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Before Annas

Jesusí arrest took place in the middle of the night. All the gospels agree on this point. They also agree that the judicial investigation began shortly afterwards, culminating with the indictment by the Jewish Senate in the early morning hours on a capital charge. But historically there is no precedent for such a sequence of events, and the legality of the procedure in terms of Jewish law is questionable. The hurried night proceedings have always appeared as an insoluble mystery to interpreters. Luke specifies that the full session of the Senate took place when day came, in conformity with the Jewish rule that the Great Sanhedrin could meet only in daytime and had to deliver its judgment while it was light. Presumably this rule was known to Seneca, since he made the chronology of the play conform to it. But there was another provision of Jewish law relating to capital cases, which was more difficult to preserve in a dramatic performancea death verdict could not be delivered on the first day of a trial. The playwright resolved the problem by assuming that a new day begins at dawn; hence the proceedings would have spanned two days.

††††††††††† Senecaís solution was not ideal, but it was the only one available to him. While preserving the letter of the law the unseemly haste of the entire procedure violated its spirit. As Robertson recognized a century ago,

The events are huddled one upon another exactly as happens in all drama.... To realise fully the theatrical character of the gospel story, it is necessary to keep in view this characteristic compression of the action in time, as well as the purely dramatic content.

††††††††††† There was a brief pause in the action as Jesus was led by the armed men of the chorus at the head of a procession across the stage. This hiatus marks the end of the parodos of Senecaís tragedy of Jesus. Act One, which portrayed the proceedings before the Jewish authorities, required a change of scenery. The scaena that occupied the rear area of the stage was now revealed by the raising of the curtain that had concealed it until this moment. The scaena was a permanent structure two or three stories in height with a prominent central doorway and two smaller entran≠ces on either side. It could represent a royal palace or some other important buil≠ding, depending on the requirements of the particular play. According to Mark (14:53):

they took Jesus to the High Priestís house, where all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were gathering.

††††††††††† The identification of the scaena as the House of the High Priest was made in some lines sung by the chorus. The chorus of armed men remained outside, while Jesus was led inside through one of the side doors that were reserved for the use of messengers and lesser personages. The armed men remained outside because it was one of the conventions of ancient drama for the chorus to remain on the stage, in full view of the audience, for the duration of the tragedy.

††††††††††† The problem of explaining to what extent the audience could observe the scenes that are understood to take place inside (that is, on the other side of the entrance doors that faced the audience) is a most difficult one for modern scholars of ancient drama. In general, if the central doors of the scaena were closed, the inside scenes were only heard, and not seen; but if the central doors were opened, the inside scene was acted out in the archway of the door and the area of the stage just in front of it.

††††††††††† When the curtain opened at the beginning of Act One, the central doors were closed, which means that the proceedings inside the House of the High Priest were not visible to the audience. Mark reports that as the armed men were leading Jesus inside, Peter

followed far behind, and went into the courtyard of the High Priestís house... There he sat down with the guards, keeping himself warm by the fire.

††††††††††† Luke explains:

A fire had been lit in the center of the courtyard, and Peter joined those who were sitting around it.

††††††††††† Johnís account is quite similar:

It was cold, so the servants and guards had built a charcoal fire and were standing around it, warming themselves. Peter went over and stood with them warming himself.

††††††††††† To understand the significance of the fire, we must recall that Roman tragic theaters had altars set up at the center of the stage, a remnant of the origin of tragedy as religious drama. Tragedy was a most conservative art form, and even in Senecaís time it had not completely shed all aspects of its original function. It was a convention of ancient drama, followed in almost every tragedy of Seneca, to make some reference to this altar or altars.[1] As we have seen, Seneca had already alluded to the altar in the prologue to the tragedy of Jesus.

††††††††††† The altar was important in classical Greek tragedies, but having fire kindled on it was a Roman innovation. Two of Senecaís nine surviving plays include a fire burning on the altar. In his Oedipus, this fire is described in detail by Manto, who leads the blind Tiresias to the center of the stage, and informs him:

An unblemished victim stands before the sacred altars.

††††††††††† Tiresias asks:

What of the flame? Has it caught its generous feast?

††††††††††† Manto responds:

It flared with a sudden light, and suddenly died.

††††††††††† The discussion of the flame and the sacrifice continues for many more lines. A fire on the altar is also featured in Senecaís Medea. In the course of a scene that takes place in darkness, Medea stands at center stage, mixing a venomous brew over a fire kindled on the altar. This is made clear by the following words, pronounced by Medea:

Have altars set up and let their flames crackle....

††††††††††† In the long speech of Medea that follows, the burning altar is refererred to again and again; it is compared to

A torch snatched from a funeral pyre

[that] heaves its blaze up in the night.

††††††††††† After Medea has prepared her toxic concoction, the fire atop the altar leaps up to indicate that the powers of darkness are on the loose:

Thrice has bold Hecate uttered her bark

and her luminous torch has spurted its mystic flames.

††††††††††† The fire lit upon the altar in Senecaís tragedy of Jesus must have been an impressive sight, for it is mentioned by all four evangelists; it was one of those special effects of which Roman audiences were especially fond. In the context of the first two episodes of Act One, which took place inside, behind closed doors, it helped provide a visual focus for the audience while the questioning was taking place inside the House of the High Priest, and it helped to emphasize that it was still night.

††††††††††† All the evangelists agree that the first to challenge Peter, following his entry into the courtyard, was a young woman. According to John, she asked him:

Arenít you one of the disciples of that man?

††††††††††† Peter answered simply:

No, I am not.

