(Hebrew: house of law, or house of judgment) A Jewish religious court or trial. In Rabbi Yeshua’s time the highest court was the Sanhedrin, which originated during the Second Temple era. However, the Jewish tradition of religious courts goes back to Moses, who sat as a magistrate among the people and later appointed others as judges, reserving for himself only the most difficult cases.
Rabbi Yeshua’s bet din by the Sanhedrin was based on this passage from the Torah: “If there is found among you, within any of your towns which the Lord your God gives you, a man or woman who does what is evil … then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true … you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones” Deut 17:2–5. The bet din was to be a real trial. “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses” Deut 17:6.
Rabbi Yeshua‘s bet din had to be in Jerusalem, as he told us: “It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” Lk 13:33. The Oral Torah taught, “They judge a tribe, a false prophet, and a high priest, only on the instructions of a court of seventy-one members.”1 The Great Sanhedrin was composed of seventy-one members, the high priest and seventy elders. Small Sanhedrins of twenty-three members could judge even cases of murder locally, but a false prophet had to be judged in Jerusalem, the crossroads of the ancient world. Rabbi Yeshua had been charged with false prophecy by blasphemy. Even some Pharisees warned him , “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” Lk 13:31, the only place in all four Gospels where Pharisees tried to help him, but he had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” Lk 9:51.
The law of the bet din was, “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow” Deut 16:20, but the bet din by which Caiaphas judged Rabbi Yeshua was illegal on procedure. The law of the bet din was specific: “A person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness” Deut 17:6, but in Rabbi Yeshua‘s bet din there were not two witnesses agreeing on any specific event. But “The high priest tore his robes, and said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy. Why do we still need witnesses?’” Mt 26:65. Tearing one’s garments is an ancient Jewish gesture of extreme distress. However, the Mosaic Law prohibited the high priest from tearing his sacred robes. “The priest who is chief among his brethren … shall not … rend his clothes” Lev 21:10. And the high priest needed witnesses because the Torah prescribes, “A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained” Deut 19:15.
The Torah prescribes, “He who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him” Lev 24:16. In some cases, stoning meant pushing the person from a high place onto a stone surface such as a large rock. The Mishna records, “The place of stoning was twice the height of a man. One of the witnesses pushes him over from the hips, so [hard] that he turned upward [in his fall].”2 In others, stoning was done by throwing heavy stones at the person. But the Sanhedrin did not stone Rabbi Yeshua; they brought him to Pilate.
The death penalty by stoning was applied only rarely. The Jewish courts made every effort to avoid it. That may have been why mobs sometimes tried to take “justice” into their own hands, as the synagogue crowd did with Rabbi Yeshua and the scribes and Pharisees did with Mary Magdalene.
Rabbi Yeshua‘s bet din was illegal on substance as well as procedure. Caiaphas charged Rabbi Yeshua with blasphemy, contempt for God, for his prophecy, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands” Mk 14:58. When Caiaphas asked Rabbi Yeshua, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed” Mk 14:61 he boldly declared, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” Mk 14:62. This was the most grave omission of the Sanhedrin’s illegal bet din. These proclamations would have been blasphemy only if Rabbi Yeshua were not the Son of God, but the Sanhedrin made no attempt to prove that he was not. The evidence warranted belief.
Caiaphas evidently knew that he had no evidence against Rabbi Yeshua. After Rabbi Kefa healed a man lame from birth Acts 3:2 by Rabbi Yeshua‘s power Acts 3:6, the Jewish authorities arrested the shlikhim and convened something like a bet din but, “Seeing the man that had been healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition” Acts 4:14. Then they asked the shlikhim to leave the room and said to one another, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is manifest to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it” Acts 4:16.
This corrupt bet din was the beginning of the crossroads for Israel. If the trial had proceeded according to the Torah, evidence available to the Sanhedrin would have shown that Rabbi Yeshua was the Son of God. The charge against him would have been dropped, and the whole Jewish nation would have worshiped him.
But God knew his people. As always, he uses our evil ways to redeem us all.