The trial of Jesus

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15 December, 2014

The trial of Jesus: a response to J. H. H. Weiler

On March 7, 2010, Professor J. H. H. Weiler of New York University School of Law delivered an Erasmus Lecture on the subject "The trial of Jesus", of which an adapted version was posted as an article in First Things in June 2010 [1].  This article is a response to the hypothesis that Prof. Weiler presented in his 2010 article and in his responses to the letters on the article sent by several First Things' readers [2]. The article is structured as a series of 12 theses. Biblical quotes are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless noted otherwise.

Thesis 1: The charge of blasphemy in the Gospels, both during Jesus' ministry and in his trial, does not refer to the specific and technical definition of blasphemy, which according to tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter VII, Mishna VI, requires the blasphemer to have mentioned the Name, i.e. the Tetragrammaton, which Jesus never did.  Rather, the charge of blasphemy refers to Jesus' claim of divinity.  Below I present the Gospel passages that show this to be the case both during Jesus' ministry and in his trial.

a. Charges of blasphemy during Jesus' ministry

The meaning of the charge of blasphemy is clear in the very first encounter of Jesus and the scribes recorded in all synoptic Gospels, when Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic in Capernaum and then heals him:

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mk 2:5-7; also Mt 9:2-3 and Lk 5:20-21).

In John, the substance of the charge against Jesus is clear in all three occasions when "the Jews", not the Sanhedrin, decided, or actually tried, to kill Him during his ministry. Of these three occasions, only in the third is that charge given a name, which is precisely blasphemy:

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (Jn 5:18)

Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am." So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (Jn 8:58-59)

(Jesus said) "I and the Father are one." The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?" The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God." (Jn 10:30-33)

b. Charge of blasphemy in Jesus' trial

I will quote the text in Mark as it is more likely to have greater literal fidelity to the words spoken, as Simon Peter was a direct witness of the trial and Mark composed his Gospel from what he heard from Peter, most probably in Jerusalem in the 40's:

But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" And Jesus said, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven."  And the high priest tore his garments and said, "What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?" And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mk 14:61-64)

I hypothesize that, while Caiaphas asked his question in Aramaic, Jesus answered in Hebrew, both the "I am" and the following scriptural quote, so that his "I am" was clearly understood by those knowledgeable in the Torah as the "Ehyeh" of Ex 3:14, the Name of God in First Person, i.e. when used by God Himself. This would have been an explicit claim of divinity in addition to the one implied in the following combined quote of Psalm 110:1 and Dan 7:13.

Note that in all the occasions when Jesus was charged with blasphemy, both during his ministry and in his trial, there was no mention whatsoever of an attempt by Him to change any commandment of the Law.

Thesis 2: The charge of instigation to perform idolatry in the Talmudic retelling of Jesus' trial is the logical consecuence of the substance of the charge against Jesus in the Gospels, namely his claim of divinity, if the Rabbis writing the Gemara thought, as they obviously did, that Jesus was not God.

Quoting two paragraphs of the uncensored version of tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter VI, indicating with square brackets the text absent in some manuscripts according to the article by Professor Chaim Saiman "The halakhah of Jesus' trial" [3]:

On [Sabbath eve and] the eve of Passover, Jesus [the Nazarene] was hanged. And a herald went forth before him forty days proclaiming "Jesus [the Nazarene] is going forth to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and instigated and seduced Israel to idolatry. Whoever knows anything in his defense may come and state it." But since they did not find anything in his defense, they hanged him on [Sabbath eve and] the eve of Passover.

The Talmud then records a rabbi as objecting: Ulla said: "Do you suppose that ­Jesus [the Nazarene] was one for whom a defense could be made? He was a mesit [someone who instigates others to perform idolatry], concerning whom the Merciful [God] says: "Show him no compassion and do not shield him" (Deut. 13:9)."

As a minor detail, the biblical quote is actually from (Deut 13:8).

