Hostile Witnesses: Part One – Ancient Jewish Evidence for Jesus

Have you ever been in attendance in a court case, and heard the attorney ask the judge for “permission to treat the witness as hostile”?  What is a “hostile witness” anyway?

According to the Business Dictionary, a hostile witness is a person who (in the court’s opinion) gives adverse testimony or displays hostility or prejudice against the party which called him or her to testify.  The calling party may cross-examine a hostile witness (with the court’s permission) as if he or she was called by the opposing party.

Now, what would you say if I told you that some of the strongest pieces of evidence for Jesus’ claim to be the Divine Son of God, are found in the writings of people that didn’t even like Him?  Men that were His contemporaries.  Men that saw His ministry, watched Him perform miracles, and yet despised Him, denied His authority, and wanted Him dead?

Permission to treat these witnesses as hostile, your Honor?

All it takes is a little bit of research into the writings of the Rabbis who were part of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, as recorded in the Jewish Talmud.

You see, the Talmud is a collection of biblical commentaries and Jewish history written down by Jewish Priests and Rabbis (including the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes) over a span of about 500 years, starting about a century before the birth of Jesus, and concluding a few hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem.

Among many fascinating bits of history recorded in the Talmud, is the notice issued by the High Priests of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to have Jesus arrested and killed, as is also recorded in the bible.  (see John 11:57 and 18:1-14)

The rabbinical record in the Talmud spells out the indictment against “Yeshu Ha Nozri” (That’s Hebrew for “Jesus the Nazarene”), who they claim “practiced magic and deceived, and led Israel astray.”

Therefore the Sanhedrin decided that “‘He shall be stoned because he practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.  Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’  But no one had anything exonerating to say for Him, so they hung Him on the eve of Passover.”  (Sanhedrin 43 a and 107 b, Talmud Babli)

First, a quick word about Passover, and the Jewish concept of a “day”.  The Jewish concept of a day starts at sundown. As soon as the sun disappears over the western horizon, the new day officially begins.

The Passover celebration is actually eight days long.  The first day is “Preparation Day”, when the lamb was traditionally slaughtered, and other preparations were being made before sundown, when the actual “Feast of Unleavened Bread” began.

The “Feast of Unleavened Bread” is a Sabbath, a holy day when no work is to be performed. It is not “THE Sabbath”, as in Saturday, but it is a Jewish Sabbath. “Preparation Day” is not a Sabbath, so there was much work performed that day getting prepared for the Passover Seder. Some families would have the Seder that night, some the following afternoon. Either way it was on the Passover Sabbath, since the Sabbath starts at sundown.

There is a reason I bring this up. Some historical sources claim Jesus was crucified on Passover. John’s gospel says it was on the eve of Passover, as does the Talmud. Both claims can be seen as correct, for the simple reason that in the common understanding of Passover, both the Preparation Day and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were considered part of the Passover celebration. There could be no Passover Seder without Preparation Day, and vice-versa. Both days are part of the complete Passover celebration.

Now, let’s take a look at the fact that the leaders of the Sanhedrin originally planned on stoning Jesus to death.

This reference to stoning rather than crucifixion is very credible, since the Sanhedrin didn’t have the authority to crucify anyone. Only the Romans could authorize and perform a crucifixion. Jesus had not yet been arrested, and had He been seized anywhere or anytime that Romans were not present, He would likely have been executed by stoning if deemed guilty. Several times throughout the Gospels we read of their failed attempts to stone Jesus to death. (This was in fact the fate of the martyr Stephen as recorded in Acts Ch. 7) And yet they admit that, in the end, He was not stoned, but rather “hung (on a cross) on the eve of Passover.”

The mention of “magic” and “sorcery” is quite remarkable. By definition, sorcery is something extraordinary or supernatural accomplished with help from the demonic. A miracle is similar, though achieved with help from God. Could this admission of supernatural acts be therefore taken as evidence of the miracles of Jesus as recorded in the gospels?

Remember that the members of the Sanhedrin, whose writings are recorded in this section of the Talmud, were very hostile toward Jesus. But they could not deny that Jesus performed miracles. They were eye witnesses to many of His miracles, as were the crowds that followed Jesus around. So even though they despised Him, because of the many eyewitnesses they could not deny His miraculous power.

What they COULD do, however, was question the SOURCE of His power, as they did when Jesus cast a demon out of a blind man and healed him, as recorded in Matthew chapter 12.

