4.2.9 Sanhedrin: The Wisdom of Man
Volume 4: The Human Condition—Chapter 2.9
Sanhedrin: The Wisdom of Man
Shortly after the exodus, Moses found himself a one-man counselor, referee, and supreme court for the entire nation of Israel—600,000 men strong (meaning there were, including women and children, about two million souls depending on him for advice). We read the story in Exodus 18 (placing the events before the complete revelation of the Law): “Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening. So when Moses’ father-in-law [Jethro] saw all that he did for the people, he said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit, and all the people stand before you from morning until evening?’ And Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a difficulty, they come to me, and I judge between one and another; and I make known the statutes of God and His laws….’” It was a “given” that Moses was “on a first-name basis” with Yahweh, this unfamiliar God who had so convincingly proved His authority and ability by freeing Israel from bondage in Egypt. When issues arose that required wisdom or divine insight, then, it was only natural to apply for answers to the one man who spoke with God face-to-face.
So here they stood, in the shadow of Mount Horeb (a.k.a. Sinai), lining up to ask Moses to settle their disputes for them. Remember, Moses was eighty years old by this time—not quite as old as it sounds to us, since people could live longer back then, but still in the “senior” range. Before the whole ten-plagues scenario had transpired, Moses had sent his wife and two sons back to stay with her father, Jethro, the priest of Midian. But now that they had crossed dry-shod through the Red Sea (actually, the north-eastern arm now known as the Gulf of Aqaba) they were back home in Midian (today’s northwest Saudi Arabia), so Jethro took it upon himself to reunite Moses’ family. (In case you’re geographically confused, Mount Sinai, a.k.a. Horeb, is not in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, but east of the Gulf of Aqaba—in Midian, today’s northwest Saudi Arabia. Moses knew the territory well, having tended Jethro’s sheep here for forty years.)
Anyway, as Jethro saw it, Moses was a victim of his own success. “So Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing that you do is not good. Both you and these people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Listen now to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: Stand before God for the people, so that you may bring the difficulties to God. And you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and show them the way in which they must walk and the work they must do….’” Part One was to continue doing what Moses was doing anyway—that for which he was both called and uniquely qualified—interceding with Yahweh on behalf of the people. But teaching them the Instructions of God one-on-one, and piecemeal as the situation demanded it, was the most inefficient use of his time imaginable.
Part Two of Jethro’s advice, then, entailed enlisting some help. “Moreover you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge….” The task of counseling and managing Israel was to be broken down “military style” into groups of different sizes. The smallest was what we might call a squad, led by a “sergeant,” ten families who would know each other quite well. Five of these units together, what we might call a platoon, would be led by someone of slightly higher “rank,” a “lieutenant” so to speak. A hundred men and their families would be the rough equivalent of a company, led by a captain. And ten of these units, a thousand families (sort of like a battalion or small regiment), would answer to someone like a major or a colonel in ranking. The leaders were to be chosen because they were godly, honest, and incorruptible. (How’s that for a concept?) If the “sergeants” found an issue too thorny, they’d refer it to a group leader of higher rank—only the toughest questions would make it all the way up to Moses, the “general,” who would in turn enquire of Yahweh.
The whole idea of getting help—of not shouldering the nation’s entire burden by himself—was very fresh in Moses’ mind. Israel had just fought a battle against the Amalekites. From his vantage point, Moses discovered that his troops (under Joshua’s leadership) prevailed when he held the rod of God high overhead, but lost ground when he lowered it. So Aaron his brother, and Hur, the leader of the tribe of Judah, had him sit on a rock while they supported his hands as he held the rod high. Thus the battle was won, but only with help. So now, when Jethro said, “So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you,…” the lesson was not lost on Moses.
Jethro’s point was well taken: “If you do this thing, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all this people will also go to their place in peace.’ So Moses heeded the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said.” We can only presume that the plan was backed with God’s commandment, as Jethro had wisely specified. “And Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people: rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. So they judged the people at all times; the hard cases they brought to Moses, but they judged every small case themselves.” (Exodus 18:13-26) The small matters would include such issues as “Whose goat ate my laundry?” The big stuff is typified by the conundrum of Zelophehad’s daughters, discussed at length in Numbers 36.
This wasn’t “the Sanhedrin” per se, but it does perhaps represent its nascent beginnings. Taking some of the burden of responsibility off the shoulders of the nation’s leader—whether he be a prophet, judge, or king—was only part of the picture, however. While Israel was still encamped at Mount Horeb, Yahweh revealed another important function: witness. “Now He said to Moses, ‘Come up to Yahweh, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. And Moses alone shall come near Yahweh, but they shall not come near; nor shall the people go up with him.’ So Moses came and told the people all the words of Yahweh and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice and said, ‘All the words which Yahweh has said we will do.’…” It was important to Yahweh that Israel should know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Moses wasn’t just “making up” the Torah’s precepts himself, but was receiving them directly from the hand of the same God who had delivered them out of bondage in Egypt.
Two “classes” of leaders were set apart for the function of witnessing God’s interaction with Moses. First, the priests (a phenomenon new to Israel, totally different from what they’d seen in Egypt) were invited to attend. Aaron, Moses’ brother, was the “High Priest,” and his two eldest sons—representing the other priests as a class—were to accompany him. (The priests were defined by Yahweh as male descendants of Aaron, without regard to ability or aptitude. There would eventually be many thousands of them.) The job of the priests was to intercede between the laity of Israel and Yahweh their God—notably through performing the sacrificial rites that would comprise most of the Torah—all of which were symbolic and prophetic, one way or another, of how the coming Messiah would deliver us from our sins, reconciling us with a holy God.
The second invited class was Israel’s “secular” leaders, the recognized elders of each tribe, sometimes characterized as “nobles,” though there was as yet no king or royalty in Israel. Yahweh specified that there should be seventy of them, indicating that they “completely” or “perfectly” represented the nation of Israel. Considering the population of the nation (numbered as adult males, fighting age or older) each “elder” represented approximately 10,000 men. The tribal sizes varied: there would have been roughly four to seven elders from each tribe, men recognized for their wisdom, ability, and influence.
These seventy-three invited guests were to accompany Moses to the vicinity of Mount Horeb, though only Moses himself was to ascend the Mountain to receive the Law from God. But having been chosen as witnesses, the priests and elders were shown the God with whom Moses had been working: “Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. But on the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand. So they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24:1-3; 9-11) This was not an encounter with Yahweh in His undiminished splendor (which would have been fatal: see Exodus 33:20), but either a theophany or the same vision shown to all of them—in any case, Someone or Something more glorious than they had ever seen. There could be no confusion as to the Source of Moses’ Instructions. They were, after all, supposed to be eyewitness of these things.
A bit later, Israel packed up and moved from Sinai to a new location. A few months on an all-manna diet had brought the complainers out of the woodwork: Oh, for the meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we got to eat back when we were slaves in Egypt! Good times, right? “Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, everyone at the door of his tent; and the anger of Yahweh was greatly aroused; Moses also was displeased….” That’s a bit of an understatement in itself. Moses had reached the end of his rope, and found himself (uncharacteristically) whining like a three-year-old—not because of the provision of Yahweh (which was perfectly adequate, if a little monochromatic), but because he, being a mere man, was completely inadequate to the task of herding this unruly flock through the wilderness:
“So Moses said to Yahweh, ‘Why have You afflicted Your servant? And why have I not found favor in Your sight, that You have laid the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I beget them, that You should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a guardian carries a nursing child,” to the land which You swore to their fathers? Where am I to get meat to give to all these people? For they weep all over me, saying, “Give us meat, that we may eat.” I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me. If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now—if I have found favor in Your sight—and do not let me see my wretchedness!’…” The rebellion of the Israelites had frustrated Moses (who hadn’t wanted the job in the first place) to the point of suicide—I can’t take it anymore. Just kill me!
On the other hand, at least Moses was complaining to the right Person—to Yahweh Himself. He didn’t go grumbling to Joshua or Aaron or his wife. It’s called prayer, and even if his tone was all wrong, God understood his frustration. More to the point, He was both willing and able to do something about it. First, He addressed the problem of the spiritual burden Moses was carrying. “So Yahweh said to Moses: ‘Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tabernacle of meeting, that they may stand there with you. Then I will come down and talk with you there. I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone.’” (Numbers 11:10-17)
This wasn’t exactly a case of “misery loves company,” in which Moses’ frustration would be shared by dozens of other guys. It was, rather, the same sort of “help” the team leaders had given him in sorting out the day-to-day issues that arose among the people—Jethro’s idea—combined with the anointed-witness function introduced by Yahweh Himself at Horeb. The people were complaining to Moses (as if he could do anything about it) that they wanted something besides manna to eat. Now there would be many more in Israel with the same spiritual anointing Moses and Joshua shared. These tribal leaders (who could not be blamed for dragging them out to the desert to die, something of which the grumblers often accused Moses) would be able to reason with the rebels (who were their kin, after all), directing their focus back onto the journey to the Promised Land. Having encountered Yahweh for themselves, they could reassure the grumblers that God was quite real, He wasn’t “out to get them,” and that a glorious future for the nation awaited—if only they’d be patient and faithful.
“Bestowing the Spirit” upon someone as described here wasn’t a Pentecost-style permanent indwelling of the Holy Spirit based on one’s saving faith in the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice, the “new birth” of which Yahshua informed Nicodemus in John 3. Rather, it was a spiritual anointing—given at Yahweh’s discretion—enabling one or more individuals to perform a specific task God needed done, in this case helping Moses deal with the grumbling ingrates of Israel. Another example was the spiritual awakening of King Saul. Alas, it is clear that such an anointing could be temporary—rescinded in the face of disobedience or rebellion. David saw this very thing happen to Saul, and was terrified that the same fate might befall him in the wake of his sin with Bathsheba. He prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.” (Psalm 51:10-11) Nor should we get the idea that Moses’ own spiritual anointing was somehow diminished in the process of “taking of the Spirit that is upon you and putting the same upon them.” As Yahshua told Nicodemus, “He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure.” (John 3:34) There’s plenty of God’s Spirit to go around.
Included among the “elders” were to be “officers” (Hebrew: shoter). Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance defines shoter as: “Active participle of an otherwise unused root probably meaning to write; properly, a scribe, i.e. (by analogy or implication) an official superintendent or magistrate—officer, overseer, ruler.” God intended Israel to be a literate society, but at this early stage they were best characterized as what they were: former slaves with little or no education. So at this point, the scribes as a class were essential to the task of transmitting Yahweh’s written Laws, as delivered to Moses, to the people. As we shall see, however, the self-perceived function of the scribes morphed into something very different by the time of Christ.
Back in Numbers, we are told how Yahweh followed through on His promise to Moses—publically. “So Moses went out and told the people the words of Yahweh, and he gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tabernacle. Then Yahweh came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and placed the same upon the seventy elders; and it happened, when the Spirit rested upon them, that they prophesied, although they never did so again.” (Numbers 11:24-25) The word translated “prophesied” is the Hebrew naba, indicating entering into an ecstatic state—to speak (or sing) with divine inspiration, or be carried away in religious frenzy, regardless of the genuineness of the deity in question: either Yahweh or some false god (e.g. I Kings 18:29).
But wait—there’s more. God not only provided a grumbler-buffer for His servant Moses, He also gave Israel an object lesson they would not soon forget. The people said they wanted meat to eat, though the manna was perfectly sufficient for their needs. So Yahweh sent immense clouds of quail through the camp and for miles around, flying about waist high so the meat-mongers could just go out and club them as they flew past. As human nature is practically guaranteed to do in these situations, greed set in, and the people took far more birds than they could possibly eat. They gorged themselves on quail for an entire month—until the rotting poultry did what rotting poultry does: made many of them sick, even killing some. God poetically named the place Kibroth Hattaavah—literally, “the graves of craving.” The obvious lessons for us: be content with what God has provided; don’t covet what He has withheld; and don’t be greedy when (and if) the good times finally come.
We are not told what the seventy elders had to say about the quail debacle. I’d like to think they had issued warnings to be grateful and temperate concerning the flying feast. Perhaps they simply said, “I told you so” to the recovering salmonella-sated gluttons. It’s a fair bet that after this episode, no one complained about the monochromatic manna for a while.
The question remains: were these seventy elders the “Sanhedrin” as we’ve come to know it? Not really, though the concept is certainly closer than the multi-level helper squad that Jethro’s wise advice had put in place. There appears to have been some degree of overlap between the elder-witnesses of Horeb and the buffer council of Kibroth Hattaavah. This group, at least, had been assembled at the direction of Yahweh Himself, although Moses had been tasked with choosing the individual participants. Functionally, all of these groups were there to assist the nation’s leader, to shoulder some of the burden he was tasked with carrying—not exactly how the Sanhedrin of Christ’s day saw itself, as we shall see.
The longer historical view reveals that beyond the tenure of Moses and Joshua, the character of human leadership in Israel changed dramatically over time. Yahweh’s plan (as reflected in His Instructions) was to have no government at all, just a priesthood charged with administering the Torah as God had delivered it to Moses. There was to be no king, no standing army, no police, no bureaucracy, and no taxes—only the priests and their Levite support staff, making sure God’s Instructions were heeded, the tabernacle was maintained, the feasts of Yahweh were observed, and the poor, widows, orphans, and strangers were taken care of. In other words, Yahweh Himself (who needs no help) was to be Israel’s leader. If the need arose (as it did sporadically in response to Israel’s apostasy for the next four hundred years) Yahweh would call and equip “judges” like Gideon, Samson, Deborah, and Samuel to help the nation over the rough spots. But these positions were temporary and localized, and more to the point, there is no mention of a permanent council of elders assisting or advising them in their duties.
Doubtlessly the most significant thing about the council convened at Kibroth Hattaavah was that these elders and scribes were specifically enabled by the Spirit of God to perform the task at hand. Although individuals experienced this anointing sporadically throughout the Old Testament, the next time we hear of a group being enabled in this way was on the Day of Pentecost—and it wasn’t the Sanhedrin; it was the fledgling ekklesia, the called-out assembly of Christ’s believers. There are random mentions in the Tanakh of councils of elders, but never again do we hear of them being anointed by the Spirit of God for the task of supporting the nation’s leader. In fact, although there is a Hebrew word for “Sanhedrin” (סַנְהֶדְרִין, Sanhedrin, based on the Greek συνέδριον, synedrion), the word never even appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. Alas, by the time of Christ, the Council’s raison d’etre had shifted 180 degrees from its original purpose: their self-assigned goal was now to eliminate God’s Anointed One, not assist Him: “Immediately, in the morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council; and they bound Jesus, led Him away, and delivered Him to Pilate.” (Mark 15:1)
Let us review some of the Old Testament references to this “council” that would one day morph into what we know as the Sanhedrin, with an eye toward closely examining the terminology used to describe it. “Oh, that men would give thanks to Yahweh for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men! Let them exalt Him also in the assembly [Hebrew: qahal—the whole congregation] of the people, and praise Him in the company [Hebrew: moshab—a seat, assembly, or dwelling place] of the elders.” (Psalm 107:31-32) The people of Israel and their “leaders” were to be in perfect sync with each other: praising and exalting Yahweh in thanksgiving.
