Bad Guys Can’t Shoot Straight

We’ve all seen the movies where the good guys are pitted against the bad guys. The bad guys have numerous faceless henchmen, armed with weaponry that fires off projectiles at incredible rates. After the flurry is over, and the force of the attack shreds all the items within the vicinity, the good guy is unscathed. Or, at best, a flesh wound (that will not affect their performance for the rest of the flick.)

He or she, of course, assesses the situation, and with hands tied, shoots once, which ricochets off a convenient steel plate, severing the rope holding the equally convenient chandelier, which drops on the faceless henchmen, rendering them unconscious.

The Evil Villain often brings in the “expert” to do the job right. The hired gun; the assassin.

This is the situation presented in the New Testament. The “Bad Guys” which consisted of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the chief priests as well as unidentified “Jews” were frustratingly unable to kill Jesus. So they had to bring in the hired guns of the Romans.

Why didn’t the Chief Priests simply kill Jesus upon his conviction? Because they were the bad guys—and bad guys can’t shoot straight. We all know that.

Being the Easter season, as I typically do, I re-read the various accounts of Jesus’ accusation, trial, death, burial and resurrection. It is a simple question, really—If the chief priests convicted Jesus of blasphemy, the punishment being death—why did they get the Romans involved at all? Why not just stone him and be done with it?

A little background as to the animosity between these individuals and Jesus would be appropriate. Beginning in the first Gospel—Mark;

The very first encounter we see between Jesus and the bad guys is the healing of the Paralytic. (Mark 2:1-12) The one where the four friends lower the sick person through the roof. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven.” The teachers of the law, who happened to be there on instructions from the Fire Marshall due to the over-capacity crowd, recognize that this is blasphemy. The first confrontation, and the first accusation against the Jesus were to remain the same throughout Jesus’ entire recorded career.

Jesus shows them up by healing the paralyzed fellow.

The Pharisees confront Jesus about fasting and eating and healing. In each situation Jesus is able to foil them with witty repartee. By Mark 3:6, the Pharisees and Herodians were already plotting to kill Jesus.

Jesus continues to teach, to heal and to confront the various leaders. Once he clears the temple, we are reminded again that the chief priests and the teachers of law (and presumably the Pharisees and the Herodians) plotted for a way to kill him. (Mark 11:18) Jesus has quite a few enemies at this point!

Yet they continue to attempt to trap Jesus by tricky words. And continue to be stumped by Jesus’ pithy statements. Finally, they were able to coerce one of the Twelve Disciples to betray Jesus, and arrest him in the Garden. (Mark 14:43-50)

The Sanhedrin listened to numerous conflicting testimonies that were clearly not doing the job. (Worthless faceless henchmen.) Finally the High priest stands up and asks Jesus whether he was the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One. (Mark 14:610 Odd, considering claiming to be the Messiah was not blasphemy.

Jesus replies, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” A nondescript response that could mean a number of things, not necessarily that Jesus was claiming to be God, or equal to God. Yet the High Priest considers this answer sufficient and they condemn Jesus to death. (Mark 14:63-64)

Now would have been the time to stone him. But what do they do instead? Take him to Romans…Curious.

How does Matthew record the relationship? Following Mark, the author records the first confrontation and accusation being the paralytic, forgiveness of sins and claims of blasphemy. (Matt. 9:1-7) Again, we see the pattern of fasting, eating and healing, followed by the Pharisees (but no Herodians) plotting to kill Jesus. (Matt. 12:14)

Matthew veers a bit from Mark, by including some parables after the cleansing of the temple before reminding us that the Chief priests and the Pharisees (but no Herodians or teachers of the law) wanted to arrest Jesus. (Matt. 21:45)

Mathew follows Mark’s tale of the betrayal, arrest in the Garden, the accusations before the Sanhedrin, the High Priest’s question, Jesus’ response and the condemnation of death. (Matt. 26:57-66) Again, now would have been the time to stone him. Yet we see them get the Romans involved. (Matt: 27:1-2) Why?

