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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial

By James Stalker


      Over the Kedron, up the slope to the city, through the gates, along the silent streets, the procession passed, with Jesus in the midst; midnight stragglers, perhaps, hurrying forward from point to point to ask what was ado, and peering towards the Prisoner's face, before they diverged again towards their own homes.[1] He was conducted to the residence of the high priest, where His trial ensued.

      Jesus had to undergo two trials--the one ecclesiastical, the other civil; the one before Caiaphas the high priest, the other before Pontius Pilate the governor.

      The reason of this was, that Judaea was at that time under Roman rule, forming a portion of the Roman province of Syria and administered by a Roman official, who resided in the splendid new seaport of Caesarea, fifty miles away from Jerusalem, but had also a palace in Jerusalem, which he occasionally visited.

      It was not the policy of Rome to strip the countries of which she became mistress of all power. She flattered them by leaving in their hands at least the insignia of self-government, and she conceded to them as much home rule as was compatible with the retention of her paramount authority. She was specially tolerant in matters of religion. Thus the ancient ecclesiastical tribunal of the Jews, the Sanhedrim, was still allowed to try all religious questions and punish offenders. Only, if the sentence chanced to be a capital one, the case had to be re-tried by the governor, and the carrying out of the sentence, if it was confirmed, devolved upon him.

      It was at the instance of the ecclesiastical authorities that Jesus was arrested, and they condemned Him to death; but they were not at liberty to carry out their sentence: they had to take Him before Pilate, who chanced at the time to be in the city, and he tried the case over again, they of course being the accusers at his bar.

      Not only were there two trials, but in each trial there were three separate stages or acts. In the first, or ecclesiastical trial, Jesus had first to appear before Annas, then before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrim during the night, and again before the same body after daybreak. And in the second, or civil trial, He appeared first before Pilate, who refused to confirm the judgment of the Jews; then Pilate attempted to rid himself of the case by sending the Culprit to Herod of Galilee, who happened also to be at the time in Jerusalem; but the case came back to the Roman governor again, and, against his conscience, he confirmed the capital sentence.

      But let me explain more fully what were the three acts in the ecclesiastical trial.[2]

      Jesus, we are informed by St. John, was taken first to Annas. This was an old man of seventy years, who had been high priest twenty years before. As many as five of his sons succeeded him in this office, which at that period was not a life appointment, but was generally held only for a short time; and the reigning high priest at this time, Caiaphas, was his son-in-law. Annas was a man of very great consequence, the virtual head of ecclesiastical affairs, though Caiaphas was the nominal head. He had come originally from Alexandria in Egypt on the invitation of Herod the Great. He and his family were an able, ambitious and arrogant race. As their numbers multiplied, they became a sort of ruling caste, pushing themselves into all important offices. They were Sadducees, and were perfect types of that party--cold, haughty, worldly. They were intensely unpopular in the country; but they were feared as much as they were disliked. Greedy of gain, they ground the people with heavy ritual imposts. It is said that the traffic within the courts of the temple, which Jesus condemned so sternly a few days before, was carried on not only with their connivance but for their enrichment. If this was the case, the conduct of Jesus on that occasion may have profoundly incensed the high-priestly caste against Him.

      Indeed, it was probably the depth of his hatred which made Annas wish to see Jesus in the hands of justice. The wary Sadducee had in all likelihood taken a leading part in the transaction with Judas and in the sending out of the troops for Christ's apprehension. He, therefore, waited out of bed to see what the upshot was to be; and those who took Jesus brought Him to Annas first. But whatever interrogation Annas may have subjected Him to was entirely informal.[3]

      It allowed time, however, to get together the Sanhedrim. Messengers were dispatched to scour the city for the members at the midnight hour, because the case was urgent and could not brook delay. None knew what might happen if the multitude, when it awoke in the morning, found the popular Teacher in the hands of His unpopular enemies. But, if the trial were all over before daybreak and Jesus already in the strong hands of the Romans before the multitude had learnt that anything was going on, there would be nothing to fear. So the Sanhedrim was assembled under cloud of night; and the proceedings went forward in the small hours of the morning in the house of Caiaphas, to which Jesus had been removed.

