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Matthew’s Trial of Jesus Is About More than Jesus
by Patrick Henry Reardon
Although any day is a good occasion to read the Gospel accounts of the Lord’s Passion, it is hardly surprising that the ancient lectionaries of the Christian Church especially prescribe the solemn, public reading of these texts each spring—March or April—during Holy Week. An early witness to this prescription was Egeria, a nun from Gaul, who penned a priceless account of her travels in the Holy Land during the late fourth century, probably between 381 and 384.
Because she was fortunate to be present among the Christians in Jerusalem during Lent, Holy Week, and the Paschal season, Egeria’s account includes descriptions of the customs and rituals associated with the liturgical observance of those solemn seasons, including the public reading of the Passion narratives on Good Friday. This passage is worth quoting at length:
The entire time from the sixth to the ninth hour is occupied by public readings. They all concern the things that Jesus suffered; first they have the psalms on this theme, then the Apostolic Epistles and Acts which deal with it, and finally the passages from the Gospels. In this way they read the prophecies about what the Lord was to suffer, and then the Gospels about what he did suffer. Thus do they continue the readings and hymns from the sixth to the ninth hour, showing to all the people by the witness of the Gospels and the writings of the Apostles that the Lord actually suffered everything the prophets had foretold. They teach the people, then, for these three hours, that nothing which took place had not been foretold, and all that was foretold was completely fulfilled. Dispersed among these readings are prayers, all fitting to the day. It is impressive to see the way all the people are moved by these readings, and how they mourn. You could hardly believe how every single one of them weeps during those three hours, old and young together, because of the way the Lord suffered for us. ( The Travels of Egeria)
Jesus on Trial
Integral to the Gospel stories of the Passion are their records of the Lord’s two trials: the “Jewish” trial before the Sanhedrin and the “Roman” trial before Pontius Pilate. Jesus’ appearance before Pilate was ultimately included in the creedal narrative of the Church, including the Nicene Creed. This development apparently began early. If we bear in mind that a primitive word used for the baptismal creed was homologia (cf. 2 Cor. 9:13; Heb. 3:1; 4:14; 10:23), we perhaps detect in 1 Timothy 6:12–13 a first step toward the insertion of Jesus’ trial before Pilate into the Church’s confessional recitation:
Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed [ homologesas] the good confession [ homologian] in the presence of many witnesses [ martyron]. I urge you in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus who witnessed [ martyresantos] the good confession [ homologian] before Pontius Pilate. . . .
Although each of the four Gospels includes both of Jesus’ trials, the accounts differ quite a bit in the details. Sometimes these variations indicate source material peculiar to an individual Evangelist. For instance, it seems likely that Luke’s story of Jesus’ appearance before Herod (Luke 23:6–12) comes from his personal familiarity with Joanna, the wife of Chuza, who served in Herod’s court (8:3). In addition, only Luke includes the detail of the Lord’s turning to look at Peter after the third denial (22:61).
Likewise, only John tells of an interrogation of Jesus before Annas (18:12–13, 24), and only he seems familiar with the details of a conversation between Jesus and Pilate (John 18:34–37; 19:8–11). Again, Matthew alone appears to know that Pilate’s wife became interested in Jesus’ trial (27:19).
Sometimes, however, the differences between the four accounts of Jesus’ trials are better explained as particular features of the individual narrative preferences of the four authors. For instance, John provides not a single detail of Jesus’ interrogation by Caiaphas but says that Jesus was taken directly to Pontius Pilate in the morning (19:28). Thus, John records two distinct interrogations of Jesus by the Jewish leaders, the second ending in the morning.
Luke simplifies the narrative by saying the arrested Jesus was taken directly to the high priest’s presence (22:54). Although he tells us nothing about an interrogation until the morning (22:66), the details of that inquiry (22:67–71) closely resemble the interrogation before the Sanhedrin that Mark and Matthew portray as taking place during the night.
Another instance of a particular narrative preference is John’s arrangement of Peter’s three denials of Jesus. Each of these denials appears in all four Gospels, but only John separates them within the full narrative (John 18:15–27).
Mark is alone among the Evangelists in adding the detail that the rooster crowed twice (14:30,68,72). In fact, the first and second cockcrows refer to two different times during the night, the latter one coming at the break of dawn. Mark thus indicates the fairly lengthy time over which Peter’s three denials took place, the last one happening toward the morning. This prolonged lapse of time heightens our sense of Peter’s treachery.
In short, the differences between the four accounts of the trials of Jesus should be attributed to one or both of two causes: different sources available to the four Evangelists, and the narrative preference of each of them.
