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Priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, Sanhedrin


From the book "The Trial and Death of Jesus"

by Haim Cohn

Published in 1959, USA and Britain 1963

I have this old book (re-published when Mel Gibson produced his
film "The Passion of Christ" to give another side of the times of
Jesus), His trial and His death. The author studied at Yeshivat
Merkaz Harav as well as Judaistic studies at the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem. Upon the establishment of the State of Israel in
1948 he was appointed State Attorney and shortly thereafter Director-
General of the Ministry of Justice. In 1950 he was made the
Attorney-General of Israel. In 1952 he joined the Cabinet as
Minister of Justice and in 1953 resumed the attorney-generalship
until his appointment in 1960 as a Justice of the Supreme court
of Israel.

The main theme of his book is to declare that there was no real
conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, that the Gospel writers
made up stories, deliberately put words in Jesus' mouth that He
never uttered, which "afforded the evangelists a cause and a
theatre of friction between Jesus and the Pharisees" p.43.

Most of the book is total GARBAGE! But his second chapter on some
historical facts of the Jewish Chief Priests, Elders, Scribes,
and all the Council, is worth noting and reproducing here on this

Keith Hunt




     It is Jewish law that the high priest is appointed for life,
but the Roman governors had introduced the innovation that the
appointment would be made and unmade by them at pleasure. It was,
also under Jewish law, the Great Sanhedrin of Seventy-one which
had the prerogative of appointing and impeaching incumbents, but
the Roman governors imagined that, by arrogating the power to
appoint and remove, by seeing to it that their choices were
always Romanophile and trustworthy, they could effectively
control the Jews. The high priesthood was the symbol of Jewish
national pride and aspirations, of Jewish religious superiority.
National and religious life centered in the temple at Jerusalem,
of which the high priest was exalted guardian and supreme
     The temple police was the only Jewish armed force officially
tolerated. By striking at the autonomy and independence of the
high priest, the Romans struck at the nerve ganglion of Jewish
autonomy and independence. Josephus tells nothing of the reaction
of his people to this shocking degradation of the high
priesthood. His silence is surely eloquent, for that reaction,
even if it did not find active expression, must have been very
bitter. That the Jews were likely to lose confidence in Roman-
nominees to the sacred office is one thing; but every expression
of anger that the sacrosanct right of the Great Sanhedrin was
being usurped and profaned would only magnify the hatred that the
Romans felt for them.


     Kaiaphas, the high priest, had been appointed by Pilate's
predecessor, Valerius Gratius, and held office for eighteen
years, from 18 to 36, a much longer spell than Pilate's as
governor of Judaea. It has been said that the very fact that
Pilate allowed Kaiaphas to abide undisturbedly throughout his own
term speaks for great amity and close understanding between the
two. It has also been suggested that Pilate's successor got rid
of Kaiaphas as a friendly gesture of conciliation toward the
Jews, who destested the high priest for what he had done to
Jesus. The true reason for Kaiaphas' retention in office by
Pilate may well be that he had paid the price of it in good
money: we know that the high-priestly appointment had developed
into a lucrative source of private income for the governors - if
an incumbent could or would not pay the price, he would be
unseated, and one more forthcoming would replace him. But if a
governor could earn as much by letting the incumbent be, why go
to the trouble of deposition and a new appointment?


     In Roman times the high priesthood was confined to a few
families: identical names recur again and again. It was not that
qualified candidates could not be found in other circles, but
that these were the only Jerusalem clans that could afford the
costs involved. How rich the popular imagination made them out to
be is shown by a talmudic tradition that their elders used only
and always vessels of silver and gold. A11 the families belonged
to the Sadducean aristocracy, so that the mass of the people
found itself faced by an apparent alliance between the hateful
alien overlord and the rich and wealthy Jews: the natural and
social aversion to the prosperous and mighty was joined, and
intensified, by the natural and patriotic aversion to the enemy
oppressor, of which the high priests - and the rich in general -
were, of course, well aware. They knew not only how intensely the
Romans were hated, but also that their own collaboration with the
Romans and their dependence on them were popularly viewed with
scorn and disgust. And the fact that it was by their wealth alone
that the high priests had qualified for the holy office, and had
procured and went on holding it, did nothing to enhance their
standing or give them added goodwill.


