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Counting Down Passover: The Civil Trial

Counting Down Passover: The Civil Trial
By Dr. Arnold Frutchenbaum

In the first and second posts we considered the conspiracy against Jesus that led to the beginning of his illegal trial. In this installment we shall consider the civil trial.[1]

Now, Judas was not needed for the religious trial, but he was needed for the civil trial. In Matt 27:3, when Judas saw that Yeshua was condemned to death by the religious court, he was filled with remorse. Although some translations say that Judas repented, the Greek word used here for repentance is not the one that means salvation repentance. It is a word that simply means "regret" or "emotional remorse." Judas felt remorse but he did not turn to God in faith. The answer to the question "Was Judas Saved?" is "No, he was not and he went down to perdition." In response to his remorse, Judas did two things: he returned the bribe money and then hanged himself. It was this act that created problems at the civil trial since Judas was needed to present a charge to Pilate (for Roman law). The conspirators no longer had their accuser. Once this is understood, the reason why things happened the way they did at the Messiah's civil trial becomes clear.

Like the religious trial, the civil trial also underwent three specific phases. While the issue in the religious trial was blasphemy, which was not punishable by death under Roman law, the issue in the civil trial was sedition or treason against Rome, which was punishable by death. Two Roman laws affected civil trials. First, all proceedings must be public and Jesus' trial was very public, much to Pilate's regret. Secondly, a trial must start with the prosecuting witness presenting the charge. Specifically, it had to be a charge punishable under Roman law. What happened next in the civil trial is recorded in John 18:28-32.

From the Hall of Judgment of the Temple Compound, Yeshua was taken to the Praetorium where Pontius Pilate was waiting for the prosecuting witness to come forward and give the accusation. In spite of the early hour, Pilate was dressed and ready. He was expecting this trial to begin because of the indictment brought earlier by Judas. In verse 28b, the pronoun they refers to the Chief Priests. According to Jewish custom, at nine in the morning of the first day of Passover, a special Passover sacrifice would be made, of which only the priesthood could eat. Therefore, the passover to which John is referring is the special Passover sacrifice that was offered immediately after the regular morning sacrifices; it was roasted to be eaten later that day. However, if they became ceremonially unclean, they would not be able to eat of it. One way they could become ritually defiled was to go into the home of a Gentile. This was the reason they only went so far within the courtyard, and no further.

As Jesus was brought before Pilate in verse 29, the Roman governor asked for the accusation in accordance with Roman law. There had to be a specific charge before the proceedings could begin, but nothing happened. The Jewish leaders did not know what to do. So they tried to "snowball" the trial by simply demanding that Pilate go ahead and pass sentence on Yeshua, assuming that He was guilty of a crime that deserved the death sentence. They tried to force Pilate to sentence Yeshua without an accusation. Pilate intended to do no such thing. He told them that if Jesus was guilty of violating Jewish law, they should try Him. Pilate could try Jesus only on the basis of Roman law. Since there was no accusation, there could be no condemnation; and without a condemnation, there could be no sentence. The Jewish leaders pointed out that they no longer had the authority to carry out the death penalty, for that right had been taken from them by the Roman government. Verse 32 makes it clear that this was God's providential dealing so that the Messiah would die in the manner prophesied: by crucifixion. But crucifixion was not a Jewish mode of execution; it was a Roman mode. IfRome had not taken away the death penalty fromIsrael, He would have been stoned to death in accordance with Jewish law. But stoning would not have fulfilled what prophecy demanded.

Pilate challenged the religious leaders either to come up with a specific charge or forget the whole thing. Since they were not willing to do the latter, they finally presented a case (Luke 23:2). The religious leaders could not accuse Yeshua of blasphemy because under Roman law that would not carry the death penalty. Therefore, they charged Him with a political crime: first, perverting our nation, in the sense of fomenting revolt through false teaching. Secondly, forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, an act of treason. And thirdly, He claimed to be a king, a competitor to Caesar. Of course, all such competitors were put to death by crucifixion. Now that a specific charge had been brought against the Messiah, Pilate could proceed (John 18:33-38a).

The interchange between Jesus and Pilate in verse 33 has not always been understood. Pilate initiated the interview with the question, Are you the King of the Jews? Pilate was not asking Jesus, "Are you the Messiah?" The question from his perspective as a Roman Gentile really means, "Are you a competitor to Caesar?" Jesus' reply indicates that He wished to know on what basis Pilate was asking the question, as a Roman or as a Jew. The Messiah would not answer Pilate's question until that clarification was made (v. 35). Pilate's response shows that he was asking the question on the basis of what the Jewish leaders had said, but from the viewpoint of a Roman. Pilate was not interested in Jewish theology; he was interested only in knowing whether Yeshua claimed to be a competitor to Caesar. Once this was clear, Jesus answered (36) that His Kingdom was not of this world, for if it were, His followers would rise and revolt. This statement made it obvious that Messiah was not in competition with Caesar. When Messiah's Kingdom is established, it will be "in the world but not of the world." It will not be after the manner of human kingdoms. Furthermore, Jesus said that His Kingdom was not from hence. As a result of the rejection of His Messiahship, Messiah would not establish His Kingdom now, but at a later time.

After Pilate had determined that Yeshua was not a competitor to Caesar, he asked Him whether He was a king in any sense of the term in verse 37. Yeshua replied that He was a king of the truth. The interrogation ended in verse 38. As far as Pilate was concerned, Jesus was not guilty of the charge the Jewish leaders had brought against Him; He was not a threat to Rome. As a result, the leaders added further charges with which to accuse Him. But again, Jesus made no response to the charges and made no attempt to defend Himself. Pilate wished to release Jesus, but he was being intimidated by the crowd. As the Jewish leaders presented even more accusations, they finally made a statement in passing that Yeshua was from Galilee. Galilee was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, who happened to be in Jerusalem at this time for the Passover. Thus, by sending Yeshua to Herod, Pilate saw that he would be able to escape responsibility. And with that the first phase of the civil trial came to an end.

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