Written by Philip Mauro (1859-1952).
CHRIST BEFORE THE SANHEDRIN
The Jewish law, divinely given in its marvellous completeness many centuries before the Roman Empire came into existence, was scrupulously careful in its safeguards against miscarriage of justice where human life was at stake. Particularly was their law rigorous in respect to the matter of evidence. It was an elementary rule of their law that “at the mouth of two or three witnesses” at the least, must every triable matter be determined and, of course, the more important the matter in issue, the more credible and concordant must be the testimony. And not only so, but, according to Jewish procedure, “it was the witnesses themselves who had to satisfy the court that there was a triable matter”. And most insistent was the law that the testimony of the witnesses must agree in all essential respects. To that end each witness in a capital case was put on oath in terms of the most solemn adjuration, which we quote: — “Forget not, O witness, that … in this trial for life, the blood of the accused and the blood of his seed to the end of time shall be imputed to thee . . . . Therefore was Adam created one man and alone, to teach thee that if any witness shall destroy one soul out of Israel, he is held by the Scripture to be as if he had destroyed the world.” Furthermore, before a criminal charge could be even formulated or a trial begin, there must first have been the testimony of at least two witnesses in complete agreement.
Now by the records of all four of the Gospels it plainly appears that in the trial before the Sanhedrin, there was not produced even the testimony requisite for formulating a charge, because of which the court was baffled in its efforts to compose a triable indictment. Many witnesses were examined in their attempt to formulate a triable charge; but none could be found whose testimony would serve their purpose. For although “the chief priests and elders and all the council (the Sanhedrin) sought false witness against Jesus to put Him to death” — that is, to supply evidence of an offence punishable by death – they ‘found none, yea, though many false witnesses came:’ and volunteered their testimony, “they found none” — that is, none who gave agreeing testimony as to the commission by Him of a capital offence (Matthew 26: 59, 60).
At last, however, two witnesses were found whose testimony agreed; but the charge as to which those witnesses were in agreement was trivial. They alleged merely that Christ had spoken against the temple, saying He was able to destroy it and to build it again in three days (Matthew 26: 60, 61). Our Lord disdained to answer this charge, which was clearly irrelevant; but the record of what He actually had said as to destroying and rebuilding the temple is given by John (2: 19), namely, that they would destroy “the temple of His body” (v. 21) and that He would raise it up in three days. Finally in their desperation they seized upon His own affirmation that He was the Christ, the Son of God, and, contrary to their own law, they made that the basis of the desired accusation; and they made it also a pretext for dispensing with the witnesses which the law required. For no man could be lawfully charged, much less convicted, on his own testimony alone. Nevertheless, the high priest said: “He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold now ye have heard His blasphemy. What think ye? They answered, HE IS GUILTY OF DEATH” (Matthew 26: 63-66). It was His death sentence. But the imposition of the sentence was palpably illegal; for the witnesses had not agreed as to the commission by Him of any capital offence, and therefore, according to Jewish law, a legal trial could not even begin. As says the authority quoted above: “When the witnesses hopelessly disagreed, Caiaphas took to questioning the accused, and, contrary to Hebrew law, he founded a charge upon the accused’s own answers — a charge importing death” And straightway, as Matthew’s account informs us, they spit in His face, buffeted Him, smote Him with the palms of their hands and mocked Him (26: 67, 68); and in the morning they bound Him and delivered Him to Pontius Pilate the Governor (27: 1,2).
A similar infraction of the Jewish law by the high priest himself occurred at a later time, when the apostle Paul was arraigned before the Sanhedrin. For at the very beginning of his trial and before he had even learnt the personality of the presiding official, the high priest, Ananias, after hearing only a single sentence from the apostles lips, commanded them that stood by him to smite him on the mouth (Acts 23: 1,2). Paul’s outburst was but an appropriate expression of honest indignation at such a gross infraction of the law. That God would maintain the honor of His law against such an offender was certain; and the characterization “whited wall” was both apt and just; for the assumption of judicial integrity by one who himself would so flagrantly outrage the law, was but a thin coat of whitewash.