How Did Jesus Really Die?
Note: The following Post is taken from an upcoming book by Joseph Lenard entitled Mysteries of Jesus’ Life Revealed—His Birth, Death, Resurrection, and Ascensions. For an overview and complete chapter listing of this fascinating study, click here.
In this second puzzle piece in the case to determine How Did Jesus Really Die?, we will look at how the Jewish and Roman laws in existence at the time of Jesus impacted decisions regarding whether Jesus would be killed, why He would be killed, and how He would be killed.
We know that the Apostle Judas Iscariot was paid off by the Temple authorities to betray Jesus into their hands. Then, on the night before Jesus’ execution, Judas guided a detachment of Temple soldiers and some officials from the Chief Priests and Pharisees to a grove in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. They went to arrest Jesus.
To identify Jesus to the authorities, Judas gave Jesus the now infamous kiss. After a small altercation, during which the Apostle Peter severed an ear from the High Priest’s servant, Malchus (which Jesus immediately restored), Jesus was bound and taken away.
Jesus first entered the Jewish legal system in the person of Annas, the “father-in-law” (ab bet din) of Caiaphas, the High Priest in AD 30. Jesus was then delivered to Caiaphas.
To put this into perspective, the Creator of the Universe now stood before the Jewish High Priest and his minions in their earthly courtroom. Someday, the tables will be turned; and Jesus will stand in judgement of those who once judged him. However, in order to fulfill God’s plan, Jesus was first required to subject himself, as a criminal, to the systems of law which existed at that time in Jerusalem.
At this point it may be helpful to provide some background into the Jewish and Roman systems of law in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ trial, sentencing, and execution. Some of what I discuss may be familiar to you, but I suspect that much of it will be new – just as it was for me before I began studying it.
Jewish Legal System
Annas and Caiaphas
According to Aiyar Srinivasa in his book, The Legality of the Trial of Jesus (1914), Annas (Ananus), an Alexandrian Sadducee, was originally appointed High Priest in AD 7 by Coponius, the Roman Procurator. Annas held power in the Temple for the next 50 years, and the “House of Annas” exerted influence over all Jewish religious activities during that period. During that time, five of Annas’ sons served as High Priest; and, at the time of Jesus, his “son-in-law,” Caiaphas, was the acting High Priest. They were all part of the Sadducean aristocracy who controlled the Temple.
In John 18:13, we learn that Annas was the “father-in-law” of Caiaphas; but little else is known about him. According to Nancy Kuehl in her excellent book, Book of Evidence – The Trial and Execution of Jesus, rather than indicating a familial relationship through marriage, it is possible that “father-in-law” was actually a reference to the title of Annas. Annas, as “father of the court” of law (title of ab bet din), might therefore have been considered the “father-in-law” of Caiaphas. Certainly, there is no mention of Caiaphas being the son-in-law of Annas in the Gospels.
Whatever the case, we know without question that Annas and Caiaphas were the Jewish rulers at the time of Jesus and were, consequently, instrumental in his trial and death.
It is noteworthy that there were actually two High Priests who ruled over the government of Israel at the time of Jesus. This tradition extended back to the time of the Hasmonians and lasted until the Sanhedrin was abolished by the Romans in the century following the destruction of Jerusalem. This dual role of the High Priests was referenced in The Jewish Encyclopedia, and was clarified by Kuehl in her book:
“Two persons were at the head of the bet din [Lesser Sanhedrin]: one, the actual president [Caiaphas] with the title “nasi” [prince, high priest]; the other, the second president or vice-president [Annas], who bore the title “ab bet din” (father of the court).”
Although there is some controversy about this, according to Kuehl, Annas, as the ab bet din, was the more powerful of the two priests, as evidenced by the fact that the Annas family served the priesthood until AD 70. Kinsmen of Annas were present at the trials of Peter and John (Acts 4:5–6), Stephen (Acts 6:15), Paul (Acts 23:2), and James (Josephus, Antiquities, 20.9.1). We must assume, therefore, that Annas was the supreme authority of the criminal court. The High Priest (Caiaphas), who was the President of the Assembly of Sanhedrin, was merely a figurehead who rubber-stamped the decisions of the higher authority.
