Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 2, scene 1 - #16. Sanhedrin Proceedings, Part One: The Gathered Authorities, Witnesses, and the Claim that Jesus Would Destroy the Sanctuary, pp 429-460

(detailed summary)

Sanhedrin Proceedings, Part One: The Gathered Authorities, Witnesses, and the Claim that Jesus Would Destroy the Sanctuary
(Mk 14: 55-59; Mt 26: 59-61; Lk 22: 66)


This session of the Sanhedrin at night, on the eve of Jesus' death, comes to us only from Mark, copied almost as it is by Matthew. For John, this scene took place during the day a few weeks earlier, while for Luke it takes place in the early morning. In Mark, Jesus is already condemned by the high clergy and scribes, and it is simply a matter of finding a charge against him. And it is believed that the motive for the charge was found in the fact that Jesus had announced the destruction of the sanctuary and its replacement by another. Let us not think that the Sanhedrin was composed only of evil people; there were as many aristocrats jealous of their privileges and fanatics as there were sincere and devout people who regarded it as their duty to eliminate a person like Jesus.

The whole discussion in Mark revolved around this sentence which Jesus would have said: "I will destroy this sanctuary made by hand, and within three days another not made by hand I will build". And according to Mark, these are false testimonies. Note that the expression "made/not made with hands" is typically Greek and is a creation of the Christian community, and cannot come from Jesus. But would Jesus have predicted and wanted the destruction of the shrine, and the reconstruction of another? The answer is probably yes. It is hard to understand that the first Christians would have invented this fact in the 50s or 60s when the temple was still standing. Moreover, the temple being the most important and prestigious construction in Jerusalem, the one who announced the reign of God could hardly have avoided taking a stand on this holy place. And through the Gospels like Mark and even Luke, we can see the passage in Jesus from a desire for reform (see the scene of the vendors driven out of the temple) to the announcement of its destruction, when the holy place appears irreformable.

But then, why does Mark present these words of Jesus as the object of a false testimony? The evangelist targets two audiences. First, there are the unbelieving Jews, represented by those who mock Jesus on the cross, who falsely claim that Jesus will destroy the physical shrine and replace it with another physical shrine, when in fact the truth is only that the shrine's veil will be torn (i.e. God no longer dwells there) and the new shrine taking the form of the centurion confessing his faith. Mark also targets those in the Christian audience who are still waiting for the construction of a new physical temple and imagine that the reign of God will come automatically without taking the same path of suffering from their master.

Let us conclude with the question: Did Jesus' attitude, seen as hostile to the temple, play a role in his condemnation to death? The answer must be yes. The high clergy could not accept that an individual, already suspect by his attitude towards wealth and his claim to depend solely on God, should attack such a fundamental socio-economic and political institution as the temple, the jewel of the city of Jerusalem.

  1. Translation
  2. Comment
    1. Opening of the Sanhedrin Meeting and the Witnesses
    2. Destruction of the Sanctuary: Matthew, Acts, and John
      1. Matthew
      2. Luke
      3. John
    3. The Marcan Form of the Sanctuary Statement
    4. The Falsity of the Sanctuary Testimony
    5. The Sanctuary Statement, True and False in Various Ways
  3. Analysis

  1. Translation

    Words of Mark shared by the other evangelists are underlined. Words in green indicate what is common to Luke's Gospels and his Acts, in red words of John shared by other evangelists. Square brackets [] indicate parallels found in another sequence in the New Testament.

    Mark 14Matthew 26Luke 22[Acts 6][John 11]
    55 But the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were seeking testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, and they were not finding (any). 59 But the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were seeking false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death. 60 And they did not find (any),66 And as it became day, there was brought together the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes; and they led him away to their Sanhedrin.[12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes; and having come upon him (Stephen), they snatched him and led him away to the Sanhedrin.[11:47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together a Sanhedrin; and they were saying,
    56 For many were giving false testimony against him, and the testimonies were not consistent.Although many false testifiers came forward.
    57 And some, having stood up, were giving false testimony against him, saying But at last two, having come forward, 61 said, 13 And they set up false testifiers who said, "This man does not cease speaking words against this holy place and the Law; "What are we doing? Because this man does many signs, 48 if we permit him (to go on) thus, all will believe in him. And the Romans will come and take from us both the place and the nation."]
    58 that "We have heard him saying that ’I will destroy this sanctuary made by hand, and within three days another not made by hand I will build’"."This person stated, ’I am able to destroy the sanctuary of God, and within three days I will build (it).’" 14 for we have heard him saying that this Jesus the Nazorean will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses gave over to us."][2:19 Jesus answered them (the Jews), « Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will raise it up."]
    59 And even so their testimony was not consistent.

