Reason 21: The Trial of Jesus in the Gospels Lacks Credibility
Asher Norman brings the following accusations against the Gospel accounts of the
trial of Jesus.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark contradict John. They speak of a Jewish trial of
Jesus whereas John does not.
Before the Sanhedrin the accusation against Jesus was blasphemy whereas before the
Romans the accusation was sedition – claiming to be King, and telling the Jews not
to pay taxes to the Romans.
The Jewish trial violated Jewish law and therefore could not have taken place. He
also denies the Gospels’ claim that the Jews turned Jesus over to the Romans because
they were prohibited from performing executions during the Roman occupation.
Finally he says that Matthew and Mark’s account of the trial ‘appears to be a fabrication
designed to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews.
Let us look at these issues (and some others raised by the trial of Jesus as recorded
in the Gospels).
Millions of words have been written for and against the belief that Jesus is the
Messiah who died for our sins and rose again from the dead. The events which give
rise to this belief centre on the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as
recorded in the Gospels. So it is hardly surprising that the events of these few
days in history are at the centre of this controversy.
From the point of view of the unbeliever (like Asher Norman) invalidating the Gospel
account of these events is a key to invalidating the whole message of Jesus as the
Messiah. From the point of view of the believer (like me) faith is required to believe
this message, but the message must also be believable and relate to events which
happened in history, not myth.
There is no question that the Gospels portray the events leading to the death of
Jesus as a travesty of justice. At the same time the New Testament shows that God
was overruling events to bring Jesus to the point of laying down his life as a sacrifice
for the sin of the world. For reasons which tie in with Bible prophecy and with
the typology of sacrifices in the Hebrew scriptures it was necessary for this event
to take place
· In Jerusalem
· At the time of the Passover
· By crucifixion.
The Gospels show that Jesus was aware that He was going up to Jerusalem to die. On
a number of occasions before it happened He told the disciples about this. ‘From
that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and
suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed,
and be raised the third day.’ Matthew 16.21.
He took responsibility for His death Himself when He said, ‘Therefore My Father loves
Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me,
but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take
it again. This command I have received from My Father.’ John 10.17-18.
This ties in with the prophecy of Isaiah 53.10 where we read, ‘Yet it pleased the
LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief.’
The people who actually brought Jesus to the point of being crucified were motivated
by all kinds of sinful attitudes and actions. However ultimately their will was
being overruled by the will of God, which was to bring Jesus to the cross in order
that He might be the voluntary sacrifice for the sin of the world. Again in this
He was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 53.6: ‘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
of us all.’
Following the resurrection of Jesus, the Apostles were preaching in the Temple and
performing signs and wonders which gathered a great crowd. Peter spoke to those who
had just a few weeks previously called for the death of Jesus and said to them: ‘Yet
now, brethren, I know that you did it in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But
those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Messiah
(Christ) would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted,
that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the
presence of the Lord.’ Acts 3.17-19.
In this he was speaking in line with Jesus’ own words from the cross, ‘Father forgive
them for they know not what they do.’ Luke 23.34.
According to Acts 6:7, 15:5 many of the priests and Pharisees did accept this offer
of forgiveness and salvation through faith in Jesus.
The New Testament puts the responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus on those Jews
and Gentiles who played a part in bringing Jesus to the cross. This does not include
all Jews alive at the time, since many were followers of Jesus. Nor does this mean
that later generations of Jews should be held responsible for the death of Jesus
and condemned as ‘Christ killers.’ The New Testament also teaches that the ultimate
responsibility for what happened was with God Himself.
‘For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius
Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do
whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.’ Acts 4.27-8.
From this we can conclude that the New Testament teaches that:
God overruled the events leading to the death of Jesus at the time of the Passover,
by crucifixion, in Jerusalem.
The individuals who brought Jesus to the cross were responsible before God for their
They could find forgiveness through repentance and faith in Jesus as Saviour.
The Bible does not teach collective guilt, but that we are responsible before God
for our own sins. Therefore the way the later professing Christian Church condemned
all Jews as ‘Christ-killers’ is a gross distortion of scripture and a sin against
the Jewish people.
Contradictions between Gospels.
The trial accounts in the Gospels do have credibility as I hope to show in this article.
Obviously they were not written transcripts of the trial, but four independent accounts
of what happened. They all agree on the basic sequence of events and each Gospel
writer adds some details which others leave out.
One objection which is sometimes raised is ‘Where did the disciples get the information
from, since the disciples fled the scene when Jesus was arrested?’ In fact Peter
and John did go into Jerusalem after the arrest and John was present at the crucifixion.
Also the women who were followers of Jesus were present. One source of information
could have been the risen Lord Himself, who spoke to the disciples about the events
that had just taken place (Luke 24.44-46). Another is Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea,
who were both members of the Sanhedrin and sympathetic to Jesus. Luke 8:3 notes
that Joanna, wife of the manager of Herod's household, was in Jesus' group; she may
well have had access to certain information. Other possibilities include guards and
other prisoners (perhaps Barabbas himself?), attendants of Pilate, and priests who
converted after the resurrection (Acts 6:7, 15:5). Finally the New Testament writers
were guided by the Holy Spirit about what to put into the text.
