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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Betrayal, Trial, and Death of Jesus

Don Stewart :: Did Jesus Receive a Fair Trial?

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Did Jesus Receive a Fair Trial?

The Betrayal, Trial, and Death of Jesus – Question 5

The trial of Jesus Christ is the most famous in history; none even comes close. Actually it was in two parts—one Jewish and one Roman. Each of these trials contained a number of parts. They can be broken down in the following manner.

The Jewish Trials

After His arrest, Jesus first went before Annas, the former High Priest. We read about this in the Gospel of John:

The Roman officer and his men, together with the temple police, arrested Jesus and tied him up. They took him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. This was the same Caiaphas who had told the Jewish leaders, “It is better if one person dies for the people.” (John 18:12-14 CEV)

Though he was the former high priest, Annas was actually the power behind the office.

Jesus was then brought to Caiaphas, the son-in-law, of Annas. Matthew records this episode in the following manner:

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. (Matthew 26:57 NRSV)

Jesus now appears before the present high priest, Caiaphas. A number of religious rulers from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling authority, were also at his house to interrogate Jesus.

Matthew explains what occurred when Jesus appeared before these religious leaders. We find that they are the ones who determined that He should die:

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. (Matthew 26:65, 66 NIV)

These religious leaders were convinced that Jesus’ death was necessary.

The Roman Trials

Jesus was then brought to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. After examining Jesus for a time Pilate discovered that Jesus was from Galilee.

Consequently he sent Him to Herod, the ruler of Galilee who was in Jerusalem for the Passover. Luke writes,

And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. (Luke 23:7 ESV)

Herod had wanted to see Jesus. However, Jesus did not say a word to Herod. Eventually the frustrated king sent Jesus back to Pilate. Again, Luke records what happened:

Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. (Luke 23:11 NRSV)

Jesus was sent back to Pilate after Herod and his soldiers had treated Jesus with contempt.

It was Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea, who sentenced Jesus to death. Luke records it in the following manner:

Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. (Luke 23:20-24 NIV)

Pilate wanted to set Jesus free but gave in to the loud shouting of the crowd. Thus, he knowingly sentenced an innocent man to death.

Did Jesus Receive a Fair Trial?

This briefly sums up the various trials Jesus experienced. The question is whether Jesus received a fair trial. Among believers there are two basic responses to this issue.

One view is that the religious leaders kept the letter of the law, but not the spirit when they condemned Him. The trial was legal. The other perspective is that there were a number of illegal things occurred. This is the traditional way of looking at His trial.

Was It Bad Law?

It has been argued that the trial of Jesus is the classic example of following the law in a bad way. The religious leaders, it is contended followed the letter of the law but not the spirit of the law. While they may have done everything correct in a technical way they did not follow the clear intention of the law.

The Trial Was Illegal

Traditionally Christians have argued that the trial of Jesus consisted of one illegal act after another by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling authority. Some of the main problems with the trial of Jesus include the following.

1. There Was No Possibility of a Fair Trial

First, the Sanhedrin should have never held the trial. They had plotted to kill Jesus weeks ahead of time.

We read the following in the Gospel of John,

So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council. They asked, “What are we doing? This man is performing a lot of miracles. If we let him continue what he’s doing, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will take away our position and our nation.” One of them, Caiaphas, who was chief priest that year, told them, “You people don’t know anything. You haven’t even considered this: It is better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” Caiaphas didn’t say this on his own. As chief priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation. He prophesied that Jesus wouldn’t die merely for this nation, but that Jesus would die to bring God’s scattered children together and make them one. From that day on, the Jewish council planned to kill Jesus. (John 11:47-53 God’s Word)

Since they had already plotted to kill Jesus, there was no way they could fairly judge Him. Indeed, Caiaphas the High Priest, the one presiding over the trial, is the one who said that it was necessary for Jesus to die for the entire nation. Consequently the verdict was decided before the trial was even held.

2. A Capital Trial at Night Was Illegal

When a person’s life was at stake it was illegal to try that person at night. By holding the first trial of Jesus at night, the Sanhedrin broke their own law. Therefore, the entire process of putting Jesus on trial was illegal.

3. They Should Not Have Looked for Witnesses after the Trial Started

According to Jewish law, a trial could only start after the witnesses had previously come forward to testify. First, the witnesses were found, and then the trial was to occur.

Yet the Bible is clear that they looked for witnesses after the trial started. Since they had already determined the verdict ahead of time, they sought witnesses to seal the verdict. Again, we find no fairness whatsoever.

4. They Should Not Have Looked for False Witnesses

There was something even worse. Not only should the Sanhedrin have not looked for witnesses, they certainly should not have looked for false witnesses. Yet, the Bible says they were deliberately looking for false evidence. Matthew writes,

The chief priests and the whole council wanted to put Jesus to death. So they tried to find some people who would tell lies about him in court. (Matthew 26:59 CEV)

Theirs was a shameless attempt to subvert justice.

5. The False Witnesses Should Have Been Punished

There is another problem. Since the Sanhedrin knew the testimony of the witnesses was false, these witnesses should have been punished:

But they could not find any, even though many did come and tell lies. At last, two men came forward and said, “This man claimed that he would tear down God’s temple and build it again in three days.” (Matthew 26:60, 61 CEV)

There is no indication that these false witnesses were ever punished. Yet Jewish law calls for false witnesses to be punished.

