Jewish and Roman
Systems of Law
There have been a number of legal trials which have roused intense public interest, not only at the time, but throughout subsequent history; e.g., Galileo, Joan of Arc, Charles 1 and Mary Queen of Scots, and recently that of Dr. Harold Shipman in which the jury took six days to consider their verdict. Compare this with the trial of Jesus Christ which was conducted and completed in a night.
The most interesting and important landmark in the history of law was the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. In several respects that trial is unique, particularly in that it was a double trial. Two great independent legal systems were used to try His case, Jewish and Roman law. Each system has always been highly respected by eminent lawyers of all nationalities and times. The Jewish system was much older than the Roman and based upon the law given to the Jewish people by God, through Moses. It incorporated the divine principles of justice, righteousness and mercy, all elements of the nature of almighty God.
The Roman law was not so ancient but it was formulated by some of the most learned and authoritative lawyers the world has ever known. It played a notable part in keeping the peace and extending civilisation under the Roman Empire. The Pax Romana, (the Roman Peace) facilitated the spread of Christianity in New Testament times by allowing people to travel in comparative safety and to receive the general protection of law. Roman law forms the basis of the law in several modern countries, including Britain.
Both systems had provisions for capital punishment and the crimes of which Jesus was accused; blasphemy under the Jewish law and treason under the Roman law both carried the death penalty. His trials were therefore trials for life. A double trial, because after the Roman conquest, the Jewish authorities had lost the power of execution; only the Roman governor could authorise the death penalty.
Trial under Jewish Law
The Jewish Law regarded human life as so precious that for anyone who deliberately took life only one penalty was appropriate, to lose his own life. This provision of the law was clearly and rigidly set in one particular chapter alone, that of Num-bers 35, where God states no less than nine times ‘the murderer shall surely be put to death’. This was strengthened even more by another provision of law which stated, ‘Ye shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer’. So human life was not only precious, it was priceless.
The essential corollary to this was that before the judges (in the time of the Roman conquest) exacted the death penalty the most careful precautions were taken to avoid error and to ensure that the accused received a fair trial. For example, the law fixed the place of the execution at a reasonable distance from the place of the trial. An officer stood at the door of the court with a handkerchief in his hand. Another officer, on horseback, followed the execution party and halted at the farthest point where he could still see the officer by the court with the handkerchief. If anyone came with last minute evidence of the condemned man’s innocence, the officer at the court would wave the handkerchief and the horseman would gallop after the prisoner and recall him for his defence.
It was under this code of law, which contained the most rigorous provisions to prevent error and malfeasance in procedure, that Jesus Christ was first tried.
The trial was invalid
The trial of Jesus Christ was invalid for at least four important reasons:
Each one of these four was a contravention of the cardinal safeguard for human life expressly written into the legal code, and each on its own was enough to render the trial void in law.
Trial under the Roman law
Before the subjection of Palestine by Rome, the condemnation in the Jewish court would have been followed not only by sentence but also by execution and this by stoning. But now Rome had removed from the Jews the authority to put to death. The accused was, in this sense, a subject of the Roman empire, and under the protection of the emperor’s representative and warrant of the law of Rome.
The responsibility for upholding the principles of the Roman law and the prestige of Roman justice was invested in Pontius Pilate, Roman governor, Procurator of Judea and representative of the emperor Tiberius. Pilate was from an aristocratic family, and his wife, Claudia had some connections.
It was against this background that the Roman trial began and the same difficulty arose as in the Jewish court: what was the charge? The governor asked the Jews, ‘What accusation bring ye against this man?’, and they answered, ‘If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up to thee’. This reply did not answer the question. Pilate pressed the point and eventually they said, in the words of Luke’s Gospel, ‘We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King’. Pilate continued his investigation, the accusers giving various witness and Christ remaining silent. A threefold accusation had been made, but Pilate decided that only one, the third, merited further investigation. The first charge of perversion was clearly a religious one, and not in his province. The second, as to tribute, was obviously contrary to the Accused’s teaching and unproven. The third, that He was a king, might be political. Such a claim could threaten the Roman peace, and be treason against the Roman emperor.
Pilate went back into the judgement hall and began to question Jesus, ‘Art thou the King of the Jews?’ Jesus declared that He was, but then added words which were highly significant to the Roman judge, ‘My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I would not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence’, John 18. 36.
The governor was satisfied that the third accusation had failed in that the kingdom that Jesus had talked about was not a material one but a spiritual one, and was no threat to Roman authority or control. Pilate ended the conversation, went back out to the Jewish party and said, ‘I find no fault in him at all’. The verdict was formally pronounced. It was ‘not guilty’. Roman law had performed its task and Jesus Christ was acquitted. The trial was, therefore, over and should have ended then and there and the prisoner should have been set free.
But the verdict roused the Jews to fury. They raised a cry of defiance against Roman law, and against the Roman governor. They were out for blood and Pilate was shaken. Instead of standing by his verdict, exercising his authority and freeing the prisoner, he attempted to persuade the Jews to agree with his judgement.
Pilate’s attempts to free Jesus
Pilate made four further attempts to free the prisoner, declaring Him innocent each time:
The Notice on the Cross
So Jesus was taken away and crucified on the hill of Calvary and Pilate made his last gesture of protest to the attitude of the Jewish council. He had a sign nailed to the cross, above the head of Jesus, which read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’. The Jews were furious and they demanded that the sign should be altered to read that Jesus had said He was the King of the Jews. But Pilate stood his ground and refused, saying, ‘What I have written, I have written’, John 19. 22. So the sign remained, written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. It offered mute testimony to the fact that the Person who hung on the centre cross was the Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour of the World.
The underlying purposes of God
We can do no more than exclaim afresh, ‘O the depth of the riches both of wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out’, Rom. 11. 33.
It is important to read the following New Testament references for this study which are as follows: – Matt. 26. 47-68; 27. 1-2, 11-26; Mark 14. 1-2, 43-65; 15. 1-15; Luke 22. 47-54, 66-71; 23. 1-25; John 18. 1-3, 12-13, 19-24, 28-40; 19. 1-22.
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