Home / Tough Topics Explained / Jesus’s Trial, Part 2. The Jewish Law and the Political Actors who Condemned Jesus
“You shall not distort justice…Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you.”
(Deuteronomy 16:19a, 20)
This is the second of five articles discussing the events and circumstances of Jesus’s religious trial before the Jewish authorities. The purpose of these articles is to highlight the injustices done to Jesus during His religious trials, by demonstrating the various ways the religious establishment violated or loopholed God’s laws and their own rules in their efforts to execute Him.
The religious leaders rejected Jesus as their Messiah because He refused to participate in their self-serving system of rules designed to exalt themselves and exploit the weak without pity, while hypocritically pretending to be righteous.
Jesus relentlessly followed God’s righteousness and taught others to do so (Matthew 6:33). He followed God’s commandments to love the Lord above all else and to serve other people, even when it meant transgressing the cultural norms of their man-made rules. When they condemned Him for violating their rules, Jesus pointed out their hypocrisy—how they violated the commands of God for the sake of their bad religion.
It is ironic then, how the Priests and Pharisees—the champions of Jewish culture and law—illegally conspired to put Jesus to death for breaking their moral code and for exposing their hypocrisy to others, all while repeatedly violating that same code and hypocritically twisting more loopholes in their collusion to condemn Him during His religious trials.
THE TWO SOURCES OF JEWISH LAW
The two main sources of their religious rules were “The Law of Moses” and “The Mishnah.”
The Law of Moses consists of the first five books of the Bible, often called the “Torah” (teaching) in Hebrew, or “The Pentateuch” in Greek. The Law of Moses was directly given to him from God. They are God’s divine laws. Moses then wrote them down and delivered them to Israel, which is why they are referred to as “The Law of Moses” (John 1:17a).
The Mishnah is the Oral Tradition. The Mishnah was codified, redacted, and written down around 200 A.D. Although it was not yet written down, its cultural significance was powerful and weighty in Jesus’s day.
This oral tradition developed as Rabbis discussed the meaning of the Law. The Jews believed this discussion originated during the time of Moses and Joshua. But the Mishnah greatly began to flourish during the Babylonian exile as a way to ensure that the Law of Moses was followed. For this reason, the Mishnah is sometimes described as a “hedge” or “fence” to protect the Law:
“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.”
(Mishnah. Pirkei Avot 1:1)
Originally, the Torah was the “apples of gold,” and the Mishnah was considered “settings of silver” from Solomon’s proverb (Proverbs 25:11).
The Mishnah often reads like a dialogue (or debate) of revered Jewish rabbis and their various interpretations of the Law. But in Jesus’s day it was spoken and referred to orally. This is why Jesus would often say things like “You have heard that it was said…” He was referring to the teachings the people heard in the oral Mishna from the various rabbis (past and present). It is also part of why Jesus often used the expression, “But I say to you…”, in reference to His own (Divine and Messianic) authority when He taught.
While there can be considerable spiritual value and insight to be gleaned from these Rabbis’ wisdom and knowledge, over time, the Mishnah began to supersede the Law delivered through Moses. The authority of this or that particular Rabbi (who may have died centuries earlier) and his interpretation of the Law became more significant than Scripture. Evidence of the Mishnah’s eclipse of the Law is seen both within the practices of the Pharisees of Jesus’s day and in the Mishnah itself.
When the Pharisees questioned Jesus for breaking their Mishnah, He answered them: “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God [Moses’s Law] for the sake of your tradition [Mishnah]?” (Matthew 15:2-3).
The Mishnah itself says: [Some rabbis believe] “the Mishnah has precedence over Scripture” but other “rabbis consider Scripture equally with the Mishnah” (Mishnah. Jerusalem Talmud Horayot 3:5:9). Rabbi Haniana explained why his contributions to the Mishnah were superior to the Scriptures in his boast: “[if] the Torah [Law of Moses] would be forgotten… I would restore it through my analyses” (Mishnah. Ketubot 103b:18).
During Jesus’s day, the fence (the rules of the Mishnah) had become more important in the eyes of the religious authorities than the garden (the life-giving Law of Moses) it was intended to protect.
Throughout Jesus’s trial the religious leaders will violate both the Law of Moses and the Mishnah because they believed it was expedient for the nation to execute Him no matter what (John 11:49-50).
KEY GROUPS AND PROMINENT FIGURES OF JESUS’S RELIGIOUS PROSECUTION
The Pharisees were the keepers of Jewish culture and law. The Pharisees were viewed by the people as heroes for their moral rigor and righteousness. They were political descendants of the Maccabees, who had defended Judaism from extinction by its Greek rulers. The Pharisees followed a strict moral code and used their influence to place heavy moral burdens on people in order to control and exploit them for their advantage. It is likely that many of the Pharisees were also elders (leaders). The scribes were experts in the Mosaic Law and oral Mishnah.