  2. Comment

    1. Opening of the Sanhedrin Meeting and the Witnesses

      • In Mark/Matthew, the scene takes place at night upstairs or inside the high priest's palace, while Peter is downstairs or outside in the courtyard denying Jesus. When Luke begins this scene, Peter's denial and the mocking of the guards has already taken place, and they then move on to the Sanhedrin, probably knowing that this council was meeting in a particular place different from that of the high priest.

      • The high priests and the whole Sanhedrin" are running this session according to Mark; this is his way of summing up the group of high priests, elders and scribes named earlier (14:53). Luke brings a different vocabulary when he speaks of the presbyterion (college of elders), which according to him includes high priests and scribes.

      • The whole session in Mark is centered on the question of the testimony, especially on Jesus' statement about the destruction of the temple. Such a scene is absent from Luke's Gospel, who instead inserted it into the trial of Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 6:13), where we also find the expression "man-made dwelling" (Acts 7:48). In Mark's case, the main thread of the story is this search for testimonies against Jesus. For the evangelist, everything is biased, everything is false, because it has already been decided to eliminate him (see Mark 3:6).

      • The question can be asked: is there not an afterthought of the Christian community through this account? First of all, on the historical level, let us remember that religious questions often call for a form of violence, as we have already pointed out, and that the Sanhedrin, probably composed as much of aristocrats jealous of their privileges and fanatics as of sincere and devout people, may have considered it a duty to eliminate a person like Jesus. But there is more. The events surrounding Jesus have been read again in the light of the Old Testament where there are many passages describing the situation of the righteous against whom wicked people plot, for example the Psalms, or passages like Proverbs 6:17 (haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood).

    2. Destruction of the Sanctuary: Matthew, Acts, and John

      Mark's text, which places Jesus' statement about the destruction of the temple among the false testimonies, is difficult to interpret, so it is better to start with the other evangelists.

      1. Matthew

        Matthew makes a major change from Mark. First of all, the statement about the destruction of the temple no longer appears in a context of false testimony, but rather in that of a valid testimony, supported by the presence of two witnesses as required by the Law (Deuteronomy 17:6). Second, it is no longer said that Jesus "will destroy" the shrine, but that he is "able" to destroy it, emphasizing its power, in accordance with Matthew's theology; this amazing power is underlined by the fact that "the man-made shrine" is replaced by "the shrine of God". Such an assertion can easily be seen as a gesture against God and a claim to be his equal. And when one adds his ability to build a new temple, one associates it with God's plan for Israel and the world, as expressed in the apocalyptic narratives where God replaces the earthly temple with a heavenly one. So it is only logical that later the high priest will ask him if he is the Messiah, the Son of God. Thus, for Matthew, the assertion of the two witnesses is correct and consistent with the role of Jesus in Matthew who was clothed with the power of God to inaugurate his reign.

      2. Luke

        Luke totally omits such a statement in his account of the passion. Why is that? One can speculate various answers, for example that such a debate did not add anything to this scene and that it rather had its place in the context of the first Christians, but we do not know. In the Acts of the Apostles, the statement appears as in Mark in a context of false witness. This has the effect of avoiding presenting Jesus as being against the sanctuary (the temple belongs to the Father for Luke, see: Lk 2:49; 19:46) and associating his destruction with the Christian period, where it will actually take place, no doubt a sign of God's judgment of the fate that the high priests and Sadducees had reserved not only for Jesus, but also for Stephen, Peter and Paul.

