NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
It is reasonable to believe that the number who met at Caiaphas’ house was only a small, ad hoc, hand-picked portion of this mighty council. However, we are told that forty years before the destruction of the Temple the Sanhedrin forsook their locale in the Chamber of Hewn Stone and took its seat in the trade Halls, which was another location near the Temple Mount.1 A Jewish genealogist also mentions this: “Forty years before the Temple was destroyed did the Sanhedrin abandon [the Temple] and held its sittings in Hanuth.2”3 In other words, they moved from the Temple Mount inside the walls to the Mount of Olives outside the walls of Jerusalem proper.
With this time-frame being in 30 AD, it fell during the ministry of Jesus. But we also find another contributing factor mentioned: “Capital cases were only dealt with by any court of 23 while the Sanhedrin sat in the Hewn-Stone Chamber of the Temple: the abandoning of their seat, therefore, meant the cessation of judging capital cases.”4 This provides more evidence as to why the High Priest went to Pontius Pilate in order to get the death sentence for Jesus. Rabbi Maimonides adds: “Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, capital punishment was nullified among the Jewish people. Although the Temple was still standing, since the Sanhedrin went into exile (left the Chamber of Hewn Stone) and were not in their place in the Temple, these laws could not be enforced.”5 When we look at this through a figurative lens, we can see the “Hewn Stone” as a symbol of Jesus Christ the stone which the builders threw away, and since this happened just as Jesus’ ministry was beginning, it makes for a graphic illustration of how He, the Cornerstone, was rejected in favor of the stone tablet of Moses.
Now, as we have seen, by abandoning their traditional meeting place in the Temple and relocating to “Chanoth” (the Sheds or vendor’s stalls), the Sanhedrin could no longer enforce capital punishment, which was their argument to convince Pontius Pilate to act on their behalf.6 Some scholars have raised the question, why did the Sanhedrin not meet in the Temple chamber? Dr. John Gill says, “To me, the reason seems to be that they chose not to meet there, but at the high priest’s palace because of privacy, that it might not be known they were together, and about any affair of the moment; and particularly this: the high priest’s residence was always Jerusalem, and he never removed from there; nor did he go from the Temple over there except at night, or an hour or two during the day; for he had an apartment in the temple, which was called the chamber of the high priest, where he was the whole day.”7
Maimonides agrees: “There was a chamber prepared for him [the high priest] in the Sanctuary which was called: The Chamber of the High Priest. The glory and the honor of [the High Priest] would be to remain in the Sanctuary the entire day and to go to his private home only at night or for an hour or two during the day. His home should be in Jerusalem and he should never depart from there.”8 Matthew now reveals the reason for their meeting.
Verses 4-5: In the meeting, they tried to find a way to arrest and kill Jesus without anyone knowing what they were doing. They planned to arrest Jesus and kill Him. They said, “We cannot arrest Jesus during Passover. We don’t want the people to become angry and cause a riot.”
So we can see, that the high priest met during his break from the Temple at night to plan the arrest of Jesus. We will see in verse 14, it was after this meeting that Judas Iscariot went to initiate his act of betrayal. And as mentioned above, this meeting may also have been connected with the establishment of the feast days for Passover. What had happened to Jesus’ royal ancestor King David, was now happening to Him, “My enemies are always twisting my words. They are always making plans against me. They hide together and watch every move I make, hoping for some way to kill me.”9
The Psalmist described their tactics, “They use the law to make life hard for the people. They attack those who do right. They say innocent people are guilty and put them to death.”10 And the same spirit that came against the prophet Jeremiah, was alive in the hearts of these enemies of our Lord, “Let us destroy the tree and its fruit! Let us kill him! Then people will forget him.”11 The Jewish high priest who called this meeting was known by his Greek name, Caiaphas.
Bible historians tell us that his first name was Joseph and that he succeeded Simon son of Camith, as high priest, around 25 AD. Then, some two years after our Lord’s death, he was deposed by Vitellius governor of Syria. He was also the son-in-law of the high priest Annas, who held that office himself by appointment of Valerius Gratus, who preceded Pontius Pilate, about 18-36 AD, which was a longer period than several of his predecessors and successors. But behind all of this, we find these words: “People might make many plans, but what the LORD says is what will happen.”12
Apparently, the leaders of the Sanhedrin had enough members arrive to constitute a majority. And after much deliberation, they concluded it would be advisable to wait until the feast of Passover was complete. But it also raises another issue. It appears that they had already pronounced our Lord guilty of whatever charges they might bring against Him. This was contrary to their own rules. According to the Rabbis: “As each individual is convicted, he is placed under detention and the court then determines if these individuals make up a majority of the city.”13 It appears that they had no intention of examining each of Jesus’ followers to see how many believed in Him as the Messiah. Perhaps they feared that it would be a majority and that would put them in a very delicate situation, to say the least.
But Rabbi Maimonides gives us a closer look at the proper procedure. “How is the applicable law for a rebellious elder carried out? When a matter is undecided because of its difficulty and a sage who is scholarly enough to issue rulings whether with regard to a matter which he arrived at through his own reasoning or which he received from his teachers. He and the sages who differ with him ascend to Jerusalem and come to the court which holds sessions at the entrance to the Temple Mount. The court tells them: ‘This is the law.’ If the elder listens and accepts the ruling, it is desirable. If not, they all go to the court which holds sessions at the entrance to the Temple courtyard.”14
By following the account of what happened to Jesus, it is clear that the rules were made up as they went along. Maimonides continues to spell out the proper procedure: “If the elder listens and accepts the ruling, they go their [separate]ways. If not, they all go to the Supreme Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stone from which the Torah emanates to the entire Jewish people, as Deuteronomy states: ‘You will then act according to what they have told you there in that place which ADONAI will choose.’15 The Supreme Sanhedrin will then tell them: ‘This is the law’ and they all depart…There are four transgressors whose execution must be announced publicly: a rebellious elder, lying witnesses, a person who entices others to worship idols, and a wayward and rebellious son. For with regard to all of them, the Torah states: ‘so that people will hear and become afraid.’”16 They did not plan to give Jesus any of these rights. So instead of being a court, they became conspirators.
1 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Sabbath, folio 15a; Cf. Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folio 8b;
2 Ibid. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folio 8b; Another location on the Temple Mount, footnote (11). This was also known as the place of venders on Mount Olives.
3 Yohassin, The Book of Lineage, op. cit., p. 86
4 Ibid., Babylonian Talmud, footnote (22)
5 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Tractate Sanhedrin veha’Onashin haMesurin lahem, Ch.14, Halacha 13
6 John 18:31
7 John Gill, Exposition of the Bible Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Avodah, Tractate Kli Hamikdash, Ch. 5, Halacha 7
9 Psalm 56:5-6
10 Ibid., 94:20-21
11 Jeremiah 11:19
12 Proverbs 19:21; cf. Proverbs 21:30
13 Mishnah, Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 10:4
14 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Tractate Mamrim, Ch. 3, Halacha 8
15 Deuteronomy 17:10
16 Moses Maimonides, ibid.