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The Trial of Jesus Christ


Introduction

Unlike the wildly disparate birth narratives, or the confused resurrection narratives, the four gospels present a roughly similar story of Jesus' arrest and trial. All have Jesus arrested at night after the Last Supper. All have Jesus appearing before a Jewish council, and all have Jesus appearing before the Roman governor, Pilate. When we try to establish the exact sequence of events, however, we quickly run into a problem. The gospels each add their own details to the story. On occasion these details conflict with one another to such an extent that an exact sequence of events cannot be established.

The following tables list the sequence of events as recorded by each gospeller. A blank indicates that the gospel writer does not mention that event, or places it in a different sequence.

The Last Supper

Matthew Mark Luke John
Last Supper, first day of the feast of unleavened bread. (Matthew 26:17) Last Supper, first day of the feast of unleavened bread. (Mark 14:12) Last Supper, first day of the feast of unleavened bread. (Luke 22:7) Last Supper, the day before the Passover. (John 13:1)

The Gospels are unanimous in beginning the story of Jesus' trial with the Last Supper. The three synoptic Gospels place this event on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread, i.e. the first day of the Passover (Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12, Luke 22:7). Matthew, Mark and Luke agree that the Last Supper was a Passover meal (Matthew 26:19, Mark 14:16, Luke 22:15). John, however, does not state that the disciples celebrated the Passover with Jesus. Instead, he has the Last Supper taking place on the day before the Passover, thus making his chronology one day earlier than the other Gospels. (John 13:1, John 18:28)

The Prophecy of Peter's Denial

Matthew Mark Luke John
    Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times before the cock crows. (Luke 22:34) Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times before the cock crows. (John 13:38)
They leave for the Mount of Olives .(Matthew 26:30) They leave for the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:26) They leave for the Mount of Olives. (Luke 22:39) They leave the room. (John 14:31)
Jesus tells Peter he will deny him three times before the cock crows. (Matthew 26:34) Jesus tells Peter he will deny him three times before the cock crows twice. (Mark 14:30)    

Again, all four Gospels indicate that Jesus, in response to Peter's affirmation that he would never leave his master, foretold that Peter would deny him three times that very night (Matthew 26:34, Mark 14:30, .Luke 22:34, John 13:38). The time that this prophecy was given seems to differ among the four Gospels. Matthew, following Mark, places it after the Last Supper, on the way to the Garden. Luke and John both place it during supper, before Jesus and his disciples left for the Garden.

In addition, Mark adds one detail not found in the other Gospels - he indicates that Jesus foretold that the cock would crow twice during Peter's denials, a detail which is borne out in Mark's gospel, but not mentioned by the other three.

In the Garden

Matthew Mark Luke John
Jesus and the disciples arrive at Gethsemane. (Matthew 26:36) Jesus and his disciples arrive at Gethsemane. (Mark 14:32) Jesus and his disciples arrive at Gethsemane .(Luke 22:40) Jesus and his disciples arrive at the garden .(John 18:1)
Jesus prays, his disciples sleep. (Matthew 26:36-46) Jesus prays, his disciples sleep. (Mark 14:32-42) Jesus prays, his disciples sleep. (Mark 14:32-42) Jesus prays, his disciples sleep. (Mark 14:32-42)
Judas arrives with soldiers from the chief priests and elders .(Matthew 26:47) Judas arrives with soldiers from the chief priests and elders. (Mark 14:43) Judas arrives with soldiers. (Luke 22:47) Judas arrives with soldiers from the chief priests and elders. (John 18:3)
Judas kisses Jesus. (Matthew 26:49) Judas kisses Jesus. (Mark 14:45) Judas kisses Jesus. (Luke 22:47)  
Jesus arrested. (Matthew 26:50) Jesus arrested .(Mark 14:46)    
One of his disciples cuts off an ear of one of the high priest's servants. (Matthew 26:51) One of his disciples cuts off an ear of one of the high priest's servants. (Mark 14:47) One of his disciples cuts off an ear of one of the high priest's servants .(Luke 22:50) Peter cuts off Malchus' ear. (John 18:10)
    Jesus heals the ear. (Luke 22:51)  
  Incident with the young man. (Mark 14:51-52)    

The four Gospels are in close agreement on the events in the garden. Jesus goes off to pray by himself, and his weary disciples fall asleep. This scene is repeated, and then Judas arrives with a band of soldiers. Whether these soldiers were temple guards, a Roman guard, or simply a band of armed men is not made clear by the Gospels, although John does use words which could be taken to mean that Judas was accompanied by Roman soldiers.

After Judas points out Jesus, one of his disciples, revealed by John to be Peter, strikes out with his sword, and wounds one of the high priest's servants in the ear. Only Luke indicates that Jesus healed the man (called Malchus by John), which would make this the last recorded healing miracle by Jesus.

Jesus is then led away, his disciples having fled. Mark adds a mysterious incident concerning a young man who was following Jesus (Mark 14:51-52). This incident, not found in the other Gospels, has been the cause of much speculation. Some have argued that this young man may be the author of Mark's Gospel, but such a view cannot be substantiated from the text.

