Professor Joseph H. H. Weiler of New York University Law School is an unusual man. Born in South Africa, he served in the Israeli army and was educated in Europe before coming to the United States. He is an expert in both trade and constitutional law who successfully defended Italy’s right to display the Crucifix in school classrooms before the European Court of Human Rights.
When I first visited his office years ago, my eye was immediately caught by the photo of his family being received by Pope (now Saint) John Paul II. Not entirely typical for a devout Jew. But it takes little time in conversation with him to see the generous spirit and great heart that JPII would have loved and cherished. The word for him is mensch.
Weiler is a close student of the New Testament and, in particular, the trial of Jesus. For years he taught a course on the trial at NYU Law School, which attracted Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant students.
In 2010, he gave the prestigious Erasmus Lecture on the trial and summarized his argument in a First Things essay. The essay concludes with the real question: “Is it not possible, then. . .that, in this double trial, that of Jesus and that of the Jews, everyone was following in the path of God?”
How could this be? How could the Jewish authorities, in condemning Jesus and asking their Roman rulers to crucify him, be doing the will of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and in the Christian faith, of the God-man who himself would die and rise?
There are strange aspects to the trial as depicted in the Gospels. The fact that the Jewish leaders chose to have a trial at all is odd. With no pesky investigative media around, why would they not have chosen the simpler option of having Jesus “disappeared”? Christ might have escaped their assassination attempt as when he slipped through an angry crowd, but the Jewish council could not have known that.
At the trial, they called witnesses, but the witnesses contradicted one another. Could they not have found easily a few witnesses who, with a little “encouragement,” would agree on a charge? The officials apparently believed they needed at least the appearance of a just trial.
And it was not true or false witnesses, but Jesus’ own testimony that brought the guilty verdict.
Weiler notices a “duality” in Jesus’ words throughout the Gospels. He says he came not to change one iota of the law, but to fulfill it. As the Jewish leaders heard that, they surely wondered about that “fulfillment.” Was Jesus claiming to be that fulfillment, as he said himself at one point while teaching in a synagogue?
Most of Jesus’s controversial claims, according to Weiler, were within the bounds of acceptable debate. Arguing about whether it was permissible to pluck grain on the Sabbath was not a capital offense. But claiming to be the Lord of the Sabbath may have crossed the line. Jewish scribes and lawyers would have heard these words and perceived that Jesus was making, ambiguously, claims to divinity that would indeed have been blasphemous for any mortal man.
The trial would seek to clarify that ambiguity. But Jesus says little at the trial, denies nothing, and leaves the court still unsure of his “status.” His words are taken to confirm his blasphemous presentation of himself as God.
Weiler finds a possible motive for the court’s behavior in Deuteronomy 13:1–5.
If a prophet arises among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder which he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods. . .and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet. . .for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you serve the Lord your God with all your heart. . . .But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death. . . .So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.
The Jewish authorities were responsible for making the determinations that would uphold, or fail to uphold, the sacred Jewish duty in the covenant with God. They saw Jesus as putting them on trial as to God’s command in Deuteronomy.
They asked, was Christ the prophet spoken of in Deuteronomy 13? His miracles were real enough, as foreseen in that passage – no magic show. With no knowledge of the Trinity, his words could be taken as inciting the Jews to follow a different god: himself, with his claim to be the way the truth, and the life, and the son of Man.
It seems scripturally undeniable that Christ told his disciples that his death would be necessary to fulfill his salvific mission. Peter’s effort to forestall that death drew one of Christ’s most severe rebukes, “Get behind me, Satan.” Christ also tells them that it is better that he go away, so that the Advocate would be sent at Pentecost.
So, in convicting Jesus and asking for his execution, were the Jewish leaders unwittingly the agents of God’s will that Christ be put to death, opening the way for the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit for all peoples?
And were they simultaneously fulfilling the command put upon them in Deuteronomy as the chosen people in covenant with God?
Weiler does not claim that his understanding is a tidy solution that resolves every question. It’s theologically at least debatable.
But it seems to me that Weiler’s thesis, steeped in Scripture, is no more difficult to accept than the idea that with Christ, death is life, or that a Virgin can give birth to a man who is God. The omnipotent God does not contradict himself, but he does work in mysterious ways.
*Image: Jesus before the High Priest by Gerrit van Honthorst, c. 1617 [National Gallery, London]