An Account of the First Easter: Part VI

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The “Trial”

After his arrest, Jesus was bound and led away to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest. Annas himself had been the high priest, but Pilate’s predecessor had deposed him 15 years prior. Normally, a high priest held the office for life, so many of the Jews may not have fully recognized the authority of the series of Annas’ relatives which succeeded him. At any rate, he held considerable influence, and who knows — perhaps he was one of the chief instigators in the plot against Jesus. Peter and John follow, and because John was known to the high priest, he is able to speak to a servant-girl and gain entry into the courtyard. The girl must have known who John was, and with perhaps a little surprise asked Peter if he was also a disciple of Jesus: Peter denied it, and stepped into the courtyard where John was waiting. It was late into the evening by this time, and the servants had made a charcoal fire to keep warm, and Peter joined them there.

Meanwhile, Annas questioned Jesus about his teaching and about his disciples. He replied that he had taught openly, and that there should be no need to question him about it — and one of the nearby officials slapped him, saying “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” Still bound, he was led from there to Caiaphas, who may have shared a common courtyard with his father-in-law.

While Peter continued to warm himself by the fire, his Galilean accent may probably gave him away, and a man asks him if he was one of Jesus’ disciples; he denies it. Another man at the fire, a relative of Malchus, in fact, challenges Peter, saying “Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove?” Peter denies it vehemently with an oath, saying “I don’t know the man!” While he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. Jesus looked straight at him, and he went outside and wept bitterly. We can only guess what went through his mind, but I suspect that for the rest of his life, the crowing of a rooster just may have brought it all rushing back to him.

The chief priests and members of the Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they could not find two witnesses whose stories could agree. Finally, two came forward saying that Jesus had claimed to be able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days. This is taken to be an instigation to desecrate the holy place, and Jesus cannot reply, so keeps his silence. He did make the statement, but it was so misunderstood that an affirmative reply would confirm that he deserved to die. Caiaphas cuts to the chase, and simply asks him if he is the Messiah. Jesus responds positively, which Caiaphas interprets as a blasphemous statement. The Sanhedrin at that point finds him worthy of death.

There is a lot to be observed about the trial of Jesus. There were special rules governing capital trials, which were not observed. A trial was not to be conducted at night, nor concluded in a single day. It could only take place during a regularly scheduled meeting of the Sanhedrin in the usual meeting place, and the Sanhedrin was not to assemble on the eve of a Sabbath or during a feast — this was both. The testimony of the accused alone was insufficient to issue a conviction, and whatever witnesses appeared had to agree as to all material facts in order to bring the charge. In Jesus’ case, it is his testimony which sparks the sentence of death, and it has nothing to do with the charge brought by the witnesses which had been procured. He is not given opportunity for a defence, and no formal sentence is issued for the conviction for blasphemy before he is sent off to Pilate with charges of sedition… which is not the charge under which they condemned him by Jewish law. The Jews did not have authority under Roman rule to carry out a death sentence, and had to appeal to the Roman authorities to obtain it. With Jesus, they decide he is guilty of blasphemy, but change the charge when appealing to Pilate in order to increase the likelihood that they would receive the verdict they were after.

They blindfolded Jesus, mocked and spat on him. They slapped him, and challenged him to prophesy which of them had struck him. Then they led him to the Roman governor, Pilate, and demanded his death. It was early morning by this time, and the Jews do not enter the palace in order to avoid becoming ceremonially unclean — it was the Sabbath during a feast, after all.

Before pronouncing any judgement against Jesus, Pilate conducts his own interview. He questions Jesus about kingship in order to determine if he was an insurrectionist whose kingship necessitated the overthrow of Caesar, or a religious figure whose “kingship” held no threat at all to Rome. Jesus gives it to him fairly straight, but Pilate has difficulty with the concept of truth. He tells the Jews that he can’t find any reason to put Jesus to death, as he poses no threat to Caesar. He learns from the Jews that Jesus is a Galilean, and so sends him to Herod, probably attempting to pass along the problem of what to do with him. His action also ended a feud between him and Herod, as Matthew tells us they became friends from that day on.

