EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
Taking His men to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to His Father, in a desperate and human tone that was rare for the Christ, that if there was any way to spare Him from impending death, He would take that other route. But in the tone that captured His divinity, Jesus submitted to the will of the Father (Matthew 26:30–46; Mark 14:26–42; Luke 22:39–46), knowing what must be done for the salvation of all. As His disciples continued to fall asleep as a result of the late hour, Jesus prayed over and over the same prayer. Three times He prayed “the same words”:
“O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep…. He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” And he came and found them asleep again…. And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words. (Matthew 26:39–44)
Before long, He was joined by an angel who comforted Him (Luke 22:43–44), but alas, it did not change Jesus’ fate. Jesus would die for the sin of mankind, and His trial would start right then! “And while he yet spake, lo, Judas, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and elders of the people” (Matthew 26:47).
Judas used a kiss as his means to betray his best friend and Messiah. Peter began to retaliate with force, cutting off the ear of one of the servants to the high priest, but Jesus healed it on the spot and submitted to the arrest (Matthew 26:47–56; Mark 14:43–49; Luke 22:47–53; John 18:1–12).
Next, Jesus would be tried in the most fraudulent trial documented in human history—fraudulent not just because He was innocent, but because the legalities in place to ensure a fair trial were cast aside in the interest of getting Him killed as fast as possible in order to do away with the threat He posed against both Jewish and Roman ways of life. Let’s reflect briefly on what transpired, and then we will revisit the injustice of the civil proceedings as outlined in the Mishnah.
In the middle of the night, Jesus was taken first to the high priest, Annas, to be tried, as the Jews believed it was he who truly stood as the first Jewish legislator. When asked what His teachings had been about, Jesus told Annas and the other officials to redirect their questions to His followers, as they knew very well what He had said. This answer was perceived as insolent, and Jesus was stricken across the face by a nearby officer. Jesus responded by asking why He had been hit: If it was because His teachings were evil, then they should present evidence; if it wasn’t, what was the justification for violence? (John 18:19–23). As was often the case when Jesus spoke to those who opposed Him, they were silent in response and dragged Him, still bound, to Caiaphas (who was likely located in his own wing of the same palace).
The chief priests, along with the leaders of the Sanhedrin, had been busy searching for evidence against the Lord, but they repeatedly found none. Desperate, Caiaphas sank to the low point of accumulating witnesses to provide false testimony, and although “many” agreed to this scam, their pathetic claims didn’t agree with one another. Finally, two men stood and testified that Jesus had threatened to tear down the Temple and rebuild it in three days, but even their stories didn’t match up (Matthew 26:59–60; Mark 14:55–59). When Jesus didn’t immediately respond to His accusers, the high priest charged Him under oath of the Living God to answer, once and for all, if He was, in fact, the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus answered straightforwardly, in truth, and with yet another nod to His future return: “I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:62–64; Mark 14:61–62). The audience was, no doubt, familiar with the prophets (even if, like the Sadducees, they didn’t believe in the prophets’ words and writings). Therefore, those present during Jesus’ conversation with Caiaphas would understand Jesus’ quote from Daniel 7:13 referring to “one like the Son of man [who] came with the clouds of heaven.”
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Caiaphas tore his garment (an action conveying the Jewish court’s pronouncement of blasphemy), he and followed up by accusing Jesus of blasphemy verbally, noting that with this level of impudence, there was no more need for witnesses. (Caiaphas must have loved that, seeing as his “witnesses” had proved to be nothing more than an embarrassment minutes prior.) Caiaphas asked the crowd if they agreed, and they responded favorably to his allegation of blasphemy. Jesus was then spat on, blindfolded, and punched, while mockers cried out, “Prophesy unto us, thou Christ, Who is he that smote thee?” (Matthew 26:65–68; Mark 14:64–65; Luke 22:63–65).
The sun was rising as Jesus was led in to face the Sanhedrin. Once again, they asked if this Man who stood before them was really the Christ. “And he said unto them, ‘Ye say that I am.’” That was all they needed to hear. The whole assembly agreed this “criminal” had committed His last crime. Everyone agreed that He should to be put to death (Matthew 27:1; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66–71). All that stood between Christ and the cross now was the approval of the Roman state.
