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History of the Acts. For there it is said of the whole council, in the case of Peter and John, that they let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them, because of the people. The reason given why they did not proceed against them and punish them was, their fear of the people.
And it is evident that this fear, in the case of our Saviour, drove them to the expedient of becoming accusers instead of judges, as the safer method of the two. For if upon accusing him to the Roman governor, (whether any of their own body had been witnesses against him, or they had employed others) he had been condemned and executed, and there had followed a popular insurrection, this would have been esteemed and treated as an insurrection not against the Jewish magistrates but against the Roman governor, who had an army at hand immediately to have suppressed it, and would have severely animadverted upon those who were forwardest in raising it. Being afraid then to act as judges, they determine to have him prosecuted before the governor for some crime against the Roman state ; and to this end employ persons to ensnare him in his discourse, which is clearly intimated to us by the evangelist Luke: And the chief priests and the Scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him; and they feared the people: for they perceived that he had spoken this parable against them. And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governori. From the connection of these verses it
Chap. xx. 19, 20, &c.
is plain, that as their fear of the people was the reason they durst not proceed against him themselves, so it put them upon the expedient of drawing from him something which might render him obnoxious to the Roman governor. They contrive a question, the answer of which they hoped would be treason against the Roman state. The question was, Whether it be lawful to give tribute to Cæsar? They suspected, probably, that our Saviour was of the opinion of Judas the Galilæan, and would have immediately answered, that it was not lawful; at least, that he durst not give any other answer when urged to it, because this was an opinion which had now made great progress among the people. And they, it is likely, imagined that he chiefly aimed at the favour of the people, and stood in awe of their resentment.
And when our Saviour was, beyond their expectation, betrayed into their hands by one of his own disciples, at a time and place which admitted of few or no witnesses, and the fittest that could be to prevent a popular tumult, they (indeed during the night) examine him of the supposed crimes against their own law, but early the next k morning deliver him to the Roman governor, accusing him of crimes against the Roman state. Their precipitate manner of acting plainly demonstrates the greatness of their fear: it was contrary to their law to execute any one on a sabbath-day; they did not dare to delay his execution, lest the people should rise; they hasten with him therefore to Pilate as soon as possibly they could with any tolerable decency, and prevail with him to condemn him. And this they did the more willingly because they herein gratified their malice by seeing him die the most ignominious and cruel death. And thus our Lord's prediction had its accomplishment.
k John xviii. 28. Matt. xxvii. 1, 2.
I have now said all that I think necessary on this question; and what appears to me fully sufficient to prove, that it was permitted the Jewish magistrates under Roman governors to execute their own laws, by inflicting capital punishments. Should any learned man be of a contrary opinion, I should be heartily glad to see his reasons published to the world, and should think myself not a little obliged to him to be set right in any thing wherein I am mistaken. As this is a question that has not yet been thoroughly treated by the learned, it will be no small pleasure to me to see it fully discussed, and the truth fixed upon a solid and immovable foundation,
CHAP. VI. Part II. Shewing that the authority of the high priest and
Jewish magistrates, in the affairs of religion, extended to foreign cities.
I PROCEED now to the second question, which is, How the authority of the high priest and Jewish council could be extended to Damascus and foreign cities? Whatever authority the Jewish magistrates might exercise in their own country under the Romans, whether by express grant, or by connivance, is it at all credible that their power should reach to other countries ? St. Paul says, I persecuted the saints even unto strange cities!. And again, I went to Damascus, with authority and commission from the chief priests m. And Ananias says of St. Paul, Here, that is, at Damascus, he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name . In order to clear up this matter, it must be observed that the letters or commission which St. Paul petitioned for, and carried to Damascus, were not directed to the magistrates of the city, but to the Jews which inhabited it. It is said that he went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. And he says himself, Of the high priest, and all the state of the Elders, I received letters unto the brethren, that is, the Jews at Damascus, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished P. The authority of the high priest and sanhedrim was acknowledged by the Jews wherever they lived. And it was usual for the Jews dispersed in foreign nations to receive orders and directions by letters from the great council at Jerusalem, which orders they diligently followed 4. This is a thing that may easily be apprehended by us, who know how universally the authority of the bishop of Rome is submitted to by papists, even though they inhabit protestant countries. There can be no difficulty therefore to conceive, that the chief rulers of the synagogues at Damascus would readily comply with the import of the letters sent them from the great council at Jerusalem, would willingly apprehend and convey to Jerusalem the persons described. The only difficulty is, whether the magistrates of Damascus would suffer the Jews to imprison their subjects, and send them to Jerusalem to be punished. If they would not, Saul had been disappointed in his aim; and it is no unusual thing for your hot, furious persecutors to act in many things rashly, and meet with disappointments. But it was not Saul alone; the sanhedrim also no doubt judged that the magistrates of Damascus would permit this to be done ; otherwise, surely they would not have come into Saul's measures, and granted him the letters he petitioned for.
m Ver. 12.
n Chix. 13, 14:
| Acts xxvi. 11. o Ch. ix. 1, 2.