illustrious Tribunal, your Excellencies. We are gathered here to judge the doctrine and the activities of an Israelite whose name is Jesus, son of a certain Joseph and a woman named Mary, a native of Nazareth, in the province of Galilea. Profession and educational training unknown. This person has been arrested by the chief guard of this Temple, with orders to lock him up, as authorized by the members of the Permanent Council of the Sanhedrin. The gravity of the accusations against the prisoner has compelled us to call a special meeting at the request of our High Priest, his excellency, Joseph Caiphas. Bring in the accused!
Two guards brought him in. With his hands tied behind his back and his hair dishevelled, Jesus walked up to the center of the hall… His face was swollen from the beating he received in the house of Annas. His beard was drenched with spittle…
Scribe: This is the accused. The accuser may have the floor.
A doctor of the Law, who was fat and with bulging eyes, stood up from the bench and went to Jesus…
Accuser: Distinguished judges of the Highest Tribunal: this man before you is one of the most dangerous individuals we have come across in many years. This man has repeatedly made a mockery of the most sacred institutions, the pillars of our nation: the Law of Moses and our ancestors’ traditions. He has not only rebelled against the civil but also against the religious authorities, inciting the simple folks to follow his perverse example. As a proof of this, I beg the entrance of witnesses who have come freely of their own free will, to give testimony against the accused…
Scribe: Bring in the first witness!
A tall, young man, with a pockmarked face appeared in the hall…
Scribe: You must remember that you have to tell only the truth. Or else, the blood of the innocent shall flow upon your head.
Accuser: What is your name?
Accuser: Were you at the Temple’s esplanade that Sunday this rebel came, mounted on a donkey, together with a shouting mob?
Accuser: Did you hear what he said?
Accuser: What did he say?
Tano: Well, that the house of God is like a cave full of bandits and that the priests are making business out of religion… and that if Moses were alive, you would all receive a good beating from him….
Accuser: Oh yeah?… What else did the accused say?
Tano: Well, he also said that all of you are a bunch of hypocrites, sons of the serpent, sepulchers painted with lime, fake, and Satan’s traffickers…
Caiphas: Dammit, that’s enough. I don’t think there’s a need to repeat all the impertinent things that the charlatan may have said.
Scribe: Pardon me, your excellency. Ehem… the next witness please!
And one by one, the witnesses gave their statements….
Old Woman: …He said this, yes, he did, I heard him say it. He said he wanted to bring down the Temple by stoning it.
A Man: No, magistrate. Jesus said that nothing will be left of the Temple, as its very foundations will be destroyed…
Accuser: Excuse me. Did the accused say: “that it was going to be destroyed” or “that he was going to destroy”….? Please clarify well this point.
Man: Well, the truth is…. I don’t remember anymore.
Another Man: He’s a witch! A sorcerer!… He cures people through the power of Beelzebub!… He said he would climb the Temple’s pinnacle and from there throw himself down without even having a scratch, because he has an agreement with the devil!
A Woman: This bearded man and his band of outlaws have committed many atrocities: whenever they come to a certain town, they rob the peasants of their harvest, rape the women, and armed to the teeth, kill decent people just like that….
An Old Man: This man is dangerous. I know him! He’s got venom in his mouth like a serpent. He stirs up discord between the poor and the rich, talks of liberation, saying that the earth is for everyone, that the prisoners should be set free in the year of grace, that better salaries should be given, that no one is a slave to anyone, that the titles of ownership should be torn up, that taxes should not be paid, that all masters be damned and that the masters should be down and the laborers should be up… that he wants to change everything… do you understand? Turn the omelet over, that’s basically his message.
Another Pharisee: He does not fast nor respect the Sabbath. He is never seen paying tithes to the priests. He is seldom or never seen praying in the Temple. He criticizes the clergy, while he is a mere lay person. He speaks of the Holy Scriptures without having studied them nor authorized to teach. What else can I say? He eats with the Publicans (tax collectors) and deals with whores.
A Priest: That is not the worst part of it, your excellencies! This rascal allows himself to be called the “Messiah” by the people. Do you hear that: “Messiah of Israel” and also “Son of David.”
Accuser: The accuser said that?
Priest: Yes, he did! If you are doubting my testimony, why don’t you ask him, yourself.
