Speaking in the 2nd of our Lenten series on Nigel Pugh’s Station of the Cross, Judge Huw Rees looked at Pilate.
After speaking of cases at Abergavenny he had been involved in he turned to Pilate’s trial of Jesus:
When I was persuasively asked to give this talk and when I reluctantly agreed, I had to re-visit parts of the Easter story that I had not properly read since being a child. Perhaps you, like me, will have a passing familiarity with such biblical references to Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, that act of washing his hands, the Sanhedrin, the criminal Barabbas, and other aspects.
By re-visiting this topic I quickly came to the conclusion that rather than experience a Trial, a judicial process which should have been based on the application of the rule of law and fairness between the parties, it was no such thing. What Christ endured was not a Trial but a Mistrial.
By the end of this address –which will not be a dry exposition of the legal process he endured – I hope you will appreciate that by subjecting Christ to one of the world’s worst examples of a mistrial, a real miscarriage of justice – man made Him suffer even more in other ways than just the degrading flagellation and ultimate painful and enduring death by crucifixion.
Christ was not given a fair trial at all.
If we can understand that together tonight it may well make us conclude that Christ’s sacrifice had an added dimension and our appreciation for what He did for the sake of mankind, and our love for Him should be that much greater as we come to remember the Easter message.
Famous miscarriages of justice
Our process of criminal justice has as its base the fair and proportionate application of the criminal law. We have an adversarial process where each party is allowed to adduce admissible evidence and present its case with the assistance of barristers, who are experienced in doing so. We have a criminal justice system in the Crown Court of trial by jury – which allows a dispassionate decision to be made by lay people, which is the envy of the world as being the fairest system deployed to find the truth in a conflicting situation. We have a professional judge overseeing the process, whose function is to apply the law required in the case and to over see fair play between the parties. All that goes without saying but needs to be said in this talk, because there have been failings and we can all think of miscarriages of justice, when someone is convicted and punished for a crime they did not commit.
Those old enough will remember the cases of:-
Timothy Evans, wrongfully executed in 1950 for two murders that had been committed by his neighbour, John CHRISTIE.
Derek Bentley case in the 1952, hanged for the murder of a policeman after a trial before Lord Goddard LCJ which based the conviction on joint enterprise on the basis of the ambiguous phrase: “Let him have it Chris” (Bentley’s alleged instruction to his then 16 year old accomplice, Chris)
Guilford Four including Gerry CONLON, wrongfully convicted of being Provisional IRA bombers in the 1974 Guildford pub bombings.
Birmingham Six, including Paddy HILL, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 for the Birmingham pub bombings at the height of the IRA campaign on the British mainland
Closer to home, the “Cardiff Three”: wrongfully convicted of the 1988 murder of Lynette White in Bute-town.
More recently, the American Amanda KNOX sentenced to 26 years imprisonment in Italy for the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher.
Ched EVANS, the footballer, convicted in the court which is my principal court centre (although I hasten to say that I was not the judge!)
Why do I say that Christ suffered a miscarriage of justice?
We should remember that the mistrial of Christ can be divided into six constituent hearings:
- The hearing before Annas;
- The hearing before Caiaphus;
- The trial before the Sanhedrin;
- The initial hearing before Pontius Pilate;
- The hearing before Herod; and,
- The second hearing before Pontius Pilate.
I will touch on the first three but concentrate on the last three.
The midnight arrest of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane included the first four of a series of more than a score of illegal acts that made the entire proceedings the greatest travesty of justice in all the annals of mankind:-
- Hebrew law prohibited arrests and trials leading to capital punishment from occurring at night.
- The use of a traitor or an accomplice in effecting an arrest or securing a conviction was likewise forbidden by the law
- The arrest was not the result of a legal summons (but the execution of an illegal and fictitious resolution of the Sanhedrin)
- Hebrew law prohibited the binding of an un-condemned man: “So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him” – John 18:12-13
The illegitimacy of the hearings before Annas and Caiaphus.
- They were a violation of the rule of law that forbade all proceedings by night.
- Hebrew law prohibited a judge or a magistrate, sitting alone, from questioning an accused person judicially, or to sit in judgement on his legal rights, either by day or by night. No one judge courts were allowed – their smallest sessions had three and their largest, 71 judges.
- Private preliminary hearings – no matter how many judges were present – were specifically forbidden by Jewish law
- Jesus was physically assaulted by an officer during the hearing before Annas.
The trial before the Sanhedrin.
- The Gospel of Mark tells us that there were two separate sessions of the Sanhedrin and that they were both held the same night. Hebrew law demanded two sessions in the cases of condemnation to be held a day apart. The Hebrew trial of Christ was thus illegal for it was concluded within one day. He was tried, convicted and sentenced in one day. Not allowed.
- It was held at night, which was prohibited: “…the examination of such a charge is like diagnosing of a wound – in either case a more thorough and searching examination can be made by daylight” (Sanhedrin).
- During the hour or two between the two Sanhedrin court trials, the Jewish leaders permitted the rabble to spit upon, torment and persecute Jesus, the un-condemned. The laws of most nations presume a person to be innocent until he is proven guilty, and prior to a final sentence of condemnation, he is entitled to and be given every possible protection by the court from ill treatment. The permitting of a small riot over the person of Christ between the two court hearings was totally illegal.
- No acceptable testimony of witnesses was produced against Christ. The law required the testimony of witnesses to agree in all essential details or be rejected.
- An indictment against a person must deal with a definite crime and the trial must be carried to completion on the basis of that charge. When the false witnesses failed to prove the charge of sedition, Christ should have been set free and the case dismissed. This was not done. Instead the judge suddenly shifted to a new charge, that of blasphemy.
