“They Called Together the Sanhedrin”
THE high priest and the rulers of the Jews were at a loss. What could they do to quiet the excitement surrounding Jesus Christ? They had succeeded in having him executed, but now Jesus’ disciples were filling Jerusalem with talk of his resurrection. How could they be silenced? To decide, the high priest and his aides “called together the Sanhedrin,” the supreme court of the Jewish people.—Acts 5:21.
In first-century Israel at that time, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate wielded supreme authority. But how did the Sanhedrin interact with Pilate? What were their respective jurisdictions? What was the composition of the Sanhedrin? And how did it operate?
Development of the Sanhedrin
The Greek word rendered “Sanhedrin” literally means a “sitting down with.” It was a general term for an assembly or a meeting. In Jewish tradition, it commonly referred to a religious judicial body, or court.
Writers of the Talmud, which was compiled during the centuries following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., represented the Sanhedrin as an ancient body. They imagined that it had always been composed of scholars who met to debate points of Jewish law and held that it dated from the time Moses assembled 70 older men to help him lead Israel. (Numbers 11:16, 17) Historians reject this idea. They say that not until the Persian domination of Israel did something resembling the first-century Sanhedrin come into existence. Historians also hold that the learned academy of the Talmudists seems to fit in better, not with the Sanhedrin, but with second- and third-century rabbinic assemblies. So, then, when did the Sanhedrin come into existence?
The Bible reveals that exiles who returned to Judah from Babylon in 537 B.C.E. had a national organization. Nehemiah and Ezra mention princes, older men, nobles, and deputy rulers—perhaps the beginning of a future Sanhedrin.—Ezra 10:8; Nehemiah 5:7.
The period from the completion of the Hebrew Scriptures to the composition of the Gospel of Matthew was one of turmoil for the Jews. In 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great took control of Judaea. After Alexander’s death, Judaea came under two of the Greek kingdoms of his domain—first the Ptolemies, then the Seleucids. In accounts of Seleucid domination, which began in 198 B.C.E., we find the first reference to a senate of the Jews. This assembly likely had limited powers, but it gave the Jews a semblance of self-government.
In 167 B.C.E., Seleucid King Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) tried to impose Greek culture on the Jews. He profaned Jerusalem’s temple by sacrificing upon its altar a pig to Zeus. This provoked a revolt during which the Maccabees shook off Seleucid rule and set up the Hasmonaean dynasty.* At the same time, the scribes and the Pharisees—leaders of the masses who backed the revolt—gained power in state administration at the expense of the priestly class.
The Sanhedrin as depicted in the Greek Scriptures was taking shape. It would become a national administrative council and the supreme judicial body for the interpretation of Jewish law.
The Balance of Power
By the first century, Rome was in possession of Judaea. However, the Jews enjoyed a measure of freedom. It was Roman policy to grant subject peoples considerable self-determination. Hence, Roman officials did not concern themselves with duties performed by local courts, and they avoided problems that might arise because of cultural differences. The idea was to promote peace and the loyalty of the provincials by allowing them to observe their own customs and basically to govern themselves. Apart from appointing and deposing the high priest—who was president of the Sanhedrin—and levying taxes, the Romans intervened in Jewish affairs only when their own sovereignty and interests required this. As shown in connection with Jesus’ trial, Rome seems to have guarded its power to inflict capital punishment.—John 18:31.
The Sanhedrin thus ran most internal Jewish affairs. It had officers to make arrests. (John 7:32) Lower courts tried minor crimes and civil cases without Roman interference. When the lower courts could not reach a decision in a case, it was referred to the Sanhedrin, whose rulings were final.
To justify its privileges, the Sanhedrin had to keep the peace and support Roman rule. But if the Romans suspected political offenses, they intervened and proceeded as they saw fit. One such case was the arrest of the apostle Paul.—Acts 21:31-40.
The Sanhedrin had 71 members—the high priest and 70 of the nation’s principal men. In Roman times it was made up of priestly nobles (mainly Sadducees), lay aristocrats, and learned scribes of the party of the Pharisees. The priestly aristocracy, supported by distinguished laymen, dominated the court.* Whereas the Sadducees were conservative, the Pharisees were liberal and were chiefly commoners who had great influence with the people. According to the historian Josephus, the Pharisees’ demands were reluctantly met by the Sadducees. Paul took advantage of their rivalry and the differences in belief between these groups when he defended himself before the Sanhedrin.—Acts 23:6-9.
The aristocratic nature of the Sanhedrin makes it probable that membership was permanent and that vacancies were filled through appointment by existing members. According to the Mishnah, new members had to be “priests, Levites, and Israelites whose daughters are permitted to marry the priests,” that is, Jews who could produce genealogical records proving the purity of their descent. Since the high court supervised the judiciary of the whole country, it seems logical that men who had made a name in lower courts would be elevated to a seat in the Sanhedrin.