Since idolatry is worshiping an entity that is not God, proving the charge of instigating others to perform idolatry requires:

- that it is not possible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus was God, since the presumption is that he, or any other person, is not;

- that Jesus not only claimed divine status for Himself by his actions and/or words, but also prompted or allowed others to worship Him.  This is clearly stated in the Gospels and will be shown in the next thesis.

Note that in the Talmudic passage there is no mention whatsoever of an attempt by Jesus to change any commandment of the Law.

Thesis 3: There are at least three passages in the Gospels occurring at a time before the trial in which Jesus allows or prompts others to worship Him.

First, in the synoptics there are two occasions when Jesus showed his complete mastery of the sea and wind. At the end of the first occasion, after Jesus calmed the storm that was threatening the boat, the disciples, marvelled, said: "What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?" (Mt 8:27). At the end of the second occasion, after Jesus had walked on the water and the wind ceased when He got into the boat, the previous question had already been answered in the minds of the disciples:

And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."  (Mt 14:33).

While in Matthew's Gospel the Greek verb prosekyneo is used also to mean prostration as homage to a human person without implying worship, as e. g. a slave to his king in Mt 18:26, it is clear from the words of the Apostles that in this episode it means worship.

Second, in John's Gospel Jesus Himself teaches explicitely that the Father's will is "that all will honor the Son just as they honor the Father":

"The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all will honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him."  (Jn 5:22-23)

The clarity of this passage makes it amazing that there could be anyone at all, let alone as many as the Arians of IV-VI centuries, that, at the same time, held John's Gospel to be divinely inspired and denied the consubstantiality of the Son and the Father. Because if They were not "homoousios", then Jn 5:23 would state that the Father's will is that all commit idolatry! (Accordingly, the cosmic worship in Rev 5:13 is addressed to the Father and the Son equally.)

Third, there is the healing of the man born blind in John's Gospel. The use of prosekyneo in this passage is very important because, in contrast with Matthew, John uses that word, both in his Gospel and in the book of Revelation, exclusively to mean worship directed to God. I will quote it verse by verse:

9:35 Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"
9:36 He answered, "And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?"
9:37 Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you."
9:38 He said, "Lord, I believe," and he worshiped him.

There are two textual issues with this passage: first, verse 38 is omitted in a few old manuscripts of Alexandrian text-type (P75, Sinaiticus, Washingtonianus). Second, in some of the manuscripts that do have verse 38, "Son of Man" in verse 35 is changed to "Son of God".  While some scholars [4] suggest that 9:38 was introduced later into the text for its liturgical use in the baptism of adults, so that the reading would culminate in the confession of faith in Jesus by the former blind man, there is a different view [5] which I find more plausible: that the original text was as quoted above, and both the omission and the change were introduced to solve, by different NT scribes and in different directions, the perceived challenge, even to the point of scandal, resulting from the man born blind worshiping a man who called himself "the Son of Man" and who, for all the healed man APPARENTLY knew about him, could be just a prophet. Faced with that challenge, some NT scribes decided to take out the worship verse, while other scribes decided to change Jesus' self-given title to make the case for worship by the former blind man epistemically more plausible from his APPARENT viewpoint.

The challenge presented by this passage is real and pressing, as in a first reading all the possible explanations of why worshiping Jesus was the right thing to do by the healed man at that time are less than satisfactory.  From acceptable to most unacceptable, they are:

a) The man born blind had a divinely-inspired intuition that the man who had healed him was God.  Good for him, but then his case is not transferable to less fortunate folks who have to rely on their reason. (*)

b) If a man has a) given sight to a man born blind and b) called himself "the Son of Man", then those concurrent facts prove that said man is God.

c) If a man has a) given sight to a man born blind and b) called himself "the Son of Man", then it is legitimate (or mandatory?) for the healed man (or for everyone?) to worship said man, no matter whether he is God or not.

