The Trials of Jesus Christ

David Jones, Truro, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Precious Seed

Jewish and Roman
Systems of Law

There have been a number of legal trials which have roused intense public interest, not only at the time, but throughout subsequent history; e.g., Galileo, Joan of Arc, Charles 1 and Mary Queen of Scots, and recently that of Dr. Harold Shipman in which the jury took six days to consider their verdict. Compare this with the trial of Jesus Christ which was conducted and completed in a night.

The most interesting and important landmark in the history of law was the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. In several respects that trial is unique, particularly in that it was a double trial. Two great independent legal systems were used to try His case, Jewish and Roman law. Each system has always been highly respected by eminent lawyers of all nationalities and times. The Jewish system was much older than the Roman and based upon the law given to the Jewish people by God, through Moses. It incorporated the divine principles of justice, righteousness and mercy, all elements of the nature of almighty God.

The Roman law was not so ancient but it was formulated by some of the most learned and authoritative lawyers the world has ever known. It played a notable part in keeping the peace and extending civilisation under the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana, (the Roman Peace) facilitated the spread of Christianity in New Testament times by allowing people to travel in comparative safety and to receive the general protection of law. Roman law forms the basis of the law in several modern countries, including Britain.

Both systems had provisions for capital punishment and the crimes of which Jesus was accused; blasphemy under the Jewish law and treason under the Roman law both carried the death penalty. His trials were therefore trials for life. A double trial, because after the Roman conquest, the Jewish authorities had lost the power of execution; only the Roman governor could authorise the death penalty.

Trial under Jewish Law

The Jewish Law regarded human life as so precious that for anyone who deliberately took life only one penalty was appropriate, to lose his own life. This provision of the law was clearly and rigidly set in one particular chapter alone, that of Num-bers 35, where God states no less than nine times 'the murderer shall surely be put to death'. This was strengthened even more by another provision of law which stated, 'Ye shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer'. So human life was not only precious, it was priceless.

The essential corollary to this was that before the judges (in the time of the Roman conquest) exacted the death penalty the most careful precautions were taken to avoid error and to ensure that the accused received a fair trial. For example, the law fixed the place of the execution at a reasonable distance from the place of the trial. An officer stood at the door of the court with a handkerchief in his hand. Another officer, on horseback, followed the execution party and halted at the farthest point where he could still see the officer by the court with the handkerchief. If anyone came with last minute evidence of the condemned man’s innocence, the officer at the court would wave the handkerchief and the horseman would gallop after the prisoner and recall him for his defence.

It was under this code of law, which contained the most rigorous provisions to prevent error and malfeasance in procedure, that Jesus Christ was first tried.

The trial was invalid

The trial of Jesus Christ was invalid for at least four important reasons:

  1.  First of all, the Hebrew law required that it was the witnesses who had to satisfy the court that there was an offence to be tried. Their evidence was the beginning of each proceeding and until it was publicly given against a man, he was held to be, in the judgement of the law, not merely innocent, but unaccused. The law also stated that the evidence must be established by at least two witnesses, Deut. 20. 15. So a criminal charge could be formulated only from an agreed testimony of at least two witnesses. But in this trial the witnesses did not agree with each other, and so under Jewish law, no charge could properly be made. Because no admissible charge could be brought, under the clear and strict provisions of the law, the trial should not even have begun.
  2. Caiaphas, the High Priest, who was acting as judge, had no charge on which to proceed, but he was determined that the trial should continue, and committed, know-ingly and deliberately, another illegality. This was so significant that again it invalidated the entire trial. Caiaphas, who was obliged, as judge, to be impartial, resorted to questioning the accused himself and founded upon Jesus’ answers, a charge which carried the death penalty. The Jewish law declared that no one was to be condemned to death upon his own confession. It also stated that no one could harm his own case by anything he said himself in court. So here was another gross violation of the law. Jesus Himself drew attention to it when He answered the High Priest, 'I spake openly to the world. I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort; and in secret have I said nothing. Why askest thou me? ask them which heard me what I have said unto them: behold they know what I said', John 18. 20-21. Caiaphas understood the point that Jesus was making but he was determined to obtain a charge, so he made a final attempt by using the most solemn language in Judaism. He said, 'I adjure thee by the living God that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?' And Jesus said, 'I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven', Mark 14. 61-62. The High Priest declared the answer to be blasphemy; and he terminated the trial and condemned Jesus to death.
  3. Another violation of the Jewish law also made the trial void. In fact, it made the entire proceedings from beginning to end illegal, and this was because they were conducted during the night. The law specifically laid down that trial for life could be started only in the day, and must also be concluded during the day. Jesus was arrested at night time. John 18. 3 states that the band led by Judas came with, 'lanterns and torches and weapons'. Jesus was then taken before the High Priest, where the Sanhedrin was already assembled in anticipa-tion of His arrest. That the trial was conducted during the night is also confirmed by the account of Peter’s denial, which occurred during the trial. The cock crowing gave witness to the approaching dawn. Matthew and Mark also make it clear that as soon as the morning was come Jesus was led away to Pilate so that at that point the Jewish trial was over.
  4. The fourth violation of the Jewish law was that the condemnation of the accused was pronounced by the High Priest immediately at the end of the trial. The law clearly stated that in capital trials, the proceedings might be concluded on the day they began only if the decision was acquittal. If it were a guilty verdict the decision must be postponed to a second day. Once again, the judgement was invalid.

