PreviousContentsNext
Before the Jewish Senate

The last episode of Act One began as the central doors of the House of the High Priest swung open, and a procession, consisting of the elders of the Jews, the chief priests, and the scribes emerged onto the stage. The chorus of armed men yielded their places around the burning altar and moved off to the side, while the Jewish Senate assembled for an emergency session.

In order to understand the import of this scene, we must recall that a meeting of the Senate around an open fire had a particular significance for the Romans. The holiest shrine in Rome was the Temple of Vesta, the patron goddess of the hearth and of the city. It was a circular structure, built around a sacred fire that was kept perpetually burning. The Temple of Vesta was not only the focus of Roman religious life but a symbol of its statehood as well. If the state happened to be in imminent danger, the Senate could meet in the Temple of Vesta, rather than in its usual quarters on the Capitoline hill. By presenting the Jewish Senate as meeting around an open fire, Seneca was making a political allusion that would not be lost upon his Roman audience.

The sudden change from an outdoor scene to one that supposedly takes place indoors, yet is largely visible to the audience, did not present any particular problems of staging. The central doors were opened, and the actors remained in the archway of the door and in the area just in front of it; the fire lit atop the altar at the center of the stage came to represent the sacred hearth of a temple. The meeting of the Jewish Senate is not mentioned by John, who puts a greater stress on the questioning before Pilate. However Luke provides a version of this episode that agrees rather closely with the accounts of Mark and of Matthew.[1] He begins by referring to the passage of dramatic time: When day came, the elders of the Jews, the chief priests and the scribes, met together, and Jesus was brought to their council.

Presumably it was Caiaphas who addressed the gathering and presented the evidence he had obtained from the witnesses. Then the questioning began anew.

According to Luke, the Jewish Senate questioned Jesus in these terms:

style=' line-height:If you are the Christ, tell us.

Jesus refused to provide a direct response. He countered by explaining:

style=' line-height:If I told you, you would not believe me,

style=' line-height:and if I questioned you, you would not answer.

He continued with a statement of fact:

style=' line-height:From now on the Son of Man

style=' line-height:will be sitting at the right side of the Power of God.

On the basis of this declaration the Jewish Senate drew the conclusion:

style=' line-height:Then, you are the Son of God?

Mark and Matthew compress the exchange into two lines by letting the Jewish authorities ask the two-sided question:

style=' line-height:Are you the Christ, the Son of God?[2]

Jesus’ answer to this question is reported as follows:

Mark (14:62):   It is I, and you will see...[3]

Matthew (26:64):   You have said; besides I am telling you that you    will see...

Luke (22:68):   You say that I am.

Before dealing with the problem of the import of these words, it is necessary to point out that Jesus later gave the same response when asked by Pilate whether he was the king of the Jews. The fuller account preserved by Luke of the exchange between Jesus and the Jewish authorities has strong similarities, both in content and in structure, with the fuller account which John preserves of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate. The problem to be solved by interpreters is that of establishing the meaning of Jesus’ answer. For two centuries it has been debated whether the answer is affirmative, negative, ambiguous, or simply evasive. Although interpreters disagree on the meaning of Jesus’ words, almost all of them conclude that in one way or another he was hedging his answers because his con­ception of the Messiah would not agree with that of the Jewish authorities and his conception of king of the Jews would not agree with that of Pilate and most Jews.

The central issue is that Jesus in answering the Jewish authorities (and later in answering Pilate) employed the formula You say.[4] The difficulty in deciding the meaning of this answer arises from the circumstance that the answer you say has no parallel in Greek. Even though in the preserved body of ancient Greek literature a most substantial part consists of dialogues or conversations, it has not been possible to trace an example of a person replying you say to a question. A number of interpreters have concluded that the evangelists must have been translating literally a Hebrew or Aramaic expression, but they have been unable to find examples of this supposed Hebrew or Aramaic phrase.

