by Roy Cogdill
There has been more recorded in the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John concerning the trial of Christ than has been recorded of any other event even including his cruicifixion. Two full chapters in each book are given to this story. It had been predicted by the prophets, and foretold by the Lord himself that he should be tried and rejected of men. The predictions and the prophecies concerning his trial and rejection by the rulers of the Jews became reality. The gospel records preserve for us the inspired account of that event.
From a legal point of view this trial represented the greatest miscarriage of justice and the greatest hoax that has ever been perpetrated against any person in all history. It was fraudulent from start to finish, illegal at almost every point and on every possible count. It was anything but a trial in which justice was in view in the desire of those conducting it. Jesus had incurred the enmity of the Jews for many different reasons. He had openly and positively condemned their sins. They did not like that any more than people like it today. They wanted to get him out of the way because of his exposure of their hypocrisy and ungodliness. He refused to adapt himself to their social conventions and religious traditions. Rather than recognize the class system of narrow bigotry which had been erected by the Jews, Jesus came into the world to seek and save the sinner; he associated freely with sinful people while here. He antagonized the Jews not only by refusing to yield to their social standards, but by violating their traditional religious prejudices as well. He based every stand that he took and every lesson that he taught on the will of God — not on the authority of men. God’s will was his governor and his guide in all things. We hear him say, “For I am come down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” (John 6:38.) This the Jews could not stand. They hated and despised him because he steadfastly refused to yield himself to their political plans, establishing an earthly kingdom and throwing off the yoke of Rome.
They were perfectly willing to make him king if only he would liberate them from the hated Romans. But instead of submitting to their plans, adapting himself to their program of political endeavor, he steadfastly adhered to the plan God had made — that he might come into the world and die for the redemption of humanity, that he might make possible the salvation of the souls of men and women.
This was why they crucified him. It had become fully obvious to them that he was adamant in his refusal to become their political leader. When he refused the crown (John 6:15). they were filled with rage. From that time forward they tried repeatedly to destroy him. They tried once to take him out and cast him off the cliff that he might fall to the rocks below and be killed. But Jesus had delivered himself from them. On various other occasions they had sought him for the purpose of doing him harm or injury, or disposing of him completely. But Jesus’ time had not yet come; and he patiently continued his ministry until the hour was fulfilled. When finally the hour came, he meekly submitted himself to their arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, commanding Peter to put up his sword. He knew the hour was near in which he should die for the redemption of the race, according to the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.
After submitting to the motley throng of palace guards and fanatical Jews who had sought him out, he marched with the howling mob to the judgment hall of the High Priest and the Sanhedrin Council, the supreme court of the Jews. There he was tried in every way that a man should not be tried, in utter violation and disregard of their law, condemned to death illegally, and finally executed. It is of some of the particular illegalities of that trial that we want to study, and then will see what spiritual application such things ought to have to the life and heart of every man.
No one can understand what took place during Jesus’ trial without some knowledge of the background of Jewish law and government against which the trial occurred. In Palestine at that time a two-fold government was in operation — a Jewish government and a Roman government. They had a vestige of the old Jewish theocracy still in existence. Most of its power, however, had been stripped from it by the conquering Romans. The conquerors had set up the land of Judaea as a protectorate, or as a Roman province. Pilate, the Roman governor, had received his office from Tiberius Caesar, and was the chief authority in the land. Certain rights and privileges the Jews were allowed to retain. They could go through the form of a trial on a capital offense, for example, but having found the prisoner guilty, could not execute him without first going to the Roman governor and obtaining his authority and permission. The Jewish courts could try a man and impose sentence, but were powerless to execute the sentence assessed.
Annas was the High Priest of the Jews at the time Jesus was tried; but he had been deposed from his office for the very reason that he had tried to impose the death penalty on another occasion, and the Romans had appointed his son-in-law, Caiaphas, to be High Priest in his stead. From this incident it seems clear that the Romans had pretty well deprived the Jews of any real authority or power. They had a form of legally constituted authority, but it was a form with little power.
In the Jewish system of courts which remained, however, there were three kinds of tribunals. There was a three-judge court, which was the lowest and most elementary form of government; this corresponded roughly to our local Justice of the Peace courts, or to our municipal courts today. Next above this lowest court, there existed in many of the cities, and wherever the people desired and approved it, a Junior Sanhedrin Council which consisted of twenty-three judges. Then over and above these courts was the senior or major Sanhedrin Council, consisting of 71 judges. Qualifications for men of the senior Sanhedrin were exactly prescribed by law. Jewish law provided for these three separate kinds of courts, and they existed and commonly tried cases within their respective jurisdictions.
In any study of the trial of Jesus it must be remembered that it had two parts or two phases — a Jewish part and a Roman part. In the Jewish phase of his trial, Jesus was first arrested and taken to Annas; then he was tried before Caiaphas, and then by the Sanhedrin Council of the Jews in two sessions, a night session and a morning session. This consummated the trial of the Son of God at the hands of the Jews. Being sentenced to death, he then began the Roman phase of his trial. He was taken first to Pilate. Pilate examined him, and sent him to Herod. He was tried by Herod, and returned to Pilate. Again Pilate examined him, and then turned him over to the mob, weakly trying to exonerate himself of blame by the symbolic act of washing his hands. So, while there were two phases or parts to the trial, there were in reality six separate trials: before Annas, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin; and before Pilate. Herod, and Pilate again.
There were a number of sources from which law came then, just as a number of sources fix our law today. If one were to examine the source of law in our generation, he would find that in many states law is statutory primarily. For example, Louisiana is recognized in our nation as being the state in which we find the most complete example of statutory law. But according to the old English common law, not every statute had to be enacted by a legislative body. Much of. the body of the English law, in contrast with Roman law, was derived from the decision of the courts, rather than from legislative enactments. And when a decision of the courts had not been made to guide in the trial of a given case, then customary practice was given authority. Customary practice ran according to this rule: In the absence of a statute, and in the absence of the decision of a court, if a thing had been customarily practiced over such a long period of time that the memory of man ran not to the contrary (nobody could remember when such was not the practice), then this customary practice became the rule and the law to govern in the decision of that particular case.
The Roman practice, however, was to codify their law; and everything had to be provided for in statute. While the State of Louisiana is the principal statutory state in the nation, the State of Tennessee is recognized as the principle common law state among us. Texas is a combination of both statutory and common law.
Just as we receive our laws today from these various sources, the laws in the time of Christ, both Jewish and Roman, were likewise gathered over the centuries from various sources. Particularly was this true of Jewish law. Among the Jews, they first of all went back to the statutes that had been given in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and the Psalms. The law that had been thus delivered was recognized as the primary source of authority. But to that original and primary statutory law there had been added the traditions of the elders, and a vast bulk of oral law, delivered by word of mouth from one generation to the next. From generation to generation these traditions had been handed down, and had received such respect and honor from the Jews that many Jews thought that Moses. in addition to the written law had actually delivered by word of mouth a great body of oral law!
When, therefore, we study the trial of Jesus, we must remember that not all the “law” that was violated by his persecutors is to be found in the statutory law; much of it is in the traditions of the elders and in the common practice established by the courts. It is this great bulk of law, from all sources, that we find the Jews so ruthlessly ignoring and over-riding in their frenzied effort to destroy their prisoner. In three or four articles to follow, we want to point out some of the most obvious and glaring of these illegal procedures and actions.
Gospel Guardian Vol X:10 Jan. 1958