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Caiaphas' Kangaroo Court

by Duccio, c. 1310

Caiaphas' Kangaroo Court


The Gospel of John indicates that Rabbi Yeshua was tried for His “crimes” in the house of Caiaphas: “So Annas sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest” (John 18:24). Sleepy-headed Sadducean scribes and priests filed into the chamber, as did witnesses who had heard Yeshua’s teachings in the Temple. Caiaphas was present, and as head of the assembly, he quickly convened the court. “The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin kept trying to obtain false testimony against Yeshua, so that they might put Him to death” (Matthew 26:59). Scholars disagree about how to interpret the trial in Caiaphas’ house. Was this an actual trial or merely an interrogation? Was it conducted by the Sanhedrin or by a small, derivative council under the authority of Caiaphas? The assembly that tried the Master was composed of several members of the Sanhedrin, but it was not the legitimate council of seventy that constituted the whole Sanhedrin. Where was Nicodemus or the even-handed president of the Sanhedrin, Rabban Gamliel? What about Yochanan ben Zakkai or Shim’on ben Gamliel? How did Paul the Benjamite miss out on the trial? Virtually the entire Pharisaic party seems to have been absent from the proceedings. (A few Pharisees may have participated, but if so, they constituted a small minority, and most of them would have been friends of the high priest and hostile to Yeshua.) Caiaphas neither wanted nor needed the Pharisees’ fair-minded meddling and concern for proper trial procedures. Josephus reports, “The Sadducees are extremely severe in judging offenders.” Neither Annas nor Caiaphas sought to ascertain the truth about Yeshua. Caiaphas saw the death of Yeshua as a sacrifice necessary to keep the peace. He and his associates could not afford to allow a young Messiah-character whip Jerusalem into an apocalyptic frenzy during the Passover festival. The ensuing riot might cost them their prominent positions, if not their lives. Caiaphas had already made his formal argument before the Sanhedrin several weeks earlier (John 11:47-53). He portrayed Yeshua as a dangerous revolutionary who might incite a rebellion. He argued, “It is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish” (John 11:50). Now that he had Yeshua in custody, he only needed to go through some formalities to ascertain a plausible pretext for the man’s execution. Caiaphas assembled a kangaroo court—in his home, in the middle of the night—in order to dispose quickly and quietly of the nasty business. He did not summon the whole Sanhedrin, and the ensuing courtroom scene cannot be accurately described as a legal or official trial of the Sanhedrin. According to Lichtenstein’s explanation, the Romans had forced the legitimate Sanhedrin out of the Temple (perhaps even out of Jerusalem) and given authority over the religious, legislative body to Caiaphas. With the assistance of Pilate, the Sadducees hijacked the Sanhedrin in the year the Master died. Caiaphas and his colleagues committed numerous infractions of proper trial procedure. Alfred Edersheim observes, “All Jewish order and law would have been grossly infringed in almost every particular, if this had been a formal meeting of the Sanhedrin.” A few examples will suffice:

· The Sanhedrin could not try a capital case outside of their regular meeting place on the Temple Mount. Yet here, the judges assembled in a private house.

· Capital cases had to be tried by daylight, but Caiaphas and his court convened and adjourned before dawn.

· No trials could be held on Sabbaths or holy days or on the eve of a festival or Sabbath. Neither did the Sanhedrin conduct trials during the entire month of Nisan. In this case, Caiaphas and his court conducted the trial on the eve of Passover and the eve of the Sabbath during the month of Nisan.

· In a capital case, the court did not declare a guilty verdict on the same day as the trial. The court of Caiaphas came to a verdict in less than an hour.

· In a capital case, when the testimony of witnesses proves false, the judges nullify it and punish the witnesses. The court of Caiaphas ignored that the false witnesses were revealed by cross-examination.

· In capital cases, the court appointed a defense attorney to defend the accused. Yeshua had none.

· The accused is not allowed to incriminate himself. Caiaphas made Yeshua’s own words the basis for the verdict.

· Before standing trial, the offender should have been verbally warned by two witnesses that the deed he was about to commit was a crime.

· In a capital case, senior judges vote last to avoid influencing the court. Caiaphas voted first.

· In a capital case, a unanimous guilty vote must be declared a mistrial. In the court of Caiaphas, they all consented to the verdict.

Caiaphas might not have felt beholden to any of these rules since he was not conducting an official trial. In any event, all of the above-mentioned rules of trial procedure were Pharisaic rules that pertained to the legitimate Sanhedrin, but the members of the court of Caiaphas were all Sadducees.

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