Injustice to one, justice for all
The greater the injustice suffered by Jesus, the greater His love for us shines through. The darker the night, the brighter His light.
I have studied the so-called “trial” of Jesus from a legal perspective and have learned that the injustices ran deeper than I ever imagined. Jesus was prosecuted and ultimately condemned by two tribunals: the Sanhedrin (the Hebrew Supreme Court) and Roman. Both justice systems are known for how much they jealously guarded justice. However, both systems of law were prostituted to destroy the most innocent man who ever lived.1 Jesus’ arrest, trial and sentence were illegal proceedings, making His case a total sham from beginning to end! “Throughout the whole course of that trial, the rules of the Jewish law of procedure were grossly violated, and that the accused was deprived of rights, belonging even to the meanest citizen. He was arrested in the night, bound as a malefactor, beaten before His arraignment, and struck in open court during the trial; He was tried on a feast day, and before sunrise; He was compelled to criminate himself, and this, under an oath of solemn judicial adjuration; and He was sentenced on the same day of the conviction. In all these particulars, the law was wholly disregarded.”2 This paper will examine the violations of Hebrew and Roman law that culminated in the murder of Jesus.
Violations of Hebrew law
Jesus’ arrest itself was illegal on at least three grounds of Hebrew law: it was a nightime arrest; it was effected by Judas, who would have been considered an accomplice of Jesus; and it was not based on probable cause by officials seeking righteous judgment.3
The Jewish proceedings took place at night and in private. Night trials were prohibited,4 and for good reason: they smack of secrecy and expediency without due process of law. They also undermine the public’s right to attend. Much of the trial was private, but Hebrew law required it to be a public trial.5
The Sanhedrin did not hold two sessions, a day apart. The two sessions they held were, at most, only a few hours apart.6 This did not afford an opportunity for cooler heads to prevail. In a capital case, the sentence could not be pronounced until the afternoon of the second day. If the Sanhedrin voted to convict the first day, they were to leave the hall of hewn stone and gather in groups of five or six to discuss the case. They walked home by twos, arm in arm, still seeking for arguments on behalf of the accused. After sunset, they made calls on each other to discuss the case further and to pray for divine guidance. The next day they were to pray and fast until the case was decided. They met after the morning sacrifice and again reviewed the evidence. They could change their votes to acquit the accused, but not to condemn him. Before execution, they were to invite spectators to come forward if anyone had evidence in favor of the condemned.7 Jesus did not get the benefit of this due process. Since the judges were required to have two sessions a day apart and were not permitted to meet on the weekly Sabbath or on a festival Sabbath, they were also not permitted to meet the day before the Sabbath.8
The trial took place before the morning sacrifice. According to Hebrew law, “no man was considered competent to act as a judge until after sacrifice and prayers had been offered to the great Judge of heaven.”9
Jesus was physically abused during the proceedings, even though He should have been presumed innocent and treated with respect. He was struck by an officer who didn’t like the way He spoke to Annas (John 18:22). Between the two sessions of the Sanhedrin, Jesus was also repeatedly beaten, spat upon, blindfolded and mocked (Matthew 26:67; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63-64). These were outrageous and cruel acts of brutality that Hebrew law did not allow.
The charges against Jesus were vague and changed midstream from sedition – that was not proved since the witnesses “agreed not together” – to blasphemy, given that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God (Mark 14:55-64). The charges against an accused must delineate a specific crime, and the trial must be carried to completion on that charge. Even today, if during a trial a prosecutor cannot prove the original charges, and thus tries to allege a new crime, a judge and jury would laugh him out of court. When the false witnesses against Christ failed to prove sedition, the case should have been dismissed.10 Blasphemy, the new charge, was one of the most serious offenses known to the Jews, because it disrespected God Himself and was therefore considered tantamount to treason.
The presiding judge of the Sanhedrin initiated the new charge of blasphemy (Matthew 26:63-66). Judges of the Sanhedrin could not initiate charges or prosecute but only investigate charges brought by witnesses.11 Witnesses had to initiate charges, act as the prosecutors, and even execute the sentence of death in capital cases.12 Deuteronomy 17:7 says, “The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people.” Apparently, the rationale for this rule was that if you had to stone someone to death, you might think twice about that of which you accuse him. In reality, no witness came forward to accuse Jesus of blasphemy. In accusing Jesus of blasphemy, the presiding judge acted as a prosecutor, even though judges were supposed to be the defenders.13 Also, no judge could speak against the accused until at least one judge had spoken in his behalf,14 which did not happen in Jesus’ trial.