     But however little he was liked, however odious the form an
incidents of his appointment and tenure, the high priest was
always in supreme command of the temple administration, the
temple police included, and responsible, without reserve, for all
temple services. And from the point of view of external
relations, he would be regarded - especially, but not
exclusively, by the Roman governor - as chief and spokesman of
the nation, not only because the Romans would not recognize any
but their own nominees as accreditable negotiators, but also
because the Jews would rather that any unavoidable contact with
the enemy be made by his own puppet. It was a curious and
ambivalent situation: on the one hand, the Jews despised the high
priests as Roman quislings; on the other, they had to, and did,
use the sacerdotal good offices in mediacy with the authorities.
     It is, perhaps, no less strange that a similar ambivalence
prevailed internally: on the one hand, the Jews despised the high
priest for his Sadducean affiliations and his moral and
professional flaws; on the other, they had to, and did, duly
recognize him as the lawful holder of the highest national and
religious post. A modern politician might be in the like
predicament when his party adversary, at whose qualifications he
scoffs and whose opinions he vehemently scouts, has been elected
to high office; while never forsaking his own views or betraying
his own ideals, he will - at least outwardly - spare no conscious
effort at loyal cooperation with him.
     When, however, we come to details of the high priest's
competences, we shall find it not at all easy to grope our way
through the tangle of disputatious scholarship. For instance, on
the first question that springs to mind in connection with the
trial of Jesus, the scholars are hopelessly divided. Did the high
priest preside over the Sanhedrin or did he not? Was he, or was
he not, competent to convene it? Scores of theories have been
developed on this issue, ranging from the assertion that he
presided and convened at will to the denial that he ever presided
or had the right to preside or convene, with intermediate
assertions and denials. None of the Gospels says expressly that
it was the high priest who presided over the meeting in the
matter of Jesus, and for our specific purpose, we might leave it
at that and take no stand in the controversy. It is only the
possible bearing, on the question of ultimate "responsibility,"
of our adopting or rejecting this or the other theory that
requires us clearly to decide on the position that we are going
to take.

     The dignity, fame, and sacrosanctity of the high-priestly
office were such that it would, I think, be virtually
inconceivable for its holder to attend any session of the
Sanhedrin or council in which he would not, as a matter of course
and tradition, preside. He was the only man chosen and qualified
to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple once a year (Lev.
16:32): he who was nearest to God, at least physically, and
anointed to represent the people before God, would certainly be
the first among men and entitled to preside over them.


     Nothing much is known of Kaiaphas in particular. We have it
on the authority of the Fourth Gospel that he was the son-in-law
of a former high priest, Annas (John 18:13): Annas functioned be-
tween the years 6 and 15, which means his displacement fifteen   
years before our events. Whether it was because of the
comparative lack of standing or importance of the three
intervening incumbents, or because they were no longer alive, we
find both Annas and Kaiaphas described as high priests during the
governorship of Pilate (Luke 3:2), and, in another context, Annas
as the only high priest and Kaiaphas as just one of his kindred
(Acts 4:6). It would seem that Annas' official reputation lasted
longer than Kaiaphas': notwithstanding the role ascribed to
Kaiaphas in the Passion story, it is the name of Annas that
loomed large in later traditions. But only in the Fourth Gospel
is any part in the questioning of Jesus attributed to Annas (John
18:19-23); the remarkable omission of all mention of the high
priest's name in the trial accounts of Mark and Luke may
predicate a lack of interest in his identity, and it has, indeed,
been said to lend "considerable force to the argument that the
hierarch's actual part in the proceedings against Jesus was far
from being as commanding as the evangelists suggest." 18

     A high priest by the name of Elionai son of Kaiaph,
mentioned in the Jewish sources, has been taken to be a son of
our Kaiaphas. He has also been identified with a high priest of
whom Josephus speaks, Elionaeus son of Kantheras. The Greek
name Kantheras was understood by Jewish traditional
lexicographers to mean donkey, and the Hebrew or Aramaic Kaiaph
to mean monkey, both, ostensibly, regarded as fit zoological
descriptions to serve our Kaiaphas as sobriquets of abuse or
ridicule. Whether this interpretation is warranted, whether
Kaiaph was not just an innocent and meaningless surname, cannot
now be ascertained. A possible sense of Kaiaph might be
fortuneteller, but the theory that Pilate conferred on the high
priest the name or title of Kaiaphas as meaning inquisitor or
accuser has no historical or etymological support.     


