Why was Jesus' trial illegal?

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What made the trial of Jesus illegal (against the law)? What occurred that made the proceedings and verdict contrary to Biblical and Jewish legal statutes? This short article will explore some of the major travesties of justice inflicted on our Savior. For further study see our article on the Lord's arrests.

Few people realize that Jesus actually had not one trial but two. The first one, at the High Priest's palace, was after his arrest and began around 2 a.m. Although it was held only with judges who were his enemies, enough of them attended to officially arrive at a verdict and declare a sentence. Many of the details were recorded by the gospel authors.

Because Jewish law demanded two sessions of the Sanhedrin hear and try a defendant, a second trial was held around 5 a.m. Very little is written about this proceeding, which was likely nothing more than a "rubber stamp" or automatic approval of the decision against Jesus reached earlier.

One of the major circumventions of law was that the court did not first initiate an investigation to determine the merits of any accusations.

If a false witness rises up purposing to do harm against any man to accuse him of wrongdoing, then both the men who are disagreeing shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges which shall be in those days. And the judges shall make careful inquiry . . . (Deuteronomy 19:16 - 18, HBFV throughout).


Jesus before the High Priest
Jesus before the High Priest
Gerrit van Honthorst, c. 1617

Hebrew law provided no lawyers to defend or prosecute during a trial. The judges were the defenders and the witnesses the prosecutors. Therefore, the court was supposed to seek for evidence only in behalf of the accused, which in this case was Jesus.


The trial was too short

Both the first and second hearing was completed in the total time of less than five hours. Jewish law states that if a death sentence is pronounced that proceedings cannot conclude until the next day (Mishna, Sanhedrin 4:1).

Additionally, there are at least two major reasons why the first meeting was conducted around 2 a.m. and lasted about three hours. It gave the court the excuse that certain council members who might have been an advocate for Jesus the accused (e.g. Joseph of Arimathea) could not have been notified in time to appear. It also rendered it nearly impossible that any witnesses of the defense could be notified to arrive in time in order to offer their testimony.

No impartial Judges

The judges hated the accused that was brought before them (see John 7:1 and Matthew 26:3 - 5). Jewish law expressly forbids a person from judging a case if they are already negatively biased either against the accused or the accuser (Mendelsohn, Criminal Jurisprudence of the Ancient Hebrews, page 108).


False Witnesses

The ninth commandment states that we should not bear false witness against another person (Exodus 20:16). This foundational principle was totally ignored during the trial of Jesus as known false witnesses were used in order that a conviction could be achieved (Mark 14:57, see also Matthew 26:59 - 60).

Lying against someone, especially in court, is something God says He hates (Proverbs 6:16 - 19). The Biblical penalty for being a false witness was fair but severe (Deuteronomy 19:16 - 19, 21). These principles meant that those who lied in court deserved the death penalty for which they were giving testimony! Jewish law also did not permit false testimony (Walter Chandler, The Trial of Jesus, Volume 1, page 140).

Self-incrimination

Christ did not defend himself against charges made by any of the false witnesses. According to Jewish law, a person could not be condemned based on their testimony (self-incrimination).

"We have it as a fundamental principle of our jurisprudence that no one can bring an accusation against himself" (Maimonides, Sanhedrin, 4:2, see also Mendelsohn)

Additionally, the indictment used to justify the death penalty was illegal because the judges themselves originated the charges. Based on the Bible, a charge against someone was to be brought up by at least two or three witnesses of the alleged crime (Deuteronomy 19:15). The Sanhedrin could not originate charges but only investigate those brought before it (Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, book 3, chapter 2).


No credible witnesses

All those during the first trial who gathered to hear and judge the case called for the death penalty (Mark 14:64). It was illegal in Jewish law to unanimously condemn a person to death if no one testified as a witness for the defense (Jesus the Christ: A study of the Messiah and His mission, James Edward Talmage, page 647, quote from Rabbi Wise, page 74).

An illegal change of charges

The court illegally switched the charges from a perceived threat that Jerusalem's temple would be destroyed (Matthew 26:59 - 61) to blasphemy (Mark 14:62 - 63). After the second trial, the Sanhedrin again changed the charges against Jesus before they were to present their case in front of the Roman authorities.

Jewish religious leaders told Pontius Pilate that Christ was charged not with blasphemy but with treason (Luke 23:1 - 3, John 19:12). They did this because treason was a Roman crime. Accusing our Savior of breaking Roman law greately increased the chances that they would not have to consider carrying out the death penalty themselves.

The illegal trial of Jesus and his execution was the greatest travesty of justice the world will ever see. According to Walter Chandler, who wrote from the perspective of a lawyer, there exists no stronger case of judicial murder in history "for the simple reason that all forms of law were outraged and trampled underfoot in the proceedings instituted against Him" (page 216).

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