Author U. Michelson, Jesus Before the Bar, a Jewish Perspective on Jesus’ Trial

, posted by Eric Landstrom

From Author U. Michelson, 1938, Jesus Before the Bar, Los Angels, CA: The Jewish Hope Publishing House, pp. 39-57.

Every trial must have a basis. The basis for the trial of Jesus was in two parts: One was the law of Moses or the first five books of the Old Testament, and the other basis was the Talmud which is an encyclopedia and is divided into two divisions called the Mishna and the Gemara. The Mishna is an exposition of the Jewish laws and customs, the Gemara is poetry, proverbs and theology.

The five books of Moses are the source from which all the Jewish customs arose. As the numbers of the Jews increased and their relationship became more complicated it became necessary to enlarge and to clarify laws, customs and legal remedies. The legal remedies and system of Jewish courts were based upon the old law where Moses told the children of Israel that they should elect judges and officers. We finds this in Exodus 18:25, 26 and Deuteronomy 16:18: “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment.” The basis for the great Sanhedrin was also in the law of Moses, when God told Moses to choose seventy men to stand with him before the tent of the covenant (Numbers 11:16, 17).

The Jews at the time of Jesus had three sets of courts. First, the Judges which consisted of three judges. This court could try only civil matters, and could not consider a case involving crime. Second, there was the lesser Sanhedrin consisting of twenty-three members which could try all kinds of cases; and third, the Great Sanhedrin sitting in Jerusalem consisting of seventy members with the High Priest. The Great Sanhedrin was composed of three sets of twenty-three members, twenty-three priests, twenty-three scribes, and twenty-three elders. The Scribes were men who learned in the law; they wrote the law out as it had to be all written by hand. The elders were business men or executives.

The members of the Sanhedrin were thoroughly trained and conversant and linguistically perfect in all the languages of the surrounding nations as they could have no interpreter in their session. They could not be less than 40 years of age in order to belong to the Great Sanhedrin, for the reason that it took that number of years to acquaint themselves with the law of Meses and the Talmud which they had to memorize. Every member had to be married and the father of children. It was considered that a father would be more merciful.

The chairman of the Great Sanhedrin, the High Priest, was elected by the people, but at that time the high priesthood was of a political order. It was bought by the highest bidder from the Roman Governor. It was granted as a favor to those who could assist the Governor at the Imperial Court. The House of Annas was a godless and wicked aristocracy, and was guilty of the most atrocious and wicked and impious deeds. In the Sanhedrin at the trial of Jesus were Annas and Caiaphas (they seem to have both lived in the same palace), and most of the other members were sons and relatives of Annas.

According to the law the Sanhedrin could meet only in one place and that was in the Temple in a room known as the “Hall of Hewn Stones.” Any other place of meeting was absolutely illegal and made their decision void and of no effect. The Sanhedrin’s jurisdiction consisted of all kinds of cases. They had three ways of punishing by capital punishment or the death sentence; one was beheading for murder, burning was another; and stoning was a third method.

