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.” (Gen. 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.
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. (Gen. 9:12-16) Noah also received basic laws in addition to what God had stated previously. (Gen. 9:3-6) As patriarch Noah made decisions that affected not only his immediate household but also his married sons and their offspring.—Gen. 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. (Gen. 38:24) Disputes between families were settled between family heads when it was possible to settle them peaceably.
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 (Gen. 3:8-24); of Cain (Gen. 4:9-15); of humankind at the time of the Flood (Gen. 6:1-3, 11-13, 17-21); of the builders of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9); of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:20-33); and of Abimelech.—Gen. 20:3–7.
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.” (Gen. 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!” (Gen. 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.—Gen. 38:24-26.
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) Moses thereby established an efficient judicial system to administer justice to the body of approximately three million people under his care. If we take the figure of 600,000 able-bodied men as a basis for the divisions and appointments, this would mean the appointing of 78,600 judges. (Ex. 12:37) These were to handle ordinary cases, 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 (Num. 5:11-31); a case of bloodshed where there was a dispute (Deut. 17:8, 9); and certain cases where revolt was charged against a man but where the evidence was unclear or suspicious. (Deut. 19:15-20) The priests would officiate in a case of unsolved murder.—Deut. 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; Deut. 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 and 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.—Deut. 1:15.
Many are the admonitions against the perversion of judgment, taking of bribes, or partiality. (Ex. 23:6-8; Deut. 1:16, 17; 16:19; Prov. 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. (Lev. 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. (Lev. 19:33, 34; Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Deut. 10:18; 24:17, 18; 27:19; Ps. 68:5) Accordingly, the alien residents were required to respect the law of the land. (Lev. 18:26) But these statutes and counsels from Jehovah came to be disregarded by the princes and judges in Israel, being one of the causes for God’s adverse judgment of the nation.—Isa. 1:23; Ezek. 22:12; 1 Sam. 8:3; Ps. 26:10; Amos 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. (Deut. 1:17; 19:17; Josh. 7:19; 2 Chron. 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. (Deut. 16:18; 21:19; 22:15, 24; 25:7; Ruth 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. 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 carefulness 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,” also at Ramah, where his house was located.—1 Sam. 7:16, 17.
The judges were to be treated with respect, inasmuch as they stood in a position representing Jehovah. (Ex. 22:28; Acts 23:3-5) When a decision was handed down by the priests, 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.—Deut. 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. (Deut. 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. (Lev. 24:12; Num. 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.—2 Chron. 18:25, 26; Jer. 20:2; 29:26; Ezra 7:26; Acts 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. (2 Sam. 12:1-6) Joab shrewdly sent a Tekoite woman to present a case to David in behalf of Absalom. (2 Sam. 14:1-21) Before David’s death he appointed six thousand qualified Levites to act as officers and judges in Israel. (1 Chron. 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. (1 Ki. 3:16-28) Jehoshaphat conducted a religious reform in Judah and strengthened the judicial arrangement.—2 Chron. 19:5-11.
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 seventy-one 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. (Acts 4:5, 6) These men were members or the sects of the Pharisees and the Sadducees.—Acts 23:6.
According to Jewish tradition the Sanhedrin was set up by Moses (Num. 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 seventy older men sat as a single court to hear cases in these early times. Rather, the Sanhedrin seems to have come into existence during the time of Greek rule in Palestine. Under Roman rule the Sanhedrin exercised great power over the Jews, its religious authority being recognized even among the Jews of the Dispersion. (See Acts 9:1, 2.) Under the Roman rule the Sanhedrin in time may have lost the legal authority to execute the death penalty, unless they got the permission of the Roman governor procurator). (John 18:31) After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. the Sanhedrin was abolished.
According to the Mishnah (Nezikin, Sanhedrin, sec. 4, par. 3): “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.” In Jerusalem there were lower courts composed of twenty-three members each. According to the Mishnah, 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 head and president of the Sanhedrin was the high priest, who called the assembly together. (Acts 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, referred to as the chief priest. (Matt. 26:3, 57; Mark 14:53, 55, 60, 63; 15:1; Luke 22:54; John 18:12, 13, 19-24) Ananias was the high priest presiding over the Sanhedrin at the time of Paul’s trial.—Acts 23:2.
In the time of Jesus’ ministry the Roman government allowed the Sanhedrin a great measure of independence, granting it civil and administrative authority. It had officers at its disposal and the power of arrest and imprisonment.—Matt. 26:47; Acts 4:1-3; 9:1, 2.
According to the Talmud, 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 sabbath or 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 synagogues, which were used primarily for education, were also used to some extent as places for courts, having the power to inflict the penalties of scourging and excommunication.—Matt. 10:17; 23:34; Mark 13:9; Luke 21:12; John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2.
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 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. (1 Cor. 5:12, 13) In writing to congregations and to overseers both Paul and Peter point out that the mature ones 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. (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 4:2; 1 Pet. 5:1, 2) Those who are causing divisions or sects are to be warned a first and a second time before congregational action is taken. (Titus 3:10, 11) Insistent practicers of sin are to be removed, expelled from the congregation. This constitutes discipline for the other members of the congregation who observe the action. (1 Tim. 1:20; 5:20) Paul instructs those men in the congregation having the responsibility to act as judges (1 Cor. 6:1-5) to gather together to hear such a matter. (1 Cor. 5:4) They are to accept the accusation as true only when there are two or three eyewitnesses, weighing the evidence without prejudgment, doing nothing according to a biased leaning.—1 Tim. 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 of governing the congregation). Paul later admonished Christians to settle difficulties in this manner and not be taking one another before worldly courts.—Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 6:1-8; see LEGAL CASE.