Gospel of John: Pretrial


When John’s gospel was first circulated, the events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion had become well-known, and there was much that no longer needed to be said. However, because John was known to the high priest, he had the unusual opportunity to be a “fly on the wall” during the unofficial proceedings in the high priests’ quarters the night before Jesus’s official trials commenced.

For you and me today, with two-thousand years between us and those events—years not only in time but in culture and geography—it helps to set the scene and offer some background.

Adjudicators of the Trials

Religious judges: Annas and Caiaphas

It is thought Jesus was arrested around midnight in the Garden of Eden and was brought before Annas, in his private rooms on the temple mount. The Sadducees Annas, all five of five sons, and his son-in-law Caiaphas, held the office of high priest throughout the first century in Palestine. Their families all lived within a housing complex on the temple mount, making it a simple matter for Jesus to be guided through the courtyard that conjoined all their dwellings.

It seems at this point Caiaphas had now been appointed high priest, and his father-in-law, Annas, had stepped down from that office even though he continued to hold the title. Caiaphas would prove himself so politically savvy that even though the appointment of high priest had a one year term, he would manage to hang onto power for another eighteen years.

Of the two, Annas was the more scheming and dark-minded, allied with Rome, and having his finger in a lot of financial pies throughout the region. Still, it was Caiaphas who groomed Judas to become a double agent and betray Jesus. As far as the gospel writers are concerned, though these men both held the holiest position in all Judea and in Judaism, there was nothing good to say about them.

Civic judges: Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate

The Herod who was now Tetrarch of Galilee was Herod the Great’s son Antipas, the one who had had John the Baptist beheaded. And, of course, the infamous Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. Because it was Passover, the most restive and politically volatile of all the religious feasts, both rulers happened to be in Jerusalem.

Pilate was headquartered in the Roman fort built right next to the temple, and Herod was in his palace, built along the western wall of Jerusalem, and within easy walking distance of the temple. Because all of these locations were so close together, you can see how simpe it was to bring Jesus before each of these men in quick succession.

Pontius Pilate was the fifth Roman procurator of Judea from 26-36 A.D., appointed by emperor Tiberius and noted for his cruelty and contempt for the people he had been sent to govern. As the prefect, he had the power of supreme judge, so that any executions had to be ordered through his court and from his bench. The gospels writers had not much good to say about Pilate, either, and history bears them out—he was recalled to Rome not long after Jesus’s execution and exiled to France for his acts of extreme violence and poor management of his province.

Timeline of the Trials

1am, Annas

Annas was probably marking time more than anything, satisfying his curiosity, but also giving Caiaphas and those of the Sanhedrin who could be trusted, to assemble in the meeting halll of the standing high priest. Nevertheless, Annas was a man of significant influence and presence, both politically and religiously, and it is possible at least some of the temple guard sent to arrest Jesus were loyal first to him.

2am-5am, Caiaphas and members of the Sanhedrin

Just a walk through the courtyard and Jesus was next ushered into Caiaphas’s private rooms. It seems Caiaphas was both preparing his own suit as well as gauging the strength of the witnesses and Jesus’s defense. Once satisfied, he was ready to bring his prisoner before Judaism’s highest court.

The Sanhedrin had strict rules of due process. Their sessions were legal only if

  • They met during the daylight, before noon
  • Convened in their official chambers
  • Had appointed court reporters who were present throughout the proceedings

What is more, they could not convict without a unanimous vote. With even one abstention or “no” vote, the accused would be acquitted.

3am, The “Cock Crow”

It was somewhere during this time, being brought back out into the courtyard, that the “cock crowed,” either a trumpet call the Roman divisions used to signal changing of the guard at the end of the 3 a.m. shift, or a rooster somewhere among the high priest’s gardens marking predawn.

5am, Formal Assembly of the Sanhedrin

Which must have been a quorum but only of those who had been invited, for at least two members—Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus—could not have been trusted to vote “no.”

5:30-7am, Pilate and Herod

Jesus was brought first to Pilate in the Antonia Fortress, which abutted the temple, then walked over to Herod in his palace. It seems Pilate also walked there with the armed guard, for when Jesus was finally returned to the Procurator, he had positioned himself within the Praetorium, the judgment seat, situated at the center of Herod’s palace.

This final scene marked a total of six trials in six hours.

John’s Account

There were two types of trials Jesus had to endure – the Jewish trial and the Roman trial. John gives a brief overview on the salient points of both, from his vantage as having witnessed the scene in Annas’s house, and his perspective after fifty years of preaching. His gospel does not include Caiaphas’s pretrial, nor a number of details offered in the synoptic gospels.

What is included is meant to round out the record, nuance the timeline, and present Jesus as in perfect command. One after the other, we will see prophecies fulfilled, and the cross move into position.

John’s introduction to Jesus’ hearing before Annas explains that the entire cohort, the Roman soldiers, the captains, and the guard all took Jesus first to Annas, which indicates a pre-arrangement. Annas was the mastermind, older than Caiaphas, although it was Caiaphas, perhaps in collusion with Annas, who had advised the Sanhedrin just days before that it was better for Judea to have one person die for the people.

Now Annas would guide, from the behind the scenes, how they would maneuver Caiaphas’s advice into a reality.

The Jewish leaders wanted to kill Jesus for religious reasons, and the Romans would not have seen religion as enough of a justification. So, they had to prepare two cases:

  1. Show the Sanhedrin Jesus was worthy of death because of blasphemy and heresy, according to Jewish law.
  2. Show the Roman court that execution was necessary, because of sedition and insurrection, according to Roman law.

Because it was during the Passover, they had to be careful not to stir up so much trouble that the people would riot, and they had to keep themselves ceremonially clean in order to participate in the Passover ceremonies.

It would be a challenge, and Annas was ready to take it on.


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