“Elders” (Hebrew: zaqen) isn’t automatically a euphemism for “wise counselors,” but actually means “old,” the aged, ancient ones, or seniors. It is related to the word for “beard,” though it is also used to describe older women. It is a scriptural “given” that with age is supposed to come wisdom, experience, and sagacity. We “old guys” were expected to have “been around the block” a few times, and to have learned (whether by studying the scriptures, personal experience, or simply through observation of others) what works and what doesn’t. Yahweh even built the idea of respect for one’s elders—because they’re elders—into the Torah: “You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man [zaqen], and fear your God: I am Yahweh.” (Leviticus 19:32)
Job’s young friend Elihu understood this, and showed deference to his elders (those whom Job himself eventually dubbed “miserable comforters”). But Elihu also knew that there’s no fool like an old fool—that it is entirely possible to confuse habitual, ingrained modes of thought with genuine wisdom. “Now because they [Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar] were years older than he, Elihu had waited to speak to Job. When Elihu saw that there was no answer in the mouth of these three men, his wrath was aroused. So Elihu, the son of Barachel the Buzite, answered and said: ‘I am young in years, and you are very old; therefore I was afraid, and dared not declare my opinion to you. I said, “Age should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom.” But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding. Great men are not always wise, nor do the aged [zaqen] always understand justice.’” (Job 32:4-9) In the end, Yahweh sided with Elihu on this one: see Job 42:7-9.
Elihu’s remark on where wisdom originates is a common (though often overlooked) theme. One oft-repeated maxim in scripture is that “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7) In other words, being old and experienced isn’t the only—or even the primary—source of wisdom. Far outweighing it is one’s reverence for God’s Word. “I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the ancients [zaqen: elders, aged], because I keep Your precepts.” (Psalm 119:99-100) One who respects the source of wisdom—Yahweh—will have a healthy head start over people who are merely “old enough to know better.” As Solomon himself said, “Better a poor and wise youth than an old [zaqen] and foolish king who will be admonished no more.” (Ecclesiastes 4:13) Ironically, Solomon was both men: wise in his youth (because he honored the true and living God), and foolish in his old age (because he compromised with false gods).
Ezekiel warned Judah for years about their coming destruction at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. In one typical rant, he warned that false prophets would not find themselves honored and heeded as wise counselors. “Therefore thus says the Lord Yahweh: ‘Because you have spoken nonsense and envisioned lies, therefore I am indeed against you,’ says the Lord Yahweh.” Their nonsensical lies were mostly denials that God’s judgment was coming—that their apostasy would not bear its inevitable disastrous fruit. “‘My hand will be against the prophets who envision futility and who divine lies; they shall not be in the assembly [Hebrew: sod—council] of My people, nor be written in the record of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord Yahweh.” (Ezekiel 13:8-9) In the Torah, it had been made clear that if a prophet’s words did not come to pass, the people were not to heed his words (see Deuteronomy 13), and even if his predictions did happen as foretold, a “prophet” who suggested following some deity other than Yahweh was to be executed anyway.
The word translated assembly or council here is the Hebrew sod, which Strong’s defines as an “assembly, counsel, inward, secret counsel. From yacad; a session, i.e., company of persons (in close deliberation); by implication, intimacy, consultation, a secret.” A perusal of the twenty-one times sod is used in scripture reveals that almost never (this passage being the one possible exception) is the word used technically of Israel’s “council of elders,” a.k.a. the proto-Sanhedrin. Whether used of fellowship with God, with good men, or with evildoers, the word has an almost conspiratorial tone to it, intimate, private, and personal.
That being said, there was a group of Israelite leaders, called “elders,” who took it upon themselves to supervise the building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Although they had the proper authorization from King Darius I, Tattenai, the governor of what we know as Judea, apparently didn’t get the memo, and sent a letter to the Persian king asking for clarification. The story is related by Ezra. “Then the prophet Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophets, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. So Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them, helping them. At the same time Tattenai the governor of the region beyond the River and Shethar-Boznai and their companions came to them and spoke thus to them: ‘Who has commanded you to build this temple and finish this wall?’…” This wasn’t persecution. It was perfectly proper for the governor to double check to see if the builders had the proper “permits,” to ensure this wasn’t some sort of rebellious act.
“Then, accordingly, we told them the names of the men who were constructing this building. But the eye of their God was upon the elders of the Jews, so that they could not make them cease till a report could go to Darius.” The Hebrew/Aramaic word translated “elders” here is sib: to be aged, having gray hair (called being “hoary” in the lexicons). Like zaqen, the idea is old age, not leadership or authority per se, although it is presumed that with age and experience comes a certain degree of wisdom. “Then a written answer was returned concerning this matter. This is a copy of the letter that Tattenai sent: The governor of the region beyond the River, and Shethar-Boznai, and his companions, the Persians who were in the region beyond the River, to Darius the king. (They sent a letter to him, in which was written thus.)…”
“To Darius the king: All peace. Let it be known to the king that we went into the province of Judea, to the temple of the great God, which is being built with heavy stones, and timber is being laid in the walls; and this work goes on diligently and prospers in their hands. Then we asked those elders [sib], and spoke thus to them: ‘Who commanded you to build this temple and to finish these walls?’ We also asked them their names to inform you, that we might write the names of the men who were chief among them….” The governor’s query to the king was as you might expect: straightforward, informative, and respectful.
If there was a hint of finger-pointing, it was contained in the response of the Jewish elders, who didn’t bother giving a hat tip to Darius, but acknowledged their own guilt before Yahweh, and referred to a decree from Darius’ recent predecessor, Cyrus. “And thus they returned us an answer, saying: ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the temple that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and completed. But because our fathers provoked the God of heaven to wrath, He gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this temple and carried the people away to Babylon. However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to build this house of God.” (Ezra 5:1-13)
Darius’ reply, reported in the next chapter, was more than Governor Tattenai had bargained for: “Now therefore, Tattenai, governor of the region beyond the River, and Shethar-Boznai, and your companions the Persians who are beyond the River, keep yourselves far from there. Let the work of this house of God alone; let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews build this house of God on its site. Moreover I issue a decree as to what you shall do for the elders [sib] of these Jews, for the building of this house of God: Let the cost be paid at the king’s expense from taxes on the region beyond the [Euphrates] River; this is to be given immediately to these men, so that they are not hindered. And whatever they need—young bulls, rams, and lambs for the burnt offerings of the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, and oil, according to the request of the priests who are in Jerusalem—let it be given them day by day without fail, that they may offer sacrifices of sweet aroma to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and his sons.” (Ezra 6:6-10) Why would the king of the whole Medo-Persian Empire basically say to his governor, “Put the whole Jewish temple building project on my tab”?
At the risk of wandering off the “Sanhedrin” subject, there is something beautiful (if a little confusing) going on here. The Medo-Persian king who had taken Babylon without a battle on October 12, 539 BC is called Darius the Mede in scripture (see Daniel 5:30-31). This is not the same Darius spoken of by Ezra—Darius I (a.k.a. Darius the Great) who received the throne in about 520, but probably the Gobryas mentioned in contemporary records. Cyrus (the king whose edict originally authorized the rebuilding of the temple) received the throne of Babylon from Darius the Mede within a year or so of its defeat—but not before something remarkable happened.
The aging prophet Daniel, who had been a captive in Babylon all his adult life, had been a Magi under Nebuchadnezzar, and had “read the writing on the wall” to the regent-king Belshazzar on the night of the conquest (see Daniel 5). Daniel smoothed the transition of power from the Babylonians to the Medes and Persians, and became so respected by Darius the Mede, he was made one of 120 “satraps” (governors) over the whole empire. Early in Darius’ rule, a group of these satraps, jealous of Daniel’s influence over the king, persuaded Darius to pass a silly but binding law saying that “whoever petitions any god or man for thirty days, except you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions.” (Daniel 6:7) It hadn’t occurred to the flattered Median leader that Daniel would simply ignore the law and continue praying to Yahweh as he always had.
Every Sunday-School child knows the story: King Darius, with his back to the legal wall, had no choice but to comply, sending Daniel to meet his fate in the lions’ den. But the distressed Darius fasted and prayed to Daniel’s God, and Daniel was miraculously spared (unlike the satraps who had hatched the plot, who were subsequently given to the lions to eat instead of Daniel). Darius the Mede thus came to revere Yahweh, the God whom Daniel and the Jews worshiped.
“Then King Darius [the Mede] wrote, ‘To all peoples, nations, and languages that dwell in all the earth: peace be multiplied to you. I make a decree that in every dominion of my kingdom men must tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for He is the living God, and steadfast forever. His kingdom is the one which shall not be destroyed, and His dominion shall endure to the end.’” Apparently, Daniel had told him of his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, recorded back in Daniel 2, the singular event that had made him such a well-respected diplomat in the first place. “He delivers and rescues, and He works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, Who has delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.’ So this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” (Daniel 6:25-28) So we see that both Darius the Mede and Cyrus knew and respected Daniel—and his God. This explains why Cyrus was so quick to approve the temple rebuilding project, and why his proclamation was found in the imperial archives.
Cyrus reigned for another seven or eight years (during which time Daniel passed away of old age), succeeded by Cambyses for another seven. At his death, there was competition for the throne between several rival claimants for a few months (during which time the temple project was put on hold). Darius I (“the Great”) finally emerged victorious in 520—only 19 years after the fall of the Babylonian empire, and a mere eight years after the death of the god-fearing Cyrus. So although I am admittedly “jumping to a conclusion,” I find it quite likely that Darius the Great was intimately familiar with the power and reputation of Yahweh, the God of Daniel and the Jewish people. This explains why Governor Tattenai’s inquiry to Darius I (in about 517 BC) was met with such enthusiastic support for the temple project and the Jews in general.
All because some hungry lions listened to the voice of Yahweh and postponed their supper for a few hours.
It is reasonably clear, then, that what we have come to know as “the Sanhedrin,” though hinted at in the Hebrew Scriptures, didn’t actually appear until the post-exilic period, after the close of the Old Testament canon. Even seventy-five years after Babylon’s demise, when Nehemiah (the vizier of the Persian King Artaxerxes) was allowed to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall and gates, the groups he mentioned who “did the work” (see Nehemiah 2:16) collectively bore no functional resemblance to the Sanhedrin of Yahshua’s time. Nehemiah refers to “Jews” (Yehudi—Judeans); “priests” (kohen—male descendants of Aaron); “nobles” (chor—“properly, white or pure, from the cleansing or shining power of fire, hence noble in rank”—Strong’s); and “officials” (sagan—prefects, superintendents, or petty rulers).
Before we examine the New Testament presence and role of the Sanhedrin, then, let us consult with a few of the reference books that address the subject. The following lengthy quote is from W.A. Elwell, and B.J. Beitzel, in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. They define the Sanhedrin as the “Supreme judicial council of Judaism with 71 members, located in Jerusalem. It figures prominently in the passion narrative of the Gospels during Jesus’ trial and appears again in Acts as the judicial court which investigates and persecutes the growing Christian church.” (Telling is the increase in the council’s membership from the Torah’s 70—symbolic of completion or perfection—to the Sanhedrin’s 71, rendering a tie vote in close issues impossible. As we have seen, human authority was never part of God’s plan.)
“The history of the Sanhedrin is difficult to reconstruct. Jewish tradition recorded in the Mishna views it as originating with Moses and his council of 70, but this is doubtful (Mishna Tractate Sanhedrin 1:6; cf. Numbers 11:16). These were probably informal gatherings of tribal elders (1 Kings 8:1; 2 Kings 23:1). The likely origin of the Sanhedrin is to be found in the postexilic period, when those who reorganized Israel without a king made the ancient ruling families the basis of authority. The legislative assembly that emerged was a union of the nobility of the land and the priestly aristocracy (see Ezra 5:5; Nehemiah 2:16). The influence of this council increased due to the relative freedom enjoyed under the Persians.
“The advent of Hellenism in Israel in the 4th century BC affirmed this government. Hellenistic cities commonly possessed democratic assemblies and a council. Jerusalem hosted an aristocratic council which was given its appropriate Greek title, Gerousia. [Greek: council of elders; senate. From geron: the eldership.] This council is first noted by Josephus, who records the decree of Antiochus III after his seizure of Jerusalem (Antiquities 12.3.3). Yet even though the political climate shifted drastically, the council still remained in force. Judas Maccabeus expelled the old line of elders and installed another hereditary rulership stemming from the Hasmonean families. Thus the Gerousia continued as a council of the nobility. But in the 1st century BC, as the tensions between Sadducees and Pharisees were pulling apart the fabric of Judaism, the council underwent a transformation. From the time of Alexandra (76–67 BC), scribes of Pharisee persuasion entered the council. Thereafter the Gerousia consisted of a compromise: aristocratic nobility on the one hand (both lay and priestly) and the popular Pharisees on the other.
“The Romans left the council intact but more carefully defined the limits of its jurisdiction. As Judaism lost its self-government, the council lost much legislative and political power. Rome appointed the true powers of the land. For instance, Herod the Great began his rule in severe conflict with the old aristocracy, and in the end executed most of the Sanhedrin members (Antiquities 14.9.4). The prefects appointed the high priests and, as a symbol of control, from AD 6–36 they kept the priests’ vestments in the Antonia fortress.
“The name ‘Sanhedrin’ [Greek. sunedrion, from sun: together; plus hedra: seat] occurs for the first time in the reign of Herod the Great (Antiquities 14.9.3–5). This is the term used throughout the New Testament (22 times) along with “the elders” (Luke 22:66; Acts 22:5) and “gerousia” (Acts 5:21). The Mishna provides still more titles: The Great Tribunal (Sanhedrin 11:2), the Great Sanhedrin (Sanhedrin 1:6), and the Sanhedrin of the 71 (Shebuoth 2:2).
“After the great war of AD 70 when the final vestiges of Jewish autonomy were destroyed by Rome, the Sanhedrin reconvened in Jamnia. Its power, however, was only theoretical (addressing religious issues primarily) and the Romans gave it little consideration.” It is clear, then, that the Sanhedrin as we know it was at the peak of its influence and authority in Judea during the life of Christ, and only a few decades before and after. As with the rebuilt temple, the pax romana that made widespread travel possible, and the universality of the koine Greek language, it seems to me that Yahweh went out of His way to prepare the world for the advent of His Messiah and the spread of His church.
“Little is known about the procedure for admission into the Sanhedrin, but because the council had aristocratic roots (and was not truly democratic) appointments were probably made from among the priests, leading scribes, and lay nobility. The Mishna stipulates that the sole test of membership was rabbinic learning along with true Israelite descent (Mishna Tractate Sanhedrin 4:4). The council had 71 members (Sanhedrin 1:6) divided into the following three categories: the high priests, the elders, and the scribes.
The High Priests.
“Usually from Sadducean backgrounds, these were the most powerful men of the Sanhedrin. Some scholars believe that they comprised an executive council of 10 wealthy and distinguished citizens on the pattern of several Greek and Roman cities. Tiberias in Galilee, for instance, was ruled by such a board and Josephus can refer to a body of ‘the ten foremost men’ (Antiquities 20.8.11; cf. Acts 4:6). One was the captain of the temple who supervised temple proceedings and was commander of the temple guard (5:24, 26). Others served as treasurers who controlled the wages of priests and workers and monitored the vast amount of money coming through the temple. Income came from sacrifices and market taxes and the payroll included as many as 18,000 men during Herod’s reconstruction of the temple. There was a president of the Sanhedrin who also headed this council and was called ‘The High Priest’ (Antiquities 20.10.5; Apion 2:23). In the New Testament he is a leading figure: Caiaphas ruled in Jesus’ day (Mt 26:3) and Ananias in Paul’s day (Acts 23:2). In Luke 3:2 and Acts 4:6, Annas is termed a high priest, but his title is emeritus, since his reign ended in AD 15.”