     It was Kaiaphas, then, possibly with the high priest
emeritus Annas at his side, who presided over the council. What
was this council, how was it composed, what were its functions?
It has been suggested that there were several such "councils" in 
Jerusalem at the time, all mistakenly and indiscriminately
referred to in the Jewish sources as "Sanhedrin" and in the
Gospels as the "whole council" (Mark 15:1) of chief priests,
elders, and scribes. Only one of them, it is said, and that a
political or a priestly one, would be controlled and presided
over by the high priest, and his Sadducean intimates would form
its membership. Confining the high priest to the presidency of a
purely political body, directed by him and constituted at his
pleasure, not unlike the family or privy councils reported to
have been called together time and again by King Herod for
specific consultations, would, of course, answer the purpose,
intended or not, of freeing the true and real Great Sanhedrin of
Israel of all responsibility for whatever had happened in the
case of Jesus, and placing it, as far as the Jews were concerned,
squarely on the shoulders of the high priest whom the Romans had
appointed and his personal clique. 

     According to this theory, the high priest and his council
were charged by the Roman governor not only with sacerdotal
matters, but also, perhaps mainly, with "native affairs," that
is, with inquiry into local anti-Roman activities and their
denunciation, and it was in that capacity that they "delivered"
Jesus into his hands.
     I see no reason to decry the character of "the whole
council" of which the evangelists tell us. There is no case for
regarding the assembly that night in the high priest's home as
some high-priestly ad hoc council in which the great majority of
chief priests, elders, and scribes was unrepresented. On the
contrary, I shall assume that what the Gospels call "the chief
priests and elders and all the council" (Matt. 25:59), or "all
the chief priests and the elders and the scribes" (Mark 14:53;
similarly Luke 22:66), was indeed the Great Sanhedrin of
Seventy-one "from which the Torah went out to all Israel," and
that no more august, representative, or authoritative body could
have foregathered there that night. That it had, indeed, been
convened by the high priest and that it had been invited into his
home are circumstances which will claim our attention in due


     In listing chief priests, elders, and scribes as making up
the membership of the-then-Sanhedrin, the authors of the Gospels 
may have disregarded technical terminology, but, in essence, they
were not far from giving an accurate picture of its three main
groups: first the leading priests and Levites, representing the
sacerdotal sacerdotal authorities; second, "senators," as they
would say in Rome, men of ancient lineage or aristocrats, into
whose families even officiating priests were allowed to marry
without question; and last, members co-opted from time to time
from among the scholars entitled to attend sessions. Not only the
moral, professional, and political impact of the third group, but
also its numerical strength, had risen progressively with the
rise of scholars in reputation and popularity, and the
corresponding decline of many of the priests and aristocrats in
moral stature and professional qualification. So far from
boycotting the council in which sat so many factions adverse to
them, the scholars (called "sages") advisedly took part: just
as the holiness of the temple was not impaired in the estimation
of the sages by the high priests who were unworthy of
officiating, so it never entered their minds to repudiate the
institution of the Sanhedrin, or to set up a rival to it in the
form of a competing court, even if they did not approve of its
composition, and even if they opposed the high priest and his
entourage. They endeavoured rather to exercise their influence
and to introduce their rulings and views even into the ritual of
the temple service and into the Sanhedrin's methods of operation.

     These scholars were Pharisees, whereas among the chief
priests and elders many were Sadducees; and we have the testimony
of Josephus that the Sadducees would always vote with the
Pharisees, "because the people would not have it otherwise,"  a
remarkable index of the practical influence which public opinion
exerted on the decisions of the Sanhedrin, and of the sensitivity
of priests and elders to "vox populi" and popular sentiment.