As a whole, the Jewish priesthood and the Sanhedrin were very corrupt, having attained much influence and wealth through control of the Temple bazaars, which sold the various offerings for the Temple sacrifices and controlled the Temple tribute. Jesus aptly described the Temple at that time as a “den of thieves” (Matthew 21:12-13). It is clear that Annas effectively controlled the Sanhedrin; and because of the allied interests of all those affiliated with the family of Annas, he had little difficulty securing a quorum in the Sanhedrin to do his bidding.
The Arrest of Jesus
The Jewish Temple officials monitored Jesus intensely during His three-and-a-half-year ministry; and during Jesus’ ministry, there were many who attempted to exert Mosaic law and stone Jesus to death for what they considered to be blasphemy. In the Gospel of John we read:
“Then they took up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the Temple, going throughout the midst of them, and so passed by.” (John 8:59)
Elsewhere in John we find:
“Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, many good works have I showed you from my Father; for which of those works do you stone me? The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone you not; but for blasphemy; and because you, being a man, make yourself God.” (John 10:31–33, KJV)
After the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), which occurs during the ninth month on the Jewish calendar, the rulers sought to “stone him” (John 10:31) and were “seeking to take him” (John 10:39). Therefore, Jesus and His disciples went into hiding. When they learned that Lazarus was sick, the disciples were concerned that Jesus was considering a trip to visit Lazarus in Bethany of Judea, which was less than two miles from the Jewish seat of government. They knew this would be dangerous for them. They posed a question to Jesus, “But Rabbi . . . a short while ago the Jews tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?” (John 11:8, NIV)
To bring Jesus to trial, it was necessary for the Sanhedrin to first deliberate among themselves, form a consensus of guilt, and formally issue a warrant of arrest. Paul had sought just such a warrant from the Sanhedrin against the followers of Jesus, prior to his own conversion (Acts 9:1–2). According to Kuehl, the high-council deliberations concerning Jesus (John 11:47) would have occurred about forty days prior to Passover:
“. . . then from that day forth [the day of the high council], they took council together for to put him to death.” (John 11:53)
As Kuehl reports, the Sanhedrin waited for an opportunity to arrest Jesus – which they had arranged in the person of Judas Iscariot – immediately prior to Passover. Under Jewish law, in accordance with Deuteronomy 17:12-13, the execution of someone found to be “leading the nation astray” typically occurred during “the festival” of Passover.
After Jesus was arrested, the Temple officials and guards took Him from the Mount of Olives to the Temple in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount. Jesus then first appeared before Annas. Simon Peter and “another disciple” (the disciple John) followed the entourage there.
When the group returned to Jerusalem with Jesus, the Temple was open. According to Dr. Martin, since it was Passover, the gates of the Temple were opened at midnight; and it was acceptable for people to enter the Temple after that time. Annas was readily available in the Temple at about 3:00 in the morning when the guards arrived with Jesus. Why exactly was that? It was because the High Priests were not at their normal residences in western Jerusalem during the festival but, rather, were in their temporary Temple residence, which was referred to as “the house of the High Priest” (Luke 22:54).
As reported by Dr. Martin in Secrets of Golgotha, the Mishnah – the earliest part of the Talmud – provides additional information about the “house of the High Priest” at the Temple. It called this “house” the “Counselor’s Chamber,” as the High Priest was the “Counselor,” or President, of the Sanhedrin. The Mishnah also states that the residence was at or near the “Wood Chamber,” located to the west of the “Chamber of Hewn Stone” (Mid. 5:4) and next to the “House of Abtinas,” where the incense for the Temple was prepared. The “house of the High Priest” was in the Upper Chamber of this “Temple House,” on the second story, around and above a courtyard of columns below.
The Gospel of Mark states specifically that Jesus was taken into the Upper Chamber of the High Priest’s house, while Peter had to stay below near the vestibule of the “courtyard” (Mark 14:66). This is precisely in agreement with the Mishnah’s description. This High Priest’s courtyard, as mentioned in the Gospels (Matthew 26:58; Mark 14:54; Luke 22:55; John 18:15), was located between the separate, temporary Temple residences of Annas and Caiaphas.