I propose a hypothesis (in my view, plausible, and as far as I know, original,) that provides the key for an intelligent (inte-legere: read into) reading of the passage that avoids these explanations: the epistemic situation of the man born blind about Jesus, at the time of their second encounter, was much better than what can be assumed in a cursory reading of the passage, as noted with the "APPARENTLY"/"APPARENT" qualifications above. The passage offers three data items that make this hypothesis plausible:

1. Focusing on 9:35, we read that Jesus "heard that they had cast him (the former blind) out (of the synagogue)".  This brings about the subject of the relationship between Jesus' human intellect and the divine Intellect, which is not really different from the divine Essence. The divine Intellect was not permanently "direcly feeding" Jesus' human intellect with the kind of information on temporal matters that ordinary people acquire by ordinary means. Although such direct infusion of earthly knowledge did happen occasionally, it was the exception and not the rule. Acquiring such information in the same way as ordinary people do was part of Jesus' self-emptying or "kenosis", of his "taking the form of a servant" (aristotelian form, not just appearance, as the previous verse says that "he was in the form of God" (Phil 2:4-7)). E.g., in the episode of the woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years (Mk 5:25-34), Jesus really did not know who had touched his garments and He really was looking around to see who had done it. And in John's Gospel, Jesus sincerely asked where they had laid Lazarus (Jn 11:34). 

Thus, in the episode at hand, Jesus really learned that the Pharisees had cast the former blind out of the synagogue by hearing about the event from a third person, probably several hours after the event. And after hearing about the event, Jesus looked for the healed man in Jerusalem just as ordinary people look for someone. Therefore it is very likely that between the expulsion of the man from the synagogue and his second encounter with Jesus there was an interval of several hours.

2. In a previous passage in John, the officers whom the chief priests and Pharisees had sent to arrest Jesus (7:32) return to their bosses, who are gathered in one place, and are scolded by them for having let themselves be impressed by Jesus' words (7:45-49). The passage adds that Nicodemus, who according to Jn 3:1 was a Pharisee and "a ruler of the Jews", i. e. a member of the Sanhedrin, was one of the Pharisees present at that time (7:50) and that he spoke in Jesus' defense at the procedural level: "Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?" (7:51).

From this passage, it is likely that Nicodemus was present also during the argument raised by the healing of the blind man. Moreover, Nicodemus' presence at that event is not just likely but very likely, because the Pharisees that spoke in Jesus' defence at this occasion, not at the procedural but at the substantial level, were more than one:

Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" And there was a division among them. (Jn 9:16)

Since not many members of the Sanhedrin were likely to speak in Jesus' defence, it is highly probable that Nicodemus was one of those "others".

At this point, I ask the reader to place himself/herself in the shoes (or rather sandals) of Nicodemus.  You not only believe that Jesus is the Son of God but also have learned from Jesus the way in which we must live, his halakha.  You have learned that the essence of that way, regarding what you must do (**), is to love God with all your being and to love your neighbour as yourself, which is also the essence of the Law (Mk 12:28-33). You have also learned that, in Jesus' way, loving your neighbour goes beyond what is required by the Law, and involves feeling compassion for your neighbour and showing mercy to him (Lk 10:25-37), thus imitating the Heavenly Father who is "merciful and compassionate". Even more precisely, it involves loving compassionately your neighbour precisely because God loves him so, and being merciful to him because God wants you to be a sign and instrument of His mercy.  (This synthesizes the core of both Christian soteriology and moral: Jesus makes us "partakers of the divine nature" in Him (2 Pe 1:4), and this projects into, and at the same time requires, partaking of his feelings and actions.)

With that mindset, you see the man being cast out of the synagogue, and probably also being avoided by people. He is in good health and able to work, but since he was born blind he now has no clue about how to go on with his life, find lodging, find a job.  He could physically work in a workshop or in the field, but what are the names of those tools? And how are they used? And where are workshops and fields, anyway?  So you feel compassion for this man who is in such complete intellectual indigence and reach out to him and start teaching him the basic knowledge necessary to go on with his life.  While at that, it would be just natural that the conversation turns at some time to the subject of this prophet who healed him.  And you, being aware of the immense good that knowing Jesus is, start telling the man what you have learned about Jesus from Jesus Himself (Jn 3:10-21): that He is much more than a prophet, He is "the Son of Man" "who descended from heaven" and "who is in heaven" (***) (Jn 3:13) predicted in Dan 7:13. After a few hours, you lead the man to a lodging where he can take shelter and part ways, giving him some coins to get through the day.