Also known as “the chief priests,” the Sadducees were in charge of the Temple Sacrifices. Their base of operations was the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The head of their order was the High Priest, the highest religious office in the land. The Sadducees and Pharisees both descended from the Maccabees, and often competed with one another for power and influence.
A member of the Sadducees, Annas was a former high priest. He held this position from 6 A.D. – 15 A.D. (Jesus’s trial was sometime around 30 A.D.). He was the patriarch of a high priestly dynasty. Annas was not only the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the sitting high priest during Jesus’s execution, he also was the father or grandfather to six additional high priests. Originally from Egypt, Annas came to Jerusalem at the invitation of Herod the Great. With the ruthless king as his ally, Annas quickly rose to power through cunning and ambition. He was notorious, and unpopular, but feared.
Annas was eventually replaced as the high priest, but his influence expanded through his sons’ and Caiaphas’s tenures. For instance, Luke records that John the Baptist began his ministry during “the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (Luke 3:1-2). Luke seems to be suggesting that Annas was the real power behind Caiaphas, his proxy.
There were three other high priesthoods between the tenures of these two men that were not mentioned. Moreover, the fact that Jesus was first brought to Annas’s house upon His arrest in Gethsemane (John 18:12-13) further demonstrates the influence the ex-high priest still wielded.
Annas also remained a powerful figure through his lucrative Temple connections.
The Jewish Talmud records a poem or song denouncing several infamously wicked high priests of Israel. It includes several lines about the House of Annas: “Woe is me due to the house of Annas; woe is me due to their whispers and the rumors they spread…The power of these households stemmed from the fact that the fathers were High Priests, and their sons were the Temple treasurers, and their sons-in-law were Temple overseers” (Talmud. Pesachim 57a:8).
This Jewish testimony makes two accusations against Annas and his priestly dynasty: 1.) He was slanderous and had a reputation for abusing his position to falsely accuse and condemn his enemies; and 2.) Annas’s household was known for greedily accumulating wealth from the Temple treasury. Some have referred to this religious racket as “the Bazaar of the Sons of Annas.” These things infer that Annas was one of the main profiteers of the Temple booths that extorted worshippers through the money changers and through selling sacrificial animals (presumably at high prices) (Matthew 21:12; John 2:13-22).
We can infer then that when Jesus cleared the Temple, it was largely Annas who was responsible for turning God’s Temple into a robber’s den, and therefore whom Jesus was chastising (Matthew 21:13). This indicates that Annas’s coffers likely suffered the biggest loss when Jesus did this. Annas’s disdain for Jesus might then have been both personal and financial.
The elderly Annas might have taken great satisfaction when Jesus was arrested and first brought to his house for a preliminary trial in the middle of the night.
Caiaphas was the sitting High Priest during the trial of Jesus. This position made him the leader of the Sadducees and the presiding member of the Sanhedrin. As High Priest, Caiaphas was the titular spiritual leader of Israel. He was the one responsible for making sacrifices to God on behalf of the nation.
Caiaphas was son-in-law to Annas and a successor to his father-in-law’s priestly dynasty. He too was likely a beneficiary of the Temple “Bazaar of the Sons of Annas.” Caiaphas held this position from 18 A.D. to 36 A.D. His eighteen-year tenure as high priest was far longer than anyone else at any point during the final hundred-year period of Temple operations.
Caiaphas “prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation,” but “he did not say this on his own initiative” but as the High Priest (John 11:51).
Caiaphas became involved in the conspiracy to kill Jesus sometime before His triumphal entry. The Sanhedrin (ruling council) feared and argued that Jesus’s Messianic popularity would eventually cause a war with Rome which Israel would lose. The result would be that Rome would strip away their positions of power and likely eliminate the relative freedom they had as a nation (John 11:47-48).
This was when Caiaphas made the unwitting prophesy that it was expedient for one man to die on behalf of the nation (John 11:49). Afterward the Sanhedrin sought to kill Jesus (John 11:53) and sent orders for anyone to report Jesus’s whereabouts so they might seize Him (John 11:57).
During Jesus’s trials, it was Caiaphas who intervened when the witnesses failed to produce testimony sufficient to warrant the death penalty. He put Jesus under oath to testify if He was the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 26:63). When Jesus gave His answer (Matthew 26:64), Caiaphas discarded all legal protocol and threw judicial decorum to the wind. The High Priest tore his garments, declared Jesus guilty, and asked for Him to be condemned to death all in the same instance (Matthew 26:65-66). All of these actions violated Jewish law.
The Sanhedrin’s vote for execution was unanimous, “They all condemned Him to be deserving of death” (Mark 14:64b). Upon this verdict, Jesus was to be released under Jewish law.
The Council of the Sanhedrin
Also known as “the Council,” the Sanhedrin was the supreme court of Jewish Law. This Council originated during the time of Moses and consisted of seventy-one members. This number was derived from the seventy elders and officers who were selected from among the people (Numbers 11:16) plus Moses.
