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Trial of Jesus

TRIAL OF JESUS. The tumultuous proceedings before the Jewish and Roman authorities resulting in the crucifixion of Jesus. All four Gospels record at least part of the twofold trial (Matt.26.57-Matt.27.31; Mark.14.53-Mark.15.20; Luke.22.54-Luke.23.25; John.18.12-John.19.16), but because of the brief and selective nature of their narratives, the precise chronological order of events is not always certain. It is clear that both parts of the trial were marked by great irregularities, but the writers of the Gospels never assert that this or that in the trial was illegal, for they wrote not as lawyers but as witnesses.

Since the Romans had deprived the Sanhedrin of the power of capital punishment, it was necessary to secure a confirmatory death sentence from the Roman governor, who found it expedient to be in Jerusalem during the Passover season. Accordingly, “the whole assembly” (Luke.23.1) in formal procession brought Jesus, bound, to Pilate. When Pilate asked their charges, they indicated that they wanted him simply to sanction their condemnation of Jesus without a full trial (John.18.29-John.18.32). When Pilate’s insisted on knowing what the charges were, the people presented three (Luke.23.2). The charge of treason alone Pilate deemed worthy of investigation. When Jesus explained to him the nature of his kingdom, Pilate concluded that Jesus was harmless and announced a verdict of acquittal (John.18.33-John.18.38). This verdict should have ended the trial, but it only evoked a torrent of further charges against Jesus by the Jews, charges that Jesus refused to answer, to Pilate’s surprise (Matt.27.12-Matt.27.14). Having learned that he was a Galilean, Pilate decided to be rid of the unpleasant task by sending Jesus to Herod Antipas, also present for the Passover, on the plea that Jesus belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction. When Jesus refused to amuse Herod with a miracle, maintaining complete silence before him, Herod mocked him and returned him to Pilate uncondemned (Luke.23.2-Luke.23.12).

With the return of Jesus, Pilate realized that he must handle the trial. Summoning the chief priests “and the people,” he reviewed the case to prove the innocence of Jesus, but weakly proposed a compromise by offering to scourge Jesus before releasing him (Luke.23.13-Luke.23.16). When the multitude requested the customary release of one prisoner (Mark.15.8), Pilate offered them the choice between the notorious Barabbas and Jesus (Matt.27.17). He hoped that the crowd would choose Jesus, thus overruling the chief priests. Before the vote was taken, Pilate received an impressive warning from his wife (Matt.27.19-Matt.27.21). Meanwhile the Jewish leaders persuaded the people to vote for Barabbas. When asked their choice, the people shouted for Barabbas, demanding that Jesus be crucified (Matt.27.20-Matt.27.21; Luke.23.18-Luke.23.19). Further remonstrance by Pilate proved useless (Luke.23.20-Luke.23.22).

According to John’s Gospel, as a last resort to avoid crucifying Jesus, Pilate had him scourged, allowed the soldiers to stage a mock coronation, and then brought out the pathetic figure before the people, hoping that the punishment would satisfy them. It only intensified their shouts for his crucifixion (John.19.1-John.19.6). A new charge, that Jesus made himself the Son of God, aroused the superstitious fears of Pilate, causing him to make further futile efforts to release him (John.19.7-John.19.12). Using their last weapon, the Jewish leaders threatened to report Pilate to Caesar if he released Jesus (John.19.12). This threat, because of Pilate’s grievous maladministration, broke all further resistance in the vacillating governor. To his last appeal whether he should crucify their king, the Jews gave the blasphemous answer that they had no king but Caesar (John.19.15). When Pilate sought to absolve himself of the guilt of Christ’s death by publicly washing his hands, the people voluntarily accepted the responsibility (Matt.27.24-Matt.27.26). Keenly conscious of the gross miscarriage of justice, Pilate yielded by releasing Barabbas and sentencing Jesus to the cross. See also Jesus Christ.

Bibliography: J. Stalker, The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ, 1894; J. Blinzler, The Trial of Jesus, 1959; P. Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, 1961; G. S. Sloyan, Jesus on Trial, 1973.——DEH

TRIAL OF JESUS. Two of the greatest champions of human rights, Jewish and Roman law, met in a most tragic injustice—the mistrial of Jesus Christ. Jewish leaders were blinded by their determination to be rid of Jesus, and the Rom. governor yielded to fear of reprisals. Together they represent both the religious and the secular worlds, which, too often, have been plunged by selfish interests into rejection of their Lord.

The Jewish trial.

The purpose of the Jewish leaders was to “arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” (Matt 26:4). This, not legality, was the controlling principle of the trial and the reason for the many irregularities.

Preliminary examination.

