Who hanged Jesus?

The Trial of Jesus: According to Jewish Law, there would have been no crucifixion


by Prof. Dr. Thomas Rüfner


On Good Friday we commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. The gospels not only portray the cruel execution, but also the process that preceded it. The legal historian Thomas Rüfner uses the biblical accounts to explain the jurisdiction of the time and the offenses Jesus was probably charged with.

The area of ​​Judea with the capital Jerusalem was ruled by King Herod the Great in the decades before the turn of the century. Although he was king by the grace of Rome, he was relatively independent. After his death, his empire was initially divided into four parts (tetrarchies), which were given to his sons. Since the eldest son Archelaus proved incompetent, his area with Jerusalem as the province of Judea was placed under direct Roman administration. His brother Herod Antipas, however, kept the tetrarchy of Galilee and Perea assigned to him.

According to the record of the four Gospels, after his arrest, Jesus was brought before the Jewish council under the presidency of the high priest Kajaphas. Then he was brought to Pontius Pilate, who finally had Jesus crucified. According to the Gospel of Luke, the hearing in front of Pilate is interrupted by the fact that he transfers Jesus to Herod Antipas, who sends him back.

Jewish authorities were not allowed to impose the death penalty

The first phase of the process took place before the high priest and the Sanhedrin. The high priest was the highest Jewish official in the province. At the time of the trial of Jesus, he was appointed by the governor. The functioning of the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus is controversial in historical research because it is unclear to what extent information in the later rabbinical literature (Mishnah), which describes a council with 71 members, a clearly regulated procedure and specific responsibilities, applies to the time of Jesus .

In any case, under Roman rule, the high priest and the high council were presumably empowered to try religious offenses. This was in line with the Roman practice of allowing subject peoples to have their own rights to a certain extent.

According to the descriptions of the Gospels, procedural rules of Jewish law were violated in the proceedings before the Sanhedrin, for example by the fact that the hearing began at night. However, it is not certain that the criminal case was at all a formal conviction. It is possible that the proceedings were continued after a preliminary investigation by the high priest before Pilate, because the penal power of the Jewish authorities did not include the death penalty.

Pontius Pilate was Prefect of Judea from 26 to 37 AD. Militarily he was subordinate to the governor of the larger province of Syria, but he had the authority to impose the death penalty on his own authority.

The transfer to Herod Antipas cannot be explained without further ado: Pilate was not obliged to hand Jesus over to Herod because he came from Nazareth in Galilee and thus from the area under Herod: The governor had the right to self-inflict deeds committed in his province punish.

Charged with blasphemy or a crime of majesty

The proceedings before Pilate did not follow any particular form. Pilate made the decision alone. In any case, he was permitted to do so in relation to a defendant who - like Jesus - did not have Roman citizenship. Later, the informal procedure before a single official replaced the traditional procedure before jury courts, also in Rome and in trials against citizens.

In the matter, Pontius Pilate applied Roman criminal law, while the High Council proceeded according to Jewish law. This can already be seen in the different versions of the charge: Before the Jewish court, Jesus was mainly accused of blasphemy. In the case of Pontius Pilate, however, Jesus was accused of pretending to be King of the Jews and thus questioning the emperor's rule. This charge could be aimed at incitement to riot or the so-called crime of majesty.

For both crimes, offenders who did not have Roman citizenship could be sentenced to death on the cross. It is also conceivable that Jesus was punished for disregarding the judgment because he did not comment on the allegations. The type of punishment again shows that Pilate judged according to Roman law, because Jewish law did not recognize the crucifixion.

The biblical accounts of the trial of Jesus leave many questions unanswered. Nevertheless, they throw interesting highlights on the Roman provincial administration, which gave the subjugated peoples a certain degree of independence, but reacted with extreme brutality when Roman rule was called into question.

The author Prof. Dr. Thomas Rüfner holds the chair for civil law, Roman law, modern history of private law as well as German and international civil procedural law at the University of Trier.