     There can be no doubt that public opinion in Judaea and
Jerusalem was as anti-Roman as it was pro-Pharisaic, and that
with the growth of Pharisaic popularity the Sadducees lost more
and more of their positions. Not that the masses had the
capacity, or interest, to assess the respective merits or
demerits of Pharisaic and Sadducean doctrine, for if they had,
they would, in all probability, have preferred the simple and
straightforward Sadducean conception of strict and exclusive
adherence to the written word of Scripture to the vagaries and
complications of the Pharisaic oral law, about whose scope and
content the scholars were endlessly disputing among themselves,
and often in diametrical opposition to one another. If the
generality followed the Pharisees and accepted Pharisaic
teachings, it was because the Pharisaic scholars were men after
their own hearts: we have the evidence of such an un-Pharisaic
witness as Josephus that they were poor and did not aspire to
worldy affluence; that they were prudent and always acted after
careful deliberation and to the best of their knowledge; that
they were humble and showed respect to their elders; and that
they were pious and believed that a merciful God would requite
all good and righteous men in a better world to come for the
misery suffered on earth. But, most important of all, the
Pharisees held popular sympathy because, true Jewish patriots
that they were, they could safely be relied upon, in the counsels
of state, to provide the required counterbalance to potential or
actual collaborators with Rome. It cannot be gainsaid that among
the Pharisaic scholars themselves there were differences of
approach and opinion in respect of Roman politics: even from the
purely theological standpoint, some, inevitably, would bow to
foreign dominion as a God-sent calamity which must be taken to be
merited and accepted with love and humility and an unswerving
faith in divine justice. Others may have seen in heathen rule an
affront to God and His chosen people and His holy land, which
could not, at any cost, be endured. However manifest these
doctrinal discords may have been, what distinguished the
Pharisaic scholars from other groups would be that in making
their decisions they would be actuated only by Jewish concerns:
they would not direct their minds to any considerations other
than those reflecting what they knew to be in the best general
Jewish interest. In this respect, they differed from the
well-to-do and well-established, whose primary solicitude would
always be for their own vested interests; and, needless to say,
from those who - like the high priest - depended on Roman
goodwill for continuation in office or status or had to render to
the Romans account of their conduct. Popular mistrust of all
sorts of collaborators, and of all ideologies underlying
collaboration, was deeply entrenched - the spectacle of the
"moral and spiritual decadence of the once exalted family" of the
Hasmonaeans, who had become "pure assimilationists," was still
vivid enough in the consciousness of the people to "strengthen
the morale and increase the numbers of the Pharisaic opposition."
As oppression by the Roman occupying power mounted, it was
equally inevitable that, in the course of time, the strengthened
Pharisaic opposition and its scholarly spokesmen should come to
be regarded and revered, in the public mind, as the embodiment of
genuine Jewish patriotism.

     But the popular pro-Pharisaic sentiment gives only one side
of the picture. No public opinion can avail, unless the
powers-that-be are awake and sensitive to it. The Roman governor
of Judaea, for instance, was entirely impervious, not because he
may not have been familiar with the more elementary features of
democracy, but because he in person, and the duty that he had to
perform, and all that he represented and stood for were so
incompatible and out of tune with the "native" and - to him -
wholly barbarous ideas and aspirations, and "Weltanschauung" by
and large, of a deplorably "retarded," indigenous folk that to
give ear to its uncivilized babble would be so much waste of time
and effort. 


It seems, however, that the position was totally different with
the high priest and, probably, also with the Sadducean nobility.
The high priest could be under no illusion as to the opprobrium
that he and his predecessors had earned among the people by
craving Roman appointments and purchasing them. He had firsthand
intelligence of the wrath and wild fury of the people against the
Romans and their garrisons, and I do not think that he could have
entertained any hopes that this attitude might change: at any
rate, he knew that it was not he who could alter it. Our
knowledge of individual high priests is not enough to judge
whether they collaborated with the Romans, if at all, by
inclination rather than out of what they regarded as necessity:
we should, I submit, give them the benefit of the doubt and
assume, as the Pharisaic scholars apparently did, that in
collaborating they acted in good faith in what they believed were
the best interests of their people. But the fact remains that his
Roman nomination would not advantage the high priest a great deal
unless he could reckon with some measure of cooperation from the
Sanhedrin and from the public at large. From the internal angle,
any resistance of scholars or priests to his authority would
necessarily render his appointment nugatory: it would do him
little good to be recognized as high priest by the Roman governor
if he were not accepted as such by his own Jews. He might, of
course, always ask for troops to crush resistance by force; but
from recent, and not so recent, experiences he could predict what
the outcome would be: not only would the desired moral authority
still be to seek, but martyrs would be made in the cause against
him, and his last remnant of sympathy and prestige be lost. There
is no high priest on record who would - or, for that matter, had
to - resort to Roman military aid to render his office workable:
the price that he would have to pay would have stultified the
whole endeavor.


