We are familiar with the Gospel accounts of the trial of our Lord before the Sanhedrin and having studied the character of most of those who made up the Council we could make an educated guess as to the sentence they might come up with. Nonetheless, we see elsewhere in the Gospels that, in fact, before the meetings on Maundy Thursday and then early Good Friday morning there had already been three secret meetings without the presence of our Lord. In this, the third of our examination of the Passion of our Lord, we look at the decisions that were taken at these meetings and thus can see the full nature of the sham trial which he underwent in His Passion.
The first meeting took place somewhere between the 28th – 30th September 781 ab Urbe condita. St. John tells us (Jn. 7, 37-53) that on the last day of the feast of the Tabernacles (28.ix that year) the Pharisees sent people to take Our Lord. They returned empty-handed claiming that no-one had ever spoken as he did. The Pharisees were enraged and already determined to discuss what to do but Nicodemus asked, “Is it the way of our law to judge a man without giving him a hearing first, and finding out what he is about?” The Pharisees’ reply was a contemptuous question as to whether Nicodemus was a Galilean. At any rate, they could see that our Lord’s teaching was making such progress that they needed to call a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
Two days after the feast our Lord cures the man born blind and St. John tells us that his parents feared the Jews because, “they had already agreed among themselves” to excommunicate anyone who recognised Jesus as the Christ. So it seems some time between the two dates a solemn meeting of the Sandhedrin must have been called since they were the only ones able to excommunicate. It is also probable that at this first meeting they had decided to pronounce the most solemn degree of excommunication (i.e. sentence of death) which was the penalty reserved for false prophets. Actually, the Talmud records that he was excommunicated to the sound of 400 trumpets for being a magician and seducer of the people. This probable exagerration nonetheless means that even if the sentence of excommunication (i.e. sentence of death) wasn’t pronounced at this first session then it was at least discussed. In fact pronouncing it at this early stage could have backfired since the people were still very enthusiastic so they contented themselves with a lesser degree of excommunication for his disciples, threatening anyone who followed our Lord with being cast out of the synagogue.
The second meeting of the sandhedrin took place in February of 782 a.U.c., that is, around four and a half months after the first and was occasioned by the raising of Lazarus. John 11, 46-56 reports how the council was called and mentions the prophecy of Caiphas regarding the death of one for many. It is thus at this second meeting that it was already decided that Jesus must die and information was sought as to his whereabouts that he may be taken. The sentence is pronounced by the High Priest himself without hearing, without prosecution, witnesses nor defence. The reason given for the sentence is neither sedition nor revolt but, reports St. John, in order to stop the miracles and hence that people should believe in Jesus. The sentence is ratified unopposed, it seems, by the council and it is only the time of his arrest that is awaited; when he finally appeared before the sanhedrin on the night of Maundy Thursday the sentence had already been passed.
The final meeting took place around 20 – 25 days later on the Wednesday before the Passion, that year on 12th March. As reported by St. Luke (22, 1-3) and St. Matthew (26, 3-5) the council was assembled in the house of Caiphas and it was decided that Jesus’ arrest shouldn’t take place during the coming feast lest there should be a revolt by the people. So, it seems that the death sentence, which had already been decided at the second meeting, was going to be put off until after Easter when an unexpected visit accelerated events. “Judas, surnamed Iscariot, one of the twelve went and discoursed with the chief priests and the magistrates, how he might betray him to them” (Lk. 22, 3-4). If the Jews were surprised they nonetheless rejoiced greatly that help should come from such an unexpected quarter. Judas even promised to hand over Jesus quickly and at a time when there would be no crowds to prevent it thus allaying the only fear of the sanhedrin in carrying out their decision. They decide to give him money.
Thus the betrayal means that, instead of being after Easter, the immolation of the Lamb of God takes place on the very day that for fifteen centuries the Paschal Lamb had been offered as a prophecy of his saving death.
Next time we shall look at the legal procedures which governed how the sanhedrin took decisions including forbidden times of judging criminals, hearing of witnesses, how the accused is to be examined and so on.