      3. John

        It should first be noted that the Sanhedrin session took place a few weeks earlier (11, 47-48). Nevertheless, there is an allusion to the destruction of the temple by the Romans in the mouths of Jesus' enemies, i.e. the chief priests and Pharisees, who expressed their fear in this way. Then, only John offers us a scene where the statement about the destruction of the sanctuary comes from the very mouth of Jesus. But he is careful to make it clear that Jesus was speaking of his body, not of the Jewish holy place.

    3. The Marcan Form of the Sanctuary Statement

      • The word naos (sanctuary) refers to the holiest part of the temple building. It appears 21 times in the Gospels and in Acts (Mt = 9; Mk = 3; Lk = 4; Jn = 3; Ac = 2), while hieron (temple) is used 67 times. The sanctuary symbolizes the presence of God. The three uses of Mark are connected: here in the mouths of the witnesses (14: 58), on the cross in the mouths of the mocking passers-by (15: 29) and in the scene of the veil being torn in two (15, 38), which implicitly states that the destruction of the sanctuary has already begun.

      • "this sanctuary made by hand (cheiropoiēto) ...another not made by hand (acheiropoiētos)". This opposition between man-made and unman-made is a construction of the Greek milieu, as there is no equivalent in the Hebrew/Aramaic milieu. The Septuagint has only cheiropoiēto to describe idols. With this opposition, the New Testament thus intends to contrast earthly and heavenly realities (this idea is found in Paul in Eph 2:11 and Col 2:11 about circumcision, and 2 Cor 5:11 where he contrasts the earthly tent with the heavenly tent, and in the Epistle to the Hebrews, 9:11, where Christ the high priest entered heaven in a sanctuary not made with hands). If it is the same idea that we find in Mark where he would repudiate this earthly sanctuary, how can we understand this other sanctuary that will replace it? Three answers have been proposed.

        1. The new sanctuary would designate the Christian community. In fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QS 9:6) present the idea of the community as a sanctuary, (4Q Florilegium) as a house that God will build in the last days, made up of human beings and replacing the existing temple. The New Testament presents similar ideas when Paul speaks of the Christian as God's sanctuary (1 Cor 3:16-17; 16:19) or when 1 Peter uses the image of living stones making up a spiritual house (2:5). Nevertheless, it is never the Christian community as such that is called a sanctuary.

        2. The new sanctuary would designate a sanctuary of divine origin which the Jewish apocalyptic expected for the end times and which would replace the earthly temple. Several texts of the Old Testament as well as Jewish apocryphal literature allude to this, as well as to the Christian apocalyptic.

          • Exodus 15: 17-18: "Thou shalt bring them (the people of Israel) and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, the place where thou hast made thy dwelling place, O Lord, thy sanctuary, which thy hands have prepared. Yahweh will reign forever and ever".
          • Jubilees 1:16.26: "and I will build my sanctuary in the midst of them, and I will dwell with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people in truth and righteousness: my sanctuary has been built for ever"
          • 1 Enoch 89:39-40: "And I saw the Lord of the sheep raise up a house greater and taller than the first, and build it in the same place where the first had been. All its pillars were new, and the ivory was new, and in greater quantity than before. And the Lord of the sheep dwelt within. And all the wild beasts and all the birds of the air bowed down before the sheep that remained and worshipped them, praying to them, obeying them in all things
          • 4 Ezra 10:51-54: "Therefore I said unto you, Abide in the wilderness, where there is no house built. For I knew all that the Lord would show you. Therefore I said unto thee, Go here, where there is no foundation of a wall. For there could not be a foundation of man's work where the Lord would show thee"
          • Apocalypse 21, 10: "Then he carried me away in spirit to a mountain of great height, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven"

          In all these passages that precede or accompany first century Judaism, it is God who builds the new sanctuary, not the messiah. So it becomes difficult to use this context to interpret Mark 14:58 which would allude to the Messiah Jesus destroying and rebuilding the shrine.

        3. The new sanctuary would refer to the glorified body of the risen Christ on the third day. John 2:19 interprets the replacement of the shrine in this way, but the problem is that this is the same shrine that is destroyed and resurrected, in accordance with his theology that Jesus has the power to give and take away his life; we cannot speak of another shrine replacing the first.

