A Night of Trials and Hearings
Early morning, Friday, April 3, 33 AD

 

"Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus..." (John 18:12).


The course of events moved quickly as the silence of the ancient city was disturbed several times during the night and early morning hours. Each Gospel tells of a series of trials after Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane. However, exactly what happened is difficult to reconstruct, since the accounts very considerably in describing the order of events.


In the footsteps of Jesus...



A hearing before Annas, the former high priest


From the Kidron Valley, the detachment of soldiers and officials likely took Jesus through either the Dung Gate or the Fountain Gate, near the old Pool of Siloam, at or near the southeastern corner of the city. From there they made the steep climb back into the wealthy Upper City on the "Hasmonean Staircase" (right) to the home of Annas (Hebrew Hananiah "God has favored"), son of Seth, the former high priest, who held office for nine years, from 6-15 AD. He was appointed by the Roman legate Quirinius just after the Romans deposed Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judaea. Annas was in office at the time Jesus first appeared in the Temple at age 12. An intriguing question: Did Annas cross paths with the young Jesus as he amazed the teachers in the Temple courts with "his understanding and his answers?" This initial hearing is only recorded in John 18.


Although John (18:18) calls Annas "high priest," he had been deposed by Valerius Gratus, the Roman prefect of Judea, at the beginning of the reign of Tiberius (14 AD). Gratus replaced him with Ismael, son of Phabi (15-16 AD), who shortly after was succeeded by Annas' son, Eleazar (16-17 AD; perhaps the Alexander of Acts 4:6, Alexander being the Greek version of Eleazar). The office then passed on to Simon (17-18 AD), then to Annas' son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphas (18-36 AD).

These depositions were probably not recognized by the people, because the office was formerly a lifetime appointment. To the Jews, this action represented yet another Roman interference in their religion affairs. This rapid change of succession also accounts for the number of former high priests who continued to bear the title even though they no longer held office. This same principle applies to living former presidents in the United States who are still referred to as "President" out of respect for their former position.

Long after his ouster from office, Annas remained a powerful figure. Being wealthy and devious, he succeeded in getting five of his sons, plus his son-in-law and a grandson, Matthias, appointed to the office of high priest. Later, when Peter and John were brought before the rulers, elders and teachers of the law for a hearing (recorded in Acts 4:1ff), Luke still refers to Annas as the high priest, while Caiaphas (the recognized high priest) is simply mentioned as present. Annas was still the heart and soul of the Sanhedrin, so it is no surprise that Jesus was first brought before him.


It was now around 3:00 a.m. and the contingent of soldiers arrived with their prisoner at the courtyard before the mansion of Annas in the Upper City. They surged inside, shoving Jesus before them. The leader assured Annas that everything had been handled discreetly and the townspeople and Passover pilgrims were unaware of what had happened. Overjoyed, Annas congratulated them on their good work. Then the old man stared at Jesus. He would not be the one to try him, though. Caiaphas would do that, and by now his son-in-law had awakened and summoned the seventy members of the Sanhedrin, the chief Jewish governing council, for an early morning session. Still, he had questions of his own and asked Jesus "about his disciples and his teaching." Jesus looked straight at the former high priest:


"'I have spoken openly to the world,' Jesus replied. 'I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said'" (John 18:20-21).


One of the nearby officials struck Jesus in the face. "Is this the way you answer the high priest?" he demanded. Jesus continued:


"'If I said something wrong,' Jesus replied, 'testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?'" (John 18:23).


This questioning by Annas violated the principles of a fair and just trial. Jewish law protected a prisoner from self-incrimination. As one Jewish scholar put it: "Our true law does not inflict the penalty of death upon a sinner by his own confession" (Maimonides, 1135-1204 AD).

After this brief exchange, John states, "Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest" (John 18:24).


As expressed by a folk song in the Babylonian Talmud, the Annas family of high priests did not have a good reputation. Four of the high-priestly families who held offices in the Temple under Roman rule were neither respected nor esteemed:

"Woe is me because of the house of Boethus
woe is me because of their staves.
Woe is me because of the House of Annas,
woe is me because of their whisperings.
Woe is me because of the House of Kathros,
woe is me because of their pens.
Woe is me because of the House of Ishmael, son of Phiabi,
woe is me because of their fists.
For they are the high priests,
and theirs sons are treasurers,
and their sons-in-law are trustees,
and their servants beat the people with staves."

