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  • Writer's pictureDon Walker

Mistrial of Jesus

Few cases in legal history can match the miscarriage of justice in the unethical trial of Jesus. It not only broke ethical guidelines and condemned an innocent man; it demonstrated a flagrant abuse of power. Yet this was all part of the sovereign plan of God, as the Scripture tells us, “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23).

Jesus’ trial was not according to the Jewish law. In fact, it went so far astray from the Mishnah, a document from that period which explained Jewish law, that some scholars have questioned the reliability of the Gospels. Here are some of the legal principles that the Gospels description of the trial seem to contradict:

· Judges must conduct and conclude capital trials during daylight.

· Trials should not occur on the eve of a Sabbath or festival day.

· The Sandhedrin should not begin its meetings in the high priest’s palace but in a more formal setting.

· A day must pass before a verdict of condemnation is issued.

· If testimony fails under cross-examination, it is to be discarded.

The Mishnah’s rules represent legal standards that were widely accepted in the ancient Mediterranean world. It reflected the way that the Pharisaic rabbis thought the Jerusalem Sandhedrin should function. The Gospels report obvious violations of these principles of legal ethics. The Sandhedrin chose to ignore the Mishnah and operate in a pragmatic manner to accomplish its desired goal of crucifying Jesus. The picture presented to us in the Gospels of the Sandhedrin’s activity fits the description that Josephus, the first-century historian, presented. In his description the powerful Sadducees faction who were not interested in following the rules written by the opposing faction – the Pharisees, controlled the Sandhedrin. They saw their primary responsibility, as Jerusalem’s aristocracy, the keeping of the peace for Rome. Jesus appeared to be a threat to the peace of Rome and their own authority.

As scholars such as N. T. Wright have pointed out, the testimony of the witnesses focused on Jesus’ apparent opposition to the temple, which Jesus had reportedly promised to tear down. But in the midst of the trial the witnesses contradicted one another forcing the high priest, Caiaphas, to take an alternate approach.

Jesus had reportedly made claims in public about His identity as the “Son of God,” which was akin to claiming to be the Messiah. So Caiaphas asked Jesus a question He could not avoid: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” A simple “yes” would have caused enough trouble, but Jesus responded by saying, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The response brought together Old Testament passages that implied that He considered Himself the eternal ruler and "Lord." The high priest responded to such a statement with the cry of “blasphemy” and, in Jewish tradition, tore his garment. His Sandhedrin colleagues agreed with his verdict.

But they still needed to take Jesus before the Roman governor. For although they could pronounce death sentences, they were for the most part, forbidden from carrying out executions. Only rarely did Rome allow its client kingdoms to execute criminals without their approval, perhaps for the flagrant violation of the temple – which Jesus could not be proven guilty of. So the high priest had to convince the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, that it was in Rome’s own interest to put Jesus to death. They therefore accused Jesus as being guilty of treason for declaring Himself to be a king.

Pilate was however reluctant to execute Jesus. He did not appear to be a political threat to him or the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Pilate could not afford to alienate the Jewish leaders. He had a long history of provoking the local officials, and they had demonstrated their “clout” in times past. One of his first acts as governor had been to order his soldiers to bring the imperial standards into Jerusalem under the cover of night. But when a throng of Jews bared their necks and declared that they would rather die than allow Jerusalem to be desecrated by these standards depicting emperor worship, Pilate backed down. He did not want to be humiliated again.

In addition, under the paranoid emperor Tiberias, the refusal to act swiftly with anyone charged with treason might bring into question one’s loyalty to Caesar. Therefore, Pilate chose political expediency over justice and approved of Jesus’ execution.

Acts 8:33 declares concerning Jesus that, “In His humiliation His judgment (Greek word – krisis, which can be translated as “justice”) was taken away.” Justice was denied Jesus, He was sent to the cross, while the true criminal Barabbas (meaning literally “Son of the Father”) was set free. We, like Barabbas, have been set from the penalty due us because Jesus has taken our place. The injustice done to Jesus opened the fountain of God’s mercy.

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