The trial of Jesus was illegal in many ways. He was fraudulently convicted. Here are 10 reasons Jesus’ arrest, trials and conviction were illegal.
Some have attempted to prove that Jesus was “legally” crucified. In his book The Prosecution of Jesus, Richard Wellington Husband states, “The arrest was legal. ... The hearing by the Sanhedrin was legal. … The course of trial in the Roman court was legal” (1916, p. 281).
The author, a professor of classical languages at Dartmouth College, was undoubtedly sincere in his convictions.
Notice his final conclusion: “The conviction was legal, and was justified, provided the evidence was sufficient to substantiate the charges, and the records do not prove the contrary” (p. 282).
This former professor at one of America’s leading colleges said, in effect, that there is not enough evidence in the Bible to show what the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, concluded: that Jesus’ trial and conviction were unjustified (Luke 23:4, 14).
The Jewish point of view
The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth by Max Radin gives the traditional Jewish point of view. Mr. Radin, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 20th century, states, “If he [Jesus] had said only a tithe [tenth] of the things credited to him, it was enough to make an indictment” (1931, p. 229).
On page 109 he writes that there is “no clear statement of how the knowledge of the trial came to those who reported it.” In other words, Mr. Radin apparently believed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t have any personal evidence. Because the trial was private, and none of these men were present, how could they possibly have known what happened?
This excludes the possibility that Jesus—who was the One condemned, the One who was on trial—rose from the dead and told the disciples what occurred so that they could report it to others so that we might know about it today.
We believe that the biblical account is accurate and that, by comparing it with the laws and legal regulations of that day, we can see that Jesus was tried illegally.
Irregularities and illegalities that led to the condemnation of Jesus
During the time of Christ, most trials involving criminal procedure took weeks, if not months, to complete. But all of the trials Jesus was subjected to were completed within nine hours of His arrest! And they were done in private, secretly.
Also, consider this: Who made up the mob that arrested Jesus? The answer to this question brings us to the first error in the conviction of Jesus.
- Jesus was arrested illegally.
“Then Judas, having received a detachment of troops, and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, came there with lanterns, torches, and weapons. Jesus therefore … went forward and said to them, ‘Whom are you seeking?’ They answered Him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am He.’ … ‘Therefore, if you seek Me, let these go their way’” (John 18:3-5, 8).
And Luke adds, “Then Jesus said to the chief priests, captains of the temple, and the elders who had come to Him, ‘Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs?’” (Luke 22:52).
Notice that those who were involved in Christ’s arrest included the priests and elders—His judges! Among them were also the very ones who bribed Judas. Moreover, Jesus was arrested secretly, by night. He was not arrested on the formal charge of any crime. There was no charge presented. There was no warrant for His arrest, no statement of what He had done. They just simply took Him.
Contrary to what Mr. Husband said in his book, there was no legal basis on which Jesus was arrested. No one had presented testimony or evidence of guilt to the Sanhedrin whereby they could have requested His arrest.
Notice what Jewish law declared.
Samuel Mendelsohn, a Jewish philosopher and Bible translator, says in his Criminal Jurisprudence of the Ancient Hebrews: “The testimony of an accomplice [for example, Judas] is accordingly not admissible by Rabbinic law, … and no man’s life, nor his liberty, nor his reputation, can be endangered by the malice of one who has confessed himself a criminal” (1890, p. 120).
You see, the very fact that Judas took a bribe from the judges was certainly proof that Judas was guilty of a criminal offense.
- It was a private night proceeding.
The first step in Jesus’ trial was a preliminary examination in a private night proceeding before Annas, who had been high priest. This was an unproductive meeting because Caiaphas (Annas’ son-in-law) was actually the high priest that year. Annas finally bound Jesus and sent Him to Caiaphas (John 18:12-13, 19-23).
The French twin brothers Augustin and Joseph Lémann stated in their book Jesus Before the Sanhedrim, “No session of the Court [was] to take place before the offering of the morning sacrifice” (1887, translated by Julius Magath, p. 109). No night meetings were permitted. The law allowed such an investigation only upon daylight.
- The Sanhedrin illegally proceeded to hold its trial of Jesus before sunrise.
Notice that the preliminary investigation before Annas brought forth no evidence whatsoever. Instead of dismissing the case, they proceeded to hold an illegal court.
Why was it illegal? Mendelsohn states, “Criminal cases can be acted upon by the various courts during day time only, by the Lesser Synhedrions from the close of the morning service till noon, and by the Great Synhedrion till evening” (Criminal Jurisprudence of the Ancient Hebrews, p. 112). The trial of Jesus was begun at night in the hours of early morning, without any witnesses to defend Him.
- The Sanhedrin was illegally convened to try a capital offense on a day before an annual Sabbath (holy day).