While the Sanhedrin gathered, Jesus was held at the house of Annas, former high priest and sharer of the dignity and power of the office with his sonin-law Caiaphas. As no part of a regular trial, Jesus was interrogated concerning His disciples and doctrine (John 18:19). The purpose was to gain evidence for the trial. Jesus insisted, in effect, that the trial begin with examination of witnesses, not with probing of the accused (18:20, 21). Charges must come before answers.

The night trial.

Haste was important, though illegal. Jesus must be condemned before His friends could rally. The Temple gates were closed for the night. The high priest’s quadrangle served as informal emergency quarters. Off the open center court was a large room isolated only by pillars. Here they assembled, just across the courtyard from the apartment of Annas. As the Sanhedrin were assembling, the chief priests worked frantically to find and train witnesses. Though carefully instructed and solemnly sworn in, the perjured witnesses could not agree (Mark 14:56; Deut 19:15). Jesus treated this phase of the trial with silent disdain.

In a move of desperation, the high priest put Jesus under oath (Matt 26:63, 64). Jesus freely admitted His claim that He was the Christ, the Son of God (26:65, 66), though He knew it would cost His life. The issue was clear. On this claim and nothing else hinged the condemnation of Jesus by the Jewish court. By the clever ruse Caiaphas made each member of the Sanhedrin, including himself, an accredited witness. Since Jesus, a man, could not be deity, they assumed He must be a blasphemer worthy of death. Jesus was condemned by common consent, but not sentenced. The group broke into disorder. Some spat upon Jesus, others struck Him (Mark 14:65).

The morning session.

The Friday trial at daybreak was to give semblance of legality to the decision of the night trial and to prepare to present the matter to Pilate. The high priest began the trial again, eliminating parts that had been unfruitful. Jesus was questioned directly by the court, and again He testified that He was the Son of God. All claimed to witness the blasphemy. All arose and led Him to Pilate (Luke 22:66-23:1). Blasphemy was still the one and only charge.

The Roman trial.

Jesus was still condemned but not sentenced. As a jury, they brought the verdict of guilty, but Rome alone could legally give the sentence of death.

Attempted evasion.

The Jews hinted strongly that Pilate should yield to them the right of trial and exercise only his right of execution. This was sometimes done by Rom. governors either through indolence or as a favor, esp. in matters of religion. Pilate was in no mood to yield, and said in effect, “Give me both the power to try and to execute or be satisfied with the penalties you are allowed to inflict on the condemned” (John 18:29-31).


If Jesus was to be tried and sentenced by Rome, a new case must be made. Rome was not interested in blasphemy. Forced against their will and expectation to formulate a charge, the Jews began to pour forth vehement accusations. There were three main counts: perverting the nation, preventing the paying of tribute to Caesar, and saying that He is a king (Luke 23:2). Only the third impressed Pilate. If it should be true, Jesus could be guilty of treason. If so, He must die. Rome knew no greater crime than treason.

Examination and acquittal.

Pilate returned to the Praetorium to examine Jesus. Jesus admitted that He was a king, but explained to Pilate that He was not the kind of king that would seek to overthrow the government. His authority was in the realm of truth (John 18:33-37). Pilate, being satisfied, went out to the Jews and pronounced the words of acquittal: “I find no crime in him” (v. 38). This would have ended the trial if justice had been the object.

Referral to Herod.

When the Jews shouted all the more accusations, Pilate feared a hopeless impasse. Finally, the word Galilee gave him a thought. Herod Antipas was in the city. Why not give him the honor and danger of passing on the case? The gesture was appreciated by Herod, but he was too astute to allow himself to be involved in a treason trial. He treated Jesus as a cheap entertainer and heaped ridicule upon Him when He did not cater to the desires of the court. No legal purpose was served.

Jesus or Barabbas.

Evasion did not solve Pilate’s problem. Jesus came back from Herod. Pilate tried twice more to gain consent for the release of Jesus (Luke 23:13-23). Justice, scourging, pity, and festive spirit made no difference. The people wanted only Jesus’ blood; that of Barabbas would not do (23:18).

“Behold the Man!”

In a final appeal to their humanity, Pilate brought Jesus out with bleeding back from the scourging, with the crown of thorns on His head, and with the purple robes of mockery. The Jews were all the more insistent that Jesus be crucified (John 19:1-6).

The sentence.

Compromise became impossible. Pilate had to release Jesus at all costs or crucify Him at all costs. Finally, fear of Jewish blackmail became greater than his sense of justice. Pilate was unwilling to face his record before Caesar. To appease the Jews, Pilate crucified Jesus (John 19:16).


S. Andrews, The Life of our Lord Upon the Earth (1891), 505-544; J. Stalker, The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ (1894), 15-113; W. Chandler, The Trial of Jesus (1908) 2 vols.; P. Vollmer, The Modern Student’s Life of Christ (1912), 240-257; J. Blinzler, The Trial of Jesus (1959), 81-245; P. Winter, On the Trial of Jesus (1961), 20-135.

See also

  • The Arrest and Trial of Jesus Christ