Is Mark’s Account of Jesus’ Trial a Fictional Invention? Part 1

Many critics of the Bible have noted that Mark’s account of Jesus’ trial, in chapter fourteen of his Gospel, must be an invention. They reason that the Jewish authorities would never have conducted themselves in such a manner. Mark Strauss, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Book), explains why:

The trial described by Mark is highly irregular according to rules listed in the Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin concerning the procedure for courts conducting capital trials.

(1) Capital cases were to be tried during the daytime, and the verdict must be reached during the daytime (m. Sanh. 4:1).

(2) Trials were not to be conducted on a Sabbath eve or on the eve of a festival day (m. Sanh. 4:1; see Acts 12:4, which reports that Herod intended to bring Peter to the people after the Passover).

(3) Capital cases were supposed to begin with reasons for acquittal and not with reasons for conviction (m. Sanh. 4:1). Attempts were to be made to find witnesses and arguments for the defense. If on the way to stoning someone should say, ‘I have somewhat to argue in favor of his acquittal,’ or even if the accused does so, they bring him back four or five times. The herald was to cry: ‘Such a one, the son of such a one is going to be stoned for he committed such or such an offense. Such and such are witnesses against him. If any man knoweth aught in favor of his acquittal let him come and plead it’ (m. Sanh. 5:4). A later rabbinic tradition imagines that this was indeed done in Jesus’ case: On the Eve of Passover Yeshu [one text adds the Nazarean] was hanged. Forty days before his execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover!

(4) Verdicts of acquittal could be reached on the same day, but verdicts of conviction must be confirmed on the following day after a night’s sleep (m. Sanh. 4:1).

(5) Condemnation required the evidence of two witnesses. When witnesses disagreed, their evidence was null and void (m. Sanh. 5:2). If they were found to be false witnesses, they were required to suffer the ‘same death-penalty to which the accused had been made liable.’

(6) The Mishnah assumes that the Sanhedrin met in the inner courts of temple, the Chamber of Hewn Stone, not in the high priest’s home.”

Mark’s account of the proceedings against Jesus portray a hastily gathered group of religious leaders holding a blatantly biased “trial” in the middle of the night. How do we square this account with the rules recorded in Sanhedrin? Strauss argues that the rules written in Sanhedrin may have never been in force at the time of Jesus’ trial.

[T]his Mishnaic tractate, compiled around A.D. 220, reflects the circumstances and scruples of a later era. The laws regarding capital cases in Mishnah Sanhedrin may not be representative of the historical procedure for the Sanhedrin in the first century or, for that matter, any period. They are idealized and theoretical, assuming, for example, that the king rules, not a high priest under the thumb of a Roman governor. The laws for the Sanhedrin are perceived through the lens of the wishful thinking of the post-war rabbis who compiled the oral law—this is the way it should be when the temple is restored, and it is assumed that this is the way it must have always been.

Even if these rules were in effect, Strauss argues that the Jewish Supreme Council was dealing with special circumstances.

A Sanhedrin controlled by the high priest was also unlikely to follow Pharisaic procedures. If it were an informal hearing gathering evidence to bring to the governor, it would not need to observe legal formalities. According to Deuteronomy 18:20, a false prophet is to be killed immediately—even on a feast day. The chief priests considered Jesus such a serious threat that they made every effort to eliminate him by getting the Roman governor to put him to death and discredit him forever with death by crucifixion.