Jehovah God as the Creator of the universe has the supreme sovereignty. As acknowledged by the ancient nation of Israel, so he is to the universe, namely, Judge, Statute-Giver, and King. (Isa 33:22) The family head Abraham acknowledged him as “Judge of all the earth.” (Ge 18:25) Jehovah portrays himself as Supreme Judge in a legal case against Israel (Mic 6:2), also in a legal case in behalf of his people against the nations. (Isa 34:8) He calls on his people as witnesses in a case involving a challenge of his Godship by the worshipers of false gods.—Isa 43:9-12.
Patriarchal Society. After the Flood, Noah emerged as the family head or patriarch, and God made a covenant with him and his sons as representatives of the human race. (Ge 9:12-16) Noah also received basic laws in addition to what God had stated previously. (Ge 9:3-6) As patriarch, Noah made decisions that affected not only his immediate household but also his married sons and their offspring.—Ge 9:20-27.
The family head was judge of the family, which included the slaves and all those living under the household of the family head, just as Jehovah God is the great family Head and Judge. (Ge 38:24) Disputes between families were settled between family heads when it was possible to settle them peaceably.
Jacob acted as judge for those in his household when Laban brought accusations that his teraphim had been stolen by someone in Jacob’s camp. Jacob said: “Whoever it is with whom you may find your gods, let him not live.” (Ge 31:32) However, Jacob did not know that Rachel had taken them, and Laban did not find them, so Rachel was not accused. When Joseph’s brothers had sold him into Egypt and presented Joseph’s blood-soaked garment to make it appear that he had been killed by a wild beast, Jacob sat in judgment, examined the evidence, and made a judicial decision: “Joseph is surely torn to pieces!” (Ge 37:33) Judah sat in judgment when he found that Tamar was pregnant, sentencing her to be put to death. But when he found that she had maneuvered him into performing that which he legally should have caused his son Shelah to perform, he pronounced Tamar more righteous than himself.—Ge 38:24-26.
Among the worshipers of the true God, Jehovah was always acknowledged as the Supreme Judge. The family head as judge was reckoned as accountable to God, who himself sat in judgment in the cases of Adam and Eve (Ge 3:8-24); of Cain (Ge 4:9-15); of humankind at the time of the Flood (Ge 6:1-3, 11-13, 17-21); of the builders of the Tower of Babel (Ge 11:1-9); of Sodom and Gomorrah (Ge 18:20-33); and of Abimelech (Ge 20:3-7).
Under the Law. With the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, Moses as Jehovah’s representative became judge. At first he was trying to handle all the cases, which were so numerous that he was busy from morning to evening. On the counsel of Jethro he appointed capable men as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. (Ex 18:13-26) It does not appear that this meant that there was one specially appointed judge for every seven or eight able-bodied males. Rather, the nation was organized with chiefs authorized to handle smaller cases whenever necessary. But anything unusually complicated or difficult, or a matter of national importance, was to be brought to Moses or to the sanctuary before the priests.
These hard matters for judgment included the following: Where the husband was suspicious of the chastity of his wife (Nu 5:11-31), a case of bloodshed where there was a dispute (De 17:8, 9), and certain cases where revolt was charged against a man but where the evidence was unclear or suspicious (De 19:15-20). The priests would officiate in a case of unsolved murder.—De 21:1-9.
There were no regular provisions for appeal from the lower courts to the higher, but if the chiefs of tens could not decide a case they could refer it to the chiefs of fifties, and so on, or directly to the sanctuary or to Moses.—Ex 18:26; De 1:17; 17:8-11.
The men selected as judges were to be capable, trustworthy men, fearing Jehovah, hating unjust profit. (Ex 18:21) They were generally family heads or heads of tribes, older men of the city in which they acted as judges. The Levites, who were set aside by Jehovah as special instructors in the Law, served prominently also as judges.—De 1:15.
