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).

General observations.

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 sinful actions.  
  • 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’ were dismissed.

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.  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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 sins).
  • 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 Sabbath.  
  • 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 ( 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 Yourself.’   

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 death.  

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 occupation.’  

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 Pilate:

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 His will.  
  • 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 crucified.  
  • 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 ( 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.

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 the case.

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 (Romans 10).


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.

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