The Trial of Jesus | Easter Commentary 


Providing a legal analysis of the trial of Jesus poses rather unique challenges.  Firstly, there is the problem of determining what actually happened 2 millennia ago before the Sanhedrin and the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.  The task is daunting because nearly our entire understanding of events comes from five divergent accounts, each written by Christians who did not personally witness the final days of Jesus.  These were authored for a distinct audience, between 15-70 years post-trial.  Secondly, there is the challenge presented by our audience having prior understandings of trial events steeped in their own religious upbringing.  These may very well conflict with what we present here, resulting in heated misunderstandings.  These concerns notwithstanding, the case still merits legal analysis for the simple reason that no other trial in history has so significantly impacted the course of humanity.  We shall therefore attempt to bring a litigation lawyer's understanding to what happened at the trial of the charged blasphemer and traitor, Jesus of Nazareth.  

The initial trial of Jesus is the one to which he was subjected before the Sanhedrin, a Jewish judicial body, following his arrest in Jerusalem and prior to the hearing before Pontius Pilate.  The trial was reported by all three Synoptic Gospels, while the Gospel of John also refers to a preliminary inquiry before Annas.  Jesus was arrested and taken before Caiaphas, the high priest, before the rooster crowed, signaling Peter's denial.  The trial was illegal because no court of justice in Israel was permitted to hold sessions on Sabbath or any of the seven Biblical holidays.  In cases of capital crime, no trial could be commenced on a Friday or the day previous to any holiday, since it was unlawful either to adjourn such cases longer than overnight or to continue them on the Sabbath or a holiday.  There were six parts to Jesus' trial: three stages in a religious court and another three before a Roman court.  The Jewish court found him guilty but the three Roman found him innocent.  Despite this incoherency or perhaps because of it, the prisoner was ultimately condemned to suffer the most excruciating form of execution which the brutality of Roman 'civilization' had ever devised.

To understand what happened between Gethsemane and Calvary, we must first grasp quite clearly why Jesus was subjected to a double trial.  We call it a trial, but in reality it was an inquisition.  The death sentence, once executed, was nothing less than judicial murder.  Jesus appeared first before the Sanhedrin for his ecclesiastical trial.  Then he was sent to the Roman tribunal for his civil trial.  Had the charge facing Jesus not been a capital one, the Sanhedrin alone could have adjudicated the matter without referring it to Pilate at all.  For in Judea, as in all subject provinces of its vast empire, Rome gave conquered people a modicum of self-governance.  The judicious application of this home rule principle contributed greatly to the maintenance of peace throughout Imperial Roman dominions.  But where death sentences were involved, as in the case of Jesus, Rome reserved the final right of judgment unto itself.  Such cases, once through the Sanhedrin, had to come up for review before the Roman authorities, which alone had the power either to uphold the verdict already pronounced and execute sentence upon the accused, or to overturn the proceedings altogether and set the prisoner free.  This explains what happened on the night of Christ's arrest, but we must begin by answering the question: "why was Jesus arrested?"

Gospel accounts describe the participation of Jesus in a protest directed at some of the commercial practices associated with the Temple.  These practices offended many Jews.  According to Matthew, Jesus had complained:

"My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers." (21:13)

Mark and John tell of Jesus overturning the tables of money-changers, those persons who converted coins bearing images of the emperor into Tyrian silver coins, the only acceptable form for Temple donations.  The Gospels also describe Jesus driving the pigeon-sellers (the birds were used as sacrifices by worshipers) from the Temple.  It is difficult to imagine that such dramatic action would not spark an immediate response from armed Temple guards. Whatever the precise nature of Christ's actions, they were almost certainly accompanied by words-perhaps a prediction that the Temple would fall unless reforms were instituted to bring the Temple back to its central religious mission.  At a time of high tension such as the Passover festival, it is probable that any subversive action in the Temple-even action of a symbolic nature-would provoke a strong response from high priests and Roman officials.  And it most certainly did.  But who actually informed the authorities about Jesus?