The Sanhedrin evaluated all manner of cases pertaining to Jewish law from property rights to civil suits to religious matters. Their decisions included those of capital punishment. For cases involving capital law, not all seventy-one members had to be present, but these cases were to be “judged by [no less than] twenty-three judges” (Mishnah. Sanhedrin: 1:4).
Capital cases were only to be tried by the Sanhedrin. Unlike more contemporary Western trials, which require a unanimous decision to deliver a verdict, Jewish courts required a majority of one for acquittal but a majority of two for guilty and were only to be tried by the Sanhedrin. In fact, a defendant could receive a unanimous acquittal, but if he received a unanimous guilty verdict, his case resulted in an automatic acquittal because it suggested collusion against him (See Mishnah. Sanhedrin 5:5).
Capital cases were initially heard by a panel of twenty-three judges. If the verdict came back between twelve or more for acquittal and eleven or fewer for guilty the defendant was released. A guilty sentence, however, required between thirteen and twenty-two judges voting against the defendant. If the verdict came back twelve judges voting “guilty,” and eleven judges voting for acquittal, then two additional judges were placed on the panel and the trial was relitigated until there was a majority of either one for acquittal or two for guilty.
The trial continued to be relitigated with two additional judges as necessary until all seventy-one judges of the Sanhedrin had heard the trial. But if at any point there was a unanimous decision against a defendant, then he was to be released (See Mishnah. Sanhedrin 5:5).
Jesus twice received a unanimous guilty verdict (Mark 14:64; Matthew 27:1), which by their nature suggested collusion, and either time should have triggered His automatic acquittal. But neither did.
During the Second Temple Era (516 B.C. – 70 A.D.) the Sanhedrin officially met on the Temple Grounds in a building called “The Chamber Hewn of Stones.” The seats of this Council were distributed along party lines. The Sadducees were given twenty-four seats. The Elders (Teaching Pharisees) were given twenty-four seats. The Scribes (Pharisees who were experts on the Law and Mishnah) were given twenty-two seats.
The final seat was reserved for the High Priest. The Pharisees were the majority and controlled the vote, but the High Priest, a Sadducee, was the presiding official who controlled the proceedings.
According to the Mishnah, the judges of the Sanhedrin were to be seated so that they could both see and hear each side clearly. Two scribes were assigned to write down everything that was said for the prosecution and the defense. Fairness to each side was so prioritized that one scribe sat next to the prosecution, and the other scribe sat near the defense (See Mishnah. Sanhedrin 4:3).
In addition to Caiaphas the High Priest and possibly Annas, we know the names of two additional members of the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus’s trial: Nicodemus, a Pharisee (John 3:1; 7:50); and a man name Joseph of Arimathea who was a “prominent member of the Council” (Mark 15:43). Both Nicodemus and Joseph were secret followers of Jesus (John 19:38-39).
The Sanhedrin was the Council that tried and condemned Jesus to death. Luke’s Gospel tells us that not all seventy-one members were present when Jesus was condemned when it informs us that Joseph of Arimathea was not present at Jesus’s trial (Luke 23:50-51). Of those that were present, Mark tells us the decision was unanimous: “And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death” (Mark 14:64b).
With such a unanimous sentence, it would make sense that Nicodemus was also absent from Jesus’s trial. This suggests perhaps that their affinity for Jesus was known or suspected, and they were not summoned to the trial. If they had been, they might well have objected to the numerous illegalities, and perhaps ruined the plot to kill Jesus.
In addition to its mandate from the Torah (Numbers 11:16-17), the Sanhedrin had its own system of laws that it had to follow. An entire portion/book of the Mishnah, called “Sanhedrin” is dedicated to spelling out these rules.
Many of the laws that the Sanhedrin violated or loopholed during the trial of Jesus were from this section of the Mishnah.
This concludes the second article in this series about Jesus’s Religious Trial.
For further reading about Jesus’s Trial:
The first article is: “A Simple List of Laws the Religious Authorities Broke during the Trial of Jesus.” This first article is a simplified version of articles four and five. Instead of describing each law in detail and explaining how it was violated during the prosecution of Jesus, this article simply lists the various laws broken by the priests and Pharisees during Jesus’s trials.
The third article is: “The Five Stages of Jesus’s Religious Prosecution.” It sequentially describes the events of how Jesus came to be condemned to death by the religious authorities, beginning with the Conspiracy and His Arrest and ending with His three trials: the Preliminary Trial in the house of Annas; the Nighttime Trial in the house of Caiaphas; and the Sunrise Trial on the Temple grounds.
The fourth article is: “An Explanation of the Judicial Principles that were Violated in the Religious Prosecution of Jesus.” This article focuses on three general judicial laws and sacred principles found in the Torah and/or the Mishnah that Jesus’s judges either violated or loopholed in order to condemn Him.
The fifth article is: “An Explanation of the Laws of Practice that were Violated in the Religious Prosecution of Jesus.” This article focuses on fourteen areas of judicial practice and procedure that were detailed in the Torah and/or the Mishnah that Jesus’s judges either violated or loopholed in order to condemn Him.