Each one of these four was a contravention of the cardinal safeguard for human life expressly written into the legal code, and each on its own was enough to render the trial void in law.

Trial under the Roman law

Before the subjection of Palestine by Rome, the condemnation in the Jewish court would have been followed not only by sentence but also by execution and this by stoning. But now Rome had removed from the Jews the authority to put to death. The accused was, in this sense, a subject of the Roman empire, and under the protection of the emperor’s representative and warrant of the law of Rome.

The responsibility for upholding the principles of the Roman law and the prestige of Roman justice was invested in Pontius Pilate, Roman governor, Procurator of Judea and representative of the emperor Tiberius. Pilate was from an aristocratic family, and his wife, Claudia had some connections.

The charge

It was against this background that the Roman trial began and the same difficulty arose as in the Jewish court: what was the charge? The governor asked the Jews, 'What accusation bring ye against this man?', and they answered, 'If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up to thee'. This reply did not answer the question. Pilate pressed the point and eventually they said, in the words of Luke’s Gospel, 'We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King'. Pilate continued his investigation, the accusers giving various witness and Christ remaining silent. A threefold accusation had been made, but Pilate decided that only one, the third, merited further investigation. The first charge of perversion was clearly a religious one, and not in his province. The second, as to tribute, was obviously contrary to the Accused’s teaching and unproven. The third, that He was a king, might be political. Such a claim could threaten the Roman peace, and be treason against the Roman emperor.

Pilate went back into the judgement hall and began to question Jesus, 'Art thou the King of the Jews?' Jesus declared that He was, but then added words which were highly significant to the Roman judge, 'My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I would not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence', John 18. 36.

The governor was satisfied that the third accusation had failed in that the kingdom that Jesus had talked about was not a material one but a spiritual one, and was no threat to Roman authority or control. Pilate ended the conversation, went back out to the Jewish party and said, 'I find no fault in him at all'. The verdict was formally pronounced. It was 'not guilty'. Roman law had performed its task and Jesus Christ was acquitted. The trial was, therefore, over and should have ended then and there and the prisoner should have been set free.

But the verdict roused the Jews to fury. They raised a cry of defiance against Roman law, and against the Roman governor. They were out for blood and Pilate was shaken. Instead of standing by his verdict, exercising his authority and freeing the prisoner, he attempted to persuade the Jews to agree with his judgement.

