By Roy E. Cogdill (1907-1985)
From a legal point of view this trial represented the greatest miscarriage of justice and the greatest hoax that has ever been perpetrated against any person in all history. It was fraudulent from start to finish, illegal at almost every point and on every possible count. It was anything but a trial in which justice was in view in the desire of those conducting it.
Annas was the High Priest of the Jews at the time Jesus was tried; but he had been deposed from his office for the very reason that he had tried to impose the death penalty on another occasion, and the Romans had appointed his son-in-law, Caiaphas, to be High Priest in his stead. From this incident it seems clear that the Romans had pretty well deprived the Jews of any real authority or power. They had a form of legally constituted authority, but it was a form with little power.
In the Jewish system of courts which remained, however, there were three kinds of tribunals. There was a three-judge court, which was the lowest and most elementary form of government; this corresponded roughly to our local Justice of the Peace courts, or to our municipal courts today. Next above this lowest court, there existed in many of the cities, and wherever the people desired and approved it, a Junior Sanhedrin Council which consisted of twenty-three judges. Then over and above these courts was the senior or major Sanhedrin Council, consisting of 71 judges. Qualifications for men of the senior Sanhedrin were exactly prescribed by law. Jewish law provided for these three separate kinds of courts, and they existed and commonly tried cases within their respective jurisdictions.
In any study of the trial of Jesus it must be remembered that it had two parts or two phases – a Jewish part and a Roman part. In the Jewish phase of his trial, Jesus was first arrested and taken to Annas; then he was tried before Caiaphas, and then by the Sanhedrin Council of the Jews in two sessions, a night session and a morning session. This consummated the trial of the Son of God at the hands of the Jews. Being sentenced to death, he then began the Roman phase of his trial. He was taken first to Pilate. Pilate examined him, and sent him to Herod. He was tried by Herod, and returned to Pilate. Again Pilate examined him, and then turned him over to the mob, weakly trying to exonerate himself of blame by the symbolic act of washing his hands. So, while there were two phases or parts to the trial, there were in reality six separate trials: before Annas, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin; and before Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again.
To begin with, his arrest was in violation of Jewish law. Their law : prohibited all proceedings at night. On a religious charge, especially, their law provided that a man could not be deprived of his liberty, and could not be taken from his home and loved ones, at any hour between sunset and sunrise. But Jesus was arrested, as best we can determine, sometime after midnight; and was actually put on trial between two and three o’clock in the morning.
A second provision of Jewish law so clearly violated in these proceedings was their specific prohibition of a man’s turning “state’s evidence.” No accused man could have any accomplice or co-worker appear against him either in the charge in the court as witness, nor yet for the purpose of identifying him at the arrest. Neither by word nor by deed or act was such a man permitted to accuse his former associate. Any man who had taken part in a crime was barred from the Jewish courts as a witness against anybody else involved in the same crime.
Yet the Jewish court itself, the Sanhedrin, made arrangements with Judas, who had been a partaker in all that Jesus and his disciples had done for the last three and a half years, to betray Jesus into their hands, and to identify him by a kiss on the cheek. They wanted to make no mistake as to the identity of the prisoner.
A third violation of their own law in the arrest of Jesus was in the fact that they arrested him without a proper warrant. Their law provided, as does ours, that no arrest can be made without proper court authorization. Yet in this case there was no warrant no authorization issued by any court at all.
A fourth violation was the fact that no duly authorized officer of the court was present to effect the arrest. Christ was not arrested by a soldier or any officer sent out by the court; rather, he was seized by a mob, a motley gang who came out with sticks and stones and clubs for the purpose of taking him in charge and bringing him to trial.
The very lowest court among the Jews was a three judge court. They did not, in those days, have a jury system such as we have today; and in order to insure that justice would be administered, they provided that no man should be tried before less than three judges. Instead of twelve jurors, as is our custom, they had three judges. Even the smallest crime or misdemeanor must be tried not before one judge, but before three. They made no exceptions to this.