The Two Trials in Matthew
The present reflections are a study of the trial narratives in Matthew, with a view to elucidating certain theological and moral concerns I believe to be particular to this author. Matthew is the only Evangelist to insert, within both the trials, a story relative to one of the original Twelve—a story about Simon Peter in the trial before the Sanhedrin, and an account of Judas Iscariot in the trial before Pilate. Thus, Matthew’s structure of the two trials may be outlined in this way:
A. The trial by the Sanhedrin
1. Jesus’ appearance before the Sanhedrin (26:57–68)
2. The story of Peter (26:69–75)
3. The Sanhedrin’s plot to kill Jesus (27:1)
B. The trial by Pilate
1. Jesus appears before Pilate (27:2)
2. The story of Judas (27:3–10)
3. Pilate’s decision to kill Jesus (27:11–26)
Matthew’s double construction accomplishes two things: First, it varies the narrative by alternating stages: the story begins with Jesus, goes to Peter, comes back to Jesus, goes to Judas, and finally returns to Jesus once again.
This disposition to move quickly from scene to scene is very characteristic of Matthew’s style, as though to indicate that various activities are happening at once or nearly so. Thus, Matthew shifts from Jesus’ final prophecy of the Passion (26:1–2) to the Sanhedrin’s plot against his life (26:3–5), and then to the home of Simon in Bethany (26:6–13). From there, he follows Judas to the Sanhedrin again (26:14–16), and then returns to Jesus in Bethany (26:17). All these things take place on the same day (Spy Wednesday).
On the next day (Maundy Thursday), Matthew follows the two disciples to Jerusalem, where they make arrangements for the Seder (26:19); Jesus arrives in the next verse. Once in Jerusalem, Jesus moves from the room of the Seder to the Mount of Olives (26:30) and Gethsemane (26:36). After Jesus is arrested and taken to the house of Caiaphas (26:57), Matthew moves us to the courtyard of that residence to get Peter situated (26:58). He then goes back inside for Jesus’ trial (26:59). When this is over, he leaves Jesus inside and goes to talk about Peter’s denials in the courtyard (26:69). He returns briefly to the house of Caiaphas to gather all the characters of the drama and move them to the judgment seat of Pilate (27:1–2).
Once Matthew gets this scene established, he breaks off in order to tell of the final hours of the life of Judas (27:3–10). He then comes back to record the trial of Jesus before Pilate, but there is yet another interruption in order to introduce Pilate’s wife (27:19). Only then does he return to Jesus’ trial.
Consequently, Matthew’s Passion narrative is a weave of various scenes and several activities, involving various people, all of which happen at different places. Of the four New Testament stories of the Passion, Matthew’s is the most complicated.
Second, in joining a specific disciple to each of Jesus’ interrogations—before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate—Matthew demonstrates a concern about discipleship within the Passion narrative. For this Evangelist, the drama of the Cross is not isolated from the trial and trauma of the soul. That is to say, what transpires in the salvation wrought by God in his Son finds a resonating correspondence in the human struggle of failure and repentance—treachery and despair—in the souls of Peter and Judas. The ironic tragedy of the Cross resounds in the inner battle of the heart.
Thus, Matthew’s narrative construction encourages the reader to contrast Peter and Judas as two types of response to sin and redemption. In fact, Christians over the centuries have followed Matthew’s encouragement in this respect, as hundreds of extant sermons demonstrate.
The Jewish Trial: Peter
In his account of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, Matthew follows rather closely the Markan sequence by inserting Peter’s denials between the nocturnal interrogation of Jesus and the Sanhedrin’s determination, on the following morning, to seek his death. By this juxtaposition, in which both Jesus and Peter are subjected to questioning, the author invites us to compare the two cases: Jesus and Peter are both on trial, as it were, and we cannot help but contrast them.
One observes, for instance, that in both cases there are testimonies given under oath: “I put you under oath [ exsorkizo] by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God!” (26:63). And, “Then he began to curse and swear [omnuein] , “I do not know the Man!” (26:74). In each of these “trials,” moreover, perjured testimony is given, first by suborned witnesses and then by Peter (26:59–60, 70, 72, 74).
Peter, sitting in the courtyard outside the high priest’s residence, is approached by a servant maid, who believes she recognizes him as a companion of Jesus (26:69). He stands accused of only one thing—being “with” ( meta) Jesus, a charge that Matthew is at pains to sustain by his constant references to Peter’s being with Jesus all through this chapter (26:20,29,36,40,51). Apparently surrounded by a crowd, Peter denies the allegation in a voice loud enough to be heard by everybody (26:70). Matthew adds this detail to Mark’s version of the story (14:68), thus heightening the sense of Peter’s perfidy and fear.
Peter moves to the gateway (Matt. 26:71), perhaps to escape from the light of the fire that John mentions. This time, another of the high priest’s maidservants announces to everyone—and not just to Peter—that he was “with” ( meta) Jesus. Whereas in the first case the maid spoke of “Jesus of Galilee,” in the present she speaks of “Jesus of Nazareth.” The point of these references will become clear in the third denial, prompted by the remark about Peter’s Galilean accent (26:73). The more Peter protests his unfamiliarity with Jesus, the more occasions he provides for the bystanders to detect the regional inflections in his speech.
Thus, Peter is driven to greater desperation and begins completely to lose control. The evidence of this breakdown is found in his recourse to an oath in the second denial (26:72) and to cursing and swearing in the third (26:74). The reader recalls Matthew’s earlier inclusion of a dominical injunction against swearing (5:33–37; cf. 23:16–22).