As we have noted elsewhere in the comparison of the Gospels, one writer may put in
a detail or give it more prominence than another does, but this does not make them
contradictory. On this issue there is in fact a question about whether there really
was a Jewish trial in the accepted use of the word. Certainly John makes much less
of the appearance of Jesus before the Sanhedrin than the Synoptic Gospels do and
he adds details of the trial before Pilate which are not in the Synoptics, but this
is consistent with the whole of John’s Gospel. He does not say there was no appearance
of Jesus before Caiaphas and Annas, which would be a contradiction. He just does
not supply details of what happened there.
Was the Jewish trial of Jesus illegal / improbable?
Asher Norman points out that ‘Each detail of the so-called Jewish trial violated
Jewish law.’ His conclusion is that it could not have happened as it is described
in the Gospels. He gives three violations of Jewish law from the account of the
trial in Matthew and Mark (p 164):
Jewish law says that no Sanhedrin was allowed to sit as a criminal court and try
criminal cases outside the Temple precincts or in any private house. Mark and Matthew
say that the trial took place in the private residence of the High Priest.
Criminal trials had to commence and be completed during the daytime. The Gospels
say the trial took place at night.
Jewish law prohibits a person from being convicted on his own testimony or on the
strength of his own confession. At least two lawfully qualified witnesses are required
for capital crimes under Jewish law. Two witnesses must also testify that the accused
was first warned of his crime. These requirements did not occur in the Gospel accounts.
The only evidence used to convict Jesus was his own testimony because ‘two witnesses’
This raises a number of issues which are very well dealt with in an Internet article
‘The Authenticity of the Trial Accounts of Jesus’ by J P Holding. http://www.tektonics.org/gk/jesustrial.html
A summary of the points made:
Matthew and Mark both give the impression of the whole Sanhedrin meeting to formally
try Jesus. ‘Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false
testimony against Jesus to put Him to death.’ Matthew 26.59. We have the same statement
in Mark 14.55. However we can ask whether it was a formal trial before the entire
Sanhedrin or a hearing in front of a hastily gathered section of the Sanhedrin –
more of a pre trial hearing than a proper trial?
Did Matthew and Mark really mean:
Caiaphas managed to get every member of the Sanhedrin together at the dead of night
and they all agreed that Jesus should be put to death.
Caiaphas called together a number of members of the Sanhedrin whom he knew to be
on his side and they all agreed to seek to put Jesus to death.
This second possibility seems more likely. We know from the Gospels that Nicodemus
and Joseph of Arimathea were Sanhedrin members and not in agreement on this. So
it is unlikely that they were present at the decision. From what we know of Gamaliel
in Acts 5 it is unlikely that he would have consented to such a decision. In the
Gospel record there is no mention of any dissenting voices in the appearance of Jesus
before the Sanhedrin which leads us to interpret the phrase ‘the whole Sanhedrin
/ all the council’ used in Matthew and Mark as meaning all the members of the Sanhedrin
who were present at Caiaphas’ house on that occasion, rather than the entire membership
of the Sanhedrin.
Luke does not specify that this was a trial before the whole Sanhedrin, but tells
us ‘As soon as it was day, the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes,
came together and led Him into their council.’ Luke 22.66.
John does not give details of what happened at this meeting, but simply tells us
that Jesus was first led to Annas and then to Caiaphas. Annas questioned him about
His teaching, then sent him to Caiaphas who in turn sent him to Pilate (John 18.12-28).
A number of commentators have written that this event should not be seen as a formal
trial in front of the Great Sanhedrin. Ellis Rivkin, a Jewish historian, suggests
that when the New Testament refers to the Sanhedrin, it means not the official body
called the Great Sanhedrin, but an informal council of political advisers to the
high priest (see Ellis Rivkin ‘What killed Jesus?’ page 83). In this case there were
no violations of rabbinical jurisprudence, for the meeting was not of an official
religious body. He sees the Sanhedrin described by Josephus as "a sort of privy council,
not a permanent body which enjoyed a religious status independent of the high priest
and procurator" and which "functioned as an adjunct to the political authority,"
although religious leaders could participate. (ibid., page 34-5).
In conclusion on this subject we could say that the Jewish "trial" was in fact an
interrogation before Annas and then Caiaphas, with other Sanhedrin officials present,
but not the entire body of the Sanhedrin. In this case it was not a trial, but "a
police investigation designed to reveal the charge under which a suspect may be brought
before a court," with those present capable by virtue of their qualifications to
become a "trial court" once some kind of confession or evidence was elicited (A.E
Harvey ‘Jesus on Trial’ page 59-60).
So Was it legal?
Asher Norman says that the trial as depicted in the Gospels could not have taken
place because it violates Jewish law. He says, ‘The idea that the Pharisees, the
majority party in the Sanhedrin would violate the law it held sacred and inviolate
is not credible.’
This is of course pre-supposing that all the players involved would abide by all
the rules. The Sanhedrin was a religious power structure. Looking at history can
we say that such bodies always act with the highest integrity and keep the laws of
God? One of the major reasons why many people do not believe in God is the gulf
they often see between what religious leaders profess to believe and do and what
they actually do. This applies to the power structures of Catholic and Protestant
churches and to leaders of religious parties in Israel today.
