No study of the New Testament is complete without a study of the government of Palestine in the first century AD, and no study of the government of Palestine in that period is complete without a study of the Sanhedrin. The term Sanhedrin is derived from the Greek phrase for “gathering place” and is not found in Jewish history prior to the periods of Greek domination under Alexander, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.
Though the term came late in Biblical history, the idea of a Hebrew or Jewish ruling council came early. In the time of the Exodus (around 1400 BC), God told Moses to bring together 70 elders of Israel to receive His spirit and lead the people (Numbers 11:16). During the reign of Jehoshaphat in Judah, the king assembled priests and heads of families to discern and convey the judgment of the Lord and to handle controversies (2 Chronicles 19:8). After the exile (during the Persian period), Ezra (5:5, 6:7, 10:8) and Nehemiah (2:16, 5:7, 7:5) made extensive use of ruling councils to legislate and judge.
The body known in the New Testament as the Sanhedrin is first cited by Josephus when a letter from the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III referenced a Jewish “senate”. This “senate” was led by a chief priest and included priests and elders. It helped to provision soldiers and elephants (Seleucids used elephants) and eject the Egyptian garrison (Antiquities 12:138). Thus this Jewish body had legislative and even executive powers. The Sadducees were part of the early council and the Pharisees were added by Queen Salome (76-67 BC) (Josephus War, 1.5.2). The Romans reduced the power of the council on their ascent over Palestine in 63 BC but reversed themselves and by 47 BC the Sanhedrin, finally called by that name, summoned Herod (74-4 BC), who would later become Herod the Great, to account for the execution of a Jew named Hezekiah without its permission (Antiq 14.9.4-5). Herod was acquitted but was enraged, and upon becoming king slew many of the members, balanced the aristocratic Sadducees by adding more Pharisees, and limited the council’s power.
In 6 AD Judea, always restive and facing the Parthians, mortal enemies of Rome, became a Roman province. Under the Roman governor, the Sanhedrin was given legislative, executive and judicial powers as it had under Antiochus. These powers remained until the rebellion in 66 AD. Thus during the key years of the New Testament, the Jewish Sanhedrin was at the height of its power.
There were actually two bodies referred to as the Sanhedrin. The first was a group of 20 to 23 men appointed to lead and judge in each city in Israel. It had local jurisdiction and was a cross between a city council and a religious court. The Great Sanhedrin, to which we have been referring above, was the Jewish ruling council of Palestine. It was led by the chief priest, and was composed of Sadducees and Pharisees, 71 men in all. The Great Sanhedrin legislated all aspects of religious and political life and served as the Supreme Court of the land. The group elected its own members, and the primary qualifications were age, wealth, and having completed Rabbinic studies.
The New Testament Accounts
According to the Mishnah, the Sanhedrin could not meet on the Sabbath, on feast days, or at night, especially in cases involving capital punishment (San 4:1). Capital cases had to begin with reasons for acquittal, and someone had to argue for the acquittal of the defendant (San 4:1). Thus the trial of Jesus, which was held before first light on Passover and in which no one argued for Him, was completely illegal (Matthew 26:57-66, Mark 14:53-65, Luke 22:63-71, John 18:3-28). In its desperation to execute Jesus, this descendent of so many venerable and important councils, gained eternal infamy.
Acts shows the Sanhedrin behaving more as it should. It rebuked but did not execute the disciples for teaching about Jesus (4:5-21) and again counseled caution against killing the disciples for spreading Christianity (5:27-40). Some good men, including Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, served on the Sanhedrin. Unfortunately, the episode of Stephen again shows the Sanhedrin, infuriated by the spread of this new and “dangerous” religion, at its worst.
The Sanhedrin remained as a shadow of its former self after the Jewish defeat in the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 AD) and even persisted after the Bar Kochba revolt (132-136 AD). Over time the leader of the Sanhedrin became known as the president or Nasi. The name of the group itself changed to Beth Din and later Beit Hava’ad. Its final major decision was in 358 AD, when the Sanhedrin adopted the Hebrew calendar. The last president of the Sanhedrin was Gamaliel VI (370-425 AD), who was executed by Theodosius II. The emperor then outlawed the Sanhedrin.
Like all ruling bodies, the Sanhedrin, or the Great Sanhedrin as the national body should be called, was composed of men. Therefore it was capable of everything grand, and everything grotesque, which men can do. The Sanhedrin was useful to the Jewish people in the hard years of Roman occupation. Unfortunately it was incapable of adapting to the massive disruption brought about by Jesus Christ and the beginning of Christianity. Because of this the Sanhedrin will abide forever in infamy.