     That he was a Roman nominee, ultimately responsible to the
Roman governor and removable by him, must have stimulated rather
than diminished the high priest's natural aspiration to manage
the internal affairs of the Jews so smoothly and efficiently that
there would never be any ground for Roman interference. By
relying on him, who, of course, enjoyed some measure of their
confidence, the Romans were to be satisfied at all times that the
administration of those affairs was in safe and proficient hands.
It was a no less instinctive ambition of the high priest to
secure for himself, and for the organs under his control, as much
power and discretion as possible: negative success in preventing
Roman interference must be complemented by positive success in
the recognition and reinforcement of the autonomy and
jurisdiction of the Jewish authorities. Any failure of his and of
those directive organs to uphold internal peace and order and
good government might result, if not in peremptory Roman
intervention, at least in curtailment of the powers and
competences previously enjoyed and exercised; peaceful and proper
functioning would prove their capacity and might even tempt the
Romans to strengthen their autonomy and enlarge it.


     To succeed, then, the high priest patently depended on the
smooth working of the Sanhedrin and of the temple establishment,
that is to say, on the nature and extent of the cooperation which
he contrived to enlist from the members of the council and from
the priesthood. It must have been vital to him to gain the
support and goodwill of anyone with a seat and a voice in the
counsels of state, and it was axiomatic for him that his surest
technique was to pursue policies which would meet their wishes.
As it was, he must by law pursue the policies of the majority,
for all decisions had to be passed by its vote; but where its
views ran counter to his own inclinations, he would rather yield
to it, that being the standard and safest way for men in
authority to win popular support and trust. But even where
numerical predominance in the Sanhedrin might be Sadducean, the
high priest, though himself one by birth and persuasion, and
probably or potentially Romanophile, would prefer to side with
the Pharisees and let them carry the day, not because he thought
that they were necessarily right, but because he knew that they
enjoyed the affection and confidence of the great bulk of the
population; and the Sadducean votes in the Sanhedrin could,
presumably, always be swung by him. Nor would he deviate in the
slightest from the traditional temple ritual: not that he would
not perhaps have liked at times to humor this or the other Roman
caprice, but, as a matter of deliberate internal policy, he would
choose to bow to the piety and orthodoxy of most of the priests.


     He was thus in the unenviable position of a suitor for the
regard and respect of a Jewry which feared, suspected, and
somehow despised him. In simple psychology as well as prudent
policy, he would go about his task by attempting to enlist, first
and foremost, the cooperation of the Pharisaic members of the
Sanhedrin; and the best means to that end was to raise their
numerical strength and voting power. It was through the Pharisees
that he sought to reach the people. Any action or conduct on his
part that might estrange the Pharisees would be likely to wreck
the over-all policy to which he must have been committed.
     There was one fundamental issue on which there certainly was
a general consensus among Pharisees and Sadduceas - priests and
elders and scribes: preservation of the powers of the Sanhedrin
and prevention of further Roman encroachments upon them. What
these powers actually were is, again, multitudinously


     There is no serious doubt as to the autonomy of the council
in purely religious matters of the native Jews: the Romans
allowed them to exercise their religion and would not normally
interfere with the manner of its exercise; their several attempts
to do so, particularly with the emperor's image, apparently
failed. "Religious matters" included everything connected with
the temple establishment, including the temple police, and, for
the purposes of our inquiry, we may postulate that there was no
Roman interference with the high priest's command of that con-