This satirical refrain in a mid-6th century AD document preserves a 1st century reality. These high priestly families were not remembered for their piety, but for their nepotism, oppression and tight control of debts, legal agreements and written contracts.


In fact, the mansion of one of these priestly families, the Kathros, has been excavated in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. It is now a museum known as the "Burnt House."


 

This museum takes visitors downstairs to the basement of the residence located in the area known at the time of Jesus as the Upper City, where the wealthiest and most prominent Jewish families lived. When the Romans took Jerusalem in 70 AD, they destroyed the Temple and the Lower City. The Upper City, however, managed to hold out against the Romans for a month after the Temple Mount was captured. The Roman legions then rampaged through the Upper City, setting fire to the houses, killing those sheltered inside.

A stone weight (right) discovered among the burned remains contained an inscription reading "belonging to Bar Kathros" ("son of Kathros"). Archaeologists have identified the house's occupants as the Kathros family, a priestly family that, according to the above reference from the Babylonian Talmud, abused its position to further its own interests. Charred cooking pots and debris give a vivid sense of the city's fiery destruction by the Romans. Another chilling discovery here was the skeletal lower arm and hand of a young woman of about 20 in the home's kitchen, near the staircase and beside the oven. Her fingers appear to have been grasping for a step as she fell in a futile attempt to escape the flames (her remains were removed and buried according to Jewish law). In another room was an iron spear leaning against a wall, where the owner could quickly grab it to defend himself against the Romans. But, it was never used; it was buried in the debris as the home went up in flames.

Throughout the house are stones burned by an intense fire, scorched wooden beams and layers of ash and soot that testify to the huge fire that raged here. Standing here, viewing the blackened remains (below left and right), you can almost feel the heat of the fire, smell the smoke and hear the panicked, screaming voices of people fleeing the rampaging Roman soldiers.

The Kathros mansion also served as a workshop. Numerous limestone vessels, tables, weights, grinding mortars, and perfume bottles were found here, strongly suggesting the area was used for the manufacture of oil and incense for Temple rituals. There was a constant demand such products and it would indeed have been a profitable industry for the Kathros family.

Every time the residents of the city passed this and other wealthy residences in the Upper City, they were reminded of the illegitimacy of their high priesthood. Since 37 BC, the beginning of Herod's reign, only one of the high priests (the first, named Hananel) had come from the legitimate line of Zadok, a descendent of Aaron and high priest at the time of Solomon. The remainder were from the families of Boethus (of which the House of Kathros was an offshoot), Annas and Phiabi, low-born families who, once they rose to power, strove to keep the office for as long as possible by bribing the Roman governor who appointed the high priest.


The trial at the home of Caiaphas, the current high priest and son-in-law of Annas


The brief questioning by Annas is mentioned only in John; Matthew and Mark place their emphasis elsewhere, stating that immediately after his arrest Jesus was taken to the luxurious mansion of Joseph Caiaphas, the current high priest (his 15th year in office, having been appointed in 18 AD). Apparently some of the Sanhedrin members had joined Caiaphas in the early morning hours in order to interrogate Jesus regarding his claims of messiahship.


Caiaphas presided over the Sanhedrin whose membership included both main Jewish parties, the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Pharisees interpreted the oral law and attempted to find an inner meaning in the older written law. They believed in the resurrection of the dead, the immortality of the soul and the existence of angels. Another group within the Sanhedrin was the Scribes, the mostly younger men, the doctors of the law.

The most important group within the Sanhedrin were those members of the 24 priestly families; they were usually Sadducees, the wealthy, elite conservatives who bitterly opposed the Pharisees. They believed only in the written law, denying the oral tradition. The court also included those elderly men who had attained success as laymen and who were appointed as a sign of respect. Many of these "Ancients," as they were called, were also Sadducees.

More than once Jesus had publicly rebuked both the Sadducees and Pharisees. On one occasion he warned his followers to "be on your guard against the yeast (that is, the teaching) of the Pharisees and Sadducees." (Matthew 16:6).


The high priest's residence functioned much as the White House does today in relation to the Presidency of the United States. It contained offices for officials, meeting rooms, courts, and even cells where those charged with civil crimes could be held until their hearings.

During Jesus' trial, Caiaphas was concerned only with political expediency, not with guilt or innocence. He believed that Jesus, no matter how innocent, should die rather than place the nation in jeopardy. Ironically, despite Jesus' execution, the Jewish nation still perished 37 years later, in 70 AD. Matthew reports that only false witnesses came forward to testify against Jesus:


"The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward and declared, 'This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.' Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, 'Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?' But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, 'I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.' 'Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. 'But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.' Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, 'He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?' 'He is worthy of death,' they answered" (Matthew 26:59-66).