Pilate, who stayed in Jerusalem during the feasts, was situated in the palace built for the governor. (Scholars note that since this wasn’t Pilate’s usual Caesarean home, he may have been staying in the old palace of Herod the Great, making sense of how this back-and-forth trial could have all happened in a very short time.) This secular and ritually unclean place would “taint” the cleanliness of the Jews, so they remained outside while they conversed about the fate of Jesus. Pilate asked what He had done, and the answer was insufficient, so the Roman governor told the Jews to judge Jesus according to their own laws. They protested, explaining they had no authority to execute a criminal, but it was clear that Pilate wasn’t going to be bothered with a Jewish matter until it became a Roman one. So the leaders of the crowd upped the ante, saying Jesus was “perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King.” Pilate still found no fault in Jesus, and said as much, so Christ’s accusers “were the more fierce, saying, ‘He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.’” Pilate then invited Jesus inside and away from the crowd, asking Him directly if He was King of the Jews. Jesus answered affirmatively that He was a King, but that His Kingdom was “not of this world.” He summarized His Kingship and the purpose of His entire earthly existence in a single sentence: “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth.” Pilate exited the room, confirmed that Jesus was a Galilean, and sent Him to Herod, the leader of that jurisdiction (Matthew 27:2, 11–14; Mark 15:1b–5; Luke 23:1–7; John 18:28–37).
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Herod couldn’t be more excited at first. He had been after this Jesus fellow for a long time. When He was brought in, Herod could hardly contain himself, believing naively he would be able to see a “show” of this Man’s works. But Jesus wasn’t exactly what Herod anticipated, and after the ruler questioned the silent Lamb for slaughter, he became bored and disenchanted by the lack of the magical miracles he’d hoped to see. Determined to get some entertainment value out of Jesus, Herod and his men dressed Jesus in an elegant, royal robe, and mocked Him. When they tired of this, too, they sent Jesus back to Pilate for a second round (Luke 23:8–12).
Pilate called together the chief priests and local leaders and once again said he found Jesus had committed no crime. Meanwhile, a feast custom allowed for the release of one Jewish prisoner annually. When Pilate asked the crowd if they wanted Jesus or the “murderer” Barabbas released, it’s likely he was hoping the laymen of the gathering would cry louder for Jesus than the religious leaders, silencing the chief priests and releasing Jesus by popular demand, but surprisingly, they cried for Barabbas. Pilate’s intent, likely influenced by his wife’s message detailing a disturbing dream she had regarding how he should have nothing to do with this precious Jew, shifted toward releasing Jesus, though He would receive a harsh punishment. All the louder, the crowd demanded, “Crucify him!” Pilate, feeling the intense weight of his decision could have unending political ramifications later, went forward with his plan and had Jesus brutally, mercilessly scourged. During the ordeal, Jesus was flogged between bouts of mockery as Pilate’s men bowed before Him, stripped Him, crowned Him with thorns, spat on Him, dressed Him in royal garments, and undressed Him again. Pilate brought Jesus out one final time, showing the Jews the King they would only ever fail to recognize. Rather than be moved to grant clemency by the sight of a bloodied, beaten, innocent Man, they threatened Pilate by telling him that he would be seen as an enemy of Caesar if he didn’t comply with their demands. As the growing din of the crowd and their increasing threats proved to be the beginning of an uproar, publicly and literally, Pilate washed his hands of the whole affair (literally, using a basin in front of them all), released Barabbas, and sent Jesus to be crucified (Matthew 27:15–30; Mark 15:6–20; Luke 23:13–25; John 18:39–19:16).
Jesus was then en route to Golgotha (the “Place of the Skull”), carrying His own cross until His physical strength gave out and Simon of Cyrene stepped in to carry it the rest of the way. Multitudes followed Him, some wailing in emotional agony, while two other condemned criminals made their way alongside Him on the Via Delarosa (a path called “Valley of Suffering”; Matthew 27:31–34; Mark 15:20–23; Luke 23:26–33a; John 19:16b–17).
After the Roman soldiers drove nails into His hands and feet and erected His cursed cross of shame, Jesus said to His Father, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Pilate, against the wishes of the Jews, had a placard placed above Jesus’ head that read, in three languages, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Onlookers sneered and mocked; one criminal, upon believing Jesus was indeed His Savior, was promised by Christ that he would inherit Paradise that day. Jesus’ clothing was divided among the soldiers, and they cast lots for the remaining undergarments (Matthew 27:35–44; Mark 15:24–32; Luke 23:33b–43; John 19:18–27).
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This fulfilled the messianic Psalm 22:18: “They part my garments among them, And cast lots upon my vesture,” while the entire death scene fulfilled Isaiah 53:10–12:
Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, He shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, And the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; For he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, And he shall divide the spoil with the strong; Because he hath poured out his soul unto death: And he was numbered with the transgressors; And he bare the sin of many, And made intercession for the transgressors.