Yet, looking at the record of Jesus’ trial, we see that he was actually examined privately. In fact, Jesus appeared in five different stages of his trial before a court of a single judge; before Annas he appeared privately. Before Caiaphas he was privately examined. Before Pilate there was a private hearing. Before Herod he was tried by a single judge; and finally before Pilate again he appeared before one judge. Five of the six states of his trial, therefore, were in violation of this fundamental provision of Jewish law.
Not only was the court procedure illegal, but the indictment itself was illegal. The Sanhedrin did not, and, by Jewish law, could not, originate charges. This Council existed only for the purpose of investigating charges made by others -not for the purpose of making charges itself. Yet the very charges on which Jesus was tried, both in his Jewish trial and in his Roman trial, were charges that originated with the judges of the Jewish court.
There is further violation of legal procedure in that the accusation brought against Jesus was vague, duplicitous, and uncertain. One of the requirements of Jewish law was that a charge must be certain, specific, particular. Nothing uncertain, vague, or indefinite would be considered, Yet when they brought Jesus before the Sanhedrin, they had the most uncertain, indefinite, and generalized charges that could be imagined.
Today if a man should be charged with half a dozen different crimes, he would be indicted upon only one count at a time. Each separate violation must be considered independently of all others. But in the case of Jesus they did not so separate the matter. They just lumped it all together in every vague accusation they could think about – that he claimed to be the Christ; that he was the bread come down from heaven; that he claimed existence before Abraham; that he said he was divine, was God; that if they should destroy the temple, in three days he would raise it up; and that all these things are to be destroyed, meaning Jerusalem and the whole Jewish nation. They did not specify; they gave no clear and definite accusation.
No court today would accept such an indictment. It was so clearly in violation of all accepted principles of legal procedure that a motion to quash would be immediately granted; Jewish law clearly provided that no such vague, uncertain accusation could be the basis for any kind of trial. And even in this instance, the major charge was dropped right in the middle of the trial and another was substituted in its place.
Consider now the illegal aspects of the procedure of Jesus’ trial. First, it was contrary to law because it took place at night. A capital offense, even after the arrest of the party, could be tried only by the light of the sun.
In the second place, the procedure was illegal because the court convened before the offering of morning sacrifices. Here, again, the Jewish law was extremely detailed and specific: no court could convene to hear any kind of case before the offering of the morning sacrifice.
A third illegal procedure was in the fact that the entire trial was conducted within a single day, with sentence passed, and execution completed. In less than twenty-four. hours Jesus was arrested, tried, condemned, and actually executed. Yet the Jewish law provided that no case involving a capital offense could be concluded in a single day.
A fourth illegality in the procedure of this trial is found in that it was conducted on a day preceding a Jewish Sabbath, also on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread and on the eve of the Passover. This was prohibited and forbidden; yet the provision was ignored.
We have considered illegalities in the arrest of Jesus, in the indictment, and in the procedures of his trial. Let us look now at the verdict.
One of the strangest and most peculiar provisions of any criminal law known in history was the provision of Jewish law that in case of a unanimous verdict of guilty – the prisoner must go free! There were seventy-one judges in the senior Sanhedrin council. The Jewish philosophy was on this wise: In case all seventy-one of those men agreed as to the guilt of a prisoner, this was prima facie evidence that no one had taken the prisoner’s part, and no defense had been made in his behalf. Human nature was such that regardless of how strong a case might be presented, there would be at least one in any group of seventy-one men who would differ from the rest. If no such divergence appeared in the verdict, then the prisoner had not been given a fair trial, and must be released. The gospel writers have recorded for us the fact that all the judges did agree; two of them say the high priest “with the whole council” concurred in the verdict. It was unanimous. Thus, legally, Christ was free, and should have been released immediately. But this safeguard for a condemned man was ignored. in the second place, the verdict was rendered without any defense having been made by, or for, the accused.
