Impressions of “The Trial of Jesus Christ: And the History Behind It,” by David Shaneyfelt

“The Trial of Jesus Christ” is technically a podcast, but really is an audiobook. It is as long as many popular history books, about six hours. It covers similar topics with equal seriousness as popular history books, such as Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist or Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. Shaneyfelt is closer in quality to Ratzinger than Pitre, as where he acknowledges a limit to his knowledge (what Mary’s response to the angel implied about her marriage in Ratzinger’s book; what the inexplicable judgment of Caiaphas means in Shaneyfelt’s) stay with the reader as long as what is known. “Trial” is free to download, and I recommend doing so.

“Trial” begins around the Last Super, and continues through the triple execution of Christ with two violent criminals. The narrative is essentially chronologically, taking the reader through the arrest, Trial before the Sanhedrin, Trial Before Pilate, hearing before Herod, and then death. These are described vividly, with a focus on procedure. So for instance, the author notes multiple times that the early Christians never accused the Sanhedrin of procedural unfairness, implying that whatever methods were taken were within the letter of their authority, if nonetheless unjust.

Trial before the Sanhedrin

“Sanhedrin” is a Greek word for the local leadership or Senate of a community. In Jewish tradition the Sanhedrin is a successor to the elders of Israel, that advised Moses (when he would listen).

At the time of Christ the Sanhedrin was headed by a High Priest, a political office regularly controlled by Annas and family in the first century. While the office of High Priest was singular it was no longer the custom to serve for life. The Archbishopric of Canterbury, and the Bishopric of Rome, likewise have only one Bishop at a time, though multiple living Bishops have headed the city. Thus, there were at least two “High Priests” present during the trial of Jesus: Caiaphas and his father-in-law, Annas.

(Annas had been high priest when Jesus asked questions of the religious scholars at age 12. )

Yet while we know a lot, it’s possible to jump to the wrong conclusions. Many authors (including Pitre) take the Talmud, written by Pharisees (and later, Rabbinical Jews), and apply its traditions and rules onto the Sadducees, the Sanhedrin and the Temple Priests. But the Pharisees and Sadducees were rival traditions with Judaism. The system of Oral Law that factored so heavily into the Christiani-Nahmanides disputation in Barcelona would have been unintelligible to Sadducees. Pharisees and Sadducees differed in basic religious questions:

But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!”

And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection—and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both.
Acts 23:6-8

To attempt by other authors to use Pharisaic rules to judge a Sadducee trial would like like judging am American courtroom according to British law. Or, because of its religious connotations, like evaluating a Catholic canon lawsuit by Jewish custom! Fortunately, Shaneyfelt does not do so, and reminds the reader of where we simply do not know what the Sadducee customs were at several points.

Here’s an example. The Sanhedrin is regularly calling up witnesses in pairs, and dismissing them.

Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.'”
Matthew 26:59-61

This probably because of the clear meaning of Jewish Law, where two witnesses can establish a judicial fact:

One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.
Deuteronomy 19:15

But then we have this oddity: immediately after this the Law states that false witnesses should be given the penalty that would have been given to the guilty party. Yet there’s no record of the witnesses found to be false by the Sanhedrin being crucified or brought to Pilate!

And the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you.
Deuteronomy 19:18-19

There’s also the section on Adjuration and Blasphemy. Caiaphas places Jesus under oath, and asks him if he asserts a title:

But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, “I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!”

This appears to be Adjuration, the power of a political leader to compel testimony. This does not occur in the Torah, but is witnessed elsewhere in the Jewish scriptures:

So the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD?”
1 Kings 22:16

Yet neither “Christ” nor “Son of God” were titles exclusively reserved for God. Likewise, in Christ’s response:

Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, “He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?”

They answered and said, “He is deserving of death.”
Matthew 26:64-66

We encounter a non sequitur. Christ is clearly saying something meaningful, but it’s unclear what. Yet for both Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin the implications are clear. We are missing something. But we are left with the lack of any criticism over the procedural fairness from early Christian writers. So whatever we are missing must have been clear to them, too.

Perhaps, I wonder, was the “High Priest” mentioned is actually Christ, and presuming to put Caiaphas under oath was the blasphemy?

Trial before Pilate

Following the Jewish trial, the Sanhedrin presented Jesus to the Romans. The reason, and obstacle, are both clear. Jesus was convicted of blasphemy, which has a penalty of death under Jewish law. But under Roman law, only Roman courts could use capital punishment. Roman law was supreme to Jewish law. And, frustratingly for the Sanhedrin, blasphemy was not a capital crime under Roman law.

