The gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell that Jesus Christ endured a three-part Jewish trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin:
- Initial trial by Annas, the former High Priest (John 18:12-23)
- Night trial by the current High Priest and the Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:57-68; Mark 14:53-65)
- Morning trial by the Sanhedrin (Matthew 27:1; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66-71)
These four accounts describe the trial before the Sanhedrin, but they also raise a lot of questions related to the history and the culture:
What is the Sanhedrin? Weren’t the Romans in charge?
Why are there two High Priests mentioned? Who was in charge?
Doesn’t a trial require proof? Were there any laws to protect the accused?
The notes below are an attempt to address these questions.
The Great Sanhedrin
The ancient Jews had a very elaborate legal system. Every town, depending on its size, was ruled by one of three possible tribunals :
- Towns with less than 120 male inhabitants had the lowest tribunal, consisting of three judges. These judges had very limited power, and could not try capital offenses.
- Larger towns would be ruled by a greater tribunal, consisting of 23 men. These tribunals had greater power and could try capital offenses on very limited occasions.
- The highest tribunal was in Jerusalem. This group was also called the Senate, the Council of Elders, or the Great Sanhedrin. This tribunal had the highest authority and the power to oversee all of the other tribunals.
The Romans stripped the Sanhedrin of most of its civil authority during the Roman occupation. The Sanhedrin had jurisdiction over all religious matters, but they were no longer allowed to punish major civil cases. The Sanhedrin could try capital cases, but they needed to bring their conclusions to the Romans for punishment. The Romans were free to follow the recommendation of the Sanhedrin, or to retry the case themselves. The trial of Jesus Christ is an example of such a case where the Sanhedrin tried the prisoner and brought him to the Romans, but the Roman procurator (Pontius Pilate) chose to retry the prisoner himself.
The Great Sanhedrin was made up of equal parts priests, elders, and scribes. The High Priest would oversee the proceedings.
The High Priest
Throughout most of the first century, the Sanhedrin was dominated by one man, Annas. Annas was the high priest from AD 6-15. The Old Testament law stated that a high priest would hold his office for life, but Annas was deposed by the Romans and AD 15. The Romans saw the political importance of the High Priest’s position and wanted to ensure that the high priest would follow their lead.
Annas had a reputation of being powerful, ruthless, corrupt, and very wealthy. Annas was required to step down from the high priesthood, but he ensured that the succession of high priests who came after him included five of his sons, his son-in-law, and a grandson. The High Priest during the time of Jesus Christ’s ministry was Caiaphas, the son-in-law to Annas.
Annas was no longer the official High Priest, but he still retained the title (“High Priest”) and maintained the power to rule over the Jewish religious system.
Jesus had directly challenged the power of Annas and Caiaphas on many occasions. His most direct challenges were on the two times when He stopped Annas’ profitable business of selling animals and exchanging money in the temple (see here for the first occasion and here for the second). These challenges made Jesus tremendously popular with the Jewish people, but He was hated by Annas and his fellow priests.
It was Annas and Caiaphas who had orchestrated in AD 33 to have Jesus arrested, tried, and executed by the Romans.
The Laws of Justice
The Jews had greatly prided themselves in their legal organization and their laws of justice. These laws insured fairness to every individual who was tried, and would ensure that justice was served.
“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
However, Annas and Caiaphas used their power and influence to bypass many of the Jewish laws in order to pronounce a guilty verdict on Jesus Christ. The following is a list of Jewish laws of justice, and how they were broken in the High Priest’s attempt to ensure that they kept their power:
Trials were not to be held secretly at night, but publicly during the day 
The Sanhedrin began the trial of Jesus Christ in the middle of the night and concluded at daybreak (Matthew 27:1; Mark 15:1).
The accused was never to be required to speak 
The High Priest (Caiaphas) demanded that Jesus speak (Matthew 26:62-63; Mark 14:60).
Two witnesses were to come forward and agree on the charges 
On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.
This also means that the Sanhedrin could not originate charges. The charges must be originated by the witnesses.
The witness were supposed to be the prosecution and the Sanhedrin was to be the defense. Yet the priests and the Sanhedrin were trying to find any false witness who could incriminate Jesus! (Matthew 26:59-60; Mark 14:55-56).
The accused was to be set free if the witnesses contradicted each other .
A false witness was such a serious crime, that the false witness would be given the same penalty as was intended for the accused person (Deuteronomy 19:16-19).
The accused was never to be required to have to incriminate himself in any way 
This is similar the American Fifth Amendment. The accused was never required to testify against himself.
The Jewish medieval scholar Maimonides said, “The law does not permit the death penalty as a sentence for a sinner by his own confession.” 
Yet, the High Priest demands that Jesus, under oath, testify against himself (Matthew 26:63).
The death penalty was to be determined only after a day of fasting 
All 71 members of the Sanhedrin were required to fast for a day before condemning a man to death. Yet, they respond immediately to Jesus, saying that “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:66; Mark 14:64).
This also means that they could not try a capital case during a feast day since they would be prevented from participating in the feast (John 18:28).
A unanimous vote by the court would allow the accused to go free 
The belief was that only a biased and unmerciful court would vote unanimously to kill a man. Yet, Mark’s account shows that the Sanhedrin was unanimous in condemning Jesus to death (Mark 14:64).
Capital cases could only be tried at the regular meeting places of the Sanhedrin 
The regular meeting place of the Sanhedrin was in the Hall of Judgment in the Temple complex . The Sanhedrin tried Jesus Christ at the High Priest’s palace (Matthew 26:57-58; Mark 14:53-54; Luke 22:54) and concluded that he was guilty of blasphemy, a capital offense (Matthew 26:65-66; Mark 14:64).
The judges must consider the defense of the accused
Following the principle stated in Deuteronomy 13:14, the High Priest should make a diligent search in order to find out if the statements against the accused were true. Yet Jesus was never provided a defense, nor did the Sanhedrin take the time to consider Jesus’ statements. Instead, they rushed to judgment (Matthew 26:66; Mark 14:64).
The accused could not be physically punished before he was convicted 
Jesus was struck by the attendant in front of Annas (John 18:22), and the Sanhedrin members themselves stepped down to abuse Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:66-68; Mark 14:65).
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