3. At that point in time, Jesus finds the man. Now, let's recall that the man has never seen Jesus yet, because Jesus sent him to "wash in the pool of Siloam" (9:7) while he was still blind, and Jesus was no longer there when the man came back seeing. Thus, when Jesus found him and asked him: "Do you believe in the Son of Man?", the former blind had no idea that the man asking that question was Jesus. Therefore, when he answered: "And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?", he was not meaning: "And what are the qualifications of the Son of Man (who I know is you), that I may believe in him?" but rather: "And which of the persons around is the Son of Man (whose qualifications I already know from my own experience and Nicodemus), that I may believe in Him?"

(*) That statement will probably place me under heavy friendly fire, so a clarification is required. In faith strictly defined, what moves us to believe some revealed truth T is not the fact that T appears as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason. Rather, we believe T because of the authority of God who revealed T, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. But God does not reveal that truth T directly to each person, but through a revelatory medium M. Therefore, in order to assent to the whole truth that God has revealed, the person must first identify the medium M through which God reveals (e.g. a prophet or God incarnate Himself, while any of them is alive on earth, and thereafter a book containing his teachings, in the Protestant and Karaite views, or a book plus a tradition with both interpreted by an authoritative magisterium, in the Catholic/Orthodox and Rabbinic views).  Clearly the strict definition of faith above does not apply to the identification of M as the medium through which God reveals, which is based on rational motives of credibility.  Otherwise, a person should have to identify M as the medium through which God reveals by an assent to the truth that God reveals through M based on the authority of God who revealed (through M) said truth (i.e. that He reveals through M)! 

(**) In the Christian way the first and foremost thing is what God does in us, the new creation (Eze 36:25-29; Jn 6:28-29; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Eph 2:10).

(***) The ending "who is in heaven" in Jn 3:13 is omitted in some old manuscripts of Alexandrian text-type (P66, P75, Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, Washingtonianus).  On the other hand, it appears in the works of early Christian writers such as Tatian's "Diatessaron" (c. 160-175) and Hippolytus' (170–235) "Against Noetus", and then consistently in the works of almost all Church Fathers. I share the view [6] that, just as it probably happened with the "worship" verse Jn 9:38, the ending was omitted by an NT scribe to avoid the challenge posed by Jesus telling Nicodemus that, at the same time that He was there talking to him, He was also in heaven!

In my view, it is perfectly likely that Jesus made such a clear and direct statement of his divinity to Nicodemus at an early time of his ministry if He knew, per his divine insight into minds and hearts, that Nicodemus was able to handle the challenge involved. After all, probably not much longer than a year later Jesus was telling "the Jews" in general that before Abraham came into existence, He was (Jn 8:58).

Deuteronomical passages referenced by the next theses

Deut 13:1-5: the test of Israel. Quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB), as the ESV render of verse 2 does not state that the sign or wonder that comes true has been offered by the prophet as support of his instigation to commit idolatry.

1 "If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder,
2 and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, 'Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known ) and let us serve them,'
3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you to find out if you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
4 "You shall follow the LORD your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him.
5 "But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to seduce you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from among you.

Deut 18:15-22: the future prophet like Moses and the test of a prophet.

15 "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers--you shall listen to him--
16 just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, 'Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.'
17 And the LORD said to me, 'They are right in what they have spoken.
18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.
19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.
20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.'
21 And if you say in your heart, 'How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?'--
22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

From these passages, the table below lists the possible combinations of the pair (entity in whose name the prophet speaks, outcome of prediction), and, for each combination, the commanded course of action for Israel.

