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John 7:51-53 New International Version

“Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” Then they all went hom.

In the passage from John 7:51, Nicodemus is raising a legal and ethical question by asking whether the law allows condemning someone without first hearing what they have to say. He is advocating for the principle that before making a legal decision, it is necessary to provide an opportunity for the accused person to defend themselves by presenting their version of the facts.

The principle here is that of natural justice and due process, which are fundamental in many legal systems. Nicodemus seems to be emphasizing the importance of ensuring that any accusation is treated fairly and impartially, following appropriate legal procedures.

However, the religious leaders respond in a prejudiced manner, disregarding the legal issue and focusing on Jesus's origin, as he was from Galilee. Their prejudice is evident when they say, "Are you from Galilee too? Look into it, and you will find that no prophet comes out of Galilee." They are using Jesus's place of origin as a basis to dismiss any possibility of him being a prophet, ignoring the legal question raised by Nicodemus.

Which 'law' did Nicodemus appeal to in order to save Jesus?

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The law(s) that Nicodemus alluded to in John 7:51 probably include the following:

  • Ex 23:1, 2 - “You shall not spread a false report. Do not join the wicked by being a malicious witness. You shall not follow the crowd in wrongdoing. When you testify in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.
  • Lev 19:15 - You must not pervert justice; you must not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the rich; you are to judge your neighbor fairly.
  • Deut 1:16, 17 - “Then I charged your judges at that time, saying, ‘Hear the cases between your fellow countrymen, and judge righteously between a man and his fellow countryman, or the alien who is with him. ‘You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not fear man, for the judgment is God’s. The case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’
  • Deut 19:15 - A lone witness is not sufficient to establish any wrongdoing or sin against a man, regardless of what offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
  • Deut 19:18, 19 - The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is proven to be a liar who has falsely accused his brother, you must do to him as he intended to do to his brother. So you must purge the evil from among you.

All this means that before any case is decided:

  • the matter must be investigated,
  • witnesses called,
  • the witness must be deemed reliable witnesses,
  • and the judges must judge fairly and in an unbiased fashion

None of this was done and thus, Nicodemus was keen to correctly follow before condemning Jesus.

By contrast, the leaders wanted to condemn Jesus based simply on where He came from! The Cambridge commentary offers this ironic remark:

Doth our law; ‘Law’ is emphatic. ‘You condemn the multitude for not knowing the law; but are we not forgetting the law in condemning a man unheard?’

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The answer to this question is best understood with reference to the tradition of Oral Torah, which was well established in NT times. Although it was based in the Torah (the Law of Moses) it also involved case law and rabbinical rulings. As a Pharisee of high rank, Nicodemus would have been very familiar with this tradition. It is also referred to by Jesus when he said in Matthew 21:

2 “The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses. 3 Therefore do whatever they tell you, and observe it.

Thus, when Nicodemus referred to "our Law" he did not mean only those laws written in the Torah, but also the legal tradition that had evolved over many centuries since that time. The problem here is that this system of law was not codified in written form. Exactly what he referred to in this statement, therefore, cannot be determined by biblical hermeneutics alone. It must also be informed by a reading of later Jewish legal tradition.

Unfortunately, our written sources for this tradition come from a period centuries later than the time in question. The following summary, however, may be useful to our understanding. According to Britannica

Jewish law was extremely strict regarding evidence acceptable in court. In cases entailing physical punishment, no circumstantial evidence, confession, or self-incrimination was recognized. The testimony of two eyewitnesses who confronted the defendant was required.

The Jewish Virtual Library adds:

It is forbidden to adjudicate the plaintiff 's case in the absence of the defendant (though duly summoned) except where the plaintiff 's claim is prima facie valid... for there shall be no adjudication unless both parties stand before the court (cf. Deut. 19:17)

Conclusion: Although the Law of Moses itself does not stipulate that the defendant has a right to be heard at trial, the legal tradition that evolved through the succeeding centuries indeed required that a judgment in abstentia be avoided - especially if the defendant could be summoned to defend himself. This was not a case where a trial in the absence of the defendant would be considered procedurally valid.

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