A matter to be settled in a judicial court; a legal hearing or trial. The principal Hebrew verb having to do with legal cases is riv, meaning “quarrel; contend; conduct a legal case.” (Ge 26:20; De 33:8; Pr 25:8) The noun form is rendered “controversy; dispute; case at law; legal case.” (Ex 23:2; De 17:8; Ps 35:23; Isa 34:8) The Hebrew word din (judgment) is sometimes rendered “legal case; legal claim; legal contest.” (Job 35:14; Ps 140:12; Pr 22:10) A legal case, among God’s servants, had as its primary purpose the satisfying of the divine requirements and, secondarily, the rendering of justice to the person or persons involved, along with compensation where such was due. God considered himself involved in even personal offenses between humans, as is noted in Moses’ words to Israelite judges at Deuteronomy 1:16, 17.
A legal case was conducted in the garden of Eden, to bring out the facts of that case and the issues involved, to establish them as a matter of public record, and also to pass sentence on the offenders. Jehovah called Adam and Eve before him for questioning. Though he knew all, he held a hearing, made the charges clear, brought out the facts by questioning, and gave them an opportunity to make expression in their own defense. He obtained a confession from the offenders. Jehovah then made his decision in the matter and, with justice and undeserved kindness, applied the law, exercising mercy toward Adam and Eve’s unborn offspring by deferring the execution of the death sentence upon the offenders for a time.—Ge 3:6-19.
Jehovah God the Supreme Judge here set the pattern for all further judicial proceedings among his people. (Ge 3:1-24) Legal cases conducted according to God’s judicial regulations were for the finding and discussion of facts for the purpose of rendering justice—where possible, justice tempered with mercy. (De 16:20; Pr 28:13; compare Mt 5:7; Jas 2:13.) The entire procedure was meant to keep the nation of Israel uncontaminated and to provide for the individual welfare of its members as well as that of the alien residents and settlers among them. (Le 19:33, 34; Nu 15:15, 16; De 1:16, 17) The Law given to the nation contained within it the procedure that was to be followed in civil cases and also in cases of misdemeanor or crime (including those against God and the State), misunderstandings, personal quarrels, and troubles on the individual, family, tribal, and national levels.
Procedure. If cases of dispute were personal in nature, the disputants were encouraged to avoid quarrels and to settle matters privately. (Pr 17:14; 25:8, 9) If they could not come to an agreement, they could appeal to the judges. (Mt 5:25) Jesus gave such counsel. (Mt 18:15-17) There was no formal or complicated procedure in conducting legal cases, either during the pre-Mosaic period or under the Law, although some formalism did creep in after the establishment of the Sanhedrin. Nevertheless, cases were conducted in an orderly and purposeful manner. The courts were open to women, to slaves, and to the alien resident, so that justice might be administered to all. (Job 31:13, 14; Nu 27:1-5; Le 24:22) The accused would be present when testimony was presented against him and could make his defense. No equivalent of a public prosecutor appears in either patriarchal or Israelite courts; neither was an attorney for the defense necessary. Proceedings were without court costs to the litigants.
A person with a civil matter or a complainant in a criminal matter would bring his case to the judges. The other party would be called, witnesses were gathered together, and the hearing was conducted usually in a public place, most often at the city gates. (De 21:19; Ru 4:1) The judges would question the litigants and examine the evidence and testimony. They would render a verdict without delay unless evidence was lacking, or if the matter was too difficult, the judges would refer the case to a higher court. Sentences, such as flogging and the death penalty, were carried out immediately. There was no provision in the Law for imprisonment. Custody was employed only in a case in which Jehovah had to be consulted for a decision.—Le 24:12; see COURT, JUDICIAL; CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.
