The rule of law is one of the fundamental principles upon which a stable society is built. Unfortunately, the rule of law is oft-times ignored or misconstrued in order for one group or one philosophy to prevail over another. Things haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. Take for instance the trial, or set of trials, that sent Jesus Christ to the cross. According to James E. Talmage in “Jesus the Christ” the whole judicial sham was in violation of the laws that existed at the time among the Jews.
Jesus was arrested in the middle of the night by a company of men and officers representing a combination of ecclesiastical and military authorities. Although surrendering Himself of His own volition, Jesus was not unmindful of His rights; and to the priestly officials, chief priests, captain of the temple guard and elders of the people who were present, He voiced his protest against the illegal night seizure. “Are you come out as against a thief with swords and staves for to take me? I sat daily with you teaching in the temple, and ye laid no hold on me.”
From Gethsemane, for whatever reason, the bound and captive Christ was taken first to Annas. Annas sent Him, still bound, to Caiaphas, the high priest. Annas was the father-in-law to Caiaphas and had been deposed from the high priestly office over twenty years before but continued to exert a potent influence in all affairs of the hierarchy.
In the palace of Caiaphas, when Jesus, the object of their bitter hatred and their predetermined victim, was brought in, a bound Prisoner, He was immediately put on trial in contravention of the law, both written and traditional, of which those rulers of the Jews professed to be such zealous supporters. No legal hearing on a capital charge could lawfully be held except in the appointed and official courtroom of the Sanhedrin. It was likewise unlawful for the council to consider such a charge on a Sabbath, feast day, or on the eve of any such day. The Jewish Passover was in full sway.
Jesus was subjected to an interrogative inquiry by the high priest himself. Such a preliminary inquiry was utterly unlawful, for the Hebrew code provided that the accusing witnesses in any cause before the court should define their charge against the accused, and that the latter should be protected from any effort to make him testify against himself.
When questioned about His disciples and His doctrine, Jesus asked, “Why asketh thou me?—ask them which heard me, what I said unto them: behold, they know what I said.” This was a lawful objection against denying to a prisoner on trial his right to be confronted by his accusers. It was received with open disdain and one of the officers who stood by actually struck Jesus a vicious blow, accompanied by the question, “Answereth thou the high priest so?” To this cowardly assault the Lord replied with almost superhuman gentleness: “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest me?” What right had a police officer to judge, condemn, and punish, and that, too in the presence of the high priest? Law and justice had been dethroned that night.
False witnesses were sought and brought in so there would be some semblance of legal propriety—but the witnesses’ testimonies failed to agree with one another. The plan of the conspiring rulers appears to have been that of convicting Christ on a charge of sedition, making Him out to be a dangerous disturber of the nation’s peace, an assailant of established institutions, and consequently an inciter of opposition against the supreme domination of Rome. If He was to be put to death, for fear of the people and by law, they wanted it to be done at the hands of the Romans.
At the testimony of the false witnesses, the emboldened Caiaphas, arising from his seat to give dramatic emphasis to his question, demanded of Jesus: “Answereth thou nothing? What is it which these witness against thee?” There was nothing to answer. No valid testimony had been presented against Him; therefore He stood in dignified silence.
Then Caiaphas, in violation of the legal proscription against requiring any person to testify in his own case except voluntarily and on his own initiative, not only demanded an answer but put the accused under oath as a witness before the court. “And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the son of God.” Nothing that had gone on before can be construed as a proper foundation for this inquiry. The charge of sedition was about to be superseded by one of greater enormity—that of blasphemy.
To the utterly unjust yet official adjuration of the high priest, Jesus answered, “Thou hast said…” “Thou hast said” was equivalent to “I am what thou hast said.” It was an unqualified avowal of divine parentage, and inherent Godship. “Then the high priest rend his clothes (It was expressly forbidden in the law that the high priest rend his clothes), saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? Behold, now ye have heard blasphemy. What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.”
Jesus stood convicted of the most heinous offense known to Jewry. However unjustly, He had been pronounced guilty of blasphemy by the supreme tribunal of the nation. But the power to authoritatively pronounce capital sentences had been taken from the Jewish council by Roman decree. What they did, in essence, was to certify that Jesus was worthy of death when they handed Him over to Pilate.
It is interesting to note that by a provision that must appear to us to be most unusual, if all the judges voted for conviction on a capital charge the verdict was not to stand and the accused had to be set at liberty; for, it was argued, a unanimous vote against a prisoner indicated that he had had no friend or defender in court, and that the judges might have been in conspiracy against him. Under this rule in Hebrew jurisprudence the verdict against Jesus, rendered at the illegal night session of the Sanhedrists, was void, for we are specifically told that “they all condemned him to be guilty of death.” (Mark 14:64)
Jehovah was convicted of blasphemy against Jehovah. The only mortal Being to whom the awful crime of blasphemy, in claiming divine attributes and powers, was impossible, stood before the judges of Israel condemned as a blasphemer. During the next few hours that remained to Him in mortality, He would be in the hands of the Gentiles, betrayed and delivered up by His own.