Pilate’s attempts to free Jesus

Pilate made four further attempts to free the prisoner, declaring Him innocent each time:

  1. As he listened to the clamour of the mob they suddenly offered a solution to his problem. The prisoner was a Galilean, and he remembered that Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee, was in Jerusalem. There was no love lost between Pontius Pilate and Herod, but Pilate knew that Herod was an expert of Jewish culture and customs and he decided to send Jesus to him, in the hope that Herod would sort out the puzzle for him. His hopes were short lived. The soldiers were quickly back with their Prisoner. Herod had taken no action to punish Jesus and had returned Him to Pilate. The governor at once summoned the chief priests, and rulers of the Jews, and once again proclaimed the Prisoner’s innocence, this time citing Herod’s attitude in support of his own, Luke 23. 14-16. This roused the crowd to a fresh outburst of fury, and they demanded Jesus' crucifixion. Pilate backed off once again.
  2. Then Pilate remembered the Jewish custom of releasing a prisoner in honour of the religious festival and so he offered them Jesus. But they rejected Him and demanded the release of another prisoner, Barabbas. So the governor released Barabbas.
  3. Then Pilate made another attempt to change their minds. In the hope that he could arouse some feelings of pity in their hearts he had Jesus scourged and brought out before them, torn, bruised and bleeding. But their hearts were not moved and again they demanded His death. In desperation, Pilate said, 'Take ye him and crucify him, for I find no fault in him', and the Jews replied, 'We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God', John 19. 7.
  4. That reference to deity made Pilate even more afraid. His wife had already sent him a strange message. She had said, 'Have thou nothing to do with that just man'. He had genuine fears about the prisoner’s identity and he went back into the judgement hall. 'Whence art thou?' he asked. Jesus had already answered that question and refused to answer it again, but what He said regarding responsibility, confirmed Pilate’s fears and he returned to the Jews and tried for the last time to release Him, John 19. 10-11. Then Caiaphas, the cunning and unscrupulous High Priest, played his trump card and an accusation of treason against the governor himself arose from the crowd. 'If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend'. This was the classic statement of disloyalty to the empire and Pilate quailed before it. The thought of his impeachment at Rome removed his last vestige of courage and he gave in to the Jews. But as a public gesture of dissent from their demands he washed his hands in front of them and said, 'I am innocent of the blood of this just person. See ye to it', and the Jews replied, 'His blood be upon us and on our children,' words which must have reechoed in the minds of many subsequent generations of Jewish people as they have become persecuted as no other race on earth. They have been accused of crimes of which they have been innocent; they have been tortured, imprisoned and murdered in their millions!

The Notice on the Cross

So Jesus was taken away and crucified on the hill of Calvary and Pilate made his last gesture of protest to the attitude of the Jewish council. He had a sign nailed to the cross, above the head of Jesus, which read, 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews'. The Jews were furious and they demanded that the sign should be altered to read that Jesus had said He was the King of the Jews. But Pilate stood his ground and refused, saying, 'What I have written, I have written', John 19. 22. So the sign remained, written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. It offered mute testimony to the fact that the Person who hung on the centre cross was the Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour of the World.

The underlying purposes of God

  1. God the Father had planned that His Son, Jesus Christ would die on the cross. Everything that led up to that death was in the control of God, 'Him (Jesus of Nazareth), being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain', Acts 2. 23.
  2. There was no possible alternative to Christ’s death as our substitute. He is, 'the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world', John 1. 29. His crucifixion and death are crucial elements in redemption.
  3. The trials were an essential preliminary to Jesus’ crucifixion and so the verdicts were 'guilty', but clearly seen to be unjust and God’s Son proclaimed innocent and guiltless to all the world.
  4. Jesus must also be exhibited to the world for all time as the Messiah the Saviour, fulfilling His own words in John 3. 14, 'And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness even so must the Son of man be lifted up'.
  5. The wickedness of the human race in rejecting the Lord of Glory must be clearly demonstrated so that all people might see their guilt before God.

We can do no more than exclaim afresh, 'O the depth of the riches both of wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out', Rom. 11. 33.

It is important to read the following New Testament references for this study which are as follows: - Matt. 26. 47-68; 27. 1-2, 11-26; Mark 14. 1-2, 43-65; 15. 1-15; Luke 22. 47-54, 66-71; 23. 1-25; John 18. 1-3, 12-13, 19-24, 28-40; 19. 1-22.

AUTHOR PROFILE: David Jones is in fellowship in the assembly in Truro.