If the prophet speaks  and his prediction  then you shall ...
in the name of ...     is ...

the LORD               fulfilled           listen to him (18:15)

the LORD               not fulfilled       not be afraid of him (18:22)
                                           kill him (18:20 + 22)

other gods             fulfilled           kill him (13:5)
                                           kill him (*) (18:20)

other gods             not fulfilled       kill him (*) (18:20)

(*) = irrespective of prediction outcome

Thesis 4: In Deut 13:1-5, the evil against which Moses warns Israel is going after other gods, not any change in the Law given at Sinai. Accordingly, it cannot be inferred from that passage, as Prof. Weiler does, that a state of "epistemic insulation", excluding the possibility of acknowledging further divine interventions and revelation, had been divinely mandated to Israel, much less if the passage is read in conjunction with Deut 18:15-22.  Moreover, the latter passage implies that Israel was in a state of "epistemic openness" (clearly not indiscriminate but with very stringent requirements to ascertain that the future prophet is speaking in the name of the LORD and, moreover, speaking only the words that the LORD has commanded him to speak.)

I support this thesis by reading the command in Deut 13:4 as meaning exactly what it says:

"follow the LORD your God": wherever He leads you, at any time, provided that it is He who is leading you.

"keep His commandments": whatever commandments He gives you, whenever He speaks to you, not just the commandments He gave at Sinai. He, and only He, can add a commandment, e.g. because you were not ready to keep it in the past (such as the prohibition of divorce and remarriage), and take away another, e.g. because you no longer need to keep it (such as the food regulations).

"listen to His voice": as He spoke at Sinai through Moses, and as He will speak in the future through the promised "prophet like him" (Deut 18:15,18,19).  Moreover, if that future prophet will be "like Moses", it is just to be expected that God will speak through him the same kind of words He spoke through Moses. i.e. give commandments.

Thesis 5: For Jesus to pass the charge against Him in the Gospels and the Talmud, and the test on Him of Deut 13:1-5, it is necessary and sufficient,

- at the objective level, that Jesus is God;

- at the subjective/objective level (related to competence as judge) of a person making the judgment, that he has been provided with proof beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus is God, because the reasonable initial assumption about any person is that he is not God;

- at the subjective/subjective level (related to moral righteousness) of a person making the judgment, that he has perceived that there is proof beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus is God, because the reasonable initial assumption about any person is that he is not God.

I will show that below, focusing on just the objective level.

Charge in the Gospels: as showed in thesis 1, the charge of blasphemy referred to Jesus' claim of divinity, with both the claim and its relationship to the charge being stated most clearly in Jn 10:30-33. A claim of divinity contains an at least implicit prompt for worship. That prompt for worship is not an instigation to "go after other gods" if, and only if, Jesus is God.

Charge in the Talmud: as showed in thesis 2, the charge of instigating others to perform idolatry is based on the assumption that Jesus is not God, and on the facts that Jesus a) claimed divinity for Himself, as shown in thesis 1, and b) allowed his followers to worship Him, as shown in thesis 3. That claim and behaviour is not instigation to perform idolatry if, and only if, Jesus is God.

As noted at the end of theses 1 and 2, in all the occasions when Jesus was charged with blasphemy in the Gospels, both during his ministry and in his trial, and in the Talmudic retelling of his trial, there was no mention whatsoever of an attempt by Him to change any commandment of the Law. In any case, if Jesus is God, He has full authority to do that.

Test on Jesus of Deut 13:1-5: Jesus taught his disciples to love and follow Him as God (Mt 10:37-39), to honor Him as God (Jn 5:23) and to keep his commandments (i.e. of Jesus) (Jn 14:15-26 & 15:9-17). These teachings can avoid being the instigation to idolatry of Deut 13:2, and can comply with Deut 13:4, if, and only if, Jesus is God.

Thesis 6: For Jesus to pass the tests on the future prophet of Deut 18:15-22, given that He had predicted three times to his apostles that He would be condemned by the Sanhedrin, handed over to the Gentiles and killed, it was necessary that those events would come to pass.

