The Trial of Jesus — Guilty or Innocent?
Jesus of Nazareth had been arrested Thursday evening, formally the Jewish beginning of Friday, Passover Nissan 15, by a posse of the Jewish leadership in the Garden of Gethsemane outside Jerusalem. Escorted by the armed Temple Guards and their Roman captain back into the city, he was to immediately stand trial on the charge of blasphemy as defined in the Law of Moses.[i]
Prosecuting the case in defense of God’s Law was Chief Priest Caiaphas. The defendant representing himself was Jesus of Nazareth. The verdict of the trial of Jesus would have colossal implications in one of two very different ways.
Acquittal would mean, at the very least, that Jesus could possibly be the Son of God. Such a verdict would be an embarrassment for the Jewish council while posing a threat to their religious political power base. Rome would surely react unfavorably to any potential new Jewish figurehead who might be viewed as an insurrectionist.
Conviction would publicly label Jesus as a blasphemer worthy of death, not worship. God’s Law would be successfully defended and upheld.[ii]Trouble with Rome would be averted. As an added bonus, the subversive threat to their Jewish political powerbase would be eliminated. A Jewish Talmud Gemara would later expose another truth behind of the charge of blasphemy:
San 49b “…thus the blasphemer and the idol-worshipper are executed. Wherein lies the particular enormity of these offences? — Because they constitute an attack upon the fundamental belief of Judaism.”[iii]
Gravity of the situation called for a fair and thorough trial, but how likely was that reality? At stake was the defense of Judaism, a religious institution headed by the same powerbase that was responsible for rendering the verdict – the prosecution witnesses even came from among those serving as judge and jury.[iv]
Defense witnesses for Jesus were nowhere to be found. Not because there weren’t any, but being under the threat of death themselves, who would come forward in his defense?[v]Even his most stalwart disciple, Peter, upon whom Jesus had declared would build his church, would deny knowing Jesus three times that very night as the trial progressed.
Other ominous signs did not favor a fair trial since it was not conducted in accordance with Jewish law. Legal code in the Talmud defined how capital offenses were to be tried and convictions rendered. Among them: [vi]
MISHNA: Sanhedrin 32a:
“Capital charges must be tried by day and concluded by day.”
“In capital charges, anyone may argue in his favour, but not against him.”
“Capital charges may be concluded on the same day with a favourable verdict, but only on the morrow with an unfavourable verdict therefore trials are not held on the eve of a Sabbath or Festival.”
Pretrial events began at the residence of Annas, a Sanhedrin power broker, former Chief Priest and father-in-law of Chief Priest Caiaphas.[vii]Annas began with cursory questions asking Jesus about his disciples and his teachings. Jesus replied that he had always spoken openly in the Temple and synagogues – there were no secrets. “Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”(NRSV)
His response did not sit well with his captors, one of them reacted by hitting Jesus. Holding firm, Jesus challenged his captors again saying, “”If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?””(NRSV) With this, Annas sent the posse with their blindfolded and bound prisoner to Caiaphas. By the time they arrived, Jesus had been mocked and beaten.
Chief Priest Caiaphas presided over the aberrant trial held that fateful night. The Law required two eyewitnesses to corroborate the same point of evidence to establish a fact for a conviction.[viii]Initially the High Priest’s prosecution effort was not going well with many accusers coming forward, but no two testimonies could agree.[ix]Finally, two witnesses confirmed an accusation: “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands.’”(NASB)
It was true. Jesus had made this claim after he wrecked the tables of the money changers and merchants in the Temple.[x]Was this a literal or figurative claim by Jesus? Was it really evidence he blasphemed God? Caiaphas understood the implications – he pounced on the moment with an indicting question that cut to the heart of the trial:
“Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (ISV, NLT, NRSV)
An answer in the affirmative would be self-incriminating and condemning. It was the moment of truth – was Jesus of Nazareth willing to put it all on the line knowing that he could die if he acknowledged this to be true? The answer to Caiaphas was clear when Jesus answered:
“ I am.”
To be crystal clear, Jesus added:
“’you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’” (ISV, NET, NRSV)
Immediately the verdict was rendered when Chief Priest Caiaphas tore his robes and said,
“He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses?”(NASB)
– – – – –
Sentencing was still not a slam dunk. Under Roman rule, the Jews were not allowed to carry out capital punishment.[xi]Would a heathen Roman government even entertain a charge of blasphemy based solely in Jewish religious law? They figured, probably not. On the outside chance that did happen, would Rome issue a death penalty verdict for blasphemy? Even more unlikely.[xii]
Considering their options, the Jewish council sought to convince Pilate that Jesus was guilty of failure to pay taxes to Caesar and insurrection to Rome for claiming to be a king. Either could result in the Roman death penalty. For Pilate, insurrection was a hot button issue with Rome having battled insurrections throughout his tenure as Procurator.[xiii]Ultimately, Pilate found Jesus to have no guilt, but caved to the political pressure and sentenced Jesus to be crucified.
Was it a fair trial?
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NASB = New American Standard Bible translation
ISV = International Standard Version translation
NLT = New Living Translation
NRSV = New Revised Standard Version translation
Gospel accounts: Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23, John 18-19.
[i] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XX, Chapter VIII. NetBible.org. Greek Text. John 18:3, 12: “chiliarchos <5506>” and “speira <4686>”.
[ii] Leviticus 24:15-16. Josephus. Against Apion. Book II, #21-23. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. Ed. Isidore Epstein. 1935 – 1948. Sanhedrin 49b. <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/sanhedrin/index.html>
[iii] Sanhedrin 49b.
[iv] Josephus. Against Apion. Book II. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false> Spiro, Ken. “History Crash Course #39: The Talmud.” <http://www.aish.com/jl/h/cc/48948646.html> Valentine, Carol A. . “The Structure of the Talmud Files.” <https://israelect.com/Come-and-Hear/structure.html>
[v] Sanhedrin 43a.
[vi] Sanhedrin 32a – 36b.
[vii] Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 1883. Chapter 13. The NTSLibrary. 2016. <http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/The%20Life%20and%20Times%20of%20Jesus%20the%20Messiah.pdf> Josephus. Antiquities. Book XX, Chapters IX.1 & X.1; Book XVIII, Chapter IV. Whitson, William. The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Footnotes – Book XX, Chapter VIII. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[viii] Deuteronomy 17, 19; Numbers 35. Sanhedrin 9a, 30a. Resnicoff, Steven H. “Criminal Confessions in Jewish Law .“ 2007. <http://www.torah.org/features/secondlook/criminal.html>
[ix] Sanhedrin 41a. “Capital Punishment.” Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/capital-punishment>
[x] John 2.
[xi] Sanhedrin 41a. “Capital Punishment.” Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/capital-punishment>
[xii] Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book V, Chapter 14.
[xiii] Forsythe, Gary Edward. “Ancient Rome – The Roman Army.” 2007. <http://history-world.org/roman_army.htm>