Jesus (the man only) on trial

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s an interesting exercise to look at Jesus the man (sans any theology or christology) on trial and see how he behaves. And equally if not more interesting to see how the apparent psychology resonates with his more dedicated followers throughout history since.

The first hearing

At his first hearing before “the high priest, the chief priests and all the council” (Mark 14:53, 55), one of the accusations against Jesus was:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.’ ” (14:58)

The narrator of this trial claims that this was just one fragment of testimony against Jesus and that all these testimonies were contradictory or false. Nevertheless, this is the one claim that he singles out for reporting, and in response the high priest challenged Jesus to respond to this allegation:

And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, saying, “Do you answer nothing? What is it these men testify against you?” (14:60)

So Jesus did not respond to a single allegation, nor even to this final chance from the high priest to reply:

But he kept silent and answered nothing. (14:61)

How would that be seen in any normal human discourse? (I am looking a Jesus as a normal character with a normal human psychology in a common human narrative.) The one charge singled out for mention cannot but help hit the reader with a ring of truth, however esoteric that truth. Yes, we think we know Jesus DID claim he would destroy a human made temple and build another non-human one. That was true, wasn’t it? But of course we also know that Jesus meant to pose no personal threat to the Jerusalem temple of stones.

So why did Jesus not make peace with his judges quickly and explain what we know he meant? Was he secretly seeking to die? Did he want to be misinterpreted, falsely accused, so that he could end his life? Were his teachings really an expression of a death-wish? Is that why he taught that he would destroy the temple of human provenance? Was this teaching meant to be picked up and act as a self-fulfilling prophecy through knowing how easily it could be misrepresented?

We are working within the limits of the narrative here, but reading Jesus as a man, sans any knowledge of Christianity. His experience of claims to divine sonship, at baptism and transfiguration, are thus seen as temptations to see himself as more exalted than any man can rightly be. Does he deep down know he has been guilty of hubris and deserves to die?

So when Jesus is asked the next question that the narrator’s audience knows is the one that will incriminate him, by the rules of the narrative, the one to which all the previous allegations have been designed to lead and support: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61), he answers with his certainly known death-warrant: “I am” (14:62).

There are no further need of witnesses (14:63) — they were only brought in to provide evidence for this self-assertion. Now that Jesus has testified of his guilt to the charge, he knows he must die.

The second hearing

His second hearing sees him determinedly rushing in to cement the misunderstanding and guarantee the victory of the false charge against him — just so he could die, and in dying condemn the state and his people to eternal infamy!

Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered and said to him, “It is as you say.” (15:2)

He is not a man of truth here. He knows that Pilate has the wrong end of the stick and misunderstands, but is determined to let the lie stand. He wants to die. And in dying he knows he will leave his people, the Jews, and Pilate, in disgrace. He could redeem them if we wished. He could make peace and resolve all misunderstandings. He could behave like a normal, healthy, civic minded and well-intentioned human being. Or he can continue to seek a death wish that will drag down others in infamy with him.

The sentence

And in his death he cries out in acknowledgement of his sin, his hubris:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34)

The God who tempted him to see himself as more than human, as the divine son on earth, the authority of the voice from heaven, has left him to face his human fate, the just consequence of any mortal claiming such affinity with the divine. Was he not seeking by his life, and even more by his death, a self-justification at the expense of the reputation of the legitimate authorities and guardians of civil order? And perhaps at the final moment also a touch of self-recrimination from deep-down knowing his guilt?

Is not this the stuff of Greek tragedy? I have long planned to write a piece here about the parallel psychologies and myths of Achilles and Socrates, and compare them both with Jesus. It’s not an original piece (the Achilles and Socrates psychic-mythic comparisons have been done before) but I’ll explore how closely they echo the Jesus story. (This piece is a section of that to prompt me to start soon!)

His followers

And what does it say of his followers? Do his most dedicated and radical followers find a resonance with the same inner sins, and consequent personal destinies of a ‘self-justified martyrdom’?