Deut 18:20 commands two tests on the future prophet: whether he speaks in the name of the LORD or of other gods, and, in the first case, whether he speaks only the words that the LORD has commanded him to speak.

Regarding the first test, it is clear from John's Gospel that Jesus spoke in the name of the LORD, as He stated many times that He spoke the words that He had heard from the Father (Jn 5:19,30,43; 7:16; 8:28,38,40; 12:49-50; 14:10,24; 17:8,14,26).  Additionally, the three Synoptics record that, when asked about the first commandment, Jesus answered with the Shema and the commandment following it (Mk 12:28-34).  Moreover, just before that dialogue, Jesus had provided as scriptural basis for the belief in the resurrection of the dead the passage about the bush in which God spoke to Moses, "saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'" (Mk 12:24-27).

Regarding the second test, Deut 18:22 sets as criterion for ascertaining that the prophet is speaking only the words that the LORD has spoken, that the word spoken by the prophet must come to pass.

On this criterion, it is critical to distinguish between the epistemic situation of the Pharisees and chief priests on one side, and that of the twelve apostles of Jesus on the other.

From the viewpoint of both Jesus' disciples and the Pharisees, the healings and resurrections that Jesus had performed amounted to a fulfillment of his predictions: there had been no case in which Jesus had commanded an event - healing or resurrection - and the event did not come to pass.

But from the viewpoint of only the twelve apostles, there was an additional word spoken by Jesus that needed to come true: Jesus had predicted to them, not once but three times (Mk 8:31; 9:31 and 10:32-34), that "the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again." (Mk 10:33-34, quoted from NASB).

Therefore, for Jesus to pass the test of Deut 18:20-22 in the eyes of the twelve apostles, proving to them that He was speaking only the words that the LORD had spoken, it was necessary that He was condemned by the Sanhedrin.  Which does not mean that it was God's positive will that the members of the Sanhedrin would not acknowledge Jesus' divinity and would consequently convict Him of instigation to commit idolatry.  Rather, it was God's permissive will, and foreknowledge, that they would do that.

Thesis 7: From thesis 5, it follows that, for the Sanhedrin to acquit Jesus on the charge of instigation to perform idolatry, it was necessary that its members had come to the conclusion that Jesus was God, which means that it was necessary that they had come to full Christian faith, comprising both Nicene trinitarian (*) theology and Chalcedonian christology:

- There is one divine Nature or Essence and three (*) divine Persons. Each divine Person is (eternally) the (absolutely simple) divine Essence.

- The divine Person of the consubstantial Son of God has assumed a human nature and made it his own, from his conception. That union in the Person (hypostatic union) did not involve any change to either the divine or the human nature: "The distinction between the natures was never abolished by their union, but rather the character proper to each of the two natures was preserved as they came together in one person (prosopon) and one hypostasis." (Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon). 

Thus, for the members of the Sanhedrin to acquit Jesus, it was necessary that they believed that Jesus is truly the Son of God who, without ceasing to be God and LORD, became a man and our brother: "the Son of Man" "who descended from heaven" and "who is in heaven" at the same time that He is on earth (Jn 3:13).  Did they have objective "motives of credibility" for perceiving that Jesus was God, so that they could give a reasonable assent to that truth?  Or in legal terms, had they been provided with proof beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus was God? I will examine that question in the theses following the next.

(*) At the time of Jesus' trial, the members of the Sanhedrin could have had only the provisional binitarian form of Christian faith, since Jesus revealed the Holy Spirit as another divine Person to the eleven faithful apostles at the Last Supper (Jn 14:15 - 16:15), just a few hours before the trial.

Thesis 8: From thesis 5, it follows that whether Jesus' conviction was unjust depends:

- at the objective level, on whether Jesus was God;

- at the subjective/objective level (related to competence as judges) of the members of the Sanhedrin, on whether they had been provided with proof beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus was God;

- at the subjective/subjective level (related to moral righteousness) of each member of the Sanhedrin, on whether he had perceived that there was proof beyond reasonable doubt that Jesus was God.