The Lexham Bible Dictionary adds, “It was claimed that the gerousia was to some extent a Seleucid innovation established to ‘control’ the powers of the high priest…. There was no distinction between civil, criminal, and religious matters, and the same high council likely dealt with all of them…. Whenever Judaea enjoyed a degree of national autonomy or even independence, native institutions—including those of the Sanhedrin—might include administrative and political powers as well as religious ones. However, during most of this period, Judaea was under the rule of foreign empires whose representatives would often live in Jerusalem and exert military and certain political powers. Under these circumstances, the members of the Sanhedrin enjoyed less authority. The same seems to have been especially true under the Herodian and Roman rulers. Hence, during most of the first century BC and up to the year AD 70, when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, the members of the Sanhedrin had authority predominantly over religious matters only…. According to the New Testament and Josephus, the Sanhedrin was closely related to chief priests, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees, the latter being probably a minority.”
The “chief priests,” by the way (as distinct from the High Priest), were the heads of the twenty-four priestly courses (see 1 Chronicles 24). Also note: “The word ‘Sanhedrin’ is usually translated ‘council’ in the English translations of the Bible. Because of the predominance of the chief priests in the Sanhedrin, at times the words ‘chief priests’ seem to refer to the action of the Sanhedrin, even though the name itself is not used.”—Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary
Quoting again from the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, we continue:
“This was a major category and represented the priestly and financial aristocracy in Judea. Distinguished laymen, such as Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43), shared the conservative views of the Sadducees and gave the assembly the diversity of a modern parliament.” Don’t read “conservative views” hear as “doctrinally orthodox.” The Sadducees were what we today would label “theologically liberal,” denying the existence or possibility of miracles, angels, and life after death. Religion for them was just business. The status quo was their “god.”
“These were the most recent members of the Sanhedrin. Mostly Pharisees, they were professional lawyers trained in theology, jurisprudence, and philosophy. They were organized in guilds and often followed celebrated teachers. One famous Sanhedrin scribe, Gameliel, appears in the New Testament (Acts 5:34) and was the rabbinic scholar who instructed Paul (22:3).”
In Jesus’ Day.
“The domain of the Sanhedrin was formally restricted to Judea, but there was a de facto influence that affected Galilee and even Damascus (cf. Acts 9:2; 22:5). The council was chiefly concerned to arbitrate matters of Jewish law when disagreements arose (Sanhedrin 11:2). In all cases, its decision was final. It prosecuted charges of blasphemy, as in the cases of Jesus (Matthew 26:65) and Stephen (Acts 6:12-14), and participated in criminal justice as well.
“It is still undecided whether or not the Sanhedrin had the power of capital punishment. Philo seems to indicate that violations to the temple could be prosecuted in the Roman period. This may explain the deaths of Stephen (Acts 7:58-60) and James (Antiquities 20.9.1). At any rate Gentiles caught trespassing the temple precincts were warned about an automatic death penalty. On the other hand, the New Testament and the Talmud disagree with this. In the trial of Jesus the authorities are compelled to involve Pilate who alone can put Jesus to death (John 18:31). According to the Talmud, the Sanhedrin lost this privilege “forty years before the destruction of the temple” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin, I 18a, 34; VII 24b).”
That would place their loss of capital punishment privileges about the same time as the commencement of Yahshua’s earthly ministry, in 30 AD. Some, however, insist the Jews lost the right of inflicting the death penalty in 6 AD, when Judea officially became a Roman province. Others believe that Jewish courts were allowed exceptional privilege in the matter of capital punishment (exclusively for religious reasons, and toward Jews only) until 70 AD, when the Jewish revolt was crushed and the Temple was destroyed. Most of these theories would seem to align with Jacob’s messianic prophecy concerning the tribe of Judah, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes.” (Genesis 49:10) That is, it implies that the loss of capital punishment privileges for the Sanhedrin ought to fall within or after the lifetime of Yahshua—between the fall of 2 BC and the spring of 33 AD.
“Despite the serious irregularities of Jesus’ trial, the formal procedures of Sanhedrin law describe a court that was fair and exceedingly concerned about the miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately, the procedural notes in the Mishna only address guidelines for lesser courts (Sanhedrins with 23 members), but it can be reasonably conjectured that similar rules applied to the Great Sanhedrin of 71. In sections four and five of the Mishna tractate Sanhedrin, these guidelines are carefully set forth.
“The Sanhedrin sat in semicircular rows so that members could view one another. Two clerks sat at either end taking notes and recording votes. Facing the assembly sat three rows of students who were usually disciples of leading scribes. The accused stood in the middle facing the elders. He was required to show abject humility: he was dressed in a black robe as if in mourning and wore his hair disheveled (Antiquities 14.9.4). After questioning, he was dismissed and deliberations were private.
“The procedures for capital cases illustrate the concern for fairness. The defense would be heard first and then the accusations. An elder who had spoken for the defense could not then speak against the accused. Students could only speak for but never against the accused (but in noncapital cases they could do either). Members stood to vote, beginning with the youngest. Acquittal required a simple majority, but condemnation demanded a majority of two.
“In noncapital cases the trial was heard during the daytime and the verdict could be given at night. In capital cases, both trial and verdict were during the day and thus open to more public scrutiny. In noncapital cases any verdict could be reached the same day. In capital cases, the verdict of guilt (which was immediately followed by execution) had to be postponed one day because its consequences were irreversible. Hence these trials were not to be held on the eve of the Sabbath or a festival day (Sanhedrin 4:1).
“The trial of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels shows many departures from the usual pattern of Sanhedrin justice. Certainly dominant personalities or interest groups might be able to abbreviate or avoid altogether the usual procedures. If the trial narratives in the Gospels are exhaustive, it seems clear that a miscarriage of justice is evidenced in Jesus’ arrest, interrogation, and death.” No kidding, Sherlock.
In a moment we’ll examine the Scriptures’ recording the role of the Sanhedrin in the life and betrayal of Christ. But first, let us look at where the pride and hypocrisy of the Sanhedrin eventually led—within a century of the crucifixion of Christ. One source points out that the corrupt character of the later Sanhedrin often colors our perception of the Council of Yahshua’s day: “In rabbinic Judaism, the Sanhedrin was the official assembly of the rabbis who made decisions on matters of Jewish law. This later Sanhedrin was dominated by the ideological descendants of the first-century Pharisees and appears to have been placed in charge of Jewish internal affairs by Rome. The later rabbinic model of a group deciding matters of internal Jewish halakhah (religious law) has often been retrojected back on the first-century Sanhedrin.”—The Lexham Bible Dictionary.
The fact is that the entire character of the Sanhedrin shifted a great deal in the decades following the destruction of the temple, and especially early in the second century. Power and influence in matters of Jewish Law were wrested from the hands of the priesthood (primarily of the liberal Sadducee party) by the Pharisees—the rabbis and their allies, the lawyers and scribes). The one man most responsible for the unbalancing of the Sanhedrin was named Akiba ben Joseph. I would recommend reading Rabbi Akiba’s Messiah: The Origins of Rabbinic Authority, by Daniel Gruber (Elijah Publishing, 1999). The book’s title refers to Rabbi Akiba’s backing of the Jewish warlord Simeon ben Kosiba, a.k.a. Bar Kochba (Aramaic for “Son of a Star,” a reference to Baalam’s messianic prophecy in Numbers 24:17). Akiba declared Bar Kochba to be the Messiah, and he did indeed have a few military victories against the Romans. He and Akiba were both slain when Emperor Hadrian brutally put down the rebellion in 133AD, finishing the job Titus and Vespasian had started in 67-70AD. But by then, Akiba had marginalized the priesthood and the Torah, permanently separated Christianity from Judaism, and codified the Oral Law into something practically unrecognizable to earlier sages.
As I wrote in The Owner’s Manual, “The final defeat of priestly authority was brought about a century or so [after Christ], when Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph gained the upper hand, systematized the oral law according to his own views, and precipitated through his disciples the Mishnah (the previously forbidden written form of the oral law) and an impenetrable web of supporting works, including Greek and Aramaic translations of the Tanakh that supported his own unique position on the halakah. Akiba instituted a whole new system of eisegesis (that is, reading into a text what you want to see, as opposed to exegesis—drawing out of the passage what is there). Judaic thought has been thoroughly permeated by Akiba’s views ever since.”
The following description of what the Sanhedrin became under Akiba’s influence is quoted from Gruber’s masterwork, Rabbi Akiba’s Messiah:
“Torah was not given or understood to be ‘religious’ law. It was national law. Inasmuch as the Rabbis presented their rulings as having equal or greater authority than Torah, rabbinic law was also never intended to be ‘religious’ law. It too was presented as national law. Under Akiba’s leadership, the Rabbis were asserting their right to determine the law and destiny of Israel.
“In actual number, the Pharisees were never more than a small minority within Israel.” They often had influence beyond their numbers, depending on the issue. Josephus indicates that during the time of John Hyrcanus, “These have so great a power over the multitude, that when they say anything against the king or against the high priest, they are presently believed.” (Antiquities, Book 13) “Those who followed Akiba in his desire and plan to make rabbinic authority supreme were a party within the Pharisaic movement. As such, they had to devise a means for consolidating their newly gained power and insuring national compliance with their rulings. The Sanhedrin was the means to that end.
“The Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem had become the repository of all the national authority that Rome allowed. Prior to the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin had been controlled by the Sadducees [i.e., the priests]. After the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue grew in religious importance. Increasingly, the Rabbis defined that importance. When Akiba gained control, the Academy at Yavneh became the legislative body for enacting rabbinic law and for controlling the membership of the Sanhedrin.
“Thus Jewish law, with regard to its sources, is essentially aristocratic, that is, rabbinic, not democratic, not emanating from the sovereignty of the people. This is equally true with regard to the administration of the law. Halakhic adjudication and halakhic interpretation in their traditional, classical forms have invariably been in the hands of rabbinical judges and rabbinical scholars….”
If you have read my Torah study, The Owner’s Manual (elsewhere on this website), you are familiar with the tragic consequence that settled Jewish Law (the vaunted collection of 613 precepts, or mitzvah) bears only a passing resemblance to what is actually found in the Torah. The most definitive listing to this day was compiled by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides, a.k.a. the Rambam (1135-1204 A.D.), a Spanish physician and rabbi who settled in Cairo, Egypt, eventually serving as court physician to Sultan Saladin himself. The work of Maimonides is heavily dependent on the prevarications of Akiba and the rabbis who followed his teachings, recorded in writings such as the Mishnah (the Oral Law committed to writing) and Gemara (together known as the Talmud) and the Midrashim (a series of stories expanding and expounding upon Biblical incidents). Bear in mind that Yahweh had placed the priesthood—not the Sanhedrin—in charge of guarding and transmitting the Torah. So what we have now is travesty compounding tragedy: the opinions of man taking precedent over the very word of God—by God’s own chosen people, no less.
Gruber continues: “Only the leading rabbis could qualify to serve on the Sanhedrin. ‘R. Johanan said, none are to be appointed members of the Sanhedrin, but men of stature, wisdom, good appearance, mature age, with a knowledge of sorcery, and who are conversant with all the seventy languages of mankind, in order that the court should have no need of an interpreter. Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: None is to be given a seat on the Sanhedrin unless he is able to prove the cleanness of a reptile from Biblical texts.’… In other words, he had to be able to use the Scriptures to prove the exact opposite of what they actually teach. He had to be a master of what the Torah expressly forbids.” Under Akiba’s program, pride of intellect and spooky mysticism were king. Holiness, piety, faith, and respect for the Torah (or for Yahweh) were not even in the running.
The Sanhedrin as a concept wouldn’t be worth a second glace from a symbolic standpoint, were it not for the frequent (and generally damning) references to it in the New Testament, and especially their role in the crucifixion of Christ. But when we first see it, it functioned as one might hope: a council of priests, scribes, and elders to whom the secular rulers felt they might turn for advice and counsel concerning matters governed or defined by the Hebrew Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets.
So we read of a delegation of Magi from the East, perhaps Babylon, where the Jews had been exiled centuries previously (and where quite a few had remained, even when given permission to return to Judea). These “wise men” came to Jerusalem and enquired of the Roman-appointed king, Herod the Great, as to where they might expect the King of the Jews to be born. “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him….’”
These Magi were rightly considered astrologers, for they knew the sidereal heavens and were in a position to notice unusual events there—alignments, asteroids, comets, and the like. But they weren’t like the quacks who read horoscopes today: they were more like well-respected astronomers—men of science. The prophet Daniel was once appointed chief administrator over all the magi, or “wise men,” in Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar (see Daniel 2:4). But his wisdom that so impressed the king was due entirely to his reverence for Yahweh, not his knowledge of the stars. In fact, there is a persistent legend that Daniel himself had set aside the treasure that these first-century Magi brought with them, with instructions on what signs to look for in the starry skies heralding the Messiah’s birth—half a millennium before the fact.
Note that the record states that the Magi arrived in Jerusalem “after Jesus was born.” My research (and that of others) has led me to the conclusion that they had seen the “star” (actually an unusually bright conjunction of planets) when Yahshua was born, on the Feast of Tabernacles, 2 BC (September 24 that year), or perhaps even earlier. (Herod’s resulting rampage reveals that he was concerned about children as old as two. We are left to ponder whether this was based on solid information from the Magi, or mere paranoia.) They arrived in Judea some three months after Tabernacles—in late December—when (according to the latest astronomical software) the conjunction was once again visible in the night sky. So, ironically enough, although placing “Christmas” on December 25 was a blatant attempt by the Roman Church to blend sun-god worship with Christianity (the pagan holiday was known as Saturnalia), the winter gift-giving part of our modern tradition seems to align with scripture. That being said, the only “coming” of God to dwell among men that we were commanded to observe in Scripture was His final and definitive advent—prophesied by the Feast of Tabernacles in its mandated position on the Hebrew festal calendar: at the end of the series, not the beginning.
Anyway, Matthew’s account continues: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod the Great was certifiably paranoid, having executed at least two members of his own family when he felt his throne was threatened. This episode with the Magi would precipitate the infamous “murder of the innocents” in Bethlehem, Herod’s attempt to kill the “King of the Jews” before He could even come to power. But at this point, he had no idea where to look for his hated rival, so he called—you guessed it—the Sanhedrin. “And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.”’” (Matthew 2:1-6, quoting Micah 5:2) The Sanhedrin was not wrong to give this information to Herod. They could not have known of the atrocity that would result. (There is a prophecy describing it—Jeremiah 31:15—but it is far from specific.) Scripture, in the end, is only as good as our reverence for its Author.
As we all know, the infant Yahshua (with some timely help from an angel, the Magi, and His parents) escaped to Egypt, returning only after Herod had died. When He began His ministry decades later, Yahshua acknowledged the authority of the Sanhedrin in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ [“empty head”] shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22) Calling each other insulting names can be evidence of the violation of the second-greatest commandment—You shall love your neighbor as you do yourself. Chaired as it was by the High Priest, then, the Sanhedrin would have been responsible for pointing out flaws in folks’ keeping of the Torah’s precepts. I wonder what they would have had to say about today’s Facebook and Twitter postings. In any case, it’s safe to say that the hypocrisy factor loomed large with the Sanhedrin of Christ’s day, for they could dish the dirt with the best (i.e., the worst) of them.