Where did this hearing take place?


Undoubtedly this hearing was conducted in the same area of the Upper City as the  mansion of Annas. Influential Jews of Jesus' day lived in this area of large splendid houses, many built during Herod the Great's massive reconstruction of the city in the 1st century BC. Located on the higher western hill, the Upper City was connected directly to the Temple by a viaduct over the Tyropoeon Valley, and was a convenient home for families and officials with Temple duties. We know that Ananias son of Nedebaeus, a later high priest (from 47 to 58 AD) appointed by Herod of Chalcis, lived there, thus we may assume that Caiaphas did also. But where?


A high priest's residence?


A 385-foot section of the Upper City of Jesus' time has been preserved in the Wohl Archaeological Museum, located on the edge of Hurva Square, the center of the restored Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. The area became available for excavation when Israeli authorities proceeded to rebuild the ancient Jewish Quarter following its destruction by the Jordanians during the Six-Day War in 1967. According to Israeli law, whenever construction work uncovers ancient remains, the Antiquities Authority must be notified, and construction is halted until the remains are investigated and sometimes excavated. Such was the case here, when archaeologists uncovered six palatial Herodian period homes built on terraces descending down the slope of the western hill, overlooking the Temple Mount.

Constructed in the style of Roman villas, each of these opulent homes of two or more stories had walls of dressed stone built around a central courtyard. Public rooms reception hall, kitchen, storage rooms and bathrooms were situated on the ground floor, while family rooms were on the upper floor(s). Elaborate water systems with large cisterns assured an adequate water supply even in the dry summer months when rain was the only water source. During the wet winter months water was collected from the roofs and stored in 30-foot-deep cisterns in the basements. The most striking feature of the western part of the museum is a complex of mikvaot (ritual baths). A mikvah (singular) requires a minimum of around 200 gallons of pure rain or spring water, and must be about 5 or more feet deep. Cut into stone, these pools were emptied by hand. This channeling of rainwater to basement mikvot was an expensive process. So too was digging into bedrock, plastering and sealing cavities, building support arches and tiling changing rooms with mosaics.

One residence, dubbed "the Mansion" by excavators, covered an area of 6,500 square feet. Clearly those who owned this house were wealthy Jews who enjoyed all the trappings of a classical Roman life within the constraints of their religious beliefs. They dined at tables with stone tops, decorated their walls with frescoes in the popular Hellenistic style and walked on floors tiled with elegant mosaics. But there were no statues of nymphs or pagan gods, no fountains spouting water from the mouths of mythological creatures, no depictions of humans or animals that the Jews regarded as a violation of the Second Commandment. One room appears to have been a either a living room or reception hall with a magnificent mosaic floor in red, black and white tiles. Another, even larger room boasted plastered walls imitating marble panels or large stones like those of the Temple Mount retaining walls. Remains of a cypress-wood ceiling were found that had collapsed when the Romans burned the building in 70 AD. We know, too, from the account of Flavius Josephus, the exact day the mansion was burned, cruelly disrupting the lives of its owners. One can actually see that the guest rooms were in the process of being redecorated.

 

 

As to who lived there: the number of its ritual baths led to the theory that it was the dwelling of a high priest. The owner, whoever he was, could purify himself in the luxury and elegance of his own home, rather than bathe with the masses at the public pools around the Temple compound.

At the very least, seeing this place allows us to better picture the surroundings and atmosphere in which Jesus was interrogated by Annas and Caiaphas.


Peter denies Jesus


Woven throughout the record of Jesus' trial before the Jewish leaders is a moving account of Peter's personal struggle with his loyalty to Jesus. At Gethsemane Peter showed his characteristic impulsiveness when he drew his sword and struck Malchus, the high priest's servant, cutting off his right ear. But, as he came to understand the seriousness of Jesus' arrest, Peter, with another unnamed disciple (presumably John), followed those escorting Jesus at some distance (John 18:15). John "was known to the high priest" and had friends among his staff, therefore he was able to gain his and Peter's admittance into the grounds of Caiaphas' residence.

