On Trial (Commentary)

A Different View: On Trial

Commentary by Steven Whitehead

The trial of Jesus is one of those events where we have a multitude of witnesses. All four of the Gospel writers have something to tell us so we must read Matthew 26:57 – 27:26; Mark 14:53 – 15:15; Luke 22:54 – 23:25; and John 18:12 – 19:16. A Gospel Parallel where all four accounts are printed in columns for easy comparison or a Gospel Harmony where the four are combined into one, as in LaGard Smith’s Narrated Bible, show us that Jesus has more than one trial or, if we prefer, His trial was an extended process that was held in more than one place and before several different authorities.

The Gospel writers all have their own agendas and sources. Mark, for example, seems more interested in Peter’s threefold denial than the trial itself, which could be because Peter was Mark’s source and thus not present for much of the night. Luke is the only Evangelist to mention Jesus being sent to Herod Antipas (1). Could this be because Luke had a witness on the inside in Chuza, Herod’s steward (see Luke 8:3)? However by putting the four accounts together we can see how confused and confusing the situation was at this moment in history, with the Jewish religious authorities represented by Annas and Caiaphas, a Jewish political figurehead in Herod, and above both the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate, all looking to their own interests (2).

Annas had been removed from his High Priestly office by Pilate’s predecessor, Valerius Grattus (3) but no doubt considered himself to be High Priest Emeritus and would have been supported by conservatives who believed that the High Priesthood was for life. However Rome recognised his son-in-law Joseph Caiaphas as being High Priest so while Annas could and did involve himself in affairs of state it would have to be Caiaphas’s name on the letterhead, so to speak, if the Romans were going to reply. All these characters are mentioned in contemporary, non-biblical sources such as Philo and Josephus. The details of the trial are more difficult to confirm as much of what we know about Jewish legal procedures are not quite contemporary. Mishnah tractate Sanhedrin, for example, gives much supplementary data but it was not complied until the third century so may not be relevant, although it could quite possibly be a written record of long established practice. However the need for two witnesses predates the time of Jesus by centuries as it is found in Deuteronomy 19:15.

After a hearing with Annas, recorded only by John (John 18:12-14) and presumably considered irrelevant by the other three Evangelists, Jesus is taken before Caiaphas. Here the charge is one of blasphemy for which the penalty was death by stoning (Leviticus 24:16). However only the Roman Prefect could authorise an execution so Jesus had to go before Pilate (4).

Pilate did not have a good record in his dealings with the Jews although in fairness to him it seems that they went out of their way to take offence. According to Josephus (5), Pilate deliberately provoked the Jews. On his first entrance into Jerusalem he ignored the precedent set by his predecessors and ordered his troops to carry standards bearing the image of the emperor. Next he dipped in to the Temple treasury to find the money to build a new aqueduct and many Jews were killed in the subsequent protests and in Luke 13:1 we read of a massacre of Galilean pilgrims for which Pilate took the blame. Philo who, unlike Josephus, was a contemporary of Pilate quotes from a letter written by the Jewish king Agrippa I (6) to his friend Gaius Caesar (7) in which Pilate is described as being stubborn and guilty of theft, cruelty, accepting bribes, and summary executions (8). Neither Josephus not Philo can be accepted as unbiased witnesses but clearly they were not happy with Pilate, who did not appear to care. However the reports that were making their way back to Rome must have caused Pilate a certain amount of private unease so the priests knew which button to press when they started questioning Pilate’s loyalty. (9)

It is possible to view Pilate sympathetically as an honest Roman official placed in a challenging province who nevertheless tried his best to uphold justice as he understood it and who was manipulated by scheming priests to act against his own conscience. Likewise it is just as easy to view Pilate as a bored or incompetent official who enjoyed winding up the locals (anti-Semitism is no modern invention) who on this occasion went too far. Whether Pilate was weak or wicked, the result is the same: Jesus was sentenced to die on a Roman cross and Pilate’s name will never be forgotten (10).


  1. Herod Antipas was the second son of Herod the Great by the Samaritan Malthace. He ruled Galilee and parts of Transjordan as Tetrach from 4 BC to AD 39.
  2. Although Pontius Pilate governed the province of Judaea he was did so under the oversight of the Governor of Syria. Pilate’s official title was Praefectus, usually Anglicised as Prefect. However for most English speakers today prefects tend to be senior school pupils so many translations use Governor or Procurator. A Latin inscription found in Caesarea Maritima in 1961 refers to Pilate as Prefect. See http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2010/07/top-ten-biblical-discoveries-in-archaeology-%E2%80%93-6-pontius-pilate-inscription/ (accessed 09/02/2015).
  3. Prefect from AD 15 to 26.
  4. Shabbath 15a of the Babylonian Talmud states that the Sanhedrin did not adjudicate in capital cases and Sanhedrin 18a and 24b of the Palestinian Talmud (the Yerushalmi) says that “capital punishment was abolished forty years before the destruction of the Temple.”
  5. See Jewish War 2:169 – 177; Antiquities 18:35-89
  6. Agrippa I reigned A.D. 37-41
  7. Gaius Caesar is usually known as Caligula, also reigned A.D. 37-41
  8. See Legatio 299-305
  9. Eventually Pilate did go too far. In late 36 or early 37 he allowed a brutal attack on a group of Samaritans. Protests went to his superior Vitellius, governor of Syria, who ordered Pilate to return to Rome to explain himself.
  10. “Pilate could never know it – he would have been astounded to know it – but, apparently insignificant ex-prefect that he was, his would eventually be the most familiar name in all of Roman history. For uncounted masses in future ages, who knew little about a Caesar or Augustus or even Nero, would still confess in The Creed: ‘I believe in Jesus Christ . . . who . . . suffered under Pontius Pilate.'” Maier (1990) page 249.


Catchpole, D. R.: ‘You Have Heard His Blasphemy’ pages 10 – 18 of Tyndale Bulletin 16 (October 1965). Available at (accessed 04/02/2015)

Catchpole, D. R.: The Trial of Jesus: Study in the Gospels and Jewish Historiography from
1770 to the Present Day (Leiden: Brill, 1971)

Corley, Bruce: ‘Trial of Jesus’ in Green et al (editors): Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Leicester: IVP, 1992) pages 841 – 852

Green, Joel B. et al (editors): Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Leicester: IVP, 1992)

Kilpatrick, G. D., The Trial of Jesus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952)

Kimberley, Tim: http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2010/07/top-ten-biblical-discoveries-in-archaeology-%E2%80%93-6-pontius-pilate-inscription/ (accessed 09 / 02 / 2015)

Maier, Paul, Pontius Pilate (Grand Rapids MI: Kregel, 1990 [first edition 1968])

Sayers, Dorothy L., ‘The Princes Of This World’, Play Ten (pages 260 – 286) in The Man Born To Be King (London: Victor Gollancz, 1943). First broadcast by BBC on 21/12/1942. Available to listen at http://grooveshark.com/#!/album/The+Man+Born+To+Be+King/6153293 (accessed 09/02/2015)

Smith, F. LaGard (editor), Narrated Bible (Eugene OR: Harvest House, 1984)

Throckmorton, Burton H., Gospel Parallels (Nashville TN: Thomas Nelson, 1979)

Vermes, Geza, Who’s Who in the Age of Jesus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005).