While nearing the end of His life, Christ quoted Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why hath thou forsaken me?” Drink was brought to His lips, and He drank the wine vinegar, lowering His head and saying, “It is finished.… Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Matthew 27:45–50; Mark 15:33–37; Luke 23:44–46; John 19:28–30).
In this, Psalm 69:21, “They gave me also gall for my meat; And in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink,” and Psalm 31:5, “Into thine hand I commit my spirit,” were fulfilled.
In that very moment, over in the Temple, the veil (that Mary may have had a hand in weaving; see the section titled “Mary”) separating the common people from the Holy of Holies was torn from top to bottom. An earthquake rumbled the grounds to the point that rocks split in two. These signs terrified the centurion and those with him, who thus believed in the testimony of Jesus; others merely beat their chests in grief and walked away while Mary (the mother of Jesus), Mary Magdalene, and Salome (mother of James and John) watched on (Matthew 27:51–56; Mark 15:38–41; Luke 23:47–49).
The soldiers broke the legs of both the other offenders to quicken their death, but when they came to Jesus, they discovered He was already dead, so they pierced His side to be sure, and water and blood flowed from the wound.
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Thus, Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12, and Psalm 34:20 were fulfilled, which stated that no bones of the sacrifice would be broken. Zechariah 12:10 was also fulfilled, which said the messianic sacrifice for the atonement of all sins would be pierced:
And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, The spirit of grace and of supplications: And they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, And they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son.
With Pilate’s permission, Joseph of Arimathea obtained the broken and bleeding body of our Lord (Matthew 27:57–58; Mark 15:42–45; Luke 23:50–52; John 19:31–38) and placed Him in a new tomb where no other body had previously been put to rest; a giant stone was rolled in front of the entryway (Matthew 27:59–60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53–54; John 19:39–42).
Injustice of the Trial: Ultimately Intentional
Not every scholar interprets the timeline of trial and death as we have. Though the tweaks to chronology are minor (for instance, some believe Jesus was taken first to Caiaphas, and then to Annas), the ultimate outcome of the events have been reported faithfully.
Many believers have argued that the trial of Christ was fraudulent from the beginning, noting hundreds of infractions by religious leaders, and quoting from a variety of ancient legal documents…but not all of those documents were in effect by the time of Jesus. As sincere and well-meaning as these believers are, when this enormous list is circulated among contemporary researchers amidst a wide range of lawyers who dutifully compare their knowledge of the court system with what the Jews were up to in the first century, the claims that Jesus’ trial was unfair are discounted entirely. When these same lawyers write full-length books showing how Christians are wrong, it makes what Jesus went through look fair by comparison. This is why, if the question of a fair trial is brought up at all, it must be done in a way that’s relevant not to what Jewish laws had shifted to become after Jesus’ trial, but what they were at the time of His arrest. (This is why we’ve included on our list only some of the same infractions Google-searched articles online cover.)
We have chosen to focus on the Mosaic Law, as it was “elaborated and extended in the system which grew up after the return from Babylon,”[i] therefore, far before Jesus was born to Mary. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE), in a section titled “Jesus Christ, Arrest and Trial Of,” we find that many elements of the trial were wrongfully carried out. This source goes on to explain the Jewish legal system at the time of Christ was established even before the formation of the Sanhedrin, and was carried on by those officials throughout the first two centuries of the Christian era, when they were then codified in the Mishna by Rabbi Judah and his Jewish associates at the beginning of the third century. The ISBE goes on to say: “It is generally conceded by both Jewish and Christian writers that the main provisions, therein found for the protection of accused persons…were recognized as a part of [trial proceedings] in the time of Annas and Caiaphas.”[ii]
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No witnesses or evidence: To begin with, a capital punishment trial, according to the laws cited in Deuteronomy, always had to involve two or three true witnesses (19:15). In the trial of Jesus, several witnesses stood in front of the high priest and blabbed, probably just to say they were a part of something exciting. However, none of those witnesses could keep his story straight; none of their accounts aligned with the others, and the religious leaders went out of their way to seek “false witnesses” against Jesus (Matthew 26:59–60; Mark 14:55–59). Even back in those days, this kind of bogus witness testimony would be dismissed. After also eliminating the Jewish leaders whose testimonies would have been biased, Judas is left as a single “witness” to what Jesus was being accused of. Technically speaking, Judas’ testimony wouldn’t be considered legitimate since it was obtained with a blood-money bribe. Remember, no legitimate hearing was held to address Christ’s crimes. We never see in these biblical accounts any scenario in which a judge presides over court while testimony is given and evidence is presented in front of a balanced and impartial jury. Even if criminal evidence against Jesus did exist, it was never—not once, ever—presented to any court in a timely manner. Nor did there appear to be a single defense party who represented Christ. We know that as far back as when the book of Job was written (as mentioned in volume 1 of this series, scholars often consider Job one of the first books of the Bible ever written) that the concept of a “defense attorney” existed in ancient Jewish culture.
