Acts (Part 07) - First Sanhedrin Trial
Peter’s talk in Solomon’s Portico in Acts 3 had attracted attention—not all of it good. Apparently, some Sadducees (who hold the belief that there is no resurrection) heard Peter’s claim of Jesus’ resurrection and ran to tell the chief priests about it. We find in Acts 4, then, that “the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees,” oozing with authority, marched over to arrest Peter and John. It was certainly not all the priests who came.
Priests were Levites descended from Aaron, Moses brother and first high priest. There were 24 divisions of priests based on the number of sons of Eleazar (16) and Ithamar (8), Aaron’s two sons. First Chronicles 24 describes how David, with the help of both Zadok, high priest and chief priest of Eleazar’s line, and Ahimelech, chief priest of Ithamar’s line, organized them for tabernacle/temple duty. Each of the 24 divisions would serve at the temple for a week at a time. (Recall that Luke records in chapter 1 of his Gospel that Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, was serving at the temple during the duty time of the division of Abijah, one of the sons of Eleazar). Within each division a hierarchy existed of chief and lesser priests. So, then, some of the chief priests of the currently serving division were the ones in the arresting party. The Captain of the temple was in charge of the temple guard—priests whose duty it was to maintain peace and order about the temple. (It was the captain and a contingent of these guards that arrested Jesus in Gethsamane.) Although most priests were Sadducees, the Sadducees mentioned in 4:1 were probably the men who had run to report on Peter and John to the priests.
Verse 2 tells us that they were “greatly annoyed.” This sounds mild in comparison to the Greek indication that they were completely exasperated. The irritation was not only that Peter was preaching resurrection—a worn-out matter of debate between Sadducees and Pharisees—but also that Peter and John were mere commoners—uneducated fishermen—that were presuming the authority to teach the people, right there in the temple, as if they were rabbis or scribes! That just could not be allowed. They marched over and, without discussion or argument about resurrection, simply and immediately hauled Peter and John away. Yet still, without even giving Peter the chance to conduct a proper invitation or even play through a single verse of Just As I Am, hundreds believed, increasing the number of Christians to 5000.
Peter and John had come to the temple around the ninth hour—3:00 PM. Preparations for the evening sacrifice began at about that time. By the time of the arrest, therefore, the evening sacrifice had probably been concluded. The Sanhedrin met only between the morning and evening sacrifices (except for rare illegal trials like the one in which Jesus was condemned). Since the Sanhedrin was already done for the day, Peter and John were held in some room or cell of the temple for the night.
On the next day (after the morning sacrifice), the Sanhedrin met to consider the case of Peter and John. Verse 6 tells us that among those gathered were “Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.” Luke designates Annas as high priest, although a bit of conflicting information appears in the Gospels. Matthew 26:57 calls Caiaphas the high priest. Luke 3:2 sets the time of John the Baptist’s ministry “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas.” John provides more information, telling us in chapter 18 verse 13 that at the arrest of Jesus, “first they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year.” But a few verses later, speaking of Annas, John records “The high priest then questioned Jesus” (18:19). Even another officer at this questioning says, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” (18:22). And the section ends in verse 24 with the statement “Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.” There could be only one high priest. Who was it and why then do the writers and people of the time talk about both of them as being high priest? We need to discuss a little history. And this will take a little time, so be patient as it develops. The background is necessary so that we have a good understanding of how we are to view the Sanhedrin and what is going on.
The oldest scholar who is named and whose teaching is recorded among the writings of the Pharisees is Antigonus of Sokho. Antigonus is noted primarily for this saying: “Be not like servants who serve their master for the sake of reward; rather, be like servants who do not serve their master for the sake of reward, and let the awe of Heaven be upon you.” The Pharisees understood this statement to mean that they should not count on reward in this life, but Heaven (God) would give them reward in the afterlife.
One of the disciples of Antigonus named Zadok had a completely different take on the saying. He understood Antigonus to say that service should not be done for any hope of future reward—that there would be no reward in the afterlife. In fact, Zadok insisted that Antigonus meant there would be no afterlife at all. What you do should not be done for reward in afterlife (since there is no afterlife anyway), but rather serve for Heaven’s (God’s) favor during your life. The followers of this interpretation could be known as Zadokites—a name corrupted to become Sadducees. This same source, then, gave support to both the doctrine of resurrection held by the Pharisees and the doctrine of no resurrection held by the Sadducees.