The Sanhedrin that sat at the trial of Jesus had plotted against Him. That was absolutely illegal. The leaders of the Jewish aristocracy were stirred up by the public and radical teaching of Jesus, while “the common people heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37). It was personal feeling and jealousy which set these leaders against Jesus. for instance: when they saw that He was able to heal the incurable, they tried to charge Him with witch-craft (Matt. 9:24; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15). When He told them that no Prophet was accepted in his own country, they were filled with wrath, and wanted to kill Him (Luke 4:24-29). This was in Nazareth of Galilee, where they had no legal right whatsoever to exercise the power of life and death over anyone; because that place did not contain the 23 Rabbis to form even a “Small Sanhedrin” (Ramb. Sanhed. 1.3; 5.2). When He healed the man with a withered arm, they took occasion to impute to Him the Profanation of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:9-13; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11). And notwithstanding His reasons that “It is lawful to save life on the Sabbath,” and again, “It is lawful to do well on the Sabbath day,” they joined hands with the Herodians, taking council together how they might destroy Him. When the Pharisees and Sadducees invited Him to dine with them, all their questions were directed to catch some words out of His mouth that they might accuse Him (Luke 11:37-57). When He reminded them that the Temple was God’s house of prayer for all people (Isa. 56:7), but they made it a den of thieves, they sought how they might destroy Him (Matt. 21:12-16; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-47). They tried to entrap Him on a political catch with the hope of being able to accuse Him of treason, but they failed miserably. “Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar?” they asked. He answered, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s” (Matt. 22:15-21; Mark 12:37-17; Luke 20:19-25). Their bitterest anger, however, which they could not restrain, was when He raised Lazarus (John 11:43-45); for their own eyes gave them witness to the greatness of Jesus. Their jealousy at this time found no bounds. They would have devoured Him by daylight, but could not, because of the many that believed on Him (Matt. 21:32; John 2:23; 4:39, 50, 53; 8:31; 11:45; 12:11). In fact they were actually hoping to kill Lazarus, who was a standing Testimony and living witness to the power and claims of Jesus (John 12:10), but they found it too dangerous, as everybody would know the reason for such an act. They made up their mind at last, to get rid of Him under any circumstances, so long as they avoided showing their treacherous machinations, and did not excite the local multitude who believed on Him and loved Him (Matt. 26:3-5; John 11:47-54). Accordingly, they made arrangements with one of the weakest of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, who, like themselves, loved the mammon of this world in preference to the Lord Who bought him (Deut. 32:6-18), to give him thirty pieces of silver (Matt. 27:3-9), as foretold in Jeremiah and Zechariah, that he should point out to them the place of His quiet resort with His disciples, in the middle of the night, when all the people in Jerusalem would be fast asleep.

Jesus was in the upper room with the disciples celebrating the Passover (Luke 22:12-14). In the midst of the ceremony while the disciples were sitting with their Master around the table Judas left them and went to the Sanhedrin and received his thirty pieces of silver. Then Jesus opened His heart to the disciples and told them that He must suffer many things of the chief priests, that He was to be crucified and that He would rise the third day. Afterwards He went with three of the disciples to Gethsemane. The hour was then approaching and there at, or soon after midnight the multitude came consisting of chief priests, elders and officers of the Temple, and they arrested Jesus. Now it was a law at that time, based upon the old law of Moses (Deut. 17:6, 7), that it was not legal for any member of the Sanhedrin to be an arresting officer. Jesus spoke to them and said, “You come to me with staves. I was daily with you in the temple” (Matt. 26:55). It was also illegal to arrest anyone after sundown no matter how bad a criminal he was, unless he were caught in the very act. He was absolutely safe under the law, until the following day. and then he could be arrested only by the witnesses. Furthermore, Jesus was really arrested by Judas and through his instigation, which under the law was illegal, as we read in Leviticus 19:16, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor; I am the Lord.” A witness had to be a person of good character; he was forbidden to take a bribe. A Gentile could not be a witness. An accomplice or accessory could not be a witness under any circumstances. Thus Judas could neither be a witness nor arrest, because he was a companion, a traitor, “a talebearer.”

According to the Mosaic and Talmudic law there was not such a thing as a Grand Jury or a preliminary hearing. Grand Juries, State attorneys, and preliminary hearings were an abomination to the Law. To take Jesus before Annas at night to be interrogated was absolutely illegal under the law, both because it was at night, and because no one person could legally interrogate either the accused or a witness. The Examining Board of the Sanhedrin had to consist of three to seven men; no one person could independently interrogate a witness or an accused person. It was also a law that a man could not incriminate himself, in other words he could not suffer punishment or take a punishment upon his own confession; it had to be supported by the testimony of two or three witnesses. This was based on the Mosaic law, as recorded in Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Numbers 35:30. Jesus knew the law and He put it right up to Annas, to whom He said: “I spoke openly to the world; I taught in the synagogue and in the temple…Why asketh thou me? Ask them which heard me, what I have said unto them.” He knew he could not be interrogated by the High Priest alone, or without his consent by the Sanhedrin. He knew further they could not support any verdict without at least two witnesses.