6. Any Judgment Should Have Been Delayed Till Next Day

In cases where a person’s life was at stake, the judgment was to be supposed to be delayed until the next day. However the Sanhedrin immediately pronounced judgment against Jesus. Matthew records the following happening:

Early the next morning all the chief priests and the nation’s leaders met and decided that Jesus should be put to death. (Matthew 27:1 CEV)

They could not wait to put Him to death.

7. There Was Not Supposed to Be a Trial on the Day before the Sabbath or before Holy Days

The timing of the trial was also illegal. Judgment in a capital case could not be rendered until the next day. This made it illegal to try someone on the day before the Sabbath or before some holy day. The Sanhedrin could not legally meet during the Sabbath day, or holy day. Yet, they illegally met the night before the Passover, the holiest day of the year, to try Jesus.

8. They Never Considered Jesus’ Testimony

There is also the problem of Jesus’ testimony. When Jesus was put under oath He acknowledged that He was the Messiah—the promised Deliverer that the Law and the Prophets spoke of. This admission of Jesus was what caused the Sanhedrin to call for His death.

However, they never stopped for one moment to consider the possibility that Jesus was telling the truth! There was not the slightest interest among the members of the Sanhedrin to attempt to find out whether Jesus may indeed be the promised Messiah. No evidence was allowed to be presented on Jesus’ behalf, and no witnesses were called to back up His claims. Nothing. As soon as He made the claim, under oath, they assumed Him guilty of blasphemy. His side was never heard.

9. They Could Not Agree on the Charges

The Sanhedrin could not agree on what crime Jesus committed. They judged Him guilty because of blasphemy. The High Priest said:

“You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:64 NRSV)

However, they brought Him before Pilate, the Roman governor, because supposedly He was inciting the people against Caesar. Luke writes,

They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2 NRSV)

They charged Jesus with something they knew was untrue.

10. Pilate Declared Him Innocent Three Different Times

There is something else that is truly pitiful. Pontius Pilate actually declared Jesus innocent three different times! These are all recorded in the gospel of Luke. We read,

Pilate told the chief priests and the crowd, “I don’t find him guilty of anything.” (Luke 23:4 CEV)

This is the first admission of Pilate.

When Jesus had returned, after seeing Herod, Pilate again declared Him innocent. Luke states it as follows:

Then Pilate called together the leading priests and other religious leaders, along with the people, and he announced his verdict. “You brought this man to me, accusing him of leading a revolt. I have examined him thoroughly on this point in your presence and find him innocent. Herod came to the same conclusion and sent him back to us. Nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty.” (Luke 23:13-15 NLT)

Pilate declared that after examining Jesus he found Him innocent.

After trying, in vain, to release Jesus Pilate again testified to His innocence. We read the description that Luke gives:

A third time he said to them, “Why? What has this man done wrong? I have found in Him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have Him whipped and [then] release Him.” (Luke 23:22 HCSB)

Finally, Pilate sentenced a man, whom he knew to be innocent, and declared to be innocent, to the horrible death by crucifixion.

Conclusion to the Trial of Jesus

When all the facts are weighed it becomes clear that those who tried Jesus on that night were not interested in giving Him a fair trial. The verdict had been determined ahead of time. They only went through the motions of the appearance of a fair trial. Jesus was illegally and wrongfully tried. Although Pilate declared Him innocent, Jesus was still put to death. This was a mockery of justice.

Summary – Question 5
Did Jesus Receive a Fair Trial?

The four gospels tell us that Jesus Christ went through a number of trials—Jewish and Roman—before He was put to death. There is a question as to whether or not Jesus received a fair trial. Some have argued that the trial of Jesus was legal but not ethical. It was the textbook example of using the law in a bad way.

The traditional view among Christians, however, is that the trial of Jesus was illegal in a number of ways.

First, there was no possibility of him receiving a fair trial because the verdict had already been determined in advance. His fate had already been determined by these religious rulers.

It was also illegal to try someone at night for a capital crime. Yet Jesus was tried at night.

According to Jewish law, witnesses were needed to start the trial. The trial did not begin and then a search got underway for witnesses. However, it was only after Jesus’ trial began that they started looking for witnesses. Furthermore, the witnesses used at Jesus’ trial were false. Not only should their testimony have been rejected they themselves should have been punished.

Because judgment in capital cases had to be delayed until the next day, no trial should have been held before the Sabbath day. Yet again we find them breaking their own law.

Most important, Jesus admission to being the Messiah was never seriously considered. As soon as He admitted His identity they charged Him with blasphemy and declared Him guilty. There was not the least bit of effort to determine if His claims may have been true.

The farce continued. The religious rulers could not agree among themselves on the charges. They considered Jesus was worthy of death because He blasphemed. Yet they told Pilate that He was guilty of attempting to overthrow Rome.

Finally, Pilate, the judge, admitted on three different occasions that Jesus was innocent of all the charges. However, he still ordered a known innocent man to be crucified.

Therefore when all the facts are considered we conclude that Jesus’ trial was the greatest injustice in all of history.

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