This temporary residence was also where the High Priests spent seven days in the Temple compound prior to Passover and other major Feasts. This was necessary in order to avoid being contaminated, to facilitate meditation, and in order to study the Temple procedures related to the upcoming Feast. Therefore, both Annas and Caiaphas were at the Temple during the night that Jesus was brought to them.
According to Dr. Martin, both the residence of the High Priests and the “Chamber of Hewn Stone” (Lishkat Hagazit) were part of the Temple complex on the true Temple Mount in AD 30 (for a discussion of this topic, please see my Posts in the upcoming series Where Was Herod’s Temple?). This “Chamber of Hewn Stone” was where the Sanhedrin met and where Jesus was tried. The “Chamber” was operational up until Jesus’ death in AD 30, at which time it was completely destroyed by the earthquake which accompanied the death of Jesus (Matthew 27:51-54).
When Jesus was brought before Annas, He was questioned “about His disciples and His teaching” (John 18:19 NIV). Now, you would think that Annas would focus his questioning on the details of Jesus’ alleged blasphemy, since that was the stated reason for the warrant – specifically that Jesus was responsible for “leading the nation astray.” Instead, Annas continued to focus his inquiry on who Jesus kept company with and on the message of His teachings.
As to His teaching, Jesus replied to Annas that He had “spoken openly to the world,” and had “said nothing in secret.” A Temple official struck Jesus in the face, and Jesus replied, “. . . If I said something wrong . . . testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:20–23, NIV)
The Gospel of John records no answer to Jesus’ question. We know that Jesus always spoke the truth, and that He was not guilty of blasphemy. Instead, the Bible reports that it was the Temple officials who blasphemed: “And many other things blasphemously spake they against him.” (Luke 22:65 KJV)
It was Annas’ duty, as ab bet din, to interrogate Jesus in order to form an accusation. What were the accusations against Jesus? Kuehl sums up the considerations in her book:
“The accusations against Jesus were many and varied, but the crime of blasphemy was not the ‘vain oath’ or the utterance of the ineffable name. It was not the breaking of the Sabbath, claiming equality with God, nor the crime of the rebellious son; neither was it false prophecy or ‘desecration’ of the Temple which formed the specific accusation. But each of these charges played a role in the final verdict. Jesus was, instead, sentenced for blasphemy as one leading the nation of Israel away from the large body of pseudo-pious Pharisaical scribal interpretation of the Oral Torah, and from the economic and political aspirations of the Sadducees. Furthermore, Jesus had interpreted the Torah in an innovative manner that conflicted with their own self-serving interpretations . . . It became politically and socially expedient for them to bring him to trial in order to secure their positions and status within the government of Israel.”
Accordingly, Jesus was accused of “leading the nation astray,” which was the gravest crime and the severest form of blasphemy with which Israel might charge an individual. Because of this, Jesus was deemed a mesith – a revolutionary, a sorcerer, and a false prophet. As such, He would be tried in a Jewish court and, as it turned out, pay the ultimate Jewish penalty for his apostasy, which would be by means of a Jewish execution. As we shall see, this execution would be by stoning to death by the community, while being hung on a tree (crucified). More details later in this Post.
After completing his visit with Annas, Jesus was bound and taken to the other High Priest, Caiaphas. As stated in the Gospel of Mark,
“. . . and all the Chief Priests, elders and teachers of the law came together . . . The Chief Priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.” (Mark 14:53, 55-56, NIV)
The High Priest asked Jesus:
“’Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus, ‘And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’
“The High Priest tore his clothes. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ He asked. ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’ They all condemned him as worthy of death.” (Mark 14:61b–64, NIV)
The Gospel of Luke tells us that when daylight came, the Chief Priests and the teachers of the law “met together, and Jesus was led before them.” (Luke 22:66)
According to Dr. Martin, the group would have left the house of Caiaphas and walked next door to the building in which the Sanhedrin normally held their official trials and rendered judgments – the “Chamber of Hewn Stone.” Luke makes it clear that this was done “at daybreak,” because the trials and judgments involving capital crimes were required by law to be accomplished within the hours of daylight and within the “Chamber of the Sanhedrin” (the “Chamber of Hewn Stone”).