Jurisdiction and Authority
The Jews highly respected the Sanhedrin, and judges in lower courts were bound, on pain of death, to accept its rulings. The court particularly concerned itself with the qualifications of priests and matters involving Jerusalem, its temple, and worship at the temple. Strictly speaking, the Sanhedrin’s civil jurisdiction encompassed Judaea only. But since the Sanhedrin was considered supreme in interpretation of the Law, it exerted moral authority in Jewish communities worldwide. For example, the high priest and his council instructed leaders of the synagogues in Damascus to cooperate in the arrest of Christ’s followers. (Acts 9:1, 2; 22:4, 5; 26:12) Likewise, Jews who visited Jerusalem for the festivals presumably took home news of the Sanhedrin’s pronouncements.
According to the Mishnah, the Sanhedrin had sole jurisdiction in issues of national importance, in dealing with judges who defied its decisions, and in judging false prophets. Jesus and Stephen appeared before the court charged as blasphemers, Peter and John as subverters of the nation, and Paul as a profaner of the temple.—Mark 14:64; Acts 4:15-17; 6:11; 23:1; 24:6.
Judgment of Jesus and His Disciples
Except for Sabbaths and holy days, the Sanhedrin sat in its decision chamber each day from the morning sacrifice to the evening offering. Trials were held during daylight hours only. Since capital sentences were not pronounced until the day following the trial, such cases were not to be held on the eve of a Sabbath or of a festival. Witnesses were severely admonished regarding the seriousness of spilling innocent blood. Therefore, the nighttime trial and condemnation of Jesus held at Caiaphas’ home on the eve of a festival was illegal. Worse still, the judges themselves sought false witnesses and persuaded Pilate to order Jesus’ execution.—Matthew 26:57-59; John 11:47-53; 19:31.
Judges of capital cases, says the Talmud, endeavored to save the defendant during unhurried sessions. Yet, Stephen, like Jesus before him, received no such trial. His defense before the Sanhedrin led to his being stoned by a mob. Had it not been for Roman intervention, the apostle Paul may well have been killed under similar circumstances. In fact, judges of the Sanhedrin conspired to kill him.—Acts 6:12; 7:58; 23:6-15.
At least a few court members seem to have been principled men. A young Jewish ruler who spoke with Jesus may have been a member of the Sanhedrin. Although the man’s riches were an obstacle, he must have had good qualities, since Jesus invited him to become His follower.—Matthew 19:16-22; Luke 18:18, 22.
Fear of what fellow judges might think may have caused Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews,” to visit Jesus under cover of darkness. Yet, Nicodemus defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin by asking: “Our law does not judge a man unless first it has heard from him and come to know what he is doing, does it?” Nicodemus later provided “a roll of myrrh and aloes” to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.—John 3:1, 2; 7:51, 52; 19:39.
Joseph of Arimathea, another member of the Sanhedrin, courageously asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and laid it in his own new tomb. Joseph was “waiting for the kingdom of God,” but fear of the Jews prevented him from identifying himself as one of Jesus’ disciples. To Joseph’s credit, though, he did not vote in accord with the Sanhedrin in their plot to have Jesus killed.—Mark 15:43-46; Matthew 27:57-60; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38.
Sanhedrin member Gamaliel wisely counseled his fellow judges to let Jesus’ disciples alone. “Otherwise,” he said, “you may perhaps be found fighters actually against God.” (Acts 5:34-39) What prevented the high court from recognizing that Jesus and his disciples had God’s backing? Instead of acknowledging Jesus’ miracles, the Sanhedrin reasoned: “What are we to do, because this man performs many signs? If we let him alone this way, they will all put faith in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:47, 48) Lust for power perverted the justice of the Jewish high court. Likewise, instead of rejoicing when Jesus’ disciples cured people, the religious leaders “became filled with jealousy.” (Acts 5:17) As judges, they should have been God-fearing and just, but most of them were corrupt and dishonest.—Exodus 18:21; Deuteronomy 16:18-20.
Because of Israel’s disobedience to God’s Law and rejection of the Messiah, Jehovah finally rejected the nation as his chosen people. In 70 C.E., the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and its temple and brought an end to the whole Jewish system of things and eventually to the Sanhedrin itself.
Jehovah’s appointed Judge, Jesus Christ, will determine whether any members of the first-century Sanhedrin merit a resurrection and who among them sinned against the holy spirit. (Mark 3:29; John 5:22) We can be certain that in making such decisions, Jesus will act with perfect justice.—Isaiah 11:3-5.
As to the Maccabees and the Hasmonaeans, see The Watchtower, November 15, 1998, pages 21-4, and June 15, 2001, pages 27-30.
When the Bible speaks of “chief priests,” it means present and past high priests and members of those families qualified to fill higher offices of the priesthood in the future.—Matthew 21:23.