Jesus before Caiaphas

Matthew Mark Luke John
Jesus taken to Caiaphas. The scribes and elders were assembled. (Matthew 26:57) Jesus taken to Caiaphas. The scribes and elders were assembled. (Mark 14:53) Jesus taken to Caiaphas' palace. (Luke 22:54) Jesus taken to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas. (John 18:13)
Peter follows Jesus to the high priest's palace. (Matthew 26:58) Peter follows Jesus to the high priest's palace. (Mark 14:54) Peter follows Jesus to the high priest's palace .(Luke 22:54) Peter and another disciple follow Jesus to the high priest's palace. (John 18:15)
False witnesses claim that Jesus said he would destroy the Temple. Jesus silent. High priest asks Jesus if he is the Christ. Jesus answers in the affirmative. High priest tears his clothes, pronounces death sentence. Jesus beaten. (Matthew 26:59-68) False witnesses claim that Jesus said he would destroy the Temple. Jesus silent. High priest asks Jesus if he is the Christ. Jesus answers in the affirmative. High priest tears his clothes, pronounces death sentence. Jesus beaten. (Mark 14:55-65)    
Peter's first denial, accused by a certain damsel. (Matthew 26:69-70) Peter's first denial, accused by a maid. (Mark 14:66-68) Peter's first denial, accused by a maid .(Luke 22:56-57) Peter's first denial, accused by the maid who kept the door .(John 18:17)
      Annas sends Jesus to Caiaphas. (John 18:24)
  The cock crows. (Mark 14:68)    
Peter's second denial, accused by another maid .(Matthew 26:71-72) Peter's second denial, accused by another maid. (Mark 14:69-70) Peter's second denial, accused, possibly, by a man. (Luke 22:58) Peter's second denial, accused. by unnamed people. (John 18:25)
Peter's third denial, accused by unnamed people. (Matthew 26:73-74) Peter's third denial, accused by unnamed people. (Mark 14:70-71) Peter's third denial, accused by another man .(Luke 22:59-60) Peter's third denial, accused by a servant of the high priest. (John 18:26-27)
The cock crows. (Matthew 26:74) The cock crows again. (Mark 14:72) The cock crows. (Luke 22:60) The cock crows. (John 18:27)
    Jesus looks at Peter. (Luke 22:61)  
Peter leaves the palace and weeps. (Matthew 26:75) Peter weeps. (Mark 14:72) Peter leaves the palace and weeps. (Luke 22:62)  
    Jesus is beaten. In the morning, the council asks Jesus if he is the Christ. He answers in the affirmative. (Luke 22:63-71)  

All four Gospels have Jesus facing trial by the Jewish council, led by Caiaphas, the high priest. (Josephus confirms that Joseph Caiaphas was the high priest from 18 to 36 CE). The Gospels do differ a little as to the timing of the event, however.

Both Matthew and Mark state that Jesus was tried before the Jewish council, convened the same night he was arrested. (Matthew 26:57, Mark 14:53). Luke, however, merely states that Jesus was taken to the high priest's palace, and that he was not tried until the next morning (Luke 22:66). Note that Luke places Peter's three denials before Jesus' trial by the Jewish Council - the other Gospels all place Peter's oaths concurrent with Jesus' trial. This is confirmed by noting that the cock crowed, obviously, at daybreak, yet Luke states that Jesus met the council early in the day (Luke 22:66).

John agrees that Jesus was tried by Caiaphas at night. He does, however, insert another hearing before this one. This hearing was conducted by Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas (John 18:13). John refers to Annas as the high priest (John 18:19), which is technically incorrect, as Annas (called Ananus ben Seth by Josephus) was removed from office in 15 CE. However, John's statement should be understood in the light that Annas was the father of a dynasty of high priests, which included Joseph Caiaphas as his son-in-law. As such, he retained control over the high priesthood, even after he was deposed.

John seems to indicate that Peter's first denial took place while Jesus was being tried by Annas (John 18:17). He does, however, refer to Jesus being taken to Caiaphas in the past tense (John 18:24), which may indicate that John is recording the events here slightly out of sequence.

It has been noted that the details of the council meeting seem to conflict with the statements of later Rabbinic writers, who contended that the council could not meet on the Passover, nor could they pass a sentence of death the same day. However, we need not assume that Jesus was tried by a formal meeting of the Sanhedrin. It may simply have been an informal gathering, which would not have contravened the rules of the Council.

There is a minor discrepancy in the reporting of Peter's three accusers. The four Gospels are unanimous that his first accuser was a girl, probably a maid in the high priest's palace (Matthew 26:69-70, Mark 14:66-68, Luke 22:56-57, John 18:17). His second accuser is said to be another maid by Matthew and Mark (Matthew 26:71-72, Mark 14:69-70), while Luke seems to indicate that it was a man (Luke 22:58). John states that the second accusation was made by a group of people standing at the fire (John 18:25).