To accept the position taken by Asher Norman we would have to believe that the Jewish
religious leadership at the time of Jesus were all virtuous followers of the Torah
who would always act in a way which was just and fair. Jesus verdict on the religious
leaders recorded in Matthew 23.23-4 would contradict this:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise
and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy
and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind
guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!’
From the Gospel account Jesus had fallen foul of the Jewish religious leaders on
many occasions leading up to the events of His trial and condemnation by them.
In Matthew alone we read of times of dispute between Jesus and the religious leaders.
Matthew 9.1-7. Healing the paralytic. Jesus accused of blaspheming because He said
to the man, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ (with the follow on that only God can forgive
Matthew 9.9-13. Eating with ‘tax collectors and sinners.’
Matthew 12.1-2. Offending law by disciples taking heads of grain and eating them
while walking through a field. This is interesting as the issue is not the laws of
Moses but the additional ‘fence’ laws which Jesus did not recognise as God given.
Matthew 12.9-14. Healing the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on the
Matthew 12.22-37. Healing the demon possessed man with the blind and dumb spirit.
On this occasion the Pharisees accuse Jesus of casting out devils by Beelzebub,
the prince of devils. This accusation causes Jesus to speak of the unforgivable
sin against the Holy Spirit, which has been interpreted as attributing the miracles
of God to the Devil. Arnold Fruchtenbaum teaches that this was a miracle which the
Pharisees had said the Messiah would do, so the question of the crowd, ‘Could this
be the Son of David (Messiah)?’ should have been answered, ‘Yes!’
Matthew 21.12-17. Driving out the money changers from the Temple.
Matthew 23. Pronouncing seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees.
This does not mean that every Pharisee or religious leader is portrayed negatively
in the Gospels. In fact the Gospels also show some religious leaders in a good light
or asking sincere questions. Jairus – Mark 5.21-43, Nicodemus – John 3, Joseph of
Arimathea – Matthew 27, Gamaliel – Acts 5.33-42, ‘one of the teachers of the law’
– Mark 12.28-35, ‘a certain lawyer’ – Luke 10.25, ‘a certain ruler’ – Luke 18-29,
‘many priests who believed’ - Acts 6:7, 15:5. It is unfortunate that the word ‘Pharisee’
has come to be a synonym for ‘hypocrite’ in Christian vocabulary, because the Gospels
do not justify this.
However it is clear from the Gospel account that there was already a conflict between
Jesus and the Jewish religious leadership which reaches its climax in the trial and
crucifixion. Those who believe Jesus to be the Messiah (which obviously includes
the writers of the Gospels) of course side with Jesus against the Jewish religious
leadership. Those who reject Jesus as Messiah (like Asher Norman) may consider that
they had a valid case against Jesus.
With these events preceding the trial it is not surprising that the Gospels present
Annas and Caiaphas as the leading religious figures of Israel in a bad light. Critics
may say this is bias on the part of the Gospel writers. However Annas and Caiaphas
were not models of integrity and piety according to other historical records. Caiaphas
was appointed as High Priest by the Roman procurator, Valerius Gratus, who preceded
Pontius Pilate in the job. So he was not appointed as a descendant of Aaron, as
the Torah required, but by the Romans. The institutions of government at the time
of Jesus, in that place, were in direct opposition to the requirements of the Torah.
Caiaphas was deposed sometime later by the legate of Syria, with popular support
- which indicates that some rather serious claims had been made against him. The
house of Annas the high priest, of which Caiaphas was a member by marriage, is not
noted for its popularity and fairness in later rabbinic sources.
Corrupt leaders tend to gather corrupt people around them. In this case the argument
that the people present at the trial of Jesus would not violate Mishna laws they
held sacred is questionable to say the least. In fact the history of the world is
full of transgressions against laws.
There is also an issue about whether the rules referred to by Asher Norman were in
practice in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. J P Holding in the article already quoted
(http://www.tektonics.org/gk/jesustrial.html) has written:
‘Although sometimes not noted by sceptics, the fact is that the rules that they refer
to as being violated do NOT come from the time of Jesus - they come from a time no
earlier than 70 AD! (A.E Harvey ‘Jesus on Trial’ page 61). The rules are found in
what is called the Mishna Sanhedrin - a source which itself dates to over a century
after the destruction of Jerusalem (c. 220 AD), and was codified no earlier than
the destruction of Jerusalem. S G Brandon (The Trial of Jesus page 87) writes of
the Mishna: "How far this tractate accurately reports Sanhedrin procedure in the
first century AD, or represents a later idealised rabbinic 'blue-print,' is uncertain."
Robert Stein (Luke page 569) argues that "...some of the rules found in (the Mishna)
conflict with Josephus' description of how things were in the first century."
A. E. Harvey (“Jesus on Trial’ page 61) acknowledges the rules, but says "...it is
far from certain that they were in force before the fall of Jerusalem, or, even if
they were, that they would have been observed in an emergency."
In addition we have to say that this was a highly unusual event as portrayed by the
Gospel writers. A man who was and performing extraordinary miracles was being hailed
as the Messiah by large crowds just as pilgrims were gathering for the Passover.
Caiaphas had expressed the fear that his actions would bring about events leading
to Roman intervention and the end of the Jewish nation. He wanted a quick end to
the proceeding before it got really out of hand. Overruling all this was the purpose
of God which was for Jesus to be the sacrifice for the sin of the world at the time
of the Passover.
