Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 14, 1958
NUMBER 15, PAGE 4-5a

The Trial Of Jesus -- (III.)

Roy E. Cogdill

One of the most amazing things connected with the trial of Jesus was the manner in which his accusers, right in the midst of the trial, changed their charge against him. They had brought him into court on the charge that he had threatened the destruction of Jerusalem. This amounted to sedition against the Jewish government; but when the witnesses did not agree among themselves, and it became obvious to all that no case could be made against him on this ground, they dropped this accusation and substituted another in its place — the charge of blasphemy.

Furthermore, this switch in charges was done by the very man who was sitting in judgment upon him, Caiaphas himself! It is well to remember that in no civilized nation on earth, and under no known law, can a man file a complaint against the prisoner at the bar and at the same time sit in judgment at the trial of his case. You can readily see why such would not be permissible. Caiaphas, however, was the one who filed the accusation against Jesus. When he saw that the trial was not going well, and that the witnesses were not agreeing among themselves, he took the role of accuser. So we find one of the judges, in fact, the high priest himself, the chief justice, so to speak, of the Jewish court, acting as both accuser and judge, as well as witness, in the case on trial.

The Procedure

Consider now the illegal aspects of the procedure of Jesus' trial. First, it was contrary to law because it took place at night. A capital offense, even after the arrest of the party, could be tried only by the light of the sun. Jewish law specifically provided that if a trial involving a capital offense were in progress when the evening hour came, the court should be recessed until the next morning. This was done that the witnesses might have due time to think about their testimony, and the judges might have due time for consideration. But this provision was ignored and disregarded when they tried Jesus. His examination began somewhere between two and three o'clock in the morning, and was carried right on without interruption through the rest of the night and into the day, and he was crucified on the very day of the trial.

In the second place, the procedure was illegal because the court convened before the offering of morning sacrifices. Here, again, the Jewish law was extremely detailed and specific: no court could convene to hear any kind of case before the offering of the morning sacrifice. But so eager were his accusers to condemn and destroy Jesus and to put him out of the way, that they convened immediately upon his arrest, ignoring their written law, disregarding the time honored practices of their courts. Their hatred for him was so intense that they were blind to all else.

A third illegal procedure was in the fact that the entire trial was conducted within a single day, with sentence passed, and execution completed. In less than twenty-four hours Jesus was arrested, tried, condemned, and actually executed. Yet the Jewish law provided that no case involving a capital offense could be concluded in a single day . After all the testimony was in and all the evidence had been heard, the judges had to pass over at least one night before rendering their verdict. This was to give them time to reflect and meditate and weigh all the testimony. The Roman law was even more considerate of a prisoner than the Jewish law, for it provided that there must be at least ten days between the beginning of a trial involving the death penalty and the execution of any man adjudged guilty. Yet both Jewish law and Roman law were ruthlessly ignored in the trial of Jesus.

A fourth illegality in the procedure of this trial is found in that it was conducted on a day preceding a Jewish Sabbath, also on the first day of the feast of unleavened bread and on the eve of the Passover. This was prohibited and forbidden; yet the provision was ignored.

The Conviction

We have considered illegalities in the arrest of Jesus, in the indictment, and in the procedures of his trial. Let us look now at the verdict.

One of the strangest and most peculiar provisions of any criminal law known in history was the provision of Jewish law that in case of a unanimous verdict of guilty — the prisoner must go free! There were seventy-one judges in the senior Sanhedrin council. The Jewish philosophy was on this wise: In case all seventy-one of those men agreed as to the guilt of a prisoner, this was prima facie evidence that no one had taken the prisoner's part, and no defense had been made in his behalf. Human nature was such that regardless of how strong a case might be presented, there would be at least one in any group of seventy-one men who would differ from the rest. If no such divergence appeared in the verdict, then the prisoner had not been given a fair trial, and must be released. The gospel writers have recorded for us the fact that all the judges did agree; two of them say the high priest "with the whole council" concurred in the verdict. It was unanimous. Thus, legally, Christ was free, and should have been released immediately. But this safeguard for a condemned man was ignored.

In the second place, the verdict was rendered without any defense having been made by, or for, the accused. If they had called upon Jesus Christ to offer evidence that he was not guilty of what they had charged him with, don't you know he could have done it! If they had wanted to know why he claimed that he was the Messiah, he could have given them passages from their own prophets, hundreds of them, and could have shown them that he had fulfilled these prophecies in fact and in reality. If they had asked him for proof of his divinity by miraculous powers, he could have given them conclusive demonstration. But they were not interested in a defense of any sort; and they utterly forgot the right of the prisoner to offer a defense. There were many who could have been called upon to testify. Although Peter had forsaken him, John was still present. He could have testified; gladly he would have done so, for he was loyal right to the end. But the Jewish court gave him no chance to offer testimony. They refused to admit evidence in favor of the accused.

A third illegality in the verdict was that it was based upon an uncorroborated confession. Our own American law today provides that no man can be executed or sentenced upon his own confession in the absence of corroborating evidence. We have instances in the papers every day which show why the law makes that provision. Some man who wants to dispose of himself, or perhaps attract attention to himself, or who is demented, will confess to a crime of which he is not guilty. Evidence may show that he was many miles from the scene of the crime, and could not possibly have committed it. If an uncorroborated confession were accepted as the only requirement for sentencing or execution, thousands of innocent people would have been imprisoned or executed. But the Jews DID accept the uncorroborated confession of Jesus Christ, and condemned him to die upon his own testimony.

When Caiaphas saw that the trial was about to collapse into a farce, and that the hired witnesses were hopelessly contradicting each other, he took charge himself, and demanded of the prisoner, "I adjure thee by the living God, art thou the Christ?" Jesus could have held his peace; there wasn't any law that could have forced him to testify. A man cannot be forced to testify at his own trial. The reason for that provision is that a man on trial will have conflicting demands upon him. He is being required to tell the truth on the one hand, and has taken an oath to that effect; but on the other hand, the truth might be damaging to him. Hence he has conflicting emotions and conflicting obligations. So the law excuses a man and does not require him to testify in his own trial.

But Jesus was not excused. All the testimony they could find was not sufficient to convict him or to establish their charges. So as a final desperate measure Caiaphas tries to force him to testify against himself. We will consider that in the next article.