      This was not strictly legal, however, because the letter of the law did not allow this court to meet by night. On this account, although the proceedings were complete and the sentence agreed upon during the night, it was considered necessary to hold another sitting at daybreak. This was the third stage of the trial; but it was merely a brief rehearsal, for form's sake, of what had been already done.[4] Therefore, we must return to the proceedings during the night, which contain the kernel of the matter.

      Imagine, then, a large room forming one side of the court of an Oriental house, from which it is separated only by a row of pillars, so that what is going on in the lighted interior is visible to those outside. The room is semicircular. Round the arc of the semicircle the half-hundred or more[5] members sit on a divan. Caiaphas, the president, occupies a kind of throne in the centre of the opposite wall. In front stands the Accused, facing him, with the jailers on the one side and the witnesses on the other.

      How ought any trial to commence? Surely with a clear statement of the crime alleged and with the production of witnesses to support the charge. But, instead of beginning in this way, "the high priest asked Jesus of His disciples and of His doctrine."

      The insinuation was that He was multiplying disciples for some secret design and teaching them a secret doctrine, which might be construed into a project of revolution. Jesus, still throbbing with the indignity of being arrested under cloud of night, as if He were anxious to escape, and by a force so large as to suggest that He was the head of a revolutionary band, replied, with lofty self-consciousness, "Why askest thou Me? Ask them that heard Me what I have said unto them; behold, they know what I said." Why had they arrested Him if they had yet to learn what He had said and done? They were trying to make Him out to be an underground schemer; but they, with their arrests in secrecy and their midnight trials, were themselves the sons of darkness.

      Such simple and courageous speech was alien to that place, which knew only the whining of suppliants, the smooth flatteries of sycophants, and the diplomatic phrases of advocates; and a jailer, perhaps seeing the indignant blush mount into the face of the high priest, clenched his fist and struck Jesus on the mouth, asking, "Answerest Thou the high priest so?" Poor hireling! better for him that his hand had withered ere it struck that blow. Almost the same thing once happened to St. Paul in the same place, and he could not help hurling back a stinging epithet of contempt and indignation. Jesus was betrayed into no such loss of temper. But what shall be said of a tribunal, and an ecclesiastical tribunal, which could allow an untried Prisoner to be thus abused in open court by one of its minions?

      The high priest had, however, been stopped on the tack which he had first tried, and was compelled to do what he ought to have begun with--to call witnesses. But this, too, turned out a pitiful failure. They had not had time to get a charge properly made out and witnesses cited; and there was no time to wait. Evidence had to be extemporized; and it was swept up apparently from the underlings and hangers on of the court. It is expressly said by St. Matthew that "they sought false witness against Jesus to put Him to death." To put Him to death was what in their hearts they were resolved upon,--they were only trying to trump up a legal pretext, and they were not scrupulous. The attempt was, however, far from successful. The witnesses could not be got to agree together or to tell a consistent story. Many were tried, but the fiasco grew more and more ridiculous.

      At length two were got to agree about something they had heard from Him, out of which, it was hoped, a charge could be constructed. They had heard Him say, "I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands." It was a sentence of His early ministry, obviously of high poetic meaning, which they were reproducing as the vulgarest prose; although, even thus interpreted, it is difficult to see what they could have made of it; because, if the first half of it meant that He was to destroy the temple, the second promised to restore it again. The high priest saw too well that they were making nothing of it; and, starting up and springing forward, he demanded of Jesus, "Answerest Thou nothing? What is it which these witness against Thee?" He affected to believe that it was something of enormity that had been alleged; but it was really because he knew that nothing could be founded on it that he gave way to such unseemly excitement.

