After examining the actual composition of the Sanhedrin at the time of Our Lord it is now time to look at the legal strictures by which any member of that assembly was bound. For if it is true that certain members of the Sanhedrin may have had evil dispositions towards Jesus, nonetheless what is more significant is whether that had any effect on the actual trial of Our Lord or not. To see that we need to examine the legal procedures for a criminal trial among the Jews.
Of course, it is important to remember that the Jews were not only bound by the natural law. The Pentateuch was the basis of their law and it was, moreover, revealed by God. But it only governed a very small number of matters in any detail. The majority of jurisprudence was passed on by tradition. This tradition has been preserved for the past eighteen hundred years by the Mishna (the Hebrew form of ‘deuteronomy’ or ‘second law’), written at the end of the 2nd century by the Rabbi Juda. This vast work contains 63 treatises on all aspects of the Jewish law and there is even one particularly dedicated to governing the procedures of the Sanhedrin. Of course, we can be sure that not everything in the Mishna is original but, curiously enough, if it reports a practice that was clearly violated at the trial of our Lord we can know for certain that it is authentic. The reason for this is that, wherever possible, over the centuries, the rabbis have in fact changed various things to extenuate their guilt in condemning Jesus. Therefore, if they were unable to change something it is obviously because it was so consecrated by time and usage that they would never have got away with it.
Considering the time of trial, it was forbidden (and indeed invalid) to hold a trial on a feast day or on the day before a feast day (the vigil). Likewise it was forbidden to judge a capital case at night. In fact all cases had to be judged between the morning and the evening sacrifices. Furthermore a capital sentence had to be pronounced on the second day, i.e. with a night in between since the Jews reckoned their days as starting from the evening (of our previous day). Now regarding the time of our Lord’s trial we can see that it was the first day of the unleavened bread, i.e. the 14th of Nisan (March) which was the vigil of a big feast, the trial was held between the evening and the morning sacrifice, precisely the time when it was not allowed since capital offences were not allowed to be judged at night and by Jewish reckoning the sentence was passed on the same day that the trial began. Already three irregularities.
We see from Scripture that the prosecutor was Caiphas who, as High Priest, was not only judge as well but also the president of the assembly. Deuteronomy 19,16 is very clear that the same person cannot be judge as well as the accuser. In fact, Caiphas goes even further in his irregularities since he first asks Jesus concerning his doctrine, presumably to try and catch him out in anything he should say. In fact what should happen first is the witnesses should be produced to make the charge against the accused clear. There had to be at least two or three witnesses. Each had to give evidence separately in the presence of the accused (cf. the trial of Susannah by Daniel). This was to avoid conflicting testimony which made the accusation invalid and the perjurers were to suffer the punishment due to the accused.
Our Lord’s response to this irregularity is very discreetly to draw Caiphas’ attention to the fact that His teaching has been public and if this is a trial then the accusations should come from elsewhere, not from the accused himself. For this he is slapped by one of the servants standing by. This is a further irregularity since the law protected the accused until he was proven guilty.
Anyway, Caiphas understands what our Lord means by His remarks and calls for the witnesses. The Gospel accounts in fact give the impression that witnesses are sought with some desperation despite the law requiring witnesses to be very carefully chosen and sworn-in that they tell only the truth. The two, called the last witnesses in St. Mark and St. Matthew, bring the accusation that our Lord wanted to destroy the temple – a capital charge as we can see from the prophet Jeremiah who had prophecied the destruction of the temple and only narrowly escaped being stoned to death. But even here their testimony is found to be contradictory. They misrepresent the words of our Lord and impute to them a sense He never intended. Moreover, since the accusations, while both serious, nonetheless are not the same, neither is valid according to Jewish law.
Caiphas continues to try and provoke our Lord to a response but His reply mirrors Psalm 37, 13-15: “And they that sought my soul used violence. And they that sought evils to me spoke vain things, and studied deceits all the day long. But I, as a deaf man, heard not: and as a dumb man not opening his mouth”.
In the case of Pilate later in His Passion, our Lord’s silence urges the judge to look for a means of setting him free. As we shall see next time it only serves to increase the fury of Caiphas