Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Jesus Stands Trial

Posted by foryourfaith on March 24, 2010

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The great mystery about the trial of Jesus lies in discovering what actually occurred. The Gospels are our only sources of specific information, but historians have come to widely differing conclusions regarding their content. The trial has also been a cause of intense and emotional dispute because for centuries the narratives were misused to justify the persecution of the Jews by Christians.

Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect or governor who ultimately crucified Jesus. He was notorious for his harshness toward the Jews and his contempt for their religion and customs. Philo, a Jewish contemporary of Pilate, wrote of “the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries, the executions without trial constantly repealed, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty” that marked his rule. Ultimately Pilate was recalled to Rome to answer charges for crimes in office.

From the perspective of the evangelists, any criminal trial against Jesus would have been unjust. The New Testament narratives follow three basic patterns. The most controversial is the report given by both Mark and Matthew. They describe Jesus being led from his arrest on Passover evening to a night trial before the high priest and the whole Jewish court, the Sanhedrin. Mark states that they sought evidence against Jesus, but were unable to find two witnesses who could agree, as was required by Jewish law. Some “false witnesses” testified that Jesus had spoken against the Temple, but even they could not agree (Mark 15:55-59).

The trial might thus have collapsed, but the high priest confronted Jesus directly with a question that is a focal point for the entire Gospel of Mark: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus answered directly, “I am.” That, Mark says, was considered blasphemy. The high priest tore his garments and Jesus was condemned by all the high priests “as deserving death” (Mark 14:61-64).

After another meeting of the Sanhedrin in the morning, Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate. Thus, Mark wished to emphasize that it was Jesus’ admission that he was “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed” that led to his condemnation.

Historical controversy arises because the Mishnah, the earliest codification of Jewish law, banned night trials in capital cases and required that a guilty verdict be delayed for one day after trial. It also defined criminal blasphemy only in terms of pronouncing the ancient name of God. The Mishnah, however, dates from more than a century and half after Jesus; it is not known whether its rules were followed earlier.

Interestingly enough, Luke does not describe a night trial. According to Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus was arrested, he was brought to the courtyard of the high priest’s house and held there until morning. Peter followed the group who had arrested Jesus, and sat among them. As the night dragged on, Peter was three times accused of knowing Jesus. In the presence of his Lord, Peter denied knowing him. When the trial before the Sanhedrin was held on Passover morning, Luke mentions now witnesses or testimony, but only the demand of the council. “If you are the Christ, tell us.” Jesus refused to answer. “Are you the Son of God, then?” they asked, and Jesus would only respond enigmatically, “You say that I am,” Luke describes no formal verdict against Jesus, but only the decision that the council had heard enough to bring him before Pilate.

John omits specific mention of a trial before Jewish leaders. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus was arrested on the night before Passover and taken to Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas, and questioned “about his disciples and his teaching.” He was then taken to Caiaphas, presumably to stand trial before the Sanhedrin. However, John gives no details of the trial, and has no statement of charges or witnesses brought against Jesus, nor a verdict by any Jewish court.

According to Mark and Matthew, the fatal trial before Pilate was brief indeed. The notoriously harsh prefect asked the Galilean prisoner a single contemptuous question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.” The chief priests continued to hurl accusations at Jesus, and Pilate asked, “’Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate wondered” (Mark 15:2-5). If Philo’s description of Pilate’s cruelty was correct, the governor would have needed no more than Jesus irritating behavior to convince him to get rid of the troublemaker.

Luke’s narrative included further charges and an episode of Jesus being taken before Herod Antipas. He also stressed that Pilate and Herod found Jesus innocent of any capital charge, and thus made it clear that Pilate crucified an innocent man.

John’s Gospel contained a more extended account of the trial before the governor (18:28 – 19:16). In included a three-way dialogue between Pilate, the chief priests, and Jesus. Pilate was revealed as weak, vacillating, and fearful. He was pushed by Jesus to contemplate questions of truth and power, but ultimately yielded his verdict to his political cowardice.

“Release to us Barabbas!” cried the throngs at Jesus’ trial. It was the last chance for Jesus’ rescue, the sealing of his fate. As described in all four Gospels, Pilate was to grant amnesty to one Jewish prisoner in honor of the Passover. The crowds were asked to choose between Jesus and Barabbas, a man under sentence of death for murder. They picked the murderer rather than the teacher whom they had praised just days before.

In Christian tradition, a fickle mob led by malevolent chief priests inexplicably chose to condemn an innocent man. Thus Pilate freed Barabbas and crucified Jesus. But was there more to it? Historians have searched in vain for any clear reference outside the Gospels to the custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover. The dearth of information combined with the strange coincidence that the same Barabbas means “son of the father” – in contrast to Jesus as “son of God” – has led a few scholars to argue that the episode is a fabrication.

The key to understanding the choice of the crowd may lie in the description of the charges against Barabbas. Mark describes him as one of the “rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection.” Luke says he was part of an “insurrection started in the city.” John describes him with the Greek word lestes, which means bandit, insurrectionist, or revolutionary.

These descriptions may connect Barabbas with a group of relatively disorganized rebel fighters who harassed the Romans and urged the population to resist foreign domination,and to tolerate no ruler of Israel but God. Because of the massive presence of the Roman legions, however, these groups mainly existed as outlaw bands living in the hills. When the Romans caught them, they were charged as robbers and murderers, and were often crucified.

Barabbas may have been a leader in one of these outlaw bands. It is possible that Pilate, aware of Jesus’ earlier popularity with the crowds, hoped that they would choose to condemn Barabbas, thus aiding Pilate in condemning an anti-Roman rebel. If this was his plan, it clearly backfired. The crowd cried for release of Barabbas. Along with Jesus, Pilate crucified two other men who, like Barabbas, are described with the term lestes, “insurrectionist” (Mark 15:27).

The Gospels interpret the cry to release Barabbas as a rejection of Jesus. But the episode may also illustrate a Jewish cry against Rome, and support of groups that were struggling against Roman rule. Jesus opposed such violent rebellion against Rome, but he ended his life in a row of crosses between two anti-Roman rebels.


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