Bearing mind that the Sanhedrin of Yahshua’s day was mostly comprised of three powerful groups—the chief priests (mostly Sadducees); the scribes (religious lawyers); and the Pharisees (an influential religious sect including many of the leading rabbis of the day)—let us review a few instances that reveal their attitude toward the Messiah who had been foretold in such detail in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Challenged by the Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath, Yahshua informed them that practical love and mercy far outweighed the “don’t work” component (symbolic of the Millennial rest in Christ), which the rabbis had turned into an outrageously complicated burden in itself. Spotting a man with a withered hand in the synagogue, “He said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.” (Matthew 12:13-14; cf. Mark 3:1-6) The ability to heal (no matter what day of the week it was) gave weight to His stated opinion that “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (v.12) But all the Pharisees could do was hate Yahshua for publicly correcting their errant interpretation of Scripture. So much for “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
By the way, each of the four Gospels stresses a separate component of Christ’s persona, just as revealed in visions received by John (Revelation 4:6-11) and Ezekiel (1:10; 10:14). The prophets saw a lion (indicating authority), an ox or calf (symbolizing service), a man (humanity, obviously), and an eagle (metaphorical of the Lord of the heavens—deity). In the gospel accounts, Matthew stresses Christ’s authority; Mark His service; Luke His humanity; and John emphasizes the fact that Yahshua is God in flesh. Thus we should not be terribly surprised to discover that the most numerous (and most scathing) references to the Sanhedrin Council are to be found in the Gospel of Matthew, where the issue of their authority vs. Christ’s is most clearly in view.
As Yahshua gained notoriety, the Pharisees grew jealous. When He healed a man who was blind, mute, and demon possessed, “All the multitudes were amazed and said, ‘Could this be the Son of David?’” That is, Could Yahshua be the promised Messiah, the King of kings whom we were told to expect? It sure looks that way. The Pharisees’ counter-theory was as creative as it was wrong: “Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, ‘This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons….’” It was a question of authority. Obviously, no mere man could perform miraculous cures in his own power. Therefore, Yahshua’s power had to come from elsewhere—either God or the devil. Since the Pharisees (a popular and influential component of the Sanhedrin) presumed that “God was on their side,” and since they hated and envied Yahshua, they concluded that He must be operating in Satan’s power.
The fallacy was easily debunked with simple, irrefutable logic: “But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out?” Exorcisms by devout men, achieved through prayer and supplication to Yahweh, were not unheard of. And, as in many spiritual crossroads in human history, demonic activity was rampant during Yahshua’s ministry. “Therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.’” (Matthew 12:23-28; cf. Mark 3:22-30)
Lest there should be any confusion, Yahshua then pointed out that this was no mere difference of theological opinion, but irrefutable evidence that many of the Pharisees—so influential in the Sanhedrin and among the people—were themselves operating in the spirit of Satan: “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come….” In this case, “speaking against the Holy Spirit” was attributing to a false god what Yahweh Himself had accomplished. It was a clear violation of the Third Commandment (the one about “not taking the name of God in vain”), which literally means we are not to use the name or reputation of Yahweh in a manner that is empty, worthless, false, or futile. We are not to attribute God’s character or works to someone else, or blame man’s flawed works on God.
The point was that Yahweh seeks our well-being, while Satan wishes to do us harm, in the long run. So you can tell whose authority someone is operating in merely by analyzing the “fruit” of his works. “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or else make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things.” (Matthew 12:31-35) Calling these Pharisees a “brood of vipers” is no idle pejorative. Christ was identifying their origin, their parentage. Satan is symbolized by serpents or dragons from one end of Scripture to the other. Yahshua was calling the Pharisees (as a class) “offspring of the devil.”
Of course, there were exceptions that proved the rule. Just being a Pharisee (or a member of the Sanhedrin) did not automatically identify you as a “son of Satan.” Nicodemus, who had visited Yahshua by night seeking enlightenment in John 3, was both a Pharisee and an upstanding member of the Council. Christ had informed him, “‘Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again” [literally, “from above”]. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus answered and said to Him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?’” (John 3:5-10)
Because of these scathing denunciations leveled against the Pharisees by Yahshua, we might get the idea that they were all religious apostates who played fast and loose with the Commandments of God. Nothing could be further from the truth. They, with their allies the scribes—the religious lawyers—were scrupulous to a fault concerning the minutiae of the Law. So strict was their regimen, the “common folk” couldn’t begin to compete with them on the basis of outward rule-keeping. As a result, there were never more than six thousand Pharisees in the Holy Land at any one time. It was a very exclusive club.
The problem (as Yahshua pointed out) was that they kept the outward rules while completely ignoring what they meant. They were known to painstakingly count the mint leaves or cumin seeds in their herb gardens for the tithe, while totally missing the idea that the tithe was supposed to be an act of mercy to the poor and oppressed. The Pharisees were not interested in mercy. They were focused only on impressing God and man with their public piety and obeisance. They knew the mechanics of what the Torah required, and they carried out their duties with great public pomp and circumstance. So the common people quite naturally honored and respected them, for on the surface, their performance was a hard act to follow—something few would even attempt. Naturally then, when a Pharisee taught, people assumed they were hearing God’s own truth. This status wasn’t a byproduct of their piety, however, but their whole raison d’être.
The issue, then, was pride—the antithesis of love. Paul—himself a transformed Pharisee—revealed the truth of the matter: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:1-3) Paul’s list goes infinitely beyond the Pharisees’ actual achievements, of course—though they liked to imagine that they “walked on water,” with all the deference that sort of thing would bring them.
So when Yahshua asked Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?” He was pointing out that the salient truths of God’s Word often lay just beneath the surface—that Yahweh revealed truth in symbolic terms as often as He did in plain language. The tithe didn’t mean “Give a tenth of your increase” nearly so much as it meant “Love your neighbor as you do yourself.” The Sabbath didn’t mean “Don’t work on the seventh day” as much as it meant “In the end, you must rely upon God’s provision.” Circumcision didn’t mean “cut off the foreskin of your male child’s penis on the eighth day of his life” as much as it meant, “Be separated from your sin, completely and irrevocably, in a process involving blood and pain, during the eternal state that defines your true life.”
The Pharisees—the “elders” of Yahshua’s day—understood none of this. They had, rather, spent centuries constructing an impenetrable hedge of extra-Biblical rules designed to ensure the Torah’s sanctity. In time, these traditions—called the “oral law”—took on a life of their own, obscuring and obfuscating the Torah’s clear instructions. For example, Moses had warned the wilderness multitude not to leave their tents on the Sabbath looking for manna, as on other days. The rabbis had found that unworkable (especially since there wasn’t any more manna to be found), so they redefined a “Sabbath day’s journey” to be two thousand cubits—about a thousand yards from one’s home. Then, over time, they invented all sorts of loopholes and workarounds so they could break their own “law” with impunity. It’s no wonder Yahshua called them hypocrites.
There is nothing in the Torah about washing one’s hands at mealtimes, or washing their dishes and cooking utensils. It’s not that these things aren’t good ideas, but they’re the wisdom of man, not of God. Yahweh had instructed the priests to wash their hands and feet at the bronze laver before entering the tabernacle—a picture of the judgment He endured for our sakes being efficacious in cleansing our works and our walk as we entered His presence—but that’s a completely different subject.
So several times in the Gospels, we read of confrontations like this: “Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders….” There’s the key to the problem: their rules—not God’s—had been invested with the same (or greater) authority as Yahweh’s Instructions in their minds. Don’t get me wrong here: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with traditions—well-engrained habits, if you will. They help us get through our days without having to remember every little detail. For instance, I keep my car keys and wallet in one designated place when they’re not in my pockets. That way, I don’t have to worry about misplacing them. But it’s a “tradition of an elder” (me, in this case). I would be foolish to insist that just because the system works for me, it’s “God’s Law.”
So Mark explains, “When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches….” There’s no problem doing any of that. In fact, modern microbiology would inform us that it’s probably a smart thing to do on a habitual basis. But it’s not a commandment of Yahweh. (On the other hand, there’s evidence that you can take the whole “cleanliness” thing too far. Children who grow up in pristine, germ-free environments are more likely to develop allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases than those who are exposed to a bit of dirt early in life, allowing them to build up normal antibodies and immunities, as God designed our bodies to do. It’s called the Hygiene Hypothesis. Look it up. As usual, there’s a balance to be struck here. Proper hygiene and clean water are generally good things, but today it is easy to take your “germophobia” to extremes, and in the process demonstrate your lack of faith in God’s provision.)
Yahshua didn’t bother debating the efficacy of cleanliness with them, but (as usual) cut straight to the heart of the matter: “Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.’” (Mark 7:1-8; cf. Matthew 15:1-9; quoting Isaiah 29:13) Human wisdom has its place: we are, after all, made in the image and likeness of God, with the ability to reason, learn, and choose. But if we “lay aside the commandment of God” in order to “hold the tradition of men,” we have proven ourselves to be fools.
This really didn’t have anything to do with washing hands or dishes per se. It had everything to do with receiving God’s word as the final authority, while taking man’s wisdom with a grain of salt. The passage from Isaiah that Yahshua quoted went on to say, “Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work among this people, a marvelous work and a wonder. For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hidden.” (Isaiah 29:14) The word of Yahweh, on the other hand, will stand for all eternity: “He is Yahweh our God. His judgments are in all the earth. He remembers His covenant forever, the word which He commanded, for a thousand generations.” (Psalm 105:7-8) “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8; cf. I Peter 1:24-25) “Forever, O Yahweh, Your word is settled in heaven.” (Psalm 119:89) “Love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.” (I Peter 1:22-23) Need I go on?
Yahshua did “go on” (in Mark’s account), giving another example of how the oral law found itself at odds with the Torah: “He said to them, ‘All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.’” (Mark 7:9-13; cf. Matthew 15:3-6)
Ellicott explains, “In Matthew 27:6, the treasury of the Temple is itself called the Corban…. to divert to lower human uses that which has been consecrated to God is sacrilege, and therefore a man who turned all his property into a Corban was bound not to expend it on the support even of his nearest relations. But the time of fulfilling the vow of consecration was left to his own discretion, and no one had a right to call him to account for delay. With this loophole, the Corban practice became an easy method of evading natural obligations.” (Emphasis mine.) So if one’s parents grew old (as we are wont to do) and in need of their grown children’s assistance, the Pharisee-child could say, “Sorry, the money that would have enabled me to help you is dedicated to God.” Then, when his parents finally passed away, he could say, “Oops, too late.” Meanwhile, the Fifth Commandment had plainly said, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which Yahweh your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12) By invoking their “Corban Loophole,” the parsimonious Pharisees were in effect praying, “Please kill me quickly, O Yahweh.”
In the wake of this episode, “His disciples came and said to Him, ‘Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’ But He answered and said, ‘Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.’” (Matthew 15:12-14) Of course He knew the Pharisees would be offended. But if they were never confronted about their hypocrisy by Someone with moral authority, they would never have a reason to reexamine their attitudes. This is one of those instances in which “offending” someone who is in error is actually an expression of love. And it wasn’t only the Pharisees Yahshua was worried about. It was also those who were inclined to follow them—as many did. There is absolutely nothing to be gained by failing to warn the lost that they are headed for a fall.
But there was seemingly no end to the scribes’ and Pharisees’ annoyance with Yahshua’s failure to kowtow to their man-made traditions: “And their scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, ‘Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.’” (Luke 5:30-32; cf. Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17) We’re all sick, of course—we’re all sinners, even the best of us. The question is, are we willing to admit the obvious truth before God that there’s something wrong, or are we more like the Black Knight in the Monte Python sketch who, having lost both his arms in a pointless battle, insists, “It’s just a flesh wound”? The unstated point of Yahshua’s statement that He had not come to “call the righteous to repentance” is that no one is righteous—we have all been cursed through Adam’s fall, and then cursed by our own sins. Maybe He should have phrased that, “I have not come to call the SELF-righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
The Sabbath Law seemed like fertile ground to the Pharisees—something in which they could plant all sorts of manmade rules designed to put a “hedge” around the simple requirements of the Torah. “Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, ‘Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’…” They weren’t accusing the disciples of theft. According to the Torah, it was perfectly legal for travelers to pluck grain growing in another man’s fields and eat it as they journeyed. No, what the Pharisees were “concerned” with was that they were “harvesting” grain on the Sabbath Day, and then “milling it” by rubbing it between their palms to remove the husks. That was work, was it not?
The Pharisees missed the whole purpose of the Sabbath: mercy, not rule-keeping. “But He said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?’ And He said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.’” (Mark 2:23-27; cf. Luke 6:1-5) The back story is found in I Samuel 21:1-6. David, on the run from the paranoid King Saul, came to where the tabernacle was on a Sabbath, asking the priest for something to eat. Nothing was available except for the Bread of the Presence (a.k.a. the “showbread”). Twelve fresh loaves were ready to be placed on the small table in the Holy Place, but apparently, five of the loaves from the previous week had not been eaten by the priests, and these were given to David and his little band of men, since they were now, in effect, “common.” (Five, not coincidentally, is the scriptural number of grace.)
And take note: who is “Lord of the Sabbath?” Yahshua says it’s “the Son of Man,” clearly a reference to Himself, but not His role as deity incarnate or as the Messiah, but rather as God in flesh—the emphasis being on His human form. That is, the Sabbath was instituted by God for mankind’s benefit—it was never intended to be the outrageously complicated obstacle course into which the rabbis and Sanhedrin had transformed it.
Another indicator of the Pharisees’ disbelief was their repeated insistence on a “sign from God” to validate Yahshua’s authority. Healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the multitudes, and raising the dead weren’t sufficiently “convincing,” I guess. So we read, “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” (Matthew 12:38-40) We all know the story: Yahweh sent His prophet Jonah to Nineveh (the capital of the evil Assyrian empire) to preach repentance to them. Jonah balked, not really wanting the Ninevites to receive God’s mercy, and headed in the opposite direction—west across the Mediterranean. At this point, allow me to quote from an earlier chapter in The Torah Code (Volume 3, Chapter 2.16—the essay on “Fish: Lost Humanity”).
“…Long story short, God sent a storm to get His prophet’s attention, and Jonah eventually confessed to the terrified crew that the reason for the storm was his own rebellion. So, praying for God’s forgiveness, they tossed the prophet overboard—and the sea became calm again. ‘And Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.’ (Jonah 1:17)
“At this point, most of us react like Pavlov’s dog and make the leap to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ…. The problem is, Yahshua didn’t spend ‘three days and three nights’ in the tomb, like most everybody assumes. He was crucified on Passover (A.D. 33), dying late Friday afternoon, and His body was placed in the grave just before sunset. There He spent a day and a night removing our sins from us on the Sabbath, in fulfillment of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Before sunup on the next day, the Feast of Firstfruits, Christ arose from the tomb, proving His power over death—not to mention His deity. So add it up: He spent only one full night, one full day, and part of another night in the grave—in perfect compliance with the requirements of the Torah.