Thesis 9: In contrast to the case of Israel as shown in thesis 4, Jesus did mandate absolute epistemic insulation after Him to the Church.  For that mandate not to be contrary to reason, two conditions must be fulfilled:

a. There is a fundamental difference between the situation of Israel after the revelation at Sinai and the situation of the Church after Christ.

b. A sign from God is distinguishable from a sign from a false prophet, a false christ, an antichrist or "the" antichrist.

This thesis may seem a digression from the subject of this article, but is actually an essential part of it, because it is necessary to show that Jesus' mandate of epistemic insulation to the Church after Him is not "ad hoc" but is justified on a principled basis, and also that the signs from God performed by Jesus can be distinguished from the signs from an evil agent on a principled basis.

The mandate in question is in the Synoptics in two passages. First a shorter passage related to the time of the siege and fall of Jerusalem (Mt 24:4-5; Mk 13:5-6; Lk 21:8):

And Jesus began to say to them, "See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray." (Mk 13:5-6)

Then a longer passage related to the time of the last tribulation (Mt 24:23-25; Mk 13:21-23):

"And then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'Look, there he is!' do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand." (Mk 13:21-23)

The precise definitions of the mentioned categories are:

- false prophet: someone who speaks in the name of false gods, or who speaks in the name of God what God has not commanded him to speak.

- false christ: someone who claims to be the Christ.

- antichrist: someone who denies that Jesus of Nazareth is the consubstantial Son of God. Defined in 1 Jn 2:22:

Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.

- "the" antichrist: an antichrist that will come at the end of times. Described in 2 Thess 2:3-12.

These categories are not mutually exclusive. E.g., if a false Christ denies that Jesus is the Son of God, he is also an antichrist. But he would be only a false christ and not an antichrist if he did not deny that Jesus was the Son of God, claiming instead that he is a subsequent encarnation, in the way that Rama and Krishna are said to be succesive encarnations of Vishnu.

Thesis 10: There is a fundamental difference between the situation of Israel after the revelation at Sinai and the situation of the Church after Christ, and therefore there is a principled reason why Moses told Israel: "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me" while Jesus did NOT tell the Church: "The Father will send down from heaven for you a Christ like Me": Jesus revealed all the truth that God wanted to reveal to us, and carried out all the "foundational" work that God willed that his Son perform on earth for our salvation. No further Encarnation of the Son or revelation by a prophet is necessary, and none is forthcoming.

The reason why the Old Covenant was provisional while the New Covenant is definitive can be clearly perceived from their respective essences: in the Old, God commands man what to do; in the New, God does his work in man.

Thesis 11: The signs or wonders that can be performed by a magician, a false prophet, a false christ, an antichrist or "the" antichrist, as support for an instigation to go after false gods, or to disobey God, or to deny Jesus Christ, are not performed directly by God. Rather, they are performed by an evil angel, whom God has permitted to do it, by his own power.

It is clear from the Bible that an angel, either good or evil, can affect the material world by his own power if God permits him to do it.  Job 1:6 - 2:7 describes some of the signs or wonders that an evil angel can perform if permitted by God: fire falls from the sky, a great wind blows, Job is struck with loathsome sores.  Paul describes the antichrist thus:

Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. (2 Thess 2:8-10, quoted from NASB)

Thesis 12: A sign from God is distinguishable from a sign from a false prophet, a false christ, an antichrist or "the" antichrist, on two levels: degree of power and wisdom displayed by the agent, and character of the sign.

Focusing first on the degree of power and wisdom displayed by the agent, clearly the resurrection of a human being stands on top.  This is evident at the physical level since, in order to bring a dead body, human or animal, back to biological life, the acting entity must rearrange all atoms and electrons in the body ("restore the photo") and immediately restart the coordinated "motion" of all those atoms and electrons ("restart the movie").  Doing that requires an extremely high degree of power and wisdom, the higher the more complex the organism to be resurrected is, with the complexity being maximum in the case of human beings due to the development of their central nervous system.  It is highly doubtful that a non-divine entity can do just that.