In Isaac Wise’s book Martyrdom of Jesus, we read, “No court of justice in Israel was permitted to hold sessions on Sabbath or any of the seven Biblical holidays. In cases of capital crime, no trial could be commenced on Friday or the day previous to any holiday, because it was not lawful either to adjourn such cases longer than over night, or to continue them on the Sabbath or holiday” (1874, pp. 67-68).
The opponents of Jesus violated their own law by arresting Jesus on the day before an annual Sabbath—the First Day of Unleavened Bread.
- The trial of Jesus was illegal because it was concluded in one day.
Jewish law states, “A criminal case resulting in the acquittal of the accused may terminate the same day on which the trial began. But if a sentence of death is to be pronounced, it cannot be concluded before the following day” (Mishnah, “Sanhedrin” IV, 1). This was to allow sufficient opportunity for any witnesses in support of the accused to present themselves. But the court did not allow Jesus this opportunity.
- The indictments against Jesus were false or unproven.
The court pronounced sentence on Jesus with no real supporting evidence. The only evidence presented by witnesses to the court was given by false witnesses.The court pronounced sentence on Jesus with no real supporting evidence. The only evidence presented by witnesses to the court was given by false witnesses. But their testimony was not even used by the court in sentencing Jesus to death. Here is what happened:
Two false witnesses testified that Jesus said, “I will destroy this temple made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands” (Mark 14:58).
The religious leaders used this statement as an indictment against Jesus. But this piece of evidence was not what Jesus said. He didn’t say the words “that is made with hands.” Jesus was not referring to the physical temple of Herod, erected by human hands, but to His own body, which would be raised in three days after His death.
Read what Jesus actually said in John 2:19, 21. The words “that is made with hands” are not there.
Moreover, the question the high priest asked Jesus had nothing to do with this indictment! Jesus was indicted on the false charge that He would destroy the physical temple and rebuild it in three days’ time. But the court condemned Him on another matter altogether.
Notice the facts. The high priest demanded, “‘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).
Jesus was indicted on one charge, tried on another and immediately condemned on His own testimony.
And Jesus’ testimony was not proved to be blasphemous. Jesus did not refer directly to Himself. He merely said, “the Son of Man.” The court did not seek to prove who the “Son of Man” was. They believed, of course, that Jesus meant Himself.
All through His ministry, the religious leaders had asked Him who He was. Months earlier they asked, “‘How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe’” (John 10:24-25).
But as soon as Jesus gave an indirect statement at the trial, they did not doubt whom He meant by “Son of Man,” did they? On this testimony Jesus was condemned.
Even Mr. Radin in his book The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth admits that Jesus’ testimony was not blasphemy. On pages 248 and 249 he says, “The ‘blasphemy’ which the Pentateuch (or Tora), mentions is a literal cursing of God or a direct defiance of Him.” And certainly, Jesus never did this!
Most important, Jesus truly was the Messiah, the Son of God, so His testimony was true—not blasphemy.
- The condemnation of Jesus by part of the Sanhedrin was illegal because those who might have voted against His condemnation were not there.
Notice what took place at Jesus’ trial before dawn, according to Mark’s account:
“‘You have heard the blasphemy! What do you think?’ And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death” (Mark 14:64).
It was unanimous by all those who had gathered for the meeting. There was no investigation, no examination to see if He did or did not blaspheme. They just used His testimony against Him without further investigation. They all did it immediately, instantaneously and simultaneously. It was a mob spirit that condemned Jesus.
Here is what Samuel Mendelsohn states of such a procedure: “A simultaneous and unanimous verdict of guilt rendered on the day of the trial has the effect of an acquittal” (p. 141). A footnote on this explains, “Contrary to reason as this rule may appear, it is founded on Rabbinic humanity and as a necessary consequence of Rabbinic law. We have just seen that, for very good reasons (n. 326), a verdict of guilty must not be rendered on the day of examination; but where all suddenly agree on conviction, does it not seem that the convict is a victim of conspiracy, and that the verdict is not the result of sober reason and calm deliberation?”
The verdict against Jesus was simultaneous and unanimous, although the law required at least one of the council to serve as a defense counsel, but no one did.
Furthermore, the high priest tore his clothes at the trial (Mark 14:63; Matthew 26:65).
The high priest was forbidden to tear his clothes: “He who is the high priest among his brethren, on whose head the anointing oil was poured and who is consecrated to wear the garments, shall not uncover his head nor tear his clothes” (Leviticus 21:10; 10:6).
It seems the high priest tore his outer garment to stir up emotion—to prejudice others. He should have remained calm so that no mistake in judgment would be made. But in Jesus’ trial these requirements were not followed.
Isaac Wise’s book Martyrdom of Jesus, explains the law on this point, “If none of the judges defend the culprit, i.e., all pronounce him guilty, having no defender in the court, the verdict of guilty was invalid and the sentence of death could not be executed” (pp. 74-75). So Jesus was condemned contrary to their law.
