The Legal and Medical Aspects of the Trial and Death of Christ Part 1

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Last Updated By Bill's Bible Basics :
February 16, 2017

In addition to reading and studying all of the information which is available in this section of the Bill's Bible Basics website regarding the Shroud of Turin, and the Sudarium of Oviedo, please also consider reading my article entitled "Faith and the Shroud of Turin" in order to gain a full perspective regarding this issue.

by Robert Bucklin, M.D. J.D.

Las Vegas, Nevada

Copyright 1970

I - Legal

In an approach to a topic of this type, one is immediately faced with a dearth of factual material with which to work. Very little, if any, data concerning the subject matter appears in secular writings, and it becomes obvious that the main and probably the only source of data is in the writings of the Evangelists. This poses a problem from the beginning, and if the facts as revealed by the Gospels are to be given credence it becomes necessary to make certain that these facts will fit into recognized rules of evidence as we understand them in the present day. The field of evidence is concerned with those rules of law which determine what testimony is to be accepted and what is to be rejected in a civil or criminal trial, as well as what weight is to be given to the testimony admitted. The rules upon which the admission of evidence is based must be governed by their adaptation to the development of the truth of the facts under consideration (60 A.L.R. 376; 66 A.L.R. 360). The usual rule is that questions of evidence are governed by the law of the forum, and this applies to all types of litigation as well as to the matter of the competency, admissibility, weight and sufficiency of the evidence and the degree of proof (89 A.L.R. 1278). In the realm of presumptions and burden of proof, the rules of evidence are determined by the lex loci (78 A.L.R. 889). In order to apply these propositions to the results of the trial of Christ, we must first examine the facts as they were presented, and the forum in which they were presented. In attempting to do this, the objective approach will be made, considering the qualifications and attitudes of the Evangelists upon whose descriptions we must rely in interpreting the incidents of the trial, as well as the makeup and functions of the legal bodies, both Hebrew and Roman, before whom the trial was conducted.

First of all, can we consider the factual descriptions of the Gospel writers to be accurate and unbiased? It is desirable, for the purposes of a legal approach at least, to divorce any concept of a Divine guide to the words of the Gospels, and to treat the Gospel reports as pure human efforts, even though there are satisfying grounds for a belief that there was an inspiring force behind them. Our knowledge of the lives of the Evangelists leads us to the consideration that they were honest men. Certainly they did not receive an earthly reward for their adherence to the truths which they preached, for they all were persecuted and treated shamefully. Their sincerity in attempting to report the facts would appear to be unquestionable. So also would their ability, as shown by the style of their writings, particularly the writings of Luke and John. Literacy must be assumed, since the Gospels were written either in Greek or Hebrew. One might logically assume that the backgrounds of the Evangelists would be helpful in their being able to reproduce in writing the events which they had observed. We know that Luke was a physician (Col. IV:14), and Matthew was a revenue collector (Matt.IX: 9), both of which occupations would tend to indicate more than minimal powers of observation as well as suggesting some degree of analytical ability. The dignity in which the writings are conducted seems to remove them from the realm of the fanatic, the biased or the prejudiced. The relationships of the Gospel writers to Christ is important in evaluating their truth, and it is well known that some of them, and John in particular, were very close to Christ and were actual eye witnesses of many of the facts about which they wrote. That the writings were made a number of years after the events took place should not detract from their accuracy, since in very many instances there is an amazing correlation of facts in accounts written far apart and with no chance of collaboration. Often, the Gospels interlock in their descriptions, so that it is necessary to read them together in order to get a full story, and in doing, the reader is not dismayed but rather is brought to a more complete appreciation of the accuracy of the accounts. This is shown even more clearly in the instances where the accounts of an event are presented in almost identical language in each of the Gospels. Taken together, then, it may be accurately stated that the accounts of the events of the trial and death of Christ as related by the Evangelists are correct since the competency of the authors cannot be seriously questioned, and the accounts therefore fulfill the requirements of admissible evidence of the facts which they portray. For information about the legal bodies in charge of administering justice at the time of Christ, we must look to Hebrew law as it is contained in the Talmud. The latter is a collection of many volumes which may be conveniently divided into the Mishna or oral law, and the Gemara or commentary. Much of the Hebrew law was, of course, handed down by word of mouth, and the Mishna became a sort of Code which was the basis of conduct for the Jewish people. The Great Sanhedrin or Grand Council, was the major Hebrew tribunal, and as a court it was convened in Jerusalem and consisted of seventy-one members. There is much doubt about the date of origin of the Sanhedrin, but it probably can be traced back to the time of Moses (Number X:16, 17). The name comes from the Greek synedrion, meaning "a sitting together," and the earliest undisputed mention of the council dates from the time of Antiochus the Great (223-187 B.C.). Most likely it developed from a council of nobles, ancients and chiefs who carried out the administration of laws. There were three chambers in the Sanhedrin, each composed of twenty-three persons, and representing priests, scribes and elders. These, plus two presiding officers, made up the court of seventy-one members. Members were appointed for life, and a quorum of twenty-three members was necessary in criminal cases. The court sat in a semicircle with two clerks before them to record votes. By the usual rules, a majority of one vote was needed for acquittal, but a majority of two votes was required for a conviction. One of the more unusual policies of the court was the legal fiction that a unanimous vote for conviction served to free the defendant, the concept being that such a situation proved the court to be incompetent. Requirements for membership in the Sanhedrin included the following: Hebrew descent, knowledge of the law including the Mosaic Code, previous judicial experience in lower courts, proficiency in scientific knowledge and languages. In addition to these qualifications the member must be modest, popular, of good appearance, pious, strong and courageous. There were a number of disqualifications and among them were lack of a previous trade or occupation by which the member had made his living, advanced years, gambling and money lending. No man who was concerned or interested in a matter under adjudication nor a relative of the accused could sit on the court, nor could any person who would be benefited by the death or condemnation of the accused. The king was not eligible to be a member of the Sanhedrin. The two court officers were the president and the vice-president.