      Jesus had looked on in absolute silence while the witnesses against Him were annihilating one another; nor did He now answer a word in response to the high priest's interruption. He did not need to speak: silence spoke better than the loudest words could have done. It brought home to His judges the ridiculousness and the shamefulness of their position. Even their hardened consciences began to be uneasy, as that calm Face looked down on them and their procedure with silent dignity. It was by the uneasiness which he was feeling that the high priest was made so loud and shrill.

      In short, he had been beaten along this second line quite as completely as he had been along the first. But he had still a last card, and now he played it. Returning to his throne and confronting Jesus with theatrical solemnity, he said, "I adjure Thee by the living God that Thou tell us whether Thou be the Christ, the Son of God." That is to say, he put Him on oath to tell what He claimed to be; for among the Jews the oath was pronounced by the judge, not by the prisoner.

      This was one of the great moments in the life of Christ. Apparently He recognised the right of the high priest to put Him on oath; or at least He saw that silence now might be construed into the withdrawal of His claims. He knew, indeed, that the question was put merely for the purpose of incriminating Him, and that to answer it meant death to Himself. But He who had silenced those by whom the title of Messiah had been thrust upon Him, when they wished to make Him a king, now claimed the title when it was the signal for condemnation. Decidedly and solemnly He answered, "Yes, I am"; and, as if the crisis had caused within Him a great access of self-consciousness, He proceeded, "Hereafter shall ye see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven." [6] For the moment they were His judges, but one day He would be their Judge; it was only of His earthly life that they could dispose, but He would have to dispose of their eternal destiny.

      It has often been said that Christians have claimed for Christ what He never claimed for Himself; that He never claimed to be any more than a man, but they have made Him a God. But this great statement, made upon oath, must impress every honest mind. Every effort has, indeed, been made to deplete its terms of their importance and to reduce them to the lowest possible value. It is argued, for example, that, when the high priest asked if He were "the Son of God," he meant no more than when he asked if He were "the Christ." But what is to be said of Christ's description of Himself as "sitting on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven"? Can He who is to be the Judge of men, searching their hearts to the bottom, estimating the value of their performances, and, in accordance with these estimates, fixing their eternal station and degree, be a mere man? The greatest and the wisest of men are well aware that in the history of every brother man, and even in the heart of a little child, there are secrets and mysteries which they cannot fathom. No mere man can accurately measure the character of a fellow-creature; he cannot even estimate his own.

      How this great confession lifts the whole scene! We see no longer these small men and their sordid proceedings; but the Son of man bearing witness to Himself in the audience of the universe. How little we care now what the Jewish judges will say about Him! This great confession reverberates down the ages, and the heart of the world, as it hears it from His lips, says, Amen.

      The high priest had achieved his end at last. As a high priest was expected to do when he heard blasphemy, he rent his clothes, and, turning to his colleagues, he said, "What need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard His blasphemy." And they all assented that Jesus was guilty, and that the sentence must be death.

      Sometimes good-hearted Bible-readers, in perusing these scenes, are troubled with the thought that the judges of Jesus were conscientious. Was it not their duty, when anyone came forward with Messianic pretensions, to judge whether or not his claim was just? and did they not honestly believe that Jesus was not what He professed to be? No doubt they did honestly believe so. We must ascend to a much earlier period to be able to judge their conduct accurately. It was when the claims of Jesus were first submitted to them that they went astray. He, being such as He was, could only have been welcomed and appreciated by expectant, receptive, holy minds. The ecclesiastical authorities of Judaea in that age were anything but expectant, receptive and holy. They were totally incapable of understanding Him, and saw no beauty that they should desire Him. As He often told them Himself, being such as they were, they could not believe. The fault lay not so much in what they did as in what they were. Being in the wrong path, they went forward to the end. It may be said that they walked according to their light; but the light that was in them was darkness. Their proceedings, however, on this occasion will not tend to soften the heart of anyone who looks into them carefully. They had hardly the least show of justice. There was no regular charge or regular evidence, and no thought whatever of allowing the Accused to bring counter-evidence; the same persons were both accusers and judges; the sentence was a foregone conclusion; and the entire proceedings consisted of a series of devices to force the Accused into some statement which would supply a colourable pretext for condemning Him.[7]