As Simon Peter stood warming himself by a brazier full of hot coals against the cold of this April night, a servant girl asked him, "Weren't you with Jesus of Nazareth?" He denied it, saying, "I am not." Later, one of the high priest's servants, a relative of the Malchus whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, "Didn't I see you with him in the olive grove?" Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a cock began to crow, marking the arrival of dawn. Still later, those standing there went up to Peter and said, "Surely you are one of them, for your Galilean accent* gives you away." Peter lashed back at his accusers, cursing and swearing to emphasize his words, "I don't know the man!" Immediately a cock crowed a second time, and Peter recalled Jesus' earlier words: 'Before the cock crows**, you will disown me three times.' And he went outside and wept bitterly" (Matthew 26:75).

*Recall our earlier discussion on the heavy accent of the Galileans when speaking Aramaic.
**"Cockcrow" signified dawn, when the roosters began to crow.


St. Peter in Gallicantu


 

(Above) Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu ("at the cockcrow"), on the eastern slope of Mount Zion, was erected in 1931 to commemorate Peter's Peter's denial of Jesus three times before the "cock crowed" twice.

(Right) Interior of the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu with a giant stained class cross in the dome ceiling.

In 808 AD a visitor to Jerusalem wrote of a church of St. Peter's Tears. Today the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu ("at the cock's crow") is almost hidden in the trees on the lower eastern slope of the area known today as Mount Zion, site of the wealthy Upper City in Jesus' day. It was constructed in 1931 over the remains of earlier churches which were themselves built over 1st century ruins claimed to be those of the house of the high priest, Joseph Caiaphas, where Peter denied Jesus three times.

It is not certain when tradition first placed this event at this location. Ruins alongside the church foundations recall the courtyard where Peter sat by a fire warming himself against the cold night air alongside the servants and officials (John 18:18). But the first mention of this as the place where Peter "went outside and wept bitterly" (Luke 22:62) is only recorded centuries later. But, by the 11th-12th centuries AD this site was part of the pilgrim trail.

Traces of a 7th century AD church have been found, together with structures of the Herodian period, including cellars, stables and cisterns. An unused rock-cut cistern in the lower level of the church (now referred to as the "First Prison of Christ") (below) is claimed to be the dungeon where Jesus was held. If so, he was lowered down through an opening in the top (below left). Even there were no bars, escape was impossible. It reminded several of us of the Old Testament story of the patriarch, Joseph, being thrown into an empty cistern by his jealous brothers (see Genesis 37:17ff). Also here is what appears to have been a holding cell and a whipping area (below right) with overhead handholds where a prisoner's arms were stretched taught to receive 39 lashes (one less than the maximum of 40 prescribed by Jewish law* as a symbolic show of mercy).


*"But he must not give him more than forty lashes. If he is flogged more than that, your brother will be degraded in your eyes" (Deuteronomy 25:3).


Still, there is no proof that this was the palace/home of Caiaphas and the question has been raised as to the location of the home of such a prominent figure. Why would a high priest have taken up residence on the lower eastern slope of the aristocratic Upper City? Surely such a wealthy and influential man would have placed his residence on top the hill.

Meanwhile, life in the city went on as usual. At midnight, the Temple gates were opened to the people, earlier than at non-festival times to accommodated the larger numbers of Passover pilgrims. With dawn approaching, the Temple court was already filled with Diaspora worshipers who wished to present their sacrifices, their annual half-shekel payments for Temple upkeep and their heave-offerings from the produce of their land in support of the priests. Undoubtedly, they had no knowledge of the conspiracy being enacted that very moment by the Temple officials in the mansion of Caiaphas in the western part of the city.


The Sanhedrin convenes for a hearing


Some time just before dawn, the entire Sanhedrin convened at its official meeting place on the Temple Mount in order to vote official condemnation. The highest Jewish council in the 1st century AD, the Sanhedrin (from Greek sunedrion, "an assembly") had 70 members presided over by the high priest, who became the seventy-first member. Under the direction of the high priest, the council was both the Jewish supreme court and a political body, which voted the laws and had its own police. It controlled everything having to do with religion. So, when Jesus was brought before the entire assembly (assuming all members were all present), he was asked:


"Are you then the Son of God?" to which he replied, "You are right in saying I am" (Luke 22:70).


Jesus' reply, especially his use of the divine name of God ("I am"), which no one was supposed to speak, must have angered Caiaphas, who requested an immediate verdict. But since many of the members had already spent much of the night at the high priest's home, their action was merely a ratification of what had already been decided that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy. But, by their own law, Jesus could only be sentenced by daylight. So Caiaphas delayed the final vote until he heard the signal from the "place of the trumpeting" just off to the west that the sun had begun to climb into the sky from behind the Mount of Olives. Upon hearing the blasts from the shofar (ram's horn trumpet) he took a deep breath and ordered a start to the polling procedure. According to custom the vote began with the youngest of the seventy Sanhedrin members lest he be influenced by his elders and ended with the oldest. Then the high priest cast the final vote. Again, if all members were present, the final tally would probably have been 69 guilty votes and 2 abstentions (by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, secret followers of Jesus).

