Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review – Sherwin-White. Part Three

Trial of Jesus

There were two (2) trials: one before the Jewish authorities—the Sanhedrin, the other before the Roman Authority—Prefect Pontius Pilate.


Sherwin-White responds to two (2) claims:

1) Whether the Sanhedrin could take place at night; and
2) Whether the Sanhedrin had the power of capital punishment.

Some quick background, if the reader is not familiar. (Again, Sherwin-White presumes the reader is, and provides little insight.) I will use our traditional day/night, not the Jewish system of sundown to sundown.

Jesus has the last supper, Passover sedar, which lasts until midnight on Thursday night. Extremely early Friday morning (traditional “Good Friday) Jesus is praying. The famous “take this cup from me” and “sweat like blood” scene. Still wee hours of morning, Jesus is arrested, and taken before the Sanhedrin. He is then tried before the Sanhedrin, allegedly for blasphemy. Friday morning (sunrise) the Sanhedrin takes Jesus to Pilate for sentencing.

Both Matthew (Matt. 27:1) and Mark (Mark 15:1) indicate Jesus’ appearance before the council occurred in the Thursday night-Friday early morning period. Luke, however, has Jesus held by the guards until the morning and then commences the council. (Luke 22:66)

Sherwin-White states Matthew-Mark’s timing is more accurate, and Luke’s is “less probable.” (Sherwin-White’s words.) He bases this on two things:

1) He cites numerous anecdotes where Roman officials got up early in the morning to perform their work. If the Jewish authorities wanted to get Jesus to Pilate in time, they would have to complete their trial process before Pilate was “done for the day” if you will.

2) The fire. Luke 22:55 states a fire was kindled to keep warm. (Where Peter commences his three-part betrayal of Jesus.) If the trial was to not take place until the morning, reasons Sherwin-White, why have a fire?

Unfortunately, I found this analysis unsubstantial for a number of reasons:

a) Sherwin-White never addresses the issue about Luke copying Matthew and/or Mark. If Luke deliberately changed the timing of the council—where did he get his information from? If it is “less probable,” doesn’t this impact Luke’s credibility? Where else did Luke take more certain data and make it less likely?

b) Sherwin-White never addresses the fact this took place during Passover. Jerusalem would have been busting at the seams with people. This is a large Jewish holiday, involving preparation, (removing the leaven from the house) and a family ritualistic feast ending at midnight. Frankly, the timing (prayer, arrest, council and conviction from midnight to 6 a.m.) would be inconceivable within such a short time frame during this period.

Arguably the reason Pilate was in Jerusalem, rather than the capital of Caesarea, was heightened security concern. Pilate was not “working a regular day” and then finishing up for an early round of golf on Friday—Pilate was there to handle concerns like this, anticipated to occur.

c) The fire could easily be fatigue by Luke, or Luke copying Mark with little thought as to why it would be noteworthy to start a fire.

d) Sherwin-White never refers to the Tracate Sanhedrin that lays out explicit rules for trials, and condemning an individual. The Tracate Sanhedrin was violated numerous times and ways in the Gospel accounts, yet Sherwin-White never responds to it. More on this in a minute.

The second issue regarding the Sanhedrin was whether they had the power to commit capital punishment. Specifically John 18:31 indicates the Jews did not have the authority to kill as punishment.

Sherwin-White notes other provinces where only the Roman governor could execute the accused. He indicates this power was jealously guarded by Rome.

Now, Sherwin-White does recognize the story of Stephen (Acts 7) and James, the brother of Christ in Josephus. Both accounts regarding the council ordering death. Sherwin-White excuses both as anomalies for differing reasons. Stephen because it was more a lynching than an execution, and James because it was done explicitly when no governor was present—Judea was between Procurators.

Although I think those are reasonable explanations, one does wonder which it was—were Stephen and James exceptions or anecdotes? Was John wrong and Acts correct or Acts correct and John wrong? Further, what happens in one province does not necessarily prevail in another. The story indicates Jews had the ability to determine who would die or live within the Barabbas story. If Rome was willing to allow this “custom” (dealing with capital punishment) how can we be so certain it did not allow the Sanhedrin to have the right to capital punishment in violation of its religious laws, albeit not in Roman civil laws?

But most importantly, I was disappointed and would like to have questioned Sherwin-White about the Tracate Sanhedrin. This document gives specific outline regarding how to try different types of cases—specifically crimes involving death as a punishment. How to execute (hanging or stoning) and specifics about how to perform the execution.

It very clearly anticipates the Sanhedrin had the power to inflict capital punishment. Now, the document is dated to the later part of the Second Century. BUT, as I stated earlier, if Sherwin-White utilizes Second Century documents, to claim a basis in the first Century, couldn’t we do that as well with the Tracate Sanhedrin? Claim it was utilized earlier, but not codified until the Second Century?

Trial before Pilate

Sherwin-White was better here. The ground was more familiar for him.

Accusers were the priests, Pilate “investigated” the charges of Jesus being an instigator, as “King of the Judeans,” and without a response from Jesus, was forced to convict. Sherwin-White (as I stated in the earlier blog entry) notes accused where asked thrice as to their innocence and guilt. Sherwin-White relies upon Pliny the Younger (early Second Century) and presumes this was a continued practice from the First Century. However, Sherwin-White notes question put twice to Jesus in Matt. and Mark, once in Luke and thrice to accusers in Luke.