Many are the admonitions against the perversion of judgment, taking of bribes, or partiality. (Ex 23:6-8; De 1:16, 17; 16:19; Pr 17:23; 24:23; 28:21; 29:4) A poor man was not to be favored merely because he was poor, nor was the rich man to be given advantage over the poor. (Le 19:15) The rights of the alien resident were to be regarded, and they were not to be treated unjustly. The judges were not to oppress such ones, nor widows and orphans, who seemed to have no protector, for Jehovah was their fatherly Judge and Protector. (Le 19:33, 34; Ex 22:21; 23:9; De 10:18; 24:17, 18; 27:19; Ps 68:5) Accordingly, the alien residents were required to respect the law of the land. (Le 18:26) But these statutes and counsels from Jehovah came to be disregarded by the princes and judges in Israel, such disregard being one of the causes for God’s adverse judgment of the nation.—Isa 1:23; Eze 22:12; 1Sa 8:3; Ps 26:10; Am 5:12.
Since the judges were to be upright men, judging according to Jehovah’s law, they represented Jehovah. Therefore, standing before the judges was considered as standing before Jehovah. (De 1:17; 19:17; Jos 7:19; 2Ch 19:6) The term “assembly” or “congregation” in most cases means the general assembly of the people, but in speaking of taking cases for judgment before the assembly or congregation the Bible refers to the representative members thereof, the judges, as at Numbers 35:12, 24, 25 and Matthew 18:17.
The local court was situated at the gate of a city. (De 16:18; 21:19; 22:15, 24; 25:7; Ru 4:1) By “gate” is meant the open space inside the city near the gate. The gates were places where the Law was read to the congregated people and where ordinances were proclaimed. (Ne 8:1-3) At the gate it was easy to acquire witnesses to a civil matter, such as property sales, and so forth, as most persons would go in and out of the gate during the day. Also, the publicity that would be afforded any trial at the gate would tend to influence the judges toward care and justice in the trial proceedings and in their decisions. Evidently there was a place provided near the gate where the judges could comfortably preside. (Job 29:7) Samuel traveled in a circuit of Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah and “judged Israel at all these places,” as well as at Ramah, where his house was located.—1Sa 7:16, 17.
The judges were to be treated with respect, inasmuch as they stood in a position representing Jehovah. (Ex 22:28; Ac 23:3-5) When a decision was handed down by the priests, by the Levites at the sanctuary, or by the judge who was acting in those days (for example, Moses or Samuel), it was binding, and anyone who refused to abide by the decision was put to death.—De 17:8-13.
If a man was sentenced to receive a beating with rods, he was to be laid prostrate before the judge and beaten in his presence. (De 25:2) Justice was administered speedily. The only instances where a person was held for a time was when a matter was difficult and the judgment had to be received from Jehovah. Then the accused was held in custody until the decision was received. (Le 24:12; Nu 15:34) The Law did not provide for imprisonment. Only later on, as the nation deteriorated, and also during the time of Gentile domination, was imprisonment practiced.—2Ch 18:25, 26; Jer 20:2; 29:26; Ezr 7:26; Ac 5:19; 12:3, 4.
During the Period of the Kings. After the kingdom was established in Israel the cases of the most difficult nature were taken either to the king or to the sanctuary. The Law, at Deuteronomy 17:18, 19, required the king, upon taking his throne, to write out for himself a copy of the Law and to read in it daily, so that he would be properly qualified to judge difficult cases. David was maneuvered by the prophet Nathan into sitting in judgment in his own case in the matter of Bath-sheba and Uriah the Hittite. (2Sa 12:1-6) Joab shrewdly sent a Tekoite woman to present a case to David in behalf of Absalom. (2Sa 14:1-21) Before his death David appointed 6,000 qualified Levites to act as officers and judges in Israel. (1Ch 23:4) King Solomon was renowned for his wisdom in judging. A case that brought him widespread fame was the maternity case of two prostitutes. (1Ki 3:16-28) Jehoshaphat conducted a religious reform in Judah and strengthened the judicial arrangement.—2Ch 19:5-11.
Who were members of the Jewish Sanhedrin?
The Sanhedrin was the Jewish high court. It was located in Jerusalem. Seventy-one members constituted this high court called the Great Sanhedrin. In the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry the 71 members included the high priest and others who had held the office of high priest (a number of such might be living at one time, for the office had become an appointive one under Roman rule). It also included members of the high priestly families, older men, the heads of the tribes and families, and scribes, men versed in the Law. (Ac 4:5, 6) These men were members of the sects of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.—Ac 23:6.
