The Theological Implications of the Trial of Jesus – Part 2
In Part 1 of this study, we demonstrated the necessity of Jesus’ death, as an innocent victim, in the divine scheme of redemption. In this installment, we will consider the infractions of justice that characterized the Lord’s trial.
Violations of Jurisprudence
Drawing upon the sources cited earlier, together with other miscellaneous data, some of the serious legal and ethical breaches of justice in the trial of Jesus are chronicled as follows. We will consider but twelve violations; some suggest as many as twenty-seven have been cataloged by various authors (Corley, 851).
Before we address that, however, we must make this observation. Recently it has been argued that the Jewish proceedings relative to Christ’s death were not a “formal trial,” but rather were more on the order of a “grand jury inquiry,” and therefore “Jewish rules concerning a capital trial did not apply to this case” (Bock, 49). Such hair-splitting, even if true, would hardly nullify the travesty of injustice perpetrated upon the Savior. The fact is, though, the New Testament is explicit in its affirmation that Jesus was tried before the entire Sanhedrin — not a mere committee.
Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sandedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate (Mark 15:1).
Let us now consider some of the elements of justice miscarried.
There is evidence to indicate that the arrest of Jesus was entirely unwarranted. First of all, there was no valid indictment upon which to base an arrest. Christ was seized and bound without any formal charge being made (cf. Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:1-12). In fact, no accusation was lodged against the Savior until after he was brought before Caiaphas, the high priest.
Second, it likely was the case that official, written “warrants” were required for an arrest (cf. Acts 9:2; 26:10; see Jeremias, 74), which were conspicuously absent in this instance. At any rate, as Tenney observed:
The synoptic Gospels agree that the arrest was effected by a ‘crowd’ (ochlos), which connotes an armed mob rather than an organized military guard (Matthew 26:47; Mark 14:43) (169).
This was lynch-mob activity, not a legal, orderly arrest.
Following his arrest, Jesus was taken before Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest (John 18:13-24). Annas himself had been appointed as high priest in A.D. 6, but he was deposed nine years later. However, he still retained the title “high priest” (Luke 3:2; cf. Acts 4:6), likely because he was the real influence behind his son-in-law, the sitting high priest. Edersheim notes: “He enjoyed all the dignity of the office, and all its influence also ... without either the responsibility or the restraints which the office imposed” (II.547).
What official business did Annas have in this case? None at all. His only connection was his relationship with Caiaphas (John 18:13). Westcott declared that this fact “lays open alike the character of the man and the character of the trial” (255). Dupin characterized this event as “a vexatious proceeding, an irregularity” (Greenleaf, 592).
Moffatt, who was inclined to adopt a more liberal view of such matters, conceded that Jesus was “taken illegally” before Annas (II.751). This detour to the house of Annas was but another tell-tale sign that this was a legal fiasco.
From Annas, Jesus was brought before Caiaphas. Caiaphas, who served as the official high priest, was hardly an objective judge to hear the case. Earlier, he already had determined that it would be a political expedient to put Christ to death, lest the uncommon interest in him generate trouble with the Roman authorities (John 18:14; 11:49-50).
This represented an infringement of law, which required that the judicial bench be neither a friend nor foe of the accused. Under no circumstance “was a man known to be at enmity with the accused person permitted to occupy a position among the judges” (Wingo, 88; cf. Goldin, 101).
The Time of the Trial
At the house of Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin (consisting of the scribes, elders, and the chief priests — “the whole council,” cf. Matthew 26:59) was assembled to hear the case against Christ. But this “trial” meeting was illegal. First, there are numerous indications that this assembly was at night (cf. John 18:3; Matthew 27:1; John 19:14). According to Jewish law, however, a trial involving a capital offence could not be conducted at night (Westcott, 263). Goldin notes that in capital cases, a conviction “must be reached in the daytime” (111).
Second, such trials could not be held just before a sabbath day or a feast day—both of which were involved at the time of Jesus’ presentation before the Hebrew authorities (cf. John 19:14, 31).
Unlike the American system, under the Hebrew scheme of law an accused person was not represented by an attorney before a jury of citizens. Rather, members of the Sanhedrin, i.e., the judges themselves, heard the evidence and decided the penalty. It was therefore demanded by the law that this panel of men be honorable and utterly free of the taint of partiality; if anything, they were to be disposed in favor of the defendant.