     But on the question with which we are primarily concerned,
that is, the power of the Sanhedrin to try criminal cases and
carry out capital punishment, there is no end to disputes among
the scholars, ancient and modern. In the "Gospel According to
John," Jews are credited with saying: "It is not lawful for us to
put any man to death" (18:31). It will be shown that this could
not, in fact, have been said by any Jews in authority and that it
is, plainly and simply, untrue, yet it has been taken as
sufficient evidence that the Jews had been deprived by the Romans
either of all capital jurisdiction or at least of the power to
carry out their capital sentences. It is because of this passage
in the Gospel of John that much scholarly attention and effort
have been devoted to inquiry into the scope and particulars of
sanhedrial criminal jurisdiction. It has, however, already been
convincingly pronounced that, as far as Jewish responsibility for
the death of Jesus is in question, such inquiry is largely
irrelevant: if the capital jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin was
unimpaired, it does not follow that, in this particular case, the
council exercised it; and if it had been wholly or partly
withdrawn, it would not follow that the council could not have
taken some action outside its formal powers or within the limits
of the restrictions set upon it. We shall, therefore, relinquish
the jurisdictional theories to the handling of legal historians,
and start from the premise that the Sanhedrin had retained all
the capital jurisdiction that it had ever possessed under Jewish
law, and that there was no jurisdictional obstacle to its
proceeding against Jesus for any offense under, and in any man-
ner compatible with, that law. But the fact is that there is not
enough historical or other material available - notwithstanding
talmudic traditions to the contrary - to warrant a conclusion
that the Sanhedrin had been deprived by the Roman authorities, or
by Roman statute, of any part of its jurisdiction under Jewish
law. While the Great Sanhedrin of Seventy-one was regarded as the
ultimate fount of all jurisdiction, civil, criminal,
administrative, and advisory, it did not itself exercise civil or
criminal jurisdiction except in a very few well-defined cases,
as, for instance, when the high priest was criminally indicted.


     General criminal jurisdiction, including that in capital
cases, was exercised by the so-called Small Sanhedrin of
twenty-three judges. Josephus records the establishment of such
Small Sanhedrins in five different towns in about 60 B.C., and at
the time which concerns us, Small Sanhedrins sat in all major
towns throughout Judaea and Galilee.


     The Great Sanhedrin was, in essence, a legislative body. In
periods of war and enemy occupation it would, of course, like any
legislature, be mainly preoccupied with the political issues on
which national and religious survival would hinge. Indeed, that
such preoccupation, even as a matter of law, came within its
purview may be inferred from the rule that no warlike operations
might be commenced except by virtue of its resolution. And it was
a preoccupation all the more reasonable and necessary inasmuch as
the Jews, on the one hand, were divided among themselves in
questions that touched on Roman and general politics, but, on the
other, agreed that, as toward the Romans, it was wiser to present
a united front. There were, to be sure, the zealots or
underground fighters who deprecated any "diplomatic" relations
whatsoever with the enemy: while they mustered recruits and
sympathizers from all classes of the population and were
certainly countenanced, if not actively encouraged, by the
prevailing opinion in the Sanhedrin, the independent policy which
they pursued toward the Romans was one with which the Sanhedrin
could not very well officially associate itself.
     We shall see that if the Great Sanhedrin did meet in the
case of Jesus, it did so as the council in charge of political
affairs. It was not just a Small Sanhedrin, which could have
exercised jurisdiction in a criminal or capital case, but the
Great Sanhedrin, which would not exercise such jurisdiction at
all even if possibly competent to, if only for the reason that it
was much too much taken up at the time with current and pressing
political issues.


     Respecting general criminal jurisdiction, two further points
must be noted. One is that no Sanhedrin could ever have exer-
cised any jurisdiction at all save in accordance with Jewish law:
it could take cognizance only of offenses known to and defined in
that law and could adopt only such criminal procedures as that
law allowed. And the other is that, with the advent of Rome,
there was established in Judaea a second - the Roman - criminal
jurisdiction, which means that the Jewish courts no longer
monopolized it. The two points are closely interconnected,
because what actually transpired was that the Jewish courts
exercised exclusive criminal jurisdiction in respect of acts
which were offenses only  against Jewish law, and the Roman
governor's court exercised exclusive criminal jurisdiction in
respect of acts which were offenses only against Roman law. 


     For example, the offense of desecrating the Sabbath, or of
idolatry, either an offense solely by Jewish law, would be within
the exclusive jurisdiction of the Jewish courts, and the Roman
governor would never claim jurisdiction over it; he could not,
because Roman law did not regard either act as a criminal
offense. On the other hand, sedition against the Roman
government, or contempt of the Roman emperor, would be an offense
within the exclusive jurisdiction of the governor; Jewish law did
not regard such acts as criminal offenses, and no Jewish court
would ever have punished anybody for what, from the Jewish
viewpoint, must have been regarded as harmless or even laudable.
     Some difficulty may have arisen in conflict situations, in
which an offense was common to Roman and Jewish law. Murder and
robbery, for instance, were offenses punishable under both
systems, and the Roman governor and the Jewish courts might each
have claimed jurisdiction. Conflicts such as these may have been
solved according to the identity of the accused: we know from the
story of Paul that a Roman citizen could demand trial by a Roman
court for any offense which was not one purely of Jewish law
(Acts 23:27-29). Conversely, a non-Roman native would presumably
have been entitled to trial by a Jewish court, even if the
offense charged was recognized as such in Roman law also. It is,
however, not unlikely that the Roman governor could in such a
case require the surrender of the accused to him, and it is
probable that on his part he would never surrender to native
Jewish courts an offender already in his own custody, for
instance, a robber caught by Roman troops in flagrante delicto.
     All power being virtually concentrated in his hands, he
could dictate to the Jewish courts when to exercise jurisdiction
in any such case and when not.


