Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Trial of Jesus Christ and The Last Supper

The Political Context

If the trial of Jesus is indeed a trial in the sense that an accused is examined, judged, and sentenced, then it is, for certain, a political trial.  In order to understand the political context, the principal combatants and their leaders need to be introduced.

Most of the local political power was embodied in three important Jewish groups in Judea and Galilee

Jesus before the Sanhedrin
Jesus before the Sanhedrin
The Sanhedrin or Jewish Council:  In Jerusalem, the supreme court and ruling council of the Jews was the Sanhedrin.  Herod the Great (37-4 BC) King of Galilee, revived them after a long period of insignificance to assist the Roman prefect and the Jewish High Priest.

The Pharisees:   The Pharisees were a Jewish religious movement that developed an oral interpretation of the Scriptures.  They dominated religious thought just before and during the early Christian era.  They were particularly strong in Galilee, the home province of Jesus.  Closely associated and for the most part belonging to the group of Pharisees, were the Scribes, the preservers and promulgators of the Law as expounded by the Pharisees.  The Scribes were later described as rabbis.

The Sadducees:   The Sadducees rejected the oral interpretation of Scriptures by the Pharisees, and centered their activities on the High Priest and the Temple.

All three of these groups were, to some extent, interchangeable in their membership, and for the most part disappeared after the First Jewish Revolt in 66-73 AD, some thirty or more years after the death of Jesus.   They differed in their interpretation of Jewish Law, but were similar in their outlook in that they all believed that the prophecies of the Old Testament would be fulfilled.  Nonetheless, squabbling amongst the Jews was always present.

Herod the Great, stone sculpture
Herod the Great, stone sculpture
Central to this story are the Kings of Galilee, Herod the Great, and his successor, Herod Antipas, who form a second political power.   The Kings of Galilee had more authority than the priests who governed daily life in Judea.  The first Herod was the builder of the magnificent Temple, which played such a large part in this story.  The second Herod believed that Jesus was John the Baptist, whom he had beheaded, newly risen.  The Kings of Galilee were less constrained by Roman rule than the Jews of Judea.  They ruled their Jewish population without the interference of a Council of High Priests.

The third political entity and the most powerful was, of course, Rome.   The procurator, or governor, Pontius Pilate, represented Rome. Pilate, for all of his uncertainty during the trial of Jesus, was not a benevolent ruler, often carrying out the terrible sentence of crucifixion on those accused of sedition.

Bust of Emperor Tiberius
Bust of Emperor Tiberius
The Romans ruled Judea in the administrative sense and held the ultimate power. The Emperor Tiberius had governors for the many regions of the vast Roman Empire, and Pilate was the governor for Judea, whose principal city was Jerusalem.  However, religious and civil law remained in the hands of the Jews. 

The Romans levied and collected taxes, while the Jews regulated daily life.   Crimes calling for the death penalty were the jurisdiction of the Romans. If the Priests of the High Temple convicted an accused of a crime worthy of execution, the case had to be referred to the Romans for disposition.  This two-tiered system of governance allowed the Jews some autonomy and softened the fact of their subjugation by an occupying power. It also allowed the Romans to concern themselves with the extraction of wealth without worrying about civil unrest, which, to some degree, was always present.

That is not to say that Jews were happy with the situation.   Revolts did take place, the most serious in 69 A.D., with the subsequent destruction of the Temple the next year. And always, there were zealots who were openly seditious.

There were then two principal threats from Jesus.   The first was a threat to the political powers, in that anyone purporting (either by himself or by his followers) to be King of the Jews was a certain threat to both the Romans and the controlling Council of Temple Priests.  If a man were to call himself the King of the Jews, then who would have authority over him?  Such a designation implied that the people of Judea, Galilee, and the other Jewish provinces would owe their loyalty not to the Council of Temple Priests or the Romans, but to their king.

Jesus drives out moneychangers, sketch
Jesus drives out moneychangers, sketch
The second threat was to the delicate balance of the acquisition of riches, both through taxes paid to the Romans, and to fees and religious tributes required of the Jews to the Temple Priests.  For instance, the moneychangers were part of the collection system of the high priests. In order to purchase animals for sacrifice within the Temple (a serious obligation for Jews), Roman coins with the image of Caesar had to be changed into Jewish shekels, lest the Temple be desecrated by a gentile image.

The consequence of this political and economic framework was that Herod Antipas and Pilate were the judges in the trial of Jesus.   The prosecutors were Caiaphas, and the other Council members of the Sanhedrin. There was no formal defense.

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