For this reason although there certainly were gross injustices in the proceedings
against Jesus as described in the Gospels, this does not mean that such injustices
could not have happened.
The accusation against Jesus – blasphemy or sedition?
Asher Norman says that before the Sanhedrin the accusation against Jesus was blasphemy
whereas before the Romans the accusation was sedition – claiming to be King, and
telling the Jews not to pay taxes to the Romans.
It is true that the issue in Jesus’ hearing before Caiaphas is one of blasphemy.
‘And the high priest answered and said to Him, “I put You under oath by the living
God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!” Jesus said to him, “It is as
you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting
at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high
priest tore his clothes, saying, “He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we
have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?” They
answered and said, “He is deserving of death.”’ Matthew 26.63-66.
Asher Norman says that claiming to be the Messiah did not constitute blasphemy under
Jewish law, nor did claiming to be the Son of God. There is in fact a debate about
the significance of the first part of Jesus’ answer to the question about being ‘the
Messiah, the Son of God.’ In the original He just says, ‘You said,’ rather than
‘It is as you said.’ Some have said He was evading the issue here and giving a non-committal
answer, although on balance it does seem that His affirming the statement, meaning,
‘Yes I am the Messiah, the Son of God.’ Certainly in Luke’s account He makes it
clear that He is affirming the High Priest’s question (Luke 22.66-71).
However Jesus does not leave it there. He goes on to quote Daniel speaking of the
Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven and applies it to himself. In context
this prophecy speaks of the Son of Man coming at the end of days to bring an end
to the present world system and establish the Messianic kingdom. ‘Then to Him was
given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass
away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.’ (Daniel 7.14)
In Matthew 24.30 Jesus has already used the same prophecy to speak about His second
coming. Moreover he makes a statement which is not found in Daniel about ‘sitting
at the right hand of Power’ (i.e. at the right hand of God or equal with God). In
Psalm 80.17 there is a reference to ‘the man of your right hand.’ ‘Let Your hand
be upon the man of Your right hand, upon the son of man whom You made strong for
The implication of what Jesus is saying here is that ‘You will see Me at the right
hand of God’, which can be interpreted as saying, ‘I am equal with God’. In the
context it would seem that this is what constitutes blasphemy as far as the High
Priest is concerned. Saying ‘You will see me’ to Caiaphas who was plotting to have
Jesus put to death also implies:
That Jesus will rise from the dead.
That Jesus will be present at the Day of Judgement when all souls will be raised
from the dead and stand before God for judgement.
The New Testament affirms both of these propositions, but to one who rejected Jesus’
claims they would no doubt have been considered blasphemy and therefore worthy of
As a footnote to this it is interesting to note in Acts 7 that the point at which
Stephen’s accusers proceed to stone him to death is the moment he repeats the ‘right
hand of God’ theme about Jesus: ‘But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into
heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and
said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand
of God!” Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him
with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him.’ Acts 7.55-58.
In the light of all this there is no reason to say that the blasphemy charge was
not a real one.
Did the Jews have the right to put people to death?
The Gospels record that the Sanhedrin did not have the right to put anyone to death.
“It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death,” John 18.31. This is given as the
reason that Jesus had to be turned over to Pilate in order for the death sentence
to be carried out.
Asher Norman states, ‘Ironically the Christian Bible itself demonstrates that this
claim is untrue because it contains several reports of Jewish executions under Roman
To answer this we have to understand a little background history about how the Romans
administered populations in the empire. Paul Winter in his book ‘On the Trial of
Jesus’ (p 29) points out that throughout the Empire, the Romans would not dismantle
the local institutions of justice. Rather, they would use them to their own ends.
This was necessary because the Romans could hardly afford to spread themselves
too thin - especially in Judea. The popular idea of a Roman soldier on every corner
is wrong. William Wilson in his book ‘The Execution of Jesus’ (p 6) says the Romans
held Judea with only about three thousand troops. They could hardly spare the men
to arrest every single criminal.
Just as much as their military presence was spread fairly thin, so also was their
administrative presence. Larry Overstreet in his book ‘Roman Law and the Trial of
Jesus’ (page 325) remarks: ‘Generally speaking, Roman law allowed the local law of
each province to be exercised without much interference.’
The exception to this was capital cases. There is a decree of Augustus to the proconsul
of Cyrene, which specifically excluded the right of local provincial courts to sentence
people to death. Josephus records that some time after Coponius was appointed Roman
Procurator, the kingdom of Judea, the last remnant of the former nation of Israel,
was formally debased into a province of Syria (see Josephus’ Antiquities 17, chapter
13.1-5). At this time the Sanhedrin lost its power of passing the death sentence
(see John 18.31).
This event has been connected to the prophecy of Genesis 49.10 concerning Shiloh
who is seen as the Messiah: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver
from between his feet, until Shiloh comes.’ Rabbi Rachmon said, ‘When the members
of the Sanhedrin found themselves deprived of their right over life and death, a
general consternation took hold of them; they covered their heads and their bodies
with sackcloth, exclaiming, ‘Woe unto us, for the sceptre has departed from Judah
and the Messiah has not come.’’ (Talmud, Bab., Sanhedrin, Chapter 4, fol. 37, recto).
