This special Easter season we as Christians again pause to reflect on the Passion of Christ. As an attorney, I have always been intrigued by one aspect of the Passion: the criminal trial culminating in the death sentence and execution of Jesus. The Gospels provide four narratives of this trial. Matt. 26:47-68; Mark 14:43-65; Luke 22:47-71 and John 28:3-38. These passages describe both Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin and his later trial before Pontius Pilate. Together, they provide very telling insights into the mockery and irregularity of these proceedings.
Lawyers would call the following “reversible errors” committed by the judges in the trial of Jesus. What is even more egregious, the ones in charge of the prosecution of Jesus were the most astute lawyers and highest courts in Israel at the time, who surely must have recognized the injustices being committed.
An Illegal Arrest – Jesus had just celebrated the Passover Feast, probably in the home of Mark on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Scripture tells us that after that feast, Jesus and the eleven went to Gethsemane to pray. At the approach of midnight, a mob led by Roman soldiers, members of the Temple Guard carrying swords and torches, accompanied by Judas, arrest Jesus.
Privately Examined – Jesus was taken to Annas’ house, the brother of the High Priest Caiaphas, and there examined in private – a violation of Hebrew law.
The Proceedings Were Conducted At Night – The trial of a capital case was strictly forbidden at night. The analogy used in the Talmud was like the treating of a wound. Care was required to examine the evidence in the clear light of day.
Court Convened Before The Morning Sacrifice – The Great Sandhedrin convened court at the close of the morning sacrifice and had to conclude before the evening sacrifice.
The Proceedings Were Conducted On The Day Preceding The Jewish Sabbath. Court could not be held on the Sabbath, or a feast day, or any holy day.
Trial Was Conducted In One Day. To assure due deliberation and reflection, particularly where a human life was at stake, Hebrew law required that the trial should last a minimum of two days to allow time for the judges to sleep, fast, meditate and pray.
Sentence Was Pronounced On Uncorroborated Confession. A fundamental principle of Hebrew law prohibited conviction of a crime based solely on the confession of the accused; the law required corroboration by two witnesses.
The Verdict Was Unanimous. A simultaneous and unanimous verdict of guilt rendered on the day of trial had the effect of an acquittal. Bear in mind there were no advocates. The judges were deemed the defenders of the accused. Thus, a unanimous verdict meant the accused had no friend or defender on the panel. To the Jewish mind, this was the equivalent of mob violence. Scripture tells us: “And straightway in the morning the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council, and bound Jesus, and carried him away, and delivered Him to Pilate.” (Mark 15:1).
This litany of procedural errors confirms the travesty of injustice and the political show trial of Jesus. While we look back with disdain upon the mocking criminal conviction of the One who alone embodied innocence, we are also regard it as a necessary stepping stone in God’s plan of redemption through the cross.
Larry Crain is a trial attorney specializing in civil rights and constitutional law. He is a frequent speaker on the trial of Christ to church groups and gatherings.