It appears to have been a Roman custom to perform a coup de grâce by breaking the legs of criminals condemned to die on the stake in order to shorten their miseries. The soldiers, at the Jews’ request, broke the legs of the men impaled on stakes alongside Jesus Christ, but, finding Jesus already dead, did not break his legs. Consequently, the prophecy at Psalm 34:20 was fulfilled.—John 19:31-36; compare Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12.
Legal hearings or trials are often designated in the Bible by the Hebrew expressions meaning “legal case,” “case at law,” “controversy,” “cause” and “argument.” 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 and to establish them as a matter of public record, 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.—Gen. 3:6-19.
Jehovah God the Supreme Judge here set the pattern for all further juridical proceedings among his people. (Gen. 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 and, where possible, justice tempered with mercy. (Deut. 16:20; Prov. 28:13; compare Matthew 5:7; James 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. (Lev. 19:33, 34; Num. 15:15, 16; Deut. 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.
If cases of dispute were personal in nature, the disputants were encouraged to avoid quarrels and to settle matters privately. (Prov. 17:14; 25:8, 9) If they could not come to an agreement, they could appeal to the judges. (Matt. 5:25) Jesus gave such counsel. (Matt. 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, that justice might be administered to all. (Job 31:13, 14; Num. 27:1-5; Lev. 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. (Luke 18:1-8) The other party would be called, witnesses gathered together, and the hearing conducted usually in a public place, most often at the city gates. (Deut. 21:19; Ruth 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 for imprisonment in the Law. Custody was employed only in a case in which Jehovah had to be consulted for a decision.—Lev. 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. (Lev. 5:1-19) Even unintentional sin brought guilt, and offerings had to be made for atonement. (Lev. 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.—Lev. 6:1-7.
If a person was a witness to apostate acts, sedition, murder, which defiled the land, and certain other serious crimes, he was under obligation to report it and to testify to what he knew, or be subject to divine curse, publicly proclaimed. (Lev. 5:1; Deut. 13:8; compare Proverbs 29:24; Esther 6:2.) One witness was not enough to establish a matter, however. Two or more were required. (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15; compare John 8:17, 18; 1 Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 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. (Matt. 26:63) This would be especially 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 considered as standing before Jehovah, witnesses were to recognize that they were accountable to God. (Ex. 22:8; Deut. 1:17; 19:17) A witness was not to accept a bribe nor to allow anyone wicked to persuade him to speak untruthfully or to 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.—Deut. 13:6-11; 21:18-21; Zech. 13:3.
One who proved to be a false witness received the punishment that the person accused would have received if found guilty. (Deut. 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.—Deut. 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 was thereby relieved 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. (Deut. 22:13-21) Even