The Pharisees reacted to this obvious miracle by claiming Jesus “doesn’t cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the Ruler of demons.” (Matt. 12:24)

Jesus responded to this accusation by saying “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges.

But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matt. 12:25-28)

Notice the same line of reasoning between the Pharisees present in Matthew 12, and those that wrote in the Talmud.

These hostile witnesses therefore give us strong evidence that Jesus did, in fact, perform miracles. Their writings also verify that Jesus attracted large crowds when He preached, and that many people followed Him.

It is also obvious that the chief priests considered His teachings to be quite “revolutionary”, though as far as they were concerned that was not a good thing. They had a vested interest in keeping the status quo. They had a lot of power and prestige at stake, and Jesus was “upsetting the apple cart”.

Besides, He didn’t fit most of their preconceived notions of what the Messiah would be like. They wanted a military leader that would lead Israel in a revolt against the Romans and free them from Roman occupation. As far as they were concerned Jesus was a trouble maker that needed to be done away with. And so the arrest notice went out…..and the rest is History.

As it turns out, though, many of the most intriguing historical events recorded in the Talmud that give evidence for Jesus’ Messianic claims, actually began to occur AFTER He was crucified…..which brings us to our next subject:


– J.G.






HOSTILE WITNESSES: Part Two – Strange Events at the Temple

The Talmud contains much of the recorded history of Jerusalem, including many events that occurred at the Temple.
In Yoma 39 b of the Talmud we read that starting “forty years before the Temple was destroyed, the lot never came into the right hand, the red wool no longer became white, the western light would not burn, and the gates of the Temple opened of themselves.”
Strange happenings at the Temple….but what is their significance? What do they mean?

Well first, let’s establish the timing. We know from both Roman and Jewish historical records that the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. So forty years prior to the destruction means these strange events began in 30 A.D.

It is a well known fact that the Gregorian monks that organized the solar calendar we still use today, made a mistake when calculating the year Jesus was born. Thanks to their infamous miscalculation, Jesus’ birth-year is not 1 A.D. (as it was supposed to be) but based on historical records, it appears Jesus was born between 4 and 6 BC.
We arrive at this date based on the death of Herod the Great, who was procurator of Judea from 47 BC until he died in 4 BC. It was “after Herod died” that Joseph and Mary with the infant Jesus were told to return to Israel from Egypt (see Mathew 2:19).
Based on the historical note in Luke 3:1, we estimate that John the Baptist started preaching around AD 26-27.
It is apparent Jesus started His ministry soon afterward, when he was approximately 30 years old.
If Jesus’ ministry lasted for 3 1/2 years, then His crucifixion would have occurred in the spring of 30 A.D., according to our calendar. (According to the Jewish calendar, He was crucified on the 14th of Nisan, the day of the Passover sacrifice, which occurs in the spring.) Interestingly enough, that same day many significant events began to occur at the Temple.

Now to understand the significance of the Temple events recorded in Yoma 39, we need to look at their background.
What was the established “norm” before the changes occurred?

Let’s start with that part about the western lamp in the temple.

The lamp here referred to is the westernmost oil lamp on the seven-branch menorah that sat inside the temple in Jerusalem. The continual fire light of the menorah signified God’s abiding presence in the temple.

According to Tractate Menahot in the Talmud, every night the lamps would run out of oil and burn out, with the exception of the westernmost lamp, which miraculously continued to burn. The next morning the other six lamps would be filled with oil and have new wicks put in them, and then be lit with the fire from the western lamp, which though it was the exact same size as the other lamps, with the same amount of oil, it was miraculously still burning. They would then snuff out this lamp, refill the oil and replace the wick as they had done with the other lamps, and relight the western lamp with the same fire.
This way the fire light of the menorah never went out. It was continually burning, signifying God’s continuing presence in the temple.

But according to Yoma 39 in the Talmud, in 30 AD the flame of the western lamp went out, apparently for the first time since the temple re dedication. In fact, the miracle of the continual flame ended that year. For the final 40 years of the temple’s existence, they could not keep the menorah burning. The flame on ALL the lamps went out every night from then on.

This was an ominous sign to the priests in the temple, but not as ominous as another sign that began happening around that same time….