Aside from the illegality of the arrest and the illegality of the hearings before Annas and Caiaphas, it was illegal for the Sanhedrin to meet at night. It was illegal for them to meet until after the morning sunrise sacrifice. They were not allowed to have a trial on the day before their Sabbath. A day according to the Jewish law started at sundown and ended with the following day’s sundown. Thus the arrest of Jesus and His hearing before Annas and Caiaphas was not only illegal because [it was] held at night but for the further reason that it occurred on the day before the Sabbath. Further, no trial could be held on a feast day, and as we have seen this was the Passover week, in which every day was a feast day.

Every trial before the Sanhedrin consisted of really two trials, one on one day and then on the succeeding day. Between the two trials members of the Sanhedrin had to fast and meet with one another in their homes, discussing the case from every angle, trying to find, if possible, some means to acquit the accused.

After the morning sacrifice when they met in the “Hall of Hewn Stones,” they would sit down for a session. There were three clerks, one would be the minute clerk for the accused, and the other the minute clerk against the accused and the third clerk who took minutes for both sides. The accused had to stand between the two clerks and in front of the third clerk.

The witnesses would be brought before the Sanhedrin separately, but could not testify as they do now, that is, one testify to one fact and another testify to another fact. Every witness had to tell the whole story, and had to be an eye-witness of the crime from beginning to end. Each witness was first interrogated as to the date, the day and the hour, and every detail had to line up exactly true to every detail in the history of the case with every other witness as to statement of time, hour and event. If there were three witnesses and the testimony of one witness did not corroborate the others in every detail the accused would have to be found “not guilty” and set free. We find in Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15, and Numbers 35:30 that it required more than one witness; also in Matthew 18:15 where Jesus said, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.” Then also they could not take any documentary evidence, for no letters could be introduced in a criminal case. Each witness had to be examined, and give his testimony separately and not in the presence of each other. He was not put under oath, for an oath was repulsive to the Jews because they could not take the name of God. As soon as the prosecution had closed, the defendant put on his defense. After all testimony had been given came the arguments. But the Sanhedrin had to keep perfectly still until some member got up to make an argument in favor of the accused. If no one got up in his favor there could be no argument. After someone had spoken in favor of the accused then someone also had the privilege of speaking against. Every time they spoke they had to give a valid reason for their attitude against the accused.

Then came the balloting. The High Priest could never legally express an opinion or interrogate the witness or the accused. He could never say the man was guilty or innocent. He had to keep perfectly silent. The vote of the High Priest had to be absolutely the last ballot cast, because of his high office and influence, it was felt he should not express any opinion until after the last one had spoken. No one could change his ballot from his spoken opinion unless he should change in favor of acquittal. When the balloting commenced, beginning with the youngest member of the Sanhedrin, they first took ballots of those who voted in favor of the accused; then they took the ballots of those who were against. If everyone of the Sanhedrin voted that the accused was guilty, then by their law it would be a mistrial and the man must be set free. for, according to the Talmud, they had as one of their rules, that a man must have at least two votes in his favor, and if he did not they must set him free. There had to be a vote with a majority of two or more to find a man guilty. If the Sanhedrin were divided fifty-fifty the accused would have to be set free. And further, a unanimous vote would set him free.

After the balloting took place they had to adjourn and the next day after fasting, prayer and conferences, and after the morning sacrifice they had a new session, for the purpose of reviewing the previous day’s work and trying to find, if possible, some reason for setting free the one accused. If they were still of the same opinion after this second session, the execution had to take place immediately and before sundown. The officers of the Sanhedrin did not perform the execution. The witnesses must be the first to lay hands upon him (Deut. 17:7). After the witnesses had laid their hands to the execution, then the people, but not the hands of the judges.

