Who Told You That? Sources to Not-So-Secret Proceedings

Skeptics, and sometimes New Testament scholars, are dismissive of Gospel accounts of “behind the scenes” events, such as Judas’ visiting the chief priests, Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, or the proceedings before Pilate. This is often due, in part at least, to the purported impossibility that the Gospel authors had access to any sources of what happened behind the scenes. Setting aside the possibility of Jesus attesting to some of this himself -- which historians are reluctant to include in their analysis but Christians should consider -- the dismissive way in which skeptics and some historians reject these accounts out of hand is unjustified. History is replete with examples of much more “secret” or “closed” proceedings having their happenings disclosed to the very people you would assume lacked access.

Take the Siege of Malta. In 1565, the Turks invested the Island of Malta, determined to take it away from the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights had used the strategically placed island as their base of operations, launching galley attacks on Muslim shipping and generally being a thorn in the Ottoman Sultan’s plans for domination of the Mediterranean and the invasion of Sicily and Italy. Long before the sizable Turkish fleet set sail, however, the Knights knew of the Turkish plans. And long before the Turks set sail, the Turks had detailed plans of the Knights’ defenses. Agents for both sides were busy in Constantinople and Malta.

But more to the point is that during the siege itself, neither side could keep its top secret councils of war out of enemy hands. Shortly after arriving ashore, the Ottomans held a council of war to decide their next step. The decision was made to lay siege to Fort St. Elmo, guarding one side of the Grand Harbor. Not only the decision, but the details of the Ottoman plans, were betrayed to the Knights by two renegade defectors. “One of them had been a personal guard to Mustapha Pasha and had been present that very evening when the Turkish war council had met. Valette learned from him that the decision had been taken to invest Fort St Elmo first of all.” The Great Siege: Malta 1565, by Ernle Bradford, Chapter 9. See also Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for he Center of the World, by Roger Crowley, Chapter 9.

As improbable as it may seem, the Knights were privy to the highest secret councils of their Muslim adversaries. But then, the Muslims also gained access to the Knight’s councils of war, as well. A top Spanish soldier -- Francisco de Aguilar -- aiding the Knights in the defense of Malta provided a wealth of detailed information to the Ottomans. Aguilar strolled out to the front lines, claimed he was going to snipe at the enemy, and promptly switched sides. “This defection was extremely serious. Aguilar was a highly rated and trusted man. He was well informed. He had often been present at discussions between Marshal de Robles and La Valette: he had heard a great deal of confidential discussion about the plight of the defenders--frank talks about the fortifications, details of the guard’s daily routines, weapon supplies, and tactics. All this was now in Mustapha’s hands.” Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for he Center of the World, Roger Crowley, Chapter 13.

As these examples show, what is presumed “top secret” and “unknown” need not be so. Compared to the councils of war in the Siege of Malta, the “proceedings” before the Sanhedrin and Pilate were hardly state secrets. Moreover, there are early Christian traditions that there were Jesus sympathizers -- such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus -- among the Jewish and Roman officials. These traditions appear to pre-date even Paul’s conversion from Jewish persecutor to Christian evangelist. Whatever Paul’s exact relationship was to the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, he obviously had one and had learned enough from them to convince him that Jesus deserved his death and that Jesus’ followers were a serious threat. Although the Gospels do not name any particular defector or source, it likely never occurred to them that it was necessary to do so. Moreover, the failure to advertise the presence of particular Christians or Jesus sympathizers among the Jewish or Roman leadership in Jerusalem following the execution of Jesus and persecution of his followers is understandable. At the very least, the simple, dismissive approach to the possibility of sources behind the recounting of these proceedings is unjustified.


Weekend Fisher said…
Hi there

If you're interested, awhile back I'd made a short list of some sources that the gospels mentioned having for "insider" information. It includes some known-possible sources of information on happenings in the Sanhedrin and among the priests:


Take care & God bless

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