The image below is an illustration by Norman Tenedora from Dr. Martin’s book which depicts the Jewish Temple at the time of Christ. It clearly shows the location of the “Chamber of Hewn Stone.”
It was Jesus’ claim before the Sanhedrin that He was the Son of God that made the Jewish authorities proclaim Him to be a blasphemer; that was the only legal charge brought against Him. This was the most heinous of crimes imaginable to the Jews of Judea, and this judgment alone made Him subject to death. (Matthew 26:65–66)
What can we say about the Jewish legal proceedings? Everything that happened to Jesus that day was according to the Law of Moses. The disciple John in his Gospel account makes it clear that when the Sanhedrin presented Jesus to Pontius Pilate, Pilate tried his best to prevent the execution of Jesus. As Martin states:
“Had Pilate found the slightest illegality in the manner of his [Jesus’] trial even from the Jewish point of view (and it is only reasonable that Pilate had a bevy of counsel around him trained in Jewish jurisprudence), he would have dismissed their charges against Jesus or demanded that they hold another trial under legal circumstances.”
It was essential that Jesus be tried and convicted in a legal manner in order to fulfill Old Testament law and prophecy.
Date of Jesus’ Trial and Death
Before we move forward to discuss the Sanhedrin, the charges against Jesus, and Jesus’ punishment, let’s first engage in a small exercise which I believe will help to confirm the date of these events.
As presented in my various Posts under the topic Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, I concluded that the correct date for the trial and death of Jesus was AD 30. We can now further confirm that date from the fact that parts of Herod’s Temple – including the “Chamber of Hewn Stone,” the place where the Sanhedrin met during the trial of Jesus – were destroyed by the earthquake which occurred immediately following the death of Jesus. Following the earthquake, the “Chamber” was sufficiently damaged so as to render it unfit for meetings of the Sanhedrin. As recorded in various Jewish documents, the Sanhedrin was forced to move to other locations on and off the Temple Mount in the years following AD 30. We can therefore conclude that the death of Jesus and the earthquake must have occurred in AD 30. No date later than AD 30 could have been possible.
Although I find much of what Nancy Kuehl wrote in her book regarding the trial and execution of Jesus to be fascinating and truthful, I must disagree with her when she states that the trial of Jesus occurred on the Mount of Olives, in the region called Beth Pagi. Although Beth Pagi was an extension of the ecclesiastical areas of the Temple on the Temple Mount, and criminal cases were routinely adjudicated there, in the public meeting place at the Plaza of Gulgoleth, I believe that in AD 30, at the time of the trial of Jesus, the Sanhedrin was still meeting on the Temple Mount in the “Chamber of Hewn Stone.” It was only later that the Sanhedrin moved from the Temple complex to the ecclesiastical district of Beth Pagi on the Mount of Olives.
We learn from Jewish sources that in the year in which Jesus was crucified, the Sanhedrin ceased meeting in the official “Chamber of Hewn Stone.” Apparently, they were “banished” to an insignificant section of the Temple called the “Trading Post,” located a little further to the east. According to Josephus, the meeting place was later moved again, to a gymnasium within the city of Jerusalem, just west of the Temple. Later, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the Sanhedrin moved yet again, to a city called Jamnia (Jabneh), located about 30 miles west of Jerusalem. According to Dr. Martin, the Sanhedrin moved a total of ten times following the crucifixion of Jesus, ultimately ending up in Tiberias, near the Sea of Galilee.
From this we see that, in His perfect wisdom, God caused the trial of Jesus to be the final adjudication by the Sanhedrin in the “Chamber of Hewn Stone,” within the Temple Mount. This was in AD 30.
The Punishment for Blasphemy
Blasphemy was the most serious crime under Mosaic Law, punishable by death. And stoning was the only method of execution prescribed for capital crimes in the Old Testament.
“And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord [Yahweh], he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well as the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:16, KJV)
Following the deliberations in the “Chamber of Hewn Stone” by the Sanhedrin, Jesus was taken to Pilate:
“Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.” (Mark 15:1, NIV)
The Jewish leaders asked Pilate to allow Jesus to be killed according to the Law of Moses. They stated to Pilate:
“We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” (John 19:7)
Pilate ultimately granted the request.
