Could You Explain Jesus' Trial to a Skeptic? 5 Questions To Answer

    There are skeptics who think the "courtroom scene" as told in the gospels is complete fiction. They say the gospels portray an illegal, nonsensical trial. Fortunately, archaeology and history do not agree.


    Critics point out 5 main areas of Jesus' trial that seem to imply error. Here they are in question form. The answers can be found below. How many can you answer before reading the blogpost?

    1. If the people involved in the story do not exist or have the wrong titles, how can you believe the rest of the events?
    2. Why are  two high priests named? Only one high priest was legal under Roman and Mosaic Law.
    3. How could the disciples or Jews know what was happening inside the Sanhedrin or Pilate's house? The setting of the trial and investigation is incomprehensible.
    4. Wasn't the trial conducted illegally by Roman law?
    5. Why would Pilate care about the life of Jesus? He killed Jews without pity.


    First, let's note that all the main characters of the investigation and trial have been identified and verified by historical and archaeological sources. These are referred to as extra-biblical sources. The places– high priest houses, Pilate's residence as the praetorium (Herod's old palace), and the Sanhedrin– have also been identified by archaeology and agreed upon by the majority of scholars as existing at the time of Jesus.


    Luke 3:1-2 lists the leaders serving during Jesus' lifetime. Verse 2 says, "...during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas." But there could be only one high priest according to Numbers 35. He served until he died or could no longer carry out his duties. We might assume Annas died or he became too aged to serve, but in John 18:12 the soldiers delivered Jesus to him.


    When Jesus was first arrested it was dark since the soldiers carried torches and lanterns. He was taken to Annas who was Caiaphas' father-in-law. Perhaps Annas was to hear Jesus' testimony in order to advise procedure. But Jesus remained silent. It could be that Annas and Caiaphas lived in the same house. Whatever the case, Annas sent Jesus to Caiaphas. Caiaphas was waiting for Him (John 18:24and Matthew 26:57) Matthew describes Caiaphas' house as a palace. (Matthew 26:3)


    Archaeologists discovered three high priest houses dating to the first century. One known to belong to the Katros family was definitely a mansion. Scholars wonder if the high priests' house was like the governor's house. When the person was in office, they lived there. When they were not, they had to move out.


    After the Romans took over Judea, they appointed the high priest they favored politically. They did not honor the Numbers 35 law.  Josephus, an early historian, wrote that Annas lost Roman support. In his place, Valerius Gratus appointed Caiaphas.


    But Caiaphas too fell out of favor and lost his position. "...but Vitellius put those garments into our own power, as in the days of our forefathers, and ordered the captain of the guard not to trouble himself to inquire where they were laid, or when they were to be used; and this he did as an act of kindness, to oblige the nation to him. Besides which, he also deprived Joseph, who was also called Caiaphas, of the high priesthood, and appointed Jonathan the son of Ananus, the former high priest, to succeed him. After which, he took his journey back to Antioch." (The Antiquities of the Jews, 18.95 Flavius Josephus  translated by William Whiston.) Archaeologists have discovered Annas' tomb and Caiaphas' ossuary.


    Caiaphas' palace had a generous courtyard with entry gates. Jesus was taken there and questioned during the night by some members of the Sanhedrin. John was present. John knew one of the priests well enough to ask that Peter be admitted inside the courtyard. In the early morning, Jesus was interrogated again, this time Luke says before the Sanhedrin, meaning all members. In 30AD this could have taken place on the south side of the Temple Mount according to archaeology. You can see portions of the columns there today. But the Bible seems to indicate Caiaphas' house say scholars, which, shows the rush to sentence Jesus. 


    Caiaphas was frustrated. Jesus had been arrested, exactly what most of the Sanhedrin wanted. (Matthew 26:3-4) But finding Him guilty of a crime the Romans would execute Him for was not so easy. Several witnesses tried. None succeeded. Jesus remained silent before His accusers, and the members of the Sanhedrin shot down every flimsy argument against Him.


    Finally Caiaphas demanded Jesus answer one question. "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." (Matthew 26:63-64) Jesus' answer made Caiaphas tear his robe, but he got the answer he thought he needed. "Jesus said to him, 'You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.' " 


    So, early in the morning, the Sanhedrin agreed to the charge of blasphemy. Luke, however, wrote that Joseph of Arimathaea did not give his consent. (Luke 23: 50-52) The punishment for blasphemy was death. Jesus was then taken to Pontius Pilate. Pilate is also mentioned by early historians. His name is inscribed in a stone tablet in a dedication to Tiberius, and a seal ring with his name on it was discovered recently.


