Mistrial of the Millennium

LESS THAN A GENERATION after Jesus’ trial, Joshua son of Hananiah began prophesying judgment against the temple, shouting, “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the holy house, a voice against the bridegrooms and the brides, and a voice against this whole people!”

The priestly aristocracy, who controlled the temple establishment, angrily arrested him. They dragged him before the Roman governor, Albinus, who had Joshua scourged with aflagellum—a leather whip with pieces of bone or metal embedded in its ends—reportedly “till his bones were laid bare.”

But there the similarity between Jesus’ trial and Joshua’s ends; Jesus went on to be crucified; Joshua was released. Why?

Joshua, unlike Jesus, seemed harmless: Josephus reports, “Albinus took him to be a madman, and dismissed him,” allowing Joshua to walk the streets for seven years shouting, “Woe, woe to Jerusalem” until he was killed in the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Jesus, on the other hand, was charged with claiming to be a king—a claim that in Rome’s eyes constituted high treason. When this charge was prosecuted by means of a series of improper procedures, Jesus’ fate was sealed.

Historical problems

Jesus’ trial was anything but typical. In fact, the Gospels’ descriptions of the trial stray so far from the Mishnah (an early third-century A.D. collection that explains Jewish law) that some scholars have doubted the Gospels’ reliability.

Here are some of the legal principles that the Gospels’ descriptions seem to contradict:

  • Judges must conduct and conclude capital trials during daylight.
  • Trials should not occur on the eve of a Sabbath or festival day (though executions provided their greatest impact in such public settings).
  • The Sanhedrin should not begin its meetings in the high priest’s palace but in a more formal setting.
  • A day must pass before a verdict of condemnation is issued.
  • If testimony fails under cross-examination, it is to be discarded.

The Mishnah, however, reflects the way Pharisaic rabbis thought the Jerusalem Sanhedrin should have operated, and then more than a century after the Sanhedrin ceased to exist. The Sanhedrin was likely more pragmatic and flexible than the Mishnah description.

The Mishnah also differs from the Gospels because it reports legal ethics whereas the Gospels report violations of those ethics. Many of the Mishnah’s rules represent legal standards widely accepted in the ancient Mediterranean world. Later rabbis sought legal safeguards to prevent hasty trials and miscarriages of justice—the very sort of injustices that took place at Jesus’ trial.

The picture of the Sanhedrin’s activity in the Gospels is much closer to Josephus’s first-century description: the powerful Sadducees were hardly interested in following Pharisaic ethics and probably did what they had to do to get the job done. Their primary responsibility as Jerusalem’s aristocracy was to keep peace for Rome, and Jesus appeared to be a threat to Rome’s power and to their own authority.

If Jesus had challenged their authority by overturning tables in the temple and had attracted a following, some of whom believed he was the promised Davidic king, he potentially threatened the peace.

To preclude a riot, the Sanhedrin came to a quick decision at night in time to hand Jesus over to Pilate by morning. An informal hearing to decide the case would be much faster than a formal and lengthy trial. For Jerusalem’s aristocracy, then, the outcome mattered more than the rules.

Conflicting testimony

The testimony of the witnesses focused on Jesus’ apparent opposition to the temple. Joshua ben Hananiah had been punished for merely prophesying against the temple, but this Jesus had reportedly promised to tear it down himself! But in such a rushed trial, the witnesses contradicted each other, forcing the high priest to take another approach.

Jesus had recently made implicit claims in public about his identity as “Son of God.” The title, at least in some early Jewish circles (like the sect who owned the Dead Sea Scrolls), was akin to claiming to be the Davidic Messiah. So the high priest asked Jesus a question he couldn’t avoid: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?”

"I am," Jesus said. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” The response weaved together Old Testament passages that suggested he considered himself the eternal ruler and “Lord.” A simple “yes” would have caused plenty of trouble, but Jesus’ response, combining claims to heavenly and earthly power, was, some would say, the worst move to make. (On the other hand, Jesus knew his “hour had come” and was in control of the situation, deliberately provoking his own execution.)

The high priest immediately denounced Jesus’ response as “blasphemy,” and, in Jewish tradition, tore his garment. To the priest, Jesus had desecrated the divine name by inappropriately associating himself with it. His colleagues agreed.

Execution policies

A group of Jerusalem leaders apparently held a brief but more formal hearing at daybreak to ratify the night’s work. They also needed to bring Jesus before the Roman governor because, though they were allowed to pronounce death sentences, they were forbidden from carrying out executions.

Rome allowed its client kingdoms to execute criminals without Roman approval only rarely (perhaps for a more flagrant desecration of the temple than the high priests had proved Jesus guilty of)—otherwise local governments might execute Roman loyalists behind the empire’s back! Illegal lynchings still occurred, but in this case, none would be necessary: it was in Rome’s own interests for Jesus to die.

Pilate, however, was reticent to execute Jesus. When Jesus spoke of kingship and of “truth,” he reminded Pilate not of a revolutionary but of a harmless wandering philosopher. Many philosophers claimed the right to reign as kings, but many who made such claims were also apolitical and posed no real threat to the authorities.

Then again, Pilate could not afford to alienate the Jerusalem authorities. He had a long history of provoking local officials, and they had forced him to back down before.

One of his first official acts as governor was to order his soldiers to bring the imperial standards into Jerusalem under cover of night. But after throngs of Jews bared their necks, saying they would rather die than allow the standards depicting emperor worship, Pilate backed down.

Under the increasingly paranoid emperor Tiberias, a refusal to prosecute anyone charged with treason might call into question one’s loyalty to Caesar. Pilate was no political fool. For the Roman governor, like the Jerusalem aristocracy, political expediency held a higher claim than justice, so he approved the execution of Jesus.

Disturbing “justice”

Moving forward 2,000 years can help us appreciate the emotions such flagrant misuse of power may have engendered among those loyal to Jesus. In our day, we've seen in the news—and maybe experienced in our own lives—violations of justice and we recoil at them.

But few modern cases can match the miscarriage of justice in the hasty and unethical trial of Jesus. It broke ethical guidelines, railroaded an innocent man, and demonstrated a flagrant misuse of power. Readers of the account, both Jewish and Gentile, would have been deeply disturbed, if not furious.

It is all the more telling, then, that Jesus from the cross forgave his prosecutors, who in one sense knew very well what they were doing.

Other resources:

Craig Keener is written numerous books on Jesus and the New Testament, including Matthew for the IVP New Testament Commentary Series.

He has also written other topics such as And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament.


Darrell L. Bock, research professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary and associate pastor at Trinity Fellowship Church, wrote a similar article for Christianity Today, titled “Jesus v. Sanhedrin: Why Jesus ‘lost’ his trial”

The Ecole Initiative, an excellent resource for the history of early Christianity, has a lengthy article on Pontius Pilate and other figures.

By Craig S. Keener

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #59 in 1998]

Craig Keener is visiting professor of biblical studies at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of The IVP Bible Background Commentary (1993) and Matthew commentaries for InterVarsity Press and Eerdmans.
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