SPECIAL TOPIC: THE SANHEDRIN

I. Sources of Information

A. The New Testament itself

B. Flavius Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews

C. The Mishnah section of the Talmud (i.e., Tractate "Sanhedrin")

Unfortunately the NT and Josephus do not agree with the rabbinical writings, which seem to assert two Sanhedrins in Jerusalem, one priestly (i.e., Sadducean), controlled by the High Priest and dealing with civil and criminal justice and a second controlled by the Pharisees and scribes, concerned with religious and traditional issues.  However, the rabbinical writings date from a.d. 200 and reflect the cultural situation after the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman general, Titus, in a.d. 70.  The Jews reestablished their religious life at a city called Jamnia and later (i.e., a.d. 118) moved to Galilee.

 

II. Terminology

The problem with identifying this judicial body involves the different names by which it is known. There are several words used to describe judicial bodies within the Jewish community of Jerusalem.

A. Gerousia – "senate" or "council."  This is the oldest term which was used toward the end of the Persian period (cf. Josephus' Antiquities 12.3.3 and II Maccabees 11:27).  It is used by Luke in Acts 5:21 along with "Sanhedrin."  It may have been a way of explaining the term to Greek speaking readers (cf.          I Macc. 12:35).

B. Synedrion – "Sanhedrin."  This is a compound from syn (together with) and hedra (seat).  Surprisingly this term is used in Aramaic, but it reflects a Greek word.  By the end of the Maccabean period this had become the accepted term to designate the supreme court of the Jews in Jerusalem (cf. Matt. 26:59; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66; John 11:47; Acts 5:27).  The problem comes when the same terminology is used of local judicial councils outside Jerusalem (cf. Matt. 5:22; 10:17).

C. Presbyterion – "council of elders" (cf. Luke 22:66).  This is an OT designation for tribal leaders.  However, it came to refer to the supreme court in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 22:5).

D. Boulē – This term "council" is used by Josephus (i.e., Wars 2.16.2; 5.4.2, but not the NT) to describe several judicial bodies:

1. the Senate in Rome

2. local Roman courts

3. the Jewish supreme court in Jerusalem

4. local Jewish court

Joseph of Arimathea is described as a member of the Sanhedrin by a form of this term (i.e., bouleutēs, which means "councilor," cf. Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50).

 

III. Historical Development

Originally Ezra is said to have set up the Great Synagogue (cf. Targum on Song of Songs 6:1) in the post-exilic period, which seems to have become the Sanhedrin of Jesus' day.

A. The Mishnah (i.e., Talmud) records that there were two major courts in Jerusalem (cf. Sanh. 7:1).

1. One made up of 70 (or 71) members (Sand. 1:6 even states that Moses set up the first Sanhedrin in Numbers 11, cf. Num. 11:16-25).

2. One made up of 23 members (but this may refer to local synagogue courts).

3. Some Jewish scholars believe there were three 23-member Sanhedrins in Jerusalem.  When the three got together they, along with the two leaders, constituted "the Great Sanhedrin" of 71 members (i.e., Nasi and Av Bet Din).

a. one priestly (i.e., Sadducees)

b. one legal (i.e., Pharisees)

c. one aristocratic (i.e., elders)

B.In the post-exilic period, the returning Davidic seed was Zerubbabel and the returning Aaronic seed was Joshua.  After Zerubbabel's death, no Davidic seed continued, so the judicial mantle passed exclusively to the priests (cf. I Macc. 12:6) and local elders (cf. Neh. 2:16; 5:7).

C. This priestly role in judicial decisions is documented by Diodorus 40:3:4-5 during the Hellenistic period.

D. This priestly role in government continued during the Selucid period.  Josephus quotes Antiochus "the Great" III (223-187 b.c.) in Antiquities 12.138-142. 

E. This priestly power continued during the Maccabean period according to Josephus' Antiquities 13.10.5-6; 13.15.5.

F. During the Roman period the governor of Syria (i.e., Gabinius from 57-55 b.c.) established five regional "Sanhedrins" (cf. Josephus' Antiquities 14.5.4; and Wars 1.8.5), but this was later annulled by Rome (i.e., 47 b.c.).

G. The Sanhedrin had a political confrontation with Herod (i.e., Antiquities 14.9.3-5) who, in 37 b.c., retaliated and had most of the high court killed (cf. Josephus' Antiquities 14.9.4; 15.1.2).

H. Under the Roman procurators (i.e., a.d. 6-66) Josephus tells us (cf. Antiquities 20.200,251) that the Sanhedrin again gained considerable power and influence (cf. Mark 14:55).  There are three trials recorded in the NT where the Sanhedrin, under the leadership of the High Priest's family, executes justice.

1. Jesus' trial (cf. Mark 14:53-15:1; John 18:12-23,28-32)

2. Peter and John (cf. Acts 4:3-6)

3. Paul (cf. Acts 22:25-30)

 I. When the Jews revolted in a.d. 66, the Romans subsequently destroyed Jewish society and Jerusalem in a.d. 70.  The Sanhedrin was permanently dissolved, although the Pharisees at Jamnia tried to bring a supreme judicial court (i.e., Beth Din) back into Jewish religious (but not civil or political) life.

 

IV. Membership

A. The first biblical mention of a high court in Jerusalem is 2 Chr. 19:8-11. It was made up of

1. Levites

2. priests

3. the heads of families (i.e., elders, cf. I Macc. 14:20; II Macc. 4:44)

B. During the Maccabean period it was dominated by (1) Sadducean priestly families and (2) local aristocracy (cf. I Macc. 7:33; 11:23; 14:28).  Later in this period "scribes" (Mosaic lawyers, usually Pharisees) were added, apparently by Alexander Jannaeus' wife, Salome (76-67 b.c.).  She is even said to have made the Pharisees the predominant group (cf. Josephus' Wars of the Jews 1.5.2).

C. By Jesus' day the court was made up of

1. the families of the High Priests

2. local men of wealthy families

3. scribes (cf. Luke 19:47)

 

V. Sources Consulted

A. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, IVP, pp. 728-732

B. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, pp. 268-273

C. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. 10, pp. 203-204

D. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4, pp. 214-218

 E. Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 14, pp. 836-839

 

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