Luke also includes the first accusation of blasphemy at the healing of the Paralytic. (Luke 5:17-26) Luke has the fasting, eating and healing. He removes some of the teeth of Mark and Matthew by stating that the Pharisees and teachers of the law began to discuss “what they might do to Jesus.” No explicit death threat here. (Luke 6:11)

Luke also is less emphatic over whether the bad guys intended to do physical harm to Jesus after he confounds them. The author records that they wanted to “besiege him with questions.” (Luke 11:53-54) Irritating—perhaps. Deadly? Not at all. Most striking, Luke indicates Pharisees helping Jesus, since Herod wants to kill Jesus! (Luke 13:31) (Interestingly Luke only records Herod imprisoning John the Baptist (Luke 3:20) and that subsequently John is dead (Luke 9:7) Did Luke know the history of Josephus that said Herod killed John the Baptist out of fear of insurrection, and not the accusation of Herod’s wrongdoing? Was Luke correcting Mark’s history, here?)

Luke conforms to Mark’s indicating the chief priests and teachers of law began to plot to kill Jesus following the cleansing of the temple. (Luke 19:47-48) It should be noted that Luke indicates the chief priests “were included” in the people that wanted to kill Jesus. Rather than being the sole or precipitating cause, they were just some among the many.

By Luke 20:19, they moved to the forefront of the people desiring to kill Jesus.

Luke includes the betrayal, and corrects Mark’s error by moving the trial before the Sanhedrin to the morning (Luke 22:66) Luke also adds to Jesus’ claim. In this instance, Jesus is recorded as being asked the additional question “Are you the Son of God?” (whatever a Jew would think that meant) and Jesus replies, “You are right saying I am.” (Luke 22:70)

Luke never states what Jesus was specifically condemned for. Luke never has the Jews stating Jesus committed a Jewish law worthy of death.

Luke does include an interaction between Herod and Pilate that is not recorded in any other Gospel. The author states Pilate, upon learning Jesus was from Galilee, sends Jesus to Herod. Now would have been a perfect time to kill Jesus.

We have Herod, who killed John the Baptist out of fear of an uprising, and who we have been informed desires to kill Jesus. He has the legal authority to do so. This would be the opportunity. Yet Herod does not kill Jesus. Why not? What sense does this make? (Luke 23:8-12)

Previously, Luke records Herod desiring to kill Jesus, but the Pharisees protecting him. In a (slight) role reversal, Luke now has Herod protecting Jesus and the chief priests and teachers of law desiring to kill Jesus! Is Luke absolving the Pharisees? (They have dropped out of the picture since Luke 19.) Even so, what happened to change Herod’s mind from desiring to kill Jesus to saving him?

At this point we are left puzzling until our puzzler is sore—if the Priests had condemned Jesus to death, wanted to kill him—why not pick up stones and stone him?

The Gospel of John adds an interesting insight. John, like Luke, does not include a specific condemnation, nor does it include the trial transcript of Mark. No, what John includes is Jews stating, “But we have no right to execute anyone.” (John 18:31)

Now that would make the rest of the pieces fall into place. If the religious leaders did not have the right to implement capital punishment—this would explain why, in the other Gospels, the leaders turned Jesus over to the Romans. They wanted him dead. They couldn’t do it on their own. So they take him to the authorities that can. (This does not resolve the problem of Herod, who clearly DID have the authority to kill Jesus. Not surprisingly John fails to record the claim that Herod was involved in any way.)

There is only one problem with this. Where is it indicated that the Jews could not execute someone by stoning? In fact, the first place we can look to see that they could is the Gospel of John itself!

In John 8:57-59, the “Jews” (the Gospel of John commonly uses this vernacular rather than chief priests, teachers of law or Pharisees) are amazed by Jesus’ claim to have seen Abraham. They question how that could be, and Jesus responds, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” I need not remind the readers of the “I am” of the burning bush. (Exodus 3:14) Nor, apparently did the Jews need any such reminding.

