Here is the age-old question. Whose was the responsibility — the Jews, or the Romans? This carefully documented article reveals the official position of Judaism, of higher scholarship, and of organized Christianity.
NO TRIAL in history has raised more controversy than the trial of Jesus. Was the trial of Jesus illegal? Was Jesus fraudulently convicted by the courts of his day? Who really had jurisdiction in Jesus' case — the Jews, or the Romans? Why was Jesus ordered executed by the Roman judge who had found him innocent? If Jesus were here today, would He be treated any differently? It is time we understood what was behind the crucifixion of Jesus and learn the truth about the arrest, trial and conviction of Jesus.
A Lawyer Looks at Jesus' Trial
How would Jesus fare in today's courts? Look at the answer found in a book written by a modern author who has spent his life in the legal and academic professions. This book, entitled The Prosecution of Jesus, is by Richard Wellington Husband. Concerning the trial of Jesus he writes: "The arrest was legal... The hearing by the Sanhedrin was legal... The course of trial in the Roman court was legal... The conviction was legal, and was justified" (p. 281). This man, a lawyer, is undoubtedly sincere in his convictions. Husband is not the only man to share these convictions. But his views are better written than most. Here is how Husband justifies his assumptions: "The arrest" of Jesus, he writes, "was legal, for it was conducted by the proper officers, acting under instructions from the Sanhedrin. There Was no illegality in the circumstances under which the arrest was affected. The hearing by the Sanhedrin was legal, for it was merely a preliminary hearing, and was not a formal trial. The course of trial in the Roman court was legal, for it harmonized with the procedure shown in the sources to be pursued by governors of provinces in hearing criminal cases." Pilate conducted himself according to Roman legal precedents, contends Husband. That, we are told, made it legal. Now here is his final conclusion. "The conviction was legal, and was justified provided the evidence was sufficient to substantiate the charges, and the records," he concludes, "do not prove the contrary"! Here is a man, who, if he had sat on the Sanhedrin, or with Pilate, might have sincerely said of Jesus, "He is guilty." Why?
A Jewish Point of View
I have another book before me. It contains a common Jewish point of view. The book is entitled The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth, by Max Radin, a professor of law. It was published by the University of Chicago Press. Opening the book to page 229, I discover the following: "If he [Jesus] had said only a tithe [tenth] of the things credited to him it was enough to make an indictment." In this same book on page 109, Mr. Radin, who has been taught from childhood to believe what he does, says there is "no clear statement of how the knowledge of the trial came to those who reported it." Radin, of course, has been taught to believe that neither Matthew, Mark, Luke nor John had any personal evidence because the trial was private, a secret affair. What he failed to examine is the question of whether the Jesus Christ who was condemned and executed rose from the dead and is alive today. Of whether the One who heard everything, who was there on trial, rose from the dead and revealed to the disciples what occurred so that they could report it to us that we might know today! Lawyers, of course, have never disproved this possibility! But let us continue with Radin's point of view. On page 231 you will discover the following statement as to what a Jewish trial was like in Jesus' day: "We are, most of us, familiar with the procedure of criminal investigations. The accused person is arrested, arraigned before a committing magistrate, specifically accused, and formally tried. He may, and he generally does, appeal to a higher court, if he is convicted. All these things take time, and there is almost necessarily an interval of weeks and months between the later stages of the procedure. But above all the procedure is strictly regulated by law, and any serious deviation is not merely an irregularity but will probably prevent punishment from being inflicted." Observe, says Radin, that most trials involving criminal procedure take time — weeks if not months. But Jesus' trial was completed in less than nine hours after His arrest! And it was held in private, secretly, so that there would not be any witnesses who could testify on his behalf! How does Radin reconcile these facts? On page 241, he states: "Mark's version, even by his own testimony, cannot be more than a guess. Instead of a hurried night meeting, a harsh and brief interrogatory, a disregard of established rules of evidence and procedure, the trial may have been formally correct, and the judgment, even from the point of view of an upright judge, just, though severe." The author, I want you to notice, assumes that the trial "may have been" conducted in a correct manner. He has no proof — no evidence that it was. He only assumes it. Now consider another important legal problem.
