Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 2, scene 1 - #20. Analysis Covering All Four Parts of the Sanhedrin Proceedings, pp 548-560

(detailed summary)

Analysis Covering All Four Parts of the Sanhedrin Proceedings


It was not until the end of the 19th century that critical studies of the passion narrative appeared, particularly the account of the Sanhedrin's session. At that time, doubts began to be raised about its historical value, which led to a lively debate. Today three positions stand out: 1) the Sanhedrin's account is only a copy of the trial before Pilate, 2) the Sanhedrin's account combines two different narratives, 3) the present account is a gloss on a pre-evangelical account.

Since there is no consensus on how to reconstruct the pre-evangelical account, it is better to start from the Gospel accounts and find the indisputable facts they have in common. From this emerges a tradition which contains a session of the Sanhedrin and an accusation concerning the temple, the interrogation by the high priest before his surrender to the Roman authorities, the question of his messiahship and his identity as a son of God, to which the question of blasphemy is linked. It must be deduced that Jesus had been known for a long time, even before his last week in Jerusalem, and had already aroused the hostility of the Jewish authorities, especially through his preaching and actions in the temple precincts. His fate had been determined by a meeting of the Sanhedrin which was not a trial in the technical sense and where Jesus was not present. His arrest took place on the Mount of Olives with the help of Judas. An interrogation followed at the palace of the high priest before he was handed over to the Roman authorities. Discussions about his messiahship and his status as a son of God reflect the Christian controversies with the Jews around the year 40 or 50. Admitting such a pre-evangelical sequence helps us to better understand the work of Mark, who sewed together different stories in order to offer a catechetical account that is easy to understand and that people could memorize.

  1. The Development of Scholarship and Some Current Approaches
  2. Common Factors in the Gospels
    1. Method
    2. Common facts that are indisputable
    3. Proposal on the sequence of a pre-existing Gospel
    4. The value of this proposal

  1. The Development of Scholarship and Some Current Approaches

    • It was primarily Jewish historians who began to question Mark's portrayal of the trial before the Sanhedrin. But the first comprehensive and critical treatment came from W. Brandt in 1893 with his book Die evangelische Geschichte und der Ursprung des Christenthums (The History of the Gospels and the Origins of Christianity). German studies then took two directions: some found the basic historical core in Mark, others in Luke. However, in 1931 a major development occurred with H. Lietzmann's Der Prozess Jesu (The Trial of Jesus). According to him, Mark 14:55-64 (the contradictory false witnesses, the accusation of the destruction of the temple, the expression of faith in the mouth of the high priest, the question of blasphemy) is not historical, but rather an insertion of the evangelist. There was indeed a Roman trial, but the Christians added a religious trial, because they considered the issue to be primarily religious.

    • As one can imagine, a very lively debate ensued. Some (Goguel) argued that the accusation of the destruction of the temple cannot be a Christian invention, just as the claim about messiahship is too elementary, and that the Jewish trial would be justified by Pilate's need for support. Others (Dibelius) proposed the idea that Mark used a pre-existing account, but one which had no historical value. The debate continued after the last war with the remark (Burkill) that Mark 15:1 (And immediately in the morning the chief priests prepared a council with the elders and scribes and all the Sanhedrin; and after they had bound Jesus, they took him away and delivered him to Pilate) seems to ignore the trial that has just taken place; Mark appears as an incompetent writer who does not see his contractions. All this has provoked many reactions from biblical scholars who have tried to demonstrate the historical value of the story (Blizler, K. Schubert).

    • Today we tend to move away from the debate on historicity to concentrate on Mark's compositional techniques. Here are the three most important positions on the trial before the Sanhedrin.

      1. A composition based on the trial before Pilate

        There is a great similarity between the two trials (14: 55-64 and 15: 2-5): the charges of external witnesses, the presence of a lead interrogator who asks similar questions and receives similar answers. However, one must be cautious in drawing conclusions, since a similar parallel can be drawn with Peter's denial.

      2. The combination of two stories

        Two accounts (false witnesses and the destruction of the temple: 14: 57-59; the interrogation of the high priest: 61b-62) are said to have been combined, giving the impression of duplication. But the proponents of this position fail to properly evaluate Mark's compositional techniques, as if he had found these two accounts ready-made and would have been content to extend these themes into the rest of the Gospel.

      3. A gloss or commentary from an earlier account

        The difficulty with this position is to establish what comes from the earlier tradition and what has been added by the Gospels. On this point, there are many theories, some more complex than others, and no consensus. Let us name a few biblical scholars: Pesch, Benoit and Boismard, Donahue, Gnilka, Lürhrmann.