In the Talmud passage of Yoma 39 we read that 40 years before the destruction of the temple “…the doors of the Heikhal (the Holy Place of the temple) opened of their own accord, until Rabbi Yochanon Ben Zakkai rebuked them, saying ‘Oh Heikhal, Heikhal, why do you alarm us? I know full well that you are destined to be destroyed, for Zechariah Ben Iddo has already prophesied concerning you, ‘Open thy doors O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars.’ (Zech. 11:1)'”
(Noteworthy historical fact: The massive doors of the temple were made with cedars from Lebanon, overlaid with brass.)

The Jewish historian Josephus also records this interesting phenomenon, as well as the priests’ reaction to it. In The Wars Of The Jews, 6.5.3, we read that “At the same festival also (Passover)….the eastern gate of the inner court of the temple, which was of brass, and vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men,and rested upon a basis armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of it’s own accord about the sixth hour of the night.

Now those that kept watch in the temple came hereupon running to the captain of the temple, and told him of it; who then came up thither, and not without great difficulty, was able to shut it again.

This also appeared to the vulgar to be a very happy prodigy, as if God did thereby open them the gate of happiness. But the men of learning understood it, that the security of their holy house was dissolved of it’s own accord, and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies. So these publicly declared, that this signal foreshadowed the desolation that was coming upon them.”

The event here foretold is the destruction of the temple, finally fulfilled in 70 AD.
Jesus also prophesied of the Temple’s destruction, in Matthew chapter 24. “Jesus came out of the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be thrown down.” (Matt.24:1-2)
These miraculous signs gave evidence to many of the rabbis and priests that Jesus’ prophecy would indeed come true.

The Talmud records another interesting event which took place that same year. In Sanhedrin 5.41 we read “Forty years before the destruction of the temple, the Sanhedrin were exiled (from the Chamber of Hewn Stones in the Temple) and took up residence in Hanuth (the Trading Station on the Temple mount).”

The Chamber of Hewn Stones was the official court and meeting place of the Sanhedrin. It was a beautiful, esteemed location, part of the outer court of the Temple. It sat about forty meters southeast of the entrance to the Holy Place. This was the official “Seat of Moses” Jesus referred to, when He said “The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say things and do not do them.” (Matt. 23:2-3) It was the Seat of Judgment, where major issues and conflicts were debated and judged.

In fact, up until 30 AD, the Sanhedrin even judged capital offenses here. This is where Jesus was brought on the night He was arrested, to be tried and condemned.
But according to the Talmud, something happened that year that forced the Sanhedrin to move to a much less esteemed location farther to the east, a market just outside the temple grounds.
And when the Sanhedrin left the Chamber of Hewn Stones, according to the Talmud they no longer had the power or authority to judge capital offenses. (see Sanhedrin 41a) So what happened to cause this major change?

Well there’s two possibilities. One is that the Roman government, for some unknown reason, forced them out of the temple and took away their right to judge capital offenses that year. But there is no record of the Roman government doing any such thing. The Romans preferred to stay out of Jewish religious life, and it seems unlikely King Herod would want to make such a disastrous political mistake as to offend the entire Sanhedrin.

The other possibility is alluded to by a second century historian and early church father.
According to Jerome in his Letter to Hedebia, the earthquake that happened in Jerusalem on the day Jesus was crucified caused a huge lintel in the temple to splinter and fall. This lintel was an enormous stone, at least 30 feet long and weighing around 30 tons.
With the earthquake doing that kind of damage only 40 meters away, one can imagine the damage it did to the Chamber of Hewn Stones!
Could it be this “natural disaster” on the day Jesus died caused such structural damage to their vaulted Chamber, that they were forced to move out for safety reasons?

Either way, it does appear that the trial and judgement against Jesus in the Chamber of Hewn Stones, was THE LAST JUDGMENT EVER GIVEN by the Sanhedrin in that official “Seat of Moses” inside the Temple!
I have to wonder…was this a rebuke by God Almighty against the priests and rabbis of the Sanhedrin, for so injudiciously misjudging the Messiah? As Jesus said, “He that hates Me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no other man did, they would not have sinned. But now they have both seen and hated both Me and my Father. But this has come to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their Torah, ‘They hated Me without a cause’.” (John 15:23-25)
It’s fascinating to note that the Talmud itself states that the reason the second temple was destroyed was “Because therein prevailed hatred without cause. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together.” (Yoma 9b, Talmud Babli)

Another event mentioned in Yoma 39 of the Talmud that started happening that year, was “…the lot never came into the right hand,…”
The lot here being referred to is the lot the high priest would cast on Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) to choose which goat would be sacrificed to the Lord, and which would be sent into the wilderness as the scapegoat. (See Leviticus 16:7-10)

The Talmud indicates these lots were two stones, one white and the other black.
The Talmud also mentions that the first stone to appear in the right hand of the high priest randomly fluctuated each year, ever since the temple’s re dedication hundreds of years prior. We would expect this type of randomness, because God selected the more perfect goat to be slain for the sins of the people. But beginning on Yom Kippur in 30 AD, the black stone appeared in the right hand of the high priest every year for the remaining 40 years of the temple’s existence.

