Easter: What Happened Thursday


First, what was the motivation for arresting Jesus? The legal order for the arrest of Jesus came from an organisation called the Sanhedrin (Matt 26:3). This was a group of around 23 elite religious rulers who controlled all daily facets of Jewish life under the watchful eye of the Roman Prefect (John 18:31). They exercised religious and legal power in this most religious and legalistic of cultures. They were the defacto political rulers and they also ran a hated extortion racket at the great temple of Jerusalem by forcing people to exchange their gold and silver money for near worthless copper, then making them buy their sacrificial animals at inflated prices from a select cartel of suppliers (John 2:13-17). The combined religious, political, legal and economic power of the Sanhedrin made its leadership extremely wealthy. There was no separation of church, state and financial power in ancient Israel. It was a perpetual one-party state under the control of Rome.

The ultimate reason for the Sanhedrin’s arrest of the greatest Jew of their generation at that moment was simply a gut-wrenching fear of political revolution, a revolution that would involve a total loss of their cosy control over Jewish political, religious and economic life (John 11:49-50). Consider these preceding events: At the beginning of the week Jesus had been welcomed into the city as a national hero by thousands who clearly saw him as a great prophet (John 12:12-13). In fact it seems he already had international followers among the tens of thousands of religious tourists that had arrived for the annual Pesach or Passover feast (John 12:20-21).  He then launched into a daily barrage of scathing attacks on the priests of the Sanhedrin for corrupting the purposes of God and stealing from the people (Matt 23:1-37). When they tried to counter attack he was able to repeatedly confound them in open public debate (Matt 22:15-45). He taught the people in veiled parables that the days of the Sanhedrin’s power and corruption were coming to an end (Matt 25:1-46). He even spoke of wars, rumours of wars and the destruction of the great temple (Matt 24:6). As the week wore on Caiaphas and his inner circle came to the obvious conclusion the teacher from Galilee was plotting a coup. But they also genuinely feared the people would side with Jesus if he was confronted openly, so they hesitated, waiting for a moment of weakness in their enemy’s movements that was outside the public gaze.

Now we move on to the actual timing of the arrest. It is now Thursday evening, the beginning of Nisan 14 and the evening of the special Galilean feast called Seudah Maphsehket, which we commonly call the “Last Supper”. This special pre-Passover meal was adopted only by the Galileans and its purpose was to remember that it was only the first-born sons of the Hebrews who were in danger from death at God’s hand in Egypt. After the Last Supper there would be a 24-hour fast. The next meal to be eaten was the Passover meal on the special Sabbath Saturday evening.

I put it to you that the capture of the prophet took place on, or just before midnight on that fateful night. This is because the Last Supper was is a ritual that took from two to three hours to complete, so it would have finished at about 9.00pm. Between then and the arrest the disciples had become extremely tired, even those who had been burly fishermen who were used to night shifts (Luke 5:5, John 21:3-4). In fact, by the time of the arrest some disciples had already fallen asleep three times (Matt 26:39-43). So it is very safe to say the arrest took place around the middle of the night. The text makes it very clear that these men were being held against their will deep into the night by a man spending time in anguished prayer. He was waiting to be arrested long after the normal time for sleep (Matt 26:45). So, why the three-hour wait on a cold and dark hillside? Why did the arrest take so damned long? Had Judas failed in his attempted betrayal when he left the meal at around 9.00pm (Matt 26:23-25)?

As a common informer Judas was useless because everyone knew Jesus was staying in Bethany (John 12:1). So where does he fit into this cascading scene on Thursday night? The record tells us that Judas had met with the priests on Monday or Tuesday and signalled his willingness to do a deal, but the priests took no notice (Matt 26:14). This was because the temple guard could have been dispatched to Mary and Martha’s house at any time during that week of festivities to collect Jesus (John 12:1-2). The delay in arresting Jesus is only explained by the High Priest’s genuine fear of the people and of revolution. The popularity of their enemy had reached a point where they were afraid to act.

Suddenly, at around 9.15 pm Judas brought the Sanhedrin some unexpected news. Jesus was no longer combative, but was actually speaking about his immanent arrest (Matt 26:31). In fact he was waiting to be arrested in a garden just to the east of the great temple (Matt 26:45). It was now or never for the priests to deal with the greatest threat to their power they had ever experienced. This new information precipitated action, and all it cost them was thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14-15) which was the going price of a slave at the time.

