The more closely I read the details of the events leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion, the more convinced I am that they unfolded over a period of days, not hours.
The morning after his arrest, Jesus was hauled in front of the Sanhedrin for a final religious kangaroo court. The decision had been predetermined the night before, but to simulate legality, the elders, chief priests, and scribes gathered together to make it official.
Having declared Jesus a blasphemer, they dragged Him off to Pilate. Not wanting to defile themselves by entering into a Gentile home, which would make them unclean and unable to eat the Feast of Unleavened Bread, they remained outside while Pilate came to them.
I don’t know what they expected. A rubber stamp on their guilty verdict? They didn’t seem prepared. Pilate asked them what Jesus was guilty of and they said, in essence, Trust us, he’s no good. In other words, they made no accusation at first, apart from calling him an evildoer—a fact, they told Pilate, he could believe because they would not have brought him otherwise. A rather circular argument, and one Pilate wasn’t buying.
His first ruling was, You take him and punish him if he’s broken your law.
The Jews cut to the chase, then: “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” But they still had the problem that their accusation of blasphemy was not a crime against Rome.
That’s when they changed tactics and started accusing Jesus of things that would be an affront to the Roman government: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.” (Luke 23:2-3)
The last point got Pilate’s attention. Leaving the Jewish leaders outside, he went into the judgment hall and called Jesus to him. In reality, this interview began the first of the three political trials Jesus faced.
Did all these events happen in less than an hour? I have my doubts. In fact, because it was the day after Passover and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a special Sabbath according to Old Testament law, I would postulate that the Pharisees delivered Jesus over to Pilate’s soldiers and scurried on home without hanging around the Gentile judgment hall.
I could be wrong about this. Pilate might have concluded this first trial some time that day, but I think it’s just as possible he didn’t rush right out when the Jews came calling, that he dealt with this legal matter in order, after he’d tended to the usual matters of the day. At this point he would certainly not have had reason to think the situation was an emergency.
At any rate, at some point, whether that day or whether several days later after the Special Sabbath and the regular Sabbath, in his interview with Jesus, the governor tried to nail him down regarding this accusation that He claimed to be a king.
Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Pilate *said to Him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38)
Pilate went outside to the waiting Jewish leaders and rendered his verdict regarding Jesus—not guilty. The Pharisees, perhaps growing somewhat desperate, tried to strengthen their case against Jesus, telling Pilate He was stirring up the people from as far away as Galilee.
At last Pilate saw a way out of this mess. Kind Herod, ruler of the Galilean district, was in Jerusalem for Passover. He could deal with Jesus.
And so ended the first trial. But did the second trial start that same day? Scripture doesn’t say one way or the other. But we are told that up to this point Herod and Pilate didn’t get along. Would Herod have rushed to respond to a message from Pilate that he was sending him a prisoner to examine?
Possibly. Scripture says Herod was eager to talk to Jesus. But did he know at once that Jesus was the prisoner?
I don’t know.
And I don’t know what the protocol was for judicial hearings. I do know that John the Baptist had been kept in prison for days and that Paul, when he was to be tried by Festus, also remained locked up for days. I don’t think there was a Roman policy about a speedy trial.
Scripture does say, Herod “questioned Him at some length” (Luke 23:9a). Was that for hours? All day? We don’t know for sure, but I suspect it was longer than the hour the traditional view of these events would allow.
The thing was, Jesus wouldn’t placate Herod’s curiosity. He refused to answer his questions. Even when the chief priests and scribes showed up to accuse Jesus of crimes He hadn’t committed, He made no defense.
Herod didn’t render a finding but that didn’t stop his soldiers from making sport of Jesus. After the official part of the trial, they decked Him out in a robe, mocked him, and treated him with contempt.
Back Jesus went to Pilate. The governor, according to Luke, had to call the chief priests and scribes together, again an indication that they weren’t standing in the streets waiting for this decision to be handed down.
I suspect by this time they realized they needed more leverage against Pilate. And if these trials were spread over several days, they would have had a reasonable amount of time to stir up some opposition to Jesus.
I don’t see the crowd who welcomed Him into Jerusalem turning against Him in a matter of an hour or so. But given time, word would get out that the Sanhedrin had found Jesus guilty.
On top of that, there were a number of Messiah claimants who preceded Jesus. Were the people once again disillusioned when the Passover came and went and Jesus didn’t lead them against Roman rule? That’s what most of the Jews expected from the Messiah. He would come as the descendant of David to claim his throne.
At any rate, when Jesus returned to Pilate, the Jewish leaders were prepared. They had the charges they could bring and the people primed to do their part.
Pilate again declared Jesus to be innocent and turned to the people, hoping they would side with him. Instead they clamored for a real insurrectionist named Barabas, and cried for Jesus to be crucified.
The governor had one ally, though. His wife had had a dream—which fits more perfectly into the timeline of events if she had heard about Jesus appearing before her husband, then had a dream in the night. Whenever this dream occurred, it unsettled her for some time, (“last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him” Matt. 27:19b) to the point that she had to warn Pilate not to have anything to do with “that righteous man.”
Pilate settled on a different punishment from crucifixion—scourging. His soldiers beat Jesus, mocked Him, feigned obeisance to the “King of the Jews”—the people they hated. None of this satisfied the Jewish leaders.
Again they threw the original charge at Jesus: “He made Himself out to be the Son of God.” Now Pilate was terrified, but he was more terrified of Rome. When it looked like he’d have a riot on his hands, when the Jewish leaders accused him of being no friend of Caesar’s for allowing this rival king to live, he relented.
And so, after all his findings of not guilty, Pilate washed his hands of the matter, literally, and told the Jewish leaders to do what they wanted to do.
Three political trials and one religious trial, all in the space of three hours? It doesn’t seem likely. But if these events were spread out over days, not hours, it’s easy to see them unfold logically—particularly the crowd growing more and more hostile and Pilate’s resistance wearing down.