The Arrest and Trial of Jesus Christ
|| 1. Jewish and Roman Law
2. Difficulties of the Subject
3. Illustrations of Difficulties
I. THE ARREST
1. Preparatory Steps
2. The Arrest in the Garden
3. Taken to the City
II. THE JEWISH TRIAL
1. The Jewish Law
2. The Mishna
3. Criminal Trials
5. The Preliminary Examination
6. The Night Trial
7. False Witnesses
8. A Browbeating Judge
9. The Morning Session
10. Powers of the Sanhedrin
11. Condemnation for Blasphemy
III. THE ROMAN TRIAL
1. Taken before Pilate
2. Roman Law and Procedure
3. Full Trial Not Desired
4. Final Accusation
5. Examination, Defence and Acquittal
6. Fresh Accusations
7. Reference to Herod
8. Jesus or Barabbas
9. Behold the Man!
10. Pilate Succumbs to Threats
11. Pilate Washes His Hands
12. The Sentence
This subject is of special interest, not only on account of its inherent importance, but more particularly on account of its immediately preceding, and leading directly up to what is the greatest tragedy in human history, the crucifixion of our Lord. It has also the added interest of being the only proceeding on record in which the two great legal systems of antiquity, the Jewish and the Roman, which have most largely influenced modern legislation and jurisprudence, each played a most important part.
1. Jewish and Roman Law:
The coexistence of these two systems in Judea, and their joint action in bringing about the tremendous results in question, were made possible by the generous policy pursued by Rome in allowing conquered nations to retain their ancient laws, institutions and usages, in so far as they were compatible with Roman sovereignty and supremacy. Not only so, but, in a large degree, they permitted these laws to be administered by the officials of the subject peoples. This privilege was not granted absolutely, but was permitted only so long as it was not abused. It might be withdrawn at any time, and the instances in which this was, done were by no means rare.
Of the matters considered in this article, the arrest of Jesus and the proceedings before Annas, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin took place professedly under Jewish law; the proceedings before Pilate and the reference to Herod, under Roman law.
2. Difficulties of the Subject:
It is very difficult to construct from the materials in the four Gospels a satisfactory continuous record of the arrest, and of what may be called the twofold trial of Jesus. The Gospels were written from different viewpoints, and for different purposes, each of the writers selecting such particulars as seemed to him to be of special importance for the particular object he had in view. Their reports are all very brief, and the proper chronological order of the various events recorded in different Gospels must, in many eases, be largely a matter of conjecture. The difficulty is increased by the great irregularities and the tumultuous character of the proceedings; by our imperfect knowledge of the topography of Jerusalem at this time (29 AD); also by the fact that the reports are given mainly in popular and not in technical language; and when the latter form is used, the technical terms have had to be translated into Greek, either from the Hebrew or from the Latin.
3. Illustrations of Difficulties:
For instance, opinions are divided as to where Pilate resided when in Jerusalem, whether in the magnificent palace built by Herod the Great, or in the castle of Antonia; as to where was the palace occupied by Herod Antipas during the Passover; whether Annas and Caiaphas occupied different portions of the same palace, or whether they lived in adjoining or different residences; whether the preliminary examination of Jesus, recorded by John, was before Annas or Caiaphas, and as to other similar matters. It is very satisfactory, however, to know that, although it is sometimes difficult to decide exactly as to the best way of harmonizing the different accounts, yet there is nothing irreconcilable or contradictory in them, and that there is no material point in the history of the very important proceedings falling within the scope of this article which is seriously affected by any of these debatable matters.
For a clear historical statement of the events of the concluding day in the life of our Lord before His crucifixion, see the article on JESUS CHRIST. The present article will endeavor to consider the matters relating to His arrest and trial from a legal and constitutional point of view.
