NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 56: But all these things have happened to show the full meaning of what the prophets wrote. Meanwhile, all of Jesus’ followers ran off and left Him.
Many Bible scholars take the opening portion of this verse as a note from the transcriber of Matthew’s journal since it comes at the end of the narration of what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane. Others see it as Matthew’s way of closing out this portion of his record on what happened. In fact, the oldest Hebrew version of Matthew does not put it in parentheses.1 In any case, it does not do any harm to the text and should not be voided as being something other than that which was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Living in Germany I heard of many Germans who, during the time of Hitler in WWII, risked their lives and fortunes to help those being persecuted escape torture and death in the ovens of concentration camps. What would you think if you heard that after the war was over, some of those same people turned on their benefactors, denying that they knew them, even trying to pretend that they did not receive any help from them, instead of standing up for those they once looked on as heroes? This same conduct, however, seems less offensive today when we hear of many forsaking the Son of God for even fewer reasons.
At this point, all of the disciples had no reason to forsake their Lord. We know that John and Peter followed Him to the high priest’s house, but there was no need for the others to have fled in such haste. Matthew is quite clear when he said (no doubt including himself), they all forsook Him and fled. In the midst of His enemies, while in great distress and trouble, such action was very unkind and ungrateful. This account of Matthew pretty much agrees what the Jews themselves say of in their concocted story.2 They also stipulate that the citizens of Jerusalem killed many of Jesus’ followers and that the rest fled to the mountains. But this was never proven of the eleven disciples. However, when applied to the many, many others who followed Him, it may have some merit.
Verse 57: The men who arrested Jesus led Him to the house of Caiaphas the high priest. The teachers of the law and the older Jewish leaders were gathered there.
This first stop was what we would call today a “preliminary hearing” to find out if there was enough evidence to proceed with a trial. There has been some debate over who the high priest was, because the next stop was at Ananus’ palace, also a high priest. However a check of Jewish history will show that the high priesthood was frequently changed in those times, and men were put in that position by the Roman governor, as a result of favor or bribery. And just like today, after a person is no longer a serving senator, governor, or even president, they are still referred to by that title.
Leading up to Jesus’ arrest, Valerius Gratus was the Roman Prefect of Judea under Tiberius. He succeeded Annius Rufus, and was replaced by Pontius Pilate. During his tenure, Valerius appointed several people to the post of the high priest. His first was Ishmael ben Phabi (Fabi), followed by Eleazer ben Ananus, then Simon ben Camithus, and finally Joseph Kuppai, known better by his Greek name, Caiaphas, who was the son-in-law of Ananus.3
Two early church scholars give us the history as they understood it on Caiaphas’ role in this sordid affair with an innocent man. Jerome, who lived in this area of Israel for thirty years, tell us: “In accordance with God’s command, Moses ordered that high priests should succeed their fathers and a line of descent should be woven among priests. Josephus relates that the disreputable Caiaphas purchased the high priesthood from Herod for one year only.4 No wonder, then, the dishonorable high priest judges dishonorably.”5
Then Origen says: “I believe the word for Jewish slavery whereby poor and abandoned persons now profess to be slaves, is ‘Caiaphas.’ He is known as the high priest who, at odds with the truth, rails against Jesus. But Jesus according to the truth is a priest, the Word of God; under Him are established all who worthily and zealously serve God the Father. Where the high priest Caiaphas is found, however, there the scribes come together, that is, learned men who preside over the perishing written word. While being scribes, they are also elders who preside not over the truth but over the classic usage of a mere word.6 They are unwilling to consider anything beyond that.”7
Verse 58: Peter followed Jesus but stayed back at a distance. He followed Him to the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Peter went in and sat with the guards. He wanted to see what would happen to Jesus.
Although many of the disciples and followers quickly left the arrest scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, John stayed close to his Master, while Matthew notes that Peter followed off in the distance. Jerome states: “Either out of a disciple’s love or out of human curiosity, Peter wanted to know what judgment the high priest would make concerning the Lord: whether he would have Christ put to death or beaten with whips. There is a difference between the eleven apostles and Peter at this point. They fled, whereas he followed the Savior from a distance.”8
It must have been with a heavy heart that Peter lagged behind the arresting squad that guided Jesus to the compound of the high priest. I have to imagine that the words of Jesus rebuking him for being influenced by Satan to try and dissuade Him from continuing on to His destiny with death were running through his mind. And then, when his Master told him how weak his oath of loyalty was and that to the contrary he would deny Him rather than defend Him, even though he did pull the dagger and cut off the high priest servant’s ear. So perhaps Peter felt he had something to prove. Therefore, he’d wait for the right moment to display his willingness to surrender all for the one whom God the Father revealed to him as being the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God.
But whatever his intentions, it didn’t turn out the way he may have imagined it. Because once they got to the high priest’s compound, things seemed to change. Below is an artist’s rendering of what the high priest’s compound may have looked like in that day. And somewhere in the courtyard, just inside the small gate you see on the far wall, is where Peter made his terrible choice to say: “I don’t know Him.”
Palace of Caiaphas during the Second Temple Period according to the model at Jerusalem
1 Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, by George Howard from Shem-Tob’s Even Bohan, Mercer University Press, 1995
2 See Sefer Toldos Jesu, p. 16-17)
3 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk 18, Ch. 2:2
5 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 4, Ch. 26:57
6 As is his habit, Origen stresses the inability of the Jews to understand the spiritual sense of the Old Testament, which has prevented them from accepting Christ. The mention in the Gospels of the elders of the people recalls the antiquity and thus insufficiency of the literal meaning of the Scriptures, which by now are superseded by the newness of the spiritual meaning revealed by Christ. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
7 Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 105
8 Jerome: ibid. Ch. 26:58