Under the Hebrew law there were no advocates and the accused was not represented by an attorney. The witnesses were the only accusers and the suspect was considered innocent until accused.

The Sanhedrin sat in the Liscat Haggazith, a hall of polished stone which dated from the time of King Jannaeus. The ordinary days for holding court were Mondays and Thursdays and the court never sat on the Sabbath or on a feast day. The law was strict in holding that there be no trials during Passover, during the night or on the eve of the Sabbath. If it is remembered that there was poor artificial light at the best during those times, the reasons for not having a trial at night will be more obvious. In addition, tradition held that the examination of a criminal charge was like the diagnosing of a wound, and in both cases a more thorough and searching examination can be made in daylight. A capital case could not be tried in one sitting, but had to carry over to a second day in order to best accomplish the rules of justice. Also, a case could not be adjourned for more than one day, hence the reason for not allowing a trial to start on the eve of a Sabbath, since the trial could not be postponed, and no trial could be conducted on the Sabbath.

In addition to the policy of there being no defense attorney, there was also no prosecutor or States Attorney. The witnesses acted as informants and prosecutors alike. The Sanhedrin was not allowed, under rules of the Romans, to impose the death penalty, and all such penalties were required to be reviewed by the Roman Governor in Jerusalem.

At this point it might be well to briefly mention and comment upon the individuals and groups who took part in the trial and the crucifixion of Christ, and to try an place them in the proper perspective as far as the events which took place were concerned. There was, of course, the High Priest, Caiaphas, who served as presiding officer of the Sanhedrin during the trial of Christ. He was the son-in-law of Annas, also a High Priest and the political leader of Judea. Annas was in his eighties and had held power for over half a century. He was a Sadducee and he considered Christ a false prophet and was therefore ready to cooperate in the plot to arrest and try Christ. It was Annas who was in charge of those in the Temple who bargained and sold, and who were so drastically criticized by Christ, hence Annas resented Christ deeply. Caiaphas had held his position for eleven years and was entirely devoid of honor and decency. He was a close friend of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor and both these men hated Christ. Pilate, as Governor, had full jurisdiction over civil and criminal matters and was answerable only to the Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome. He had a violent record and was known to have executed hundreds of persons. He had great fear that the Jews might put him in the disfavor of the Emperor and try to remove him from office, so he cooperated with the Jews and at the same time acted as their Governor under orders from Rome. Pilate was a native of Spain. Actually the record shows that he declared Christ innocent no less than four times and tried to release Him, but finally gave in to the wishes of the crowd. Another party who played a role in the trial was Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee, who was the son of Herod the Great. He was noted for his cruelty and for his lack of conscience. His part in the trial was small, and it is to be noted that Christ showed His contempt for Herod Antipas by keeping silence while before him. The two political and religious groups involved in the action against Christ were the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The former were arrogant and aristocratic and were the wealthiest members of Jewish society. They controlled the government as well as the Sanhedrin, and they believed nothing that Christ was teaching. They were ordinarily not close to the Pharisees but joined with them in the plan to destroy Christ. The Pharisees were haughty and boasted of their knowledge of the law and tradition. They demanded very strict compliance with the laws of fasting and all other regulations and they found fault with Christ because He brushed aside many of their habits.