     It would come to this, then: the Small Sanhedrin could try
any Jew for any offense under Jewish law, and sentence him to
death, and carry out the death penalty, and the Roman governor
would not interfere in any way, for all that he had the physical
and political power to. On the other hand, we must assume that
the Romans would not carry out the capital sentence of a Jewish
or other non-Roman court, but only put to judicial death
offenders tried and convicted by a Roman court for offenses
against Roman law.
     Legal assumptions and considerations of this kind have
encountered marked impatience, mainly from certain theologians:
it is all very well to argue the law, they would say, when you
talk of people who may reasonably be assumed to abide by it; but
the people with whom we are here concerned are criminals, corrupt
high priests, "unrighteous scribes," and unscrupulous elders,
accustomed and determined to break every ordinance for the
attainment of their ugly purpose, and the law would be as
relevant in their regard as it would be to clinch that a thief
could not have stolen because it was unlawful to. The same
priests and elders who would, without the flicker of an eyelash,
suborn Judas with thirty silver coins to betray his master (Matt.
26: 15) would never be deterred from using any illegal means,
bribery not excepted, to get the Roman governor to do their
bidding, or from contravening and disregarding their own statutes
and procedures.
     Several "authorities" are instanced for the proposition that
the priests and elders of the Jews at the time were not much
better than common criminals. First, of course, there are Jesus'
own diatribes against the scribes and Pharisees; and to these we
will revert in the next chapter. Then a report in Josephus that
"high priests went so far in their boldness and wickedness that
they did not even recoil from sending their slaves to the
threshing-floors and have them take away the tithes due to the
priests, with the result that the poorer priests starved to
death." But this was in a period thirty years after ours; and the
high priests mentioned were not even Roman appointees but
nominees of King Agrippa. The situation in Judaea in the year 60
was entirely different from what it had been under the
governorship of Pilate. Furthermore, this passage in Josephus has
with good reason been interpreted as misrepresenting action taken
by pro-Roman high priests and a sacerdotal aristocracy, backed by
the king, against lower orders of the priesthood which had joined
forces with the zealots. Seen in this light, the seizure of the
tithes was no common larceny, but, however morally unjustified, a
disciplinary measure; and the strife between the factions was no
quarrel of rival gangsters, but the fresh outbreak of an
inveterate dispute between violent and nonviolent resisters to
Rome, or between resisters and collaborators. The dispute was as
old as the Roman conquest, but it had apparently not exploded
grievously until about the year 60; and, as events have shown, it
led to disastrous consequences, once it burst the bounds of
domestic altercation and the outwardly united front could hold no
longer. Indeed, once internal feuding was allowed to erupt
tumultuously, it was only natural that the less inhibited
elements, of whatever partisanship, should give free rein to
their maleficent inclinations, a phenomenon common to all civil

     Another much-quoted authority for the alleged criminality of
the high priests is what has been called "a popular squib
preserved in the Talmud," said to be aimed "against the principal
high priestly families who between them were looting and ruining
the nation."  The "squib" laments the clubs and fists, the pens
and whispers, with which the high priests named in it, and their
henchmen, maltreat the people. Not only certain of the priestly
names recorded, but also the names of the narrators, suggest that
the tirades, too, belong to a subsequent period. The tale is told
by Abba Yossei ben Hanan, who lived about the year 80, and Abba
Shaul ben Botnit, who taught twenty years before him; and of the
high priests named, most were appointed after Jesus' death.
     Indeed, the "squib" tallies well with Josephus' later
reports of high-priestly highhandedness and the force used
against the zealots on their behalf; it is not impossible that
the narrators were the zealots and had themselves ached from the
clubs and rods of pro-Roman factionists. The talmudic context
tends to show that what was really at issue were the causes given
for the destruction of the temple and the ultimate overthrow of
Judaea: it was this misbehavior by those succeeding high priests
and their clans that brought divine wrath down upon the temple,
for the "squib" is instantly followed by a saying that it was
destroyed because they "loved money and hated each other."