      But it was by what ensued after the sentence of condemnation was passed that these men cut themselves off forever from the sympathy of the tolerant and generous. A court of law ought to be a place of dignity; when a great issue is tried and a solemn judgment passed, it ought to impress the judges themselves; even the condemned, when a death sentence has been passed, ought to be hedged round with a certain awe and respect. But that blow inflicted with impunity at the commencement of the trial by a minion of the court was too clear an index of the state of mind of all present. There was no solemnity or greatness of any kind in their thoughts; nothing but resentment and spite at Him who had thwarted and defied them, lessened them in the public estimation and stopped their unholy gains. A perfect sea of such feelings had long been gathering in their hearts; and now, when the opportunity came, it broke loose upon Him. They struck Him with their sticks; they spat in His face; they drew something over His head and, smiting Him again, cried, "Christ, prophesy who smote Thee." [8] One would wish to believe that it was only by the miserable underlings that such things were done; but the narrative makes it too clear that the masters led the way and the servants followed.

      There are terrible things in man. There are some depths in human nature into which it is scarcely safe to look. It was by the very perfection of Christ that the uttermost evil of His enemies was brought out. There is a passage in "Paradise Lost," where a band of angels, sent out to scour Paradise in search of Satan, who is hidden in the garden, discover him in the shape of a toad "squat at the ear of Eve." Ithuriel, one of the band, touches him with his spear, whereat, surprised, he starts up in his own shape,--

      "for no falsehood can endure Touch of celestial temper, but returns Of force to its own likeness."

      But the touch of perfect goodness has often the opposite effect: it transforms the angel into the toad, which is evil's own likeness.

      Christ was now getting into close grips with the enemy He had come to this world to overcome; and, as it clutched Him for the final wrestle, it exhibited all its ugliness and discharged all its venom.[9] The claw of the dragon was in His flesh, and its foul breath in His mouth. We cannot conceive what such insult and dishonour must have been to His sensitive and regal mind. But He rallied His heart to endure and not to faint; for He had come to be the death of sin, and its death was to be the salvation of the world.

      [1] Here would come in the curious little notice in St. Mark: "And there followed Him a certain young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body; and the young men laid hold on him; and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked"; on which I have not commented, not well knowing, in truth, what to make of it. It may be designed to show the rudeness of the soldiery, and the peril in which any follower of Jesus would have been had he been caught. Some have supposed that the young man was St. Mark, and that this is the painter's signature in an obscure corner of his picture. (See Holzmann in Handcommentar zum Neuen Testament.) In the first volume of the Expositor there is a paper on the subject by Dr. Cox, but it does not throw much light on it.

      [2] On the Sanhedrim and the high priests see Schuerer, The Jewish People in the Time of Christ, div. ii., vol. i.

      [3] This, many think, is what is given in St. John.

      [4] Many think that this is what is given in St. Luke.

      [5] The full number was seventy-one, including the president.

      [6] See Psalm cx. 1, and Dan. vii. 13.

      [7] Even Jost, the Jewish historian, calls it a murder; but he does not believe that there was an actual trial; and in this Edersheim agrees with him.

      [8] In allusion to His claim to be the Messianic Prophet. The Roman soldiers, on the other hand, ridiculed His claim to be a King.

      [9] "The central figure is the holiest Person in history, but round Him stand or strive the most opposed and contrasted moral types. . . . The men who touch Him in this supreme hour of His history do so only to have their essential character disclosed."--FAIRBAIRN.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Preface
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial

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