I. The Arrest.
During the last year of the ministry of Jesus, the hostility of the Jews to Him had greatly increased, and some six months before they finally succeeded in accomplishing their purpose, they had definitely resolved to make away with Him. At the
After His raising of Lazarus, their determination to kill Him was greatly intensified. A special meeting of the council was held to consider the matter. There Caiaphas, the high priest, strongly advocated such a step on national grounds, and on the ground of expediency, quoting in support of his advice, in a cold-blooded and cynical manner, the Jewish adage that it was expedient that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. Their plans to this end were frustrated, for the time being, by Jesus withdrawing Himself to the border of the wilderness, where He remained with His disciples (
On His return to Bethany and Jerusalem, six days before the Passover, they were deterred from carrying out their design on account of His manifest popularity with the people, as evidenced by His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first day of the Passover week (Palm Sunday), and by the crowds who thronged around Him, and listened to His teachings in the temple, and who enjoyed the discomfiture of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, as they successively sought to entangle Him in His talk.
Two days before the Passover, at a council meeting held in the palace of Caiaphas, they planned to accomplish their purpose by subtlety, but "not during the feast, lest a tumult arise among the people" (
1. Preparatory Steps:
This time they determined not to rely solely upon their own temple-guards or officers to execute their warrant or order of arrest, fearing that these officials, being Jews, might again be fascinated by the strange influence which Jesus exercised over His countrymen, or that His followers might offer resistance. They therefore applied to Pilate, the Roman procurator (governor), for the assistance of a band of Roman soldiers. He granted them a cohort (Greek: speira, 400 to 600 men) from the legion then quartered in the castle of Antonia, which adjoined and overlooked the temple-area. The final arrangements as to these would probably be completed while Judas was at the supper room. It has been suggested that the whole cohort would not go, but only a selection from them. However, it is said that Judas "received the band (cohort) of soldiers" (
The Garden of Gethsemane, in which Judas knew that Jesus would be found that night, was well known to him (
2. The Arrest in the Garden:
On their arrival at the garden, Jesus came forward to meet them, and the traitor Judas gave them the appointed signal by kissing Him. As the order or warrant was a Jewish one, the temple officers would probably be in front, the soldiers supporting them as reserves. On Jesus announcing to the leaders that He was the one they sought, what the chief priests had feared actually occurred. There was something in the words or bearing of Jesus which awed the temple officers; they were panic-stricken, went backward, and fell to the ground. On their rallying, the impetuous Peter drew his sword, and cut off the ear of one of them, Malchus, the servant of the high priest (
On this evidence of resistance the Roman captain and soldiers came forward, and with the assistance of the Jewish officers bound Jesus. Under the Jewish law this was not lawful before condemnation, save in exceptional cases where resistance was either offered or apprehended.
Even in this trying hour the concern of Jesus was more for others than for Himself, as witness His miracle in healing the ear of Malchus, and His request that His disciples might be allowed their liberty (
It is worthy of note that Jesus had no word of blame or censure for the Roman officers or soldiers who were only doing their sworn duty in supporting the civil authorities; but His pungent words of reproach for not having attempted His arrest while He was teaching openly in the temple were reserved for "the chief priests, and captains of the temple, and elders" (
3. Taken to the City:
The whole body departed with their prisoner for the city. From the first three Gospels one might infer that they went directly to the palace of Caiaphas, the high priest. In the Fourth Gospel, however, we are told that they took him first to Annas (
Why they did so we are not informed, the only statement made being that he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas (
Annas, however, sent Jesus bound to Caiaphas (
Meanwhile, the members of the Sanhedrin were assembling at the palace of the high priest, and the preliminary steps toward the first or Jewish trial were being taken.
II. The Jewish Trial.
1. The Jewish Law:
It is the just boast of those countries whose jurisprudence had its origin in the common law of England, that their system of criminal law is rounded upon the humane maxims that everyone is presumed to be innocent until he is proved to be guilty, and that no one is bound to criminate himself. But the Jewish law went even farther in the safeguards which it placed around an accused person. In the Pentateuch it is provided that one witness shall not be sufficient to convict any man of even a minor offense. "One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established" (
2. The Mishna:
These principles of the Mosaic law were elaborated and extended in the system which grew up after the return from Babylon. It was begun by the men of the, and was afterward completed by the Sanhedrin which succeeded them. Up to the time of our Lord, and for the first two centuries of the Christian era, their rules remained largely in an oral or unwritten form, until they were compiled or codified in the Mishna by Rabbi Judah and his associates and successors in the early part of the 3rd century. It is generally conceded by both Jewish and Christian writers that the main provisions, therein found for the protection of accused persons, had been long incorporated in the oral law and were recognized as a part of it in the time of Annas and Caiaphas.