If Judea had not been a Roman province, Jesus would simply have been executed in one of four ways: burning, decapitation, strangulation or, most commonly, stoning, probably in the Kidron Valley below the east wall of the city. While the Sanhedrin could legally pass sentence on Jesus, it could not legally execute him. And with both the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate and the tetrarch Herod Antipas in town, it is unlikey they would taken the law into their own hands. So Jesus was handed over to Pilate, who had to review the verdict and either agree with the sentence or, as later happened with Paul, dismiss the case. (Paul, unlike Jesus, had the benefit of Roman citizenship). Therefore, as reported by Luke (22:1). "The whole assembly rose and led [Jesus] off to Pilate."


The death of Judas


Standing among the crowd of onlookers outside the council chamber, the traitor Judas noted the increased movement of priests and other Temple staff. Had the Sanhedrin decided Jesus' fate? A messenger headed toward the crowd and whispered something to a couple of the men who nodded approvingly. Judas was afraid to ask what the council had decided. He was afraid not to. The excited chatter increased and he heard the words, "The Nazarene will be executed after sunrise."

Judas ran through the crowd toward the men guarding the entrance to the council chamber. Somehow he must make Caiaphas and the other Sanhidrists understand that he and they had made a mistake; that Jesus was as innocent as the many Passover lambs killed that week. The guards turned him back, shouting, "The high priest is too busy to spend time with crazy men like you!" Off to the side he saw several priests in a group holding a discussion. He knew them, because they were the same men who had paid him. Judas wet his lips, cleared his throat and said: "I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood." The priests looked at each other and then back at Judas. "What is that to us?" they replied. "That's your responsibility."

Judas threw the money bag containing the thirty pieces of silver received for his betrayal at their feet and ran off toward the southern end of the city and the gate on the road leading to Bethlehem. Outside the city wall, he ran along the path hugging the Hinnom Valley. In a little field directly across from him stood a lone fig tree. He took off the leather money belt around his waist and climbed to the first strong branch. Straddling the branch, he tied one end of the thong to it and tied the other end securely around his neck. Then he slowly slipped off and, as stated in Acts 1:18 "he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out." It was the first of at least four gruesome deaths that would occur over the course of this early April Friday.


Caiaphas' ossuary


In 1990, an ossuary, a soft limestone box for reburial of remains, was accidentally discovered during construction of a water park in an area known as the Peace Forest in south Jerusalem a tractor plunged into a cave on a ridge in southern Jerusalem, in an area used for burials during the Second Temple period. Around the time of Jesus, it was customary to wrap the dead in linen shrouds and place them in small niches in tombs. About a year later, after the flesh had decayed, the bones were transferred to small stone boxes to save space in tombs. It is interesting to note that Joseph of Arimethea prepared Jesus' body for burial in the same way and, if Jesus had not risen from the dead, his remains would have been treated similarly.

A masterpiece of the stone-cutter's art, the front of this ossuary is richly ornamented over its entire surface, with varieties of stylized floral patterns and rosettes drawn with a compass. This ossuary contained the bones of four children, one adult woman and one 60-year-old man. What made it especially interesting is that the name of one of the deceased, apparently the latter, had been inscribed in Aramaic with a sharp nail on the back and on one of the narrow sides: Yehosef bar Qayafa Joseph son of Caiaphas who, in the New Testament is simply called Caiaphas, and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus identifies as "Joseph who was called Caiaphus" (Anitquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 4:3). Joseph was his real name; Caiaphas was probably a family nickname, and he was the high priest who interrogated Jesus and handed him over to Pontius Pilate for trial. (Now exhibited at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem).

Caiaphas was appointed high priest by Valerius Gratus in 18 AD. The two men must have had an excellent working relationship, because Caiaphas remained in office exceptionally long. Gratus' successor Pontius Pilate retained the high priest in office. It is possible that Elionaeus, who was appointed high priest by king Herod Agrippa (c.44), was a son of Caiaphas.

Jesus' Life Home n Night of Trials Continued: Suffered Under Pontius Pilate