I HL Lord Chancellor's office in the Palace of Westminster is appointed with all the splendour of a Victorian throne-room.
At one end the Chancellor's wig sits on its stand in the middle of a large bare table: at the other, across an expanse of carpet. sits Lord Hailsham behind a wide desk.
I asked Lord Hailsham if, as a lawyer who had reached the top of the tree, he had thought about the trial of Jesus from a legal point of view.
He said: "I naturally have, of course, but the historical legal background is partially unknown to us. There were three enquiries: one before the Sanhedrin, with the background of Jewish rabbinical law, another before Herod, when Our Lord said nothing, and a third before Pilate."
He continued fluently as if delivering a judgement: "To Pilate, the crowd cried: 'If you release this man you are no friend of Caesar's.' Pilate's crime was that he did not act according to his conscience. He was politically blackmailed. It was a very sinister threat, ' "It was then the bad time in the reign of Tiberias when he was on Capri, and the law of majestas had been passed. The threat was no idle one. If Pilate had infringed this law, Tiberias would have ordered hint to commit suicide. The right to be king depended on the Roman Emperor, and Our Lord's claim to be king went against the Emperor's majestas.
"Herod's kingdom had been split and Judea was a procuratorship, under what we would call direct rule. Pilate was a knight. eques, his wife was well connected, but he was not a senatorial figure. He was responsible to the Emperor, and possibly under certain circumstances to the Governor of Syria. Pilate gave way to blackmail after he had found Our Lord innocent.
"What rights Our Lord as a Jew had under the procuratorship is doubtful. He was probably no better off than a slave. Pilate was acting under his jurisdiction by having him scourged. He tried to get out of putting him to death any way he could, trying one device after another. When he tried to turn him over to the Jews,
they answered: It is not lawful for us to put any man to death,' "Crucifixion was a Roman punishment. It was invented I think by the Macedonians. It was common and extremely horrible. After the Spartacus rebellion. 1,000 men were crucified along the Appian way. It was a long and lingering death. Pilate was surprised that Our Lord was already dead after three hours.
"The appearance before Herod can be almost disregarded — it aborted in some way, because Our Lord would say nothing. He seemed to have the strongest antipathy to Herod. He had called him 'That old fox' — probably because of the disgraceful story of St John the Baptist.
"The Jewish story is much more puzzling. One has to make up one's mind what went on before the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin, apart from Roman rule had juridicial power. Sometimes they imposed the death penalty, as we see from St Stephen's story.
"But it was contrary to rabbinical law for the Sanhedrin to exercise this power during night hours. Secondly, they were not allowed to ask questions of the accused, which they did: "Art thou the Christ?" Was it a trial in any sense of the word'? If it was, it was illegal. "There is evidence in the Gospel that it was. No two witnesses agreed, we are told, and it was a feature of rabbinical law that you could not condemn a man to death without corroboration.
"Why did the High Priest say: "Why do you still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy? They would rend their garments at open' blasphemy, but it only came with the uttering of the divine name. The divine name was only whispered by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies, But Our Lord had answered 'Thou hast said I am'. The form of affirmative was of the polite kind. But the reply is in Odd Greek, using the pronoun.
'I am' suggests a reference to the divine name, Jahweh, or whatever, which means '1 am'. When Our Lord had said 'Before Abraham was I am,' it led the crowd to want to stone him.
"St John is a very good source for the trial. He appears to have known what went on inside the Jewish establishment better than the Synopties," I asked the Chancellor what he thought of Our Lord's denunciations of lawyers.
"Our Lord was not talking about something we would call law today. Tiler. were not under a secular state w here canon law and civil law were distinct. It was more like living under the Ayatollah Khomeini.
"I'm convinced, and this is a personal reading, that Our Lord was complaining of the rigidity of the law, the scrubbing of dishes and so on.
"We are faced with the different question of what he was trying to say in a purely historical context. and I think I know the
"Since the Maccabean revolt had petered out, there was one question: 'Whither Jewry?' The Pharisees answered: 'We must keep ourselves pure.' This ritual purity made it impossible to eat at the same meal as a Gentile. Then the zealots, the liberation army, were for bumping off Romans and all collaborators. This led ultimately to the revolt or AD 70. The Essenes said: 'Let us live in a desert place.' They were rather like Fourth century monks. The Temple establishment Sadducees said: "Provided the ritual sacrifices are made and the law performed traditionally, there is no need to look for the resurrection, and peace with Rome is morally indifferent.
"Our Lord's answer was that the real future of Israel was to liberate and redeem mankind. Not a jot of the law will pass away, but this was a new movement based on love. It absolutely shocked all four sets of people."
Nowadays, I asked, is it not difficult to live in accordance with Our Lord's new message?
-I don't think it is difficult. Christianity is a liberating religion. I am not of the school that says it can tell you to adopt political policies. 'My servants are not of this world,' The Church has her sacraments and the Jews had their law. The Sacraments arc liberating things, not restricting. St Paul when he deals with the Jewish law says it is restricting. That is as true today as it was then."