He makes no notation as to whether this is an exception to the “3 times” rule or a development of the “3 times” rule, so we are left puzzling to the significance.

Sherwin-White indicates there were three graduated levels of beating - fustes, flagella, verbera where fustes would mean a warning or threat, and Sherwin-White praises Luke for being historically accurate when Luke records Pilate offering fustes. (Luke 23:14-16)

Sherwin-White also discusses the curious side trip of Pilate sending Jesus to Herod, only recorded in Luke.

Under Roman law (as well as our own), “venue” is the determination where the legal proceedings must occur, given the parameters of the action. In America, this is more important in civil matters than criminal matters—we are all familiar with criminal actions taking place where the crime occurred. If you rob a bank in Florida, the trial will be in Florida, regardless if you are from Kansas, or Virginia or Iowa.

The Roman law recognized two (2) possible venues: forum delecti (where crime occurred) as compared to forum domicilii (where one lived). This charge—causing insurrection by claiming to be King of the Judeans, would be forum delecti --where the crime occurred.

Thus it is curious why Pilate would ever involve Herod Antipas. According to the accusers, Jesus claimed to be King of the Judeans, and was stirring up trouble throughout “all of Judea, beginning with Galilee.” (Luke 23:5). Luke then states, “And as soon as Pilate knew that Jesus belonged to Herod Antipas’ jurisdiction, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.” (Luke 23:7)

But wait a minute…according to Sherwin-White, this crime would be forum delecti--where the crime occurred. According to the accusers, Jesus claimed to be “King of the Judeans” and while Jesus may have started in Galilee, this insurrectionist action was taking place in Judea. The very obvious venue would be…Judea.

Herod Antipas was tetrarch over Galilee—a completely separate country. Why would Herod Antipas have jurisdiction over Jesus? The crime was in Judea, the venue for the crime is where it was committed…finding out Jesus was from a different country would make no difference.

Sherwin-White fails to adequately deal with this conflict. Why would Pilate not follow forum delecti? (Sherwin-White does mention Herod the Great had the unusual right to extradite [bring back] offenders who fled Herod’s jurisdiction, but here Herod Antipas was not requesting for extradition. Further, Herod the Great could ONLY extradite for crimes committed within Herod’s jurisdiction. Again, this was a crime alleged to occur in Judea. Even Sherwin-White recognizes Pilate’s authority over Galileans for such crimes. [Luke 13:2])

The reason I bring all this up, is that Sherwin-White concludes: “But Luke is remarkable in that his additional materials—the full formation of the charges before Pilate, the reference to Herod, and the proposed acquittal with admonition—are all technically correct.” (pg. 32)

I did not see how that followed, given the blatant violation of venue by even sending Jesus to Herod in the first place.

While interesting from a very broad aspect regarding legal actions within Jesus’ trial account, there were too many anomalies left unanswered for me to be satisfied with Sherwin-White’s account.


  1. Would the Sanhedrin work all night every time they had someone accused of a capital offense? Wouldn't it have been easier to just hold a prisoner until the next time the Roman official was available?

    Is James the only instance of the council imposing the death sentence in Josephus?

  2. DagoodS, thank you for this very interesting and informative book review.

  3. Vinny,

    1) Under the Tracate Sanhedrin, there would be no need—no rush—to work overnight. By mandate, the council had to return to their homes and think about the verdict, and not report until the next day.

    2) Also, the rules prevent duplicative witnesses. After two, there would be no need to continue to have witnesses. Therefore the trial would be much shorter.

    3) Sherwin-White notes prisons were normally NOT used for punishment; they were used to hold persons until their trials. Punishments (fines, death, etc.) was carried out rather quickly immediately after the sentence. Look at how long Paul was held on very similar charges. There was no “immediacy” or urgency in progressing his case.

    4) Jesus’ trial has always been puzzling. If it was a set-up, why worry about witnesses “lying.”—we would expect them to lie! If what Jesus said really was blasphemy—claiming to be equal to God—and Jesus did that as claimed by Christians, why do they need lying witnesses in the first place?

    If it was a sham trial, why worry about it following the niceties of the law? It is like Christians can’ make up their mind whether Jesus was betrayed by lying witness or truthful ones. Clever or incompetent Judges.

    None of the rush makes any sense. Unless, of course, Jesus was crucified as an instigator by the Romans on relatively short notice, and in order to assign culpability to the Jewish leaders, Mark had to “shove” this trial in, and only had a short time-frame to do so.

    I could find no other accounts recorded where the Sanhedrin executed on capital punishment in contemporary (Philo, Josephus) accounts. There are accounts in the Talmud, but this is much later.

  4. What gets to me is the leap from "Here is a reason why they might have wanted to hold the trial at night" to "It is probable that they did."

    Have you run across anything about Sherwin-White's personal religious beliefs? I frequently see it claimed that he wasn't a Christian, but I've never been sure whether that wasn't just apologetic claptrap.

  5. Vinny,

    No, I found nothing in the book stating his theological beliefs.