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Trial of Jesus


Two systems of justice combined to produce a sentence of death for Jesus. Jewish religious leaders accused Jesus of blasphemy, a capital offense under Jewish law (see Leviticus 24:16). The Jewish leaders at Jesus’ trial manipulated procedures to coerce Jesus into an admission that He was God’s Son (see Luke 22:66-71). For them this constituted blasphemy.

Roman leaders allowed conquered people such as the Jews to follow their own legal system so long as they did not abuse their privileges. The Romans did not give the Jews the right of capital punishment for the accusation of blasphemy. The Jews had to convince a Roman judge that their demand for capital punishment was justified.


Jewish leaders were determined to seek Jesus’ death when they put Him on trial (see Luke 22:2; Mark 14:1). They held the Jewish trial at night hoping that Jesus’ supporters would be asleep and unable to protest his arrest. The Jewish portion of the trial had three separate phases: (1) an appearance before Annas; (2) an informal investigation by Caiaphas and (3) a condemnation by the Sanhedrin. Annas was father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas. He had been high priest himself from A.D. 7-15. He was the most influential member of the Sanhedrin. The details of the interview before Annas are meager (John 18:12-14, 19-24). The high priest mentioned in John 18:19 may have been Annas. If so, he held a brief interrogation of Jesus and sent Him to his son-in-law Caiaphas (John 18:24).


The meeting with Caiaphas took place in his residence (Luke 22:54). Some members of the Sanhedrin worked frantically to locate and train witnesses against Jesus (Matthew 26:59-60). The carefully prepared witnesses could not agree in their testimony (see Mark 14:56; compare Deuteronomy 19:15).


During this circuslike activity Caiaphas talked with Jesus and put Him under oath (Matthew 26:63-64). He charged Jesus to tell if He were God’s Son. Perhaps Jesus felt that silence under this oath would be a denial of His divine origin. He affirmed that He was God’s Son (Mark 14:62), knowing that this would lead to death. The Sanhedrin condemned Him but did not pronounce a sentence (Mark 14:64). After the condemnation the group broke up into wild disorder. Some began to slap and spit upon Jesus (Mark 14:65).


Shortly after dawn, the Sanhedrin convened again to bring a formal condemnation against Jesus (Luke 22:66). Jewish law stipulated that a guilty verdict in a capital crime had to be delayed until the next day. The vote for condemnation after dawn gave the semblance of following this requirement.


The procedure at this session was similar to that of the night trial. No witnesses came forward to accuse Christ. Jesus again claimed that He was God’s Son (Luke 22:66-71). The Sanhedrin again approved the death sentence and took Jesus to Pilate for sentencing (Luke 23:1).


The procedures of the Jewish leaders during Jesus’ trial were illegal. Jewish law required that trial for a capital crime begin during the daytime and adjourn by nightfall if incomplete. Sanhedrin members were supposed to be impartial judges. Jewish rules prohibited convicting the accused on His own testimony.


The Roman trial of Jesus also had three phases: (1) first appearance before Pilate; (2) appearance before Herod Antipas; (3) second appearance before Pilate. The Jews asked Pilate to accept their verdict against Jesus without investigation (John 18:29-31). Pilate refused this, but he offered to let them carry out the maximum punishment under their law, probably beating with rods or imprisonment. They insisted that they wanted death.


The Jews knew that Pilate would laugh at their charge of blasphemy. They fabricated three additional charges against Jesus which would be of concern to a Roman governor (Luke 23:2). Pilate concerned himself only with the charge that Jesus had claimed to be a king. This charge sounded like treason. The Romans knew no greater crime than treason.


Pilate interrogated Jesus long enough to be convinced that He was no political rival to Caesar (John 18:33-37). He returned to the Jews to announce that he found Jesus no threat to Rome and hence not deserving of death (John 18:38). The Jews responded with vehement accusations against Jesus’ actions in Judea and Galilee (Luke 23:5). When Pilate learned that Jesus was from Galilee, he sent Jesus to Herod Antipas of Galilee who was then in Jerusalem (Luke 23:6-12). Herod wanted Jesus to entertain him with a miracle. Jesus did not even speak a word to Herod. The king and his soldiers mocked and ridiculed Jesus, finally sending Him back to Pilate.


When Herod returned Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor announced that he still found Jesus innocent of charges of treason. Three times Pilate tried to release Jesus. First, Pilate offered to chastise or beat Jesus and then to release him (Luke 23:16). Second, he offered to release either Jesus or Barabbas, a radical revolutionary. To Pilate’s surprise the crowd chanted for Barabbas’ release (Luke 23:17-19). Third, he scourged Jesus. Soldiers flailed at Jesus’ bare back with a leather whip. The whip had pieces of iron or bone tied to the ends of the thongs. Pilate then presented the bleeding Jesus with a crown of thorns and a mock purple robe to the crowd as their king. He hoped that this spectacle would lead them to release Jesus out of pity. Again they chanted for crucifixion (John 19:4-6).


When Pilate seemed to waver one more time concerning crucifixion, the Jews threatened to report his conduct to Caesar (John 19:12). That threat triggered Pilate’s action. After symbolically washing his hands of the entire affair (Matthew 27:24), he delivered Jesus for crucifixion (John 19:16).

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