It is interesting to note which members of the Sanhedrin were apparently missing during the trial.
After Jesus was crucified, we read, “Now behold, there was a man named Joseph, a council member [of the Sanhedrin], a good and just man. He had not consented to their decision and deed” (Luke 23:50-51). Since the consensus to condemn Jesus was unanimous, Joseph must not have been included in this illegal meeting.
Neither is there a record that Nicodemus agreed with the decision. Remember, he said, “We know that You are a teacher come from God” (John 3:2).
It seems the opponents of Jesus wanted to make sure these two men were not there to defend Jesus.
- The sentence against Jesus was pronounced in a place forbidden by law.
Jesus was brought into the house of Caiaphas, the high priest. The trial of Jesus wasn’t even held in a court of law!
“Having arrested Him, they led Him and brought Him into the high priest’s house” (Luke 22:54).
According to Jewish law, “A sentence of death can be pronounced only so long as the Sanhedrin holds its sessions in the appointed place.” But the court building wasn’t legally to be opened until after sunrise.
Moreover, according to Jesus Before the Sanhedrim, the Talmud states, “After leaving the hall Gazith [the court] no sentence of death can be passed upon any one” (p. 24). A sentence of death could be passed only in a legal court, not in a private home, as occurred in Jesus’ case.
- Most Sanhedrin members themselves were legally disqualified to try Jesus.
Some of the judges were elected unfairly. From the Bible and from the Jewish historian Josephus, we have the names of most of the men who were on the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus.
Men such as Caiaphas, Eleazar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Matthias, Ismael, Simon, John, Alexander and Ananias were, according to Josephus, recipients of bribes and appointed by members of the family who themselves had no right to sit on the Sanhedrin. They bought their offices and were disrespected by their own people.
There were 12 ex-high priests living at this one time, and all were part of the Sanhedrin. The Bible expressly requires a man serving as high priest to remain in that office until his death, at which time another took his place. But under the Romans, high priests could be replaced year by year. The whole official arrangement was wrong.
But there was another reason almost all of Jesus’ judges were disqualified.
“Nor must there be on the judicial bench either a relation, or a particular friend, or an enemy of either the accused, or of the accuser,” writes Samuel Mendelsohn (Criminal Jurisprudence, p. 108).
Many of the judges were Jesus’ enemies! They even paid bribe money to have Him betrayed. ... Philip Berger Benny writes, “Nor under any circumstances was a man known to be at enmity with the accused person, permitted to occupy a position among his judges.”Many of the judges were Jesus’ enemies! They even paid bribe money to have Him betrayed. In The Criminal Code of the Jews, Philip Berger Benny writes, “Nor under any circumstances was a man known to be at enmity with the accused person, permitted to occupy a position among his judges” (1880, p. 37).
Everybody knew that the Sadducees and Pharisees hated Jesus. Yet they permitted themselves to try Him.
- They illegally switched the charges against Jesus from blasphemy to treason before Pilate.
They had to make this trial look legal, so as soon as it was day, they led Jesus into their council for a mock trial. They asked, “Are You then the Son of God?”
Jesus answered, “‘You rightly say that I am.’ And they said, ‘What further testimony do we need? For we have heard it ourselves from His own mouth.’ Then the whole multitude of them arose and led Him to Pilate” (Luke 22:70-71; 23:1).
Their trial, which had been illegally conducted in the private home of Caiaphas at night, was outwardly legalized. But instead of taking Jesus out to be stoned for blasphemy, they switched the charges after the court was dismissed!
They took Him to Pilate, and here is what we read in John’s account:
“Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium [hall of judgment], and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover. Pilate then went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this Man?’
“They answered and said to him, ‘If He were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up to you.’
“Then Pilate said to them, ‘You take Him and judge Him according to your law’” (John 18:28-31).
The enemies of Jesus replied, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”
Why wasn’t it lawful? Luke gives the surprising answer.
“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 23:2).
They changed the charges! Of course, Jesus actually taught that we should pay taxes: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21). Talk about a false accusation!
So, the Jewish leaders did not charge Jesus with blasphemy before Pilate. Had they done so, Pilate would have told them not to bother him, but to deal with Jesus according to their own law by stoning Him. But the religious leaders were afraid of their own people because Jesus was popular with the common people. So they trumped up new charges against Jesus when they took Him to Pilate. They charged Him with treason.
Pilate now had reason to be concerned. The only cases for which the Jewish authorities could not try a man involved sedition or treason. (See the sidebar “Clearing Up a Misconception: Who Could Carry Out the Death Penalty?”)
Pilate asked Jesus, “‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?’
“Pilate answered, ‘Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?’
“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here’” (John 18:33-36).
The Kingdom of God was not of that time, not of that world order. It will be established on earth at Christ’s return.