The details of procedure in Hebrew criminal law are outlined in the Mishna and it was necessary that the rules be adhered to rigidly for the trial to be valid. As has been indicated, the witnesses were the mainstay of the legal process and they served as judges and accusers. They had to agree in all details for their evidence to be admissible, and each witness was required to give a complete account of the entire series of events constituting the crime in question. It was not permissible for one witness to present one facet and another witness to supplement this with facts which took place before or after those previously described. Two witnesses who were in full agreement were required, and both must tell the complete account of the crime, or else the accused would be released. No oath was ever administered, either to the witnesses or to the accused, should he testify in his own behalf. The Jews relied on the precepts of the Ninth Commandment which forbade false testimony, and this took the place of the oath. In the examination of the witness, there was an arbitrary division into two parts, the first of which consisted of a series of questions related to the time and place of the offense, in the manner of a direct examination. This was followed by a more detailed series of questions designed to serve as both a direct and a cross-examination.

Hearsay evidence was not allowed, nor was pure circumstantial evidence. The accused was not required to testify in his own behalf, but could do so if he wished. He was not put under oath when he gave his evidence. It was the policy of the courts not to allow documentary evidence of any kind, since the Mishna was explicit in permitting oral testimony only. It is to be particularly noted that through the whole regime of Jewish law there runs a strong religious theme, and the judges were endowed with the concept that they were, in a way, acting under the direct influence of God. For that reason, caution in actions and sincere attempts to reach the truth of a situation were paramount in the functions of the courts. The innocence of the accused was presumed, and during the debate among the judges which followed the giving of testimony by the witnesses and preceded the balloting, the tendency was toward trying to find a reason for acquittal. Only after exhaustive debate on the merits of all the evidence presented did the judges cast their ballots in favor of or against the accused. As was mentioned before, it was necessary that there be a majority vote of at least two in order to convict. If this majority was not reached, the prisoner was immediately released and the trial was considered to be at an end. On the other hand, if the vote was for conviction, the court adjourned without passing sentence, and reconvened the following day. At that time, the evidence was again reviewed and another vote was taken. Those who had voted the day before for acquittal were not permitted to change their vote, but those who had voted to convict on the previous day were allowed, with valid reason, to change their vote in favor of acquittal. Here again, the scrupulosity and tendency to favor the accused is apparent, but once the vote was definitely for conviction, the court wasted no time in passing sentence and putting it into effect. There was no appeal as we know it, from that point on, and the very time that the judgment was passed became the moment of beginning of execution of the sentence.

One cannot help but be impressed at the thoughtfulness and attitude of fairness which permeates the Hebrew criminal code. But as this was applied to Christ during His trial, there is little resemblance to justice or fair play. The events leading up to the arrest, the arrest itself and the subsequent trial and punishment, as reported by the Evangelists, followed none of the rigid rules set out above.