One prominent follower of the Zadok interpretation was Boethus, a noted Jewish priest living in Alexandria. He had a son, Simon ben Boethus, who served in Jerusalem as a priest, albeit one of a rather lowly rank. Simon had a daughter, Mariamne who was considered quite beautiful, and she attracted the attention of Herod the Great. Herod wanted to take her for a wife. It didn’t even bother him that he had already had a wife by the same name. That marriage to Mariamne I was one of political expediency. Herod had no ancestral connection to a kingly family in Judea, but Mariamne I did. She was a descendant of the Hasmonean house (begun by the Maccabees in the mid second century BC). His marriage to her gave Herod the necessary connection to a kingly line so that he could be made king over Palestine.
But Mariamne II was a different story. He wanted her merely because she was beautiful, but marrying someone from the family of a low-ranking priest was not exactly the aristocratic thing to do. Herod solved this problem by making her father, Simon, the high priest in Jerusalem, instantly making Mariamne II of rank worthy for a king. Herod had a son with Mariamne II who is known as Herod II (or sometimes Herod Philip I or Herod Boethus). Having already killed two of his older sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, Herod the Great wanted Herod II to inherit his kingdom. But Herod II had the same problem as did the Great—he had no connection to a kingly line. So Herod the Great solved this problem in the same way he solved his own. Mariamne I’s connection with the Hasmonean dynasty passed to her children Alexander and Aristobulus. Though both of them had been killed, Aristobulus had a daughter whose name was Herodias. And it was she whom Herod arranged to wed his son, Herod II. (That Herod II was technically her uncle seemed not to be an issue—at least, not one of record.) Their marriage produced a daughter, Salome.
(As an aside, it was this Herodias who eventually divorced Herod II to marry another of Herod the Great’s sons (and, therefore, another uncle), Herod Antipas. The Bible in Matthew 14 records John the Baptist’s condemnation of that marriage for which the Baptist was imprisoned. And it was the above-mentioned Salome who danced for Antipas, resulting in his offer of anything she wanted. Herodias urged her to ask for the head of John the Baptist, and thus came his end.)
One other obstacle stood in the way of Herod II’s kingdom inheritance. He had one other brother that was older. Herod Antipater fought for his right to the kingdom, and Herod the Great gave in. However, Antipater, knowing his father’s fickleness, decided to poison him and ensure his own reign while the will was in his favor. But Herod the Great discovered the plot and executed Antipater. Mariamne II, mother of Herod II, had known about the plot and had not warned Herod the Great. For that she was divorced, her father Simon removed from the high priesthood, and her son Herod II removed from the line of succession.
When Herod the Great finally did die in 4 BC, his kingdom was divided among his three remaining sons. Herod Antipas became tetrach of Galilee and Parea (an area east of the Jordan River and Dead Sea. Herod Philip II became tetrarch of lands northeast and east of Galilee. And Herod Archelaus became king or ethnarch of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea.
Archelaus was a bad king. The Jews complained to Augustus about his cruelty. In AD 6 Archelaus was deposed and banished to Gaul. This led to a string of events of significance for the Jews. With Archelaus banished, Rome brought in a prefect to govern the region. (In AD 26, Pilate became the fifth Roman Prefect of the region.) Quirinius was appointed governor (legate) of Syria. With that appointment and the change in Judean leadership, Quirinius initiated a census (registration) of the area. As part of this census, a tax was instituted. The Jews revolted under this, but that revolt was quelled. It was this incident, however, that gave rise to the Zealots.
(Another aside—Luke 2:1 mentions a census by Caesar Augustus. Luke 2:2 reads: “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” This statement has puzzled many scholars because (1) the census of Quirinius covered only Judea and Syria, (2) referring to a "first" registration makes no sense since only one registration was conducted by Quirinius, and (3) as just mentioned, Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until AD 6, while Jesus was born in 6 BC during the 14 year registration conducted by Augustus. It is not that Luke got it wrong. It is that the translators got it wrong. The English adjective first is the Greek protos. While the word usually does mean first in a series or sequence, it can also carry the idea of precedence or coming before, as in John 15:18: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before (protos) it hated you.”