The role which Judas, a follower of Jesus, played in the arrest is a matter of much historical debate.  Jesus scholar Bart Ehrman, author of "Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium" notes that prior to the disturbance at the Temple, nothing Jesus had yet said promoted himself as the Messiah or "King of the Jews".  So where did the authorities get this idea, which forms the grounds for his eventual arrest? Ehrman suggests an answer-Judas.  As a motive for his betrayal, Ehrman cites two theories.  The first holds that Judas became disillusioned upon realizing that Jesus had no intention of assuming the role of a political-military Messiah.  The second holds that Judas wanted to force Christ's hand and believed that his arrest would lead to a call for an uprising against Roman rule.  Other scholars such as John Crossan, author of "Who Killed Jesus?", have a somewhat simpler explanation.  Crossan speculates that Judas may have been captured in the incident at the Temple-and that he was  persuaded, pressured, or even coerced to tell authorities who had caused the Temple trouble and where the guilty party could be found.

The Temple police who arrested Christ in Gethsemane took him first to Annas (John 18:13).  This part of the proceeding was quite informal, even arbitrary.  Annas held no official position.  He did however wield immense influence and prestige within the Sanhedrin.  Two decades earlier, Annas had been high priest, a title which he still held by courtesy.  No fewer than five of his sons had succeeded him in this, the highest position in the land.  Annas probably established for his own gain the traffic of the bazaar within the Temple Courts which Jesus had famously denounced.  Annas was the evil genius behind the plots leading to Christ's capture; and though it was after midnight when the prisoner was finally brought in, the old man was alert and determined enough to push the case forward with all dispatch.  After an informal preliminary inquiry, Annas delivered Jesus into the hands of his son-in-law, Caiaphas.

Figuring out what really happened in the trial of Jesus is enormously difficult.  Two surviving non-Christian accounts, one by a Roman historian and another by a Jewish one, confirm that Pilate ordered the execution of Jesus-but beyond that, offer few details.  Writing in the late  first century Tacitus offered this comment:

"Christus [Jesus], from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, and the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular."

The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, writing in the 80s or early 90s A.D., indicated that both Jewish leaders and the Roman prefect played roles in the crucifixion of Jesus:

"About the same time there lived Jesus, a wise man for he was performer of marvelous feats and a teacher of such men who received the truth with pleasure.  He attracted many Jews and many Greeks.  He was called the Christ.  Pilate sentenced him to die on the cross, having been urged to do so by the noblest of our citizens; but those who loved him at the first did not give up their affection for him.  And the tribe of Christians, who are named after him, have not disappeared to this day."

Josephus had no reason to attribute a non-existent role to "the noblest of our citizens", so it is probably safe to conclude that Jewish leaders encouraged Pilate to crucify Jesus.  Questions remain, however, as to what form that took-and how willingly or unwillingly Pilate responded to such inducement.  But before Jesus could be delivered unto Pilate for his death sentence, he had to first endure the ignominious injustice of the Sanhedrin.  

Caiaphas was high priest and head of the Sanhedrin.  This was the man who was the accredited guardian of the nation's soul.  He had been set apart to be the supreme interpreter and representative of the Most High.  To him was granted the glorious privilege of entering once each year into the holy of holies.  Yet this was the very man who condemned the Son of God.  History provides no more startling illustration of the truth that the best religious opportunities in the world and the most promising environment will not guarantee one's salvation or ennoble the soul.  As John Bunyan wrote in the closing lines of "The Pilgrim's Progress":  "Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven."

News of Christ's arrest had by this time brought many members of the Sanhedrin to the house of Caiaphas.  According to its constitution, the Sanhedrin could not legally be convened before sunrise, but Caiaphas and the rest were impatient and so decided to proceed immediately with interrogation of the prisoner.  All that would await the formal post-sunrise meeting was ratification of any decisions arrived at during the informal night sitting, thus saving precious time (Matt. 26:57 & 27:1).  Caiaphas began by putting questions to Jesus about both his disciples and his ministry (John 18:19).  He no doubt hoped to draw from Jesus some incriminating statement about his teaching that could be warped and twisted into antipathy toward Rome.  This could then be used decisively against him once trial before the Roman Governor commenced.  But this first line of attack failed, and Caiaphas was discomfited (John 18:20).  Equally unsuccessful was his second attempt at cross-examination of Jesus.  He brought in witnesses to testify against the prisoner in the fain hope that they would adduce evidence upon which condemnation could be based.  But these witnesses gave rather disappointing, conflicting accounts.  