“Therefore, the passion was not the ‘sign of the prophet Jonah,’ not exactly. But He explained what the sign actually was in His subsequent statement, if only we had been astute enough to catch it: ‘The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.’ (Matthew 12:41) He’s talking not about conquering death or atoning for sin. He’s talking about sojourning among the lost (as Jonah was within the fish) for three days and three nights, in order that the ‘worst’ of us (exemplified by the Ninevites) might have the opportunity to hear and repent. For what it’s worth, the number three symbolizes accomplishment, while days and nights remind of the dichotomy between light and darkness—all of which tells us that Yahshua would accomplish His goal of reaching the lost whether the conditions were favorable or not.
“When Yahshua invokes Jonah’s adventure as a sign, He’s not talking about the tomb being the ‘belly of the earth.’ Rather, He’s referring to His unbroken sojourn in Jerusalem, the ‘heart of the Land’ of Israel, the city of Yahshua’s temple, His temporary tomb, and His future throne. Transmitted through Greek, of course, the two things would have looked quite similar, and indeed, the linguistic parallel was Yahshua’s whole point. I’ve stood within that tomb. It’s hardly what you’d call the ‘heart of the earth.’ It’s just a small walk-in cave cut into the side of an old limestone quarry wall. But remember what language Yahshua was speaking—Aramaic, a close cognate of Hebrew. The word he doubtless used for “earth” is ara, the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew eretz, which can mean land, earth, the whole world, country, territory, the land of Israel, or even soil—it’s so general that it’s silly to presume that it must mean the planet upon which we live. I’m convinced the usage Yahshua meant to convey was ‘the Land of Israel,’ that piece of earth Yahweh set aside for Himself—something still called ‘eretz Israel’ by those who love it.
“Jerusalem, then, is where Yahshua spent ‘three days and three nights’ in fulfillment of the sign of the prophet Jonah. We can follow His itinerary in the Book of Mark. The week (with weekdays as in the year 33 AD) looks like this: On Monday (Nisan 10, as required in Exodus 12:3) the triumphal entry took place (see Mark 11:1-10), after which He left Jerusalem and stayed in Bethany. (This day also marked the fulfillment of the “coming of Messiah” prophecy of Daniel 9:25.) He came back on Tuesday (Mark 11:12), but again spent the night out of town. Same thing on Wednesday (11:20). But on Thursday morning He came back to Jerusalem and never left again until after the resurrection. Passover (14:1) began on Thursday evening, running through Friday afternoon, when He died. His body lay in the tomb over the Sabbath (as required in the Torah), and He rose sometime after sunset, His risen status being discovered by His followers early on Sunday morning. So Yahshua spent Thursday, that evening, Friday, that evening, Saturday, and that evening—precisely three days and three nights—in the heart of the Land of Israel: Jerusalem. And the reason he did this is the same as the reason for Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the big fish: so that the lost of the world—the ‘fish,’ as the symbol puts it—would have an opportunity to hear and respond to Yahweh’s lifesaving message.”
It’s pretty obvious that the “sign of the prophet Jonah” was totally lost on the Pharisees—and it’s pretty opaque to the rest of us as well, if we aren’t intimately familiar with the requirements of the Torah. But again, they insisted on seeing a sign, this time from the heavens: “Then the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and testing Him asked that He would show them a sign from heaven. He answered and said to them, ‘When it is evening you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red”; and in the morning, “It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.” Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times.’” (Matthew 16:1-3) His impending passion would fulfill hundreds of prophecies from the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophetic writings. But a sign from heaven? (In both Greek and Hebrew, one word is used to denote the sky, the starry heavens, and the abode of God.) There was indeed a solar eclipse during the time He spent on the cross. But that wouldn’t account for this sign: “Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land.” (Matthew 27:45) The Sanhedrin had at last received the sign from heaven they had requested. But except for a few “rebels” like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, they refused to see it for what it was.
No wonder Yahshua had warned His disciples about the corruption of the Sanhedrin. For example, “Jesus said to them…‘Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then they understood that He did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:11-12) Leaven, or yeast (as we saw in Vol. 3, Chapter 1.6) was an ingredient used in the making of bread that permeated the entire loaf, changing its character from the inside out. So it was an apt metaphor for sin: in this case, the corruption of the Mosaic Law represented by the doctrines taught by both the Pharisees and the Sadducees—the primary constituents of the Sanhedrin.
The same symbol (leaven—corruption) was employed elsewhere, with a slightly different lesson attached: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops.” (Luke 12:1-3) This time, Yahshua stressed the fact that the corruption of the Pharisees—that which permeated their entire raison d’être—was carefully hidden from their adoring masses. Their pretense was that they actually were keeping the Torah’s precepts perfectly, and therefore needed no salvation, no “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” as John the Baptist put it. But the truth is scattered from one end of Scripture to the other: we are all sinners—we are all in need of a Savior. The apostle John probably said it best: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him [i.e, call Him] a liar, and His word is not in us.” (I John 1:8-10) In short, Yahshua says that the corruption of the Pharisees—their pretense of holiness—would be made obvious. And sure enough, if someone is called a “Pharisee” today, they are being labeled a legalistic self-righteous hypocrite, not a paragon of virtue, a holy and sinless individual.
Earlier in Yahshua’s ministry (i.e., before the appointed time had come for His sacrifice), the Sanhedrin would have done anything to shut Him up, for He was pointing out the chinks in their theological armor—diminishing their prestige among the unwashed masses. “The Pharisees heard the crowd murmuring these things concerning Him [rumors that He might be the promised Messiah], and the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take Him…. Then the officers came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, ‘Why have you not brought Him?’ The officers answered, ‘No man ever spoke like this Man!’ Then the Pharisees answered them, ‘Are you also deceived? Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in Him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed….’” The reason the crowd didn’t know the law, ironically enough, was that the Pharisees—the rabbis and religious elite—had hidden it from them: they had buried the Torah under a mountain of meaningless minutiae, traditions and rules that Moses had never even imagined, much less commanded.
Before the days of Rabbi Akiba, however, there was still room for reason, still a platform for dissent: “Nicodemus (he who came to Jesus by night, being one of them) said to them, ‘Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?’ They answered and said to him, ‘Are you also from Galilee? Search and look, for no prophet has arisen out of Galilee.’” (John 7:32, 45-49) Self-appointed cognoscenti are always vulnerable to those pesky historical facts of which they are ignorant. They didn’t know that Yahshua had been born in Bethlehem, the City of David (according to the Scriptures), although the previous generation’s Sanhedrin had.
Nor were they acquainted with the clearly Messianic prophecy of Isaiah: “Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed, as when at first He lightly esteemed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward more heavily oppressed her, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:1-2, quoted in Matthew 4:15-16. Isaiah 9 is the same passage in which we read, “For unto us a Child is born… Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace….”) Galilee, where Yahshua’s ministry was centered, was in the territory of Naphtali; He also spent a great deal of time on Galilee’s eastern shores—gentile territory at the time. And Nazareth, where He grew up, is within Zebulun’s tribal domain. “No prophet from Galilee?” Think again. Or just think.
Nicodemus wasn’t the only influential man in Israel who recognized the divine in Yahshua, but he was practically the only one who had the courage to make his belief known. “Even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (John 12:42-43) As I said, the Pharisees, though relatively few in number, exerted a tremendous influence upon the common people of Judea due to their outward appearance of holiness. But here we see that their antagonism toward Yahshua also prevented their social peers, the “rulers” of Israel, from publically acclaiming Him to be the Christ, at least prior to the resurrection. Eventually, however, even some of the Pharisees came to faith—although they had trouble letting go of their errant ingrained traditions concerning the requirements of the Torah. Thus we read, “But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them [i.e., gentile converts], and to command them to keep the law of Moses.’” (Acts 15:5) They still didn’t understand that the Law pointed toward Christ, revealing Him to the world through what Israel was instructed to do. But one did not have to become Jewish in order to be saved.
It is remarkable how often in the Gospels the Pharisees (or other groups comprising the Sanhedrin) are taken to task for their unwillingness to see the Torah’s big picture—that sin leads to death, and we are all sinners, even those who pretend not to be. Therefore, showing mercy is one of God’s primary requirements: loving our neighbors as we do ourselves. One incident that brought this clearly into focus is recorded here: “Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?’ This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him….”
Again, the Pharisees missed the whole point of the Law, not realizing that sexual sin was symbolic of idolatry—it was in reality a picture of what Israel itself had done for hundreds of years: giving to false gods the devotion and affection that was rightly due to Yahweh alone. And that was something the scribes and Pharisees were still doing at that very moment: serving a god of pride, intellect, and covetousness of position, not one of mercy, love, and forgiveness. I find it interesting that the scribes and Pharisees had not bothered to bring the adulterous man before Him as well—he too was guilty and due the same punishment under the Law as the woman.
As usual, the elites thought they had Yahshua trapped between a rock and a hard place. They had seen Him forgive people of their sins (blasphemy, in their estimation) and eat and drink with obvious “sinners” (like tax collectors); so they guessed—correctly—that Yahshua would not advocate a public stoning here in the temple environs, even though technically, the Torah authorized it. If He said, “Stone her,” they could accuse Him of being unmerciful. But if He said, “Let her go,” He would be portrayed as a law-breaker. Perfect. “But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’ And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last….” The oldest of them, more in touch with their own mortality, were quicker to admit that, appearances aside, they were not without sin, and never had been. And in God’s eyes, one sin incurred as much guilt as any other. Only after witnessing their elders’ candid self-appraisal of guilt before God did the younger firebrands admit that they too were not quite as “perfect” as they would have liked the unwashed masses to believe.
Yahshua—who, being sinless, could have stoned her—opted to encourage her repentance instead. “And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’” (John 8:2-11) If Yahweh’s purpose in manifesting Himself in flesh and living among men had been to punish us for our sins, He would have had a target-rich environment indeed. He would have been perfectly justified in extinguishing the whole planet and starting over. But His purpose during this advent was to atone for our sins—to cover them from His own holy eyes, if only we would choose to receive the gift of salvation His sacrifice provided. This is not a license to sin with impunity, however, for our sins condemn us, even if He does not. (See John 3:18.) Rather, Yahshua tells each of us what he told the woman: “Go and sin no more.”
The conflict between the Sanhedrin and the Messiah finally came to a full boil during the week of the Passion—leading up to Passover, just as Yahweh had ordained it. Matthew’s chapters 21 through 23 record incident after incident in which the scribes, Pharisees, chief priests, and elders butted heads with Yahshua. Much of the confrontation took the form of questions asked of Yahshua, not to elicit knowledge or insight, but rather to trick Him into saying things that might incriminate Him. Like the classic no-win query, “When did you stop beating your wife?” the questions they asked were designed to make Him look like a fool to the people who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Feasts of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Firstfruits.
The first issue that arose was that of authority. The unquestioned authority of the Sanhedrin was derived from several sources. They served with the consent of the Romans, who had discovered that leaving local councils in place in the lands they conquered tended to cut down on the rebellion. The priesthood, of course, had been instituted by Yahweh Himself during the wilderness wanderings, but the Romans now selected the High Priest, the chairman of the Sanhedrin. The elders, rabbis, scribes, and Pharisees were popular and influential figures in the community—respected among the people for their scholarship and apparent ability to keep the Law (or their version of it, anyway).
But it was clear that Yahshua’s power and authority (by which he worked miracles and forgave sins) was based on something entirely different than theirs. So they demanded to know what that might be: “Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?’…” Once again, they (the chief priests and elders, two of the groups comprising the Sanhedrin) calculated that any answer He gave them could be construed as a stoning offence, one way or another.
The real answer—the straightforward truth—would have been that He was the Son of God, and His authority was derived directly from Yahweh. But His antagonists would have stoned Him on the spot for imagined blasphemy, and that wouldn’t do—not because He was afraid to die, but because of the plethora of prophecies that had to be fulfilled by His sacrifice, according to the Scriptures. The Torah demanded (if we would but see it) that He be slain on Passover as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” as John the Baptist had declared Him to be. He would remove our corruption from us as He lay in the tomb on the Feast of Unleavened Bread; and He would rise from the dead on the Feast of Firstfruits—the third day. Psalm 22 had even described in detail how he would die—not by stoning, but with a mode of execution that hadn’t even been invented yet: crucifixion. So Yahshua was compelled to deflect their query until God’s timing was perfect—just a few more days.
“But Jesus answered and said to them, ‘I also will ask you one thing, which if you tell Me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things: The baptism of John—where was it from? From heaven or from men?’ And they reasoned among themselves, saying, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” He will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “From men,” we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus and said, ‘We do not know.’ And He said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” (Matthew 21:23-27; cf. Mark 11:27-33; cf. Luke 20:1-8) The “gotcha-question” didn’t feel so good when the shoe was on their own foot. They hadn’t liked John any better than they did Yahshua, but the people loved the young prophet for his honesty and courage. Worse (or better, depending on your point of view) John had publically called out the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy (see Matthew 3:7-12) but had baptized Yahshua and witnessed His divine authentication (vs. 13-17). The fact that John had by now graduated from the rank of respected prophet to that of revered martyr (at the hands of the chief priests’ sometime-ally, Herod) didn’t help with their image issues.
Yahshua then endeavored to teach them the error of their ways: “‘What do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, “Son, go, work today in my vineyard.” He answered and said, “I will not,” but afterward he regretted it and went.” That’s repentance. “Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, “I go, sir,” but he did not go.” That’s hypocrisy. “Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said to Him, ‘The first.’” Obviously. “Jesus said to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John [the Baptist] came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.’” (Matthew 21:28-32) The Jewish elders no doubt thought that their exalted position in the hierarchy of Israel’s religious establishment would qualify them for similar honor in the kingdom of heaven. Yahweh pointedly informed them that they hadn’t even entered the kingdom—and never would if they didn’t repent like the tax collectors and prostitutes had when they’d heard John’s message. The elites should have been the first in line to repent at John’s teaching; at the very least, they should have gotten on board when the “worst sinners” of society did so. The parable points out the fallacy of religious pretension. It is worse than pointless—it’s counterproductive to say you’re doing God’s will if you’re merely being religious. Don’t deceive yourself. He’s not stupid. He knows the difference.
We see this sort of thing over and over again in the Gospels: one message was preached—that of holiness before God. Some received it and some did not. The surprising thing is that usually, the ones who rejected the call to repentance (whether from John the Baptist or Yahshua) were the most religious guys in town—the ones who supposedly knew the Scriptures best: the very people who (demographically, at least) comprised the prestigious Sanhedrin. Worse, their knee-jerk reaction was not to simply ignore the message and go about their lives, but to attack the messenger. For example, “Now when the chief priests and Pharisees [two adversarial components of the Sanhedrin, you’ll notice] heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them. But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.” (Matthew 21:45-46; cf. Luke 20:19) The Sadducean chief priests and the Pharisees did not remotely agree with each other in matters of theology or religious law. But they both perceived that Yahshua’s teaching was focused on their unbelief.
The core of their problem was pride. Having worked hard to become experts in their version of the Law (not the Torah so much, but the Oral Law and traditions that had supplanted it), they presumed they were the custodians of truth. It never even occurred to them that they might be mistaken about what God wanted. In this respect, they were not all that different from many “religious” Christians today, who assume that their extra-Biblical beliefs are true, just because they’ve never been questioned—because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” The question is: what do we do when our long-held beliefs are challenged?