Jesus’ conviction of blasphemy was based on His own admissions and nothing else.15 Hebrew law forbids convicting someone based solely on his or her own admission.16 The same is true in many modern courts and is called the Corpus Delicti rule. No witness came forward to accuse Jesus of blasphemy.
Jesus was condemned by the unanimous vote of the Sanhedrin, which should have resulted in acquittal. Mark 14:64 says, “And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.” An Anglo-Saxon jury generally must be unanimous to reach a valid verdict, but not with Hebrew law. The Hebrew law reasoned that an accused must have at least one defender on the court, or mercy was absent and the spirit of conspiracy or mob violence was present.17
The judges were unqualified because they bribed Judas to deliver Jesus to them. Judas himself admitted that Jesus was innocent when he publicly confessed that he had “betrayed the innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4).
The judges were biased against Jesus and absolutely hated Him; therefore, they were unqualified to judge Him fairly. Several times the chief priests and Pharisees conspired to kill Jesus, including after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and John 11:53 records that “from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.” “When a judge decides not according to the truth, he makes the majesty of God to depart from Israel. But if he judges according to the truth, were it only for an hour, it is as if he established the whole world, for it is in judgment that the divine presence in Israel has its habitation.”18
The judges ignored overwhelming evidence in favor of Christ being the Messiah and therefore innocent of blasphemy. Hebrew law demanded that every effort be made to find evidence on behalf of the defendant.19 According to the Old Testament, Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies showing him to be the Messiah. For example, He was born in Bethlehem, was born of a virgin, was from the house of David, escaped to Egypt, performed miracles, made a triumphal entry on a donkey in Jerusalem, was betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, and was a man of sorrow, poverty and suffering, to name just a few.
The judges sought and called false witnesses to condemn Jesus. Matthew 26:59-61 says, “Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witnesses against Jesus, to put him to death; but found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet they found none. At the last came two false witnesses, and said, ‘This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.’” A trial is supposed to be a search for the truth.
The requirement that at least two witnesses, who agree in the essential details, incriminate Jesus was not met (Deuteronomy 17:6).
Violations of Roman law
After ruthlessly violating many of their own laws, designed to safeguard justice, the Jews then sought out the Roman authorities to execute the death sentence against Jesus. Because of his reputation for being unjust and cruel, the Jews were confident that Pilate would honor their demonic wish, even though Rome prided itself on having a very civilized and fair judicial system. As attorney Walter Chandler noted, “The Roman judicial system is incomparable in the history of jurisprudence. Judea gave religion, Greece gave letters, and Rome gave laws to mankind. Thus runs the judgment of the world.”20
Wicked as he was, Pilate saw something different about the prisoner before him. Rather than rubber-stamping the death wish, he demanded to know the charges alleged against Jesus. The Jews had condemned Jesus for blasphemy, but they knew this religious charge would not suffice with the Romans. So they shifted their accusation from a religious charge to a political one. According to Luke 23:1 and 2, they accused Jesus of three violations of civil law that amounted to treason against Caesar: perverting the nation – sedition against the government; forbidding the paying of taxes, is enough to get any politician’s attention; and claiming to be king – treason against Caesar. Jesus admitted to Pilate that He was a king, but that His kingdom was not of this world and not a threat to the Roman government. Like the Jews, Pilate then committed a series of judicial errors by departing from fundamental protections in Roman law.
Pilate violated the law against double jeopardy. After examining Christ, and with no accusing witnesses, Pilate rendered his verdict: “I find in Him no fault at all” (John 18:38). According to former prominent Harvard University Law School professor Simon Greenleaf, Pilate’s decision “was a sentence of acquittal, judicially pronounced, and irreversible, except by a higher power, upon appeal; and it was the duty of Pilate thereupon to have discharged him.”21 Pilate had a duty to enforce his decision, dispatch Roman soldiers to disperse the angry mob, and protect Jesus from their fury. The Jews refused to accept Pilate’s verdict and trumped up another charge of sedition by claiming that Jesus stirred up the people from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke 23:4-5). The law against double jeopardy says that a man cannot be tried twice for the same conduct. It originated with Roman law and is an important principle in modern jurisprudence. Pilate disregarded this law and kept the case against Jesus alive. Pilate was a coward and was trying to satisfy both his conscience and the mob. Seeing an easy out, Pilate then sent the case to Herod. Unscrupulous though he was, Herod refused to condemn Jesus, which was equivalent to another acquittal.