Could Jews Have Executed Jesus?
Did the Jews have the authority to convict and to execute Jesus? Scholars — Jewish and Christian have debated this question over the centuries. The answer is plain. "According to the common view," reports Husband in his book, page 210, "the right to try capital cases," that is, cases involving death penalties, "and even the right to pronounce sentences, still rested with the Sanhedrin, but the actual penalty could not be inflicted until the governor" that is, the Roman governor — in this case Pilate, "had given his sanction." But this view is unjustified. The Jews not only had the power to try certain crimes, but they had the power to convict and the power to execute in all but cases of treason or sedition. The assumption that the Jews had no power to execute is an incorrect understanding of John 18:31-32. Here the Jews had said that, "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death." Lifting it out of its context, critics have assumed that the Jews had no lawful right whatsoever to put anyone to death. But this does not happen to be the case. Have we forgotten the death of Stephen? The Jews said, "He blasphemes," and in their zeal they stoned him. The Romans did not intervene or disapprove. When Jesus in A.D. 28 first preached a sermon the day of Pentecost in Nazareth in Galilee, his audience, upset by what they had just heard, would have stoned him to death had he not disappeared through the crowd. If it were illegal, they wouldn't have dared try it. The Romans would have pounced on them with military force. The Jews brought to Jesus a woman who was committing adultery. They said, "Moses wrote in the law she ought to be stoned to death. What do you say?" If the Jewish community had no right under Rome to stone any to death, they would not have dared bring up this trick question. Jesus accepted the fact that they had the right to execute adulteresses and other criminals. He told the guiltless to cast the first stone! Paul was stoned in Asia. Not only in Judea, but in other areas of the Roman world, wherever the Jews were settled it is plain the Jews had the legal right to execute the penalty of their law. Here is what Husband himself admits in his book, page 19: The Romans agreed that "the high priests should enjoy the same privileges which they had possessed before the coming of the Romans." And on page 29, he admits almost the same thing: "We learn that the Romans allowed to the subject nations all the rights that were consistent with an adequate administration, and did not conflict unduly with Roman interests." And page 33: "The ecclesiastical law of the Jews was allowed to stand unchanged." Josephus, the Jewish historian, even bears testimony to the fact that the Jews could execute criminals and enforce punishment for any violation of the Mosaic law. But why did the Jews make the statement before Roman governor Pilate that we find recorded in John 18:31 and 32? Here is the answer: "From the earliest period the Roman governor took cognizance of all matters that had any relation to the public security or the majesty of the Empire. Consequently there was no time at which the Roman magistrate would not step in when a charge of treason was made, or a seditious movement begun. The case against Jesus is one especially in point, for the charge against him [treason] could under no circumstances be tried by any tribunal except that of the governor." Only when it came to treason, civil disobedience, incitement to revolution, attacks against the majesty, that is, Caesar, did the Roman government decide that it was proper that its governors or representatives should intervene Otherwise, all local administration was carried on by the people and the regular constituted courts of the conquered nations, of the provinces, or the allies of Rome. Those who were jealous of Jesus, according to the Biblical record, accused him of blasphemy. But out of fear of many of the people, they decided not to execute Jesus themselves. So they charged Jesus with treason before the Romans. What had to be done was bring the charge of treason against Jesus in order to transfer the case to Pilate. In that way, Jesus' enemies would appear not to be responsible for his death.