      • "and within (dia) three days". The preposition dia means both a period of time within which a thing is accomplished, or a time after three days. Further on, Mark 15:29 will use the preposition en instead: "Aha, O one destroying the sanctuary and building it in (en) three days". It could be that dia and en are two variations to translate the Hebrew . In any case, the idea is the same: it is a short period of time. For example, in the Mark scene, it would be claimed that another shrine would be built very soon after the physical shrine was destroyed.

      • All this discussion about the meaning of this other shrine cannot make us forget that the claim made about Jesus is false according to Mark.

    4. The Falsity of the Sanctuary Testimony

      • "For many were giving false testimony (pseudomartyreō) against him". What is the meaning of pseudomartyreō? Some biblical scholars have argued that it would not be objectively false testimony, such as this word of Paul: "It even so happens that we are false witnesses of God, since we have given false testimony (pseudomartyreō) against God that he raised Christ, if it is true that the dead do not rise" (1 Cor 15:15). Still others have affirmed that "false" simply means "unjust", so that we could lend Jesus the words of Psalm 27:12: "Against me have risen false witnesses who breathe violence", where "false witnesses" is translated by the Septuagint as "unjust". To this we must respond that the Septuagint only sometimes translates "false witnesses" by "unjust", and each time it gives the context for interpreting this falsehood. For Mark, injustice comes precisely from the fact that the testimony is false.

      • "and the testimonies were not consistent (isos)". The word isos means: equal in number, size or quality. In other words, the testimonies were not at the level of the task of accusing Jesus. One could have translated: the testimonies were not adequate. But how were they not adequate?

        1. Is it because the witnesses say, "We have heard him saying ..." ? In modern courts, hearsay arguments are rejected. This approach is too technical for Mark's time. Or is it because there weren't even two witnesses who said the same thing, as required by law? This is contradicted by the mockery on the cross (15:29) where the accusation seems to be widespread.

        2. Is it because Mark considers that Jesus never said such a thing? Some biblical scholars think so, since the issue of his condemnation will be his Messiahship by the high priest, not the statement about the sanctuary, and that Mark never puts into Jesus' mouth what the false witnesses give him, not even in the scene of the cleansing of the temple. But these arguments do not hold water. For example, when the passers-by mock Jesus on the cross (15:29), they mention both the statement about the temple and the statement about his messiahship; in this case, why would one be false and the other true? Moreover, both of these statements are repeated when Jesus dies, with the veil of the sanctuary being torn and the centurion's profession of faith. Finally, even though Mark does not explicitly put the statement about the replacement of the sanctuary in Jesus' mouth as in John's, he alludes to it in many ways: his prophecy about the destruction of the temple (13:2), or the scene of the cleansing of the temple which is preceded and followed by the symbolic account of the cursed fig tree dying (11:12-14, 20-21). One can imagine that the reader of Mark must have thought: "Yes, Jesus spoke about the destruction of the temple, but not in the way reported by the witnesses".

        3. Is it because Mark considers that Jesus was misquoted, or that the witnesses misunderstood what he said? If the witnesses misunderstood what Jesus said, Mark gives us no clue as to how he was misunderstood. We need to turn to the more difficult question: Was Jesus misquoted? Since similar statements in Matthew and John are not considered false, let's look at how they differ from what Mark said.

          1. According to Mark, Jesus said, "I (egō) will destroy this sanctuary". John attributes the action to the Jews in 2:19 (destroy) and to the Romans in 11:48. In this case, the falsehood would be to make Jesus the agent of destruction. But it is difficult to make this the only element of falsity, since Christians elsewhere have attributed the action of this destruction to Jesus himself, as in the Gospel of Thomas, 71: "I will destroy (this) house, and no one will be able to rebuild it". Even in Mark, the violent action of Jesus against the temple (11:15-17) with the symbolic scenes of the withered fig tree and the torn veil of the sanctuary makes him a party to its destruction. This should therefore be called an inaccurate, rather than false, statement on the part of the witnesses.