But to bring a dead human being back to human life, not just biological life, the entity must also infuse to the resurrected body a spiritual soul, which could in principle be the same soul that had left that body at the time of death, the soul of another dead person, or a new soul created out of nothing. Otherwise the result of the resurrection would not be a human being with intellectual capabilities but the metaphysical, cognitive and behavioral equivalent of a Neanderthal, if biblical Adam was y-chromosomal Adam, or a Homo Habilis, if biblical Adam was a Homo Antecessor or Ergaster, which I strongly doubt, or, to use a literary figure familiar to Jewish readers, a golem. And infusing a spiritual soul to a human body is a work that can be performed only by God, who is also the only One who:

- can create a soul out of nothing, a point relevant in the case of the conception of a new human being, and
- has in his hands the souls of the departed (which is obvious but also explicitely stated in Wis 3:1), a point relevant in the case of a resurrection.

Thus, the resurrection of a human being is a work necessarily performed directly by God, who by that work would be unequivocally certifying in the eyes of the witnesses that the servant through whose intervention God is performing that work has God's "seal of approval", like the prophet Elisha (2 Ki 4:32-35), Jesus (Lk 7:11-17; Lk 8:49-56; Jn 11:38-44), and the apostle Peter (Acts 9:36-42). Thus, if Jesus, by performing resurrections, shows to have God's seal of approval, then what he said was true. Therefore if Jesus claimed divinity, He is God.

Clearly the maximum "seal of approval" that God can confer to a servant of His, as Christians believe He did to his Servant par excellence, Jesus, is to resurrect him to a glorious state.  We will not take this event into consideration here because we are dealing primarily with the epistemic situation of the members of the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus' trial.

Focusing now on the character of the sign, there is a basic difference between the signs of the Christ and the signs of a false prophet or antichrist, which is evident in the passages when Jesus refuses to perform a sign requested of Him.

First, when tempted in the desert after his baptism in the Jordan. Jesus refused to command stones to become loaves of bread or to throw Himself down the pinnacle of the Temple (Mt 4:1-7), either possibility being a sensationalistic exhibition that would be an easy way to gain followers.

Second, when the Pharisees, on one occasion with the scribes (Mt 12:38-40) and on another with the Sadducees (Mt 16:1-4), asked Jesus to give them a sign from heaven. Mark describes the reaction that the request elicited in Jesus' spirit:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation." (Mk 8:11-12)

Actually, the "sign from heaven" that the Pharisees asked Jesus to provide was precisely the kind described in Job 1:16. Thus, it would not have been proof that Jesus had come from God but rather the opposite.

Finally, when on the cross, He was tempted by the last time:

And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him." (Mt 27:39-42)

Actually, as I noted in thesis 6, the sign that the chief priests and scribes asked Jesus to provide would have been definitive proof for the eleven apostles that Jesus' words did NOT come from God, since the prediction that Jesus had made three times to his apostles would not be coming to pass.

What these passages have in common is that Jesus consistently refuses to give a sign which is primarily a sign and not a work of God in itself. And what are the works of God that Jesus performs? The works that show God's merciful and compassionate love towards man, in Hebrew hesed or rahamim, as Jesus replied to the disciples of John the Baptist: "the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news preached to them" (Mt 11:5). And when Jesus did multiply the loaves of bread to feed the people, He did that after having fed them with the word of God by teaching them for hours (Mk 6:34-25). Thus Jesus performed the works of God described in Is 26:19, 29:18, 35:5-6 and 42:7, and in Ps 146:7-9. And therefore He can justly say to all men, first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles:

"If I do not do the works of my Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father." (Jn 10:37-38).








About Me

A Catholic engineer, dilettante in theology and philosophy. / Un ingeniero católico, diletante en teología y filosofía.