An Israeli Justice Speaks
Most Israeli young people have recently become familiar with yet another view of the death of Jesus. This view differs radically from that with which most Jews have been familiar. It is presented in a booklet entitled Reflections on the Trial and Death of Jesus. The author is Haim H. Cohn, Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel. Justice Cohn states his case as follows: "It must he remembered that this was the night preceding the feast of Passover... That the Sanhedrin should have been called that particular night to a meeting in the High Priest's residence requires very convincing explanation to be credible. There must have been on the agenda a matter of the utmost urgency...." "There is, in my view, no escape from the conclusion that the High Priest... knew that Jesus was due to be tried before Pilate at an early hour the very next morning... There can, I submit, have been only one thing in which the Jewish leadership of the day can have been and was really and vitally interested: to prevent the execution by the Romans of a Jew (and a Pharisee) who happened to enjoy the affection and love of the people." Justice Cohn continues: "The only way in which the Sanhedrin could still prevent the execution of Jesus was to bring about his acquittal... Jesus had to be persuaded not to plead guilty and witnesses had to be found to prove his innocence... It was for this reason that the night meeting of the Sanhedrin took place." The Sanhedrin "was interested in satisfying itself that any evidence there might be available against Jesus was false and inadmissible. Hence it so found and declared." Under Roman law, continues Justice Cohn, the "accused could be convicted on his plea of guilty...In order to avoid Jesus' conviction on his own confession, he had to be dissuaded from pleading guilty; and in order to dissuade him from pleading guilty before Pilate, he had first to be dissuaded from his guilt and induced to cooperate.... " Jesus' reply to their last question, concludes Justice Cohn, "caused the High Priest and the Sanhedrin to give up in despair." "If the High Priest rent his clothes that night, it was because of his failure to make Jesus see his point and cooperate and because of the impending doom. The assertion by Jesus that he was the true Messiah — while not constituting any criminal offence — amounted to a rejection of the offer made to him by the High Priest and the leadership... It was not the blasphemy which made the High Priest rend his clothes, but the frustration of his efforts to bring Jesus to reason and save him from his fate..." comments author Cohn (pp. 22-31). These conclusions are those of Justice Cohn, who sincerely thinks that Jesus was wrong in allowing his disciples to believe that he was the Messiah. Now let's examine the Biblical evidence surrounding Jesus' trial.
Panorama of Events
Here is what really happened! After the Passover service, which must have lasted to nearly midnight, Jesus went out and prayed. Then Judas, after the multitudes who followed Jesus had retired, appeared with Roman soldiers and a mob of delinquents looking for trouble. In that mob, according to the gospels — the only available written evidence — were the very ones who were about to try Jesus. They came to incite the mob as the Roman soldiers went out to arrest him. All this, remember, while most of the people were asleep in their homes. After Jesus was arrested, Annas examined him alone. Annas was ex-High Priest. They next took Jesus to Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, before sunrise while it was yet night, where Jesus was informally condemned. After sunrise, the Sanhedrin quickly condemned Jesus formally to justify their previous conduct. Then, they took him to Pilate on different charges. Pilate wanted to wash his hands of the whole fair. When Pilate found Jesus was of Galilee, he sent him to Herod. After Herod saw Jesus and could not get anything but silence from him, Herod decided to let him go back to Pilate. Then, at the second time before Pilate, the Roman governor, under heavy pressure from the mobs, gave sentence — even against his own better judgment, after he washed his hands of it! So Pilate — the Roman — and the mobs and their leaders all participated. These are the six steps through which Jesus went from after midnight to nearly 9 o'clock. And at 9 o'clock he was crucified. At 3 o'clock that afternoon, he was speared in the side by a Roman soldier and killed (Matthew 27:49, Moffatt translation). For a full explanation of how Jesus died, write for the article titled, "Did Jesus Die of a Broken Heart?" Shortly before sunset, Jesus was buried. That's how quickly a sinful world ridded itself of the One who came to pay for their sins! Why did the leaders of the world — the governor, the religious hierarchy — the soldiers, and the mob all have their part in the execution of Jesus? Why, if Jesus were here today, would he receive the same treatment from most who profess themselves Christian? The answer is made very plain in I Corinthians 2: "But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory; which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they WOULD NOT HAVE CRUCIFIED the Lord of glory" (verses 7, 8). The Roman officials, the Roman soldiers, the Jewish leaders, and the Jewish mob just did not know what they were doing! Had they known, they would not have done it. And because they did not understand they can be forgiven! Forgiven through the shed blood of the very one upon whom they spat and whom they crucified and stabbed to death! What a glorious truth!