“And He was teaching daily in the temple. But the chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people sought to destroy Him, and were unable to do anything; for all the people were very attentive to hear Him.” (Luke 19:47-48) What they should have done—and what the people were doing—was to go back to the Scriptures to determine who (if anyone) was actually correct. The Jews at the Greek city of Berea were commended for doing precisely that (see Acts 17:11-12). But all the religious elites could do was try to eliminate the Guy who was rocking their profitable, prestigious little boat.
Once, after Yahshua had restored the sight of a blind man (on the Sabbath, thus angering the Pharisees), “Jesus said, ‘For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.’” The word “judgment” here does not necessarily mean condemnation. The Greek word is krima, the noun derived from the verb krino: to distinguish, judge, or decide. The idea is the separation of right from wrong, or of the innocent from the guilty. “Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, ‘Are we blind also?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, “We see.” Therefore your sin remains.’” (John 9:39-41) The Pharisees claimed to see perfectly, even though they were leading less learned people astray. If their pride hadn’t gotten in the way, they might have been open to “fine tuning” their understanding, as Nicodemus had been earlier, or as Apollos would be later (see Acts 18:24-28). But their attitude was, “Our mind is made up; don’t confuse us with facts,” or in this case, “We can see just fine; don’t bother turning on the light.”
The next chapter in Matthew (22) deals with all three of the primary groups comprising the Sanhedrin, one after the other. First, Yahshua answered another would-be “gotcha” question from the Pharisees. “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.” I wonder if Yahshua rolled his eyes at their transparent attempt to get Him to drop His guard. “Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?…’” If He said it was, the people would turn against Him for siding with their hated foreign overlords. On the other hand, if He said it wasn’t lawful, the Romans could (theoretically) come and arrest Him for sedition.
“But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, ‘Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money.’ So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, ‘Whose image and inscription is this?’ They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ And He said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.” (Matthew 22:15-22; cf. Mark 12:13-17; cf. Luke 20:20-26) He didn’t give them a simple yes or no answer, but instead gave them a practical lesson about how to keep the First, Second, and Tenth Commandments: put no “gods” before Yahweh, including money. As He had said (in so many words) in the Sermon on the Mount, if somebody (like the tax man, for instance) wants to steal from you, let him: your Father knows your needs far better than you do.
Whereas the Pharisees were the theological “conservatives” in Israel, the chief priests could be labeled “liberals.” Their party, the Sadducees, didn’t believe in such religious hocus pocus as miracles, angels, or life after death, which explains their tendency to do whatever they thought would benefit them in the short run—including making alliances with “infidels” such as the Herodians and Roman authorities. Their parabolic question wasn’t so much intended to catch Yahshua in His words as it was to mock Him for believing what they considered unbelievable and irrational. “The same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him and asked Him, saying: ‘Teacher, Moses said that if a man dies, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up offspring for his brother.” The law of Levirite Marriage is found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. “Now there were with us seven brothers. The first died after he had married, and having no offspring, left his wife to his brother. Likewise the second also, and the third, even to the seventh. Last of all the woman died also. Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had her.…’” Because they did not believe in the possibility of life after death, they assumed that any answer He gave them would automatically be wrong.
“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.” We don’t necessarily become genderless hermaphrodites in the afterlife (after all, the risen Christ was still recognizable as a male), but we will no longer physically reproduce: no new souls are created. The cycle of life—birth and death—no longer operates, for our new life is eternal, and our new bodies are immortal. “But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.’” This is how Yahweh introduced Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:6—half a millennium after Abraham had died. So He had a point. “And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.” (Matthew 22:23-33; cf. Mark 12:18-27; cf. Luke 20:27-39) I have the feeling that they weren’t as “astonished” at what He said (which was patently obvious, if you thought about it), but at how he said it—with authority, as one who had first-hand knowledge of the current relationship between God and the people who had walked with Him in ages past.
The third group mentioned in Matthew 22 is the scribes (Greek: grammateús, or, as they’re called here, the lawyers). They were a subset of the Pharisees, but as Thayer notes, “Since the advice of men skilled in the law was needed in the examination of causes and the solution of difficult questions, they were enrolled in the Sanhedrin; and accordingly in the New Testament they are often mentioned in connection with the priests and elders of the people.”
“But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’” Ironically, when He had once been asked by another lawyer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Yahshua had answered him by posing the very same question, and the scribe had given the same (correct) answer Christ did now: “Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’” (Matthew 22:34-40; cf. Mark 12:28-34) So the lawyer-scribes could be perfectly correct, as long as they paid close attention to the actual Torah; and Yahshua was willing to give a straight answer if the question was honest. But in the earlier instance (see Luke 10:25-37) the scribe had tried to wiggle out of his obligation to “love his neighbor” by defining this group very narrowly. So Yahshua, in response, had told the parable of the Good Samaritan, which defined one’s “neighbor” as anyone in our sphere of contact. We are to love whoever we meet.
Almost all of Matthew 23 is a diatribe against the scribes and Pharisees—the most influential component of the Sanhedrin in Christ’s day, and eventual heirs to the twisted and perverse institution it would become a century later under Rabbi Akiba. The timing of this discourse is significant: it was delivered only a few days before His appointment with the cross. Yahshua, it would seem, was no longer concerned about goading the Sanhedrin into premature action against Him: it was time to offer Himself up as the sin offering for the entire world, beginning with Israel.
This is where Christ most clearly identified the nature of the symbol the Sanhedrin had become: the wisdom of man. It wasn’t that they were wrong about everything. Man, after all, was created in the image of God: we have the innate ability to think, reason, empathize, build, and solve problems. But we are also a fallen race, making the best of our works no better than a polluted garment, as far as their ability to reconcile us to our Holy Creator is concerned. So the Sanhedrin, and especially the scribes and Pharisees, became the poster child for that of which the prophet had spoken: “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags. We all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” (Isaiah 64:6)
As He taught the people in the temple in the few days following the Triumphal Entry, the scribes and Pharisees were never far away. “Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do….’” The heart of the problem was their hypocrisy—telling the people to do one thing while doing something quite different themselves. Yahshua readily acknowledged that they—being scholars and experts in what the Torah required—were in a position to teach the people precisely what Moses had said. The problem was that they had given their own “laws” (the traditions of the elders based on an “oral law” that is given no mention or credence in Scripture), equal or greater authority than the very words of Yahweh, spoken to Israel through Moses. It was, in effect, a systematic violation of the Third Commandment—do not treat the name of Yahweh as an empty thing.
“For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments….” God had commanded Israel to forever keep His words on their minds—in their hearts, taught to their children, the subject of constant conversation all day long, and “bound as a sign on their hands, and as frontlets between their eyes.” (See Deuteronomy 6:6-8.) But as I wrote in The Owner’s Manual, “The rabbis twisted this simple simile into a hyper-literal directive that prescribed strapping onto the forehead a leather pouch (I kid you not) that contained a small piece of parchment, upon which was written a bit of scripture. This is the rough equivalent of trying to learn chemistry by sleeping with your textbook under your pillow: any idiot can see that it won’t work…. The word “phylacteries” (transliterated from the Greek phylacterion) comes from a verb (phulasso) that means to watch, to be on guard; by implication, to preserve or save. (Strong’s) The idea is that of an amulet, which is precisely how the Pharisees thought of the tefillin. Yahweh had no such thing in mind. He wanted us to put His word in our heads, not on them. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting phrase, ‘frontlets between the eyes.’ What, precisely, is the function of the brain’s frontal lobe, the place ‘between the eyes?’ It controls our emotions and personality, motor function, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgment, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior. All of that is surrendered to the will of Yahweh in the life of the spirit-filled believer….”
And the hands? “Same song, second verse. Again, Moses wasn’t talking about strapping little leather scripture boxes to the wrists. The word for hand here, yad, metaphorically signifies strength, power, authority, or the right of possession. He’s saying that God’s word must be evident in the things we do, the way we interact with people, and the things we own, for these things are all evidence (‘a sign’) of our attitude toward the mind of Yahweh. The meaning is clear: what we think and what we do are to be influenced, directed, and inspired by God’s word.”
“They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’ But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.” The Pharisees craved the respect and deference of the common folk—ironic, because they neither respected nor loved them: they were just the “audience.” So they loved being called rabbi—which meant master, teacher, great one, or honorable sir. Yahshua (who did love, respect, and empathize with them), was also called Rabbi. He pointed out that only the Messiah Himself (a.k.a. Christ—Anointed One) is truly worthy of the accolade. He then equated “greatness” not with ability, prestige, or knowledge, but with service: “But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted….” The self-exaltation of the Pharisees, He says, would eventually result in their abasement.
Matthew 23 continues with eight “woes” pronounced by Yahshua upon the scribes and Pharisees. “Woe” is an interjection or expression of grief or denunciation. It might be translated, “Alas!”
(1) “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in….” It’s one thing to fail to enter the kingdom yourself—either by your own choice or by your failure to choose wisely. It’s something else entirely to prevent others from seeing the truth and responding to it. This identifies you as a child of Satan. Yahshua describes the fate of those who do so (in Mark 9:42-44) as “the fire that shall never be quenched,” in other words, hell.
(2) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation….” The “second-greatest” commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself, would include defending the helpless—the widows and orphans whom Yahweh had so incessantly told us to protect and provide for. But the Pharisees showed them no mercy when given the opportunity to do so, “foreclosing on the mortgage” (so to speak) in private without a second thought if there was profit to be made. But in public, they were known for their propensity to make eloquent, lengthy prayers—not so much to petition God as to impress those who were listening. Though we are told to “pray without ceasing,” these public performances, these pious lectures toward heaven, are not what was meant.
(3) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell [Gehenna] as yourselves….” Israel had been tasked by Yahweh to demonstrate His love to the world by keeping the precepts of the Torah—all of which pointed prophetically to Christ, one way or another. The Pharisees had no idea what that meant, so instead, they made a contact sport out of convincing pagan gentiles to convert to the religion of Judaism—not reverence for Yahweh, and not even observance of the Torah, but rather slavish adherence to the oral law they had constructed as a hedge around it. In effect, they were teaching their converts that they could work their way into heaven—that the blood sacrifices of the Law (which revealed the mission of the coming Messiah) were pointless and unnecessary if one was clever and dedicated enough to keep their myriad of rules, at least in public.
(4) “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that sanctifies the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, it is nothing; but whoever swears by the gift that is on it, he is obliged to perform it.’ Fools and blind! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that sanctifies the gift? Therefore he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by all things on it. He who swears by the temple, swears by it and by Him who dwells in it. And he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by Him who sits on it….” Here, Yahshua has zeroed in on another symptom of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy: tricky legal maneuvers designed to fool some of the people all of the time. But He had spoken the plain truth about this issue way back in the Sermon on the Mount: “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ Anything more comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)
(5) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!...” The scribes and Pharisees made a great show of giving a tenth of even the smallest things—like the tiny seeds from their herb gardens. Their goal was not to make sure that the Levites (the recipients of the tithe) wouldn’t have to eat bland meals, but to show the people how rigorous (and impressive) their approach to the Law was. There was nothing wrong with tithing, of course: it was commanded of Israel as they entered the Land. (See The Owner’s Manual, Vol. 1, chapters 10 and 11, elsewhere on this website.) But the point of the tithe had been to provide for those (whether the Levites or the poor) who had been prevented (for whatever reason) from earning a living in the usual manner—i.e., working their own land. The “big picture,” showing love and mercy to one’s neighbor, was completely lost on the Pharisees.
(6) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also….” There is nothing wrong with washing the dishes. But to do it for show—cleaning only the outside—is hygienically pointless. Here, the cups and dishes are metaphorical of our human bodies—vessels that “contain” the soul (which in turn is designed to hold the Spirit of God). Christ is admonishing them (and us) to clean up our souls through repentance and obedience—things that will manifest themselves in a noticeably purer life.
(7) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness….” Again, what’s inside is being contrasted with what shows on the outside. A tombstone or mausoleum may be beautiful to look at, but it reveals the presence of a rotting corpse, and no amount of decoration or architectural splendor will bring it back to life. But the converse is attainable in Christ: a life that reveals the indwelling Spirit of God. The Pharisees’ life exposed the death that defined them; but the believer’s life reveals an even deeper life, one that never ends—one characterized by “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (See Galatians 5:22-23.)
(8) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, and say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ guilt….” Death begets death, and life begets life. While it’s not inevitable, children tend to follow in the footsteps of their parents, prompting Yahweh to observe that He “visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6) That being said, the cycle of repeatedly “filling up the measure of your father’s guilt” can be broken at any time through repentance, and in the end, each generation is responsible for making its own choices. In a tale of two Pharisees, when faced with the same Torah and the same Messiah, Nicodemus chose wisely, while Akiba did not.
Yahshua concludes His indictment of the scribes and Pharisees by identifying their spiritual “father”—the devil. “Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?” Throughout Scripture, serpents, snakes, vipers, and dragons are metaphorical of Satan. As in English, the Greek word means not only the slithering animal, but also a sly, deceptive, sneaky person. “Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city, that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Assuredly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.” (Matthew 23:1-36; cf. Luke 11:39-54) Thirty-seven years later, the Romans sacked Jerusalem, murdered or enslaved its inhabitants, and destroyed the temple.
He equates the contemporary Pharisees with their spiritual forebears—those who slew the prophet Zechariah because they didn’t like his message: “Execute true justice, Show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. Let none of you plan evil in his heart against his brother.” It was exactly the same message Moses had delivered. “But they refused to heed, shrugged their shoulders, and stopped their ears so that they could not hear. Yes, they made their hearts like flint, refusing to hear the law and the words which Yahweh of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets. Thus great wrath came from Yahweh of hosts.” (Zechariah 7:9-12) Call me unimaginative, but it seems to me that simple repentance would have been easier.
There is a subtle prophecy concerning the Sanhedrin embedded in Yahshua’s instructions to His disciples: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues….” The destruction of the temple in 70 AD marked the beginning of the end for the influence of the priesthood, replaced by the ascendency of the rabbis in the local synagogues. The “councils” of which He speaks aren’t necessarily limited to the Great Sanhedrin of 71 members, but include the local councils (also properly called Sanhedrins) of 23. As I noted, the final divorce of Christianity from Judaism was brought about through the machinations of Rabbi Akiba, a century after Christ’s ministry.
All of this was an answer to prayer (in an ironic sort of way). The Jews, in trying to get Pontius Pilate to crucify Yahshua, had said, “His blood be upon us and our children.” So spurred on by the suicidal antagonism of the Sanhedrin, the message would also be taken to the gentiles: “You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” (Matthew 10:16-20)
Mark reports the same instructions, this time as part of the Olivet Discourse: “And Jesus, answering them, began to say: ‘Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, “I am He,” and will deceive many.” False messiahs (like bar Kochba, for example) were going to be part of the problem. “But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows. But watch out for yourselves, for they will deliver you up to councils, and you will be beaten in the synagogues….” Again, councils and synagogues were all that remained of Judaism once it had been forcibly separated from its early Christian component. These things would be reality throughout the Church age, but they would intensify as we approached its end. Don’t look now, but we have arrived at the Last Days of which He speaks.
“You will be brought before rulers and kings for My sake, for a testimony to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all the nations.” How close are we? 99.95% of the world’s population now has the Bible in their native tongues. “But when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand, or premeditate what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak that; for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Now brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end shall be saved.” (Mark 13:5-13) Alas, we believers have now reached the “hated-by-all” stage in most of the world.
