718. The Sanhedrim

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This was the supreme court of the Jewish nation, which heard appeals from inferior courts, and tried cases of greater gravity than those which came before them. It is commonly known as the Sanhedrim, though the word is sometimes written Sanhedrin, and occasionally Synhedrium, Synedium, Synedrion. It is the Hebraizing of the Greek word συνέδριον, a sitting together, or, as in the text and in numerous other places, a council.
The number of members in the Sanhedrim is usually considered to have been seventy-one, though on this subject there is a diversity of opinion among authorities, some fixing the number at seventy, and others at seventy-two. Twenty-three members were necessary to make a quorum.
The origin of this council is thought by some writers to be found in the company of seventy elders who were appointed to assist Moses in the government of the Israelites. See Numbers 11:16-1716And the Lord said unto Moses, Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom thou knowest to be the elders of the people, and officers over them; and bring them unto the tabernacle of the congregation, that they may stand there with thee. 17And I will come down and talk with thee there: and I will take of the spirit which is upon thee, and will put it upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with thee, that thou bear it not thyself alone. (Numbers 11:16‑17). Others, however, deny that this could have been the origin of the Sanhedrim, and affirm that the seventy elders were only intended to serve a temporary purpose, since no trace of them is found after the death of Moses. They could hardly have been judges, as the members of the Sanhedrim were, since there were more than sixty thousand judges among the Israelites already. See Michaelis Laws of Moses, vol.1, p. 247. Those who agree with Michaelis in his views on this subject suppose that the Sanhedrim was instituted after the captivity. It is quite likely, however, that the council of Moses may have been the germ from whence the idea of the Sanhedrim was developed.
The members of the Sanhedrim were chosen from the chief priests, elders, and scribes. It was necessary to have priests and scribes in the body, and they were usually quite numerous, though the majority of the members are thought to have been laymen. The relative numbers of the three classes are not definitely known. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were both represented, sometimes the one and sometimes the other being in the majority. Most of the scribes probably belonged to the Pharisees.
Great care was taken in the selection of members, who were required to be morally and physically blameless. They were also expected to be learned in law, in sciences, and in languages. It was necessary for them to have been judges in their native towns; to have been transferred from there to the small Sanhedrin], which met at the temple mount; and thence to the second small Sanhedrim, which met at the entrance of the temple hall. They were not eligible unless they were the fathers of families, in order that they might be able to sympathize when cases involving domestic affairs were brought before them. If this rule was in force at the time of Stephen’s trial, and it as many suppose, Saul of Tarsus was a member of the Sanhedrim at that time, then Saul must have been a married man and a father. See Cony Beare and Howson, Life and Epistles of St. Paul, vol.1, p. 71.
The officers of the Sanhedrim) were a president, a vice-president, and a sage or referee, all of whom were elected by the members. The president was called Nasi that is, “prince” or “elevated one.” He represented the civil and religious interests of the Jewish nation before the Roman government abroad, and before the different Jewish congregations at home. In the Sanhedrm he occupied the highest seat, summed up the votes of the elders, and determined traditions. The high priest was eligible to the office of president of the council, but had no right to preside ex officio. He must first be elected to the office. The vice-president was called Ab-beth-din, that is, “father of the house of judgment.” He led and controlled the discussions on disputed points. The sage or referee was called Chakam, that is, “wise one.” It was his duty to put into proper shape the subject for discussion and present it to the council. The vice-president sat on the right of the president, and the sage or referee on his left.
The council held daily sessions, lasting from the close of the morning sacrifice to the commencement of the evening sacrifice. On Sabbaths and festival days, however, they held no sessions. The place of their meeting is not precisely known; it seems to have varied at different times. A number of years before the birth of Christ a building was erected within the temple enclosure, and called the “Hall of Squares,” or “Hall of Stones,” because of the square-hewn stones which made the floor. Talmudical authorities do not agree as to the position of this hall, whether north or south of the temple proper; but all agree that it was situated to the east. In the most carefully arranged plans of the temple it is usually put to the southeast. Here the Sanhedrim met until shortly before the death of Christ, when they removed to a place in the Court of the Gentiles, and were not even confined to that. They met in the high-priest’s palace when Jesus was brought before them. They subsequently settled at Tiberias.
When in session the Sanhedrim sat in a semicircle, the officers being in the center. The members sat cross-legged on the low cushions, or on carpets spread on the floor.
The council extended its jurisdiction beyond Palestine to every place where Jews had settlements. See Acts 9:1-2; 22:51And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, 2And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1‑2)
5As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished. (Acts 22:5)
. They could only try cases which involved violations of ecclesiastical law. They condemned to corporeal, and also to capital punishments. The latter were restricted to four modes: stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling. Forty years before the destruction of the temple the power of inflicting capital punishment was limited to those cases where the sentence of the Sanhedrim had been confirmed by the Roman procurator.
The Sanhedrim is often referred to in the New Testament. Besides the frequent mention of it in connection with the history of Christ, we find it engaged as an instrument of persecuting the apostles. Peter and John were brought before it (Acts 4:1-211And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them, 2Being grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3And they laid hands on them, and put them in hold unto the next day: for it was now eventide. 4Howbeit many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand. 5And it came to pass on the morrow, that their rulers, and elders, and scribes, 6And Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem. 7And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, By what power, or by what name, have ye done this? 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, 9If we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; 10Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. 11This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. 12Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. 13Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus. 14And beholding the man which was healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it. 15But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves, 16Saying, What shall we do to these men? for that indeed a notable miracle hath been done by them is manifest to all them that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it. 17But that it spread no further among the people, let us straitly threaten them, that they speak henceforth to no man in this name. 18And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. 19But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. 20For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard. 21So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them, because of the people: for all men glorified God for that which was done. (Acts 4:1‑21)). Not long after, all the apostles were arraigned (Acts 5:17-4217Then the high priest rose up, and all they that were with him, (which is the sect of the Sadducees,) and were filled with indignation, 18And laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in the common prison. 19But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth, and said, 20Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life. 21And when they heard that, they entered into the temple early in the morning, and taught. But the high priest came, and they that were with him, and called the council together, and all the senate of the children of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22But when the officers came, and found them not in the prison, they returned, and told, 23Saying, The prison truly found we shut with all safety, and the keepers standing without before the doors: but when we had opened, we found no man within. 24Now when the high priest and the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these things, they doubted of them whereunto this would grow. 25Then came one and told them, saying, Behold, the men whom ye put in prison are standing in the temple, and teaching the people. 26Then went the captain with the officers, and brought them without violence: for they feared the people, lest they should have been stoned. 27And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, 28Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us. 29Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. 30The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. 31Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him. 33When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them. 34Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; 35And said unto them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men. 36For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought. 37After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. 38And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: 39But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God. 40And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. 41And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. 42And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ. (Acts 5:17‑42). In a short time Stephen was brought for trial (Acts 6:12-1512And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, 13And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: 14For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us. 15And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel. (Acts 6:12‑15)). Paul also, in later years, stood in the presence of this august body (Acts 22:3030On the morrow, because he would have known the certainty wherefore he was accused of the Jews, he loosed him from his bands, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down, and set him before them. (Acts 22:30)).
In addition to the great Sanhedrim there were smaller councils, for an account of which see note on Matthew 10:1717But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; (Matthew 10:17).