The truth of the matter is that the gospels were translating from the Latin. In Latin the answer dicis, You say, or dixisti, You have said, is quite common and can have but a single meaning: That’s what you call me.[5] Hence, the best trans­la­tion for Jesus’ answer may be, That’s the title that you are bestowing upon me.

  The crux of the entire matter is that Jesus at first tries to avoid answering the Jewish question of whether he is or is not the Messiah and explains that if he really told what he was, he would not be believed. Finally, pressed for an an­swer, he utters a positive response, in the form of a statement of fact (Lk. 22:69):

style=' line-height:From now on the Son of Man

style=' line-height:will be sitting at the right side of the Power of God.

  According to Mark and Matthew the answer is slightly different in form, but not in substance:

style=' line-height:You will see the Son of Man

style=' line-height:sitting at the right side of Power

style=' line-height:and coming on a cloud of heaven.

  In either case Jesus means that there is no point in arguing about what he is or is not, because soon the question will be a matter of fact, not of opinion, because people will be able to see him sitting at the right side of God.

  It appears that Jesus gave the same answer to the Jewish authorities and to Pilate, except that the Jewish authorities formulated the question in religious terms (Are you the Messiah?) and Pilate in political terms (Are you the King of the Jews?). Jesus’ reaction to the basic question is the same in either case: He cannot answer the question unless he in turn can ask some questions delimiting the meaning of the question or can state directly what he understands his role to bebut in such a case he may be met with disbelief.

The particular phrasing adopted by Jesus in answering the Jewish authorities and in answering Pilate can be readily explained when one understands that Seneca was por­traying Jesus as a champion of his own Stoic philosophy. The Stoics were con­cerned with practical action and ignored the theoretical aspects of philosophy, except for some formulations in the area of logic that can be summarized by two related tenets: categorical definitions are impossible, and hence it is impossible to con­tra­dict an assertion made by somebody else. These two tenets account for the way Jesus phrased his answers as they are reported in the gospels.

If Jesus is asked whether he is the Messiah, he can answer only by referring to the point of view of the questioner. If somebody asks me whether I am immoral or ignorant, all I can answer is: Possibly, according to your definition. Strictly speaking, to the question Are you the Messiah, Jesus can only answer I am Jesus. On the basis of Stoic principles, it is not correct logic to start with a definition of Messiah and then ask whether Jesus fits into it; one should start by concentrating on the individual entity Jesus and then ask whether this individual has some messianic traits.

Jesus’ position was that he would not argue in terms of the several Jewish concepts of what characterizes a Messiah. Conforming to Stoic principles, when the Messiah comes, he will be re­cog­nized by some of his externally visible features. Jesus, in order to indicate what will make the Messiah recognizable, referred to some traits, established by Messia­nic prophecy, which were not central to the concept of Messiah, but which were pre­cise and for which it could be possible to establish unequivocally whether they did or did not occur: sitting on the right side of the Power of God and coming on a cloud.

Jesus does not actually say that he will be sitting at the right side of God, but rather that the Son of Man will be sitting at the right side of God. There is an entire school of theologians that argues that Jesus is not proclaiming to be the Son of Man, but is simply announcing the coming of a Son of Man, one different from himself, who will be sitting at the right side of God. This interpretation is to be rejected because the entire exchange of questions and answers would be nonsensical if Jesus had not been talking about himself. The only justification for this interpretation is that it was not a general custom among the Jews to speak of one’s self in the third person.[6] But the use of the third person in speaking of one’s self is frequent in Latin and Greek. The effect is to give to statements about one’s self the character of greater factuality.[7] Hence, once Jesus assumes that the proper designation for him was the Son of Man, it was perfectly normal, according to Latin or Greek usage, for him to declare that the Son of Man, will be sitting...

From the point of view of theology, the answer given by Jesus to the Jewish authorities in which he refers to himself as the Son of Man should be the most important passage of the gospels, because here we have a direct and formal statement by Jesus about his own understanding of his role and mission. But, on the contrary, this is an item that interpreters usually try to gloss over or explain away. While the title Son of Man is the only one that Jesus freely used in designating himself, it is never used by anyone else to designate Jesus.[8]  This is most perplexing.