Caiphas: We should have started from there and saved a lot of nonsense!
The high priest stood up suddenly. Then, he raised his hands, asking for silence…
Caiphas: Illustrious members of the Tribunal, we have gathered sufficient evidence about the crazy ideas and the worst actuations of this rebel. On the other hand, we can no longer delay, given the urgency of the situation. Allow me to personally finish with the interrogation…
Caiphas fixed his owl-like eyes on Jesus who remained standing at the center of the room…
Caiphas: Nazarene, you have many accusations against you… What can you say now?… Are you guilty?… Or do you plead innocent?… What’s the matter with you? Why are you mum about the charges?… There’s just one question I’d like to ask, distinguished members of the Tribunal. One of the witnesses spoke of the Messiah and this criminal allowed the people to call him such…. This is most interesting, isn’t it, gentlemen?… Say something, Nazarene: Are you the Messiah, the Liberator of our people?
But Jesus remained quiet, without lifting his eyes from the floor…
Caiphas: I, the high priest of Israel, am talking to you. I’m the voice of God on earth! Respond!… Who do you think you are? The Messiah?
Jesus slowly raised his head. With his dishevelled hair and face full of bruises, and swollen lips from blows inflicted on him, he managed to smile with sarcasm…
Jesus: Why do you ask me?… If I say yes, you won’t believe me. If I say no, you won’t release me. So…?
Caiaphas’ callous face was trembling with rage. His right hand touched the crown in front of which was engraved in golden letters, the holy name of God, and whose name only the high priest could utter… He spoke with the authority of his office…
Caiphas: I’m putting Yahweh as my witness.
As he mentioned the name of God, the whole body bowed their heads and closed their eyes…
Caiphas: I ask you, in the name of the Most Holy, to declare that you are the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God.
There was a profound silence. The elders, the priests, the teachers of the Law, the pharisees and the saducees, including the palace guards all had their gaze fixed on Jesus’ lips….
Jesus: You have said it. I am the Messiah. Yahweh is my witness too, and knows I’m not lying.
Caiphas, red with fury, grasped his throat, as if he were grasping for breath…
Caiphas: That’s blasphemy!
He shook his tunic from top to bottom… All the magistrates sprang from their seats as if they were pushed by a spring. There was a groan, echoing the words of the high priest…
All: Blasphemy! Blasphemy!
And one after the other, they also shook their tunic, affirming the accusation of Caiphas…
Caiphas: What further do we need of witnesses? You have heard him, illustrious members of the Tribunal! What is your verdict for this man?
All: Death for him! Death for him!
The Sanhedrinites screamed with their clenched fists raised… Caiphas, looking satisfied, asked for silence…
Caiphas: Illustrious gentlemen, the Law of Moses very clearly states: “Take the blasphemous out of the city and let the people stone him to death.”
A Priest: What else are we waiting for, your excellency? This Galilean must be stoned right away!
All: Yes, yes, to Gehenna he goes!
It was the old priest, Annas, who stood up to pacifiy the ma¬gistrates…
Annas: My dear colleagues… please, let us not lose our cool, which should be the primary virtue of a judge. Yes, my son-in-law is right. According to the Law, this man deserves to be stoned. But if the people suspect us, then they will make trouble. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to deliver him to Governor Pilate and let Rome be the judge?
Priest: But… if the governor does not condemn him?
Annas: Don’t worry, my colleague. Shrewdness is the next important virtue of a good judge…
Jesus was pushed and kicked out of the Tribunal. The Sanhed¬rinites spat on him as he passed by. The others took off their sandals and hit him on the face… The high priest issued an order for the 400 synagogues of Jerusalem to read the notice: “Jesus of Nazareth, who was tried by the Sanhedrin, has been expelled from our faith: shut your doors to this blasphemer.” It was 6:00 o’clock in the morning. Jerusalem woke up, drenched by incessant rains of the first hours of dawn. The opaque light of dawn presaged a gloomy day.
During the Greek domination, about two hundred years before Christ, the Sanhedrin was finally constituted in Jerusalem. It had originally started a couple of centuries before that. During evangelical times, under Roman domination, the Sanhedrin was the first political and religious representation of the country before Governor Pilate. It was in the south, in Judea, where this Great Council had major influence. The Sanhedrin was also the supreme court of justice and the highest court where municipal cases of Jerusalem were resolved. It also functioned as a decision-making body in financial and economic matters within the national level.
