The Most Infamous Trial Ever Held
FEW if any court cases from antiquity are as well-known. Four separate Bible accounts, called the Gospels, detail the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus Christ. Why should you be interested? Because Jesus told his followers to commemorate his death, which elevates the importance of the trial that led up to it; because we should know whether the charges brought against Jesus were true; and because the sacrifice Jesus made by voluntarily yielding his life is of vital importance for us and our future.
At the time of Jesus’ trial, Palestine was governed by Rome. The Romans allowed the local Jewish hierarchy to administer justice among the Jews according to their own law but apparently did not grant them the legal authority to execute criminals. Jesus was thus arrested by Jewish religious foes but was executed by the Romans. His preaching so embarrassed the religious establishment of the day that its members decided that Jesus must die. Yet, they wanted his execution to appear to be legal. An analysis of their efforts to achieve that end moved one law professor to dub the whole affair “the darkest crime known to the history of jurisprudence.”*
One Irregularity After Another
The Law that Moses delivered to Israel has been called “the greatest and most enlightened system of jurisprudence ever promulgated.” By Jesus’ day, however, legalistically minded rabbis had added to it a mass of extra-Biblical rules, many of which were later recorded in the Talmud. (See the box “Jewish Laws in the First Centuries,” on page 20.) How did Jesus’ trial measure up to these Biblical and extra-Biblical criteria?
Did Jesus’ arrest result from concordant testimony before a court by two witnesses regarding a specific crime? For the arrest to be legal, it should have. In first-century Palestine, a Jew who believed that a law had been broken brought his charge to court during regular sessions. Courts could not initiate charges but merely investigated accusations brought before them. The only prosecutors were the witnesses to an alleged crime. Proceedings began when the deposition of at least two witnesses to the same act agreed. Their testimony constituted the charge, which led to an arrest. The evidence of just one witness was not permitted. (Deuteronomy 19:15) In Jesus’ case, however, the Jewish authorities merely sought an “effective way” to get rid of him. He was taken into custody when “a good opportunity” arose
At the time of Jesus’ arrest, there was no charge against him. The priests and the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, began looking for witnesses only after he was in custody. (Matthew 26:59) They could not find two whose testimony agreed. Yet, the court had no business to be looking for witnesses. And “to try a man, especially for his life, without specifying beforehand the crime on which he is to be tried, is justly held to be an outrage,” says lawyer and author A. Taylor Innes.
The mob that detained Jesus took him to the house of former High Priest Annas, who began questioning him. (Luke 22:54; John 18:12, 13) Annas’ actions flouted the rule that capital charges were to be tried by day, not by night. Moreover, any fact-finding should have taken place in open court, not behind closed doors. Aware of the illegality of Annas’ interrogation, Jesus replied: “Why do you question me? Question those who have heard what I spoke to them. See! These know what I said.” (John 18:21) Annas should have been examining the witnesses, not the accused. Jesus’ observation might have moved an honest judge to respect proper procedure, but Annas was not interested in justice.
Jesus’ response earned him a slap from an officer
Jesus’ captors now led him to the home of High Priest Caiaphas, where the illegal nighttime trial continued. (Luke 22:54; John 18:24) There, in defiance of all principles of justice, the priests sought “false witness against Jesus in order to put him to death,” yet no two testimonies agreed as to what Jesus had said. (Matthew 26:59; Mark 14:56-59) So the high priest tried to get Jesus to incriminate himself. “Do you say nothing in reply?” he asked. “What is it these are testifying against you?” (Mark 14:60) This tactic was completely out of line. “Putting the question to the accused, and founding a condemnation on his answer, was [a] violation of formal justice,” observes Innes, quoted earlier.
That assembly finally seized upon a statement Jesus made. In response to the question: “Are you the Christ the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus answered: “I am; and you persons will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” The priests construed this as blasphemy, and “they all condemned him to be liable to death.”
According to the Mosaic Law, trials were to be held in public. (Deuteronomy 16:18; Ruth 4:1) This, on the other hand, was a secret trial. No one attempted to or was allowed to speak in Jesus’ favor. No examination was made of the merits of Jesus’ claim to Messiahship. Jesus had no opportunity to summon witnesses for his defense. There was no orderly voting among the judges as to guilt or innocence.
Because the Jews apparently lacked the authority to execute Jesus, they took him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate’s first question was: “What accusation do you bring against this man?” Knowing that their trumped-up charge of blasphemy meant nothing to Pilate, the Jews tried to get him to condemn Jesus without investigation. “If this man were not a wrongdoer, we would not have delivered him up to you,” they said. (John 18:29, 30) Pilate rejected this argument, forcing the Jews to make a new accusation: “This man we found subverting our nation and forbidding the paying of taxes to Caesar and saying he himself is Christ a king.” (Luke 23:2) So the charge of blasphemy was now slyly switched to that of treason.