Judas left the Last Supper when the meal concluded at approximately 9.00pm (Matt 26:23-25). But the arrest didn’t occur until around midnight, so why the three hour delay? This can only be explained by walking through the logistics of the drama. It took Judas around 15 minutes to get to the High Priests home with the news, and probably another 15 minutes to deliver the message to the appropriate person, Caiaphas. Assume it took another 30 minutes for the Sanhedrin to assemble and debate their decision. Assume it took another 30 minutes to organise an arrest party of guards and 15 minutes to walk to Gethsemane. This only takes us to around 10.30pm, not late enough for the disciples, who were fishermen, to have fallen asleep three times. So we have a 60 to 90 minute gap in the drama.

This gap can only be explained if there was a late night deal made with the Roman Prefect Pilate to have Jesus executed early the next day. All executions had to go through Pilate as this privilege had been taken away from the Jews in 15AD. If Pilate had not agreed to process the execution there was no point in arresting Jesus as he would have to be kept alive for the next seven days while the feast was in progress. This stalemate could have stirred up social unrest and possibly rebellion, once people found out their hero was behind bars. Jesus had to be executed the next day before people caught on that the plot was afoot. The solution was to go to Pilate and seal the deal before making the final decision to execute the arrest. Only this action can account for the one hour delay in the arrest and the extended wait in the garden for the arrest party to arrive.

In addition to the logic of this timeline there are three lines of supporting evidence. First, Pilate was ready for a trial very early the next morning on a day when trials a not normally heard, so he must have known about the arrest (Mark 15:1). In addition to this his wife Procula had a dream that evening about the prophet Jesus and early Friday morning she told her husband, just before the trial, to have nothing to do with him (Matt 27:19). People often dream about the last topic of conversation before their go to bed. Finally, Pilate opened the trial the next morning formally, instead of simply going through the legal formalities. The shocked reply of the priests suggests they were not expecting to go through a process of proving the guilt of Jesus from scratch (John 18:29-31).

At an hour to midnight, a large contingent of temple guards (John 18:3) and temple servants (John 19:10) were assembled and briefed by Caiaphas. Judas probably spoke as well because he knew where to go (John 18:2) and he told them he would identify Jesus for them with a kiss on the darkened hillside (Matt 26:48-49). Aware of the Galilean’s threats to overthrow the social order and suspicious of his rumoured supernatural powers, these men left the fortified city walls heavily armed and in great numbers, ready for mass resistance to their cause, ready for a rebellion (Matt 26:47). We can assume forty to fifty men to be in this party, including a contingent of Pharisees and court officials (John 18:3) who would soon act as court “witnesses”. By law it was required that witnesses in a Jewish court case had to be part of the arrest party.

Up on the hillside, the arrest party was first spotted from some distance as the file of torches made its way through the pitch darkness of the olive grove to confront the small party of weary disciples. When they could be seen drawing menacingly closer, Jesus surprisingly stood his ground, forcing his disciples to stay when logic told them to run. Consternation filled their minds. Why wasn’t their leader fleeing the approaching mob? When finally the two groups met face to face a few minutes later, Judas anger replaced fear as was discovered to be a traitor! Some of the disciples began to reach for their weapons. The potential melee was only averted with a stern rebuke from their leader (Luke 22:49-51). Then, for reasons that didn’t make sense at the time, Jesus offered himself without resistance on the proviso that the disciples be left alone (John 18:4-7). This request was granted and Jesus was immediately bound and led away, leaving his band of men stunned.

Reading between the lines it seems that in the swirl of bodies and noise during that confrontation night, both John and Peter managed to intermingle undetected with the mob and secretly gain entry to the city with them (John 18:15). The city gates were firmly shut and guarded at all times after dark that night except during the exit and re-entry of the arrest party, so this is the only conceivable explanation for the appearance of John and Peter in the city later that night at the trial (John 18:15).

As the torch lights file back toward the city, the other nine disciples regrouped a safe distance further up the hill and spent a precious few minutes assessing their options. Once it is realised they were missing Peter and John, as well as Jesus, it undoubtedly created a sense of horror and foreboding in their minds. The only conclusion they could read from their rapidly diminishing set of circumstances was that Peter and John were arrested along with Jesus, and they would be next.

