Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Sifting Simon — Part VI

April 14th, 2019, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Two witnesses needed ASAP!

The Torah requires that a sentence of capital punishment have at least two witnesses. To be a witness for such a matter means assuming the same penalty on oneself for lies under oath against another person. Moreover, the Law does not accept self-incrimination; i.e. witnessing against oneself in serious matters, only in acknowledgement of a debt. Can anyone doubt that the high priest(s) were well aware of these restrictions? (More on self-incrimination in Part VII.)

Deuteronomy 17:6  On the evidence of two witnesses or of three he that is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.”

Deuteronomy 19:15  “A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.”

For very serious matters, it would not be strange to seek three witnesses, as it is well embedded in Jewish memory how the connivance of two witnesses almost caused Susanna’s execution. (Daniel 13). But to deliberately seek out two false witnesses for a trial before the Sanhedrin is hard to imagine.

The Gospels of both Mark and Matthew record the “extra effort” being made to find two witnesses against Christ, but unsuccessfully.

Mark 14:55-59

55. Now the chief priests and the whole council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death; but they found none.
56. For many bore false witness against Him, and their witness did not agree.
57. And some stood up and bore false witness against Him, saying,
58. “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'”
59. Yet not even so did their testimony agree.

Matthew 26:59-61

59. Now the chief priests and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus that they might put Him to death,
60. but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward
61. and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.'”

Christ before Annas
DUCCIO di Buoninsegna
Tempera on wood
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena

What we may not often recognize in the Gospel narratives is the counterpoint to seeking false testimony —  two real witnesses actually being present, in the vicinity of the very proceedings, who do not come forward!  

Consider Christ’s own call for witnesses in His testimony before the High Priest Annas. Again, it seems that John has written of an event that he considers significantly missing from the Synoptics’ discourses. John’s is the only Gospel which records the visit to Annas before the examination of Christ moves to Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas. But something else happened in the exchange there, besides the abuse of the “officer” striking the Lord:

“When the high priest [Annas] then questioned Jesus about His disciples and His teaching, Jesus answered him: ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly. Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard Me, what I said to them; they know what I said.’ When He had said this, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, ‘Is this how you answer the high priest?’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’ Annas then sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.”  Note what seems to be the immediate adjournment of the proceedings to Caiaphas. The high priest Annas know perfectly well that an illegal act was taken in a preliminary examination and by the guard resulting in physical abuse, contaminating the whole trial to come. Like Pilate, he tries, in a sense, to wash his own hands and cut short the dialogue. But there is another reason too. Perhaps he also reminded himself that such private preliminary hearings or examinations were against the Law?

The Absence of Righteous Witnesses

John makes a point which the Synoptics did not make (or perhaps did not know.) John, who is “known to the High Priest” (John 18:15) seems sensitive to the politics of visiting Annas first, and to what happened there.  Christ pointed to the need for witnesses on His behalf, which is His right, and which will be totally absent from the trial, contrary to the Law. While He doesn’t call Peter and John out of the shadows, the Lord does make a strong statement.  The accused has a right to witnesses on his behalf. John has acknowledged that he heard Christ’s call for His own witnesses by reporting the scene. What is ironic is that there are already two supportive witnesses present in the courtyard, John and Peter. And we have no evidence that either of those disciples (John may have been too young to be a witness) presented himself on Christ’s behalf.  Peter, only a few hours earlier, had said to Christ “… Lord, I am ready to go with You to prison and to death.”  It seems that it would have been difficult for Peter not to know there was a search about for two false witnesses. The irony, then, is that Christ called for testimony by those who had heard Him teach; and Peter did not come forward. Did he consider doing so? Or was he so preoccupied with his own personal concerns that he missed yet one more opportunity. And Peter and John were two of the three disciples who were taken to witness some of Christ’s more ‘hidden’ miracles; i.e. Peter, James and John saw more than the others and were in a better position to speak accurately. Why three witnesses in such private situations? One reason is the biblical call for three as a maximum needed for a very legally sound witness. Yet, at the end, there was no one to speak for the Lord.

For Peter it may well have been like letting Christ down one more time, lacking courage to present himself as a witness, or being fearful of being called to testify. At the least, it would seem that this unanswered call would add still further to the sifting of Peter, magnifying the failure of friendship, failure of discipleship, faithlessness, to the Messiah for whom he had been waiting, and Who only a few hours earlier had said to the 11 disciples “You are those who have continued with Me in My trials; and I assign to you, as My Father assigned to Me, a kingdom….” Luke 22:28-29.

Manipulation by Religious Authorities

What perhaps caused more anxiety than the search for witnesses or even the possible calling of Peter to testify, is the manipulation and conniving by those who sat on the seat of Moses (Matthew 23: 2-3), those to be obeyed.  A corrupt religious leader with much power will inevitably cause high levels of anxiety and confusion among the flock. Was Peter getting the sense of a rigged trial? If it could be rigged against Christ, it could surely also be rigged against Peter. While John seems to have heard the discussion with Annas directly; Peter was at the charcoal fire. But he might have been updated by John or even by the guards standing around the fire (a good reason, besides keeping warm, to listen carefully to what was being said.) There is some evidence in maps of Jerusalem that Annas and Caiaphas lived in very close proximity, even both sharing or facing the same courtyard. It seems likely that Peter knew much of what was going on, leading of course to raising his anxiety, “sifted” by sound bites or fake news.