What are the chances of the black stone appearing 40 consecutive times in the right hand of the high priest? According to Pascal’s table of numerical odds: Over a trillion to one!
The priests rightly understood this to be a sign from God, though most of them did not perceive it’s meaning….which brings us to the next miraculous sign that happened on Yom Kippur that year…

Let’s examine the red wool that “no longer became white”. The wool here referred to is a red ribbon of wool that was tied to the scapegoat every year on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), along with a corresponding red ribbon of wool tied to the gate of the Temple. Yom Kippur occurs around the beginning of Autumn.

In Leviticus 16 we read God’s instructions to Moses and Aaron concerning Yom Kippur and the scapegoat: “He shall take two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering.* But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.”
(*see Leviticus 17:11)

Then in verse 21 we read some important details: “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man.”

Now let’s read what the Talmud has to say about this once-a-year event.
In book 3, chapter 6 under “Regulations Concerning The He-Goats Of The Day Of Atonement And The Sending To The Desert”, we read that “A tongue of crimson (red) wool used to be tied to the gate of the temple, and as the he-goat had reached the desert, the wool used to become, by miracle, white; As it is said: ‘Though your sins be scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red as crimson, they shall become like wool.’ (Isaiah 1:18)”

Rosh Hashanah 31 b in the Talmud states “The Rabbis taught: Formerly the tongue of crimson wool used to be tied to the door of the (Temple) porch, outside that all should see. When it became white, all were rejoiced; when not, all became out of spirits and ashamed.”

Apparently God changed the color of the wool from crimson red to white as a way of letting the people of Israel know that once again, the atonement had been made, and their sins had been forgiven. A beautiful, yearly illustration of Isaiah 1:18 for all to behold.

But starting on Yom Kippur of the year 30 A.D., the red wool stopped changing to white. And according to the Talmud, it never changed to white again, for the remainder of the Temple’s existence. The yearly atonement achieved through the scriptural Yom Kippur observance was no longer being recognized or accepted by God.
Starting in 30 A.D., something had changed.
Apparently atonement was no longer to be gained by observance of the Yom Kippur rituals.

What had the Jewish nation done in 30 A.D. to bring about such a monumental change in God’s actions toward Israel on Yom Kippur?
On the 14th of Nisan in 30 A.D., the day of the Passover sacrifice, Yeshua Ha Meshiach (Jesus the Messiah) was cut off from Israel. Like an innocent Passover Lamb, He was led to the slaughter in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. He was beaten, whipped, and put to death on a cross, though no fault was found in Him. As Isaiah prophesied, “Surely He took up our pain, and bore our suffering. Yet we considered Him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6 NIV)
His death was a substitutionary sacrifice.
Unlike the annual Yom Kippur sacrifices and rituals, which only covered over sin for a time, the Messianic Sacrifice was God’s Own Son, the Perfect Sacrifice, an atonement made once for all, never needing to be repeated.

And so began God’s NEW covenant with Israel, and all who believe! (See Jeremiah’s prophecy of the New Covenant, Jer. 31:31-34)

Thanks for reading, and may God richly bless you & yours!

– J.G.


Hostile Witness: Part Three

The Roman Empire, which was in control of Israel during the time of Jesus and the early church, also produced some hostile witnesses.

The most noteworthy of these is arguably the Roman senator and historian Tacitus.

In his work ANNALS, written in AD 116, Tacitus wrote about Nero laying blame for the Great Fire in Rome (AD 64) on Christians, even though most Romans at that time believed Nero started the fire himself.

In book 15, chapter 44, Tacitus wrote “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome…”

Here we have a non-Christian historian giving extra-biblical proof of the existence of three people also mentioned in the bible: Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, and most importantly, Christ. In the process he also verifies the execution of Christ Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate, as also recorded in the bible. (see Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23 and John 18-19.)
Tacitus also gives us evidence of the history of persecution of first-century Christians in the Roman Empire.

(to be continued…)