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7th October 2001

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Scripture Reference

Matthew 26:57-68

If only the West could capture Osama Bin Laden and put him on trial for terrorist atrocities, it could save war breaking out in Afghanistan and possibly escalating into war between the Middle East and the West. If he were tried and convicted as a criminal, we would have faith once more in the justice system. We believe that in time of trouble, we get a fair hearing and justice from our court system. We believe that we have a fair system of justice on which we could depend if we, either by accident or by stupidity, found ourselves before judge and jury.

But what of those two Australians on trial in Afghanistan for preaching Christ? Do you think Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas will get a fair trial? The charge against them is punishable by death under Islamic law. The evidence against them is not very compelling. But do you think they will get a fair trial? What about the trials of Jesus? Were they just? Was justice done in His case before the Jews and the Romans? The issue of the court cases that condemned Jesus are extremely interesting. But in at least one quarter, there is an attempt to re-write the trials of Jesus. Rabbi Raymond Apple of Sydney's Great Synagogue published a response to an article by Brain Rayment on the trials of Jesus. Rabbi Apple says that Rayment reported "on the irregularities in the purported Jewish trial of Jesus but, unfairly, fails to ask how a duly constituted Sanhedrin could allow itself to ignore almost all of the normal rules of procedure governing capital cases in Jewish law." He asks: "How likely would it be that almost every possible irregularity would be perpetrated by one and the same court without apparent protest?" and sets out to argue his case.

Rabbi Apple first attacks the New Testament record: "Of major importance is its argument that the Gospel account cannot automatically be taken as reliable evidence." His attack is two fold: "On the one hand, the Gospels themselves are in disagreement concerning many aspects of Jesus' arrest and trial. On the other, the Gospel stories suffer from a steadily growing after-the-event tendency to rewrite and distort the record in order to present Pilate and the Romans in a favourable light and to maximise Jewish involvement and Jewish culpability." There you have it. Attack the credibility of the written evidence, and then shift blame. That process we call re-writing history, well know to Soviet historians and those anti-semitic people who try to deny the holocaust occurred. 

Rabbi Apple then appeals for expert help: "Haim Cohn, a former justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, has put forward the theory that any Jewish intervention was not to harm Jesus but to save him, to urge him to be more prudent and not endanger himself or his people as a whole. Jesus, however, declined to cooperate, and in anguish the high priest rent his clothes and the councillors sadly remarked that Jesus had sealed his own doom. According to this argument, there was no Jewish trial of Jesus, nor was it a regular court before whom he appeared but an emergency meeting of national leaders." So Rabbi Apple leaves the impression that it is unlikely that a Jewish court would act irregularly, that the Gospel records are unreliable, that "Jesus sealed his own doom", and concludes "there was no Jewish trial of Jesus" The Jewish leaders tried to save Jesus! This is an amazing attempt to re-write history, attempting to reallocate total responsibility for the trials and death of Jesus to the Romans. 

Robert Gordis of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, an eminent Jewish theologian writes: "No trial in the long and tragic annals of mankind has had more momentous consequences than that of an obscure Jewish religious leader who came into Jerusalem with a small band of followers and was arrested, convicted and executed over nineteen hundred years ago. To be sure, there have been other landmark cases in history, yet none has had a greater impact, for good and for ill, upon the lives of men, than the trial and death of Jesus of Nazareth." What did happen at the trials of Jesus? Were they a travesty of justice being held before dawn without proper procedures being followed? Why should a man who went about doing good, healing the sick and teaching God's way of love be on trial for his life?

1. There was a Political motive. When Jesus replied to the governor's question, "Are you the King of the Jews?" by saying, "It is as you say," He gave them grounds for execution. Justice Haim Cohn, that learned member of the Supreme Court of Israel whom Rabbi Apple quoted, in an article entitled "Reflections on the Trial of Jesus" says, "There can be no doubt that a confession such as this was sufficient in Roman law for conviction of the defendant." The offence was punishable with death and the governor had that power. Solomon Zeitlin writes that "the Roman authorities punished not only the individuals who incited the people against the Romans, but the leaders of the people as well. Many Jewish leaders had to act as informers against some of the dissenters and revolutionaries among their own in order to save their own lives." So the Sanhedrin would condemn Jesus to save themselves.

2. There was a Jewish motive. Dr. David Flusser of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem says any Jewish insurrectionist whose followers might break loose at any moment was a problem to both the Jewish and Roman authorities. Dr. Flusser writes: "Failure to bring the potential menace to the governor's attention while it could be checked might well prove costly to them in the long run and lead to reprisals. Moreover it would be a smart move. Should there be an outbreak of protest from the self-styled prophet's supporters, far better that the object of the popular hatred be the Roman governor rather than they. It was common sense to let Pilate give the death penalty." 

3. There was a Roman motive. From the point of view of Pilate, Dr Flusser writes, "Should Pilate refuse to follow the advice of the local leaders, who knew their tricky and incomprehensible fellow countrymen as no Roman, and should this individual prove a serious menace, well might he tremble at the thought of his own fate at the hands of the outraged Tiberius." The Emperor Tiberius gave instructions just a year earlier for Governors like Pilate to go easy on the Jews after some bad experiences.