The expression Son of Man is is intolerable Greek, as G. E. Ladd remarks in summing up the opinion of specialists of New Testament theology. Because of this scholars assume that the Greek phrase is a literal translation of a Hebrew or Aramaic expression. But, although the expression son of man is not uncommon in the Old Testament, it does not mean anything more than man in Hebrew:

style=' line-height:Num. 23:19   God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son    of man, that he should repent.

style=' line-height:Ps. 144:3   O Lord, what is man that thou dost regard    him, or the son of man that thou dost think of him?[9]

Some scholars have tried circumvent the difficulty by pointing out that Son of Man is used by Jesus in speaking of himself, and concluded that Son of Man is employed by Jesus as a substitute of I. But the context of Jesus’ answer to the Jewish Senate indicates that he meant something specific by Son of Man.

The fact is that filius hominis, literally son of man, is perfectly good Latin. In Latin there was a common expression filius terrae, son of the earth, which meant a person of humble origin in contrast with a person of illustrious parentage. In Latin there was also the expression filius coeli, son of heaven, which according to the Christian writer Lactantius was used of those whose virtue we admire or those who arrived unexpectedly, so that they could be said to have fallen from heaven. Another common Latin expression was filius fortunae, son of fortune, which referred to a lucky person. Filius hominis emphasized that Jesus was of human origin. Perhaps the best rendering of Son of Man would be born man. This is the reason why the most important use of this expression occurs in Jesus’ proclamation that he would be sitting at the right side of God: Jesus made emphatically clear his own understanding of his rolethat of one destined, even while being born man, to be sitting at the right side of God.

It appears that the modern interpreters have been waylaid because they have tried to understand Son of Man in terms of Jewish conceptions. The expression Son of Man must be understood in terms of Graeco-Roman religious concepts and in particular terms of the development of the figure of Hercules. In the first century of the Roman Empire, under the influence of Stoic philosophy, the figure of Hercules had risen to prominence among cultivated pagans as a symbol of a life dedicated to the service of humanity. It was said of him that He was born man, became god; suffered labors, and gained heaven.[10]  Seneca had Jesus refer to himself as filius hominis in order to extend the parallel he was aiming to establish throughout the play between Jesus and Hercules.[11]

Jesus’ defiant declaration of his identity and destiny was the climax of Act One; all that took place up to this point was merely a preparation for it. Seneca’s handling of this episode resembles his presentation of a similar scene in his Medea. As the play is drawing to its conclusion, Medea finds herself at the lowest ebb of her fortunes, abandoned by her husband Jason and sur­rounded by her enemies. Though her situation appears desperate, she refuses to listen to Jason’s entreaties, and shouts defiantly:

style=' line-height:On my winged chariot I shall ride through the air!

She, who had been considered a helpless victim, will confound her foes and achieve a complete reversal of her fortunes by flying through the air on a winged chariot. By this action, instead of by any verbal argument, she will prove herself in possession of super-human powers such as no one up to that point could have believed possible. Similarly, Jesus’ declaration could be taken as a warning that he was no ordinary prisoner, but a power to contend with.

Jesus’ response to the questioning by the Jewish Senate brought the process of indictment to a swift conclusion. According to Luke the chief priests exclaimed:

Why do we need any more witnesses?

We have heard it from his own mouth!

   These are strong and conclusive wordsthey mark the end of the proceeding against Jesus. An indictment is warranted, and will be transmitted to Pilate, along with the prisoner. In Seneca’s plays the exit of an actor is usually accompanied by a positive statement that has the air of finality, to indicate that his assigned task has been accomplished. The exit of the chief priests was well prepared by the two lines just quoted. As they went back inside the House of the High Priest, the central doors swung shut behind them, marking the conclusion of Act One.