It was not necessary for the entire seventy to sit at the trial; at least twenty-three constituted and was necessary to a quorum. After Annas had interrogated Jesus He was sent to Caiaphas. We do not know if the whole Sanhedrin sat at the trial or only twenty-three. It was after midnight. Caiaphas questioned Jesus who remained silent. In angered disappointment he disregarded his duty, which of course he knew. As High Priest he could not interrogate any witness and could not express any opinion. Contrary to the law he placed Jesus under oath and he sought to interrogate Him before any witness had been interrogated. Caiaphas, illegally putting Jesus under oath, said “I adjure thee by the living God that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ the Son of God” (Matt. 26:63). This question Jesus would answer because He could not deny Himself and He, therefore, replied, “Thou sayest.” Then the High Priest expressed himself which he had no right to do saying, “You have heard him. He is guilty of blasphemy” (Matt. 26:65; Mark 14:63, 64; Luke 22:71).

As we mentioned before, no one could speak against the accused until someone has spoken in his favor. There was not one favorable comment made for Jesus in that Sanhedrin; therefore, that alone should have set Him free.

Legally, Jesus should have been required to make a defense as to His Messiahship, as the Jewish people were looking for the Messiah. The wise men had come to Herod, and Herod called in the chief priests who said that the time for the Messiah was ripe. So we know that they were looking for Him, and the Sanhedrin should have interrogated Jesus as to whether He was the Christ, the Son of God. It was their duty to have searched diligently as to whether or not these things were true, according to Deuteronomy 13:14. Having expected the Messiah, they were legally bound under the laws and rules of proceedure to have taken the words of Jesus for truth until they disproved them. It was the duty of the Sanhedrin at the trial either to have disproved Him as being their Messiah or to accept as true His statement that He was the Christ. There is no doubt that Jesus would have proven His Messiahship.

The Sanhedrin violated the law on another term, when they spit in His face and struck Him. They committed physical violence (Mark 14:65). No judge could lay his hands on either a witness or accused, or in any way violate his person.

Another illegal act was when Caiaphas at the end of the trial rent his garment. As we read in Leviticus 21:10: “And he that is High Priest upon whose head the anointing oil was poured…to put on garments, shall not uncover his head nor rend his cloths.” The reason for this was that his priestly garment stood for the sacredness of his office. (J.E. Spooner in The Unlawful Trial of Jesus, E. Fischbein in The Trial of Jesus, F.C. Gilbert in Practical Lessons and Edersheim in The Trial of the Messiah).

After holding a hurried consultation together, and finding that they could not commit the murder themselves, they led Jesus away as early as possible (John 18:28) to the judgment Hall of Pilate (Matt. 27:1; Mark 15:1; Luke 23:1).

How different were the crimes they asserted against Jesus when in the Supreme Judgment Hall, in the presence of the Roman Procurator! It was no longer theology, but treason against the people and the state. “We found this man perverting the people, forbidding to pay tribute to Caesar, saying that He is Himself Christ-a king” (Luke 23:2; John 18:30). Although they knew that the first part of the accusation was the exact opposite to His teaching, and a direct falsehood on their part; for He taught them to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s And when Peter was asked by the Customs Officers at Capternaum whether his Master paid tribute, he answered in the affirmative, and went there and then to Jesus to ask for tribute money (Matt. 17:24-27; 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25). But whatever they would have accused Him of would have been equally baseless, because He was “A Lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:19). Yet they knew perfectly that this accusation would grip the Procurator’s feelings more than any other charge, which is just what they needed. Pilate after sifting the case pronounced a verdict of not guilty, several times (Luke 23:4; John 18:38; Matt. 27:23; Mark 15:44; Luke 23:22; John 19:4, 6). But he had to reckon with the “multitude” who clamored for the life of Jesus. This multitude, however, did not consist of citizens of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, who knew and loved Jesus; but were of those who came annually to the feast of the Passover, from Europe, Asia Minor, Persia, Greece, Africa, even on a larger scale than on the feast of Pentecost, as recorded in the 2nd chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. These, while they knew that the High Priest was the chief authority in Jerusalem, scarcely ever came into touch with the life and work of Jesus. Josephus, the Jewish Historian, relates (War 6:9-3), that on one of the Passover feasts, the High Priest received the count of the Passover lambs killed, which numbered no less than 256,500. As the minimum number for each lamb could not, by law, be less than 10, the number of people on that occasion must have been no less than 2,565,000, and very probably more, consisting of foreign Jews, who were ignorant about the domestic affairs of Jerusalem. These, therefore, formed the multitude which was persuaded to support the sacerdotal party before Pilate, who was a weak and vacillating creature, fearful lest they might harm him at Caesar’s Court, commanded that Jesus should be crucified (Matt. 27:20-21; Mark 15:11; Luke 23:17-19; John 18:39-40).