Growing anxious at the course which the prosecution was taking and at the utter failure of the court to substantiate any charge against the accused, Caiaphas suddenly decided to unleash his most dangerous weapon.  He baldly demanded of Jesus whether he ever claimed to be the Messiah.  This was literally the moment of truth.  When Jesus quietly replies "I am", Caiaphas was triumphant that his enemy had given himself away at last and played so easily into his hands.  Caiaphas cries blasphemy and that no further witnesses were required, since Jesus stood condemned out of his own mouth (Mark 14:63-64).   With this the Sanhedrin unanimously concurred, and the death penalty decreed.  To all intents and purposes, the Sanhedrin was now over.  Formal ratification of the verdict when the Sanhedrin met officially after sunrise would be a matter of mere minutes.  Meanwhile, the condemned man could be surrendered to the tender mercies of his jailers and of the mob.  Even members of the court took part in the unholy display of cruelty that ensued (Mark 14:65).  

We must next consider the illegality of the civil trial of Jesus.  But let us first summarize the points at which the proceedings thus far had offended the elementary rules of law and natural justice.  In what respects was the Sanhedrin's judgment illegal you ask?  Here are but a few key ones to consider:

(1) The court which was to decide Christ's fate was complicit in his betrayal.  Members of the Sanhedrin were clearly implicated in the clandestine plots leading to Judas' ultimate treachery.  Yet these same men were now to act as jurors.  This demonstrated palpable bias and vitiated the proceedings entirely as a matter of legal procedure.  Any judicial process must be fundamentally fair before its decisions can be considered valid, let alone just;

(2) The trial did not begin, as Jewish law demanded, with a statement of definite charge against the accused.  The real difficulty for Caiaphas and his friends, as we have seen, was to find any charge at all upon which they could commit Jesus to Pilate.  When the witnesses disagreed and no charge was forthcoming, it was the court's procedural and evidentiary duty to dismiss the case.  But this was not done.  The proceedings were allowed to carry on, which was clearly illegal according to Sanhedrin law;

(3) The judge trying the case was also leading the prosecution.  Caiaphas combined in himself both of these roles.  He assumed his place as president of the court that night, totally resolved in advance to secure a conviction.  Had he not already declared, in one of the most cynical, cold-blooded epithets history has preserved for us, that it was "expedient...that one man should die for the people?" (John 11:50). When the hearing of witnesses turns out to be farcical, the judge himself began cross-examining the prisoner.  He knew that by doing so he was violating Sanhedrin law, but would have preferred to break the law 100 times over than to let Jesus slip through his fingers;

(4) There were no witnesses called for the defense.  None were even summoned or given the opportunity to appear.  Not even the disciples.  It was Jesus against the world. No right to legal counsel.  No voice was to be tolerated except those of his accusers;

(5) But the crowning illegality of the trial was the haste with which it was completed.  In the dead of night the case was hurried through.  The holding of a brief, formal meeting at sunrise to ratify a night's work and to give a faint show of legality to what had been done did not shroud the fact that the Sanhedrin's midnight prosecution was in flagrant breach of its own sacred laws.  This was not the worst of it, however.  It was law that in capital charges a death sentence could be pronounced only on the day following a trial.  24 hours must first elapse.  There was another law that such cases were not to be heard at all on the day immediately preceding the Sabbath or one of the great festivals, in this case, the Passover.  Both of these were violated in this case.  In desperate angst to get Jesus out of the way before there could be any chance of a populist uprising in his favour, his accusers tossed legal principle to the wind and tore justice to shreds.