In glaring contrast, the Jewish Sanhedrin already was set against Christ before they even heard one word of the case. The council had manipulated the arrest of the Lord (see Matthew 26:47), and during the course of the trial, “sought false witness against Jesus, that they might put him to death” (Matthew 26:59). Never was there a more blatant breach of jurisprudence.
Justice demands that once a charge is made, it must be pursued consistently; the accusation is not to be switched mid-way through the process (Wingo, 61-68). One must not “change horses in the middle of the stream,” so to speak. In the proceedings against Jesus, though, this is precisely what happened.
At first Christ was accused of claiming that he would destroy the temple, and then build another in three days (Matthew 26:61; cf. Mark 14:58). When that charge proved spurious, Jesus should have been acquitted and the court dismissed. Subsequently, however, after the Lord had confessed to being the Son of God under interrogation, the indictment was changed to “blasphemy” (Matthew 26:65; Mark 14:64).
Finally, since the Romans were not disposed to execute people for theological reasons (Sherwin-White, 46), Jesus was accused of being a rival of Caesar (Luke 23:2; John 19:12), which was the equivalent of sedition. The utter hypocrisy of this charge is highlighted by the fact that the Jews asked for the release of Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer, instead of Christ (Mark 15:6-15).
The comment of the French rationalist Ernest Renan is telling.
They accused him on this ground of sedition, and of treason against the Government. Nothing could be more unjust; for Jesus had always recognized the Roman Government as the established power (203).
When witnesses testified in a capital case, it was required that an “investigation and examination of [the] witnesses be conducted” (Goldin, 106). No such procedure was employed in this case. In addition, witnesses were strictly and separately questioned, and it was imperative that their testimony be consistent (Westcott, 263). Goldin, the Jewish authority, also affirms that: “If the witnesses contradict one another, whether during the inquiries or the cross-examination, their testimony becomes invalid” (125).
But the witnesses who testified that Jesus was a false prophet were notoriously at odds with both the truth and one another. First of all, when Jesus purged the temple at the commencement of his ministry (John 2:13ff), he had said: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The inspired writer, however, specifically comments: “But he spake of the temple of his body” (21). Christ was foretelling His resurrection!
When the bogus witnesses testified against Jesus, they said this: “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another [Grk. allos – of the same type] made without hands” (Mark 14:58). That was a lie, pure and simple.
Secondly, the witnesses contradicted one another (see Mark 14:56, 59). The trial should have been terminated then and there. But it was not, because justice was not the goal.
Suppression of Evidence
Another example of justice denied is seen in the fact that no evidence was allowed in the trial which might have supported the Lord’s claim that he was the “Son of the Blessed” (Mark 14:61). “In capital cases the opening argument must be for acquittal and not for conviction” (Goldin, 107).
Think about this matter. When Christ was accosted in the garden, Peter drew his sword and amputated the right ear of Malchus, a servant of the Jewish high priest (John 18:10). Jesus rebuked the impetuous disciple (Matthew 26:52), and healed Malchus’ ear (Luke 22:51). Such a “sign” clearly demonstrated that the Lord’s claims were true (cf. John 20:30-31). Where was Malchus as Christ was being accused of “blasphemy”? Clearly, this evidence was suppressed.
When the testimony of the perjured witnesses fell flat, Caiaphas asked Jesus: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61). Professor Darrell Bock says that the Mishnah prohibited the high priest from participating in the questioning (49).
Firmly, though, the Savior answered: “I am.” The high priest then exclaimed: "What further need have we of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy: what think you? (63-64). Legal scholars have pointed out that, according to Jewish law, a man could not be convicted by his own testimony. Dupin quotes the specific ordinance:
We hold it as fundamental, that no one shall prejudice himself. If a man accuses himself before a tribunal, we must not believe him, unless the fact is attested by two other witnesses (Greenleaf, 582).
And so, Jesus’ conviction upon the basis of his confession reflects another violation of law.
Then there is this matter. “The blasphemer is subject to capital punishment only when he himself mentions the Name of the Almighty and blasphemes Him” (Goldin, 154). Christ was never charged with “blaspheming” in this fashion. Thus, justice was denied. Even the hostile Renan acknowledged: “The sentence was settled; and they only sought for pretexts” (200).
