The Jewish Trial of Jesus

By Tom Hamilton

Upon his arrest, Jesus was taken to the house of the high priest, where the legal proceedings were begun that resulted in his death. In this article, we will cover the Jewish part of these legal proceedings by considering (1) the record of what happened, (2) the principles violated by the proceedings, and (3) the significance of these events.

The Record of the Trial

When we piece together the events recorded in the four different gospel accounts, we get an overall picture of what happened at Jesus’ trial. In my opinion, the best historical reconstruction reveals that there were no less than six separate trials Jesus endured immediately prior to his execution.

1. First, there is an informal examination by the de facto high priest Annas (John 18:12-14, 19-23). As the real power behind the scenes in Jewish politics, this is the first person Jesus is taken to by those who arrested him, and Annas apparently begins questioning Jesus immediately. The questions, focusing on Jesus’ disciples and teaching, may have been intended to analyze Jesus as a political threat, comparable to innumerable other self-proclaimed messiahs of the times (e.g., what is Jesus’ power base? what activities do they have planned?). Of course, Jesus has done nothing wrong, nor has any charge been made, and he challenges the authorities to produce witnesses, resulting in the first of many blows to come. Apparently, Annas’ interrogation took place while the other members of the Sanhedrin were hurriedly being summoned in the middle of the night, and when the whole council was assembled, Jesus was sent for further, more formal questioning there.

2. The second stage of Jesus’ trial is presided over by the titular high priest Caiaphas, Annas’ son-in-law, in the presence of the Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:57-68; Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:54, 63-65). The Sanhedrin was hastily assembled at Caiaphas’ house, which is probably the same palace complex in which Caiaphas’ father-in-law Annas lived and had conducted the preliminary interrogation of Jesus. At this proceeding, the authorities found themselves in the unenviable position of having a defendant without a legal accusation or charge. While the normal purpose of the council would have been to consider the charges and weigh the evidence, it was forced by the circumstances into the position of justifying its assembly by soliciting testimony and inventing a charge, all in the middle of the night. Even then, the false witnesses could not agree on their misrepresentations of Jesus’ teaching, and no charge could be manufactured to stick. Finally, Jesus is adjured or compelled by the authorities to answer whether he is the Christ, and it is his admission to this question that results in an impulsive indictment of blasphemy. The accompanying physical abuse and mockery indicate just how rational were the deliberations of those who presumed to sit in judgment of Jesus.

3. The third stage of Jesus’ legal proceedings was the formal decision of the Sanhedrin, which was rendered at dawn and which resulted in Jesus being sent to Pilate (Matt. 27:1-2; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66-23:1). The record indicates that the primary charge finally decided upon by the Sanhedrin was blasphemy, based solely upon Jesus’ own statements. The sentence pronounced was death, but because the council was powerless to impose the death penalty, they needed to send Jesus to Pilate for execution.

4. The fourth stage of Jesus’ trial was Jesus’ first appearance before Pilate (Matt. 27:11-14; Mark 15:1-5; Luke 23:1-6; John 18:28-38a). At this point, the Jewish authorities were once again compelled to fabricate a charge against Jesus, but this time it had to be an indictment that would be valid in a Roman court of law. Therefore, the accusations brought before Pilate bear no resemblance to the blasphemy charge, but are distortions of Jesus’ teachings in order to misrepresent Jesus as a political and military threat to Rome.

5. Upon discovering that Jesus was from the region of Galilee, Pilate attempted to rid himself of the problem of Jesus by sending Jesus to Herod Antipas under the pretense that Galilee fell under Herod’s jurisdiction (Luke 23:6-12). Jesus refused to dignify the accusations against him and silently endured the additional mockery that was dispensed. All this interrogation seemed to accomplish was the establishing of a friendly rapport between Herod and Pilate.

6. Finally, Jesus is returned to Pilate, and at this sixth and last stage of the legal proceedings, Pilate bows to the mob and condemns Jesus to death by crucifixion (Matt. 27:15-31; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23: 13-25; John 18:38b-19:16).

The Errors of the Trial

One of the most intriguing aspects of the trial of Jesus is the degree to which the Jewish authorities violated their own legal principles and procedures in their rush to condemn Jesus. While it is clear that some basic requirements of justice and fairness were completely ignored, we should be careful not to commit the same errors of judgment ourselves in unfairly condemning Jesus’ judges!

