As a trial lawyer how could I not be curious to examine the Trial of Jesus, the most famous trial of all time? Actually there were two trials according to the Biblical accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, God-breathed scripture, written between 50 and 100 years after Christ’s crucifixion.
What was the Jewish and Roman law of the day? How did their court procedures operate and was the process in keeping with Roman law of the day or was it a profound miscarriage of justice?
It is these questions I will explore with you.
1. WHY WAS JESUS ARRESTED?
Biblical scholars have determined that Jesus’ arrest was motivated by fear and resentment aroused by Jesus teaching revolutionary ideas and proclaiming himself to be the “Messiah”. However, it was an unusual arrest, not conducted by Jewish or Roman military, but by a mob of angry people including the high priest’s officers.
He was accused of claiming he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. (Matthew 26:61; Mark 14:58) In addition, particular actions taken by Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem during the Passover Festival were criticized by the Sanhedrin. Matthew reports that Jesus was displeased with the commercialization of Temple activities, when he complained “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:13)
The Temple was the focal point of life for the early Jews, one of the grandest buildings of its time. It was as large as 25 football fields and as high as ten-stories. It took 200 men to close the Temple doors each evening and it was magnificently overlaid in gold.
2. WHAT WAS THE ROLE OF THE SANHEDRIN IN JESUS’ TRIAL?
The Sanhedrin was a Jewish judicial and administrative body comprised of local elites, including the high priest and his family members, scribes, who were religious experts, and lay elders. Two centuries later Sanhedrin became a technical term for the rabbinic court.
Mark, Mathew and Luke write that Jesus was first brought before the Jewish authorities, a fact confirmed by Jewish historian Flavius Josephus who wrote in the first century “Pilate sentenced him to die on the cross, having been urged to do so by the noblest of our citizens”.
The gospel writers describe a scene where Jesus is mocked and assaulted, a trial with no decorum, and no pretense of professionalism. Jesus says very little, but does admit he is the Son of God.
Mark writes that after this hearing, the next morning they bound Jesus and took him to Pilate, the Roman prefect or governor, who had the power of a Supreme Judge. (Mark 15:1). John’s report says they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, to the praetorium, the word used to describe the governor’s house or palace. (John 18:28)
That was Jesus’ first trial conducted in the evening by the Jewish authorities.
3. THE TRIAL BEFORE PILATE
Jesus’ trial began with Pilate’s questions: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered “You have said so”. (Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3) “So you are a king?” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews” (John, Jesus’ accusers stated their case: “We found this man perverting our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king.” (Luke 23:2) John reports: “If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over.”(John 18:30)
Pilate responded to Jesus’ Jewish accusers: “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law”. (John 18:31)
“I find no crime in this man.” (Luke 23:4)
“Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:9)
“Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:12)
“What evil has he done?” (Mark 15:14)By now the Chief Priests had stirred up the crowd as they responded to Pilate’s queries. They said “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death”. Some Bible scholars say that this was a lie, as the Jewish law permitted death by stoning. Others say that only Rome had the jurisdiction to impose a capital sentence, a penalty that was outlawed for Roman citizens, but for all others crucifixion was their fate. (John 18:31)
They also said to Pilate “We have a law and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” (John 19:7) and later “If you release this man you are not Caesar’s friend, everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” (John 19:12)
But the predominant response was “Crucify him, crucify him!”
Then Pilate, who was intimidated and fearful, turned back to Jesus and asked “Where are you from?” but Jesus did not respond. He implored Jesus saying “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (John 19: 9, 10) Jesus replied “You would have no power over me unless it has been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greatest sin.” (John 19:11)
Pilate addressed the crowd again: “Shall I crucify your King. We have no King but Caesar” the Chief Priests replied. (John 19:15)
Pilate, wishing to evade responsibility, sent Jesus to King Herod, who had jurisdiction over individuals from Galilee. Herod was keen to meet Jesus but quickly released him back to Pilate.
Jesus’ trial ended when Pilate acceded to the demands of the crowds and delivered Jesus to them for crucifixion.
4. FLAWS AND UNFAIRNESS IN THE TRIAL OF JESUS
Jesus’ arrest was unlawful. There was no lawful indictment, he was seized and bound by an “armed mob”, not by official guards, without any formal charges being laid. No accusation was even brought until he appeared before the high priest, Caiaphas, who had no authority to lay charges.
a) Caiaphas was biased against Jesus, wishing to get rid of him, a situation that infringed the Jewish law that a man shall face a neutral arbiter.
b) The hearing before the Sanhedrins was conducted at night, contrary to the law that required daytime hearings.
c) While Jewish law did not provide that the accused have an attorney, the leaders assembled with Caiaphas were unquestionably tainted, having participated in Jesus’ manipulated arrest and responsible for the introduction of perjured evidence. (Matthew 26:59)
d) Justice required that an accused know the charge he is facing and that the charge be consistent throughout the proceeding. Initially Christ was accused of claiming he would destroy the Temple, but after he confessed to being the Son of God, he faced blasphemy charges. (Mark 14:64)
e) Perjured evidence was accepted when bogus witnesses testified they heard Jesus say “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another that is made without hands.” (Mark 14:58)
f) No evidence was tendered that supported Jesus’ claim that he was the Son of God. Not one witness testified to the miracles he performed.
g) Jewish law provided that a confession could not be relied on unless it was supported by two independent witnesses. Jesus’ statement that he was the Son of God was insufficient for a conviction for blasphemy.
h) Another breach of due process occurred when Jesus was tried, convicted and sentenced, all in the same day. The law required a minimum of two days for the trial and sentencing process, and also provided that two days must lapse before the punishment could be invoked.
i) Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent at least three times, finally declaring “I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man.” (Matthew 27:24)
5. CLOSING COMMENTS
The conviction and execution of Jesus occurred, not because he was guilty of any crime, but because had a plan for the salvation of mankind, to effect atonement for sin, God allowed his only Son to be condemned and sacrificed. Jesus could have stopped the insanity at any time but he was obedient to his father. Praise be to God!