So what about the executions which are recorded in the New Testament? One of these
is the execution of Stephen in Acts 7 of which Asher Norman says ‘The Sanhedrin tried,
convicted and executed Stephen, a follower of Jesus.’ Actually from Acts 7 we see
the stoning of Stephen as more of a lynch mob than an official trial. There was no
verdict, and no sentence but a summary execution by stoning after Stephen had declared
that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
In this case wouldn't the Romans step in and do something about this travesty of
justice? J P Holding says, ‘Actually, no. Remember that there were only 3000 or
so troops stationed in all of Judea. Some give-and-take had to occur. And this happened
Empire-wide, as William Wilson points out in his book ‘The Execution of Jesus’, page
11-12: ‘There is extensive evidence that throughout the empire in Jesus' day native
provincial citizens frequently took matters into their own hands and illegally executed
natives on criminal charges. The Romans were totally unable to police the internal
life of the provinces closely; and would not have done so if they had been able.
Roman officials often winked at the excesses of the provincial courts in dealing
with alleged offences, as long as Roman citizens were not involved.’
In his article on the Trial of Jesus J P Holding gives an explanation for all the
cases referred to by Asher Norman in his book (and some he does not). These are
the main ones in addition to the case of Stephen.
John the Baptist. Herod executed John the Baptist (Mark 6.27) and James the brother
of John (Acts 12.2). Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, served as the representative
of the Roman Empire - and was therefore vested with its capital power. But Jesus
was executed in Judea, which was under a procurator.
The woman caught in adultery in John 8. Actually, all this does is make the "dare"
of those who brought the woman even more exceptional. Not only were they challenging
Jesus concerning the Jewish Law - they were also challenging Him to commit a violation
of Roman law - i.e., commit sedition!
The Temple Court warning. This indicates a special exception to NORMAL practice.
The Jews were allowed to kill any Gentile who entered the sacred inner court - even
if they were a Roman citizen. It should be recognized as clearly exceptional to normal
Roman procedure - and in line with the Roman custom of granting provincial subjects
"as much freedom as possible in practicing their religion." (Wilson ‘Execution of
Jesus, p 11)
Paul as persecutor. In Acts 26.10 Paul professes to have harassed Christians to their
deaths. This probably took place in the period after Pilate was removed from being
procurator and a new procurator had not been appointed (c. AD 36-7). During this
time the legate of Syria was more or less in charge and gave the Jews more freedom
in such matters. Paul says nothing about who actually performed the executions.
Blasphemy or Sedition?
When the chief priests handed Jesus over to Pilate they knew that a charge of blasphemy
against Jewish law would be of no interest to the Romans. They would have regarded
that as an internal Jewish matter which could not have carried a death sentence under
Roman law (see Acts 23.29). The only issue which Pilate could be expected to take
seriously was the charge of sedition against Roman rule. Crucifixion was widely known
as the death penalty for slaves and rebels. In Luke’s account we find that this
is the issue which is put before Pilate is sedition against Rome and claiming to
be a king:
‘Then the whole multitude of them arose and led Him to Pilate. And they began to
accuse Him, saying, “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to
pay taxes to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.”’ Luke 23.1-2.
The issue of Jesus claiming to be a King is also the accusation brought before Pilate
in John’s account.
Rivkin in his book ‘What crucified Jesus’ (page 85) shows how the high priest could
move from the charge of blasphemy in his own assembly to the charge of sedition before
The high priest of the Sanhedrin would thus report to (Pilate) the simple facts -
Here is a charismatic of charismatics who attracted crowds; who set off a disturbance
in the Temple area, thronged at festival time with highly excitable pilgrims; who
was acclaimed as the Messiah, the King of the Jews, as he walked through the streets
of Jerusalem, and who called upon the people to prepare for the (imminent) coming
of God's kingdom.
This would certainly be enough to gain Pilate’s attention to the case. It is likely
that he was already aware that something was going on. The Gospels themselves indicate
that Jesus was already a public issue and there can be no doubt that news of his
activity had reached the ears of those in power. Some indications of this are found
in the following passages.
Luke 23.8 tells us: ‘Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad; for he had
desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and
he hoped to see some miracle done by Him.’ This tells us that Herod was well aware
of Jesus’ ministry, though had not met Him personally.
After the raising of Lazarus, John 11.47-48 tells us: ‘Then the chief priests and
the Pharisees gathered a council and said, “What shall we do? For this Man works
many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the
Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.” This passage shows that
this council was concerned that Jesus’ miracles and fame were causing such a public
commotion that they could lead to the Romans fearing an uprising and taking drastic
action against it.
Matthew 26.3-5 shows that this was a concern of the Jewish religious leaders: ‘Then
the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people assembled at the palace
of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and plotted to take Jesus by trickery
and kill Him. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among
the people.”’ Fear of ‘an uproar among the people’ suggests that Jesus had a large
following, and that the situation could turn ugly if He were to be arrested publicly.
The role of Judas in the arrest of Jesus was to lead them to a place where Jesus
could be arrested quietly and without drawing public attention to it. The fact that
a detachment of armed soldiers was taken to arrest Jesus shows that some kind of
resistance from Jesus and His followers was anticipated. John 11.55-57 shows that
there was much anticipation amongst the crowds gathering in preparation for the Passover
of Jesus coming to the feast, which suggests that He was very much in the public
eye at this time.