The records of Judaism, including the detailed legal principles and procedures which governed Jewish trials, only date back to A.D. 200, a couple of centuries after the time of Christ. While it is commonly assumed that these legal principles held precedence long before they were written down and would have applied in Jesus’ day, we cannot know for certain if this is true for every legal rule. In addition, because it was the Pharisaic form of Judaism which survived the fall of Jerusalem and came to be written down in A.D. 200, there is the additional consideration of how many of these Pharisaic principles might have applied in a time when the Sadducees were in control, as they were in Jesus’ day. Finally, due to the brevity of the gospel record, there is sometimes the question of whether a particular action qualified as a trial (e.g., was Annas’ interrogation of Jesus just an informal chat or an official legal proceeding?). However, there are still more than enough serious violations of Jewish legal requirements in Jesus’ trial.

Jewish law provided that no trials were to be conducted at night, and yet Jesus was twice subjected to nighttime legal interrogations. The fact that the Sanhedrin held a special dawn meeting to pass the official sentence (Matt. 27:1; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66; John 18:28) suggests how these legalists justified their illegal behavior and rationalized that their earlier behavior was not bound by any such rules.

They were also apparently not bound by the rules prohibiting (1) the admission of conflicting testimony, (2) the use of false witnesses, (3) the interviewing of witnesses in one another’s presence, or (4) the acceptance of a charge without a plurality of corroborating witnesses (even if one of the witnesses was the defendant himself). Caiaphas’ statement that no further witnesses were necessary (Matt. 26:65; Mark 14:63; Luke 22:71) is an obvious effort to bypass the required legal procedures, including the requirement that witnesses appear on behalf of the accused, which was never done.

Perhaps the most egregious violations involved the Sanhedrin’s very purpose for meeting. Instead of assembling to consider the merits of an accusation, the judges assumed the role of accuser and began fabricating a charge to justify Jesus’ arrest. When one charge wouldn’t work, they would simply try another, and finally invented an altogether new charge for Pilate’s consideration. No charge ever even came close to having collaborative testimony. The requirement of justice is to begin with every effort made to disprove any charge brought before the Sanhedrin, but in the case of Jesus, just the opposite was done — every plausible effort was made to incriminate him.

Finally, several minor principles also appear to have been ignored, such as the requirement that no single judge preside at any legal proceeding, no capital case be tried in a single day or on the day before the Sabbath, or no sentence be pronounced before the morning sacrifice.

The Significance of the Trial

While it is helpful to enumerate the many legal principles violated by Jesus’ judges, we should remember, of course, that this was not the focus of the gospel writers. They do not provide an exhaustive catalog of trial errors or argue legal technicalities. They are content to provide enough information that any honest reader, regardless of what legal system he was familiar with, could recognize the injustices done at Jesus’ trials.

In the case of the majority of the trial errors indicated by the gospel record, it is irrelevant whether the principles that were violated existed in codified form in Jesus’ day or were only developed at a later time. After all, these legal precedents were largely just simple applications of common sense and justice, governed by the universal principles of right and wrong, as opposed to subtle legal niceties and technicalities. It is the basic principle of justice with which the gospel writers are ultimately concerned, and which is ultimately violated by Jesus’ judges.

We should avoid the one extreme of finding legal errors under every rock and behind every tree, because there are legitimate questions regarding what principles of Jewish law may have applied in Jesus’ day and which actions qualified as violations. After all, some of the supposed violations are based upon legal technicalities and legal quibbling.

On the other hand, we should not go to the other extreme as modern, liberal scholarship has done, denying that we can conclude any legal errors were committed. This approach is nothing other than political correctness to absolve the Jews of any complicity in Jesus’ death — some even going so far as to argue that the Sanhedrin actually tried to save Jesus from the Romans! The indisputable fact remains that the Romans executed Jesus, but would have had absolutely no reason to do so apart from the agitation of the Jewish leaders.

But such efforts to point the finger of blame are ill-conceived and miss the real significance of Jesus’ trial — that no sinful man is fit to sit in judgment of Jesus and we are all responsible for the death of Jesus.

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 1 p 5 January 2000