Yahshua predicted that he would suffer at the hands of the Sanhedrin. “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.” (Matthew 16:21; cf; Matthew 20:17-19; cf. Mark 8:31; cf. Luke 9:21-22) Or how about this? “Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him: ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.’” (Mark 10:32-34) Interesting: the chief priests, the scribes, and the gentiles were all adversaries of one another at some level. Yahshua would “unite” them in their hatred for Him—their very Creator, manifested in flesh.
These prophesies describe the what, who, when, and how of the matter, but they don’t really say why. It is clear that the Sanhedrin did indeed take a leading role in the arrest and trials of Yahshua, and they were foremost in condemning Him before the Roman authorities. They would no doubt have us believe that their concerns were based on the fear that Yahshua’s popularity would precipitate an uprising against Rome, which would be put down with force and bloodshed. But this was based more upon popular (and errant) contemporary messianic expectations than upon anything He had actually said or done. For His part, Yahshua had never said anything to suggest that Roman rule in Judea should be overthrown to make way for the Kingdom of Heaven. On the contrary, the whole Roman Empire seemed to be rather inconsequential to Him, an entity of negligible significance when compared to man’s relationship with God.
After the raising of Lazarus, not long before the passion, “Many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees and told them the things Jesus did.” In other words, what Yahshua had accomplished was not in dispute. He had brought the rotting corpse of Lazarus back to life. But while some were willing to add 2+2 and get the obvious answer, others were not. “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council [i.e., the Sanhedrin, or at least a significant portion of it] and said, ‘What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation….’” There’s the real motive for the Sanhedrin’s animosity: they were afraid that if “everyone” became convinced that Yahshua was the Messiah—defining Him both as David’s royal heir and as the Son of God (see Isaiah 9:6-7)—then the Romans would “take away both their place and nation,” not Israel’s status, mind you, but their own positions of privilege and authority. The Romans had long since absorbed the nation of Judea into their own empire. But the Sanhedrin served at the pleasure of the Roman authorities, so maintaining their exalted “place” depended on suppressing any rivals to Rome, and especially challengers to the emperor, who fancied himself a “god.”
The amazing thing to me is that neither the chief priests nor the Pharisees thought to consult their own scriptures to guide their actions. They apparently just assumed that no one on earth was powerful enough to defeat Rome. In truth, the whole thing was like a game to them: they treated Yahweh as if didn’t exist, or was at least so distant and disinterested that He wouldn’t or couldn’t come to their aid—not the nation’s aid, mind you, but the Sanhedrin’s. To them, God was useful only as a Sword of Damocles (so to speak) to hold over the heads of the sheeple, keeping them in line. It is the hallmark of religion (as opposed to a personal relationship with God) that persists to this very day.
“And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year [making him chairman of the Great Sanhedrin], said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us [i.e., for the Sanhedrin] that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.’” (John 11:45-50) Some of the others, having witnessed the “signs” Yahshua had done (like raising Lazarus from the dead, for example) were in a quandary as to how to deal with His growing popularity. Upstart “kings” or “gods” could be counted upon to precipitate the wrath of Rome. But Rome was a blunt instrument: the collateral damage would be ugly. The High Priest had no such qualms: the “boat-rocker” must die.
There’s a fascinating phenomenon here. Although Caiaphas was more politician than priest, his office made him a candidate for being God’s spokesman—sort of like Baalam (or Baalam’s donkey, for that matter). I can practically guarantee that he didn’t understand the prophetic ramifications of what he said: “that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” The message illustrated by all those blood sacrifices in the Torah was that only the innocent can atone for the sins of the guilty—something Yahshua was about to do on our behalf. Caiaphas thought killing Yahshua would prevent the destruction of Israel by the Romans, saving his own exalted position in the process. The truth went far beyond that: the sacrifice of Yahshua would prevent the destruction of all mankind by our own sin—if only we would place our trust in the efficacy of that sacrifice. As John the Baptist had put it, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John was a priest: he knew exactly what that meant.
The sin offerings and trespass offerings weren’t the only Torah precepts that were to about to become fulfilled Messianic prophecy. Although nobody knew it yet, Yahweh’s entire seven-part festival calendar (Leviticus 23, etc.) was designed to be prophetic of the seven most significant facets of His plan for the redemption of mankind. At this point, all the Jews knew was that Yahweh had commanded them to observe these holidays throughout their generations. They presumed that these days, like the Sabbath, were nothing but semi-pointless religious rituals that didn’t really mean anything beyond the institutional remembrance of a few foggy incidents in Israel’s long history—and only a couple of them even had that to recommend them. Little did they realize that even those historical happenings had been engineered by God as dress rehearsals of specific prophetic events He planned to fulfill—on these very calendar days—to achieve the reconciliation of the whole human race to Himself.
So it is not surprising that in common parlance, the first three Feasts were all lumped together in the Jewish mind, simply called Passover (which was the first of them), or sometimes the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the seven-day festival that encompassed them). Thus the Sanhedrin, as usual, were hyper-aware of the Torah’s literal minutiae, while being utterly clueless as to its significance. “Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, that He said to His disciples, ’You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.’ Then the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people assembled at the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and plotted to take Jesus by trickery and kill Him. But they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.’” (Matthew 26:1-5) Passover (a.k.a. the Day of Preparation—the 14th day of the month of Nisan) was a reenactment of the day before the Children of Israel left Egypt—the day their lambs had been slain, their blood applied to the doorposts of their dwellings to prevent the angel of death from slaying their firstborn. Israel was about to discover what Passover really meant.
“Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might kill Him, for they feared the people. Then Satan entered Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve. So he went his way and conferred with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray Him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he promised and sought opportunity to betray Him to them in the absence of the multitude.” (Luke 22:1-6) “Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests [read: the Sanhedrin] and said, ‘What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?’ And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver [established in the Torah as the price of a dead slave]. So from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him.” (Matthew 26:14-16) That opportunity would come in the wee hours of Nisan 14 (remember, the Hebrew calendar reckons the new day to begin at sunset). After Yahshua and the disciples celebrated the Last Supper (not a Passover seder, but a meal taking place within the same calendar day—Thursday night, in our parlance) they went out to the Mount of Olives to pray. Christ was arrested in the middle of the night, away from the adoring multitude (just as Judas and the chief priests had planned it). And note: He was betrayed not to the Romans, but to the Sanhedrin.
Archeologists have identified the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest. Centuries ago, a church was built on the site: it is now known as the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu, located south of Jerusalem’s city wall. Tellingly, it has a dungeon—where Yahshua was “detained” until sunrise on Passover. It’s a pretty ironic architectural feature: whereas the truth will set you free, the mansion of the High Priest literally had facilities for keeping people in chains. This house is where Peter’s infamous “three denials before the cock crows twice” took place: “And they led Jesus away to the high priest; and with him were assembled all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes. But Peter followed Him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he sat with the servants and warmed himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. For many bore false witness against Him, but their testimonies did not agree.” (Mark 14:53-56)
Matthew also records these events: “And those who had laid hold of Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled.” Remember, this was done in the middle of the night. The whole thing had been planned by the Sanhedrin to convict Yahshua in secret. “But Peter followed Him at a distance to the high priest’s courtyard. And he went in and sat with the servants to see the end. Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses came forward and said, ‘This fellow said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days….”’” Okay, so He was guilty of using a metaphor. Even then, He had been misquoted. In John 2:19-21, He said He would raise up “this temple” (referring to His mortal body)—He didn’t say, “the temple of God” (though technically, His body was the temple of God).
“And the high priest arose and said to Him, ‘Do You answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You?’ But Jesus kept silent.” You can’t reveal the Spirit of Yahweh to people who are indwelled with the spirit of Satan. “And the high priest answered and said to Him, ‘I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!’” I’m not sure if I would have been able to resist telling him, “Well, that’s what mom told me.” But Yahshua simply answered in the affirmative. He had a Passover date with the cross: He had to be dead by sundown. “Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven….’”
“Then the high priest tore his clothes [an action specifically forbidden in the Torah], saying, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?’ They answered and said, ‘He is deserving of death.’ Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palms of their hands, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?’” (Matthew 26:57-67) Saying (or implying) you’re the “Son of God” would have been blasphemy, if it wasn’t true. But something tells me the gentlemen of the Sanhedrin never even considered the possibility, signs or no signs. Ironically, one of the signs heralding the return of Christ will be the appearance of many false Messiahs, false prophets, and people who say “I am” (that is, claiming equality with God on some level—see Matthew 24:24, Luke 21:8).
The secret pre-dawn trial at the house of Caiaphas was illegal, of course. But being sticklers for the appearance of public propriety, the Sanhedrin staged another, more conventional inquest that morning. (This one was illegal as well according to their own rules prohibiting capital trials on the eve of the Sabbath or on Feast days. Passover, Nisan 14, in 33AD was both of these things.) “As soon as it was day, the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, came together and led Him into their council, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, tell us.’ But He said to them, ‘If I tell you, you will by no means believe. And if I also ask you, you will by no means answer Me or let Me go. Hereafter the Son of Man will sit on the right hand of the power of God.’ Then they all said, ‘Are You then the Son of God?’ So He said to them, ‘You rightly say that I am.’ And they said, ‘What further testimony do we need? For we have heard it ourselves from His own mouth.’” (Luke 22:66-71)
Now that the Sanhedrin had a “confession” from Yahshua that He was the Son of God, they had a bit of a problem. They had to get the Roman authorities to sign off on His execution, for the Sanhedrin did not have the authority to condemn anyone to death, though the Romans generally allowed them considerable autonomy and authority in matters of their own religion. “Then they [a delegation from the Council] led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover. Pilate then went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this Man?’ They answered and said to him, ‘If He were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up to you.’” In other words, “Just take our word for it, okay?” “Then Pilate said to them, ‘You take Him and judge Him according to your law.’ Therefore the Jews said to him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death,’ that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled which He spoke, signifying by what death He would die.” (John 18:28-32) Yahshua (and if you could see it, Psalm 22) had predicted death by crucifixion, not stoning. Only the Romans did that.
Pilate, would have laughed them out of his courtroom if they had accused Yahshua of pretending to be God. Wannabe “gods” who posed no military threat to the empire were considered harmless lunatics. And simply saying “He is an evildoer” was far too general a charge for Pilate to take seriously—certainly not answerable with death by crucifixion. So they changed tactics. The Sanhedrin pressured Pilate into pronouncing the death sentence by accusing Yahshua of insurrection, of claiming to be the King of the Jews—something the prophets had clearly predicted the Messiah would be, but also something Yahshua had never actually claimed to be, knowing that role was reserved for His second advent. So we read in Mark, “Immediately, in the morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council; and they bound Jesus, led Him away, and delivered Him to Pilate. Then Pilate asked Him, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ He answered and said to him, ‘It is as you say.’” (Mark 15:1-2)
Forgive me for skipping around like this. We all know the story of the passion of Christ. My purpose here is simply to highlight the Sanhedrin’s role in bringing it to pass. Their machinations are a symbol of the wisdom of man—specifically, as contrasted with the wisdom of God. What they did here seemed (to them) to make sense on paper—trying to preserve the status quo, letting the ends justify the means, and calculating what it would take to achieve the “greater good” for the majority in Israel (of whom they saw themselves as the rightful leaders). Although they made a public show of honoring Israel’s God, they pretty much ignored His word when deciding what to do.
Don’t look now, but this profile is shared by the vast majority of politicians in the world today. With very few exceptions, they rely on their own intellect, charisma, or diplomatic skill (or simple military force) to achieve goals that they have unilaterally declared to be “right” for their countries—beginning with themselves. God’s agenda is either ignored altogether, or is twisted into something unrecognizable in Scripture; e.g., “tolerance is equivalent to love” or “build bridges, not walls.”
Then as now, however, there were notable exceptions to the rule. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were both members of the Sanhedrin—wealthy and influential members of the council who nevertheless realized that there was more to wisdom than what they could figure out on their own. So we read of Nicodemus seeking out Yahshua in the dead of night (that is, in secret at first because he was not yet sure who He was). The encounter is recorded in what is probably the most famous chapter in the Bible: “There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.’” (John 3:1-2) Christ proceeded to educate the Pharisee on the fine points of the New Birth, Spiritual indwelling, the unfathomable love of Yahweh, and the efficacy of our belief in the finished work of the Son of God. The lesson was not lost on him.
Joseph had come to the same faith in a different way, but waited until it was “too late” (or so he thought) to publically honor the One whom he had privately concluded was the Messiah: “Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath [that is, Nisan 14, Passover proper], Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate marveled that He was already dead.” He hadn’t figured on the brutal pre-trial beating Yahshua had received at the hands of the Sanhedrin’s goons. “And summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time. So when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. Then he bought fine linen, took Him down, and wrapped Him in the linen.” This explains the enduring interest in what is known as the Shroud of Turin, which I believe might (although it doesn’t change anything) be the burial cloth mentioned here. “And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses observed where He was laid.” (Mark 15:42-47; cf. Luke 23:50-54) That’s how they knew where to come on the morning after the Sabbath. It was the only tomb in the immediate vicinity, located in a private garden.
John describes the scene like this: “After this, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took the body of Jesus. And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So there they laid Jesus, because of the Jews’ Preparation Day, for the tomb was nearby.” (John 19:38-42) This garden, with the tomb hewn out of the limestone rock face, is only a short walk from the site known as “Gordon’s Calvary,” where you can still make out the “skull face” giving the place its name: Golgotha, the place of the skull. (The “skull”—an arrangement of holes in the porous limestone—is quite plain in photos taken pre-1900.) Today, the crucifixion site is in the rear parking lot of Jerusalem’s main bus station—ironic in a way, because you can’t get to heaven without starting here.
So Council members Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus worked together to prepare the corpse of Christ for burial. Crucified corpses were typically thrown unceremoniously onto burning trash heaps in the Valley of Hinnom—the place that served as Yahshua’s metaphor for hell—gehenna. But the Isaiah had prophesied a different resting place for the Messiah: “And they made His grave with the wicked [yes, He was crucified between two thieves]—but with the rich [Joseph] at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth.” (Isaiah 53:9)
There’s an old joke about Joseph telling his wife that he was going to place Yahshua’s slain body in their brand new family tomb. Since He wasn’t related, she began to protest, but Joseph told her, “Relax, my love. He’s only going to need it for the weekend.” It’s funny, but I sincerely doubt that Joseph or Nicodemus or anybody else really understood that Yahshua would literally, bodily rise from the dead under His own power on the third day after His crucifixion. He had plainly told His disciples that He would do this, but they clearly didn’t comprehend the literality of His statements. They thought it must be some sort of opaque metaphor. The Torah and Psalms are peppered with hints and innuendoes about this as well, but in truth, the prophecies all seem a bit vague: they come into sharp focus only in the shadow of the historical events. From our perspective, however, it’s crystal clear that God knew exactly what He was doing, and brought His plan to pass just as He had ordained it in ages past.
