656. Councils - Discipline of the Synagogue

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1. In addition to the Great Sanhedrim or Council (for a description of which see note on Matt. 26:5959Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death; (Matthew 26:59), #718) there were councils of an inferior degree. There is some obscurity in connection with their history and construction. They are supposed to have been originated by Moses. See Deuteronomy 16:1818Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment. (Deuteronomy 16:18). In later times there were two of them in Jerusalem, and one in each town in Palestine. The rabbins say there were twenty-three judges to each of these councils in every place where the population was a hundred and twenty, and three judges where the population was less. Josephus, however, says that there were seven judges to each council, and that each judge had two Levites to assist him.
These councils had power not only to judge civil cases, but also such criminal cases as did not come within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, or Sanhedrim. In the provinces they at first met in the market-place, but afterward in a room adjoining the synagogue. Some writers suppose that these local provincial councils are identical with the “elders” and “rulers of the synagogue,” so often mentioned in the New Testament. See article “Synagogue,” in KITTO’S Cyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 902 b. See, further, note on Acts 13:1515And after the reading of the law and the prophets the rulers of the synagogue sent unto them, saying, Ye men and brethren, if ye have any word of exhortation for the people, say on. (Acts 13:15) (#834). The connection in the text between councils and scourging seems to indicate this, unless it can be shown, as some have asserted, that the “rulers of the synagogue” formed a council apart from the smaller Sanhedrim.
2. The discipline of the synagogue was severe. Besides excommunication, (see note on John 9:2222These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue. (John 9:22), #802) scourging was sometimes practiced. The number of the stripes was limited by law to forty (Deut. 25:33Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee. (Deuteronomy 25:3)). To prevent the possibility of excess, by mistake in counting, the legal number was reduced by one. Paul was thus beaten five distinct times (2 Cor. 11:2424Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. (2 Corinthians 11:24)). It is said, however, that in aggravated cases the stripes were laid on with greater severity than usual.
The rabbins reckon a hundred and sixty-eight faults to be punished by scourging; in fact, all punishable faults to which the law has not annexed the penalty of death. “The offender was stripped from his shoulders to his middle, and tied by his arms to a pretty low pillar, that he might lean forward, and the executioner might more easily come at his hack.... It is said that, after the stripping of the criminal, the executioner mounted upon a stone, to have more power over him, and then scourged him both on the back and breasts with thongs made of an ox’s hide, in open court, before the thee of the judges” (Burder, Oriental Customs, No. 949).