What does the Law actually state on these matters? In the violations of the Law, there is yet another “sifting” of Peter in his most vulnerable moments. If one can’t count on the Law of God being fairly administered by those who have the responsibility, is anything reliable?

In the highly informative work of Chandler and others, we can find two dozen examples of defying and violating The Law during the arrest and trials and condemnation of Christ to death. About a dozen are to the point we’ve just reached, up to and through Peter’s second denial. Even if only half of those examples were true, it would be an intense weight on Peter to find himself, for the first time in his life, to experience a total collapse of the very legal system which was widely respected.  In Psalm 11:3 we read the wail of the just man:  “…if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”  Among those which have occurred so far (and some which will increase) in this reflection are the following 12 illegalities:

Illegalities (so far):

  1. All legal proceedings, including arrests, were forbidden at night. (Gethsemane and thereafter.]
  2. The use of a traitor, and thus an accomplice … was forbidden. [Judas]
  3. The arrest was not the result of a legal summons … to try him [fairly] upon a charge.
  4. It was illegal to bind an uncondemned man (John 18:12-13.) [Began in Gethsemane.]
  5. Hebrew law prohibited a judge or a magistrate, sitting alone, from questioning an accused person judicially. [Annas]
  6. Private preliminary hearings … were specifically forbidden. [Annas and Caiaphas]
  7. The striking of Jesus by an officer during the hearing before Annas was ‘an act of brutality which Hebrew jurisprudence did not tolerate.” Christ was within His legal rights to appeal for the legal testimony of witnesses.
  8. Not one witness was found against Jesus, let alone the minimum of two required by Law.
  9. The use of false witnesses was against the Law and should have resulted in removal of the judge who allowed it, and the same sentence against the false witnesses as intended for the accused. [Caiaphas was responsible.]
  10. Spies and informers had pursued Christ, and that was unlawful. [Pharisees came and when He taught and heckled Him.]
  11. Under Hebrew Law the judge was supposed to seek for evidence only in behalf of the accused, and give him every advantage of possible doubt. Hebrew Law provided no lawyers. The judges were to be the defenders, the witnesses the prosecutors. [Caiaphas sought liars.]
  12. At least one judge had to speak on behalf of the defendant before prosecution could begin. [John 7 50-53 shows an attempt by Nicodemus to speak earlier, but he was sarcastically squelched in his comments and not given a fair hearing.]


Of these many items, the large majority would have been obvious to Peter before his third denial, and leaving the courtyard. Gross violations were in process which had no basis of acceptability in The Law. Thus, it would seem not too far afield to see this experience as further and intense “sifting” Peter as all his hope for a righteous decision was destroyed.

Does this also not illustrate some of the joy with which Peter and John met their being beaten by the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:41) to realize how hollow was any apparent teaching from leaders who did not themselves believe in the Law, and manipulated it to their own will.  Peter and John had already peaked behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz, and knew the basis for Christ’s saying “Do as they say not as they do.” – Matthew 23:3: “… practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.

Why should we be surprised that the pressure mounts on Peter, as the Law crumbles?  Christ didn’t come to destroy the Law; the high priest and chief priests were doing the job.

The following text describes the second denial by Peter in each Gospel: One can sense the build-up of tension in Peter. Notice too that not all the witnesses are women this time, meaning the ability to testify against Peter is being added to the mix. His denial is no longer ‘enough’ for the person making the charges.  Click on “Read the rest of this entry” for the text of the second denial by Peter.

Comparison of Second Denial Texts


Matthew 26: “And when he went out to the porch, another maid saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” (Note: although a woman again makes the accusation, it seems likely that men are among the bystanders and could be witness to the exchange. The pressure is building up on Peter; his denial this time is with an oath.”)

Mark 14: “And he went out into the gateway. And the maid saw him, and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” (Note:  the maid seems to be following Peter with an insistence. Her language becomes more accusatory. And the use of the term bystanders implies the likelihood potential male witnesses are present.” In Matthew and Mark, Peter moves closer to the exit, perhaps feeling increasingly entrapped in a small space?)

 Luke  22:  “And a little later some one else saw him and said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not.’” (Note:  The language here is more explicit, and seems unlikely that Peter would have said “Man” to a maid or woman bystander.)

John 18:     Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They said to him, ‘Are not you also one of His disciples?’ He denied it and said, ‘I am not.’ (Note: the use of the plural pronoun increases the possibility of male witnesses.)

Clearly the number of accusers is increasing, the maids are involving more people, and Peter’s retorts are briefer and harsher.  Is he feeling more sifted as the possibility increases of his having two or more witnesses against himself?


Leave a Reply

Log in | Register

You must be logged in to post a comment.

-Return to main page-