Bible Study Tools / Jesus Christ

The Illegal Trial of Jesus Christ

by David Palmer
Scott Ashley/United Church of God, an International Association

“After two thousand years a brilliant lawyer proves that Jesus of Nazareth was tried and condemned to death for treason and blasphemy in direct and specific violation of the laws of His own time, both religious and civil” (Charter Book publishers-New York).

This article reviews the writings of lawyer, Earle L. Wingo, attorney for the defense of Jesus Christ, with excerpts from his book, The Illegal Trial of Jesus.

Few will dispute that a man named Jesus lived 2000 years ago and that He was a great teacher who impacted the world from His time onward. But the world, in general, sees Him as a controversial figure. After all, He made an incredible claim – that He was the very Son of God, the long-prophesied Messiah!

The religious authorities in Jerusalem rejected and eventually succeeded in having Him put to death. The local Roman civil authorities saw Him as a threat and became complicit in His execution. The religions of His day, both Judaism and paganism, opposed the growth of His teachings and used unlawful and violent means to destroy those who became the Church He said he would build. The government of Rome vigorously persecuted the followers of this Jewish teacher from Galilee.

Amazingly, prophecies written long before His birth predicted that Jesus Christ would be rejected not only by His own people, but also by the world in general. In fact, Jesus Himself referred to this prophecy when He told His followers, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Matthew 21:42 NKJ). The Apostle Peter repeated it: “This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone. Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12 NKJ).

Just how was the trial of Jesus Christ illegal?

Filled with jealousy and hatred, both the local religious hierarchy and the civil Roman government of Judea wanted to get rid of a man they perceived as a threat to their authority. As a result they were willing to break even their own laws. In fact, 18 specific laws related to both their religious code and civil law were violated.

The author explains that the first unlawful act was the apprehension of Jesus by a multitude led by Judas Iscariot, the betrayer who stood by while the soldiers “captured” Jesus. Under the law it was mandatory to inform the person being arrested what the charges were. In Jesus case, they did not charge Him with anything at that point – this was illegal.

The second unlawful act was when they bound Jesus and brought Him before Annas, father-in-law of Caiaphas and his college in the high priesthood known as the Sanhedrin. “The Sanhedrin had the power of life and death in their own hands in every thing that concerned religion; but since they did not have evidence to put Christ to death because of false doctrine, they gave credibility to their conduct by bringing in the civil power. The Jewish right to try capital cases was taken from them some forty years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, which would mean it was approximately at the time of Jesus’ trial that the enactment of the Roman order prohibiting the Jewish court from trying such cases was effected” (Adam Clarke’s New Testament Commentary).

“Then Pilate said to them, ‘You take Him and judge Him according to your law.’ Therefore the Jews said to him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death’” (John 18:31 NKJ).

So in effect Annas had no jurisdiction over Christ. The law prohibited taking a prisoner before any one individual, even a judge, for private examination. Annas went ahead and ordered Jesus before him in private, thus breaking both Roman and Jewish law.

The story of how Jesus cleared the temple of the money changers is well known. What is not so well known is that it was Annas who allowed the money changers into the temple. When Jesus threw them out, Annas was not only embarrassed, he also lost money.

The third unlawful act was regarding the Sanhedrin. Ecclesiastical law prohibited any member of the Sanhedrin from sitting in judgment of any accused if they had any personal dealings with the individual that might cause them to be impartial. Exact language of the Sanhedrin code reads, “Nor under any circumstances is a man known to be at enmity with the accused person permitted to occupy a position among the judges.” This law was to protect an accused from being tried before judges who were his enemies. According to that law, several members of the Sanhedrin should have been disqualified.

Total membership in the Sanhedrin was 71 but on the night they tried Jesus they purposely selected a bare quorum of 23. Almost all were related to Annas – five were sons, one was a son-in-law and others were said to be cousins.

The fourth law broken was related to the Passover. Their law prohibited the Sanhedrin from meeting during the Passover, but they ignored that prohibition.

The fifth error was that no one had actually charged Jesus with anything. Suddenly after about 30 minutes of a mock trial, Caiaphas, the High Priest, pronounced Him guilty as charged but, at this point, He had not been charged with anything.

The sixth error involved witnesses. Mosaic Law states, “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death, but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.” They could not find even one true witness, so they willfully broke the ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” and found an individual willing to do just that.

The seventh error is related to jurisdiction. The Sanhedrin had no jurisdiction in the case against Jesus. Until a prisoner had been lawfully arrested and charged, they had no jurisdiction to make judgment. Jesus had not been legally charged. There was no warrant for His arrest. They had simply snuck out at night, captured Him and then took Him before an unlawful 23 member court.

The eighth error was their inability to prove His guilt. He said He was the Son of God. It was up to them, as before any court and crown council even today, to prove that He was lying about who He said He was. They could not do that so they simply accused Him of blasphemy.

There were several other infractions of law including failing to allow Christ to introduce witnesses of His own – which He would not have done, but they didn’t know that! Another law that was ignored was regarding an individual’s confession. If it was the only evidence, the court was then prohibited from issuing a death sentence. Furthermore, according to their own law, “A criminal case, where a death sentence is to be pronounced can not be concluded before the following day.” They simply ignored that too.

Another glaring disregard of law was the decision to take Jesus before Herod. King Herod had absolutely no jurisdiction in the matter. This explains why Herod, knowing full well he could not do anything to either condemn or release Jesus, sent Him to Pontius Pilate.

Since neither the Sanhedrin under the High Priest Caiaphas nor King Herod had any jurisdiction in sentencing Jesus to death, it was unlawful for them to present Him before Pilate – the only one who had authority to order a criminal put to death. Although Jesus was of course accused of a crime, He was never actually charged.

Pilate the Roman governor of Judea broke Roman law when, after finding Jesus guilty of doing nothing wrong (not once but four times), instead of making a decision, which only he could have made, turned Jesus over to the mob to be crucified.

What happened to Jesus of Nazareth was highly illegal under the law of His day. Yet while we can look back at those religious leaders, the Roman civil authorities and the mob that screamed “Crucify Him,” the Bible makes it clear that it is the collective sin of all humanity that brought Christ to the stake.

In the book of Isaiah, we read this prophetic statement. “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity (lawlessness) of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter . . .” (Isaiah 53:3-7 KJV).

Jesus Christ died a horrifying death in the most cruel and inhumane way known to the world at that time. His trial was illegal and His death was murder. Yet it was according to predetermined divine purpose. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).

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