It should be noted that the Sanhedrin operated during these times with less than complete independence to implement Jewish law, having a dual political and religious status.  There is however sound reason to believe that Jewish authorities could, had they so desired, executed Jesus.  The well substantiated executions-by stoning-of two first century Christians, Jesus' brother James in 62 A.D. and Stephen, show that capital punishment was within a few decades of Christ's trial practiced by Jewish authorities.  Moreover, Temple inscriptions from the period warn of death to Gentiles who pass into certain restricted areas.  

Ultimately, Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate.  Once Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin had done their worst, Jesus was dragged before the Roman governor for the second stage of his trial.  Pilate had been procurator for six years by this time and found the post by no means a sinecure.  The crown colony of Judea was among the most turbulent corners of the Empire, a situation amplified by Pilate's obvious disdain for Jewish sensibilities.  He became known for his unnecessarily harsh and relentless ways of dealing with the administrative problems continually confronting him.  This made him anything but popular with the people he was charged with governing.  Pilate despised the Jews and failed altogether to appreciate their religious traditions.  Once, in open defiance of Jewish sentiment and in flagrant breach of the conciliatory policy which Rome officially sanctioned, Pilate even caused images of  'Caesar as god' to be carried through the streets of the Holy City of Jerusalem.  Nor had the Jews forgotten certain other occasions when Pilate had read the riot act and sent centurions in amongst the crowds to inflict bloodshed and massacre (Luke 13:1).  Pilate provoked another outcry from his Jewish subjects when he used Temple funds to build an aqueduct.  His lack of feeling was accompanied, according to Jewish philosopher Philo writing in 41 A.D., by corruption and brutality.  Philo wrote that Pilate's tenure was riddled with:

"Briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injustices, constantly repeated executions without trial, and ceaseless and grievous cruelty."

Philo might have overstated the case, but there is little to suggest that Pilate would have any serious reservations about executing a Jewish rabble-rouser such as Jesus.  For their part, neither the Sanhedrin or the mass of commoners had much love for Pilate; but the spur of necessity works wonders, and it was now the main hope of Caiaphas and the rest to make a good impression on their governor and win him to their side, thereby securing the death of Jesus.  

It is quite possible that not only was there no trial before the Sanhedrin but none before Pilate, either.  Pilate and Caiaphas, worked long and thus likely well together.  They might have had standing arrangements for dealing with subversive action during festival time.  These could have included, according to Biblical scholar John Crossan, "instant punishment with immediate crucifixion as a public warning and deterrent."  Crossan argues that there would be no need to go very high up the chain of command for a nuisance nobody like Jesus, no need even for a formal interrogation before Caiaphas, let alone a detailed trial before Pilate.  Ehrman agrees, writing:

"If someone was perceived to be a troublemaker, there was no need to follow anything that would strike us as due process, at least for the non-Roman citizens of the provinces...There would have been no reason to conduct a criminal investigation out in the open and ask for the crowds' opinions."

In any event, the Gospel accounts (especially Mark) transparently present the chief priests and not Pilate as the most blameworthy party.  Pilate began quite properly by demanding a precise statement of the charge (John 18:29).  But this was extremely awkward.  For when the Sanhedrin convicted Jesus, it had used the purely religious accusation of blasphemy, which carried no weight with the pagan Roman court-especially in terms of warranting the death penalty.  So the Jews replied evasively: "If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee" (John 18:30).  Naturally this did not at all satisfy Pilate, who pressed for more and better information.  In response, Christ's accusers, adding yet another layer of illegality to all that had yet transpired, quietly dropped the original charge of blasphemy and substituted another in its place:  treason (Luke 23:2).  This was a charge which Pilate was duty bound to take seriously.  They declared firstly that Jesus was perverting the nation (which was pure slander), and second that he forbade paying tribute to Caesar (equally untrue).  Finally, they charged him with claiming to be a king (which was true, but not in any legal sense).  Having heard this last charge, Pilate prudently decided to question Jesus in private.