In considering the numerous breaches, it is perhaps best to review them in chronological order, beginning with the arrest of Christ by the servants of the High Priest as He left the Garden of Gethsemane. It has been stated that the Hebrew code forbade any arrest or trial at night, yet it is clearly recorded that the arrest took place at night (Acts IV:3), probably sometime between midnight and three o'clock in the morning. The arrest was also illegal in that it was brought about through the medium of a traitor, Judas, who was hired by the Sanhedrin, the court which was to try Christ. Judas had broken the commandment of the old law in acting as he did (Leviticus XIX:17), and this was sufficient to add another factor of illegality to the arrest. The time and date of the trial was illegal, not only because it took place at night, but also because it took place on the eve of the Sabbath, thereby precluding any chance for the required adjournment to the next day in the event of a conviction. The date of the trial was on the fourteenth Nisan, which began at sunset of April 6, 30 A.D. and lasted until sunset Friday, April 7. The trial was conducted during the period of one day in addition to being held on a day when the court could not legally convene.

The Sanhedrin was without authority to instigate charges and was only supposed to investigate charges brought before it, yet in the case of Christ the court itself formulated the charges. Caiaphas, the High Priest presented the charge, and he was one of the judges (Matt. XXVI:6).

Perhaps one of the most striking errors in the procedure was the fact that the charges against Christ were changed during the trial. He was first accused of blasphemy on the basis of statements quoted by witnesses to the effect that He would be able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it within three days. These statements were made by witnesses coached by Caiaphas, while the actual words of Christ were: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John II:19). The reference to the "temple" was to His own body, not to the Jewish temple (John II:22) but the words were deliberately distorted. The blasphemy portion of the charge was brought out by Caiaphas when he asked, "Art thou the Christ, the son of God?," and when Christ answered, "Thou has said it," Caiaphas tore his garments in the traditional manner and declared that Christ had blasphemed. At the same time Caiaphas declared that there was no further need for more witnesses (Mark XIV:63). This was an illegal procedure since there had not been the required two witnesses who agreed on their stories. Later, in the appearance of Christ before the Roman Governor, Pilate, it was realized that the charge of blasphemy would not hold up, since such a charge was of no concern to the Romans. For that reason the charge was changed to treason and sedition and Pilate was told that Christ was undermining his authority before the Emperor.

Some question has been raised as to the actual site where the Sanhedrin met to conduct the trial. There is nothing which would indicate that the court met in its usual place, and, in fact, John implies that the proceedings took place at the palace of Caiaphas and from there Christ was taken directly to Pilate at the Praetorium (John XVIII:28).

It must be obvious that the members of the Sanhedrin were so prejudiced against Christ that they could not possibly judge Him fairly. This stems from both political and personal enmity against Him. Christ had upset the High Priests by His actions in clearing the money lenders and the salesmen from the Temple, and this served as a financial blow to those men who had built up a lucrative trade in selling of animals and birds for sacrificial purposes in the temple. This feeling was carried to other members of the court through the influence of Caiaphas, and certainly made the Sanhedrin a biased group. In addition to this, and probably much more important, is the fact that Christ had been prejudged by the court which tried Him. There are three separate references in the Gospels to events in which members of the Sanhedrin took part in a plan to entrap Christ. The first (John VII: 37-53) took place about six months before the arrest, when, at the Feast of the Tabernacles, Christ by his teachings and by the number of His converts caused much concern among the Pharisees. Similar consternation among the Pharisees took place at the resurrection of Lazarus (John XI: 41-53), and at that time the decision that Christ must die seems to have been made. The third event took place shortly before the Passover when the chief priests and scribes sought means whereby they could kill Christ (Luke XXII: 1-3; Matt XXVI: 3-5). Under these circumstances, it is impossible that there could have been an impartial trial. The one illegality in the proceedings which outshines all others is the fact that Christ was permitted no defense. It was strictly held under Jewish law that there be an exhaustive search into the facts presented by the witnesses in order to prove their accuracy. This was not done, because the witnesses were false and were hirelings of the Sanhedrin and their testimony would not stand investigation. If the procedure had been followed, even if there had been a prima facie case against Christ, the court would have been obliged to make a searching study of the evidence and undoubtedly would have taken judicial notice of the many facts about the life of Christ which had been brought forth in the prophesies and had been fulfilled. The birth of Christ as the Messiah had been predicted, and the birthplace and heredity had been prophesied, as well as the little to be expected statement that Christ would be born to a virgin. Even the matter of the betrayal for thirty pieces of silver by Judas was spelled out, and these matters were well known to the judges. That they chose to overlook them speaks strongly in favor of the total illegality of the trial.