Browbeating judge: Further, “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.”[iii] None of that applied with Jesus. The concept of a preliminary investigation was not implemented at the time, and the legal proceedings began with an open court. Thus, all of the evidence against a criminal “was that which was disclosed by the evidence of the witnesses.”[iv] As stated, there were no legitimate witnesses in the trial of Christ. The high priest knew this, but he pressed Jesus into convicting Himself. Jesus could not, under any circumstances, be convicted based on His own responses to the line of questioning, but the judge attempted it anyway. When it failed, he “rent his garment” and cried “blasphemy,” using his status to propel the case forward illegally.
Improper timing of the trial: Proceedings related to criminal trials were, in no uncertain terms, to take place during the day. If a case did drag on into the evening (many did), then they were to adjourn for the day and resume the next morning (or the next “business” day, if the following day was a feast day or the equivalent). Jesus, however, was arrested in the garden at night, and the trial commenced immediately rather than beginning the next day, as mandated.
Infraction of “same-day verdict” rule: If the criminal was acquitted, that verdict could be announced on the day of the trial. If the criminal was found guilty, though, the verdict was to be announced on the following day—and again, these decisions were only legally binding if they occurred during regular court hours.
Infraction of a rule mandating closed-court: Without a preliminary investigation, the high priest’s interrogation of Jesus in a private setting, as outlined in John 18:19, was not a part of an official Jewish trial. It could not be taken in good faith for an appropriate proceeding, and was therefore an attempt at “entrapping Jesus into admissions that might be used against Him” at the subsequent trial at the Sanhedrin.[v] Jesus’ response to this line of questioning showed that He was well aware anything He said could and would be used against Him in the coming days, so He referred His questioner to His “witnesses”; He knew that was the way to begin. The reaction to His redirection of the question was a (literal) punch to the face, which our source calls “an outrageous proceeding” the judge on the scene should have rebuked, had the trial been fair. By no means should this private-court setting in the middle of the night been allowed, and violence was also prohibited at this point in the hearing. (Jesus recognized this, which is why He asked the leaders to present evidence that justified their allowance of physical aggression [John 18:19–23].)
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Sanhedrin infraction of rule regarding “new council”: When Jesus was taken to stand before the Sanhedrin, many new faces were in the council that had not been there the night before. The trial, if fair, should have started completely over with the “witnesses” from the previous investigation speaking in front of these new council members. Jesus, who had already been found worthy of the death penalty, was questioned again as to whether He was the Messiah. He replied, “You say that I am,” which wasn’t technically an admission and therefore wasn’t a legally justifiable cause for the sentence of death. Throwing official standards out the window, “[the members of the Sanhedrin] said, ‘What need we any further witness? for we ourselves have heard of his own mouth,’” and proceeded without any witness testimony to enlighten the council members who were new to the case (Luke 22:66–71).
In summation: “The Jewish trial of Our Lord was absolutely illegal, the court which condemned Him being without jurisdiction to try a capital offence…. 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.”[vi]
Though a few legal experts have, since Christ’s trial, written lengthy works explaining in sharp detail why everything was fair, these claims are discredited by the Jewish laws in effect in that time, under the very justice system implemented by the Sanhedrin. Jurisprudence was irrefutably absent from the proceedings that condemned Jesus to suffer and die. Thus, He wasn’t just “executed,” He was “murdered.”
However, as believers, we can see the hand of God working behind the scenes of human operations to bring to pass what was ultimately the will of the Father in all things. Jesus died for our sin, and since He truly was the Messiah, the only way to convict Him would have been to disregard judicial standards and incriminate Him in the most faulty and illogical ways. It’s the only way this otherwise completely innocent and guiltless Man would end up on the cross…for all of us.
And now, the Gospels draw to a close with quite a story, indeed!
The difference between Jesus and all the other would-be messiahs boils down to one major element: Jesus didn’t stay dead like the rest of them.
Jesus came back!
UP NEXT: Resurrection, Posthumous Appearances, and the Closing of the Gospels
[i] Maclaren, J. J., “Jesus Christ, Arrest and Trial Of,” as quoted in J. Orr, J. L. Nuelsen, E. Y. Mullins, & M. O. Evans (Eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia: Volume 1–5 (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company; 1915), 1,670.
[vi] Ibid., 1671–1672.