His actions when He arrived in Jerusalem would have heightened this mood of anticipation.
At the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem the Gospels tell us that the crowds
were shouting, ‘Hosanna (Hebrew hoshienu = Lord save us) to the son of David, Blessed
is He who comes in the name of the LORD.’ (Matthew 21.9). The Messianic significance
of the ‘Son of David’ title and the quotation from Psalm 118 would have heightened
the expectation of the Messiah coming to Jerusalem and either excited or alarmed
those who heard it. No doubt the alarm of the Sanhedrin was increased by Jesus’
next move, the cleansing of the Temple.
One can hardly believe that the Romans were unaware of what was going on. Especially
as one of the other cries recorded in John’s Gospel at the Triumphal Entry was ‘Blessed
is the King of Israel.’
For this reason some commentators put forward the view that Pilate was already aware
of the action of the chief priests in arresting Jesus. The incident involving Pilate’s
wife recorded in Matthew’s Gospel has led to this conclusion.
Frank Morison (‘Who moved the Stone?’ Page 51) noted the urgency of the request,
and observed that Pilate's wife ‘had reason to believe that Pilate intended to ratify
the finding of the Jewish tribunal without rehearing, or at any rate with a bare
minimum of official formality. In other words, that he had practically decided to
confirm the Jewish decision, and had probably already given assurances to that effect
overnight.’ In this case Pilate not only knew of the arrest, but had an understanding
established with the Jewish leaders that he would approve of their findings in advance;
and Morison believes that Pilate's wife was the one that made him think twice.
The character of Pilate.
Objections to the Gospel accounts often say that they are written with the aim of
whitewashing Pilate and the Romans and condemning the Jewish people. Pilate has
been assessed from the Gospels as being represented as ‘a mild presiding judge who
supposedly moved heaven and earth in a futile attempt to free the accused Jesus,
a good-natured fellow,’ (Wedding Fricke ‘The Court Martial of Jesus’ page 4, 11);
‘thoroughly whitewashed,’ ‘a good-natured and merciful man.’ (Haim Cohn ‘The Trial
and Death of Jesus’ page 164).
This contrasts with the picture given of Pilate in secular history. Philo reported
that Pilate was inflexible and cruel. Josephus reported several occurrences where
Pilate flagrantly incites insurrection in order to ruthlessly purge it with his soldiers.
Pilate was eventually recalled to Vitellius (then Legate of Syria) after a particularly
violent attack on the Samaritans in 36 CE, and was ordered sent to Rome in order
to stand accusations of the slaughter. (Antiquities 18.4.85)
So what do the Gospels say about Pilate?
In Matthew 27.18 and Mark 15.10 Pilate recognizes that it is ‘because of envy’ that
the chief priests handed him over.
In Matthew 27.19 he receives a message from his wife saying ‘Have nothing to do with
that just man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of him.’
In all four Gospels he offers to release Barabbas or Jesus according to the decision
of the crowd (Matthew 27.20-23, Mark 15.6-11, Luke 23.13-22, John 18.39-40).
In Matthew 27.24 he washes his hands and declares himself ‘innocent of the blood
of this just Person.’
In Luke 23.1-12 he questions Jesus about the accusations brought before him (perverting
the nation, forbidding to pay taxes and saying that he is the Messiah, a king). He
asks specifically if Jesus is the ‘King of the Jews.’ Hearing further from his accusers
that his teaching began in Galilee, Pilate hands him over to Herod. Herod provides
no useful information and hands Jesus back to Pilate. As a result Pilate and Herod
become friends, after being enemies.
In Luke 23.13-16 he says that neither he nor Herod find anything deserving of death
in Jesus and says he will chastise Him and then release Him.
In John 18.28-19.16 we have the most detail of the trial of Jesus before Pilate.
The trial before Pilate takes place in two stages. First Pilate questions Jesus
about being ‘King of the Jews.’ He says to Jesus ‘Your own nation and chief priests
have delivered you’ and asks ‘What have you done?’ Jesus’ response ‘My kingdom is
not of this world’ causes him to repeat the question ‘Are you a king then?’ Jesus’
response to this is to speak of His kingdom in terms of bearing ‘witness to the truth.’
Pilate’s response ‘What is truth?’ has been interpreted by some as meaning that
he was seeking to understand Jesus and the truth. However it is more likely that
he is saying in effect, ‘What has ‘truth’ got to do with it? We’re not having a
philosophical discussion here, but a trial which could lead to your death!’ Pilate’s
response at this stage is to say that he finds no fault in Jesus. Nevertheless he
hands him over to be scourged and mocked by the Roman soldiers. The brutal scourging
can be enough to kill a man.
In John 19.1-16 we have a second trial before Pilate after Jesus has been scourged.
Pilate’s words ‘Behold the Man!’ are more likely spoken in mockery than honour to
Jesus. He is then confronted with the second accusation which is the blasphemy one.
