History of Easter: The Trial — How many did Jesus have?

Beginning Thursday night and extending into Friday morning of Holy Week, the Trial of Jesus which led to his crucifixion was, in reality, a series of almost half a dozen trials, which were distributed across several locations in Jerusalem. Some of these locations are captured in the tradition of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, a series of sites that pilgrims take through the streets of modern Jerusalem commemorating the last hours before Jesus arrival at Golgotha on Good Friday.


Following Jesus arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane at the bottom of the Kidron Valley east of the city, he was brought before Annas who was the powerful ex-high priest and the real power behind the title of High Priest. By the Mosaic law, the high-priesthood was for life, but he had been deposed by the Roman procurator, though Jews might have still regarded him legally as the high priest. This was a hearing prior to formal arraignment before the son-in-law Caiaphas who was the current High Priest. Jesus was aware that this was to be no more than a lower court inquiry. He deflected Annas’ questions by answering that what was known about him he had spoken: “…openly to the world.”


Because it was after dark and the gates of the Temple where they would have met were locked, certain members, the scribes and elders, of the Sanhedrin met in the southwest quarter of the city at the palace of the current high priest Caiaphas, whose name means “inquisitor.” Before this incident, Caiaphas had said about Jesus that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people. This was more prescient than Caiaphas could know.

Trying Jesus was difficult because it was difficult to find a solid charge that would stick as the witnesses that were brought forward could not agree. The Mosaic law required at least two witnesses to agree on a charge. While a number of challenges and charges were directed toward Jesus, he refused to answer. Without proven evidence, Jesus was not obligated legally to answer. Caiaphas knew this.

The case against Jesus would collapse if Caiaphas could not introduce a proven charge. Otherwise, the result would be greater popularity with the people for Jesus even as embarrassment would fall upon the Sanhedrin. The high priest conceived a plan that would create seventy witnesses. He introduced his final question with the dire “Oath of the Covenant.” Not answering the question would be criminal; a false answer would be damnable. He said,

“I adjure you by the living God, tell us if are you the Christ, the Son of God.”

Jesus not only answered affirmatively but added that he was the Son of Man who would “sit at the right hand of Power,” an Old Testament title for God’s vice-regent on earth — a peer as it were — a divine being.

Palace of Caiaphas

The high priest tore his garments, claiming he’d heard blasphemy in his presence. He asked the assembled members of the Sanhedrin, seated in a semicircle around him, for their judgment on that subject. The vote would proceed from the youngest to the oldest members of the Sanhedrin, to prevent the elders from having an undue influence the younger members. The Temple police, who were under the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin, then beat the prisoner, which was the standard operating procedure for the condemned.

Parenthetically, the Gospel of Matthew mentions that Jesus’ disciple Peter was sitting outside the trial in the courtyard, where he was repeatedly asked if he knew Jesus and each time denied it. This is the same Peter who earlier had professed about Jesus, using almost the same words as Caiaphas’ question.

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

One problem remained for the Sanhedrin; night trials by the council were illegal except in monetary cases. Therefore, the full council would need to collect the next day again, shortly after dawn for a roll call vote. One last complication arose. To avoid dangerous and hasty convictions, the Jewish law postponed sentencing the condemned until the day following the trial. But this was illegal as the next day was the Sabbath when only acquittals could be returned for a prisoner. However, in light of the fact that this was an emergency situation, this was overlooked.

The Jerusalem Talmud, a large collection of oral and compiled “teachings,” tells us that forty years before the destruction of the Temple (which occurred in A.D. 70) the authority to carry out the death penalty for capital cases had been removed from Israel. As it was now Friday, April 3, 33 A.D., the Sanhedrin lacked this authority in this case and had to obtain the ratification of the Roman provincial ruler, Pontius Pilate, who reserved to himself the jus gladii, the “law of the sword.”


Herod’s Palace

Pilate, the Roman prefect, typically resided in the Roman capital, Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast. However, because it was the time of the Jewish Passover, and many pilgrims would be traveling to Jerusalem, Pilate journeyed to the Jewish capital to ensure that there would be no trouble. The Sanhedrin assembled In front of the governor’s Jerusalem residence, Herod’s Palace. To remain ritually pure from the presence of a gentile’s residence ahead of this important Jewish holiday, they remained outside. Pilate asked them,

“What accusation do you bring against this man?”

This was unexpected. There would be no automatic approval of the Sanhedrin’s judgment. Instead, this was the beginning of the interragatio, the opening formula of a Roman examination. Pilate began to try Jesus himself Friday morning. It would be difficult for the Sanhedrin to explain to a “pagan” governor that Jesus had been judged guilty of blasphemy. That was a religious charge that would make no difference to a Roman. Instead, they put forward three specific charges that would appeal to the governor: subverting the nation, withholding tribute money due Emperor Tiberius Caesar, and claims of being King, i.e., Messiah (Christ).

The first charge was serious but required specific proof, and Jesus in his teaching had avoided politics. The second charged Pilate knew full well to be a lie, as the Pharisees themselves protested paying the tax. Indeed, the Temple moneychangers converted Roman coinage to Temple currency. The third was the most consequential. It was maiestas, the familiar Latin term for high treason, the most horrendous according to Roman law (see earlier historical note on Pontius Pilate). After interrogating Jesus, Pilate could not get to the bottom of the truth. At this point, it was after dawn, and the crowds outside who were in the know were getting loud and unpleasant. When Pilate heard someone mention Jesus being from Galilee he saw an out; Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, was in town. Pilate could easily and legally transfer the venue of this case from the forum delicti, the place of offense, to the forum domicilii, the place of residence.


Hasmonean Palace

The Sanhedrin could expect a more favorable decision from Herod Antipas since he had aided them before in the affair of the votive shields. And Antipas was genuinely pleased to see Jesus, about whom he had heard much. However, Jesus would provide him with no sport. Although he appreciated that Pilate would grant him this boon, he could not afford the unpopularity of putting to death another prophet after killing John the Baptist. So after allowing his troops to give Jesus a gorgeous robe and then mock him, he sent the accused back to Pilate. The gospel writers tell us that after this Antipas showed his gratefulness to Pilate in friendship.


The Praetorium

Jesus was returned to Pilate at Herod’s Palace. However, some believe that Pilate was at the Fortress Antonia, situated at the northern edge of the Temple. The tradition of the Stations of the Cross features the Antonia as the first site on the Via Dolorosa on the northern side of the Temple. At this point, the gospel of St. John tells us, Pilate took the initiative and suggested flogging Jesus as an object lesson and then releasing him. This Roman practice of fustigatio was to warn against further wrongdoing. Flogging alone was unsatisfactory to the Sanhedrin, who feared Pilate would equivocate and release the prisoner. In the final hour, they pulled out their trump card, the ace up the sleeve.

“If you release this man you are no friend of Caesar, everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”

This was the key that would link the religious and the political issues. Pilate’s status as amici Caesaris or “friend of Caesar” was in danger. His political career would be over, if not his life as well. He had already been warned once directly by Emperor Tiberius already. Pilate then passed sentence against this “king of the Jews”: constructive treason — implied maiestas.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

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Writer and technologist. Author of fascinating articles about history, tech trends, and pop culture. billpetro.com @billpetro

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