After struggling through prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus submitted to his arrest at the hands of his betrayer. Strengthened by prayer, Jesus is determined to do the will of the Father. The disciples, however, have scattered….except one, according to Mark, follows the arrest party at a distance. His name is Peter.
Mark 14:53-15:20 is a trial narrative. There are three trials. There are interrogators, witnesses and the defendants. In two trials—one before the Sanhedrin and another before Pilate—Jesus is the defendant. Between these two trials, Peter is the defendant. Peter’s trial is sandwiched between Jesus’ two trials. They are linked but they have radically different outcomes. Peter denies Jesus and lives, but Jesus confesses and dies. This picture must have been particularly momentous for early Christians who faced the same sorts of trials under Roman imperialism.
The narrative parallels Jesus’ trials by utilizing the same rhetorical structure.
|Structure||Mark 14 – Sanhedrin||Mark 15 – Pilate|
|Movement||They led Jesus to the Sanhedrin (14:53)||The Sanhedrin hand Jesus over to Pilate (15:1)|
|Testimony||Witnesses testify about the temple (14:54-59)||Witnesses testify that Jesus is king of the Jews (15:2)|
|Question||“Have you no answer?” (14:60)||“Have you no answer?” (15:4)|
|Silence||“But he was silent and did not answer” (14:61)||“Jesus made no further reply” (15:5)|
|Direct Question||“Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61)||“Are you the king of the Jews?” (15:2)|
|Jesus Answers||“I am” (or, “am I?”) (14:62)||“You Say So” (15:2)|
|Deliberation||Sanhedrin deliberates about Jesus’ Response (14:63-64)||Pilate consults the people (15:6-15)|
|Torture||Sanhedrin mocks, spits on and slaps Jesus (14:65)||Soldiers flog and mock Jesus (15:15-20).|
This structure, as Myers (Binding the Strong Man, 370) “implicates both parties of the colonial apparatus as equally culpable—indeed collaborative—in the political railroading of Jesus.” Myers further notes that the narrative is ironic on its surface—the trials function as something of a “political cartoon” whose point is to charge each party as guilty.
The Sanhedrin forgoes due process in order to secure a death penalty. Later Mishnah texts regulate capital cases—not only must there be credible witnesses, but the defendant is entitled to an attorney and at least two days of trial (certainly not a brief predawn one!). Mark deliberately accentuates that injustice. At the same time, Pilate uses the crowds to navigate the political pitfalls of the situation. His question, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews,” is incendiary. It is designed to rile the crowd and placate the Sanhedrin. Pilate, shrewdly playing a political card, gives the crowd what he provocatively incited. Pilate, a representative of the Emperor, must crucify the “king” of the Jews but at the same time gains the complicity of a Jewish mob in doing so.
It is important to note that it is not Jews who crucify Jesus, but it is the coordinate action of the temple authorities (“chief priests, elders and teachers of the law”) and the Roman prefect. The principalities and powers that rule Palestine try and execute Jesus. The guilt of his death is not racially motivated but politically calculated.
Significantly, the temple is at the heart of their attempt to execute Jesus. The temple authorities bring in witnesses that rehearse Jesus’ opposition to the temple though the witnesses cannot agree. The testimony that Mark highlights is this: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another not made with hands” (14:58).
Mark describes this as “false” testimony. But what is “false” about it? Perhaps it is the personal assertion “I (ego) will destroy…” Jesus never said that he would destroy. Rather, the destruction of the temple will eventually come at the hands of the Romans. Perhaps the witnesses assume that Jesus would build another temple like the present one (a physical one) but by some miraculous power as if the present temple would be resurrected in a supernatural fashion within in three days.
The witnesses are confused. They probably heard Jesus oppose the temple authorities and may have even had some sense that Jesus expected the destruction of the temple (though Mark 13 was only said to the disciples). The “three days” is clearly a reference to the resurrection of Jesus as Mark envisions it but the witnesses misinterpret Jesus’ reference. The temple he will rebuild is the temple of his body and not something similar to the Herodian Temple.
Whatever the exact meaning and significance of these witnesses, the troubling point which raises the ire of the Sanhedrin is Jesus’ opposition to the present temple structure and its authorities. The temple is near the heart of their faith, but more importantly the seat of their political power. The Sanhedrin is interested in protecting its power, diverting attention away from the kingdom vision of Jesus, and securing their future in relation to the Romans. They want Jesus executed because he is a danger to their political power.
The easiest way to secure his execution—in a Jewish context—is charge him with a capital heresy. A confession would be nice, but Jesus is silent before the witnesses. He will neither confirm or deny. So, the High Priest asks the direct question: “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?” The trial turns on Jesus’ answer which is taken as “blasphemy” and dispels the need for further deliberations or witnesses.
His answer is rather astounding. “Ego eimi,” Jesus says, that is, “I am.” It is an emphatic answer which explodes the “Messianic secret” previously present in Mark. Jesus claims the Messianic mantle. But in addition he confronts the principalities and powers with the reality of his own coming reign.
Here Mark, through the question and answer, combines three titles which have been present throughout his narrative: Messiah (Christ), Son of God (or Blessed One), and Son of Man. These Messianic titles converge in this brief encounter. Jesus is the anointed son of David whose role is to reign at the right hand of God (an allusion to Psalm 110). As Son of Man, he will come with the clouds to his throne in the heavens which the Father gives him at his right hand. This language is derived from Daniel 7:13-14 where the king (Son of Man) comes with the clouds to the Almighty and is given dominion over the nations.
While the temple authorities will advocate and pursue Jesus’ execution because he threatened their power, what they will ultimately “see” is the reign of the Son of Man to whom belongs all dominion and power. This is not a reference to the “second coming” of Jesus (though there is perhaps some extended meaning that might include it) and neither does it mean that the temple authorities will literally (physically as with their eyes) “see” the moment when the Son of Man ascends to the Father to receive authority. Rather, it is an assurance that their political pretensions are an illusion since shortly the Son of Man will reign at the right hand of God. They will come to “see” (learn) this and know the truth about Jesus of Nazareth though they may deny it. The Messiah is the true king and the temple authorities are tenants who have no legitimate power.
This infuriates the Sanhedrin. Jesus is condemned, and then tortured. They spit on him, mock him and beat him. Few doubt that Mark is alluding to Isaiah 50:6 where the suffering servant of Isaiah is beaten (the LXX uses the noun of Mark’s verb), spit upon and mocked. For Mark, once again, Jesus is the suffering servant of God who suffers the violence of the nations for the sake of liberating his people from the nations.
The guards who beat Jesus are the same people among with whom Peter sits in the courtyard. He is listening, watching and, we might expect, in tremendous inner turmoil. Peter himself is undergoing his own trial.