Guilt always brought liability; there were no exceptions. Guilt could not be overlooked. Wherever the Law demanded it, punishment had to be administered or, in some cases, compensation made. Then the guilty one, in order to make peace with God, was required to present an offering at the sanctuary. Sacrifices for atonement were required in any case of guilt. (Le 5:1-19) Even unintentional sin brought guilt, and offerings had to be made for atonement. (Le 4:1-35) In certain wrongdoings, including deception, fraud, and extortion, where a person voluntarily repented and confessed, he had to make compensation and also present a guilt offering.—Le 6:1-7.
Evidence. If a person was a witness to apostate acts, sedition, murder, which defiled the land, or certain other serious crimes, he was under obligation to report it and to testify to what he knew, or he would be subject to divine curse, publicly proclaimed. (Le 5:1; De 13:8; compare Pr 29:24; Es 6:2.) One witness was not enough to establish a matter, however. Two or more were required. (Nu 35:30; De 17:6; 19:15; compare Joh 8:17, 18; 1Ti 5:19; Heb 10:28.) Witnesses were commanded by the Law to speak the truth (Ex 20:16; 23:7), and were, in some cases, put under oath. (Mt 26:63) This would especially be so when the one on whom suspicion fell was the only witness to the matter. (Ex 22:10, 11) Since those in a legal case before the judges or at the sanctuary for judgment of a matter were regarded as standing before Jehovah, witnesses were to recognize that they were accountable to God. (Ex 22:8; De 1:17; 19:17) A witness was not to accept a bribe, allow anyone wicked to persuade him to speak untruthfully, or scheme violence. (Ex 23:1, 8) He was not to let his testimony be swayed by pressure of a crowd or by the wealth or poverty of those involved in the case. (Ex 23:2, 3) Even the closest family relationship was not to hold one back from testifying against a wicked violator of the law, such as an apostate or rebellious one.—De 13:6-11; 21:18-21; Zec 13:3.
One who proved to be a false witness received the punishment that the person accused would have received if found guilty. (De 19:17-21) Witnesses in all capital convictions were required to throw the first stone in the execution of the convicted one. Thus witnesses were enjoined by law to demonstrate their zeal for true, clean worship and for clearing out what was bad in Israel. This would also act as a deterrent to false testimony. It would take a very callous person to make a false accusation, knowing that he had to be the first to act in putting the accused to death.—De 17:7.
Material and circumstantial evidence. In case livestock had been entrusted to the care of another, the responsible one could bring in the torn body of an animal that had been killed by a wild beast as evidence, and that would thereby relieve him of liability. (Ex 22:10-13) If a married woman was accused by her husband of falsely claiming to be a virgin at the time of marriage, the girl’s father could bring the mantle from the marriage bed as evidence of her virginity to present before the judges in order to clear her of the charge. (De 22:13-21) Even under patriarchal law, material evidence was acceptable in some cases. (Ge 38:24-26) Circumstances were given consideration as evidence. If an engaged girl was attacked in the city, failure on her part to scream was deemed evidence of willful submission and guilt.—De 22:23-27.
Secret adultery. A man suspecting his wife of secret adultery, for which he had no confession or eyewitness, could take her before the priest, where she would be judged by Jehovah, who saw and who knew all the facts. It was not a trial by ordeal. There was nothing in the procedure itself that would harm the woman or make manifest her innocence or guilt, but it was Jehovah who judged the woman and made known his verdict. If she was innocent, she would be unharmed and was to be made pregnant by her husband. If she was guilty, her reproductive organs would be affected so that she would be incapable of pregnancy. If there had been the required two witnesses, the matter would not have been taken to Jehovah in this manner, but she would have been adjudged guilty by the judges and stoned to death.—Nu 5:11-31.
Documents. Records, or documents, of various kinds were used. A husband was required to give his wife a certificate of divorce when putting her away. (De 24:1; Jer 3:8; compare Isa 50:1.) Genealogical records were available, as we see particularly in First Chronicles. Mention is made of deeds registering the sale of real estate. (Jer 32:9-11) Many letters were written, some of which may have been retained and may have figured in legal cases.—2Sa 11:14; 1Ki 21:8-14; 2Ki 10:1; Ne 2:7.