          2. Some have found it false that the witnesses forgot the couple "made with hands/not made with hands" in their accusation, which Mark hastened to correct by adding it. But this would make Mark a terrible teacher: he would present witnesses as saying false things, while putting the exact words of Jesus in their mouths. Moreover, Matthew and John present Jesus' claim about the sanctuary as true, without mentioning this couple.

    5. The Sanctuary Statement, True and False in Various Ways

      • Let us recognize from the outset that Christian tradition has conveyed an affirmation of Jesus on the theme of the destruction of the shrine and its reconstruction. John 2:19 or the Q document (Lk 13:35 | Mt 23:38-39) bear witness to this. When we look at similar elements of the tradition looking to the future, we note that Jesus left his audience, both supporters and opponents, perplexed. What did he mean when he spoke of the destruction of the shrine? It was most likely a subject of debate among both believing and unbelieving Jews. The Acts of the Apostles tells of this ambiguity with regard to the temple, where some continue to frequent it (2:46; 3:1), while others like Stephen believe that God is no longer there (7:48).

      • Given such a volatile situation, it is understandable that Jesus' statement about the sanctuary is perceived as true (Matthew, John) and false by others (Mark, Acts). It all depends on how it is formulated and understood. In a false way, this expression may have been used by some Christians who expected Jesus to build by his power a new temple, not man-made, on his return. This was also the case among unbelieving Jews who had to taunt the early Christians about a statement they attributed to their master, while the temple was still standing.

      • The interpretation of Jesus' claim about the shrine may have evolved as events unfolded in the first century.

        1. Let us begin by assuming that Jesus issued a warning about the destruction of the temple and its replacement, somewhat in the manner of a prophet like Jeremiah, emphasizing the eschatological urgency. In Jerusalem, such a rural reformer was both mocked and regarded as dangerous this apocalyptic fanaticism. These words seemed all the more ridiculous since one could take his mention of "three days" literally. The Jewish historian Josephus reports two similar cases in the first century, a prophet from Egypt (Jewish Antiquities, 20, 8, 6; #169-70) and Jesus, son of Ananias (Jewish War, 6.5.3; #300-9).

        2. After the death of Jesus and before the destruction of the temple in 70, the early Christians were confronted with the meaning of Jesus' claims while the temple was still standing, and his return was long overdue after announcing his return for this generation. So they looked for warning signs. For Mark, the tearing of the veil of the sanctuary was already a sign that this place no longer had any value for salvation history; the temple was still standing, but the sanctuary was destroyed. And as Christology and faith in the closeness of the risen Christ to the Father developed, certain vague statements of Jesus lost their vagueness: "destroy" and "build" became "I will destroy" and "I will build". At the same time, hostility towards Jewish worship and its priests may have grown, which explains Stephen's audacity in asserting that God no longer resides in the Temple, and thus leads to the false accusation of wanting to destroy the holy place.

        3. Finally, when one travels after the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, some Christians were able to understand Jesus' assertion literally and see it verified by events. Others may have continued to hope for a new physical construction, a new Jerusalem. Thus, within the Christian community itself the debate could continue about this second temple, some affirming that it was already there in the Christian community or the body of the risen Christ, others affirming that it was about to come. And among non-believing Jews, the assertion that Jesus was the cause of the destruction of the temple was mocked, while hoping that by rebuilding it soon Christian claim could finally be disproved.

      • So how to interpret Mark? It is clear that he writes to refute the mockery of the Jews before the cross (15:29). At the same time, it is also clear that he is attacking Christians who imagine the arrival of another temple not made with human hands. Of course, Jesus mentioned the destruction of the sanctuary. But he was very vague about the future, and about the coming of the Son of Man. What will succeed the temple? Mark speaks of the centurion who, on seeing him die on the cross, confessed his faith. This is the community of believers who, following the example of their master, are ready to take up their cross and follow him. To imagine that the reign will come automatically is to forget that nothing will happen without also taking the same path of suffering. In this sense, believing that Jesus will re-establish a new temple, or believing that the reign of God will come automatically is totally false.