‘According to our law he ought to die because he made Himself the Son of God.’ Pilate’s
response to this is one of fear. There are reasons why Pilate might well feel fear
at this accusation. His wife’s dream, reports of Jesus’ activities (in particular
the raising of Lazarus from the dead) may have gone through his mind. He seeks an
answer from Jesus – ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate
protests that he has the power to crucify or release Jesus. Jesus does respond to
this one and says, ‘You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been
given to your from above.’ In other words there is a higher power (God) over Pilate,
Caiaphas and everyone else. He is overruling this procedure and bringing to pass
This leads to the second accusation in this part of the trial, which is a direct
threat to Pilate, ‘If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever
makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.’ It is at this point that Pilate brings
Jesus out and sits down in the judgement seat and gives way to the call to have Jesus
All four Gospels (Matthew 27.37, Mark 15.26, Luke 23.38 and John 19.19) refer to
the inscription above the cross. Only John gives the full detail of Pilate’s involvement
in this: ‘Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was:
JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then many of the Jews read this title,
for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in
Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Therefore the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate,
“Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘He said, “I am the King of the Jews.”
Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
All four Gospels say that Pilate gave consent to Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus
down from the cross to place Him in his own tomb (Matthew 27.57-61, Mark 15.42-47,
Luke 24.50-56, John 18.38-42).
Matthew 27.62-66 says that Pilate agreed to the chief priests’ request for a guard
to be placed on the tomb to prevent the disciples coming by night to steal the body
and then proclaiming that Jesus had risen.
Putting all this together we see that there are a number of aspects of Pilate’s actions
which are similar in all four Gospels and some details supplied only by one Gospel.
John gives us the most information about the trial before Pilate.
All of the Gospels show that Pilate knew there was something not right about the
accusation against Jesus. His interrogation of Jesus led him to believe that He
had done nothing worthy of death and was not a threat to Rome’s rule over Judea.
This does not mean that he was sympathetic to Jesus. After all he handed Him over
to be scourged and then to be crucified. The detail in Luke that after the event
Herod and Pilate became friends is hardly a recommendation of Pilate’s good character,
seeing that Herod was a cruel and corrupt ruler.
Pilate’s actions in relation to Jesus, saying ‘Behold the Man!’ and putting the sign
‘King of the Jews’ on the cross could be interpreted as mockery rather than approval
of Jesus. But if so, Pilate was equally contemptuous of the chief priests who were
bringing the case of Jesus before him. He also recognised that they were trying
to manipulate him to perform their ends, which he would have been annoyed and resentful
about. He knew the hostility of the Council towards him because of his disrespect
for Jewish institutions. He no doubt sensed that he was being used as a tool of
the chief priests who wanted to get rid of someone who was obnoxious to them. So
his resistance to their demands was understandable.
Glenn Miller (http://christianthinktank.com) in his article on this subject brings
out a piece of information which is revealing about Pilate’s behaviour. ‘Earlier
in his career as procurator of Judea, Pilate had set up some votive shields in Herod's
palace, highly offending the Jewish people. After numerous appeals to him failed,
the Jews sent a message to the Emperor Tiberius, who responded with an extreme rebuke
to Pilate and orders to capitulate.
From this incident Pilate would have learnt that he was vulnerable to reports of
his misconduct going back to Caesar from the Jewish leadership. Therefore it was
better not to allow another situation to come to pass which might make this a possible
outcome. In the light of this the detail in John 19.12 becomes significant: The
Jews (meaning Jewish religious leadership) kept shouting, "If you let this man go,
you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.".
JP Holding writes: ‘The phrase "friend of Caesar" was more than a casual allusion
to Roman patriotism. It usually denoted a supporter or associate of the emperor,
a member of the important inner circle. The cry was a veiled threat: if Pilate exonerated
Jesus, the high priest would report to Rome that Pilate had refused to bring a rival
pretender to justice and was perhaps plotting to establish a new political alliance
of his own. Tiberius, the reigning emperor, was notoriously bitter and suspicious
of rivals. If such a report were sent to him, he would instantly end Pilate's political
career and probably his life also. Pilate also had the problem of a much larger than
normal crowd--Jerusalem would have been swollen with people for the Feast. A riot
or uprising (on the heels of the recent one--cf. Luke 23.19) would have also been
a major concern of Pilate.’
By the time we arrive at this point in the trial Pilate had realised that Jesus Himself
was not a threat to Roman order. J P Holding writes:
‘Most likely, Pilate saw Jesus as a "deluded maniac" and became very quickly tired
of Jesus' elusive and (to him) nonsensical answers to his seemingly straightforward
questions. Not only were the Jews trying to trick him; they were trying to make sport
of him by sending him this country preacher with serious delusions of grandeur.
Pilate, knowing what's afoot, has decided to turn the tables on the crowd and their
priestly supervisors: So you want me to execute your little problem? Let's see how
important it is to you - I'll make you choose between the preacher and a REAL seditionist.
You can choose the preacher (who by Roman law, could indeed be regarded as seditious,
but was harmless, perhaps even crazy), and give up your manipulation; then, I win
the game - or, you can prefer to follow your grudge, choose the seditionist (who
actually went as far as participating in an insurrection, and killing someone), and
then I'll be able to make all of YOU look like you support seditious activities.’
To request the release of Barabbas would have indeed been regarded as seditious.
So when they do so Pilate gets the satisfaction he wants: He has forced the manipulators
to say the unthinkable. He has against them that they have called for the freedom
of Barabbas over a harmless (and perhaps crazy) country preacher; and now, surely
biting their lips in unison, they make the pledge in favour of Caesar - lest Pilate
have grounds to charge them with sedition as well, we might add.
