The Jewish Trial of Jesus Part One

John 8:12-14

Walter M. Chandler is a former member of the New York bar of lawyers. He is the author of an excellent book on the trial of Jesus. He has written, “These [other] trials, one and all, were tame and commonplace, compared with the trial and crucifixion of the Galilean peasant, Jesus of Nazareth.” He is speaking such trials as the Watergate trial among others. The trials we may think of were before earthly courts. The trial of the Nazarene was before the high tribunals of both heaven and earth; before the Great Sanhedrin, whose judges were the master-spirits of a divinely commissioned race; before the court of the Roman Empire, which controlled the legal and political rights of men throughout the then known world.

It is of great importance that we study the trail of Jesus because it was in haste. Its elements, when studied in the light of ancient law, reveal that they were done illegally. Such questions as the following are raised:

-Was Jesus guilty as charged?

-What were the charges against Him?

-Were proper procedures followed or were they violated?

Here are some questions that will be discussed in our study.

First, we must look at the arrest. This subject has been covered, but I would like to mention a few more facts. This took place on the evening before the Jewish Passover in the year A.D. 30. It happened on a Wednesday, April 5. It would have been late. The approximate time would be between eleven or twelve o’clock at night. It happened through the agency of a band of temple officers or Roman soldiers. Their guide was Judas.

Second, there was a Jewish trial. This had three separate parts:

-The primary hearing by night was before Anna. This is what John records. He uses the phrase “the high priest” which may mean both Annas and Caiaphas. Caiaphas probably presided over the second trial. The possible reason for this can be seen in the fact that according to Jewish law, the high priest held his office for life. The Romans saw this as a problem because it gave too much power to the individual. The Romans did remove individual who were not to their liking. Caiaphas was the Roman appointee. Annas (the elder high priest) would have been recognized as the true high priest by the Jews. It is apparent that John describes the appearance of Jesus before Annas. At this appearance, Jesus refused to testify against Himself. He was unjustly struck by a minor court officer.

The Capital Case

Jesus’ case was a capital case. Such cases were heard by a plurality of judges. Later tradition mentioned a minimum of twenty-three. The rule was that no individual could legally act as a judge in a capital case. This law did not stop Annas from exercising his political power and interrogate the arrested individual privately. Annas may have excused himself by a law that those tried by the supreme Sanhedrin for misleading the people first had to be tried by two lower courts. This law may be Pharisaic in nature. This law may have come into existence later than the first century. It is doubtful that Annas is attempting to follow any law. The priestly aristocracy was predominantly Sadducee. They would not follow the Pharisees’ rules. They had to please the Romans instead of the Pharisees. Therefore, the fact concerning Annas’ conduct in relationship to a law may only be a conjecture.


The Arrest

Scripture Reference John 18:19-24

The laws governing Jesus’ case were broken so many times. It is difficult to see how the trial could have been more illegally run or the laws of Israel are seen in a scornful act.


The Arrest


This is seen in the three separate errors committed

(1) The arrest was by night.

(2) The arrest was achieved through the agency of a traitor and informer.

(3) The arrest was without the necessary basis of a specific and formal accusation of wrongdoing later to be presented to the court.


The above statements should have given rise to immediate acquittal of Jesus. Even though the rest of the events were legal, these facts would still point to end of the whole process. This is easily seen in today’s laws concerning acquittal. The arresting officer has neglected to inform the suspect of his rights, a confession was coerced, evidence was gathered by illegal entry or seizure. Some other illegal act done.


The matter of trial by night is quite clear. It was an established and inflexible rule that proceedings in capital cases could not be conducted at night. Moreover, this restriction did not apply merely to the trial itself. The events leading up to it must be taken under consideration. This means the arrest. The arrest was after dark. The arresting crowd arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane with “torches, lanterns and weapons. John 18:3.


The law, which bears upon the role of Judas in the arrest is derived from Leviticus 19:16. In the most simplest terms, it says “Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.” A witness had to be of good character. The individual could not bear witness against a close companion, friend, or relative. The individual was forbidden to take a bribe. This person could not be an accessory or accomplice. Judas is all of these. It was illegal for him to be used in the manner that he was.


When viewed in the United States, the testimony of an accomplice is admissible, but it must be corroborated at some points by other testimony if it is to stand. When used for the purpose of securing a conviction, it is clear that the use of accomplice testimony, it is of great value. A man named Chandler speaks of this statement. “The arrest of Jesus was ordered upon the supposition that he was a criminal; this same supposition would have made Judas, who had aided, encouraged, and abetted Jesus in the propagation of his faith an accomplice. Jesus was innocent. His arrest was an outrage, and therefore illegal. [Chandler, Trial of Jesus, vol. 1, 229]


The third illegal aspect of the arrest was the lack of a formal accusation on the basis of which the later trial was to be conducted. Legally speaking, Judas should have made that accusation to the authorities in advance of the arrest and then have appeared in court to sustain it. This was not fulfilled. The opening part of the trial was a nearly unsuccessful attempt to find precisely this accusation.


