The legality of Jesus’s trial.

When you read the gospel of John, but skip the other three gospels, y’might get the idea Jesus never even had a trial. In that book:

  • Jesus gets arrested.
  • He’s taken right to the former head priest Annas’s house for an unofficial trial.
  • From there, to Joseph Caiaphas’s house.
  • Then to Pontius Pilate’s fortress.
  • Then to Golgotha.

No conviction, no sentence; just interviews followed by execution. Same as would be done in any country with no formal judicial system: They catch you, they interrogate you, they free or shoot you.

But both Judea and Rome did have a formal system; John doesn’t show it because the other gospels do, and John was written to fill in the gaps in their stories. They have the story of Jesus’s formal trials. There were two: The one before the Judean senate, and the other before the Roman prefect. The senate, presided over by head priest Caiaphas, found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and sedition. In contrast Pontius publicly stated he didn’t find Jesus guilty of anything, but he didn’t care enough to free him; he sent Jesus to his death all the same.

Was Jesus guilty of blasphemy? Only if he weren’t actually the Son of Man. But of course the senate absolutely refused to believe that’s who he is. But either way, Jesus actually was guilty of sedition.

I know; I know. Christians insist Jesus was absolutely innocent. He never sinned, y’know. But this “sedition” had nothing to do with sin. Jesus is the legitimate Messiah, the king of Israel and Judea, anointed by God to rule that nation and the world. He’s Lord. And that’s a threat to everyone who figures they’re lord—particularly the lords of Israel at that time. To them, “Jesus is Lord” is sedition.

To leadership today it still is… although many of them don’t realize this, ’cause they don’t believe Jesus is any real threat to their power. He oughta be, but his so-called followers are more interested in defending their parties than Jesus’s principles, so it stands to reason our leadership isn’t worried about Jesus. Yet.

But in the year 33, Jesus was tangibly standing on the earth, in a real position to upend the status quo, and therefore a real threat to the lords of Israel at the time. Whether we’re talking emperors, prefects, tetrarchs, senators, synagogue presidents, or scribes who were used to everyone following their spins on the scriptures. To all these folks, Jesus was competition. And needed to be crushed.

Following Jesus instead of these other lords: Sedition. Still is. But not against God’s Law. It’s only against human customs, so Jesus still isn’t guilty of sin; stil totally sinless. Relax.

Thing is, Christians don’t wanna think of Jesus as guilty of anything. We wanna defend him against everything. We don’t wanna think of his conviction and trials 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 simple 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?

Jesus’s claim to the throne.

First of all, Christians make a big to-do about Jesus’s lineage. We have his family trees, y’know. They contradict one another, but where they do line up, they agree Jesus is a direct descendant of David ben Jesse, the third king of Israel. Therefore Jesus is the “son of David,” the legitimate heir to David’s throne, the rightful king of Israel. Not the Hasmoneans, not the Herods; definitely not the Caesars, who weren’t even Hebrew.

Okay. First of all, all this stuff about heredity is nonsense.

If you’ve ever read the Old Testament, you’ll remember David ben Jesse wasn’t the descendant of kings. Neither was his predecessor Saul ben Kish. The throne of Israel was new. There were no dynasties to draw royalty from. These guys became king because the LORD chose them. And later in the bible he chose other kings who had no hereditary claim to it: Jeroboam ben Nabat, and Jehu ben Nimshi. It’s only human custom which insists heredity makes you a king. Christianity teaches otherwise: God anoints leaders.

So Jesus didn’t have to be descended from anybody to be king. Simon Maccabee wasn’t. Antipater Herod wasn’t. Augustus Caesar (even though he called himself divi filius/“son of God” because the Roman senate had declared his adoptive father Julius Caesar a god) wasn’t. And debatably even Jesus wasn’t. Go look at his two genealogies again, and y’might notice both of them link Jesus to David through his adoptive father Joseph. I know; popular Christian culture insists one of these genealogies belongs to Jesus’s mother, but the scriptures say no such thing. (Go ahead, read ’em again. I’ll wait.) The genealogies actually don’t prove his heredity. They prove the heredity of his earthly father—and since Jesus was adopted into that family, it totally counts the same as if he were born into it. Still: Some people are way too hung up on biology. So I figured I’d deal with them first.

Secondly even if Jesus is the scion of the house of David, that house was overthrown. Nabúkhudurriuchur binu Nabúaplauchur of Babylon deposed the last Davidite king nearly six centuries before. Other than Zerubbabel ben Shealtiel, the Davidites hadn’t ruled since. When the monarchy was reestablished, it was by the Hasmonean head priests, not the Davidites. And they were overthrown by Herod; and the Herods were overthrown by Caesar while Jesus was still a little boy.

So. 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. Yet the Bourbons were ruling France far more recently than the Davidites had ruled Jerusalem in Jesus’s day.

The people of Jesus’s day would laugh off any such claim too. So why’d they take all the “son of David” statements so seriously? Because according to Pharisee interpretations of the End Times, a son of David would take over the world, and if people really believed Jesus to be this son of David person, he could easily lead an insurrection. It was more about stopping the zealots from running amok, than any real fears Jesus would take over Judea.

“Chapter and verse, please.”

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

Okay. Where in the bible does it state this?

See, if the Judeans had a law, it’s in the bible. That’s the only legal code they had. The only legal code they were allowed to have. These are the commands handed down from the LORD to Moses in Torah. We got ’em in our bibles. The Judeans weren’t permitted to create new ones. Unlike our senates, the Judean senate wasn’t a lawmaking body, and never dared presume they could create laws; only the LORD can 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. The Judeans could do the very same—and absolutely did. They could twist the Law, warp it, and create loopholes in it. Pharisees totally 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.

So no, it’s not in the bible. There’s no proof text for it. Can’t extrapolate it from any other verse either. The proper response to anyone who claims, “It was illegal for them to…” is “Where’s that in the bible? Chapter and verse please.”

Some preachers will totally admit it’s not bible, but claim there were certain 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; we have a copy of them in the Talmud, called the Mishna.

But regardless of Pharisee customs: 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 (usually choosing family members), and made the 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 get a day to think about it; if he waited, it meant her oath stood. Nu 30.5-14 Pharisee custom might’ve given their 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: This is 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 the witnesses 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, 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 totally 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 this 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 this 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. The bible says nothing about jury rulings, but a judge’s ruling—only one judge, ruling on his own. He might be overruled by a higher judge, but these are still solitary decisions, not group ones. In Israel 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, but 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—as shown in the gospels.

Totally legal trial. 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 was 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 manipulate ’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.