At this point it is most likely that John’s older brother James (Matt 4:21-22) started calling the shots as he is the most senior member of the disciples left (Matt 26:36-37). The things they discussed in those few moments must have centred on securing their own safety and assessing the possibility of the temple guard seeking out other followers of the prophet. This would mean arrests the next day in their village of lodging, Bethany (John 12:10-11). Only one course of action was now deemed sensible, and that was to get over the hill and down to the village to warn them of the tragic arrest of the great teacher and the mortal danger that all now faced them (John 12:1-4).

So nine frightened and bewildered men began to stumble through the pitch darkness for some 1.5 kilometers and arrived at Bethany around 1.00am. After the raising of Lazarus from the dead a year or so earlier, the whole village were followers of the great prophet (Matt 26:6). This fact, combined with the tiny size of homes in that era of foreign occupation and heavy taxation, tells us that only a few of the disciples were staying at Martha’s home. Still, that is where they must have delivered the news first. Already anxious because of the party had not returned at a normal hour, Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ worst fears are now realized. Now all of those now on the run woke up their respective hosts with a story of horror. Within minutes the entire village was awake and listening, weary eyed, to the terrible fate that had just befallen Jesus and his leadership.

Sleep would not have come easily to any of them until nearer to daybreak. But before it did, plans were being sketched into their conversations as to what to do the next day in the face of various threats and developments. They would not be caught off-guard twice. Their leadership was under arrest and the mothers of three of these nine men were trapped in Jerusalem. Amazingly, because of the complete lack of reference to this entire group for the rest of the crucifixion and resurrection drama, we now know exactly what those plans were. There was to be no rescue attempt and no plan to sneak into the city with the flow of traffic the next day to connect with the others. There was just too much chance of arrest at the city gate. These men decided, for their own safety and that of their many friends in Bethany, to simply lay low and wait. At any moment they may have needed to flee further north toward their home district of Galilee. Alternatively, if Peter and John were released, they would need to be in Bethany to meet them. Either way, they chose wisely to stay out of the city.

So, now we have set a scene where most of Jesus’ disciples are absent for the rest of the crucifixion drama, while a small party are marooned inside the city walls, completely cut off from their friends This party consisted of Joanna, who was the wife of king Herod’s palace manager, Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene the ex-prostitute, Salome mother of James and John, Peter and John. It is this unlikely group that now gains a ringside seat into our planet’s most history-altering event. John, through his connections and influence with the priests, becomes their leader. Peter’s character faults are soon exposed and he disappears from view until Sunday morning. The women are free to come and go as they wish.


After the drama of the arrest, Jesus was taken straight back to the home of Annas, father-in-law of the Caiaphas the High Priest, for preliminary questioning. This note in the narrative tells us a lot about this man’s lingering authority in the Sanhedrin. Then it was on to the nearby home of Caiaphas (Matt 26:57-8, John 18:12-13). There were two options available to the arrest party as to how to get to the homes of Annas and Caiaphas once inside the walls. The arrest party most likely took Jesus via the temple grounds so as to avoid the route through the residential streets of the city where they could have been spotted by any of the thousands of admirers of the great teacher.

Who was this High Priest (whose very tomb was possibly unearthed in 1990)? Joseph Caiaphas, the sworn enemy of Jesus, had been High Priest since 18AD and would remain in that powerful position for half a decade after this trial. The High Priest ruled the everyday affairs of Israel. Roman consent was only needed for the more important matters, such as this trial as it involved capital punishment. Caiaphas had married the daughter of the previous High Priest Annas, who had been forcibly removed by the Romans for executing capital sentences, but who still obviously held real political power. So we know this supreme position in the Jewish world was jealously guarded within an extended family structure that included Annas’ five sons and son-in-law. Caiaphas was at the peak of his tenure and had every motive in the world to make sure no one, absolutely no one, usurped his family control over the nation. A few months earlier he even threatened to kill the recently “resurrected” Lazarus in light of the thousands of Jerusalemites who were becoming admirers and followers of the upstart Galilean healer (John 12:10-11). A few years further on in history we find him threatening Peter and John for healing a crippled man (Acts 4:1-7). In the mind of this man power ruled supreme and any threat, no matter how justified, philosophically consistent, prophetically compelling or politically popular must be crushed. Caiaphas knew his family’s unpopular neck was on the line if the population turned on him.

