Not long after sunrise, the Council of elders of the people assembled, both chief priests and scribes, and they led him away to their council chamber. A spokesperson said, “Are you anointed? If you have been, for what purpose have you been anointed?” Tell us! But Jesus said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask you a question, you will not answer.” However, I will say this, ‘Behold, I suddenly saw one like a son of Adam coming from the heavenly clouds. He went up to the Ancient of Days, who said to him, from now on be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” Then the spokesman said, “Are you the son of god?” And he said to them, “Yes, I am.” Then they said, “What further need do we have of testimony? For we have heard it ourselves; from his own words.” Then the whole body of them got up and brought him before Pilate.
While this is not a literal translation of Luke 22:66-72, this version of the meeting is more likely a more realistic presentation of the actual interaction between the council and Jesus.
I will begin with a quote from the book “Jesus the Jewish Theologian by Brad H. Young, “It is highly doubtful if Jesus ever appeared before the Sanhedrin. Leaders like Gamaliel would never have allowed such unfair proceedings in a trial. The Greek word ‘sunedrion’ is the term used for council. Sometimes it has wrongly been understood to mean the prestigious high court of the Sanhedrin. During the trail of Jesus, it becomes clear that this was ‘their council,’ that is, the council of the Sadducean priests (Luke 22:66).” Brad H. Young put the spotlight the Sadducean priests and he also penned, “Jesus’ death was political rather than theological.” The Sadducean priests were closely aligned with the Roman Empire and through this alliance they controlled the Temple. Over the last couple of years the council of Sadduccean priests had been looking for ways to rid itself of two messianic movements that had merged into one, John of the Mikvah and the Jesus community. These two groups merged after the death of John and become one large messianic movement that was centered in spiritual renewal. The Sadduccean priests and their closest associates saw this new movement as a threat to their political and economic realities, because they knew the messianic convictions of the Jews were closely watched and strongly oppressed by the Roman Empire.
There is something here that the modern day reader might miss, but those governed by the Roman Empire would not. I am talking about the title Divi Filius, which translates as the “son of god. This is one of the titles of the Roman emperor. When a Roman or a subject of the Roman Empire heard the title “son of god” mentioned, they immediately thought you were referring to the emperor and no one else. We cannot forget the fact that Roman emperors were very jealous and defensive of their titles, and they would never share their titles with a non-Roman such as Jesus. When Jesus was asked, are you the son of god, the question was not theological but instead it was political. When the Roman trained ears of the council heard Jesus say “yes I am” there was only one translation for his response, and that was this “I am an emperor (a king).”
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus only referred to himself as the Son of God in the context of the third person. He never directly used the title “son of god.” He knew if he publically called himself “son of god” it would be an open invitation to be arrested by the Romans. This is why you never read in the Gospels Jesus addressing a public gathering like this, I am the son of god and I would like you to listen to what I have to say. Before his death, Jesus wanted to avoid conflicts with the Roman title Divi Filius.
At the end of this hearing the council has evidence that could be used to charge Jesus with creating a rival kingdom, something that the Romans would not tolerate. Since Jesus agreed with the council that he was the “son of god” he could be charged with sedition, over-throwing the Roman state and establishing a new kingdom with him as the emperor. This is the target of the council. It would not only bring the death penalty for Jesus, but it would spread suspicion upon his entire movement and open any of his followers to Roman persecution. Most likely, the council of the Sadducean priests was hoping to stand before the Roman authorities and use the response given by Jesus as a declaration for an insurrection. By doing so they were hoping to invoke a defensive response from them and therefore the council could use the self-preservation nature of the Roman government to do their dirty work.
There was one barrier to the plan that the Sadducean priests had created and it was called Pilate, the Roman Governor. As we read onward, we will see that he saw right through this dastardly plan and clearly saw the hypocrisy of this council. Although Pilate had a responsibility to monitor and repress all Jewish messianic individuals and their followers, Pilate knew Jesus represented a different and unusual kind of messiah. In all likelihood he was well aware of Jesus and his activities, but since Jesus avoided any attempt to be called emperor and instead focused on teaching, healing, and living in harmony with God and mankind he did not present a military threat against Rome. In this light, Pilate would also be aware of the respect and compassion that Jesus had shown towards Roman soldiers and other non-Jews in the region over the last few years; and this would have separated him from the Zealots, a known terrorist’s organization that sought to overthrow the Roman authority over the Hebrew people. So when the counsel of the Sadducean priests informed Pilate of the statement that Jesus made he did not believe that Jesus posed a real threat to the empire. However, Pilate was convinced that Jesus could be punished for disturbing the peace for acting inappropriately.
The council of the Sadducean priests knew what they would be facing when they confronted Pilate with Jesus. They knew if they wanted Jesus to die they would have to control the environment of the trail before Pilate and use their followers to convince Pilate to fulfill their desires. Through controlling the environment they would be able to convince Pilate that Jesus was a leader of terrorist movement and send a message to everyone who might threaten the religious establishment of the temple. Since Pilate was not going to be easily convinced that Jesus was a serious threat against the Roman state, they would have to ensure that the trail would happen in a place they could control. Therefore, in all likelihood the two times that Jesus appeared before Pilate probably occurred in the strong fortress of Antonia in the northwest corner of the temple complex. The majority of the group that gathered in that fortress was probably Sadducean priests and those of the general public who supported them. It is worth noting, that while Sadduceans and their followers were putting Jesus before Pilate, most people in Jerusalem were at home and focused on the celebration of the Passover.
In closing, how often have we lost jobs and other opportunities because we threaten someone’s comfort zones? I fear this happens all too often in our world that has grown to demand passive individuals who do not threaten anyone in anyway. In this story Jesus is clearly teaching us that we are to stand firm in matters of personal and institutional religious convictions. He is also making it very clear that we are to do this regardless of what the authorities or mob might do to us. After stating his case before his emperor and other authorities, Martin Luther looked right at them and gave them a look of defiance and said, “It is neither right nor safe for one to go against their conscience. Here I stand, God help me. Amen!” Archbishop Oscar Romero challenged the political authorities of El Salvador and they martyr him while he elevated the chalice during the Eucharistic Prayer. This is the very kind of spiritual strength that Christ wants us to have and live by; and for Christian clergy Martin Luther would add … “they must have teeth.”
Written by Dave Pflueger March 17, 2012 © copyrighted by Pflueger