A third illegality in the verdict was that it was based upon an uncorroborated confession. When Caiaphas saw that the trial was about to collapse into a farce, and that the hired witnesses were hopelessly contradicting each other, he took charge himself and demanded of the prisoner, “I adjure thee by the living God, art thou the Christ?” Jesus could have held his peace; there wasn’t any law that could have forced him to testify. A man cannot be forced to testify at his own trial. The reason for that provision is that a man on trial will have conflicting demands upon him. He is being required to tell the truth on the one hand, and has taken an oath to that effect; but on the other hand, the truth might be damaging to him. Hence he has conflicting emotions and conflicting obligations. So the law excuses a man and does not require him to testify in his own trial.
But Jesus was not excused. All the testimony they could find was not sufficient to convict him or to establish their charges. So as a final desperate measure Caiaphas tries to force him to testify against himself.
But look at the Roman trial in comparison with this. In the Roman trial the charge was not blasphemy, but treason against Rome. The Jewish leaders, having now decided in their own courts that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy and worthy of death, next took him before the Roman governor, and with consummate hypocrisy and insincerity, informed the Roman official that Jesus was trying to foment a rebellion against Rome, claiming that he was a king! They accused him of doing the very thing they had tried to persuade him to do, and which he had refused (John 6:15).
It would be difficult to imagine an act of more blatant hypocrisy and cynical dishonesty than this. They had tried to persuade Jesus to become their king; indeed, had tried to force him into such a role. He refused. Then in anger they had turned against him because of his refusal, had condemned him to death; and are now trying to persuade the Roman governor to confirm their death sentence by charging Jesus with doing that which they knew he had not done, but which they themselves had tried to get him to do.
But Pilate, much to their chagrin and discomfort, acquitted the prisoner. He declared, “I find no crime in him.” Thus, legally, Jesus should have gone free. The Sanhedrin, by its unanimous verdict of guilty, had legally freed him; now the Roman governor has likewise acquitted him. When the Jewish judges of the Sanhedrin came into the quarters of the Roman governor, bringing Jesus as a prisoner from the Jewish court, they made their charges against him before Pilate. Then, according to the record, Pilate took him apart from them and tried him. The result of that examination is seen when Pilate came back to the Jewish leaders and said, “I rind no fault in him.”
That is the verdict. That is the decree and judgment of the court, the Roman court this time. Had Jesus received his legal rights, he would have walked forth from Pilate’s judgment hall a free man.
But the howling mob put up such a furious clamor that Pilate weakened, and yielded his consent to a further trial of Jesus. He sent the prisoner to Herod, hoping to shift responsibility to that source. Herod was unable to do anything about the case, however, and sent the prisoner back to Pilate. Then Pilate, to his everlasting shame, sold his birthright for the sake of popularity as the governor of the Jews, and actually delivered over to the hands of a mob a prisoner whom he, as judge, had pronounced innocent of any crime.
The very decision that men make now concerning Jesus will itself determine the decision that Jesus then, as judge, will make concerning men. Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod, and all others who had a part in the great fraudulent trial, the illegal and unjust verdict and execution, will stand in the final great day, that day toward which all other days are pointing, and will themselves be judged on the very conduct of the trial in which they took part. But as this fact holds true for all those men who had part in that illegal procedure so many centuries ago, it is equally true for all men today. The judgment that men today render concerning Christ, and the verdict which they reach, will become the basis for the judgment Christ renders, and the verdict he reaches, concerning these men. The eternal destiny of our souls will depend upon our attitude toward Christ, and the judgment we now render about him.
(This article consists of excerpts from a series of articles by brother Cogdill that appeared in the Gospel Guardian several years ago. Brother Cogdill, a gospel preacher of many years, was also a lawyer, although he never practiced law.)
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 20, pp. 615-617
October 15, 1987