My point is that no amount of human wisdom could have foreseen how Yahweh planned to reconcile fallen man to Himself. Most people of the time, reacting to numerous prophecies of the Messiah’s ultimate rule in glory, envisioned a mighty conquering King, swooping in to destroy the hated Roman occupiers. They completely missed the correlation between the Levitical sacrifices in the Torah and God’s plan for their ultimate, permanent, personal redemption. So nobody—especially not the Sanhedrin—was prepared for a poor itinerant rabbi, walking from place to place with a ragtag retinue of blue-collar disciples in tow, teaching in His own authority (not theirs—gasp!), healing the sick, casting out demons, and even raising the dead. In short, Yahshua wasn’t they expected—He was not the Messiah they would have nominated. As it turned out, they found their “ideal” Messiah candidate a century later—the brutal warlord Bar Kochba—who (ironically enough) did make their worst fears come true, that “the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” (John 11:48)
In short, human wisdom says, “Use whatever means you must to achieve your own goals.” God’s wisdom, in contrast, says, “Trust Me to achieve My own goals for your life—which are better than anything you can possibly imagine.”
After the resurrection of Christ, the Sanhedrin kept “doubling down” on their disastrous miscalculation, doing everything they could to stamp out this annoying new sect that had arisen—a cult (in their eyes) that continued to threaten their entrenched positions of wealth and power. It’s not that the “followers of the way” (as Christians were then known) attacked the Sanhedrin. They merely ignored them, preferring to receive the proven wisdom and authority of the risen Christ. The Sanhedrin, by ignoring the Word of God, had proved itself to be irrelevant.
That’s not to say the Council was ready to admit defeat. In the wake of the Day of Pentecost (see Acts 2) the newly Spirit-filled disciples preached the Good News with boldness, and in so doing, upset the delicate sensibilities of the Sanhedrin. And they backed their claims of Christ’s resurrection by healing a man who had been lame from birth (see Acts 3:1-10). “Now as they [Peter and John] spoke to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” Calling them “disturbed” has to be the understatement of the week. The Sadducees’ whole theology was based on the proposition that there was no afterlife—that resurrection from the dead was impossible. “And they laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.” If you’ll recall, Sanhedrin trials were conducted only during daylight hours, and in the case of capital crimes, the verdict could not be rendered until the following day. “However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand….” As usual in these accounts, only “men” (heads of households) were counted, meaning that the actual numbers of converts, including their wives, would have been much higher.
“And it came to pass, on the next day, that their rulers, elders, and scribes, as well as Annas the high priest [emeritus], Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the family of the high priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem. And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, ‘By what power or by what name have you done this?’…” “This” was the healing of the lifelong paraplegic at the temple. Their question was roughly the same one they had asked of Yahshua, when He had healed folks. They had trouble believing that anyone could outrank them in religious authority. (The idea that Yahweh did, apparently didn’t occur to them.) Yahshua had answered them with a question of His own: “Where did John the Baptist (whom the common folks considered a genuine prophet of God) get his authority—since you people clearly didn’t believe him?”
“Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders of Israel: If we this day are judged for a good deed done to a helpless man, by what means he has been made well, let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’ Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’” (Acts 4:1-12, quoting Psalm 118:22) The Sanhedrin considered themselves the “builders” of Israel—those who held the whole thing together with their knowledge of the Law. Peter here (and in I Peter 2:7) reminded them of what the Psalmist had prophesied—that the Messiah would be rejected by those who should have recognized His divine qualifications. Yahshua Himself had said the same thing, recorded in Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, and Luke 20:17.
But it’s even better (or worse, from the Sanhedrin’s point of view). The “rejected cornerstone” verse was introduced with this statement: “I will praise You, for You have answered me, and have become my salvation.” (Psalm 118:21) Believe it or not, this verse identifies by name who the Messiah would be. “Salvation” here is the Hebrew word Yâshuw`ah (alternatively rendered Yeshuah): it’s phonetically indistinguishable from the Messiah’s name, Yahshua. The Psalmist declares in effect that “You (Yahweh) have become my Jesus.” Either this is the greatest linguistic coincidence ever, or God is trying to tell us something: Yahshua is Yahweh; Yahweh has manifested Himself as Yahshua.
The apostles were set free this time, because the evidence of their innocence was walking (and leaping and jumping) around Jerusalem on legs that had never taken him anywhere before. It was now the Sanhedrin that didn’t have a leg to stand on. But that didn’t stop them from arresting Peter and his friends again, when they continued preaching Christ and healing folks in His power. “Then the high priest rose up, and all those who were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with indignation, and laid their hands on the apostles and put them in the common prison. But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.’ And when they heard that, they entered the temple early in the morning and taught. But the high priest and those with him came and called the council together, with all the elders of the children of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought.” (Acts 5:17-21) The Sadducees not only repudiated the possibility of bodily resurrection, they also denied the existence of angels. So for an angel to have released them from prison, before they could do it themselves, must have really been annoying.
So the Sanhedrin sent their officers to the temple to fetch the disciples—politely this time, for fear of the adoring crowds. “And the high priest asked them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!’” Umm, excuse me; was it not you guys who told Pilate, “Let this man’s blood be upon us and our children?” “But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree. Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses to these things, and so also is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey Him.’” (Acts 5:27-32) At this word, the Sanhedrin repented and gave glory to God. Oh, wait! No, they didn’t. “When they heard this, they were furious and plotted to kill them.” (Acts 5:33)
Fortunately (though luck had nothing to do with it) there was one cool head among them. “Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people, and commanded them to put the apostles outside for a little while. And he said to them: ‘Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed. And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God….’” Gamaliel’s well-taken observation was that only one of two things could be true here. Either these men whom the Sanhedrin wanted to kill were wrong (and would be proven to be so soon enough, since their Leader was dead) or they were right—in which case God Himself would vindicate them. His point was that you really didn’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of this. The stakes were too high.
Gamaliel wasn’t really arguing in favor of Christ or His apostles, however. He was merely advising caution and patience in the name of self-preservation. “And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.” (Acts 5:34-40) The Council’s “agreement” was grudging and halfhearted, for they still had the apostles flogged before they let them go with a warning. It was as if they were saying, “We’re pretty sure you’re guilty of something, but just in case you’re not, we’re not going to kill you—just beat you within an inch or your life.” Gee, thanks, that’s swell. By the way, we have no intention of ceasing to proclaim our testimony of the resurrection of the Messiah.
In truth, the Sanhedrin would have had the same problem executing the apostles (legally) that they’d had with Yahshua: they would have had to get the Romans involved. And this time, there were no remotely plausible grounds on which to accuse them. So with the nascent church growing by leaps and bounds, the Sanhedrin languished in frustration, losing more influence and respect every day.
Things reached a boiling point, so to speak, when the jealous Sanhedrin noticed how much attention a servant of God named Stephen was getting. “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’…” It wasn’t true, of course. But believing (like so many godless people today) that the end justifies the means, they were more than willing to violate the Ninth Commandment. Not to mention the First, Third, and Tenth.
“And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. They also set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.’” This was roughly the same metaphor the Sanhedrin had attempted to hang around Yahshua’s neck like a millstone. “And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:8-15) If you’ll recall, defendants standing before the Sanhedrin were supposed to look guilty, dress in black, and appear with their hair disheveled. Stephen wasn’t cooperating. He looked like what He was: a man filled with the Spirit of God, radiating his innocence.
After giving in his defense a lengthy recitation of the history of Israel—the events that had gotten them to the present moment—Stephen explained the metaphor they were trying to use against him: “The Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands. As the prophet says, ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says Yahweh. Or what is the place of My rest? Has My hand not made all these things?’” Then he came to the point, effectively putting the Sanhedrin on trial: “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it….” Basically, he repeated the same indictment against them that Yahshua had. And their reaction was roughly the same as well, though by now they had lost all pretense of legal decorum.
“When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” That revelation did not soothe the Sanhedrin’s demeanor. “Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him….” This was not a legal execution authorized through a guilty verdict brought by the Sanhedrin’ careful deliberation. For one thing, they had long since lost the authority to pronounce such a death sentence. Rather, this was a rage-fueled mob action, a spontaneous riot. It was the sort of thing the Romans normally frowned upon, but it happened too quickly to prevent; and besides, it was not directed against Rome in any case. So no one was held accountable.
But it triggered an unforeseen wave of persecution against the church in general: “And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Saul, later known as Paul, was a star pupil of the same Gamaliel who had cautioned the Sanhedrin against rash persecution of Christ’s disciples. I guess he skipped that class: Saul used this event as a springboard for a systematic purge of the Way—trying to stamp it out before it could grow too large and influential to stop. “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:48-60) Stephen was the first believer to die because of his testimony—the first Christian martyr. How sad (and revealing) it is that he died not at the hands of politicians, or soldiers, or thieves, but was slain by the most religious, most respected, best educated men in Israel—revealing everything the Sanhedrin valued to be false gods.
Saul of Tarsus, the precocious prodigy of the vaunted Gamaliel, genuinely thought he was doing God a service by persecuting the Christians. As the sect spread (mainly because of official persecution) he took the unprecedented step of hounding them from city to city. “Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1-2) He (being a student of the Torah) did not do this on his own authority, however, but sought warrants from the person he presumed Yahweh had put in charge of Israel’s affairs: the High Priest. There was no Jewish king (Herod’s family were Idumeans, appointed and sustained by the Romans), and it mattered not to him that by this time the High Priest was also a Roman plant. He carried the title: that was enough for Saul.
A later confession by the now-converted Paul makes it clear that the entire Sanhedrin was involved, not only the High Priest. “‘Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now.’ And when they heard that he spoke to them in the Hebrew language, they kept all the more silent. Then he said: ‘I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished.’” (Acts 22:1-5)
Back in Jerusalem several years after his conversion on the Damascus Road, Paul’s very presence, helped along by a healthy serving of rumor (some true, some not) precipitated a riot, based mostly on the proposition that Paul was willing to befriend the hated gentiles. The Romans, of course, took him into custody so they could sort out the problem. “The next day, because he [the centurion who had arrested Paul] wanted to know for certain why he was accused by the Jews, he released him from his bonds, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down and set him before them….” If the Romans said, “Jump,” the Sanhedrin asked, “How high?” Too bad Yahweh’s Word didn’t merit the same response.
“Then Paul, looking earnestly at the council, said, ‘Men and brethren, I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day.’” It’s true: whether doing the Sanhedrin’s will or later, Christ’s, Saul/Paul invariably followed his conscience—he always did what he thought was right, based on what he believed at the time. “And the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! For you sit to judge me according to the law, and do you command me to be struck contrary to the law?’” Paul boldly called out this man (one he knew only as a member of the Sanhedrin) as a hypocrite—which he was. “And those who stood by said, ‘Do you revile God’s high priest?’ Then Paul said, ‘I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.”’” (Acts 22:30-Acts 23:1-5) Ananias became High Priest in 46AD, and he held the office until 52. Remarkably, seven High Priests were appointed between the reigns of Caiaphas and Ananias—a space of only ten years. It would appear that the Romans (in this case, future-Emperor Vitellius and the Tetrarchs Agrippa I and Herod of Chalcis) had little patience with pretentious and overbearing Jews.
Paul, attuned to the Torah (as the chief priests were apparently not) was determined to abide by its precepts, so he apologized immediately for his outburst. Perhaps it was here that Paul began to realize that showing respect for our human rulers (i.e., not just the High Priest) was God’s will for our lives—even if those rulers were evil and godless. (It also reveals that Paul did not consider the Sanhedrin as a whole to wield legitimate authority in Israel—but only the High Priest.) This would go a long way toward explaining Paul’s counterintuitive position in the first few verses of Romans 13. The point is, our human overlords are almost never godly and Spirit filled; we are to subject ourselves to them anyway, as unto Yahweh—as long as doing so does not entail a direct violation of God’s Law.
That is not to say we may not speak truth to power. And if you can keep the evil influences in the world off balance in the process, so much the better. Paul now used the chasm between Pharisee and Sadducee theology to extricate himself from their irrational persecution. “But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, ‘Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!’ And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. Then there arose a loud outcry….” If nothing else, this proves that mere religious knowledge—doctrinal orthodoxy—is not the path to salvation. We can “know” an awful lot about God and the Bible, but if we are not at the same time willing to love and trust Him, this knowledge will avail us nothing. The wisdom of man is fine, as far as it goes—but it is not the pathway to reconciliation with our Creator.
At this, the Pharisees in the Sanhedrin, with their allies the lawyer-scribes, decided that their doctrinal position was more significant than any fuzzy gossip-based accusation they might have against Paul. So they flip-flopped their testimony before the Romans (for whom the whole brouhaha was a pointless waste of time anyway). “And the scribes of the Pharisees’ party arose and protested, saying, ‘We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.’” Interestingly, this is roughly the same line of reasoning Gamaliel had used. Here too, it was largely lost on the liberal Sadducees, who believed in nothing they couldn’t see with their own two eyes. “Now when there arose a great dissension, the commander, fearing lest Paul might be pulled to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them, and bring him into the barracks.” (Acts 23:6-10)
The whole episode brings to mind a fault-line in the Sanhedrin’s constitution. Though they were (ostensibly) in charge of making judicial decisions of a religious nature in Israel, they did not agree as to the basis of authority upon which those decisions should be made. Though both sides of the schism claimed to be honoring the Law of Moses, neither one actually trusted the God who had delivered it. The Sadducees, for their part, approached their priestly positions as nothing more than a lucrative career path. They performed the prescribed rituals dutifully, and basked in the prestige that their genealogical serendipity had brought them (with a little help from the Romans), but they wouldn’t condescend to contemplate what those rituals (instituted by Yahweh Himself) might mean. Judaism for them was dead and dry, but at least it paid well.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, approached Judaism like a contact sport. They knew the Torah backwards and forwards, but what they respected was the oral law that their likeminded forbears for centuries back had built as a thorny hedge about the Law. It was an impenetrable maze of manmade rules and regulations designed to ensure that no one could get close enough to God’s Law to envision its underlying, unifying prophetic theme. The Pharisees were enthusiastic, competitive, and scrupulous—at least in their public persona. But for most of them, their God wasn’t Yahweh, not really. It was knowledge, personal performance, and human wisdom, all leading to pride. This in turn compelled them to despise their fellow man—the common, honest, unwashed masses with their simple faith and thirst for God’s truth—the sort of men whom Yahshua had chosen as His disciples.
Yes, the Pharisees got more things “right” than did the Sadducees, but it didn’t matter: their sin still prevented them from having a relationship with God. They were both playing a game in which it was impossible to score. Both factions, in different ways, exhibited the Last-Days phenomenon described by Paul (himself a transformed Pharisee) to his protégé Timothy as “having a form of godliness but denying its power.” (II Timothy 3:5) And if you’ll recall, Paul’s advice was to “turn away from such as these.”
The pitfalls of the Sanhedrin are still with us, as dangerous as ever. There are still those among us who blatantly defy the warning of Moses: “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yahweh your God which I command you.” (Deuteronomy 4:2) “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” (Deuteronomy 12:32) When “religious professionals” today gain a following by ignoring or denying God’s clear instructions, when they supplant Yahweh’s Word with their own brand of “wisdom,” they bring destruction upon themselves as surely as the Sanhedrin of Christ’s day did. And now, as then, they can drag entire nations down into the abyss with them.
Solomon wrote, “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10) If we don’t begin our search for wisdom with reverence for Yahweh our Creator, we will remain ignorant fools, of no practical use to ourselves or to anyone else. And beware: native intelligence has nothing to do with it. A brain that functions well is a gift—one not given to everyone, I’m afraid. It is not a license for grasping power, pride, or possessions for oneself; rather, it should be used to bless your fellow man. I don’t care how smart you think you are: you’ll never outthink God.