     It is not our intention to embark on apologetics of
Kaiaphas: we know little of him, and he may conceivably have
deserved a better testimonial than the "squib" implies.
     Considering the disdain in which the Roman-appointed and all
high priests thereafter were held by the people, no factual
conclusions ought to be drawn against them from their
disparagement in a popular lampoon; and in the absence of any
circumstantial data to rebut it, I think that even high priests
should be entitled to the benefit of the presumption of

     Finally, there is the suggestion that, as in all countries
under enemy occupation, at all periods of history, so in Judaea
at that time there were traitors and collaborators who served
Rome's interests, though occupying high office in the local
administration. It is said, in their justification, that unless
they agreed to act as informers, they jeopardized their lives,
and to save themselves, they had to sacrifice others. But there
is not a scrap of evidence for the charge that Kaiaphas was a
traitor of that kind, or that any of the Jews said to have played
a part in the Passion story were agents of Rome; there is,
indeed, some indication to the contrary in the Gospel reports
(cf. John 11:48), and neither there nor anywhere else any hint of
treasonable Jewish activity. Knowing what we do of the prevailing
spirit of the Jewish rank and file, the ever greater popularity
of the zealots, and the role assumed by Pharisaic scholars in the
leadership or organization of armed uprisings, it is, I submit,
unthinkable that informers and quislings - be they even high
priests - would have been let live in continuing treachery. They
might not have been lynched, but they would be conscious that
their fate was at the mercy of enraged and implacable zealot
coreligionists, and rather than perish shamefully as contemptible
turncoats, they would, we may guess, prefer to run the risk of
Roman disfavor. We know that if an "unofficed" individual
betrayed a fellow Jew, he would not ordinarily be able to live
on. There is the illuminating example of Judas, who is said to
have hanged himself after betrayal of his master (Matt. 27:5):
had he not taken his own life, or not been lynched by an
infuriated populace, he would still have suffered a violent and
ignominious death (Acts 1:18), soon to be known "unto all
dwellers of Jerusalem" (1:19).

     We do not know, and shall not maintain, that Kaiaphas was a
man of strong character or personal integrity. But neither shall
we assume that he was devoid of common honesty and decency, or
prompted in action and decision by criminal or insincere urgings.
     Rather we shall place him and those who acted with him in
the perspective of their political circumambience, and take it
for granted that - from deliberate prudence as from natural
instincts of self-preservation - they conducted themselves in
such manner as they thought best in the Jewish national and
religious interest. We have seen what this interest was in the
eyes of the high priest on the one hand and of the Pharisees on
the other, and how, notwithstanding fundamental doctrinal
differences, the two could, and would, act in concord inside the
Great Sanhedrin, more particularly where Jewish national or
religious concerns, and Jewish autonomy, had to be defended and
upheld against the  Roman governor. Applying the standards of the
reasonably circumspect politician and of the reasonably fair
judge, it ought not be too difficult for us to reconstruct the
state of things in which the high priest and the Sanhedrin, and
Jesus, confronted each other. But before we come to that
confrontation, we must look upon Jesus.



We see from this some interesting historical perspective of the
Jews, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Jewish Sanhedrin, and
Rome, at the time of Christ. The writer was a Jew of high
education and a Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel. He did
not believe in the infallible inspiration of the New Testament.
He was not a "Christian" and so it was easy for him to teach in
further parts of his book, that Jesus did not really have large
differences with the Pharisees, and that many parts of the
Gospels were false theatrical stage utterances to bring about a
deep riff between Judaism and Christianity.
Cohn's book is interesting in that it gives you the mind of an
educated Jew on the understanding/interpretation and perspective
of the Four Gospels. It is like an athiest giving you his
understanding and interpretation of the Bible, albeit, some parts
could be true, some parts are false, some parts are lies, and
many parts are the political/religious writing of the author of
that particular book of the Bible.

Keith Hunt

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