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 Chapter 26

The Jewish System of Justice


O trial in history displayed such an utter disregard for justice as did the trial of Jesus Christ. In order to convict Christ of a capital crime, it was found necessary to disregard every principle of the law. Since Christ was not only innocent of all crime, but had never committed a single sin, even of the least magnitude, it was understandable that such wholesale breaches of the judicial process were essential in order for the Sanhedrin to achieve its pre-ordained verdict of guilt.

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15

Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me. John 14:30

The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, was ultimately both judge and jury in the trial. It was Pontius Pilate who handed down the most disgraceful judgement in history, one unparalleled in the history of justice.

When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him. John 19:6

Many individuals have been falsely convicted of a crime. In many instances, the trial has been a sham and the outcome predetermined. But nowhere in history has a judge condemned a prisoner on the basis that he was entirely innocent. This unique basis for the sentence of execution against Christ belongs to Pilate alone. Not only did Pilate declare Christ to be innocent, and offered this fact as the only basis upon which he sentenced Christ to the crucifixion; but he had judged Christ as innocent at two previous points in the trial.

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all. John 18:38

Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. Then Jesus came forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man! John 19:4, 5

Pilate had asked the rhetorical question,

What evil hath He done? Matthew 27:23

To this question the Jews could offer no valid response. Pilate well knew the precise reason the Jewish ecclesiastical leadership desired to have Christ put to death:

For he knew that for envy they had delivered him. Matthew 27:18

Yet despite this travesty of justice on the part of both Pilate and the Sanhedrin, the Jews possessed, at the time of Christ, arguably the most enlightened judicial system in the history of the human race.

Many assume that the system was harsh, and that the meting out of severe punishments was commonplace. This was not so. Much of the following information is derived from the work of Taylor G. Bunch, Behold the Man, Southern Publishing Association, 1946.

The Sanhedrin consisted of seventy men. This number was based upon the number of advisors Moses selected to assist him in judgement. (Numbers 11:16) It was this body which tried those charged with capital crimes, for the Sanhedrin was invested with legislative, judicial, and executive authority. The quorum was twenty-three. Conviction could only be effected if there was a minimum majority of two. Further, there was a unique requirement that at least one of the judges must find the accused innocent. No punishment was possible when the decision was unanimous. This provision was made in order to minimize the possibility of collusion. It was felt essential that the accused have at least one advocate among the judges. Each member of the Sanhedrin took a solemn oath before delivering his verdict. He vowed that his verdict was his true conviction. When faithfully followed, this measure was designed to prevent any member falsely declaring a man innocent in order that the majority decision for conviction would be thus made valid.

The members of the Sanhedrin were selected from three categories of twenty-three members eachóthe priests, the scribes (rabbis), and the elders. The seventieth member was the High Priest. These three groups are cited in Scripture at the time of Christís arrest. The complement of seventy members was determined by the fact that at the time of Moses, God had appointed seventy elders to serve with Moses. (Exodus 24:1)

And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas, one of the twelve, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. . . . And they led Jesus away to the high priest: and with him were assembled all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes. Mark 14:43, 53

Luke also records these three groups of the Sanhedrin at the time of the trial.

And as soon as it was day, the elders of the people and the chief priests and the scribes came together, and led him into their council, saying, Art thou the Christ? tell us. And he said unto them, If I tell you, ye will not believe. Luke 22:66, 67

There were ten basic qualifications for the eligibility of membership. Each member of the Sanhedrin must be a Hebrew, learned in the law, and possessing judicial experience at lower levels (there were minor Sanhedrins of twenty-three members which tried non-capital offenses in every town of 120 males or more). The member was required also to be learned in science, a linguist, modest, pious but strong and courageous, devoid of physical defects, a qualified tradesman, and, finally, he was required to be married and to be a father. Such qualifications were thought to ensure that not only were the members of the Sanhedrin competent, but that they were also compassionate.

There were rigid rules concerning the arrest of a person. As these requirements and others are discussed, occasion will be taken to refer to Scripture in order to document the level to which many, if not all, of these requirements were breached in the trial of our Savior.

