The trial of Jesus leading up to his crucifixion was actually a series of perhaps half a dozen trials, across several locations in Jerusalem, some of which are captured in the tradition of the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrow, a series of locations that pilgrims take through the streets of modern Jerusalem commemorating the last hours before Jesus arrival at Golgotha.
HOUSE OF ANNAS
Jesus was brought before the powerful ex-high priest for a hearing prior to formal arraignment before the son-in-law Caiaphas. Jesus knowing this to be essentially a lower court inquiry blunted Annas‘ questions by answering that what was known about him was “…public record”.
PALACE OF CAIAPHAS
As it was after dark and the gates of the Temple were locked, certain members of the Sanhedrin met in the south west quarter of the city at the palace of the high priest Caiaphas, whose name means “inquisitor”. It was difficult to find a solid charge to stick on Jesus as the witnesses that were found could not agree, and according to Jewish Law, a minimum of two witnesses had to concur on a charge. A number of charges and questions were put to Jesus, but he refused to answer. Since no proven evidence had been introduced, Jesus was not legally obligated to answer, and Caiaphas knew it. If Caiaphas could not introduce a proven charge the case would collapse and Jesus would be more popular with the people while the Sanhedrin would be embarrassed. The high priest devised a plan that would create seventy witnesses. He prefaced his final question with the dreaded “Oath of the Covenant”. A reply of silence would be criminal, a false answer would be damnable. He said,
“I adjure you, by the living God, that you tell us whether are you the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jesus not only answered affirmatively, but added that he was the Son of Man, an Old Testament title for God’s vice-regent on earth, a peer as it were, a divine being.
The high priest, hearing what he believed was blasphemy in his presence, tore his garments. He asked the assembled members of the Sanhedrin, seated in a semicircle around him, for their vote. The vote proceeded from the youngest to the oldest, so the elders might not unduly influence the younger members. The Temple police then beat the prisoner, which was standard operating procedure for the condemned. One problem remained; night trials by the Sanhedrin were illegal except in monetary cases. Therefore, the full council met again the next day, shortly after dawn for a roll call vote. A final complication arose. To avoid hasty convictions, the Jewish law postponed sentencing until the day following the trial. But this was illegal as the next day was the Sabbath, when only acquittals could be returned. However, in this emergency situation, this could be disregarded.
The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that forty years before the destruction of the Temple (A.D. 70) the right to inflict the death penalty had been taken from Israel. As it was now Friday, April 3, 33 A.D., the Sanhedrin had to have the judgment ratified by the Roman provincial ruler, Pontius Pilate, who reserved the jus gladii, the law of the sword.
The Roman prefect’s usual residence was in the Roman capital, Caeserea, on the coast. As it was the time of the Jewish Passover, and the numbers of people in Jerusalem grew, Pilate journeyed to the Jewish capital to keep an eye on things. In front of the governor’s Jerusalem residence, Herod’s Palace, the members of the Sanhedrin gathered. As it was the beginning of the Jewish holiday, they remained outside the Gentile residence so as not to defile themselves. Pilate asked, “What charges do you bring against this man?” If the Sanhedrin were expecting the governor to rubber-stamp their judgment, they were disappointed, for this was the interragatio, the opening formula of a Roman trial. Pilate began to try Jesus himself. Since the Jews could not tell the governor that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, a religious charge that would make no difference to a Roman, they produced three charges: subverting the nation, forbidding tribute money to Tiberius Caesar, and claims of Messiah.
The first charge was serious, but needed proof, and Jesus had seemed to avoid politics. The second Pilate knew to be a lie, as the Pharisees themselves protested the tax. The third was the gravest. It was maiestas, high treason, the most heinous in Roman law (see earlier historical note on Pontius Pilate). After questioning the accused, Pilate could not get to the truth of the matter, and as it was now after dawn the crowds outside who were aware of the proceedings were getting noisy and ugly. Pilate heard someone mention something about Jesus being from Galilee. This would be to Pilate’s advantage, for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee was in town and Pilate could easily and legally transfer the venue from the forum delicti, the place of offense, to the forum domicilii, the place of residence.
HEROD ANTIPAS’ HASMONEAN PALACE
The Sanhedrin could expect a more favorable decision from Herod Antipas since he had aided them before in 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 do him this boon, he could not suffer 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.
At this point, the gospel of St. John tells us, Pilate took the initiative and suggested flogging Jesus as an object lesson and releasing him. This practice of fustigatio was to serve as a warning against further wrong doing. This did not satisfy the Sanhedrin, who were beginning to see Pilate equivocate and suspected an actual release. It was at this point that 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. Pilate’s status as amici Caesaris was in danger. His political career would be over, if not his life as well. He had already been warned once by the emperor himself. Pilate then passed sentence against this “king of the Jews”: constructive treason – implied maiestas.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time