The head and president of the Sanhedrin was the high priest, who called the assembly together. (Ac 5:17, 21, 27; 7:1; 22:5; 23:2) Caiaphas the high priest presided at the trial of Jesus, although Jesus was first brought for questioning before Annas. (Mt 26:3, 57; Mr 14:53, 55, 60, 63; 15:1; Lu 22:54; Joh 18:12, 13, 19-24) Ananias was the high priest presiding over the Sanhedrin at the time of Paul’s trial.—Ac 23:2.
According to the Tosefta (Sanhedrin 7:1) and the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:1), the Sanhedrin sat from the time of the offering of the daily morning sacrifice until the evening sacrifice. It did not sit in judgment on the Sabbath or on feast days. In capital cases the Sanhedrin held trial during the daytime, and the verdict had to be reached during the daytime. If it was a verdict of conviction, it had to be issued on the following day. Therefore, trials could not be held on the eve of a Sabbath or on the eve of a festival day. However, this procedure was ignored in the case of Jesus’ trial.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:3) states: “The Sanhedrin was arranged like the half of a round threshing-floor so that they all might see one another. Before them stood the two scribes of the judges, one to the right and one to the left, and they wrote down the words of them that favoured acquittal and the words of them that favoured conviction.”—Translated by H. Danby.
According to Jewish tradition the Sanhedrin was set up by Moses (Nu 11:16-25) and reorganized by Ezra immediately after the return from the exile. But there is no historical evidence to support the idea that 70 older men sat as a single court to hear cases in those early times. Rather, the Sanhedrin seems to have come into existence during the time of Greek rule in Palestine. In the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry the Roman government allowed the Sanhedrin a great measure of independence, granting it civil and administrative authority. It had officers at its disposal as well as the power of arrest and imprisonment. (Mt 26:47; Ac 4:1-3; 9:1, 2) Its religious authority was recognized even among the Jews of the Dispersion. (See Ac 9:1, 2.) However, under the Roman rule the Sanhedrin in time evidently lost the legal authority to execute the death penalty, unless they got the permission of the Roman governor (procurator). (Joh 18:31) After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Sanhedrin was abolished.
In Jerusalem there were, in addition, lower courts composed of 23 members each. According to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 1:6), these smaller courts were also located in other cities of sufficient size throughout Palestine. The full number of judges comprising the court did not sit on every case. The number varied according to the seriousness of the matter to be judged and the difficulty in reaching a verdict. Additionally, there was the village court consisting of three men, and a court consisting of seven older men of the village.
The synagogues, which were used primarily for education, were also used to some extent as places for local courts, at times referred to as ‘local Sanhedrins,’ having the power to inflict the penalties of scourging and excommunication.—Mt 10:17, ftn; 23:34; Mr 13:9; Lu 21:12; Joh 9:22; 12:42; 16:2; see ILLUSTRATIONS (Some of Jesus’ prominent illustrations ).
The Christian Congregation. The Christian congregation, while having no secular authority as a court, may take action against disorderly members who require spiritual discipline, and it can even expel them from the congregation. Therefore, the apostle Paul tells the congregation that they, that is, the representative members thereof, those having oversight, must judge those inside the organization. (1Co 5:12, 13) In writing to congregations and to overseers both Paul and Peter point out that the elders should keep a close watch on the congregation’s spiritual condition and should assist and admonish anyone who is taking an unwise or wrong step. (2Ti 4:2; 1Pe 5:1, 2; compare Ga 6:1.) Those who are causing divisions or sects are to be warned a first and a second time before congregational action is taken. (Tit 3:10, 11) But insistent practicers of sin are to be removed, expelled from the congregation. This constitutes discipline, showing to the offenders that their course of sin cannot be tolerated in the congregation. (1Ti 1:20) Paul instructs those men in the congregation having the responsibility to act as judges to gather together to hear such a matter. (1Co 5:1-5; 6:1-5) They are to accept the accusation as true only when there are two or three witnesses, weighing the evidence without prejudgment, doing nothing according to a biased leaning.—1Ti 5:19, 21.
Jesus commanded his disciples that if one sinned against another, efforts should first be made to settle the matter personally between themselves. If these efforts failed and the issue was of a serious nature, they should take it to the congregation for settlement (that is, to those appointed to responsible positions in governing the congregation). Paul later admonished Christians to settle difficulties in this manner and not to be taking one another before worldly courts.—Mt 18:15-17; 1Co 6:1-8; see LEGAL CASE.