The game closes with Pilate in the lead. He makes one final contemptuous gesture
with the inscription upon the cross, "This is the King of the Jews." - as if to say,
"Here is your king - a crucified, pitiable creature, one appropriate for you."’
The Barabbas issue.
Critics of the Gospels say that no custom for releasing a prisoner existed. In answer
to this we quote again Glenn Miller:
‘It would be accurate to say "we HAVE NO RECORD of a custom of releasing prisoners
on a Jewish holiday." However, it is not out of line with what we know about the
political climate of the day. We know, for example, that political prisoners (like
Barabbas) WERE released for various reasons (Jos. Antiq. XX, ix.3; Livy, V.13; cf.
Deismann, "Light from the Ancient East", p 267), that Roman officials seem to have
granted mass amnesty at some other regular feasts and to have occasionally acquitted
prisoners in responses to crowds.’
We do know of a Roman practice called the abolitio - the acquittal of a prisoner
not yet condemned. While the Gospel texts are not clear on the matter, it is probable
that neither Jesus nor Barabbas had yet been formally sentenced. http://christianthinktank.com
Barabbas, Pilate and anti-Semitism.
Asher Norman says the trial accounts shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans
to the Jews. Other Jewish writers, notably Hyam Maccoby, have said that they are
responsible for anti-Semitism. The main passage which has been used to draw this
conclusion is Matthew 27.24-25: ‘When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all,
but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the
multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.”
And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children.”
The first question to look at in relation to this passage is what should we understand
by the phrase ‘all the people’?
1. The entire Jewish people (present and future).
2. The people who were standing before Pilate on this occasion.
Anti-Semites have often wrongly concluded that the mob which demanded the release
of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus was representative of the Jewish people. However
logic demands that the second on our list is the answer.
The maximum number of people who would fit in the inner court of the Antonia Fortress
(the place where "the pavement" probably was) has been calculated at about 3000,
barely 2% of all the people in Jerusalem at that time. There may not have even been
that many present. So who were these people?
The typical answer (reflected in some Christian hymns) is that they were fickle citizens
who changed their mind about Jesus, having shouted Hosanna one day and a few days
later ‘Crucify Him.’ This is almost certainly wrong and not supported by the Gospels.
The clear implication of the Gospels is that the hostile crowd has been for the
most part assembled and manipulated by the chief priests to fulfil their purposes.
Matthew and Mark agree that the crowd was being stirred up by the chief priests.
Mark 15:11, Matthew 27:20. Luke 23:13 regards the chief priests, rulers, and "the
people" as being of the same mind. The most likely reason for this is that "the
people" in question are already on their side. Unfortunately John refers to ‘the
Jews’ as the ones who did the shouting (John 19.12, 15), but when we look at the
whole of John we find that this term is most often used to mean the Jewish religious
leadership or the Sanhedrin as distinct from the mass of the Jewish people. We do
not deny that this has been used to stir up anti-Semitism by the corrupted Church,
but we do deny that it was the original intention of the writer.
To come back to the question, ‘Who were these people?’ the most likely answer is
that they were a crowd assembled by the chief priests for the purpose of condemning
Jesus. A number of non believers have come to this conclusion also, including Wedding
Fricke in ‘The Court Martial of Jesus’ (p 270) and Hugh Shonfield in ‘The Passover
Plot’ (p 153).
The machinery of the Temple was an enormous one. Ian Wilson, author of The Evidence
for Jesus, estimates it "as many as 20,000 attendants." Therefore it would not have
been hard for the priestly circle to assemble the 3000 or so needed to fill the courtyard
in front of the Antonia Fortress to capacity. Those whose livelihood depended on
the Temple would have a strong motivation for being in the ‘anti-Jesus’ camp following
His action in driving the money changers out of the Temple. Therefore to say that
this group of people was representative of the whole of the Jewish people is not
Regarding the verse ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children’, there is no question
that this has been manipulated by anti-Semites to indicate that the Jewish people
accepted blood-guilt for the execution of Jesus. This is a distortion not a true
application of scripture. If the professing Church uses this verse to justify persecuting
the Jews it is denying the words of Jesus from the cross, ‘Father forgive them for
they know not what they do.’ It means we are to accept that God viewed these words
spoken by one group of Jews who were opposed to Jesus, as a self inflicted curse
on all future generations of Jewish people. Clearly this was not how Jesus saw
it, nor did the apostles, who sought the salvation of Israel, not their damnation
The trial accounts in the Gospels do present us with difficulties but there are explanations
for all the issues raised by those who wish to cast doubt on them. They show how
sinful men did conspire to have the Lord Jesus put to death, but also that God was
overruling their decisions and actions in order that the Messiah would die as a sacrifice
for the sin of the world at the time of the Passover, in Jerusalem and by crucifixion.
All of this fitted in with the prophecies of the Bible of the Suffering Servant
of Isaiah 53, the one upon whom the Lord would lay ‘the iniquity of us all.’ His
death by crucifixion is prefigured in Psalm 22. Salvation is now available to all,
both Jew and Gentile through His once and for all sacrifice for the sin of the world.