After the third denial, Peter goes “outside” (26:72). One gains the impression that Peter is moving away, endeavoring to escape a growing crisis and the total unraveling of his moral character.
Immediately ( evthys—26:74) after the third denial, the rooster crows, prompting Peter to remember what Jesus predicted (26:75). He remembers, leaves the place, and breaks into tears, now aware that he has added his own failure to the tragedy of the night. What Peter had boldly considered unthinkable (26:35) has now become a reality: He has publicly repudiated Jesus. The crowing of the rooster occasions the final test of Peter’s character, and his tears represent the very dissolution of his soul. Peter’s heart lies broken and crushed beneath the weight of his guilt. The man he thought he was is now proven to be nothing more than a phantom.
Matthew, however, like each of the other Evangelists, describes Peter’s repentance as immediate. No more than a few seconds separate his downfall from his rising up, and this prompt conversion is likewise incorporated into the narrative of the Passion. Just as failure is possible to any Christian, so the door to repentance is closed to no one. Peter’s tear-filled repentance is integral to the story of Jesus’ suffering and death. It is as though his repentance is the first fruit to grow on the tree of the Cross.
The Roman Trial: Judas
One is struck—perhaps even surprised—by Matthew’s insertion of the suicide of Judas within his account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. As soon as the author puts Jesus in Pilate’s presence (27:2), he leaves the scene in order to describe what Judas did.
There is ample reason to believe that Matthew is not guided here by a strict chronological sequence. We observe, for instance, that Matthew pictures the chief priests as talking with Judas in the temple at the very time they are talking with Pilate at the pretorium (27:2–3). We also recall that Luke does not narrate the death of Judas until somewhat later (Acts 1:18–20).
It is rather easy to demonstrate, in fact, that both writers tell the story of Judas’s death at a place appropriate to the theological points they want to make. Here, we consider only the case of Matthew, where the suicide of Judas fits into his larger account of Jesus’ trials.
A first concern of Matthew is to contrast the death of the innocent Jesus with that of the guilty Judas.
Second, this arrangement also permits Matthew to compare Judas and Pilate. Each man recognizes the innocence of Jesus (27:4,18,23–24), but both men refuse the path of responsibility and repentance (27:5,24). Each of them assumes an unwarranted authority over a human life, and in each the reader recognizes the profile of a coward.
Third, there is a contrast between Judas and Peter. Although Judas feels remorse at his treachery (metameletheis), Matthew avoids the vocabulary of repentance (metanoia, for instance) in his description of Judas. Indeed, this story, which follows almost immediately on the repentance of Peter (26:75), invites a contrast between these two disciples with respect to their sins: repentance in the one case, despair in the other.
“I have sinned,” says Judas— hemarton—but he quickly finds he cannot undo the sin. In fact, his efforts are mocked by men hardened in sin, who feel no remorse. The chief priests, playing Mephisto to Judas’s Faust, have purchased a soul at market price and are quite content with the deal.
A fourth concern of Matthew here is to compare Pilate with the officials of the Sanhedrin. Judas, in pronouncing Jesus “innocent” (athõos—27:4), prepares for the self-assessment of Pilate, who somehow recognizes that he, too, is on trial: “I am innocent athõos] of the blood of this person” (27:24). Likewise, when Pilate goes on to tell the Jews, “You see to it” (hymeis opsesthe), he simply pluralizes what the chief priests told Judas: “You see to it” (sy opsei).
Judas finds himself in the state described by St. Paul, who writes of the Law’s inability to justify the sinner. Judas has fallen under “the curse of the Law” (Gal. 3:13). Specifically, the conscience of Judas is faced with the divine judgment, “Cursed is he who takes a bribe to slay a soul of innocent blood” (my literal translation of the LXX of Deuteronomy 27:25). Deuteronomy’s expression, “soul of innocent blood”— pyschen haimatos athõou—is obviously the reference Matthew has in mind when Judas says he sinned in his betrayal of “innocent blood”— haima athõon (27:4). Judas, then is the man cursed by the Law, and whom the Law can in no wise justify (cf. 26:24).
The suicide of Judas finds its Old Testament prefiguration in that of Ahitophel (2 Sam. 17:23), and similar circumstances attend both cases. Judas betrays the true king; indeed, Jesus’ kingship is the burden of Pilate’s question that immediately follows the death of Judas (Matt. 27:11). With respect to Ahitophel, we recall that he, too, betrayed the true king, David, in order to side with Absalom, the usurper. Both betrayers come to the identical fate of suicide by hanging.
The contrast between Peter and Judas is, finally, a matter of choice between repentance and despair. Even within the limits of his many manifest faults—recorded in all four Gospels (as well as the Letter to the Galatians)—we recognize in Peter a fundamentally repentant heart. When he does succumb to temptation, his repentance is immediate. Judas, in contrast, when he realizes the great gravity of his offense, immediately strives in vain to make things right by his own efforts. Failing this, he falls into despair. In Matthew’s view, the mercy of God and the powerlessness of man in his sins is the difference between Peter and Judas.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.