Rush to Judgment
There is another matter of importance. First, according to Jewish law, in a capital case the accused could not be tried and convicted on the same day (Goldin, 111). The judges needed adequate time for research and reflection. Yet, Christ was tried and convicted in a matter of hours.
Second, once a person had been convicted of a capital offence by a majority vote of the Sanhedrin, the sentence was not to be carried out for two days, in case new evidence should turn up which could exonerate the accused. In the circumstance of Jesus, though, he was arrested in the late hours of the evening (cf. John 13:30), and by nine o’clock the following morning he was hanging on a cross (Mark 15:25). Talk about a “rush to judgment”!
Treatment of the Accused
There is another matter that throws a floodlight upon the character of Jesus’ trial. Dupin and others have called attention to the extraordinary measures the Jewish tribunal ordinarily employed to ensure that one convicted of a capital crime had every opportunity for his sentence to be overturned—right up to the moment of execution.
For example, any judge on the council, who had voted to convict, could change his vote to acquittal (eleven votes out of a quorum of twenty-three would acquit). But no one who had voted to acquit could revert to condemnation.
Furthermore, while en route to the execution site, if the prisoner recalled some new reason that might ameliorate his case, he could ask to be brought back before the judges. This could be done five times! (Goldin, 132). Even during the execution processional, a herald walked along, addressing the spectators in a loud voice:
This man [name given] is led to punishment for [crime specified]; the witnesses who have sworn against him are [names cited]; if anyone has evidence to give in his favor, let him come forth quickly (Greenleaf, 583).
Goldin says that the Jewish system made “the legal restrictions so numerous, that it became almost impossible to impose the death penalty” (24). Every advantage was given the defendant. In light of this, consider some of the treatment afforded Christ: (a) When appearing before Annas, Jesus was struck by an officer (John 18:22). (b) Before the Sanhedrin, Christ was spat upon, blind-folded and mocked, and repeatedly beaten (Matthew 26:67; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63-65), etc. Just what sort of hooligans were handling these “legal” proceedings?
Finally, when the case was ultimately set before Pilate, no less than three times the ruler pronounced the Lord “not guilty.” After examining Jesus, the governor said: “I find no crime in him” (John 18:38). Again (John 19:4), and again (John 19:6), the verdict of “innocent” was announced. The procurator even symbolically washed his hands, declaring: “I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man” (Matthew 27:24).
Not hardly! Renan described the entire affair as “judicial murder” (200). Even that infidel conceded that Jesus’ trial was illegal, a mockery of justice.
The only honest conclusion to be reached is this: The conviction and execution of Christ was not due to the fact that he was guilty of a crime. Rather, it was a necessary ingredient in the plan of salvation.
The most sophisticated legal system the world had ever known up to that time, the Roman system, found the Savior “not guilty.” However, to effect atonement, God allowed his Son to be condemned. Amazing!
- Bock, Darrell L. (1998), “Jesus V. Sanhedrin,” Christianity Today, April 6.
- Corley, Bruce (1992), “The Trial of Jesus,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Joel Green & Scot McKnight, Eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
- Edersheim, Alfred (1947 Reprint), The Life And Times Of Jesus The Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
- Greenleaf, Simon (1903), The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined By The Rules Of Evidence Administered In Courts Of Justice (Newark, NJ: Soney & Sage).
- Goldin, Hyman E. (1952), Hebrew Criminal Law and Procedure (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc.).
- Jeremias, Joachim (1969), Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (London: S.C.M. Press).
- Moffatt, James (1909), “The Trial of Jesus,” Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, James Hastings, Ed. (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark).
- Renan, Ernest (1991 Reprint), The Life of Jesus (Buffalo: Prometheus Press).
- Sherwin-White, A.N. (1978), Roman Society And Roman Law In The New Testament (Grand Rapdis: Baker).
- Tenney, Merrill C. (1981), “The Gospel of John,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
- Westcott, B.F. (1981 Reprint), “St. John’s Gospel,” The Bible Commentary, F.C. Cook, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker).
- Wingo, Earle H. (1954), A Lawyer Reviews the Illegal Trial of Jesus, (Hattisburg, MS: Earle H. Wingo Publications).