Crown of Thorns Jesus would not answer Herod’s questions, so he placed an elegant purple robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate, whose soldiers twisted some thorns into a crown and placed it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand, knelt in front of him and mocked him; they spat on him and struck him. They hit him over the head with the staff, beating the crown of thorns down on his head and into his flesh.

Since he really doesn’t want to put Jesus to death, Pilate offers to release Jesus in fulfilment of the custom to release one prisoner each year at Passover. If not Jesus, then a man named Barabbas could be released. There is a variant reading of Matthew 27:16-17 that calls this man Jesus Barabbas. The Bible Society’s committee determined that this was the original reading, but omitted it on theological grounds. Jesus Barabbas had actually been the leader of an insurrection — Jesus of Nazareth was only charged with it. Barabbas means “son of the father,” and so it may only have been a term used to distinguish between two men named Jesus – after all, Jesus of Nazareth did not have a father. “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Y’shua,” or Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” The Jews call for the release of Jesus Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus, “King of the Jews.” The irony is that they opt for the son of an earthly father rather than a heavenly one, and crucify the one who sought to establish a heavenly kingdom, sparing the one who sought an earthly one by force.

Pilate essentially has a mob on his hands, and decides to acquiesce halfway. He sends Jesus out to be scourged. This was essentially a torture process whereby the victim was stripped and bound to an upright post with his hands above his head in order to pull the skin taught across his back. Then they would take the scourge, which was a short whip with several leather thongs fixed to a wooden handle. Attached to the leather thongs were metal balls, fragments of bone, and other small sharp objects. With each blow to the victim’s back, these fragments would tear into the skin, and pieces of flesh would be torn out when the scourge was drawn away. This would continue, shredding the skin, flesh, and muscles of the back, buttocks, and legs – often until parts of the backbone or inner organs were exposed.

They put the purple robe back on him, and Pilate led him out before the people, probably hoping that they would be satisfied with the punishment thus far. Scourging was often a precursor to crucifixion, though, and the Jews shout for Pilate to finish the job. Pilate insisted that he found no fault in Jesus, while Jews insist that he should die because he claimed to be the Son of God. As soon as he heard this, Pilate withdrew to question Jesus further. His wife had had a dream about Jesus, and warned Pilate to have nothing to do with him, for he was an innocent man. Pilate speaks with Jesus about authority, after which he tries again to have him released. The Jews pressure him, saying that he is no friend of Caesar if he does not put Jesus to death: it is almost tantamount to blackmail, and ultimately, he surrenders to the mob outside. He brought Jesus out, and asked the Jews, “Shall I crucify your king?”

Now there was a point in the Passover ceremony — which had just been celbrated hours before — when the Jews prayed, “From everlasting thou art God… We have no king but thee.” A few days earlier, they had questioned Jesus on taxes in an attempt to entrap him into acknowledging Caesar’s authority, thereby disowning God. Now it is the chief priests who reply to Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar!”

Pilate washes his hands Pilate brings out a basin and dramatically washes his hands symbolically of Jesus’ blood… then he hands him over to the mob to be crucified. Now that the robe had congealed somewhat with the blood from the wounds on his back, they tore it off and put his own clothes back on him, and led him away.

Those who were crucified were required to carry their own cross out the place of crucifixion – largely as an example to others, it was arranged as a public display. They did not actually carry the entire cross, only the crossbar; the upright post would already be at the site, and the entire cross would have been too heavy for one man to carry alone. The crosspiece by itself was extremely heavy. Once onsite, it would be hoisted up to the upright pole, which would be standing in position already. When complete, the cross was more of a “T” than the cross we traditionally imagine. They traced through the streets of Jerusalem, along what is now known as the Via Dolorosa, “The Way of Sorrows.” Along the way, Jesus’ strength left him, and he was unable to carry the crossbar any further. A man from Cyrene named Simon was conscripted to carry it for him. We don’t know much about him, but believe that he was a black man.

