Why is Jesus condemned to death by the Sanhedrin in Mark 14? The exchange goes like this:
Then the high priest stood up in the middle of the gathering and examined Jesus. “Aren’t you going to respond to the testimony these people have brought against you?” But Jesus was silent and didn’t answer. Again, the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the blessed one?”
Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Human One sitting on the right side of the Almighty and coming on the heavenly clouds.”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we need any more witnesses? 64 You’ve heard his insult against God. What do you think?”
They all condemned him. “He deserves to die!” (CEB)
What constitutes the “blasphemy” or “insult against God” that leads to Jesus’ condemnation?
First, although Jewish backgrounds are always important, I’m not sure that examining ancient standards for blasphemy is going to be entirely helpful. What I mean is this: the trial is set up in Mark 14 as a kangaroo court–false witnesses sought, conflicting testimony given. Thus, we won’t necessarily find a category of “blasphemy” into which Jesus’ confession fits. They may very well be condemning him without him being technically guilty of anything.
On the other hand, it is interesting that one way someone might incur a blasphemy charge is to speak the name of, or even say, “God.” It is therefore interesting that both Jesus and the High Priest are depicted as avoiding the word “God,” using circumlocutions instead. Maybe the point, in part, is that there is no reason for a blasphemy condemnation?
In the narrative itself, we have met accusations of blasphemy before.
In Jesus’ first conflict with the scribes, he is accused of blasphemy for forgiving the paralytic’s sins. “The fellow blasphemes! Who can forgive sins but God alone?!”
The charge of blasphemy is tied to arrogating to oneself the prerogatives that belong only to God.
But Jesus says that, as the Human One, he has authority on earth to forgive sins. If God has bestowed this authority upon Jesus, it is not blasphemy to perform the actions otherwise suitable to God alone.
I note with interest that both the first conflict and this final trial swirl around issues of blasphemy and Jesus’ identity as the Human One.
The other place where blasphemy comes up is when Jesus is accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons. In that case, he accuses the scribes of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In this case, it is not arrogating the authority to himself, but wrongly ascribing the work of the Spirit to an evil spirit that provokes the charge.
But the commonality is important: blasphemy charges derive from the question of the authority of God being wrongly ascribed (whether that be Jesus ascribing it to himself or the scribes ascribing it to an evil spirit).
Returning to the trial.
Jesus is claiming the position of the one whom God enthrones in the heavens to rule the entire cosmos. The same claim he had made in ch. 2 returns here: the Human One has authority given to him by God to act, to rule, in the name of God. And the same response of unbelief is leveled by the religious leaders: no, such a claim to be installed as the one who acts for God is blasphemy.
The blasphemy charge stands or falls with whether or not Jesus is correct about his identity.
The question is, what is Jesus claiming for himself that the religious leaders do not believe to be true?
It is something more than simply being a messiah as traditionally expected–a geopolitical, militaristic leader who would come to liberate Israel from its bondage. There were plenty of those going around, and such claims did not lead to blasphemy charges.
And yet, the way that Mark, and Jesus, have cultivated Jesus’ messianic identity, he has a power from heaven, an authority to command the entire cosmos, that must be ascribed to some ultimate, spiritual power.
Is the human one enacting the very reign of God Himself over the cosmos? Or is he casting out demons by the prince of demons? That’s the choice.