Compared to Sadducee process, we have a a more detailed understanding of the Roman legal system. We have centuries of written reports of how it functioned and change over the ages. In the case of Christ’s trial before Pilate, the outline is clear: while a non-Roman had remarkably few rights in Roman court in an occupied province, one of a governor’s primary public-facing duties was to adjudicate disputes, and a perception as a competent and wise judge was useful politics.

There are later written accounts of trials similar to Christ’s, but with different outcomes. One, of a man proclaiming himself a prophet, accused by the Jews, scourged — and then released, on account of insanity is intriguing because of the implied motives (did people remember a mess after a different outcome to a nearly identical process)?

As with the Sadducee trial, there’s mystery. Pilate appears to find Jesus not guilty and end the trial.

Then Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them, “””Behold the Man!”

Therefore, when the chief priests and officers saw Him, they cried out, saying, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!”

Pilate said to them, “You take Him and crucify Him, for I find no fault in Him.”
John 19:5-6

Or… perhaps not. Is the remark wholly sarcastic, as Pilate also sarcastically remands Jesus back to the Sanhedrin. Is the execution itself irregular, or was Pilate bullied by the mob? Or perhaps there was a new charge and a new trial — that of claiming to be Caesar, or abrogating a title (“Son of God”) belonging to Caesar:

The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to our law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God.”

Therefore, when Pilate heard that saying, he was the more afraid, and went again into the Praetorian, and said to Jesus, “Where are You from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.
John 19:7-9

In any case, Pilate tried to avoid responsibility for the whole affair by hoping Herod Antipas would take jurisdiction:

But they were the more fierce, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee to this place.”

When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked if the Man were a Galilean. And as soon as he knew that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.
Luke 23:5-7

Hearing before Herod

The only section that seemed light was the section on Herod Antipas.

From the Gospel he has some kind of complex relationship with Pilate:

That very day Pilate and Herod became friends with each other, for previously they had been at enmity with each other.
Luke 23:12

Shaneyfelt praises Herod’s skill as a survivor. This may be true (I am not a historian), but my impression is that Herod survived because of a lack of ability. Herod the Great had killed or attempted to kill a number of competent successors or pretenders, including the last Hasmoneans, Aristobulus III and Hyrcanus II, and even Christ himself, so being able and surviving Herod the Great seem almost contradictory. In the narrative itself, Herod Antipas seems more interested in Christ as an actual magician than either as a rebel or as a spiritual leader:

Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him. Then he questioned Him with many words, but He answered him nothing. And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him. Then Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate.
Luke 23:8-11

(To my mind, the Gospel writer is having fun with poor Herod here, as his puppet dynasty was hardly backed by his own “men of war”)

In addition, the Gospels present us a picture of a weak Antipas, afraid of his own court and being manipulated by females:

But when Herod’s birthday was celebrated, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod. Therefore he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask.

So she, having been prompted by her mother, said, “Give me John the Baptist’s head here on a platter.”

And the king was sorry; nevertheless, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he commanded it to be given to her. So he sent and had John beheaded in prison.
Matthew 14:6-10

What’s true? I don’t know. But I would have liked to know why Shaneyfelt makes the conclusions he does about Antipas.

Final Thoughts

The book ends with a section on the two robbers, lestai, ??????, criminals who take by force.

Then two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and another on the left.

And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
Matthew 27:38-40

Robber, the same word in Greek, is the description of the attacker of the Samaritan

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves [???????], who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves [???????]?”
Luke 10:30-36

And it is a den of robbers — again the same word — that is the current state of the deformed Temple:

Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves [??????].'”
Matthew 21:12-13

That “Jesus” — unadorned with titles or descriptions — is only used by a robber in our oldest Greek Bibles — is striking

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
Luke 23:42

At the end of our journey to the trials of the classical near east, and the early life of Jesus, we are quietly left with this. Jesus, remember me. Shaneyfelt does not make it explicit, but as I finished the podcast I realized the Fatima prayer (which is also inexplicably echoed in the Qur’an!), helps us recognize that we are in the same state as that robber, that attacker of travelers, that desecrator of the Temple:

O my Jesus,
forgive us our sins,
save us from the fire of hell,
lead all souls to heaven,
especially those who are in most need of Thy mercy.

Jesus, remember us, when you come into your Kingdom.

I listened to “The Trial of Jesus Christ” in its podcast edition.