NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 1-2: Early the next morning, all the leading priests and older leaders of the people met and made the decision to have Jesus killed. They tied His hands, led Him away, and handed Him over to Pilate, the Roman governor.
Here we find circumstances similar to those that Samson,1 and later to King David, had to endure.2 These leading priests and elders were accurately described by Solomon: “The wicked cannot sleep until they have done something evil. They will not rest until they bring someone down. Evil and violence are their food and drink.”3 And the prophet Micah identified them with precision, “They lie on their beds making their evil plans. Then when the morning light comes, they do what they planned, because they have the power to do what they want.”4 Micah’s mention of “when the morning light comes” certainly corresponds with what Matthew says here about this starting early the next morning. The Hebrew Version of this text renders it: “…you rise at dawn.”
In the Greek Textus Receptus, that the English KJV is based on, it mentions that “all” the leading priests and elders met. The Syriac and Persic versions leave out the word “all”, but it is retained in the Vulgate Latin, Arabic, and Ethiopic versions, Münster’s Hebrew Gospel, as well as the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew by Hugh J. Schonfield. But we must remember that the group that met late the night before were described as Scribes, and Elders, and the leading priests, and the whole Sanhedrin.5 Now in the morning, it reads: “…all the chief sages and elders took counsel against Jesus.”6 So apparently Matthew wanted his readers to know that while not every single one of the priests and elders was there for all these gatherings, the hierarchy of the Jewish religious leadership was involved.
We are told in Jewish writings: “The High Court of 71 judges was not required to sit all together in their place in the Temple. Instead, when it was necessary for them to gather together, they would all gather together. At other times, whoever had private affairs would tend to his concerns and then return. The above applies provided there would be no less than 23 judges in attendance whenever they were sitting. If a judge needs to leave, he should look at his colleagues who remain. If there are 23 remaining, he may leave. If not, he should not leave until another comes.”7
Leo the great had a message for this mean-spirited tribunal. He writes: “O religious leaders [of the Jews], this morning was far from your time of rising dominance, as it might have seemed to you. Your sun was, in fact, beginning to set. The dawn you expected did not come. A night of blackest darkness was brooding over your spiteful hearts. Out of this morning would come the overthrow of the Temple and its altars, the overriding of the law and the prophets, the undoing of the kingship and priesthood, turning youth toward continual lament. For you set out that morning on a mad and bloody course. You offered up to die the Author of life, the Lord of glory. Pilate—that terror-stricken judge—was overcome by your shouts, so that he chose a man for pardon who was a murderer and demanded the crucifixion of the Savior of the world.”8
We are also informed when these tribunals normally convened: “Until when should the judges hold session? A minor Sanhedrin and a court of three should hold sessions from after the morning service until the end of the sixth hour of the day. The supreme Sanhedrin, by contrast, would hold sessions from the time of the slaughter of the morning sacrifice until the offering of the afternoon sacrifice. On Sabbaths and on festivals they would hold sessions in the House of Study on the Temple Mount.”
For a better understanding of the Sanhedrim, here they are described by membership:
THE GREAT SANHEDRIN (Lower + Minor + 23 Members + 2 Presiding Officers)
a. The Grand Council
b. It convened in Jerusalem
c. Consisted of the high court of justice and the supreme tribunal of the Jews.
d. It numbered 71 members.
e. Its powers were:
2. THE MINOR SANHEDRIN (23 Members constituted a minor Sanhedrin in any city or town)
3. THE LOWER SANHEDRIN (23 Members located at the entrance to the Temple Mount, next to the eastern Shushan Gate.)
The reaction of these religious leaders would be no surprise to the Master. Look at what He said earlier about the Son of Man: “They will hand Him over to foreigners, who will laugh at Him and beat Him with whips, and then they will kill Him on a cross. But on the third day after His death, He will be raised to life again.”9 He also knew that one Messianic Psalm had already predicted this: “Their kings and leaders join together to fight against the Lord and His chosen king.”10
It is also interesting that in a collection of writings by ancient Jewish Rabbis, they too saw this as related to the Messiah.11 Just as Abraham tied Isaac and led him away to be sacrificed, likewise these leading priests would tie up the Son of God for the same purpose. But first, they had to take Him to Pilate in order to get the death sentence they wanted.
We find this event recorded by a Roman historian who writes: “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus,and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.”12
And we also have this recorded by a Jewish historian: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it is lawful to call Him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned Him to the cross, those that loved Him from the beginning did not forsake Him; for He appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning Him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this very day.”13 We also told by the Jewish historian that Pilate fell out of favor with Rome, “So Pilate, when he had tarried ten years in Judea, made haste to Rome, and this in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, which he dare not contradict; but before he could get to Rome Tiberius died.”14
1 Judges 15:2
2 I Samuel 19:11
3 Proverbs 4:16-17
4 Micah 2:1
5 Matthew 26:57-59
6 Hebrew Gospel of Matthew: by George Howard, Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia. 1995, loc. cit.
7 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Tractate Sanhedrin veha’Onashin haMesurin lahem, Ch. 3, Halacha 2
8 Leo the Great: Sermon 41.5
9 Matthew 20:19
10 Psalm 2:2
11 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, op. cit. Piska 9:11, loc. cit., p. 245
12 The Annals by Tacitus, (109 AD), Transl by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, Bk. 15, Ch. 15:44
13 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 18, Ch. 3:3
14 Ibid. Ch. 4:2