  3. Analyse

    In our previous commentary, we saw that the various versions of the sayings attributed to Jesus by the Gospels do not preclude the possibility of a prophetic statement concerning the destruction and replacement of the sanctuary. We must insist on the word "sanctuary", for there was never any question of replacing the whole temple. Let us examine the possibilities of such a statement being historical.

    1. Mark

      Mark presents us with a scene where Jesus intends to cleanse the temple precincts when he attacks those who trade by buying and selling (11, 15.17). Doesn't this desire for reformation come in contraction with the idea of wanting the destruction of the temple? Note that Jesus' attitude has nothing to do with the position of the Essenes, for Jesus himself did not belong to a priestly class and had no personal interest in the temple. Rather, it is closer to that of the prophets (see Jeremiah 7:11; Zechariah 14:21) who expected to find a pure place there, and in the face of the absence of reform, predicted its destruction. There is a progression: Jesus first looks at the temple precincts, and it is only the next day that he attacks those who trade, an action that provokes the reaction of the chief priests and scribes who want to kill him. This progression is expressed by the image of the fig tree which disappointed Jesus when he expected to find fruit there, and which was found dead the next day, symbolizing the irreformable situation of the temple.

    2. Luke

      Even though Luke uses material that is specific to him, he presents us with a similar progression: the temple is first presented as his Father's house (2:49), and it is only when he leaves Galilee to go to Jerusalem that he apostrophizes the holy city in prophetic language (13:34), and about to enter the city, tells the parable of the unproductive servants (19:11-26), followed by the oracle about the destruction of Jerusalem (19:41-44), to end with the scene where Jesus chases away the vendors from the temple, causing the reaction of the chief priests and scribes who want to kill him. Thus, the evangelists see no contradiction between a desire for reform and a threat of destruction.

    3. Historical context

      Not only is there nothing to prevent Jesus from actually talking about the destruction of the shrine, there are factors that support its plausibility. It is hard to imagine that the early Christians would have created such a claim out of thin air while Jesus was dead and the temple was still standing. Moreover, Mark, Matthew and Acts place this word about the temple on the lips of Jesus' enemies: it is hard to understand why they would have wanted to provide ammunitions to the opponents by inventing it from scratch. Finally, the temple was the largest and most prestigious building in Jerusalem, and therefore Jesus could hardly avoid taking a stand against it in his preaching about the kingdom of God. Thus, it is highly probable that Jesus spoke about the future destruction and reconstruction of the temple.

    4. iv.Did the attitude of Jesus seen as hostile to the temple play a role in his condemnation to death?

      The answer is yes. The high clergy was the principal agent in the legal proceedings against Jesus. And if we ask ourselves, what was it about Jesus' attitude that concerned them most? Anything that could endanger the temple/sanctuary. Even if this group had theological differences with Jesus, such as life after death, or angels, or the rules of purity or the Qorban law, or the stand on the oath, these could hardly reach a lethal level. The temple, on the other hand, was a civil and religious institution, and was a jewel for the nation: to attack it was to attack fundamental socio-economic and political realities. And mistrust of Jesus was compounded by his attitude towards wealth and his total dependence on God.

    5. Were Jesus' words about the temple really quoted in the Sanhedrin session?

      Probably not. John and Luke don't place them at this time. As for Mark/Matthew, the insertion of these words in the mouths of false witnesses during the Sanhedrin session could simply be a way of dramatizing a dispute that concerns certain facts, not the exact words of Jesus.

    6. "And the Romans will come and take from us both the place and the nation" (Jn 11: 48).

      Such words should be read with caution. According to the historian Josephus (The Jewish War, 2.15.2: #315-17; 2.17.2: #408-10), it is only during the second part of the Roman prefecture (especially from the years 44 to 46) that we see crowd uprisings by charismatic leaders that provoke the Roman intervention, and not during the period of Jesus' ministry, around the year 30. Evangelist John's phrase is probably a rewriting of the Sanhedrin session in the language and imagery of the 50s and 60s.

Next chapter: Sanhedrin Proceedings, Part Two: Question(s) about the Messiah, the Son of God

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