  2. Common Factors in the Gospels

    1. Method

      Since there is no consensus on the reconstruction of a pre-existing Gospel, it is better to remain at the level of the present Gospels and work with what they have in common. This method will provide a guide to determine what preceded them. It is generally recognized that Mark and John are independent and did not know each other. But even accepting that Matthew and Luke are dependent on Mark, we can admit that they may have been aware of a pre-evangelical tradition at the time they copied Mark.

    2. Common facts that are indisputable

      • The four Gospels speak of a Sanhedrin session, and the accusation that Jesus would cause the destruction of the temple was prominent. The only difference is that for John and Luke (see the account about Stephen in Acts) Jesus was not present, and in Mark this accusation is brought by others. The session ends with a decision to put him to death.

      • In the four Gospels Jesus is questioned by his Jewish contemporaries about his messiahship. Nowhere does he deny it: the answer is affirmative in Mark, affirmative with a nuance in Matthew, evasive in Luke and John. This question is linked to that of his status as a son of God, which receives an affirmative answer in Mark, John and Luke, a nuanced answer in Matthew. The four Gospels contain an affirmation about the son of man that in some way adds a glorified dimension to the titles of messiah and son of God. And the reaction where one sees blasphemy around one or other of these titles also appears in the four Gospels.

      • The four Gospels speak of an interrogation with Jesus before he was handed over to the Romans. In Mark/Matthew and John it is conducted by the high priest, in Luke by the Sanhedrin in the early morning. Likewise, all four Gospels mention the mistreatment that Jesus must have suffered on the night of his arrest. In Mark/Matthew and John, they occur after his interrogation, before at Luke's. The synoptics also include mockery of Jesus the prophet, which is not present in John.

    3. Proposal on the sequence of a pre-existing Gospel

      The fact of speaking of a sequence in the pre-existing material, which the evangelists would have rearranged according to their theological purpose, does not imply that we are dealing with historical events, but rather with narratives which are closer to the events themselves than the evangelical narratives.

      • According to pre-Gospel tradition, when Jesus came to Jerusalem at the end of his life, he was already known among the Jerusalemites and already hated by the religious authorities. And it was his preaching and his action within the temple precincts, including his act of cleansing and the allusion to his destruction, which was the catalyst for the hostility of the religious authorities. Mark's account of Jesus spending his entire ministry in Galilee and going to Jerusalem only at the end of his life is a simplification; moreover, for John and even Luke (see 13:34) Jesus went to Jerusalem several times.

      • In the last period of his life that Jesus spends in Jerusalem, a session of the Sanhedrin is called to decide his fate. The threat he poses to the temple is discussed, without it being a trial in the technical sense. A decision is made to put him to death, and so plans are made to hand him over to the Roman governor.

      • As the pre-evangelical tradition takes shape in the decade following Jesus' resurrection, debate rages between Jews and Christians about Jesus' messiahship and his title as Son of God. This debate rubs off on the passion narrative by associating the title of messiah with the title of son of God, and by presenting a Jesus who does not deny his messiahship and claims to be a son of God, and this would lead to his death; for the association of the two titles with the person of Jesus was seen as blasphemous. But there is no unanimity as to whether this was the subject of discussion within the Sanhedrin or rather belongs to the general atmosphere that led the Sanhedrin to act.

      • Finally, with the help of Judas, Jesus was seized at the Mount of Olives and brought to the palace of the high priest for interrogation, before being handed over to the Romans. It was remembered that the disciples were not there to support him, and that even Peter denied him. Jesus therefore became a lonely figure and was beaten by those who held him captive.

    4. The value of this proposal

      • This proposal makes more intelligible the way in which the evangelists reshaped the tradition they received. John has kept the simplicity of the interrogation. Mark, followed by Matthew and partly by Luke, combined with the interrogation echoes of an earlier Sanhedrin session in which the fate of Jesus was decided, leading to his subsequent arrest. This combination would explain the oddities of the present account such as the accusation concerning the sanctuary which appears in the 3rd person and which Jesus does not answer, or the accusation of blasphemy related to the titles of the Messiah/Son of God which is at the heart of the interrogation, and which no longer appears in the Roman trial.

      • These quirks arose by putting together incidents that were separate in tradition. But then why did Mark do this? It was probably a way of simplifying things for him in order to support his catechetical point. This point is very much his signature for the whole of his Gospel. Why not bring together disparate items, but which have a common theme, in order to create a dramatic effect that Christians will easily understand and remember. This is what he had already done at the beginning of his Gospel by bringing together healings and controversies to create a typical Jesus day, or by bringing together some of Jesus' parables.

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