††††††††††† In the previous act, Jesusí answer to temple guards who had come to arrest him had been just the opposite: It is I. The contrast between the two responses could not be more stark. Luke reports the following three-part conversation between Peter and some persons gathered around the fire:

Young woman: This man too was with him.

Peter: Woman, I donít even know him.

First Man: You are one of them too!

Peter:††††††††††††††††††††††††† Man, I am not.

Second Man: There isnít any doubt that this man was with him, because he also is a Galilean.

Peter:††††††††††††††††††††††††† Man, I donít know what you are talking about.

††††††††††† At each repetition the questions are more pointed and the denials more vehement. Luke lists Peterís denials one after the other, but specifies that the second denial took place a little while after the first, and the third about an hour after the second. Lukeís account implies that while the denials were taking place outside in the courtyard, Jesus was being questioned inside the House of the High Priest, although he reports nothing about the course of this procedure. In the play the denials were not consecutive, but were separated by two episodes of the trial. Mark and Matthew, in recounting the denials as a single event, after the indictment is handed down, preserve some of the dramatic crescendo of Senecaís play:

First servant girl: You too were with Jesus of Galilee

Peter:††††††††††††††††††††††††† I donít know what you are talking about.

Second servant girl: He was with Jesus the Nazorean.

Peter†††††††††††††††††††††††††† I swear that I donít know that man.

Chorus: Of course you are one of them. After all, the way you speak gives you away!

Peter:††††††††††††††††††††††††† May God punish me if I am not telling the truth! I do not know that man!

††††††††††† Peter had scarcely taken his place alongside the chorus of armed men by the burning altar when voices from inside the High Priestís house signaled the beginning of the proceedings. John, alone among the evangelists, preserves the first phase of the inter≠rogation conducted by Annas, the son-in-law of Caiaphas, the High Priest.[2] John reports that the High Priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Clearly, Jesus had not yet been indicted. He replied:

I have always spoken openly to all the world...

there was nothing secret in what I said.

††††††††††† Interpreters have noted how closely these words echo Socratesí answer to his judges:

If anyone asserts that he has ever learned or heard from me privately anything which was not open to everyone else, you may be quite sure that he is not telling the truth.[3]

††††††††††† That Seneca should have alluded to Platoís Apology of Socrates when presenting the trial of Jesus is not entirely unexpected. Jesus responded to Annasí questioning by challenging him to submit witnesses:

Question the people who heard me.

Ask them what I told them

they know what I said.

††††††††††† These words were considered offensive, for one of the guards slapped Jesus, reprimanding him:

How dare you talk like this to the High Priest?

††††††††††† Jesus replied:

If I have said something wrong,

†tell everyone here what it was.

But if I am right in what I have said,

why do you hit me?

††††††††††† Then, says John,

Annas sent him, still tied up, to Caiaphas, the high priest.

†††††††††††††††† John, however, does not report what took place before Caiaphas. Since John omits the rest of the procedure before the Jewish authorities, he has to place the second and third denials of Peter immediately after Annasís questioning. Jesusís appeal for witnesses evidently necessitated a brief adjournment of the proceedings. According to some interpreters the narrative implies that Annas and Caiaphas occupied separate wings of a building overlooking a shared courtyard. This is essentially correct, since it corresponds to the layout of the Roman stage. While some commentators suggest that Jesus passed through this courtyard as he went from one priest to the other,[4] there is no indication in the gospels that Jesus appeared on the stage at this point in his interrogation; in fact he remained inside, behind the scenes, out of sight of the audience. Mark, in describing the questioning of the witnesses before Caiaphas, indicates that the action was taking place above the level of the courtyard (14:66). As Brown summarizes the situation,

Mark and Matthew make it clear that Peter was outside or downstairs while Jesus was being interrogated inside or upstairs.[5]

†††††††††††††††† This means that the questioning of Jesus was played out on the upper level of the House of the High Priest. The balcony that occupied the upper level of Roman theaters allowed the playwright to achieve some striking dramatic effects. The appearance of actors at the upper level was usually indicated by some stage directions, disguised as dialogue. For instance Medea in Senecaís play of the same name, shouts:

I shall mount the lofty roof of our palace.

††††††††††† By appearing at the second level the actors were technically inside, while remaining partly visible to the audience. They could make themselves fully visible by stepping onto the balcony and engaging in a dialogue with the characters on the stage.

††††††††††† During the brief interval, as the witnesses were being assembled, the action shifted to the open stage where a dialogue took place. Somebody pointed to Peter as being one of the party of Jesus, and Peter denied his master a second time. Immediately after this, a resumption of the procedure inside was signaled by the sound of Caiaphasí voice.



[1]†††††† ††† Herrmann, Le thť‚tre de SťnŤque, p. 197; W. Beare, The Roman Stage (London, 1950).

[2]†††††† ††† Interpreters have puzzled over a seeming contradiction in the text of John: After naming Caiaphas as the High Priest in the verse just quoted, John reports a questioning by the High Priest, at the end of which Annas sent [Jesus], still tied up, to Caiaphas, the High Priest (18:24). Lukeís contention (3:2) that both Annas and Caiaphas held the office of high priest in those days is unhistorical. The usual interpretation is that Annas was the former High Priest, but that he still exercised some judicial authority. Cf. Haim Cohn, The Trial and Death of Jesus (New York, 1971), pp. 24-25.

[3]†††††† ††† Plato, Apology of Socrates 33B.

[4]†††††† ††† Brown, op. cit. p. 823.

[5]†††††† ††† Op. cit., p. 827.


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