As recorded in Leviticus 24:16, Mosaic Law provided that death by stoning would be by “all the congregation.” Accordingly, all residents – both Jew and Gentile – were required by law to cast stones at the blasphemer. In the Old Testament story of Achan (Joshua 7:25), stoning was prescribed as a means of exacting “justice;” in Deuteronomy 21:21-23, capital punishment included both stoning and “hanging on a tree.”
In Jewish culture, any time the term “hanged on a tree” was used, stoning was automatically assumed. Kuehl states the following in her book:
“When the disciples accused the Sanhedrin of ‘hanging’ Jesus on a ‘tree,’ it was simply a Hebrew idiom for the terminology implying the entire execution process, both stoning and hanging. For instance, in the Talmud (b. Sanh. 43a) a herald goes forth announcing that Jesus was to be ‘stoned’; the passage then goes on to state that he was ‘hanged’. The writers meant that he was both stoned and hanged, and this was a Jewish mode of execution, not a Roman one. Not one aspect of the ‘hanging’ indicated a Roman crucifixion. Likewise, when the Jewish writings indicate that an individual has been stoned and that stoning resulted in his death, it was automatically assumed that he had been hanged afterward.”
“. . . stoning him is [the duty] of all Israelites, as it is said, ‘The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people (Deuteronomy 17:7). ‘All those who are stoned are hanged on a tree,’ the words of R. Eliezer.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:4 g–h)
Death by stoning took two different forms during the course of Jewish history, depending on whether the Pharisees or the Sadducees were in power in the Temple administration. According to Kuehl:
“The Pharisaic and Sadducean methods of stoning an individual were, however, entirely different. Whereas the Pharisees used only one large stone and threw the individual down from a great height, the Sadducees demanded the whole congregation of Israel have a part in putting the accused to death. Each person passing by the execution site would have been required by law to pick up a stone and cast it at the accused, thus “casting out” that individual from the nation of Israel. It was a process similar to the placing of hands on the Sinbearer Goat [Scape Goat in the Day of Atonement ritual], to be ‘cast out’ into the ‘wilderness’ as a ‘curse’ of God. Since the Sadducean priesthood was the more powerful sect during the lifetime of Jesus, we must assume it would have been their law that carried the day.”
The Sadducean method of stoning involved hanging an individual alive on a tree; the congregation would then cast small stones at the individual until death occurred. The Pharisees, as did the Essenes, found this method abhorrent; they hanged individuals on the tree only after they had first been stoned to death, and they used a single heavy stone dropped from a significant height to cause the death. The Pharisees gained power after AD 70, after the Sadducean priesthood had been deposed following the destruction of Jerusalem. From that time onward, the Pharisaic method of stoning was used.
It was no coincidence that the Sadducean priesthood was in power at the time of Jesus. This was orchestrated by God to ensure that the cause of death fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. These prophecies include Psalm 22:16–18 (pierced His hands; seeing His bones), Psalm 34:20 (no bones broken), and Isaiah 52–53 (“Suffering Servant” – more on this in my next Post).
As reported by Dr. Martin from his study of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 43a), we have the following account of the crucifixion and stoning of Jesus:
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu the Nazarean [Hebrew for Jesus the Nazarene] was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover.”
According to Deuteronomy 21:21–23, the order of events in an execution were as follows:
“And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear. And if a man [has] committed a sin worthy of death, and he [is] to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; for he that is hanged is accursed of God that thy land be not defiled, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 21:21–23, KJV)
While the original Mosaic Law specified that the convicted should first be stoned to death and then hung on a tree until near sunset, we find that Jesus was nailed to a tree first; then the people were compelled to stone him. Apparently, this “reverse process” was practiced in Jerusalem in the first century. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Temple Scroll, verified that the Jewish authorities in the first century had re-evaluated the wording of Deuteronomy 21:21–23 and considered that it should be interpreted in the reverse order.
With this new interpretation, hanging would take place before stoning, as long as the combined process resulted in death before sunset. If a person was not yet dead at sunset, soldiers would break the legs of the person so that he would be unable to push himself up to exhale, thereby hastening death by process of suffocation. This is what happened to the two thieves crucified with Jesus. As recorded in the Bible, Jesus was already dead (from the stoning, as we now know). Neither of the thieves received sentences similar to Jesus, and neither was stoned.