We have thus shown that the trial of Jesus from beginning to end was illegal and that is the reason there is no record of it outside the Gospels. The Sanhedrin was afraid to keep a record for they knew that they acted illegally. In violation of the Jewish law Jesus was murdered by an unprincipled, unscupulous, and jealous hierarchy who compelled their Roman Governor by threats, “If you let this man go, thou art no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12), to uphold their action and help them carry into effect their most bloodthirsty transaction, such as the world had never seen, either before or after it. But Jesus had to die in order to make the everlasting atonement according to Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.”

God demands blood to atone for sin. Man’s life was forfeited and he had to die or pay the wages of death. He could not pay the penalty and live; so he wanted a substitute. Every man had sinned and could not be a substitute for his fellowman; but Christ was sinless and could become the substitute for man; and He has become that substitute….It was predicted that He should die, as we read in Acts 2:23, “Him being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.” The exact form of His death was foretold in Psalm 22. As we mentioned above the Jewish mode of a criminal’s death was by stoning, but the Roman mode of execution was by crucifixion. And this Roman death was thus foretold centuries before the Romans came into power. The precious name of the spotless Son of God was to be placed on the dark roll of murderers and law breakers, as it had been written, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” And those that stood by His cross and witnessed that sight of all sights beheld David’s words literally fulfilled: “They pierced my hands and my feet” (Ps. 22:16). Standing there, they gazed upon His emaciated form, and were able to “count all his bones,” as the Psalmist had foretold. It had also been predicted that the soldiers who carried out the sentence of death would “gamble at the foot of the cross for His cloths,” and that they would cast lots for His inner coat, which was without seam; and so it all transpired. The exact words which fell from His lips had been written a thousand years before they were uttered, as in Psalm 22. It was foretold that the Jewish authorities would appoint Him a criminal grave, but instead of which, He was “to make His grave with the rich in His death.” This was done by Joseph of Arimathea, begging to be allowed to have the body of Jesus, that He might bury it in his own new tomb. Many other details of the crucifixion were minutely described and definitely stated, and every one was carried out to the very letter, as if David, Isaiah and Zechariah had really stood among that group of watchers, and had been eye-witnesses of His death at Calvary.

As we read their prophecies and examine the fulfillment in the Gospels, we are compelled to ask where and how did all these predictions originate, not one of which failed, or was discredited but every jot and title came to pass.

Surely we can arrive at no other honest conclusion but that they came from Him Who sees the end from the beginning and Who foretells the outcome of all things before a single event transpires. What a convincing proof of the inspiration of the Bible is all this array of prophecies which so marvelously foretold in such a detailed way that miraculous birth, that matchless life, that remarkable trial, and that still more marvelous death of Him Who was sent by the Father to be the Savior of the world… [and] to carry out the will of God to its very letter. There could have been no collusion between the prophets who foretold these events and the apostles who recorded them, for God allowed 400 years to run their course between the prophecy of Malachi and the gospel by Matthew.

The same marvelous accuracy holds good as to our Lord’s predicted resurrection, ascension, and glorification at God’s right hand. And all these Old Testament Scriptures and these New Testament writings have been recorded that “we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that, believing, we might have life through His name.”

Submitted by Eric Landstrom