4. There was an Economic motive. Jesus upset the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. They feared He might further upset commercialisation inside the Temple. Possibly a uprising against Temple practices by the thousands of Passover pilgrims who hailed Jesus as Messiah.

5. There was a Religious motive. Jesus had acquired a large following that caused personal embarrassment to the Jewish leaders. Many of their teachings were being questioned by those influenced by Jesus. 

Jesus Christ went through six distinct trials. One was before Annas, the high priest, another was before Caiaphas; the third one was before the Sanhedrin; the fourth one was before Pilate; the fifth one before Herod; and the sixth was back before Pilate. There were three Jewish trials and three Roman trials:

The Sanhedrin trial, as in the Gospels, was illegal. Since Rabbi Apple asserts the Jews were meticulous about judicial process, he concludes the New Testament accounts must be inaccurate. But he knows better than any that the destruction of Jerusalem, in A.D. 70, erased records for the very period in which we are interested. Further, the gospels all make this a preliminary hearing, for binding Jesus over to Pilate. In that case, full judicial procedure would have been thought unnecessary. Their real complaint against Jesus was not His claim to be the Messiah. This was no crime in Jewish eyes. Nor, apparently, had Jesus personally violated the Mosaic law, though He had proposed other interpretations of it and had befriended law-violators. He was regarded, however, as a sorcerer. Matt. 10:25 He had defied the priests by cleansing the temple. Mark 11:15-19 He refused to account to them for His actions. Mark 11:27-33 He made them appear ridiculous by His clever answer on the resurrection. Mark 12:18-27. John 11:47ff 

The Sanhedrin feared Jesus might cause a popular uprising, and bring retaliation from Rome. Finally, they found Jesus guilty of blasphemy. By Jewish custom one tore one's garments on hearing blasphemy. The high priest did so now. This, and not the Messianic claim, was the crime deserving of death under Mosaic law. Lev. 24:16

The council sought vainly for testimony regarding acts that Pilate might deem criminal. "The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death." Jesus remained silent. Finally, adjured in a manner that no Jew could refuse to answer: Matt.26:63 "Tell us, are you the Christ, the Son of God?" Jesus said, "Yes, it is as you say." That claim could be laid before Pilate. Matt 26:59 The charge nailed to the cross gives the result: Mark 15:26 "The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS." This charge and procedure leading to His execution is substantiated by Roman references and Josephus. Ant. 14.3.1 The Romans executed Jesus as a claimant to Jewish Kingship upon judgement given by the Jewish Courts. Josephus 18:3:3 also mentions the Jewish charges against Jesus. Jesus was not the only Christian executed by Jewish leaders at this time. Stephen also died shortly afterwards after scrupulous Jewish proceedings. Acts 7:57f

Pilate was a harsh man who had more than once so flouted Jewish sensibilities that bloodshed had ensued. During the Passover, Jewish patriotism was at fever pitch, and the governor would be especially on the alert to suppress any sign of rebellion. That is why Pilate was staying in Jerusalem. Of the "many things" of which Jesus was accused before Pilate, Mark 15:3 only three are named, Luke 23:2: (a) exciting the crowds, (b) forbidding the giving of tribute to Caesar, (c) claiming to be a king. In pressing this charge, the Jews vowed their loyalty to Caesar. John 19:12,15 Pilate was anxious to shift the decision to others. He sent Jesus to Herod Antipas Luke 23:6-13 who, after examination of Jesus, sent Him back to Pilate, claiming no authority there.

Pilate then seeks to release Jesus instead of Barabbas, but is overruled by the clamour of the mob. So Pilate washes his hands, and disowns responsibility. Matt. 27:24 So after three Jewish trials and three Roman trials, the Jewish authorities, in conjunction with the Roman authorities, delivered up Jesus to be crucified. Under neither Jews nor Romans was there even pretence of justice. Anyone else would have resented such injustice. But Jesus is serene in the face of injustice. At all times He is in control. Before the trial Jesus had said: "I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord" John 10.17f

In this situation Jesus saw the guiding hand of God. When Pilate sought to remind Him that His life was in his hands, Jesus reminded Pilate that he could have possessed no power at all, unless it had been given to him from God. Jn 19.10f Even amidst that heart-breaking injustice, it was still the conviction of Jesus that He was not the victim of men but the chosen instrument and Servant of God, who was to die upon the Cross as the penalty for our sin. 

Rabbi Apple claims the Gospel accounts can be discredited. I have indicated the authenticity and veracity of the accounts from first century documents, including Roman, Jewish and Christian sources. None of them say the death of Jesus was a sole Roman responsibility. No re-writing of history can remove the fact that Jesus Christ was crucified following unjust trials conducted by both Jewish and Roman authorities with the Romans carrying out the sentence. So Jesus died. He died for you and He died for me. He bore our sins in His body upon the Cross. That is why he died. Unjust trials were part of man's sin.
Rabbi Raymond Apple of Sydney's Great Synagogue "Journal", May 1993,
Brain Rayment, in The Weekend Australian Review 30-31 March 93
Solomon. Zeitlin "The Crucifixion of Jesus Re-Examined"(Jewish Quarterly Review Vol 31.
"The Resurrection Factor" Josh McDowell. Here's Life, Inc. 1981.
"The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible". 1962.

Rev Dr Gordon Moyes


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