It should be obvious now that because Pilate handed Jesus over to the Jewish authorities to be executed according to Jewish law, Jesus did not carry a Roman cross, nor was he hung on that Roman cross, despite what church tradition would have us believe. Once Jesus arrived at the execution site, His wrists were nailed to a gibbet (yoke – like a yoke of an ox; Latin patibulum), which was then hung on a living tree. The yoke would have been attached either by ropes or by nails to the tree. All of the evidence for these things is presented by Kuehl in her well-researched book, A Book of Evidence–The Trials and Execution of Jesus (2013), as well as by Dr. Martin in his book, Secrets of Golgotha (Second Edition, 1996).
We can now look at the trial of Jesus under the Roman system of law, after Jesus was taken by the Sanhedrin to Pilate, at the Roman praetorium.
Following the appearances of Jesus before Annas and Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, Jesus was taken from the Temple to the praetorium to meet with Pontius Pilate. Jesus then fell under Roman law.
Under the authority of the Roman Senate, King Herod the Great reigned in Judea from 37 BC until his death, in 1 BC. Herod possessed exclusive rights to the trying of legal cases and to governing in general, while the Sanhedrin’s authority was limited exclusively to religious issues.
At Herod the Great’s death, the Sanhedrin sent a delegation to Rome requesting complete autonomy under the rule of one of Herod’s sons. Rome agreed to joint rule over Judea, with a Roman prefect, (“governor”) and a son of Herod ruling the country. Rome had little interest in the internal affairs of the Jewish nation, as long as order was kept and taxes were paid.
Roman administration over Judea effectively began in AD 6 with the appointment of Coponius, the first Roman “governor” with the title of “prefect” in Judea. Following the death of his father, Herod Antipater (Herod Antipas), reigned as tetrarch (“king”) of Galilee and Perea. The prefect in Judea was expected to respect Jewish religious law and customs and offer little interference. His power was overshadowed by the Roman governor in Syria.
Pontius Pilate – before whom Jesus appeared – was appointed prefect in Judea in AD 26, largely through the influence of Sejanus (Aelius Seianus), the all-powerful minister in the Roman Emperor Tiberius’ court. Pilate served as prefect until AD 36 – six years after Jesus’ death.
Pilate was specifically sent to Judea to end self-rule among the Jews. He was in the awkward – and unenviable – position of having to juggle favors among Tiberius, Sejanus, the Syrian governor, Antipas, and the Sanhedrin. As reported by Kuehl, such was the political situation in Judea in AD 30, the year of Jesus’ trial and execution.
Roman Trial Proceedings
Jesus was taken to Pontius Pilate by the Temple guards – along with the High Priests, and the Chief Priests of the Sanhedrin. He was taken to the Roman praetorium in Fort Antonia, near the Jewish Temple. In Greek, praetorium means both “judgment hall” and “palace.”
The Jewish authorities wanted Pilate to “do the dirty work” and execute Jesus, thereby absolving them of any blame in his death. As much as they wanted Jesus dead, they feared being directly involved, because many people in Judea followed Jesus, respected His teaching, had seen His miracles, and had waved palm branches before Him as He rode the colt into Jerusalem just a few days prior to His arrest and trial. The Jewish authorities were clearly afraid of how the people might react to the death of Jesus. (Mark 11:18)
According to the Gospel of John, the Jews did not actually enter the palace, as they wanted to avoid ceremonial uncleanliness, so that they would be able to eat the Passover. “So Pilate came out to them and asked, ‘What charges are you bringing against this man?’” (John 18:29 NIV)
The Temple officials responded:
“We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ [Messiah], a king.” (Luke 23:2, NIV)
For their part, the Sanhedrin replied:
“If he were not a criminal . . . we would not have handed him over to you.” (John 18:30, NIV)
Then, Pilate made a key statement to the Jewish authorities:
“Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” (John 18:31, NIV)
By this we see that Pilate’s statement was in accordance with Emperor Tiberius’ wishes for the governing of Judea – that the Jews be allowed to handle their religious affairs themselves.