3. Criminal Trials:
The provisions relating to criminal trials, and especially to those in which the offense was punishable by death, were very stringent and were all framed in the interest of the accused. Among them were the following: The trial must be begun by day, and if not completed before night it must be adjourned and resumed by day; the quorum of judges in capital cases was 23, that being the quorum of the Grand Council; a verdict of acquittal, which required only a majority of one, might be rendered on the same day as the trial was completed; any other verdict could only be rendered on a subsequent day and required a majority of at least two; no prisoner could be convicted on his own evidence; it was the duty of a judge to see that the interests of the accused were fully protected.
The modern practice of an information or complaint and a preliminary investigation before a magistrate was wholly unknown to the Jewish law and foreign to its genius. The examination of the witnesses in open court was in reality the beginning of a Jewish trial, and the crime for which the accused was tried, and the sole charge he had to meet, was that which was disclosed by the evidence of the witnesses.
4. The Trial of Jesus:
Let us see how far the foregoing principles and rules were followed and observed in the proceedings before the high priest in the present instance. The first step taken in the trial was the private examination of Jesus by the high priest, which is recorded only in
Caiaphas was actually the high priest at the time, and had been for some years. Annas had been deposed from the office about 14 years previously by the Roman procurator; but he was still accorded the title (
However, it is not material which of these two leading members of the Sanhedrin conducted the examination. The same may also be said as to the controversy regarding the residence of Annas at the time, whether it was in some part of the official palace of the high priest or elsewhere. The important matters are the fact, the time, and the manner of the examination by one or other of these leading members of the council, not the precise place where, or the particular person by whom, it was conducted.
5. The Preliminary Examination:
The high priest (whether Annas or Caiaphas) proceeded to interrogate Jesus concerning His disciples and His doctrine (
6. The Night Trial:
The next proceeding was the trial before the council in the palace of Caiaphas, attended at least by the quorum of 23. This was an illegal meeting, since a capital trial, as we have seen, could not either be begun or proceeded with at night. Some of the chief priests and elders, as previously stated, had been guilty of the highly improper act for judges, of taking part in and directing the arrest of Jesus. Now, "the chief priests and the whole council" spent the time intervening between the arrest and the commencement of the trial in something even worse: they "sought false witness against Jesus, that they might put him to death" (
Caiaphas, as high priest and president of the Sanhedrin, presided at the meeting of the council. The oath administered to witnesses in a Jewish court was an extremely solemn invocation, and it makes one shudder to think of the high priest pronouncing these words to perjured witnesses, known by him to have been procured by the judges before him in the manner stated.
7. False Witnesses:
But even this did not avail. Although "many bare false witness against him," yet on account of their having been imperfectly tutored by their instructors, or for other cause, "their witness agreed not together" (
The nearest approach to the necessary concurrence came at last from two witnesses, who gave a distorted report of a figurative and enigmatic statement made by Jesus in the temple during His early ministry: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (
8. A Browbeating Judge:
Caiaphas, having exhausted his list of witnesses, and seeing the prosecution on which he had set his heart in danger of breaking down for the lack of legal evidence, adopted a blustering tone, and said to Jesus, "Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? But Jesus held his peace" (
The night session then broke up to meet again after daybreak in order to ratify the decision just come to, and to give a semblance of legality to the trial and verdict. The closing scene was one of disorder, in which they spat in their prisoner’s face and buffeted him (
9. The Morning Session:
The following morning, "as soon as it was day," the council reassembled in the same place, and Jesus was led into their presence (
10. Powers of the Sanhedrin:
It will be observed that neither at the night nor at the morning session was there any sentence pronounced upon Jesus by the high priest. There was on each occasion only what would be equivalent to a verdict of guilty found by a jury under our modern criminal practice, but no sentence passed upon the prisoner by the presiding judge. When Judea lost the last vestige of its independence and became a Roman province (6 AD), the Sanhedrin ceased to have the right to inflict Capital punishment or to administer the law of life and death. This jurisdiction was thenceforth transferred to the Roman procurator. The Sanhedrin submitted very reluctantly to this curtailment of its powers. A few years later it exercised it illegally and in a very riotous manner in the case of Stephen (
The proceedings may have been taken before the high priest in the hope that Pilate might be induced to accept the verdict of the Sanhedrin as conclusive that Jesus had been guilty of an offense punishable by death under the Jewish law.