After again acquitting Jesus, and in a vain attempt to reach a compromise with the mob, Pilate ordered an innocent man punished with a cruel beating (Luke 23:13-16). This move was blatantly immoral, illegal, and cowardly. If Jesus was guilty, He should have been punished by more than beating, but if innocent, he should have been set free and protected from the Jews. When the chastisement of Jesus failed to appease the accusers, Pilate made another unsuccessful attempt to dispose of the case, short of killing an innocent man: in honor of the Jewish Passover, he was willing to release either Jesus or the contemptible Barabbas, who was actually guilty of sedition, robbery, and murder – charges leveled against Jesus. Pilate underestimated the hatred of the Jews toward Christ, and the Jews chose the release of Barabbas and demanded the crucifixion of the world’s Messiah.
Pilate showed utter contempt for the innocent Son of God and for the sanctity of the judicial proceedings by allowing Jesus to be mocked with a purple kingly robe and crown (John 19:2-5).
Pilate set aside the rule of law, which demands an acquittal for an innocent man, to preserve his political office. Pilate had illegally reversed his multiple verdicts of innocence when the Jews threatened his job with a complaint to Caesar. A well-established rule of Roman law stated, “The idle clamor of the populace is not to be regarded, when they call for a guilty man to be acquitted or an innocent one to be condemned.”22 With theatrical show, Pilate washed his hands, when he should have used them in “pointing his legion to the field of duty and glory”23 to put down the mob. The water did not wash away the blood of Jesus from his hands. All “the water of the Mediterranean would not have been sufficient to wash away the guilt of the Roman governor.”24 Pilate condemned and murdered Jesus even though no crime was formally declared, no witnesses were called, no evidence was presented, no proof was given of a criminal act, and he had found him innocent!25
The purpose of this essay is not so much to condemn the tribunals of man, but to uplift the majesty of Jesus Christ. The greater the injustice suffered by Jesus, the greater His love for us shines through. The darker the night, the brighter His light. Even though I grew up as a Christian and had been taught of Jesus, it wasn’t until I had a personal encounter with the injustice of Calvary that I was converted. The willingness of Jesus to endure, with patience and without objection, the greatest travesty of injustice the world has ever known, revealed to me God’s perfect love and goodness. I then accepted Him into my life, and He filled my empty heart – which had vainly pursued power, pleasure, status, and wealth – with joy. While it is interesting to evaluate all the injustices committed by both the Jews and Romans, ultimately, all of us are responsible for the death of Christ, since he was “wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5). “Christ was treated as we deserve that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. With His stripes we are healed.”26
David Steward, JD (University of San Diego) was a criminal prosecutor in California for 15 years. He is now an evangelist for Amazing Facts and the general vice president for ARME Bible Camp. E-mail: email@example.com.
- Honorable Harry Fogle, The Trial of Jesus (Jurisdictionary Foundation, Inc., 2000).
- Simon Greenleaf, The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice (New York: James Cockcroft & Company, 1874), p. 566.
- Walter M. Chandler, The Trial of Jesus From a Lawyer’s Standpoint (New York: The Empire Publishing Co., 1908), vol. 1, pp. 226-237.
- M. Dupin, The Trial of Jesus Before Caiaphas and Pilate (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1839), translated from French to English by John Pickering, p. 37.
- Joseph Salvador, Histoire des Institutions de Moise (Paris: Michel Levy-Freres, 1862), pp. 365-366.
- Taylor Bunch, Behold the Man (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), pp. 84-85.
- Ibid, p. 67.
- Isaac M. Wise, The Martyrdom of Jesus (Cincinnati and Chicago: The Bloch Publishing and Printing Co., 1888), p. 91.
- Bunch, p. 90.
- Ibid, pp. 85-87.
- Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1906), p. 309.
- S. Mendelsohn, The Criminal Jurisprudence of the Ancient Hebrews (Baltimore: M. Curlander, 1891), p. 110.
- Bunch, p. 64.
- Ibid, p. 67.
- See Mark 14:61-64.
- Bunch, p. 93
- Chandler, vol. 1, p. 280
- Bunch, p. 66.
- Ibid, p. 105.
- Chandler, vol. 2, p. 5.
- Greenleaf, p. 565.
- Dupin, p. 81-82 footnote: Law 12, Code de Poenis
- Chandler, vol. 2, pp. 137-138.
- Bunch, p. 159.
- Giovanni Rosadi, The Trial of Jesus (New York: Dodds, Mead & Company, 1905), pp. 237, 288, 294.
- Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p 25.