The final item in the list of illegal procedures was the pronouncing of the death sentence by the Sanhedrin. This power was removed from them by the Romans, and while the Sanhedrin could try a special case and could enter a verdict of not guilty without interference by the Romans, the Sanhedrin was not allowed to convict and put the death sentence into effect (John XVIII: 31). This authority was reserved to the Romans who could either retry the accused or review the evidence before issuing its verdict. This policy resulted in there being actually two trials, the second of which was conducted in the presence of Pontius Pilate. Since the trial by the Jews was for a religious offense which was of no interest to the Romans and would probably not have even been reviewed by them, it became necessary to add another charge which would serve to bring the prisoner under the jurisdiction of the Roman court. The second trial, then, had to be a trial de novo, since the charge was entirely different. The charge was vague at best, but included three items specifically: perverting the nation, forbidding the giving of tribute to Caesar, and claiming to be a king (Luke XXIII: 2).

The relationship between the Romans and the Jews at that time requires some explanation. The Jews had become subject to Roman control from the year 63 B.C. when Pompey took over Palestine. Judea became a Roman province in A.D. 6 and was governed by procurators sent from Rome. There was a mixture of independence on the part of the Jewish nation, but for the most part, the Romans were in charge of the political scene. There was no treaty between the two, and there was no outline of duties and responsibilities, since the Romans preferred to permit whatever freedom seemed appropriate without jeopardizing the relationship between master and subject. As have been seen, the Sanhedrin was still allowed judicial power, subject only to the Roman veto, and this actually amounted to a high degree of independence, not only civil but also in criminal matters. It could dispose of most cases which did not involve a sentence of death (Acts IV: 5-23, V: 21-40). That the Procurator had the right to impose the death sentence is proven by the words of Pilate to Christ when he threatened Christ with death (John: XIX: 10). Pilate exercised unlimited jurisdiction in military matters and was not required to follow particular rules and forms of law. He was in the position of being able to apply the law of the forum, that is , Roman law, or the law of the community, Jewish law. Most authorities feel that he should have strictly followed the criminal procedure in vogue in a capital case tried in Rome instead of handling the case against Christ as he did. The procedure before the permanent tribunal was involved and complicated, and was designed to insure justice. Criminal charges against any person were brought by a private citizen with permission of the presiding magistrate. An initial hearing was held to determine which prosecutor might present the case, in the event that there was more than one. A private hearing was often held before the president of the court in order to get more definite information about the charge. If it was thereby determined that there was a prima facie case to take before the tribunal, an indictment was issued. This procedure is not unlike the Grand Jury investigation of our day. The indictment was presented to the tribunal and a date was set for the trial, usually from ten to thirty days from that time. During this period the accused was free to go and come as he pleased and was under no bond. On the day of the trial the accused was expected to appear and was only excused if he were absent from the city on public service, or if he was in another court on the same day or if he was ill. Cases could be tried in the absence of the defendant but had to be postponed if the prosecutor failed to appear. If all was in order, the trial began with the impaneling of the judges by means of selecting names from a number of prospective judges whose names were placed in an urn and drawn out one by one. In the presentation of the case against the defendant, the argument and reasoning of the counsel was brought out first and was followed by evidence which was used to support the contentions made. This is the reverse of the modern courtroom procedure. The evidence having been presented, the judges voted and a majority determined the verdict. The type of punishment which could be administered by the tribunal included a great variety of sentences which ranged from scourging to being hurled from a high place and from beheading or being cast into the sea in a bag containing a number of voracious animals. Of all the punishments, crucifixion was the one most widely used, but it was ordinarily limited to those found guilty of the vilest of crimes. The civil law of the Romans protected Roman citizens against this form of punishment.