The accusation of “forbidding the paying of taxes” was false, and the accusers knew it. Jesus taught just the opposite. (Matthew 22:15-22) As for the charge that Jesus made himself a king, Pilate quickly saw that the man before him presented no threat to Rome. “I find no fault in him,” he declared. (John 18:38) Pilate retained that conviction throughout the trial.
Pilate first tried to free Jesus by allowing him to benefit from the customary release of a prisoner at Passover. Yet, Pilate ended up freeing Barabbas, who was guilty of sedition and murder.
The Roman governor’s next attempt to free Jesus was a compromise. He had Jesus scourged, dressed in purple, crowned with thorns, beaten, and mocked. Again he declared Jesus innocent. It is as though Pilate was saying: ‘Isn’t this enough for you priests?’ Perhaps he hoped that the sight of a man ravaged by a Roman scourging would satisfy their lust for vengeance or appeal to their compassion. (Luke 23:22) Yet, it did not.
“Pilate kept on seeking how to release [Jesus]. But the Jews shouted, saying: ‘If you release this man, you are not a friend of Caesar. Every man making himself a king speaks against Caesar.’” (John 19:12) The Caesar of that time was Tiberius, an emperor with a reputation for executing any whom he considered disloyal
A Review of the Evidence
Many legal commentators have analyzed the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial. They have concluded that it was a sham, a travesty of justice. “That such a trial should be begun and finished and sentence formally pronounced, between midnight and morning, was a violence done to the forms and rules of Hebrew law as well as to the principles of justice,” writes one lawyer. A professor of law says: “The whole procedure was permeated with such gross illegality and such flagrant irregularities that the result can be considered nothing short of judicial murder.”
Jesus was innocent. Yet, he knew that his death was necessary for the salvation of obedient mankind. (Matthew 20:28) So great was his love for justice that he submitted to the most blatant injustice ever perpetrated. He did so for sinners like us. This we should never forget.
Reprehensibly, the churches of Christendom have used the Gospel accounts about Jesus’ death to foment anti-Jewish sentiment, but that notion was far from the minds of the Gospel writers, who themselves were Jews.
Blasphemy consisted of using the divine name impiously or usurping power or authority belonging to God alone. Jesus’ accusers produced no evidence that he had done either.
Jewish Laws in the First Centuries
Jewish oral tradition, put into writing in the early centuries C.E. but believed to be of great antiquity, included the following rules:
▪ In capital cases, arguments for acquittal were heard first
▪ The judges were to make every effort to save the accused
▪ Judges could argue for the accused but not against him
▪ Witnesses were warned of the seriousness of their role
▪ Witnesses were examined separately, not in the presence of any other witness
▪ Testimony had to agree on all essential points
▪ Capital charges had to be tried by day and concluded by day
▪ Capital cases could not be considered on the eve of a Sabbath or a festival
▪ Capital cases could begin and end on the same day if the verdict was favorable to the accused; if it was unfavorable, the case could be concluded only on the next day, when the verdict would be announced and the sentence executed
▪ Capital cases were tried by at least 23 judges
▪ Judges took turns when voting to acquit or to condemn, commencing with the youngest; scribes recorded the words of those who favored acquittal and of those who favored conviction
▪ Acquittal was decided by a simple majority of one, but conviction only by a majority of two; if the vote was for conviction by a majority of just one, two judges were added as often as necessary until a valid decision was reached
▪ A verdict of guilty without at least one judge arguing for the accused was invalid; a unanimous verdict of guilty was considered “indicative of a conspiracy”
Illegalities in Jesus’ Trial
▪ The court heard no arguments or witnesses for acquittal
▪ None of the judges sought to defend Jesus; they were his enemies
▪ The priests sought false witnesses to condemn Jesus to death
▪ The case was heard at night behind closed doors
▪ The trial began and concluded in one day, the eve of a festival
▪ There was no indictment, or charge, prior to Jesus’ arrest
▪ Jesus’ claim to Messiahship, said to be “blasphemy,” was not examined
▪ The charge was changed when the case came before Pilate
▪ The accusations were false
▪ Pilate found Jesus innocent but still had him executed
[Box on page 22]
Witnesses Answerable for Blood
Jewish courts gave this warning concerning the value of life to the witnesses in capital cases before they gave evidence:
“Perhaps it is your intention to give testimony on the basis of supposition, hearsay, or of what one witness has told another; or you may be thinking, ‘We heard it from a reliable person.’ Or, you may not know that in the end we are going to interrogate you with appropriate tests of interrogation and examination. You should know that the laws governing a trial for property cases are different from the laws governing a trial for capital cases. In the case of a trial for property cases, a person pays money and achieves atonement for himself. In capital cases [the accused’s] blood and the blood of all those who were destined to be born from him [who was wrongfully convicted] are held against him [who testifies falsely] to the end of time.”