The legality of Jesus’s trial.

If you only read the gospel of John, you might get the idea Jesus never even had a trial. ’Cause in that book, first Jesus went to the former head priest Annas’s house, then the current head priest Caiaphas’s house, then the governor Pontius’s fortress, then to Golgotha. No conviction, no sentence; just interviews followed by execution.

But John was written to fill the gaps in the other three gospels. They contain the story of the trial. Yes there was one. Jesus was brought before the Judean senate, presided over by Caiaphas, and legitimately found guilty of blasphemy and sedition. Then he was sent to Pontius… who publicly stated he personally didn’t find Jesus guilty of anything, Lk 23.4, Jn 19.4 but he had little problem with sending Jesus to his death all the same.

No Jesus wasn’t guilty of blasphemy; he’d only be if he weren’t actually the Son of Man. But of course the senate absolutely refused to believe that’s who he is.

And either way, Jesus actually was guilty of sedition. Because he’s Lord. That’s a threat to everyone who figures they’re lord. Including the lords of Israel at that time, whether we’re talking emperors, prefects, tetrarch, senators, synagogue presidents, or scribes who were used to everyone following their spins on the scriptures. To all these folks, Jesus is competition. To their counterparts today, Jesus is still competition—but since Christians don’t read our bibles, it’s awfully easy to get us to believe all sorts of rubbish about him, and thereby render him and us nonthreatening.

Jesus is the legitimate Messiah, the king of Israel. Not just ’cause his adoptive dad was the hereditary heir to the throne; neither was David ben Jesse, but the LORD made him king because God can make king of whomever he wants.

But all that aside: David’s line had been overthrown by Nabúkhudurriuchur binu Nabúaplauchur of Babylon, nearly six centuries before. Other than Zerubavel ben Šehaltiel, the Davidites hadn’t ruled since. The monarchy was reestablished by the Hasmonean family two centuries before; they were overthrown by Antipater Herod, and the Herods were themselves overthrown by Augustus Caesar when Jesus was a boy. Now, imagine the current, most direct descendant of Louis 17 declaring he should be ruling France instead of the Fifth Republic. We’d laugh it off; and the Bourbons were ruling France far more recently than the Davidites had ruled Jerusalem in Jesus’s day.

So following Jesus instead of the other lords of his day—and ours: Sedition. Which isn’t against God’s Law; it’s against human laws, so Jesus still isn’t guilty of sin. Still totally sinless; relax.

Thing is, Christians don’t wanna think of Jesus as guilty. We don’t wanna think of his conviction as valid. We don’t wanna recognize sentencing him to death is in any way parallel to the way we depose him as the master of our lives, and prioritize other things over him. We don’t wanna think of his trial as a miscarriage of justice; we’d rather imagine it as illegal.

This is why, every Easter, you’re gonna hear various Christians claim Jesus’s trial wasn’t legal. That the Judeans had broken all their own laws in order to arrest him and hold his trial at night, get him to testify against himself, and get him killed before anyone might find out what they were up to. It certainly feels illegal: If you ever heard of a suspect arrested at midnight, tried and convicted at 2AM, and executed at noon, doesn’t the whole thing smell mighty fishy?

Chapter and verse, please.

“It was illegal to try cases at night,” claims one website. I’ve heard this claim a bunch of times: The Judeans had a law which forbade any legal activity, any decisions, from being made at any time other than in the daylight, when members of the public could come in and observe the proceedings and keep ’em accountable.

Okay. Which law was this now?

What legal code was the Judean senate following? The only legal code they had; the only legal code they were allowed to have. That’d be the laws handed down to Moses in the scriptures. The same commands we have in our bibles. They weren’t permitted to create new ones. The Judean senate, unlike our senates, didn’t make laws, and never presumed they could; only the LORD could make laws. All they might do was rule whether something was consistent with the Law, or not. They weren’t a legislative body; properly they were a judicial one.

Now yeah, our judges don’t make laws, but they do interpret ’em in all sorts of imaginative ways, and sometimes these interpretations have all the effect of new laws. And the Judeans could do, and did, the very same. They could twist the Law, warp it, and create loopholes in it. Pharisees certainly did. To a degree they could also enforce their interpretations of the Law. But what they couldn’t do was invent new laws. And “Thou shalt not try cases at night” is absolutely a new law. Can’t extrapolate it from bible.

And no, it’s not in the bible either. There’s no proof text for it.

So the proper response to anyone who claims, “It was illegal for them to…” is “Where does the bible forbid that? Chapter and verse please.”

Some preachers will totally admit it’s not bible, but claim there were some nonbiblical “laws” which Pharisees followed same as the Law: The “oral Law,” passed down from Pharisee to Pharisee orally, instead of written down in the scriptures. “True, it’s not found chapter-and-verse in the bible, but it’s definitely part of Pharisee tradition.” And yes, such oral traditions totally did exist; there’s plenty of historical evidence for it.

Regardless: Who ran the Judean senate? The head priest and his party. He was the president of the senate; he ran the meetings, appointed the officers (and usually made ’em family members), and made final rulings. Was the head priest a Pharisee? Nope; he was a Sadducee, as were all the head priests since King John Hyrcanus quit the Pharisees in the second century BC. Sadducees didn’t follow Pharisee traditions at all. Heck, Sadducees only had the first five books in their bibles—and since they didn’t believe in angels, Ac 23.8 we’re not really talking about people who believed their bibles. So even if the bible did forbid nighttime cases, the head priest might ignore it if it suited him. And he certainly wouldn’t acknowledge Pharisee “oral Laws” as valid. Especially when they got in his way.