First of all, arrests were not permitted to be made during the period of darkness. Yet Jesusí arrest was made during the prohibited hours of the night, for it is recorded that,

Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. John 18:3

When I was daily with you in the temple, ye stretched forth no hands against me: but this is your hour, and the power of darkness. Luke 22:53

The Sanhedrin was expected to adhere to the following Scriptural injunction,

Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people: neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbour: I am the Lord. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him. Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:16Ė18

Based upon this passage, the involvement of an accomplice in the judicial process was prohibited. In todayís terms, no accomplice could turn state witness. Today, many do this in order to selfishly seek a lighter sentence for themselves, while ensuring the conviction of, or a harsher sentence for, their erstwhile "friends." In times of religious persecution, such procedures are commonplace. Former fellow believers will become the witnesses against their brethren.

And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. Matthew 24:10

Even loved ones will turn state witnesses.

Now the brother shall betray the brother to death, and the father the son; and children shall rise up against their parents, and shall cause them to be put to death. Mark 13:12

The Jews rightly prohibited such treachery, a policy modern judicial systems would do well to emulate, yet the members of the Sanhedrin gladly used one of Christís disciples to assist them in effecting His arrest, quite contrary to their own principles.

Bribery was also strictly forbidden.

For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right. Amos 5:12

Yet the bribing of Judas by the leaders of the Jews was openly demonstrated.

Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. Matthew 27:3Ė5

In this action, those false ecclesiastical leaders forfeited their hope of eternal life.

He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil; He shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks: bread shall be given him; his waters shall be sure. Isaiah 33:15, 16

No arrest had legal status unless it was followed by a legal trial. Since Christís trial evidenced the ultimate in illegality, His arrest was quite improper. Further, it was illegal to bind an unconvicted man.

Then the band and the captain and officers of the Jews took Jesus, and bound him. John 18:12

Another prohibition was the holding of any hearings prior to the trial, yet Christ was subjected to such a pre-trial hearing before Annas.

Then the band and the captain and officers of the Jews took Jesus, and bound him, and led him away to Annas first: for he was father in law to Caiaphas, which was the high priest that same year. John 18:12, 13

Further, quite properly, no punishment was permitted prior to conviction, yet Christ was assaulted during the preliminary inquiry before Annas.

And when he had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, Answerest thou the high priest so? John 18:22

The Hebrew system of justice differed markedly in the matters of prosecution and defense. Lawyers were not employed for these functions. The witnesses assumed the role of present-day prosecutors, and the members of the Sanhedrin conducted the defense. Such a system, if followed scrupulously, would have provided an experienced group of defense attorneys of high quality, a situation not always evident in the defense of the poor and indigent today. Further, it would have predisposed the members of the Sanhedrin to be compassionate when they altered their roles from defense lawyers to judges. It is little wonder, then, that the Mishna declared that if one individual was condemned to death every seven years, it was a "slaughterhouse," and even one execution in seventy years may be so described. Yet the trial of Christ was marked by the members of the Sanhedrin acting in the role of prosecutors themselves, and thus depriving Him of any defense assistance. The requirement that the judges should lean on the side of the defendant was totally abnegated.

In respect of witnesses, it was mandatory that a minimum of two be present, and that their testimony agree. False witnesses imperiled themselves. If convicted of an act of perjury, they were sentenced to the very penalty that had been sought against the accused. This law naturally daunted many evil men who would otherwise have sought to betray their fellow men. But in Christís trial, the Jewish leaders themselves diligently sought to find false witnessesóa shameful breach of the law. Mark records this vile betrayal of justice:

And the chief priests and all the council sought for witness against Jesus to put him to death; and found none. For many bare false witness against him, but their witness agreed not together. And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying, We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands. But neither so did their witness agree together. Mark 14:55Ė59

The failure to produce genuine witnesses who were in agreement as to the salient facts should have nullified the trial.

Jewish law stated that a prisonerís own confession of guilt was inadmissible as evidence in his trial. What an enlightened law this was! Today, many a prisoner is convicted largely on his own confession, which has been extracted by various forms of coercion, including physical torture or psychological techniques.

One short passage in the gospel of Mark documents a number of breaches in these noble laws.