No scene in all of history has impressed itself more vividly or indelibly upon the human imagination.  Reading between the lines of this narrative, we begin to see that all through the momentous hour when the judge was deliberating over what to do with this odd prisoner whom fate had thrown in his way, it was Jesus who was wrestling for the soul of his judge.  Pilate was not yet a lost man, and Jesus would fain have saved him from himself.  Moreover, the governor was astute enough to see that this was no ordinary man before him; and so he could not but be amazed at the composure and quiet dignity of Jesus-even as the mob outside clamored for his blood.  Pilate ends the interview and goes forth to publicly declare his verdict:  "Not Guilty!".  Of course, this only inflamed the passions of the growing crowd.  Now, for the first time, fear and uncertainty began to mark Pilate's demeanor and to infect his judgement.  He saw trouble brewing and became eager to be rid of this difficult case entirely.  In his efforts to evade responsibility, he resorted to three expedients.  

The first of these was to send Jesus to Herod (Luke 23:7).  After all, Jesus was a Galilean and thus subject to Herod's jurisdiction.  Why should Herod, who just happened to be in Jerusalem at the time, not accept responsibility and see the prickly trial through to its conclusion?  It was a sublime stroke of judicial reasoning, but unfortunately for Pilate, it did not work.  So back to his palace came the escort with their prisoner a short time later, bearing a message from Herod thanking Pilate for his courtesy but declining to finish the case himself.  The second expedient Pilate employed was a dastardly one.  He proposed that, since he could  find no fault in Jesus, he would scourge and then release him (Luke 23:16).  This sorry compromise was of course totally unjustifiable in law and wholly illogical.  It was the poor, fear-driven soul's attempt to do his duty by Jesus and also to placate the mob.  But it achieved neither purpose, and it is unsurprising that the angry priests would not accept this verdict at any price.  The cries of "Crucify Him!" Grew from a whisper to a scream.  Balked in these first two attempts, Pilate tried one last legal device.  He set Jesus over against Barabbas and gave the crowd their choice, hoping against hope that they would prefer that of the two, Jesus should live (John 18:29).  But this also failed, for there was a loud, acclaiming cry for Barabbas.  Pilate, now at wit's end, then suddenly hears a voice calling out from the crowd:

"If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend." (John 19:12)

That settled it.  Pilate knew all too well what this threat portended.  The last thing in the world he could afford was to have a complaint made against him to his imperial master in Rome.  Impeachment spelt ruin, for there were matters in his past life which could not bear close scrutiny.  It came down to his career vs. the life of Jesus.  In the balance, Jesus would just have to go.  Gladly as he would have set the man before him free, his own interests, his own bias, made the sacrifice of innocence essential.  He finally yielded to the bloodthirsty mob and sent Jesus to the Cross.  

Pilate was a powerful figure.  If he had reservations about killing Jesus, he certainly could have taken him back to Caesaria for trial or referred his case back to the Sanhedrin for possible punishment under Jewish, rather than Roman law.  The fact that Pilate did not do so suggests that he was pleased to accede to the urgings of Jewish leaders and to crucify Jesus.  Anyone calling himself "King of the Jews" would have been seen as troublesome by Roman officials.  Further evidence that Pilate bore primary responsibility for the execution of Jesus comes from Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, written in the early 50's A.D., where he says that Jesus had been crucified by "the princes of the world" (1 Corinthians 2:8).

So the trial, which was no trial at all, concluded.  One final, extraordinary feature of the whole story is particularly worth noting.  Everyone who studies this narrative has the strange feeling that the tables are being turned before our very eyes and that what we are seeing is not Jesus on trial before Caiaphas, Pilate, or Herod; that what we witness instead is these men on trial before Jesus.  When all is over and the prisoner has been marched away to Golgotha, it is not he who has been judged by them; rather, it is they who have been judged by Him.  Face to face each of them-Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod-stood with the Son of Man for a brief moment.  His searchlight played upon their souls, revealing their innermost nature and revealing them to the world and for all time.  On that dark, crowded night, the real judge was Christ.  And where Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod stood that night, every one of us at some point in our own life journey must stand-face to face with Jesus in the place of decision-and each soul's verdict on the Lord of all good life is in a deep and solemn sense Christ's verdict upon itself.

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