11. Condemnation for Blasphemy:
Now what was the precise crime or crimes for which Jesus was tried at these two sittings of the council? The first impression would probably be that there was no connection between the charge of destroying the temple and building another in three days, and His claiming to be the Son of God. And yet they were closely allied in the Jewish mind. The Jewish nation being a pure theocracy, the overthrow of the temple, the abode of the Divine Sovereign, would mean the overthrow of Divine institutions, and be an act of treason against the Deity. The profession of ability to build another temple in three days would be construed as a claim to the possession of supernatural power and, consequently, blasphemy. As to the other claim which He Himself made and confessed to the council, namely, that He was the Christ, the Son of God, none of them would have any hesitation in concurring in the verdict of the high priest that it was rank blasphemy, when made by one whom they regarded simply as a Galilean peasant.
To sum up: The Jewish trial of our Lord was absolutely illegal, the court which condemned Him being without jurisdiction to try a capital offense, which blasphemy was under the Jewish law. Even if there had been jurisdiction, it would have been irregular, as the judges had rendered themselves incompetent to try the case, having been guilty of the violation of the spirit of the law that required judges to be unprejudiced and impartial, and carefully to guard the interests of the accused. Even the letter of the law had been violated in a number of important respects. Among these may be mentioned:
(1) some of the judges taking part in and directing the arrest;
(2) the examination before the trial and the attempt to obtain admissions;
(3) endeavors of the judges to procure the testimony of false witnesses;
(4) commencing and continuing the trial at night;
(5) examining and adjuring the accused in order to extort admissions from Him;
(6) rendering a verdict of guilty at the close of the night session, without allowing a day to intervene;
(7) holding the morning session on a feast day, and rendering a verdict at its close; and
(8) rendering both verdicts without any legal evidence.
III. The Roman Trial.
Early on the morning of Friday of the Passover week, as we have already seen, "the chief priests with the elders and scribes, and the whole council" held a consultation (Mark), in the palace of the high priest; and after the examination of Jesus and their verdict that He was guilty of blasphemy, they took counsel against Him "to put him to death" (Mt), this being, in their judgment, the proper punishment for the offense of which they had pronounced Him guilty.
1. Taken before Pilate:
For the reasons already mentioned, they came to the conclusion that it would be necessary to invoke the aid of the Roman power in carrying out this sentence. They thereupon bound Jesus, and led Him away and delivered Him up to Pilate, who at this time probably occupied, while in Jerusalem, the magnificent palace built by Herod the Great. Jesus was taken into the judgment hall of the palace or Pretorium; His accusers, unwilling to defile themselves by entering into a heathen house and thereby rendering themselves unfit to eat the Passover, remained outside upon the marble pavement.
2. Roman Law and Procedure:
The proceedings thus begun were conducted under a system entirely different from that which we have thus far been considering, both in its nature and its administration. The Jewish law was apart of the religion, and in its growth and development was administered in important cases by a large body of trained men, who were obliged to follow strictly a well-defined procedure. The Roman law, on the other hand, had its origin and growth under the stern and manly virtues and the love of justice which characterized republican Rome, and it still jealously guarded the rights and privileges of Roman citizens, even in a conquered province. Striking illustrations of this truth are found in the life of Paul (see
On this occasion, Pilate, respecting the scruples of the chief priests about entering the palace, went outside at their request, apparently leaving Jesus in the Pretorium. He asked them the usual formal question, put at the opening of a Roman trial: "What accusation bring ye against this man?