[1] Luke’s account of the questioning before the Council makes it possible to distinguish the two separate episodes in the accounts of Mark and Matthew, in which the two interrogations are conflated: (1) before Caiaphas alone, and (2) before Caiaphas and the Jewish Council. Luke's account establishes the fact that the contradictory testimony of the witnesses, including the testimony about the Temple, belongs to the scene before Caiaphas alone.

[2] Many commentators declare that according to Mark and Matthew, Jesus would have been asked the single question: Are you the Christ, the son of God?, whereas according to Luke he would have been asked separately whether he was the Christ and whether he was the Son of God. This is not a correct understanding of the words of the gospels. According to these three gospels Jesus was asked a single question.

[3] According to Mark, Jesus would have given the positive answer I am; but since we know that Mark was the source of Matthew's information, it must be presumed that Mark originally agreed with the other gospels and that half of the sentence You say that I am, got lost in the manuscript tradition. In fact, in some authoritative manuscripts of Mark the text reads: You have said that I am. This is the reading that occurs in the discovered fragments of papyri and that is reported by the Armenian translation. The Church Father Origen, who died in ca. 254 A.D., quotes Mark as having contained the reading You have said that I am. Probably the text of Mark originally read like that of Luke, You say that I am.

[4] According to the gospel of Matthew and according to some versions of the gospel of Mark, in this case Jesus would have said sy eipas you said or you spoke. Interpreters have understood sy legeis and sy eipas to be equivalent expressions, but this is not entirely correct. Mark, followed by Matthew, was trying to render properly or accurately into Greek the Latin phrase dicis or dixisti. Instead of translating the Latin verb dico by the Greek verb lego Mark and Matthew employed the verb eipon because in Greek this verb is occasionally used in the meaning to proclaim that one is such, as in Odyssey XIX, 334: many called him valiant.

[5] Here are some relevant examples of the use of the verb  dico in Latin: Quintilian (VIII, 1, 1) In Latin we give the name [dicimus] of elocutio to what the Greeks call phrasis; Vergil (Aen. II, 678). She was once once called [dicta] your wife. In general the Greek verb  lego is the equivalent of the Latin dico, but the former essentially means to recount, to tell, whereas the latter essentially means to designate. This meaning of dico is made clearer by the English verb indicate. There is a further subtlety in the use of this expression, since dicere is used in a technical sense to refer to the appointment of magistrates. In order to appreciate the import of Jesus’ answer it must be considered that in legal Latin  dicere consulem or dicere dictatorem means to appoint a consul or to appoint a dictator.

[6] G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1974), p. 146.

[7] In Greek and Latin grammar there is a rule that when a person is speaking about himself, but employs his own name, the verb may be in the first or in the third person.Titius may say Titius venio, I, Titius, come or Titius venit, Titius comes.

[8] Ladd, op. cit., p. 146.

[9] Ibid. The linguistic difficulty was first pointed out by Hans Lietzmann in Der Menshcensohn, Ein beitrag zur Neutestamentlichen Theologie (Freiburg, 1896).  Cf. Albert Schweitzer, Von Reimarus zu Wrede (1906), ch. XVII,  and Mark S. Smith, The ‘Son of Man’ in Ugaritic, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 45 (1983), 59-60.

[10]   G. Karl Galinsky, The Herakles Theme (Oxford, 1972). Justin found it necessary to argue against the assimilation of the deaths of Herakles and Jesus (Apology, I, 30). See also M. Simon, Hercule et le christianisme, (Paris, 1959) and Léon Herrmann, Chrestos (Brussels, 1970), pp. 60-64.

[11]   The notion that important philosophical and moral lessons can be obtained from assumed parallels between the lives of historical and legendary persons belonging to different cultural spheres was fashionable in Seneca’s time, and was most fully developed in the Parallel Lives of Plutarch. In a tragedy these types of lessons could not be stated explicitly, as they were in Plutarch’s prose, but they could be communicated to a sophisticated audience by applying to one character the descriptive phrases commonly associated with another. The Christian audience attending Seneca’s play, however, was incapable of grasping these subtle allusions of the philosopher-playwright.


PreviousContentsNext