There is no question that the usual trial before a tribunal as practiced in Rome was not accorded to Christ by Pilate. He was brought before the Roman only because the Sanhedrin was obliged to do so in order to put the death penalty into effect. This was done early in the morning, about sun up. The court of Pilate was held at the Antonia, a wing of his palace set up as a tribunal. There is no mention as to who was the accuser or prosecutor but it may be logically be assumed that Caiaphas played this role. When Pilate asked what Christ was accused of doing, the priests tried to avoid the answer and to persuade Pilate to merely accept their judgment and waive his rights to retry the case (John XVIII: 30). However, Pilate did not elect to do this but instead tried to refer the case back to the Sanhedrin for disposal. It was only then that the priests had to take a position and declare their reasons for seeking a trial before Pilate, and it was then that they accepted the jurisdiction of Pilate as far as the death penalty was concerned and gave this as their reason for bringing Christ before the tribunal (John XVIII: 31). Also at that point the Jews had to present a charge which would be of concern to Pilate and which would allow him to try the case. The charge of perverting the nation was very vague and was a form of sedition. More serious were the allegations that Christ had forbidden tribute to Caesar and that He had declared Himself king. The charge concerning the tribute was based upon Christ's advice to the Jews that they render to Caesar those things which are Caesar's, and to God the things which are God's (Matt, XXII: 21). It was another example of misinterpretation of words, and this was also true of the accusation that Christ claimed to be a king. Pilate decided to ignore the first two charges and proceeded to question Christ on the matter of His kingdom (John XVII: 34-38). The interrogation satisfied Pilate that Christ was not a king in the earthly manner and that He posed no threat to the Emperor. For that reason, Pilate then issued a verdict of not guilty and acquitted Him. This angered the Jews, and in spite of the verdict having been given and judgment rendered, they attempted to present new accusations and to reopen the trial. Pilate, breaking all procedural rules, and seeking to share the responsibility of the case with another, ordered that Christ be taken before Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch, at the Palace of the Maccabees in Jerusalem, only a short distance from the Antonia. The reaction of Herod to having Christ appear before him was favorable, although highly illegal as a judicial measure. He hoped to see a miracle performed (Luke XXIII: 8), but in this he was disappointed. He questioned Christ extensively, but received no answers but silence, in spite of the fact that the priests and scribes also stood by and made further accusations (Luke XXIII: 9-10). Herod tried mockery and carried this to an extreme by placing a gorgeous robe on Christ and returning Him to Pilate (Luke XXIII: 11). This must have upset Pilate, for he then strayed a bit further from the path of legality and justice and after declaring again that Christ was innocent, proceeded to punish Him by the scourge. The description by John of these proceedings is complete and reflects the mood and actions of Pilate (John XIX: 7-15). After offering Barabbas to the Jews and being refused, Pilate finally gave in to the wishes of the group and released Christ to them to be crucified. He had defied all the precepts of Roman law and had conducted a wholly illegal trial, and his final gesture in washing his hands before the multitude was only a theatrical act with no meaning, legal or otherwise. Thus ended the trials of Christ, first by the Jews and then by the Romans. The numerous illegalities of both are manifest and serve to justify the conclusion that these must have been the most infamous trials in history. Certainly the consequences of them have affected the world in the past and will undoubtedly continue to do so. The guilt of the parties, particularly the Jews, has been debated for centuries, and has been one reason for antipathy between religious groups and others who have felt that the guild of a small group of persons should be transferred to a nation and all its progeny. The movement of the Second Vatican Council to formally exonerate subsequent generations of Jews from responsibility for the murder of Christ seems to be a step in the right direction, but, more important, this action served to formally document a fact previously left unsaid.

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