The Passion of Christ

The Trials of Christ

Another episode – or sequence of episodes – in which differences between the four gospels causes confusion.  There are also wider issues, discussed in detail in my regular guide to such things, The Passion by Geza Vermes.

  As with all the Passion events, John’s gospel moves the arrest and trial a day early, so Christ himself becomes the sacrificial paschal lamb.  This leads to discussions about whether the various meetings and trials could have in fact taken place at this time under Jewish law.  The other major issue is to what extent the Gentile–focussed gospels ‘spin’ the story to incriminate the Jewish Sanhedrin and let Pilate off the hook. In particular, that part of the narrative where the crowd is offered the choice of Christ or Barabbas is regarded as suspect. No such tradition is mentioned by historians such as Josephus, and he should know. even Matthew’s gospel, considered the one aimed at a Jewish audience, includes the scene of Pilate washing his hands, declaring himself  ‘innocent of the blood of this just person’. Matthew does his best to implicate all of the Jewish people: 'Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.' ("7 v 25).

  The portrait offered of Pilate by the gospel writers as a reasonable but irresolute official is also at completely at odds with the reality described by authors such as the ever reliable Josephus (Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities)  and Philo (Embassy to Gaius). Pilate was quite clearly a brutal and vindictive thug who ended up being recalled to Rome to answer for his cruelty and incompetence. 

  So a quick outline of the main events, then a look at the differing details of each gospel.
  Christ is arrested, and brought before the high priest, who declares him guilty. He is beaten.  Peter, who has followed Christ, now denies knowledge of him.
  The next morning Christ appears before the council of elders and priests, the Sanhedrin, where his guilt is confirmed. He is then taken to Pilate, who does not find fault in him. However, pressure from the Sanhedrin changes his mind and he offers the crowd the choice of Christ or Barabbas. Barabbas is chosen.

 In Mark, the priests, elders, and scribes are already assembled at the house of the unnamed high priest.  Various witnesses are brought forward, some ‘false’. Christ  is asked  ‘Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’  His incriminating reply is ‘I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.’
  The high priest rents his clothes and  Christ is ‘buffeted’. The narrative continues as above.

Matthew names the high priest as Caiaphas. This gospel includes verses on the repentance and remorse of Judas.
  Matthew includes two details relating to Pilate. One is the washing of hands, mentioned already. The other is the unsuccessful intervention on Christ’s behalf by Pilate’s wife. She became, in legend, the Christian saint and Martyr Saint Procula. (She has other names.)

  In Luke, when Pilate realises Christ is a Gallilean he sends him to King Herod. Herod hopes to see miracles enacted, but Christ does not oblige – he is mocked and returned to Pilate.

First, Christ is taken to the priest Annas, father-in-law of Caiaphas, before being taken to the high priest himself.  As the cock crows, Christ is taken to Pilate , but the priests do not enter the judgment chamber ‘, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the Passover’.
  The trial before Pilate, with its discussion of the nature of kingship, is far lengthier in John.

The trials in art
By far the most comprehensive guides are the Maesta of Duccio and the 'Small Passion' woodcuts of Durer. Let's start with their interpretations of Christ before Annas. Duccio shows the moment when Christ is found guilty; Durer illustrates the subsequent beating.


Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

British Museum

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