The Sanhedrin was composed of 70 members, aside from the High Priest who was the presiding official. In Jesus’ time, there were three types of Sanhedrinites: the priests, the scribes, the elders. In the priestly group were those who performed the functions of the high priest and the most prominent members of the four great families of Jerusalem. They constituted something like a Permanent Commission that decided on all ordinary cases. The group of scribes was composed of theologians and important jurists from the group of pharisees, a lay association. The elders were the heads of the wealthiest and most influential families of Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin therefore, was the organism that gathered the most powerful people of various orientations in the capital – religious, political, ideological, economic.
The usual venue for their meetings was in the southwestern part of the Temple, in the luxurious and solemn “hall of cut stones.” Since all buildings were closed during the night, Jesus was brought to the palace of Caiphas, where there were special rooms for urgent sessions. Even during Roman domination, the Sanhedrin was able to preserve its right to pass the death sentence, although the penalty of death had to be ratified by the Roman powers. This authority of the Sanhedrin to mete the death sentence was limited to “religious” matters only. Jesus was accused of various charges – being “possessed by the devil,” healing through diabolic powers, blasphemy against God, rebelling against the Law and the religious authorities, which, according to the laws of the Sanhedrin, were punishable by death by stoning. The “false prophets,” according to Jewish laws, ought to die by strangulation.
Joseph “of Arimathea” was born in a city of Judea bearing that name, a Greek form of the Hebrew “Rama.” The writings of the period indicate that he was a rich landowner who had recently bought lands on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He belonged to the group of “elders” of the Sanhedrin. In the meeting of that night, and together with Nicodemus, magistrate from the group of the Pharisees, he supported, with not much success, the idea that the trial be conducted in a just and legal manner.
The trial of Jesus was pure farce. The unholy hour during which it was held, nor the day (in the solemnity of the Passover), nor the trial in urgency, could offer a valid, juridical excuse. Even before it started, the sentence had already been given. But the authorities wished to clothe it with all legality to justify it before the people and the few who sympathized with Jesus, in whom they could see a true prophet and a leader beloved by the people.
After the testimonies by false witnesses who were brought in by the Sanhedrin, in their desire to feign legality over the whole farce, Jesus would finally be accused by the Great Council of having committed blasphemy. In Israel, blasphemy was a grave offense, which was not reduced to uttering obscene things against God, the way we understand it nowadays. Blasphemy consisted of despising God and his representatives, usurping divine rights, dealing with sinners considered to be cursed by God… The overly scrupulous Pharisees even considered as blasphemous the mere utterance of the name of God: Yahweh.
The act of blasphemy of which Jesus was accused, was that of acknowledging himself to be the Son of God. But this affirmation must not be taken as if Jesus were revealing a dogma of himself. It has nothing to do with a dogmatic expression or process as we understand at present, the phrase “Son of God” (second person of the divine nature, hypostatic union, etc.). It deals with a Messianic affirmation, since the “Son of God” was then a frequent title to both designate someone close to the will of God and also one of those names used to refer to the Messiah.
Before the supreme tribunal of his country, Jesus acknowledged himself to be the Messiah, God’s messenger, harbinger of the good and definitive news for men and women of his country. But in the eyes of the tribunal composed of men corrupted by money and power, it was blasphemous for a lay person to consider himself the Liberator of Israel. The death penalty according to the law of the Sanhedrin, for the same act of blasphemy, was equivalent to stoning: death by stoning outside the wall of the city.
To excommunicate any Israelite, temporarily or ultimately banning him from the synagogue (a place for religious worship of the community) – that was the so-called “synagogal anathema.”
In Jesus’ time, the religious authorities had taken for themselves the “power” (curse of the synagogue). The excommunicated man or woman could not enter the synagogue nor pray with the community. On two occasions the gospel of John gives recognition to the sympathizers of Jesus who were threatend with this kind of punishment (Jn 9:22 and 12:42). Jesus himself warned his friends that they might be taken as heretics, that they might be excommunicated and even killed, using God as their own justification (Jn 16:2).
(Mt 26:57-68; Mk 14:53-65; Lk 22:66-71)