    History has alot to say about Pilate. According to early historians, he was a brutal, violent killer. Philo said he executed men without a trial and had gotten in trouble with his superiors for this behavior. Pilate feared being punished.  "But this last sentence exasperated him in the greatest possible degree, as he feared least they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity." (Legatio ad Gaium 301-302)


    Philo shows us why Caiaphas must have thought Pilate was the perfect man to carry out his plans to execute Jesus. But it wasn't as easy as Caiaphas thought. Jesus was taken to Pilate's residence, the praetorium in Jerusalem. It was on the site of Herod's old palace. At the time of Jesus, there were gates, a large courtyard and a raised stone pavement with a judgment seat. All this was visible and within hearing distance to those outside the gates at the time.


    Good thing because Caiaphas and his fellow priests and elders would not enter. They did not want to defile themselves before the Passover Feast. Pilate came out to them. It was still early morning. Pilate heard what Caiaphas and the others had to say. "We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king." (Luke 23:2)


     Pilate told them to judge Jesus by their own law. He meant Moses' Law. They said they could not kill Jesus which was not entirely true. They could stone Him (as they did Stephen), but that was not the method they wanted. They wanted Jesus cursed by crucifixion.


    Pilate took Jesus inside the gates to question Him. The first question he asked was, "Are You the King of the Jews?" Jesus told him that His kingdom was not of this world. The following question and answer was critical in the investigation and was witnessed by others. Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. I was born for this, and I came into the world for this: to testify to the truth." (John 18:37 )  


    As he talked to Jesus, something happened: Pilate began to act not like Pilate. In the meantime, Pilate's wife sent him a message not to kill Jesus because she had a dream. Pilate knew the religious leaders' motive was jealousy, and for whatever reason he balked at the idea of killing Jesus even if He was the King of the Jews. When he discovered Jesus was from Galilee, he jumped at the chance to pass the whole case on to Herod Antipas, who ruled Galilee and was visiting Jerusalem. Jesus was taken to Herod with a company of priests and elders.


    But Herod sent Jesus back because He didn't find any reason to have Him executed. Pilate was quick to point this out to Caiaphas. In fact, all the gospels say Pilate consistently stated he found no fault in Jesus. He attempted to please the Jews by having Jesus severely beaten. No go. And the priests finally got around to the real charge– blasphemy.  


    Pilate was desperate. He was also amazed Jesus wouldn't defend Himself. Imagine the men Pilate witnessed pleading for their lives. Jesus faced horrific torture with silence. After finishing his investigation required by Roman law, Pilate reminded Jesus, "Do You not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to crucify You, and I have authority to release You?" (John 19:10)


    Jesus' answer unnerved Pilate. "You would have no authority against Me, not any, if it were not given to you from above. Because of this, the one delivering Me to you has a greater sin." (Emphasis added). Most Romans were not "Christians" at the time, but they were not atheists either.


    Pilate was determined to release Him. Caiaphas sensed defeat. He threatened Pilate by insinuating his disloyalty to Rome. "If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar." This was a serious charge under Roman law.


    Pilate didn't want any more trouble with the emperor. He could be killed himself. The frenzy of the crowd just outside his gates was growing. He tried again. But the crowd would not have Jesus released. "So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.' " (Matthew 27:24) All this happened outside in the public area of the judgment seat (bēma) and raised stone pavement (gabbatha) of the praetorium. (John 19:13) It was nearing nine in the morning..


    You probably know the story from there. But that is the account of the courtroom scene.  


    Progressing at the rate of a glacier, the Durham investigation has finally released its report. The investigation and trial of Jesus, however, was not mired in molasses. Within one day there was an investigation, a trial, a sentence and an execution.


    Points to consider–


    The "evidence" for the Jewish arrest was blasphemy. The "evidence" for the Roman death was kingship. Joseph of Arimathaea was member of the Sanhedrin and a follower of Jesus. Nicodemus was a priest who favored Jesus. (John 19:38-39) Either of these men could have provided gospel writers with missing information about the trial.


    The skeptics who don't understand the history or the archaeology giving insight to the account are distracted by a mirage of error. They miss the real issues.

    • Like the group of religious traditionalists focused on not defiling themselves so they could participate in a feast pointing to the Messiah at the same time they were delivering Him to be crucified. They were intent on forming their own ideas about God, instead of listening to what He said.
    • Like the brutal killer attempting to free Jesus until he learned it may cost him.
    • Like the scattered, stunned disciples trying to make sense of what they were witnessing.
    • Like Jesus' love, period.



    And then came resurrection day.


    A whole new set of problems for some, and a hallelujah wonder for others. If you'd like to read more, check out our book Is Jesus God? The ebook is on sale now.  

    Image by Matt Reiter courtesy of Unsplash


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