What Was The Sanhedrin?


The Sanhedrin was the highest Jewish court during the period of the Greek and Roman occupation of Palestine. English versions translate the word ‘Sanhedrin’ as ‘council.’ We’re not certain of the origin of the Sanhedrin, as there is no historical evidence for its existence before the Greek period.

It first appears during the reign of the Hellenistic kings who tried to impose Greek culture on the Jews. Palestine was practically under home rule, and was governed by an aristocratic council of elders, presided over by the High Priest.

During the Roman period the internal government of the country was practically in the hands of the Sanhedrin even to the point it had influence over the Jews in other parts of the world. We see this in the case of Saul who had authority from the Council to act in places outside of Judea.

Paul spoke to the Jewish mob who captured and tried to kill him when they discovered him in the Temple. He reminded them, ‘I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.’ Acts 22:4-5

After the death of Herod, the Great during the reign of his son Archelaus the civil authority of the Sanhedrin was probably restricted to Judea proper, which is likely the reason it had no judicial authority over Jesus so long as He remained in Galilee.

Once he entered Jerusalem they were in a position to bring accusations against him and have Him tried. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70 the Sanhedrin and its authority was completely destroyed never again to wield its power over the Jews.

The Sanhedrin was composed of 70 members plus the president, who would be the present high priest. The members of the Sanhedrin came from three classes of men: the acting chief priests including those who had been high priest in the past, the scribes and the elders. Most of these people were from aristocratic families of that time.

The scribes were primarily from the Pharisees and the elders were primarily from the family heads of the people. They were, for the most part the secular nobility of Jerusalem which would include many Sadducees. The high priest himself was a Sadducee.

He bore the honourable title of ‘Prince.’ Besides the president, there was also a vice-president, called the ‘head or father of the house of judgment.’

While the high priest was a Sadducee he presided over the meetings of the Sanhedrin yet the Pharisees outnumbered the Sadducees and controlled it. Members of the Sanhedrin probably remained members for a lifetime. When they died they were replaced but we are not sure how this process took place. The high priest, a Sadducee most of the time, was appointed by the Romans.

In the time of Christ, the Sanhedrin exercised jurisdiction over religious matters. It was the final court of appeal for all questions connected with the Law of Moses. It also had the authority to summon in people to be heard.

It had the right to inflict capital punishment until about 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem. After that it could still pass a sentence of death but they could not execute a sentence of death without the confirmation of the Roman procurator.

This is why Jesus had to be tried not only before the Sanhedrin but also before Pilate, John 18:31-32.

But even had he not gone before Pilate they were so determined to kill him there seems no doubt that they would have put Him to death without the approval of Pilate. It would have been in some other way than crucifixion as this was not a Jewish mode of punishment. Probably it would have been by stoning, Acts 7:57-60.

The stoning of Stephen without the approval of the procurator was an illegal act, a lynching. There was one offense the Sanhedrin had authority to put to death, on its own authority. Anyone who passed the gate which divided the court of the Jews from the court of the Gentiles could be put to death, Acts 21:28/

However, Roman authority was always absolute. The procurator could direct the Sanhedrin to investigate some matter. He could also remove a prisoner from its jurisdiction as was done in the case of Paul, Acts 23:23-24.

The Sanhedrin at first met in the ‘hall of hewn stones,’ one of the buildings connected with the temple. Later, the place of meeting was somewhere in the court of the Gentiles. They could meet on any day except the Sabbath and holy days.

They met from the time of the offering of the daily morning sacrifice till that of the evening sacrifice. Their meetings were conducted according to strict rules and were enlivened by stirring debates.

The members of the Sanhedrin were arranged in a semicircle, so that they could see each other. Two notaries stood before them, whose duty it was to record the votes. The prisoner had to appear with humble attitude dressed for mourning. A sentence of capital punishment could not be passed on the day of the trial.

The decision of the judges had to be examined on the following day, except in the case of a person who misled the people, who could be tried and condemned the same day or in the night. Because of this, cases which involved capital punishment were not tried on a Friday or on any day before a feast.

A herald preceded the condemned one as he was led to the place of execution. It was announced that he had been found guilty of death and if anyone knew anything to clear him, let him come forward and declare it. Near the place of execution, the condemned man was asked to confess his guilt in order that he might partake in the world to come.

The trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin was the utmost miscarriage of justice one can imagine. They charged him with the crime of blasphemy. Although Pilate did not want to have him put to death, John 19:6. These no doubt were the voices of members of the Sanhedrin.

Even one of the thieves on the cross recognised his innocence. In speaking to the other thief who was being crucified he said, ‘Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Luke 23:40-41.

A centurion who stood at the foot of the cross said, ‘Certainly this was a righteous man!’ Luke 23:47.

We can identify some of the members of the Sanhedrin. There was Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, all Sadducees that were of the family of the high priest. There was Joseph of Arimathea who gave his tomb to bury the Lord in.

Nicodemus was a secret disciple of Jesus and Gamaliel a former teacher of Paul and one who gave wise advice to the Sanhedrin. People were being healed. While under heavy guard prison doors opened and Peter and John walked away.

How stubborn and blind the religious elite could be?

Seemingly nothing would change their stubborn minds. The highest court in the land containing some of the best minds could not believe! How tragic!



"Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."

Hebrews 4:16