The third accusation, according to Matthew and Mark, was made by a group of people standing in the palace grounds (Matthew 26:73-74, Mark 14:70-71). Luke singles out one man as the speaker (Luke 22:59-60). John makes the third accuser a single man, a relative of the servant wounded by Peter in the Garden (John 18:26-27).

Another point of interest is that Matthew and Mark claim that Jesus was falsely accused to have spoken against the Temple (Matthew 26:60-61, Mark 14:57-58), while John records that Jesus did indeed say these words (John 2:19).

Jesus before Pilate

Matthew Mark Luke John
Jesus taken to Pilate in the morning. (Matthew 27:1-2) Jesus taken to Pilate in the morning. (Mark 15:1) Jesus taken to Pilate. (Luke 23:1) Jesus taken to Pilate .(John 18:28)
Judas returns the money to the priests and hangs himself. The money is used to buy the potter's field. (Matthew 27:3-10)      
Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews. Jesus replies in the affirmative. (Matthew 27:11) Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews. Jesus replies in the affirmative. (Mark 15:2) Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews. Jesus replies in the affirmative. (Luke 23:3) Pilate asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews. Jesus replies in the affirmative (John 18:33-37)
Jesus accused by the Jews. He does not answer. (Matthew 27:12-14) Jesus accused by the Jews. He does not answer. (Mark 15:3-5)    
    Pilate sends Jesus to Herod. (Luke 23:7)  
    Herod questions Jesus. He does not answer. (Luke 23:9)  
    Jesus dressed in a robe and mocked. (Luke 23:11)  
    Herod returns Jesus to Pilate. (Luke 23:11)  
Pilate offers Barabbas or Jesus. The Jews choose Barabbas. (Matthew 27:15-24) Pilate offers Barabbas or Jesus. The Jews choose Barabbas. (Mark 15:6-15) Pilate intends to release Jesus. The Jews ask for Barabbas instead. (Luke 23:13-25) Pilate offers Barabbas or Jesus. The Jews choose Barabbas. (John 18:39-40)
Pilate washes his hands. (Matthew 27:25)      
Jesus whipped, turned over to be crucified (Matthew 27:26) Jesus whipped, turned over to be crucified (Mark 15:15) Jesus turned over to be crucified .(Luke 23:25) Jesus whipped, dressed in a robe and a crown of thorns and mocked. After further interrogation, Pilate hands him over to be crucified. (John 19:1-16)

Again, all four Gospels agree that Jesus was taken to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, following his trial before the Jewish council. John states that this was done because the Jews had lost the right to capital punishment (John 18:31). This assertion is historically difficult to sustain, and seems to be contradicted by the Bible itself. For example, early in the book of Acts we read of the execution of Stephen at the hands of a Jewish council. If the Jewish council could sentence Stephen to death with apparent impunity, it is not easy to see why the Gospels record that Jesus had to be sentenced by a Roman official.

Luke adds another twist in the narrative - when Pilate learns that Jesus is a Galilean, he sends him to Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee (Luke 23:6-7). After questioning by Herod, Jesus is returned to Pilate, and the narrative picks up at the same point as the other Gospels (Luke 23:11).

From this point on, all four Gospels follow the same path, although John includes a more detailed description of Jesus' interrogation by Pilate. There are only two minor discrepancies worth noting.

First, Matthew, Mark and Luke state that Jesus was accused before Pilate by the Jews themselves (Matthew 27:12-14, Mark 15:3-5, Luke 23:1-2). John, on the other hand, states that the Jews could not go in to Pilate because of the Passover, and Pilate was forced to go back and forth between Jesus and the Council (John 18:28-29). Since the three synoptic Gospels have Jesus crucified the day after Passover, there was no need for the Jews to be concerned about ritual defilement.

The second point is that Matthew, Mark and John state that Pilate offers the Jews a choice between Jesus and Barabbas (Matthew 27:17, Mark 15:9-10, John 18:39-40), while Luke states that it was the Jews who first asked Pilate to take Jesus in exchange for Barabbas (Luke 23:16-18). Mark may contain the solution to this difficulty; in Mark's version, the Jews clamor for the release of Barabbas (Mark 15:6-8), at which point Pilate offers them the choice (Mark 15:9).

A final point of note is that Luke claims that it was Herod who dressed Jesus in a royal robe, and made a mockery of him (Luke 23:11), while John indicates that this was done by Pilate (John 19:2).

Matthew follows Mark very closely throughout the trial, even to the extent of occasionally using the very same words. He does add a few details, here and there, such as the paranthetical story of Judas' suicide (Matthew 27:3-10), a story which conflicts with the book of Acts (Acts 1:16-20).

Conclusion

The fact that all four Gospels follow the same broad outline indicates that they may be recording an historical event. However, it appears that the story of Jesus' trial had been through some changes in the years between his crucifixion and the writing of the Gospels, and thus we have four stories which differ in the details.


Contents Copyright 1997 Curt van den Heuvel

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