And the high priest stood up in the midst, and asked Jesus saying, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee? But he held his peace, and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death. Mark 14:60Ė64

The following conclusions may be drawn from the above passage:

1. Christ was convicted of "blasphemy" on His own admission. Such "confession," even of a crime meriting punishment, was totally inadmissible evidence. Yet Caiaphas declared,

What need we any further witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy [Christís confession that He was the Son of the Blessed]. Mark 14:63, 64

2. The high priest rent his clothes. It was a capital offense for a high priest to deliberately tear his raiment.

And Moses said unto Aaron, and unto Eleazar and unto Ithamar, his sons, Uncover not your heads, neither rend your clothes; lest ye die, and lest wrath come upon all the people: but let your brethren, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled. Leviticus 10:6

Thus, it was Caiaphas, not Christ, who merited death under the law.

3. The guilty decision was unanimous.

They all condemned him to be guilty of death. Mark 14:64, emphasis added

As stated earlier, Jewish law declared that no one could be convicted by an unanimous vote.

4. The condemnation of death was determined within a single day. Jewish law demanded a protracted procedure before the sentence of death could become final. Such a sentence could not be passed until the second afternoon of a trial. For this reason, no trial was permitted to be commenced on the Friday according to Jewish law, for that would entail the completion of the trial during the hours of the Holy Sabbath day. There was precisely laid down a procedure to be followed if a conviction was reached on the first day of the trial. The judges were directed into groups of five or six in order to discuss the decision. Following these discussions, they were dismissed, but required to walk to their homes two by two, arm in arm, searching for any grounds to declare the convicted one innocent. Upon the second day, they were required to pray and fast. Then a second vote was taken. Any judge who had voted the accused innocent on the previous day was forbidden to reverse his vote, but those who had voted guilty the previous day were at liberty to alter their vote.

The final decision was set down for sunset on the second day. If the judges confirmed their previous decision of guilt, the prisoner was then led away to be executed.

But even then, not all hope for the prisoner was extinct. A man was sent forth on horseback carrying a banner which publicly sought from the crowd which followed the prisoner to his place of execution, any evidence of innocence which they could supply.

Christís short trial deprived Him of all these strenuous efforts to proclaim His innocence, to which, by law, He was entitled.

5. There was a specific form of balloting which was required. The most junior members of the Sanhedrin were required to cast their votes first, lest they be influenced by the votes of the more senior members. In Christís conviction, this method of balloting was set aside. Caiaphas simply put the question to the members of the Sanhedrin as a whole, and they replied orally, apparently in near unison.

What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death. Matthew 26:66

Another matter requires examination. Judges were strictly forbidden to originate charges. This requirement is a self-evident element of justice. Yet, on at least three occasions prior to Christís trial, the Sanhedrin had discussed ploys to convict Christ.

Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him? The officers answered, Never man spake like this man. Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed. Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,) Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth? They answered and said unto him, Art thou also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet. And every man went unto his own house. John 7:45Ė53

Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; and not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death. John 11:47Ė53

Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people. Luke 22:1, 2

Manifestly, in Christís trial, the judges were also schemers against His person. That entire evidence finds them totally lacking in impartiality. Bias was written on their every action. Since the members of the Sanhedrin were charged with the responsibility to act as Christís defense counsels as well as His judge, there was no possibility of His acquittal.

As set forth in Jewish law, the Hebrew judicial system displayed a level of justice unparalleled in history. As implemented in the trial of Christ, this same system reached a level of injustice so debased and vile that it has never been equalled by even the least just, totalitarian nations of this world.

The trial and conviction of Christ by ecclesiastical judges indicates that level of injustice meted out, when prelates, priests, and clergymen, unsanctified of heart, possess hatred against those who serve Christ with the entire heart and refuse to submit to unscriptural demands enacted by religious leaders.

In view of this fact, the words of Jesus are pregnant with meaning for His faithful children today.

Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you. John 15:20.

Thus have the opponents of the Christian message destroyed the religious liberty of the righteous in the past. Thus will they destroy it once more in the future.

Godís principles of justice were succinctly expressed early in the history of the children of Israel.

Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment: Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause. If thou meet thine enemyís ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him. Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of thy poor in his cause. Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not; for I will not justify the wicked. And thou shalt take no gift: for the gift blindeth the wise, and perverteth the words of the righteous. Exodus 23:1Ė8

Pathetically, the leaders of Godís Church at the time of the first Advent chose to ignore these principles. Dare the religious leaders of today follow their example at this time of the second Advent?


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