The Crucifixion

When they arrived at Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull,” the crossbar would be laid on the ground, and the victim thrown down on top of it. They would take large spikes and drive them through his wrists into the crossbar, which was then hoisted into position at the top of the upright pole.

The spikes used for the crucifixion would have been almost exactly like the one pictured here. This is actually a railroad spike, but it would be a very close replica. This is what they drove through the victim’s hands, and through his feet.

Crucifixion was a Roman invention, perhaps the pinnacle of accomplishment for those wishing to inflict death by the most torturous means imaginable. Rather than the format common to our crucifix, it would have looked something like the diagram shown here. A small wooden block was fastened to the upright post as a crude seat for the victim, whose legs were then twisted to one side with his knees bent together, and a third spike was driven through the side of his feet into the upright beam. Every time the victim would move to gasp for breath, his agony would increase with searing pain.

Pilate had a sign prepared in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, and had it fastened above Jesus to identify him as the King of the Jews. It was normal to display a man’s crime when he was crucified, and the Jews complained to Pilate that the sign should read that Jesus only claimed to be their king. Pilate’s response may have been an “inadvertent prophecy:” “What I have written, I have written.” In other words, Pilate’s statement and the meaning of his sign was that Jesus’ “crime” was to have actually been the King of the Jews.

The soldiers took Jesus’ garment and cast lots for it. It was a seamless garment, like that of a priest, and they did not want to tear it up to divide it among themselves. From the cross, Jesus entrusts his mother into the care of the Apostle John, and in a sense, remains in control the entire time though he underwent considerable mockery and ridicule from those around him. He was crucified with a criminal on either side of him — one of whom also began to throw curses at Jesus. The other, though, believed in Jesus’ power to save, and rebuked the first criminal, saying that they deserved their punishment, but Jesus was innocent. He asked Jesus to remember him in his Kingdom, and Jesus replied, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”

Darkness fell across the earth for about three hours, from about noon to 3:00. This was a supernatural event, not a simple solar eclipse. The darkness was global, and was recorded in history not only by the Romans, but also by the Egyptians, Aztecs and Mayans. Around 3:00PM, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Harmonizing his last words as reported differently by the gospel writers, after he was given sour wine to drink, he said, “It is finished,” and cried out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” He then gave up his spirit and died. At the same instant, the curtain in the temple separating the most holy place was torn in two, from top to bottom. A centurion standing by said, “Beyond all doubt, this man was innocent: surely he was the Son of God.” (A dramatization of his death is available to PC users, with a bit of artistic license, of course.)

The Jews did not want dead bodies to defile the land on the Sabbath, which began at 6:00PM, and so asked Pilate to break the legs of the victims. This was often done so that they would not be able to shift position in order to breathe, and they would then die more quickly due to asphyxiation. The soldiers broke the legs of the two criminals, but as Jesus was already dead, they only thrust a spear into his side to be sure.

Tomb These last events fulfilled scripture concerning Jesus as the sacrificial Passover lamb. He died at the same time of day, he was completely pure, and none of his bones had been broken. Much later on, Paul would write to the Corinthians (1Cor. 1:18) “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”

A man named Joseph of Arimathea obtained permission from Pilate to remove Jesus’ body. He and he and Nicodemus (who had met with Jesus one night some time ago) were secret disciples of Jesus as well as being members of the Sanhedrin. They must have been unaware of the plot and of the previous night’s unscheduled meeting. Nicodemus brought with him enough burial spices for a king — about 75 pounds of it. They borrowed a tomb and laid Jesus in it according to Jewish customs. (Who else could borrow a tomb – and give it back?)

The Jews were fearful that the disciples would try to steal the body, and had Pilate post guards to prevent such an action. Eventually, these guards were bribed for their silence about what happened in the next few days.

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