When census was mentioned in Judea, everyone immediately thought of the census of most significance to the land—the one by Quirinius. It imposed a tax with which the Jews were still upset. It was met by political revolt and Roman persecution in putting it down. It gave birth to the Zealots. It was significant on the current lives of the Jews decades after. So, then, when Luke wrote his Gospel, he knew the mention of census or registration would immediately make his readers think of the census in AD 6. But that was not the census to which Luke was connecting the birth of Christ. So Luke wrote (and this is how the verse should be translated): “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”)
Even though Simon ben Boethus had been deposed by Herod the Great years earlier, other sons of Boethus continued to hold the high priesthood. However, in AD 6 the then high priest, Joazar ben Boethus, was deposed. He had been an unpopular high priest especially because he favored compliance with Rome. With tension high against Rome in AD 6, Joazar, and his pro-Rome position, was too much for the people to endure. He was ousted, and Annas became high priest.
Annas remained high priest from AD 6 to 15. Annas was a very strong leader, running the temple and Sanhedrin with a firm hand and destroying anyone who interfered. In fact, the reason his high priesthood ended in AD 15 is because the new Roman prefect that year, Valerius Gratus, would not put up with Annas’ disregard of Roman authority and the multiple executions for which he was responsible. Gratus replaced Annas with another priest, but that didn’t work. Within a year, as a compromise, a son of Annas was installed as high priest. This had the effect of giving the high priesthood back to Annas. So that son (Eleazar) was removed after a year in favor of someone else. Again, problems led to the removal of that high priest after a year, and finally a compromise occurred that actually worked. Caiaphas, Annas’ son-in-law, was made high priest. Caiaphas seemed strong enough to hold his own as high priest. However, he appeared so seemingly because he was just like Annas and had no disagreements with Annas both in political and religious views and in the way Annas had handled interference.
Therefore even though Caiaphas was high priest, both were held in the highest regard by the people because of Caiaphas's (1) family relationship with Annas, (2) political/religious agreement with Annas, and (3) continued decision-making respect given to Annas. Looking at the list of high priests from the year Annas first held the office until around AD 44, Annas or a son (or son-in-law) controlled the high priesthood for 34-35 of those 38 years. Annas probably held this high-priest-emeritus position during all of those years.
Sometime in the early years, (possibly when Annas was deposed by Gratus for his executions), the law was set that the Jews (the Sanhedrin) could not execute anyone any longer. Of course, executions continued to occur (as in the case of Stephen in Acts 7). The Roman prefects were only somewhat interested in the letter of the law. They were more interested in maintaining peace. After all, the prefects were in Judea not because it was their dream job. It was a stepping stone in advancement with Rome. Therefore, peace was the main issue of concern. Rome did not want to be bothered. So if an execution occurred, as long as no uproar was involved, the Roman prefect usually looked the other way.
This is precisely why in Matthew 26:3-5 we learn that the Sanhedrin decided to “arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” but not “during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.” The original plan was to take Jesus out behind the temple and kill him without attracting a lot of attention so that Pilate had to get involved. But when Judas provided the opportunity, the Jewish leaders had to make their move (since they didn’t want Jesus to escape from Jerusalem after the feast). But since it was in the middle of feast time, there was no way to quietly kill him. They had to bring him to Pilate. And when Pilate told them to go do it themselves (as they had done so many times before), they argue that the law says they couldn’t do it (really out of fear that crowds of Jesus’ followers would cut into their hold on government).
The point of this entire discussion was to give us an understanding of just who Peter and John were facing that morning after their arrest the day before. This Sanhedrin with Annas and Caiaphas and the rest of their high priestly family were as dangerous as a mafia family in our society. And the law for both was pretty much the same—give respect or face execution. No wonder strong outdoorsman Peter, in the courtyards of Annas and Caiaphas during Jesus’ trial, shook with fear, lying about his relationship with Christ for fear of his life. These were hard, cruel men that Peter and John stood before on that morning. But look at the difference in Peter after just a few weeks and, significantly, after the Holy Spirit had hold of his life. Peter boldly looks Annas and Caiaphas in their faces and responds, “Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well” (4:10).