Principles of Hebrew Law 1-2

1. The court in capital cases. Not all courts in Israel could hand down a decision on capital cases. The Sanhedrin or Grand Council consisted of seventy-one members. They convened in Jerusalem. The name “Sanhedrin” comes from the Greek word sunedrion. This word denotes a legislative body, which gathers to debate in a deliberate or sitting posture. It does not date merely from the impingement of Greek culture upon the Hebrew people. Tradition placed the founding of the Great Sanhedrin in the wilderness under Moses. Note This passage records God’s instruction to Moses to gather together “seventy of Israel’s elders” to perform judicial functions. The number would have been seventy-one. Whatever its history, the Sanhedrin existed and was vested with the highest authority in religious and other national matters in Israel. This group did not overshadow the authority of Rome at the time of Jesus. It organized into three chambers. A chamber of 23 priests, a chamber of 23 scribes, and a chamber of 23 elders. This pattern was not strictly followed. To these groups there were two presiding officers, which made a total of seventy-one individuals. The three chambers represented the religious, legal, and democratic elements of Jewish life. This threefold division is referred to by Jesus in It says “From that time Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hand of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised” Mark 14:53.

2. Qualifications of judges. The qualifications for membership in this group are therefore synonymous with qualifications for such judges. Some of these qualifications were obvious. The member of the Sanhedrin was to be a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Paul). A full-blooded Jew born of two Jewish parents. He was to be learned in law and to have had prior legal experience. He had to be linguist, for trials of those who did not speak Hebrew would take place and interpreters were not allowed in Jewish courts. He must be humble and of good repute. He could not sit if he had any personal interest in the outcome of the trial. Even a well-qualified member of this group would have to step aside temporarily if he was related to the defendant or stood to benefit from a verdict.


Hebrew Law

The first major concern for the student of the Word concerning the events of this part of Jesus’ life is the Jewish trial. In order to understand Jesus’ trial, there is a need for knowledge concerning Hebrew law and legal practice.

This is not an easy subject to discuss. There is a double base for Hebrew law. The Mosaic Law a.k.a. the Pentateuch along with the Talmud or oral law is built upon it. The Talmudic law is a great volume, and it is complex. It has two parts: Mishnah, which is the basic law. The Gemara is what we would call a commentary on it. The relationship between the two might be compared to the debate over a proposed law in the United States Congress. It is preserved in the Congressional Record along with the resulting law. When examining the Talmud, the law comes first and the Gemara follows. The next complication is that there are actually two Talmuds. There is the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud was written first in the fourth century. The Babylonian Talmud was written in the fifth century. It is four times longer. There is an English translation along with a contemporary format. The Babylonian Talmud might occupy as many as four hundred volumes. Another complication is that there is a puzzling question as to which laws eventually express the Mishnah, which are followed in judicial proceedings at the time of Jesus.

Fortunately, in dealing with the trial of Jesus, the matter is not that difficult when viewed in light of these complications. For one thing, we only need deal with Hebrew law in the matter of a crime punishable by death. This means a capital offense. For another, many scholars have already sifted through this resource. They have taken the time to summarize the relevant principles for the student. I will discuss these principles in my next lesson entitled “Principles of Hebrew Law.”


Deceitful Hearts

Jesus was not condemned under a primitive, barbaric or even inadequate judicial system. He was condemned under the best. Although on one occasion, He was demanded which of His enemies was able to convict him of sin? He left them speechless. He was condemned to death by the most merciful and careful system of judicial processes known to the human race. The usual question which follows this is how could this happen. How could the Son of God be condemned? The system did not condemn Him. The hearts of those who interpreted and implemented the system and its codes condemned Him. Jeremiah made a profound statement in Jeremiah 17:9 which says concerning the heart: “deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” This verse shows how the heart and its actions circumvent the law to destroy the innocent.

The next question that comes to mind is can anything cure this deadly disease? The answer is beyond human ability. What is impossible to man is possible with God. Matt. 19:26This is why Jesus came to earth. He was condemned for those whose life sentence was death. Through His death, He became the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. He did it for the world. John 3:16.  The result was that humanity was redeemed from sin and its consequences. Gal. 3:13 The once sinner is now righteous. God the Father sees us through the righteousness of Jesus. Romans 3:22 and 3:26.


The Trial of Jesus Christ

Although the Passion Week is over, and we celebrated the Resurrection today, I have yet to teach concerning these things in the Gospel of John. I hope that you will benefit from these lessons. There is much that I want to share with you.

I ask that you be patient with me as we go through the lessons on Hebrew law and its principals along with other subjects. I will be dealing with Deceitful Hearts when speaking of the religious people and their handling of Jesus’ arrest and trial.