Jesus’ Trial. The greatest travesty of justice ever committed was the trial and sentencing of Jesus Christ. Prior to his trial the chief priests and older men of the people took counsel together with a view to putting Jesus to death. So the judges were prejudiced and had their minds made up on the verdict before ever the trial took place. (Mt 26:3, 4) They bribed Judas to betray Jesus to them. (Lu 22:2-6) Because of the wrongness of their actions, they did not arrest him in the temple in the daytime, but they waited until they could act under cover of darkness and then sent a crowd armed with clubs and swords to arrest him in an isolated place outside the city.—Lu 22:52, 53.
Jesus was then taken first to the house of Annas, the ex-high priest, who still wielded great authority, his son-in-law Caiaphas being the high priest at the time. (Joh 18:13) There Jesus was questioned and was slapped in the face. (Joh 18:22) Next he was led bound to Caiaphas the high priest. False witnesses were sought by the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin. Many such witnesses came forward but could not agree on their testimony, except two who twisted Jesus’ words recorded at John 2:19. (Mt 26:59-61; Mr 14:56-59) Finally Jesus was put under oath by the high priest and questioned as to whether he was the Christ the Son of God. When Jesus answered in the affirmative and alluded to the prophecy at Daniel 7:13, the high priest ripped his garments and called upon the court to find Jesus guilty of blasphemy. This verdict was rendered, and he was sentenced to death. After this they spit in his face and hit him with their fists, taunting him, contrary to the Law.—Mt 26:57-68; Lu 22:66-71; compare De 25:1, 2 with Joh 7:51 and Ac 23:3.
After this illegal night trial the Sanhedrin met early in the morning to confirm their judgment and for a consultation. (Mr 15:1) Jesus was now led, again bound, to the governor’s palace, to Pilate, since they said: “It is not lawful for us to kill anyone.” (Joh 18:31) Here Jesus was charged with forbidding the paying of taxes to Caesar and with saying that he himself was Christ a king. Blasphemy against the God of the Jews would not have been so serious a charge in the eyes of the Romans, but sedition would. Pilate, after making futile attempts to get Jesus to testify against himself, told the Jews that he found no crime in him. Discovering, however, that Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate was happy to send him to Herod, who had jurisdiction over Galilee. Herod questioned Jesus, hoping to see a sign performed by him, but Jesus refused. Herod then discredited Jesus, making fun of him, and sent him back to Pilate.—Lu 23:1-11.
Pilate now tried to release Jesus in harmony with a custom of that time, but the Jews refused, calling for the release of a seditionist and murderer instead. (Joh 18:38-40) Pilate therefore had Jesus scourged, and the soldiers again mistreated him. After this, Pilate brought Jesus outside and tried to get his release, but the Jews insisted: “Impale him! Impale him!” Finally he issued the order to have Jesus impaled.—Mt 27:15-26; Lu 23:13-25; Joh 19:1-16.
What laws of God did the Jewish priests violate by the way they handled the trial of Jesus Christ?
The following are some of the laws of God that were flagrantly violated by the Jews in the trial of Christ: bribery (De 16:19; 27:25); conspiracy and the perversion of judgment and justice (Ex 23:1, 2, 6, 7; Le 19:15, 35); bearing false witness, in which matter the judges connived (Ex 20:16); letting a murderer (Barabbas) go, thereby bringing bloodguilt upon themselves and upon the land (Nu 35:31-34; De 19:11-13); mob action, or ‘following a crowd to do evil’ (Ex 23:2, 3); in crying out for Jesus to be impaled, they were violating the law that prohibited following the statutes of other nations and that also prescribed no torture but that provided that a criminal be stoned or put to death before being hung on a stake (Le 18:3-5; De 21:22); they accepted as king one not of their own nation, but a pagan (Caesar), and rejected the King whom God had chosen (De 17:14, 15); and finally, they were guilty of murder (Ex 20:13).