- The sentence on Christ was unlawful because it was founded on His own confession. The judges not only violated the law by acting as accusers, which witnesses were to do, but in addition they illegally extracted a confession from Jesus and then used it as the basis for a death sentence.
Christ before Pilate.
The Jews had authority to hold court trials, but the Romans forbade them from executing the death sentence. For this reason they had to have the Roman government confirm the sentence as correct.
Pilate asked on what charge Christ had been brought to him and was met with the reply: “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ a King” – Luke 23.
The men who sought in vain to find a valid charge against Christ when He appeared before them four times earlier that morning, now dreamed up another on the spot. A political charge was needed – and so three were given. And each one, though without a foundation in fact, was a charge of treasons against the government of Rome.
Theses charges of sedition or treason against the government hit Pilate in a weak spot. It was recorded that the emperor, Tiberius Caesar had “a morbid and capricious temper, whose fretful and suspicious temper would kindle into fire at the slightest suggestion of treason in any quarter. Tacitus (the Roman historian) records fifty two cases of prosecution for treason during his reign. The most harmless acts were at times construed into an affront to the majesty or into an assault upon the safety of this miserable despot”.
PILATE questioned CHRIST briefly and proclaimed to the crowd that he found no fault in him:
“Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” – Luke 23.4
As Professor Simon Greenleaf, a professor of Law at Harvard University, and regarded as the keenest legal mind at the beginning of the twentieth century, put it: “Here was a sentence of acquittal, judicially pronounced, and irreversible, except by a higher power, upon appeal; and it was the duty of Pilate thereupon to have discharged Him”.
This all caused consternation amongst the baying mob who protested that PILATE had insulted all of Judea, beginning in Galilee, which was under Herod’s jurisdiction
Accordingly, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod for judgement. However, this was illegal. He had already rendered a verdict of innocence and the trial was actually over; case dismissed.
It was a rule of Roman law that “no man shall be put twice in jeopardy”.
This principle of double jeopardy is an important one even in modern jurisprudence.
But instead of reacting to this offence to the Roman system of law, Pilate used it as an excuse for an easier way out of it. Rather than stand by Roman law, now that the trial had been concluded, Pilate reopened the case and sent Jesus to Herod.
Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and his provincial capital was Tiberius in Galilee.
Jesus was now to appear before Herod, who had been responsible for the deaths of nearly all of his ten wives, as well as thousands of innocent victims and the prophet John the Baptist as well.
Herod had an idle curiosity, he was hoping for grand entertainment and ordered the sick and the lame to be brought in that he might see them healed. And thereafter Jesus would be released (Luke 23:8). But Jesus did no respond.
The silence of Jesus brought the patience of Herod to an end. “And Herod with his men of war set Him at nought and mocked Him and arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him again to Pilate” – Luke 23:11
There is evidence that if the Roman soldiers that were standing there in Herod’s courtroom that day had not saved Him, Herod and the rabble and the priests would have torn Jesus to pieces. Maddened with fury, Herod left his throne and acted like a demon, and he was immediately accompanied in this diabolical work by nearly everyone in the room
Herod refused to pronounce sentence in the case, and this was the equivalent of an acquittal.
Pilate acknowledged it as such upon the return of Jesus.
“You have brought this man to me as one that perverts the people. And, behold, I have examined him before you – have found no fault in the man touching those things whereof you accused him. No, nor yet Herod. For I sent you to him, and, lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto him.” – Luke 23:14 -15.
For a second time Pilate had rendered a verdict of “not guilty”. But instead of releasing Jesus, he said he would have Him beaten before freeing Him.
This promise of a beating, however, could not satiate the blood lust of the mob and immediately there went up a crying and shouting for Jesus’ death. Gradually it subsided as Pilate proposed something new.
Pilate stated he would set either Barabbas or Christ free, in accordance with Jewish Passover tradition.
With a roar as of an ocean in storm came the reply: “Barabbas, Barabbas, release unto us Barabbas”
Pilate answered and shouted at the top of his lungs: “And what shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?” Like surging waves of sound came the answer: “let him be crucified!”
Forgotten now amid the hollering, cursing and shouting, was the last concern for legality or justice. All that remained was the battle between the will of Pilate and the will of the mob.
“And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on His head, and they put on Him a purple robe, and said, “Hail, King of the Jews” and they smote Him with their hands. Pilate therefore went forth again, and said unto them, “Behold, I bring Him forth to you, that you may know that I find no fault in Him. Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate said unto them, Behold the Man”
–John 19: 1-5
This is the illegal beating of an un-condemned man.
And in presenting Jesus to the multitude, for the third time, Pilate declared Jesus to be innocent: “That you may know that I find no fault in Him”
“From thenceforth Pilate sought to release Him, but the Jews cried out, saying, “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend: whosoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar”
– John 19:12
So by framing their argument through the paradigm of a crime against Caesar – rather than a mere crime against the Jews – the mob was able to convince Pilate.
“When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgement seat in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew, Gabbatha” – John 19:13
It was time for a legal decision, based on the authority of Rome – but Pilate wasn’t thinking about authority. He wanted to wash his hands. And calling for a basin of water, he did so before them all.
“I am innocent of the blood of this just person. See you to it.”
Pilate had given his fourth acquittal of Christ. In response came the cry: “His blood be on us and on our children – Mathew 27; 24-25
“And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that He might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevail. And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required.”
– Luke 23’ 23-24
Having acquitted Christ no fewer than four times, Pilate finally acquiesced to mob rule and gave them what they wanted.
So when we say, as we are required to most Sundays that “Christ died for our sins and the sins of the world…”, perhaps we should sometimes remember before he was condemned to make that ultimate sacrifice, his unfair punishment had already started by being the subject of the worst miscarriage of justice in the whole of the history of mankind.