Yep, you can find passages in the Mishna which forbid nighttime trials. But the Mishna ain’t Law. It’s a second-century Pharisee collection of traditions and “oral Laws.” It’s nothing a Sadducee would follow if he didn’t care to. Its passages might not even have been written in Jesus’s day. They might’ve been written a century after his trial, after someone whom Pharisees didn’t want dead, was convicted in a nighttime trial before they could put a stop to it. It’s not even proof Jesus’s trial was uncustomary: We don’t ban actions unless people have already done it! And possibly done it a lot.

So these preachers who claim Jesus’s nighttime trial was illegal: They’re just quoting other preachers who claim Jesus’s nighttime trial was illegal. They never investigated whether the other preachers were correct. It feels correct, so that’ll do them.

Other “illegal” behaviors.

“It was illegal to sentence a convict on the same day as the trial,” is another claim preachers like to make. And again, there’s no such law in the bible. In fact, if a man wanted to invalidate his woman’s oath, he didn’t have a day to think about it; if he waited, it meant her oath stood. Nu 30.5-14 Pharisee custom might’ve given judges a day to deliberate, but I remind you the head priest was no Pharisee.

“It was illegal to try someone the day before Sabbath.” This claim is based on the previous claim: If you can’t give sentence till the next day, and the next day is Sabbath, supposedly this rules out Friday trials. (What, you can’t skip a day and sentence ’em the day after Sabbath?) But again, Pharisee custom, not Law.

“It was illegal to recruit witnesses.” Well, it’s illegal to invent witnesses, instead of people who actually did witness something. But that’s not what happened. It looks like the witnesses actually did see Jesus do and say stuff, ’cause he totally did say something about knocking the temple down. The problem is their stories contradicted one another. Mk 14.56 If they had been properly coached, this shouldn’t have happened. (Hastily coached, maybe. But lots of people are quick studies.)

“It was illegal to hear the testimony of false witnesses.” Okay yes; if your witnesses commit perjury, the Law declares their testimony invalid, and says they need to suffer the same penalty as they were trying to inflict on the defendant. Dt 19.19 (So in this instance, the death penalty.) But once the witnesses to Jesus contradicted one another, there’s no evidence the senate accepted their testimonies; there’s every indication they couldn’t and didn’t. They didn’t convict Jesus on any testimony but his own.

“It was illegal to make Jesus testify against himself.” No it wasn’t. The bible has a number of instances of self-incrimination. Joshua obligated Achan ben Kharmi to testify against himself, Js 7.19 and Eli squeezed Samuel into sharing everything the LORD told him. 1Sa 3.17 The right against self-incrimination is an American invention; it’s not a biblical one.

“It was illegal to convict on only one witness’s testimony; Jesus and someone else had to testify.” This is a warping of the Law’s ban against convicting on a single testimony. Dt 19.15 Obviously when a person confesses, that’s plenty enough to convict. Achan was executed for what he confessed, Js 7.20-25 as was the Amalekite who claimed to kill Saul ben Kish. 2Sa 1.15-16 Self-incrimination is still incrimination.

“It was illegal for the judges to be biased against the defendant.” Not only does the Law never make such a requirement, it’s kinda impossible to make such a requirement. Everybody’s biased. (Even God; he’s definitely anti-sin.) Certainly if you were the judge in a trial against a mass murderer, who killed lots of people you know, you’re gonna personally want him dead. But the LORD did require judges to be just, Dt 16.18 and biased or not, their rulings had to reflect a truthful understanding of the Law, the circumstances, and guilt. Whether that happened in Jesus’s trial is debatable—and if we think it’s not, that’s only proof of our bias.

“It was illegal to convict on anything but a unanimous verdict.” Because Luke comments Joseph of Arimathea didn’t agree to convict Jesus, Lk 23.50-51 we know it wasn’t as unanimous a vote to convict as it sounds in other passages. Lk 22.71 The popular claim is it had to be a unanimous vote… because American murder trials require a unanimous vote, and surely they had the same standard in bible times, right? Thing is, the Law says nothing about jury trials. Westerners invented trials by jury, not middle easterners. When the bible talks about judges, the general idea is there’s only one judge, ruling on his own; he might be overruled by a higher judge, but these are still solitary decisions, not group ones. And the king was considered the highest judge; when he ruled, he didn’t need confirmation by any parliament. In many ways the senate president, the head priest, functioned like his predecessors, the Hasmonean kings: The senate existed to advise him, and he made the ruling. The head priest’s decision functioned as the official senate decision. The Mishna changed this procedure centuries later, and even retroactively claimed the chief Pharisee in the senate was really ancient Judea’s senate president. But it doesn’t accurately describe the procedure of Jesus’s day.

Totally legal. Not all that ethical, though.

So yeah, Jesus’s trial fulfilled the letter of the Law… but it killed a righteous man, who never violated God’s Law, and is only guilty of declaring who he really is to a roomful of unbelievers. It’s a textbook miscarriage of justice.

That’s not good enough for many Christians. They much prefer the idea this was an illegal trial; that “the Pharisees” hated Jesus so much, they thought nothing of tossing aside their own rules to get him killed. It makes ’em look like massive hypocrites, who claimed to be all about law-’n-order yet were really about power. They’re already perceived to be the bad guys in the Jesus story, so this makes ’em exceptionally bad.

But that’s not historically accurate. The Judeans didn’t break the rules to convict Jesus; they followed the rules, knowing just how to use ’em and warp ’em in ways which got them what they wanted. They’d been jumping through loopholes all their lives. And we do the very same things with our own procedures and standards. We know how to violate the spirit of every institution; we do it all the time. Corrupt humanity can corrupt anything. We do it every time we quote bible out of context. Even the LORD’s commands, Jesus’s teachings, the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

That’s why we have to follow the spirit of the Law more so than its letter; to follow God’s intent instead of merely his words. To produce his fruit. To settle for nothing less.