Waiting for the arrest party to arrive at Caiaphas’ home was the full body of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of all matters religious. Interestingly, some of the Sanhedrin are known to us. Nicodemus and possibly Joseph of Arimathea, both secret admirers of the prophet, were reluctantly present (John 3:1, Mark 15:43). In all likelihood Annas’ own sons John and Alexander were present (Acts 4:6). The official ruler of the Sanhedrin, the very wise and learned Gamaliel, was there also (Acts 5:34). In fact, he should have directed proceedings, but was usurped in this instance by Caiaphas. Once joined by the mob and the guards, we can imagine a crowded, noisy, adrenaline-filled courtyard (John 18:15) of up to one hundred people, with faces dimly lit by a few candles and olive oil lamps. Their noisy entrance was to be brusquely quietened after a few minutes by Caiaphas as he rose to speak. Three of the disciples were watching from the corners of the room. They were John, Peter and Judas. John was known to the High Priests family, and was probably a close relative through either his mother Salome or his father Zebedee (John 18:15, Matt 4:21). Then there was Peter, who only got in to the courtyard because of John’s personal influence at the front gate (John 15:16), and whose Galilean accent would soon give him away (Matt 26:73). Finally there was Judas the thief and betrayer, who was so disgusted with the outcome of his doing that later he committed suicide (Matt 27:3-5, John 12:6).

So, with the timeline now understood, we can safely assume the Jewish trial of Jesus (Matt 26:57-75) took place in the very early hours of Friday morning. This is a very strange time indeed, since in Jewish law a capital charge against a man could not be heard after dark. Adding to the illegality of the trial was the fact that only accusers and witnesses could execute an arrest. In this case it had been the temple guard accompanied by a motley crew of friends, palace servants and priests assembled at the last minute. Now they had to hastily concoct some fabricated evidence against Jesus. First there were several unnamed charges brought against Jesus based on fabrications and lies (Matt 26:60). This makes sense given the last minute nature of the arrest party and the lack of time the witnesses had to collaborate their lines of argument. In the Jewish legal system witnesses and prosecution lawyers were one and the same people. This first line of accusation quickly fell apart as witnesses contradicted each other, so it was overthrown.

Then some someone, probably a court official or Pharisee with a little more intelligence, spoke up and suggested a more valid line of accusation by stating that Jesus had committed the crime of threatening to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days (Matt 26:61). The penalty for this crime of sorcery was death. This was much more promising. However Caiaphas knew it would not carry any weight with the Roman Prefect, Pilate, as it only involved speculation within a religious system and no obvious threat to Roman power.

The fact that the High Priest Caiaphas wasted time on these charges suggests that he was not all-powerful to work his will on the Sanhedrin. He had to satisfy their very strong tradition of abiding by Jewish legalities. In their system of jurisprudence there were three classes of evidence. Vain evidence resulted in the death of the witnesses because they were obviously lying to get the accused punished. Standing evidence looked good but needed more proof. Adequate evidence resulted in the establishment of guilt and immediate punishment. Today we call it “beyond reasonable doubt”. Frustrated that the vainness of witnesses and weakness of their accusations, Caiaphas had to finally break with legal tradition again and cross examine the prisoner himself. Perhaps it was the clue “in three days” that inspired Caiaphas to lunge in. Was Jesus talking about his own claim to divinity, kingship and royalty?

Taking leave of the legal proprieties, Caiaphas now used this ace card and accused Jesus of a false claim to divinity, of being the Messiah, a claim that carried the death penalty. After watching Jesus previously defend himself with stoic silence he also added “I adjure you by the living God” which is the most solemn oath in the Hebrew legal code (Matt 26:63). To not answer when thus challenged in a Jewish trial was in itself grounds for stoning. Jesus was caught, so he answered for the first time. The answer we are given in the gospels is “I am” (Mark 14:62), “You have said” (Matthew 26:64) and “You say that I am” (Luke 22:70). The discrepancy lies in the fact that, to a cultivated Jew, courtesy forbade a direct answer. His answer was affirmative and this alone was going to carry weight with both the Sanhedrin and the Roman Prefect. The time was now somewhere around, or just before the first glow of morning as the record tells us that a local rooster started crowing (John 18:27). So it was probably now around 4.00 am. With guilt secured, it was time to rest up a few hours before heading, en masse, over to Pilate’s Jerusalem residence for the early morning show trial before Pilate.

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