“Pilate therefore said to Him, ‘Are You a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’
“Pilate said to Him, ‘What is truth?’” (verses 37-38).
Jesus chose not to answer him.
“And when he had said this, he [Pilate] went out again to the Jews, and said to them, ‘I find no fault in Him at all’” (verse 38).
When Jesus’ accusers mentioned that Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate sent Him to Herod (Luke 23:7). But Jesus did not answer Herod’s questions or show him a miracle, so Herod and his men “treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate” (verse 11).
Then the opponents of Jesus stirred up the mob outside to frighten the Roman governor. Pilate began to see that there was trouble brewing. Now he had a mob on his hands. This was trial by mob rule! So, though neither he nor Herod found fault in Jesus, Pilate still took Jesus, scourged Him terribly and let the soldiers put a crown of thorns on Him.
Then Pilate brought Jesus out again and shouted to the mob: “Behold, I am bringing Him out to you, that you may know that I find no fault in Him” (John 19:4).
“When the chief priests and officers saw Him, they cried out, saying, ‘Crucify Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘You take Him and crucify Him, for I find no fault in Him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to our law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God’” (verses 6-7).
Here they changed the accusation yet again.
The crowd was getting very angry, and Pilate became frightened. He didn’t want to have anything happen for which he would be held responsible by the Roman authorities. So Pilate continued to seek to release Jesus (verse 12), for there were no witnesses whatever in this trial before Pilate. The mob had commenced accusing Jesus without proof, without witnesses, without testimony.
Then the mob cried out: “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend” (verse 12). Now they were threatening Pilate with loss of his office.
Matthew picks up the story: “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’” (Matthew 27:24). Pilate wasn’t innocent; he had his part in the injustice. He was just afraid of losing his job.
So Pilate had Jesus scourged and then “delivered Him to be crucified” (verse 26). But notice—Pilate did not even give a formal decision against Jesus Christ. He just turned Him over to the brutal soldiers to do what the mob wanted. Actually, Pilate stated on several occasions, “I find no fault [or crime] in Him.”
Even Pilate’s wife told her husband to “have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him” (Matthew 27:19).
And this is where the trial of Jesus abruptly broke off. There was no justice here at all! An innocent man was condemned by mob violence.
Then the dastardly act of crucifixion followed.
What a mockery of justice it all was! And, though He was completely innocent, Jesus endured all of this suffering to pay the penalty for my sins, your sins and the sins of the whole world.
Study more about the awesome significance of Jesus’ sacrifice in the article “The Greatest Sacrifice Ever.”
Sidebar: Clearing Up a Misconception: Who Could Carry Out the Death Penalty?
According to the common view, the right to try capital cases, that is, cases involving death penalties, rested with the Sanhedrin (the highest Jewish court of the day). But the actual penalty could not be inflicted until the Roman governor, in this case Pilate, had given his sanction.
But this view is not totally true. The Jewish authorities not only had the power to try certain crimes, they had the power to convict and execute in all cases except treason or sedition against Roman authority.
The assumption that Jesus’ opponents had no power to execute is incorrectly based on lifting John 18:31-32 out of context. John’s record shows the religious leaders had said, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” From this alone, it is easy to assume that the Jewish nation had no lawful right whatsoever to put anyone to death.
But this was not true. For proof, consider the following examples:
- How did Stephen die? His enemies said that he blasphemed, and they stoned him to death. The religious leaders stoned Stephen to death! And the Romans did not disapprove of their doing so (Acts 6:8-15).
- When Jesus first preached a sermon in Nazareth, His own people wanted to kill Him, but He managed to escape in the crowd (Luke 4:28-30). If it were illegal, they would not have tried to kill Him. The Romans would not have allowed it.
- On another occasion several of the Jewish leaders brought to Jesus a woman who was committing adultery. They said to Jesus, “Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” If they had no right to stone anyone to death, Jesus could have simply said, “You can’t do that. Don’t you know under what law you are living?” But Jesus accepted the fact that the right to execute adulteresses existed. He even told the guiltless to cast the first stone at her (John 8:3-11).
- The apostle Paul was stoned in Asia (Acts 14:19-20). Not only in Judea, but also in other areas of the Roman world, the Jewish leaders had the legal right to execute the penalty of their law.
Then why did the religious leaders make the statement they did in John 18:31-32?
The Roman governor made sure to know of all matters that had any relation to the public security or the majesty of the Roman Empire. Consequently, he would step in when a charge of treason was made. The charge against Jesus, treason, could only be tried by a tribunal of the governor.
Of course, the opponents of Jesus initially accused Him of blasphemy. But they did not want to execute Him themselves. So, the religious leaders had to create charges of treason against Jesus in order to present the case to Pilate. This way—they reasoned—they would not be responsible for His death. That’s why they changed the charges from blasphemy to treason.