The Jewish rulers replied to Pilate, “But we have no right to execute anyone” (John 18:31b, NIV). We find, however, that this was not necessarily true, as they seemingly did not receive Pilate’s approval when they later executed Stephen by dragging him from the Sanhedrin and stoning him to death (Acts 7:58). In the case of Jesus, it is clear that the Jewish authorities were attempting to place the burden of the execution on Pilate.
Pilate found no reason to try Jesus in a Roman court for crimes against Rome. He stated to the Jewish leaders, “I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 18:38 NIV). However, when Pilate found out that Jesus was a Galilean, he sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, who had jurisdiction over the region of Galilee. Herod also found no basis for the charges that Jesus should die, so he sent Jesus back to Pilate (Luke 23:13-15); and Pilate reported back to the “Chief Priests, the rulers and the people.”
It was not Pilate’s intention to crucify Jesus, but to release Him. However, “for good measure,” Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. His plan was to have him flogged, and then release Him.
I believe the church tradition that Pilate had Jesus flogged to the point of near-death is an exaggeration. Pilate was sympathetic to Jesus and did not want to kill Him; he wanted to release Him. Church tradition has relied on this Roman flogging to account for the excessive blood loss needed to fulfill prophecy, because the church either has not understood or has ignored the fact that that Jesus was stoned to death while hanging on a tree. The stoning would have resulted in a large amount of blood loss, thus fulfilling prophecy. We will discuss this in more detail in the next Post, Suffering Servant.
Following the flogging, Pilate said again to the Jewish officials, “I find no basis for a charge against Him” (John 19:4b, NIV). The Jewish officials then shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” (John 19:6), to which Pilate responded, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 19:6b, NIV).
Pilate made one last attempt to set Jesus free (John 19:12), but the Jewish officials played the “Caesar card” by shouting “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12b, NIV).
The Jewish officials had Pilate right where they wanted him. Pilate knew that if he did not comply with the wishes of the officials, they would likely report the circumstances to Caesar. If that happened, Pilate risked not only his position, but his life. Pilot therefore
“. . . brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as The Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week . . .” (John 19:13–14)
“Finally, Pilate handed him [Jesus] over to them [Temple officials] to be crucified. So, the soldiers took charge of Jesus.” (John 19:16, NIV)
Make no mistake. Jesus was handed over to the Jewish Temple authorities to be crucified according to Jewish law, because Pilate could find no reason to punish Him under Roman law. The militia to whom Jesus was returned were both Roman soldiers and Jewish Temple guards; and both were involved in the crucifixion, according to the Gospel accounts.
Although we are outraged at the apparent randomness of the charges against Jesus and shudder at the cruelties committed against Him, everything was done in strict accordance with Jewish and Roman law and, especially, in accordance with Mosaic law and in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. As was the case with Jesus, Roman prefects like Pilate often allowed Jewish officials to administer punishment according to Jewish religious law and custom.
Pilate sent a small execution detail, as was customary, to oversee the Jewish execution of Jesus. It was not, however, those soldiers who hanged Jesus to the tree but, rather, the Temple captains. It is clearly stated in the Gospel of John that it was the Jewish authorities who executed Jesus. Kuehl provides helpful commentary embedded in the Scripture:
“Then therefore he [Pilate] delivered him [Jesus] up unto them [referring to the High-priests and the Sanhedrin], that he [Jesus] might be crucified [hanged on a tree]. They [the Jewish authorities] took possession, therefore of Jesus. And bearing for himself the cross [gibbet, that is the yoke that was to be attached to the tree] he [Jesus] went forth unto the so-called Skull-place [sic, “ridge”, ha-Rosh on the Mount of Olives, the bet haSeqilah or “Place of Stoning”], which is named in Hebrew Golgotha [this is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Gulgoleth, place of the mountain ridge]; where him [Jesus] they [the Jewish authorities] crucified [hanged] him [on a living tree].” (John 19:16–18 KJV; clarifications by Nancy Kuehl)
I hope that these explanations have given you a fuller understanding of Jewish and Roman laws and their role in the fulfillment of prophecy. As for Jesus, following His resurrection, He met two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus.
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27).
Note: Presumably, part of the Scripture which Jesus explained to the disciples concerned the prophecy of the “Suffering Servant.” In my next Post I will discuss the importance of this Scripture, which Jesus fulfilled.