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Jesus (the man only) on trial”

  1. Silence is a form of passive aggression or defense I think. By denying the accusers an argument he was blocking their attacks on him at a psychological level at least – I think he didn’t want to argue with them as he knew they had made up their minds. It was a kind of self defense mechanism. Either that or he wanted to die as you say.

  2. Possible. Yet one who till the time of the trial had been willing to expose the faults of the leaders might be expected to make one last demonstration of their state at such a critical time. Intend to explore this a little further soon.

  3. Most of these trial scenarios were apparently written by people who do not know the law. For example “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” If you answer “yes” is that a crime? Certainly not against the Jews. Being an “anointed one” is the be a king or high priest or even a profit, someone on a mission from god is a fairly common thing in Jewish history. Claiming to be anointed by god is not a crime that I am aware of. Nor is claiming to be a son of god. All Jews, from time to time, referred to other Jews as sons of god, which they all were being sons of Adam.

    All of the trial scenes are muddled, even breaking the law as it was then in their construction, so like the many examples of gospel writers not know the geography of the area they were describing, these authors seem to be ignorant of most of the applicable laws. (Why would a Roman prisoner be tried in a Jewish court, for example.)

    1. A strong case is made that these are not “errors”, rather they are intentional features. This all comes from a single account, the Gospel of Mark, which is written in a very ironic and actually irreverent style. It’s quite clear that the Gospel of Mark wasn’t actually intended to be a foundational religious document, rather it is a caustic commentary on the Jews and the First Jewish-Roman War. The story is filled with irony, sarcasm, and absurdity. The whole trial of Jesus is presented in Mark as intentionally absurd and unbelievable. Yes, many laws and norms about trails are broken in the scene, which was actually the point of the author. That’s not a product of the author being ignorant of the rules governing Jewish trials, it’s a product of the author intentionally using absurdist humor. The whole story is filled with black humor, inside jokes and symbolism. The same goes for the so-called “geographical mistakes” in Mark. These aren’t geographical mistakes, these are intentional uses of symbolism.

      What’s really ridiculous is that anyone every took any of this seriously to begin with.

      1. Yes…Yes..

        I like these comments…

        I think they are highly insightful and help get to the heart of the Gospels..at least the first one who everyone else hermeneutically high-jacks . Good old Mark!

        Also keep in mind everyone that in my view at least , it is difficult to understand the trial of Jesus unless seen against the background of Mark’s apocalypticism and his parabolic way of tryng to describe the so called “the great thilpsis…the tribulation, the trial, the testing…Mk. 13. …

        Through social science methods we can also go back to to the sitz im leben of Mark…not just one though, but many. Every text has its own “afterlife” even within a writer’s own writing. Internal redactions go on as well…. what eye-openers !!! He wants his story to linger and last and cause lots of hermeneutical playfulness…punning here and there and changing lots around….. changing Mark’s furniture around. And then the rest ride on his back and spin off their surely embellished rewritings based on all their own immediate and long term sitz im leben..

        Look what Mark’s gospel has produced in terms of brilliant content and contexts in which it is written…or rewritten….

        And I think R.G Price, as I read him, has raised something very important…. the issue of “contradictions”‘ which we all jump on…and rightly so,,,but we must note not all apparent contradictions are such… and so let us also consider that a writer or some so-called historian (Luke-Acts .huh..) may well have felt or whatever guidance to include two different traditions , and upon close examination are found to be certainly different and so “contradictory” at least at that point….other evidence may come up , but we can’t live that way pragmatically or as interested investigators of all the subjects generated by this website blog….

        Cheers all

  4. I guess I forgot to say from all those comments I just raised above, that as I continue to go deeper and deeper into the sources and critical methods of reading these texts they keep manifesting very “human” characteristics and not “directly” divine (sorry that last qualification is somewhat subtle) and the Bible and all those other ancient texts ARE human products……and we have not yet discovered More than that! At least at this point!!!

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