They picked up stones to stone Jesus. No plotting. No tricky questions. No fear of a crowd. Justice at its most simple—Jesus claims to be God; Jesus is stoned. But lest we forget, these are the Bad Guys. There is still an hour left in the movie. Bad Guys can’t shoot straight. Jesus is able to slip away.

If the Jews could not stone people under Roman law it sure wasn’t stopping them. Twice.

John records another instance of Jesus in the temple area where Jesus proclaims, “I and the Father are one.” John 10:30. Again, the Jews pick up stones to stone him. No plots, tricky questions or worry about the crowd. (John 10:31) Again, they forgot they wear the Black Hats; they miss. (John 10:39-40)

The Disciples certainly seemed to grasp the Jews’ ability to stone Jesus. When He wants to go visit sick Lazarus, the disciples say, “Hey. Last time you were there, they were going to stone you!” Jesus responds with the obvious answer, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? A man who walks by day will not stumble, for he sees by this world’s light. It is when he walks by night that he stumbles, for he has no light.” (John 11:8-9)

Wha--? According to Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus had made it quite plain to his disciples that he was going to suffer at the hands of the chief priests and be killed. (Mark 8:31-32, Matt. 16:21, Luke 9:22)

Jesus: I am going to Jerusalem to suffer, be killed by Gentiles and raised again.
Disciples: Don’t go! They are going to kill you!
Jesus: [smacking his head with that “don’t you get it?” look] You should walk in the day, so you don’t stumble like at night.

No one is saying, “Hey, don’t worry. They can’t kill you.” Everyone acts as if that is exactly what can occur—Jesus, the Disciples, and the Jews.

At this point, in John the High Priest and the Pharisees DID plot to kill Jesus. So Jesus stopped working in public. John 11:45-57. This is a good justification for the reason of the need of a betrayer. They couldn’t find Jesus. Notice, though, the limitation seems to be on finding Jesus—not on whether they could kill him or not.

Humorously, when Jesus is questioned by the High Priest, he replies that he has always spoken openly, and said nothing in secret. What about having just been in hiding from the Jews? That wasn’t in the open. And when he WAS in the open, and DID speak openly, they tried to stone him. Twice.

In Mark the Sanhedrin seems to be looking for a reason to condemn Jesus. In John, despite having been ready to stone him (twice) we still see them looking for a reason. It is as if everyone completely forgot the very basis of plotting against Jesus!

The Jews want to kill Jesus, try to stone him, and he escapes. Herod wants to kill him, has him in his grasp and Jesus escapes. It is a Hollywood staple—the plot must proceed and the movie would end unceremoniously early if the Bad Guys can hit.

It should also be noted that Stephen was stoned with no thought or qualm about the legal right to do so. Acts 7:59. Paul records being stoned, without any indication as to a legal irregularity. 2 Cor. 11:25. The Sanhedrin is indicated as having the ability to sentence Peter to death. Acts 5:33. And James the Just is recorded by Josephus as having been stoned to death.

What changed? What happened that by the time of Peter’s preaching, Stephen, Paul and James, the religious leaders clearly could stone, yet at the time of Jesus, they could not?

It is my position that Mark, in writing his Gospel was utilizing the Tanakh, and used Psalm 22 as the outline for Jesus’ death. A crucifixion. In order to do so, he needed Jesus to die by the Romans (Jews would not have crucified a condemned person), so he has the chief priests turning Jesus over to Pilate.

Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s outline (correcting awkward problems as need be.) But by the time of John, the question as to why the Romans were involved at all was raised. So, the sole Gospel to do so, John attempts to offer a defense, claiming that Jews did not have the right to execute. A claim that is problematic in light of John itself other books of history.

This Easter season, I ask the question: Why didn’t the Jews just stone Jesus?