3. Full Trial Not Desired:
They answered and said unto him, If he were not an evil-doer, we should not have delivered him up unto thee" (
4. Final Accusation:
Perceiving that Pilate would not gratify their desire to have Jesus condemned on the verdict which they had rendered, or for an offense against their own law only, "they began to accuse him, saying, We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king" (
5. Examination, Defence and Acquittal:
The accusers having been heard, Pilate returned to the Pretorium to examine Jesus regarding the last and serious accusation. The Four Gospels give in the same words the question put to him by Pilate, "Art thou the
6. Fresh Accusations:
According to the Roman law, this verdict of acquittal should have ended the trial and at once secured the discharge of Jesus; but instead it brought a volley of fresh accusations to which Jesus made no reply. Pilate hesitated, and hearing a charge that Jesus had begun His treasonable teaching in Galilee, the thought occurred to him that he might escape from his dilemma by sending Jesus for trial to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, who was then in Jerusalem for the feast, which he accordingly did (
7. Reference to Herod:
Herod had long been desirous to see Jesus--"hoped to see some miracle done by him," and "questioned him in many words; but he answered him nothing." The chief priests and scribes, who had followed him from the Pretorium to the Maccabean palace, which Herod was then occupying, "stood, vehemently accusing" Jesus (
8. Jesus or Barabbas:
On their return, Pilate resumed his place on the judgment seat outside. What followed, however, properly formed no part of the legal trial, as it was a mere travesty upon law as well as upon justice. Pilate resolved to make another attempt to secure the consent of the Jews to the release of Jesus. To this end he summoned not only the chief priests and the rulers, but "the people" as well (
9. Behold the Man!:
The Fourth Gospel alone records a final attempt on the part of Pilate to save Jesus. He scourged Him, it has been suggested, with a view to satisfying their desire for His punishment, and afterward appealing to their pity. He allowed his soldiers to repeat what they had seen done at Herod’s palace, and place a crown of thorns upon His head, array Him in a purple robe, and render mock homage to Him as king of the Jews. Pilate went out to the Jews with Jesus thus arrayed and bleeding. Again declaring that he found no fault in Him, he presented Him, saying, "Behold, the man!" This was met by the former cry, "Crucify him, crucify him." Pilate replied, "Take him yourselves .... for I find no crime in him." The Jews referred him to their law by which He deserved death because He made Himself the Son of God. This alarmed Pilate’s superstitious fears, who by this time appears to have wholly lost control of himself. He took Jesus into the palace and said to Him, "Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him no answer." Irritated at His silence, Pilate reminded Him of his absolute power over Him. The mysterious answer of Jesus as to the source of power still further alarmed him, and he made new efforts to secure His discharge (
10. Pilate Succumbs to Threats:
The Jews were well aware that Pilate was arbitrary and cruel, but they had also found that he was very sensitive as to anything that might injuriously affect his official position or his standing with his master, the emperor. As a last resort they shouted to him, "If thou release this man, thou art not Caesar’s friend: every one that maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar" (
11. Pilate Washes His Hands:
Then occurred the closing scene of the tragedy, recorded only in the First Gospel, when Pilate washed his hands before the multitude (a Jewish custom), saying to them, "I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man; see ye to it." The reply was that dreadful imprecation, "His blood be on us, and on our children" (
12. The Sentence:
Pilate resumes his place upon the judgment seat, the fatal sentence at last falls from his lips, and Jesus is delivered up to be crucified.
Now, how far were these proceedings in accordance with the Roman law under which they purported to have been taken and conducted? In the first place, Pilate, as procurator, was the proper officer to try the charges brought against Jesus.
In the next place he acted quite properly in declining to entertain a charge which disclosed no offense known to the Roman law, or to pass a sentence based on the verdict of the Sanhedrin for an alleged violation of the Jewish law. He appears to have acted in accordance with the law, and indeed in a judicial and praiseworthy manner in the trial and disposition of the threefold indictment for treason (unless it be a fact that Jesus was not present when these accusations were brought against Him outside the Pretorium, which would be merely an irregularity, as they were made known to him later inside). Pilate’s initial mistake, which led to all the others, was in not discharging Jesus at once, when he had pronounced the verdict of acquittal.
All the subsequent proceedings were contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the law. Although Pilate took his place upon the judgment seat, his acts, properly speaking, were not those of a judge, and had no legal force or value; but were rather the futile attempts of a weak and vacillating politician to appease an angry mob thirsting for the blood of an innocent countryman. The carrying out of a sentence imposed in such circumstances, and under such conditions, may not inaptly be described as a judicial murder.