History of the Trial: How many did Jesus have?

The Trial of JesusTHE TRIAL OF JESUS

Throughout Thursday night and Friday morning of Passion Week 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.



Jesus was brought before the powerful ex-high priest — the real power behind the title of 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”.


As it was after dark and the gates of the Temple were locked, certain members of the Sanhedrin met in the southwest 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.

CaiphasThe 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, Caesarea, 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 Emperor 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.


Hasmonean PalaceThe 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.


PraetoriumAt 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 wrongdoing. 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 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 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

If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment, or subscribing to the news feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader, or to your email.

7 comments… add one
  • Great work! I’ve heard the passion in the gospels read many times, and heard explanations of various details, but I did not know just how it all fitted together. You cite Maier’s book, but it’s not clear whether this blog post is an extract, or a summary?

    • Stephen, where I cite “from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time” it is an extract. In other places I cite “In part from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time” then I have added content around the extract(s).

  • its a great work you did about crucification specily trial of jesus but it will be more well if the 6times trail one by one from the gospels with chepters and verces.but i says again it is a great work.

  • Thanks Sarwar. My intention is to present this as an historical narrative rather than as a Bible study… but I leave that as an exercise for the reader :-)


  • So enjoyed your article. I’ve been wading through our Chronological
    Bible and other materials. There were some additional points you
    made that have answered some of my questions. Blessings.

  • Bill, If you do not mind telling us what is your source for “The Oath of the Covenant.” Also is what is cited by Caiaphas the short version of the oath and if so do you know where I could find the full version?

    • David,

      The Mishnah, a redaction of the rabbinic oral traditions of the Jews, discusses kinds of oaths under Tractate Shevuot, Chapter 3. For more on how the Sanhedrin conducted cross-examinations in civil and criminal cases, consult Mishnah Sanhedrin Chapter 4 and 5.



Leave a Comment

Copyright © 1984-2017 · Bill Petro. All rights reserved, unless otherwise stated.
Powered by WordPress, the Thesis theme, and Promo skin.
%d bloggers like this: