History of Easter: The Sanhedrin — Who was this Council?

SanhedrinHISTORY OF THE SANHEDRIN

The Greek word Συνέδριον, sunedrion, means literally “sitting together” and is usually translated “council.” It is referred to in the New Testament as “the Great Law-Court,” “the Court of Seventy-One,” and “the rulers and elders and scribes.” It was the supreme theocratic court of the Jews and reflected the local autonomy which first the Greek and later the Roman powers granted the Jewish nation during their successive sovereignty over the Land of Israel.

Origin

Its origin can be traced back as far as 200 B.C. during what is called the “Intertestamental Period,” meaning about 400 years after the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament writings. We hear about it during the Hasmonean period, and there are references to it in the Mishnah section of the Talmud. There is no reference to this body in the original Old Testament. The council had about 70 members plus the ruling high priest. Three professional groups composed the council:

  • High priests — the acting high priest and former high priests, and members of the chief-priestly families
  • Elders — tribal and family heads of the people and the priesthood
  • Scribes — legal professionals

Politics

Sad and PharAt the time of Jesus, two religio-political parties within Judaism were represented in the Sanhedrin: the Sadducees of the majority and the Pharisees of the minority. Caiaphas, the high priest, was a Sadducee. Most of the scribes were Pharisees. The presiding officer of the council was usually the high priest. The council was connected with the minor courts, itself being the highest court of appeal from these. The Sanhedrin’s authority was broad and far-reaching, involving legislation, administration, and justice. There was religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction.

Limitations

However, during the time of Jesus, the council had lost to the Roman governor the power of capital punishment, the jus gladii. The council met daily, except on Sabbath and feast days, in a session room adjoining the temple. In extraordinary cases, the council met at the house of the high priest. One of the responsibilities of the Sanhedrin was the identification, and confirmation of the Messiah. The gospel writers identify a delegation from the council going out to question John the Baptist as to whether he was the Messiah. There were about a dozen false Messiahs running around during the first part of this century deceiving the people, and it was the responsibility of the council to identify and denounce them. This is why Jesus had to eventually come into conflict with them.

Pharisees

PhariseesAlthough the minority party within the council was the Pharisees, they were the majority party outside the council. During the first century, Philo tells us they numbered six thousand across the Roman world. They were highly respected among the people, operating principally in the synagogues. The typical Jewish boy would have received his religious training from a Pharisee. Their name meant “separated ones,” and they kept themselves pure of any corrupting influence, including Greek or Roman influences, which were considered pagan. They first appeared more than a century before Jesus, though by this time had little interest in politics. They had a highly developed system of rabbinic tradition which sought to apply the Biblical Law to a variety of circumstances.

They held to three doctrines that the Sadducees did not: the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and the existence of angels and demons. This they had in common with Jesus. These men were devout laymen, not priests. Where they conflicted with Jesus was the charge that in their over attention to the tradition of men concerning the minutiae of the Law, they had largely neglected the real intention of the Law. Numbered among the Pharisees were Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, the great teacher Gamaliel, and his student Saul of Tarsus, later known as St. Paul.

Sadducees

SadduceesThe Sadducees seem to have gotten their name from the Hebrew word “zaddikim” the “righteous ones.” They had little in common with the Pharisees except for their antagonism toward Jesus. They represented the Jewish aristocracy and the high priesthood. They had made their peace with the Roman political rulers and had attained positions of wealth and influence.

Temple administration and ritual were their specific responsibility. Being well educated and wealthy, they held themselves aloof from the masses and were unpopular with them. They were externally religious and were very political, seeing Jesus as a threat to the status quo. Unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees held only to the written Law, specifically the first five books of Moses, the Torah.

High Priests

High PriestsThe New Testament calls two men high priest, Annas and the previously mentioned Caiaphas. It turns out that Caiaphas was actually the current high priest at this time, though there are a number of reasons why Annas was called the high priest. He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas and had been the high priest from A.D. 6-15 when he had been deposed by the Roman governor preceding Pilate, Valerius Gratus, shortly after the governor took office. The governor tried three more high priests within the next three years until he appointed Caiaphas, in A.D. 18, a man he found cooperative.

Nevertheless, Annas was the patriarch and real power behind the high priesthood. While the title was used later for Annas as an honorific, the Jews still saw the high priesthood as an office for life, despite whether the Romans felt that way or not. He was the senior ex-high priest and may have presided over the council at times.

This is why Jesus was first brought to him during his trial on Good Friday.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

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About billpetro

Bill Petro is a technology sales enablement and marketing executive with extensive experience in IT Service Management, Cloud Computing, SaaS, Virtualization, Automation, Storage, and Social Media.

50 Comments

  1. R.W. McClure on April 29, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I have never been able to really determine or prove that Saul of Tarsus was a member of the Sanhedrin. I understand that one of the requirements for membership was to be married and there is nothing to document that Saul was ever married.

    • Bill Petro on April 29, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      Agreed. I suspect however that Paul had been married, as were most Pharisees and rabbis. It appears that during the years that he ministered he was no longer married, probably a widower.

      Good treatment of the issue is here: http://www.dennyburk.com/was-the-apostle-paul-married/

      -Bill

    • John Piccirillo on September 25, 2014 at 9:56 am

      Was Saul (the apostle Paul) the ruling (highest functioning) member of the Seventy. Next in line to the seventy-first person who ruled over the entire body of the Sanhedrin? The reason I ask is that his conversion is significant in that should he have not converted, then all of Christianity would have taken a back seat to Judaism for many, many, years for God to find another capably skilled person to bring the gospel of the epistles (Church of Grace) forth to the body of the entire world (i.e. the Gentiles). I am an avid scriptural fan. By the Way, thank you for the work you do for God; only those of us who realize what He (The Father) does to keep us alive and prosperous.

      • Bill Petro on September 25, 2014 at 11:55 am

        John,

        We know that Paul was a Pharisee, but we have no knowledge that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. While he may have been in service to the Sanhedrin while he was a persecutor of the Church, there is no biblical nor extra-biblical documentation to confirm that he was a member of this body.

        -Bill

        • Arthur Rugama on October 4, 2014 at 10:27 am

          Bill:
          There is no way Saul was a member of the Sanhedrin nor was he ever married. Only people who were over 60 years of age, married and with children could be members of the Sanhedrin. Saul wa barely in his late twenties when The Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus. He was about 65 when he died.
          That is why Saul was not even a rabbi given that the minimum age to be a rabbi was 30. Saul never married nor did he have children. 1Cor 7. To the unmarried (here he talks about those never married. See the context) I counsel to remain as I am. Paraphrased.

          • Bill Petro on October 6, 2014 at 6:03 pm

            Arthur,

            Thanks for the comment. While I agree it’s unlikely Saul was a member of the Sanhedrin, we cannot say that he was under 30 at the beginning of his most productive years of ministry. While he may have been in his late 20s at his conversion on the road to Damascus, he spent 14 years in Arabia before his ministry really took off, making him easily over 30. I don’t know if he was a rabbi, though he did often teach in synagogues.

            -Bill



          • Odhiambo on September 12, 2015 at 7:17 am

            About paul’s marriage, we can not say whether he was married or not, for in 1cor 7:8 he refers also to the widows (may be widowers,or those divorced rightfully as per the Lord could be placed here), we cannnot from this verse know whether he was married before his conversion or not.All we get is that he is not married at this point.



  2. Faith Noles on January 9, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Great article! Thanks.

  3. Elsa Klee on March 22, 2014 at 10:59 am

    I enjoyed your article, thank you! Do you perhaps know who would have made decisions as to how the law would be practiced in this time? For example, we know the Sadducees and Pharisees disagreed on the interpretation of when Pentacost should be observed. Who’s interpretation would be enforced in the Temple, that of the high priest who was a sSadducee or the Pharisees who seemed to have been the majority? Thank you!

    • Bill Petro on March 24, 2014 at 3:52 pm

      Elsa,

      The Sadducees and Pharisees were quasi-political parties in ancient Israel, but not in the sense we think of today. At the time of Christ the nation of Israel was a Roman province under prefects. These two groups did not influence Roman legislation, but they did have some sway over Pontius Pilate as we see in that article. These two groups emerged after the Babylonian Captivity so their roles were not planned for at the time of original Temple rule at the time of Solomon. For the Second Temple, also known as Herod’s Temple, the decision for Passover date would have been set by the High Priest, or the high priestly family. This group would have had closer ties to the Sadducees than the Pharisees.

      Incidentally, the high priestly family had enormous in Israel at this time and the centuries immediately preceding. And contests over who would be High Priest were very contentious. One involved an appeal to Rome. This resulted in Roman intervention by Pompey, seige and then subjugation of Israel in 63 BC. It was initially a client kingdom and later under Augustus a Roman province.

      -Bill

  4. Elsa Klee on March 25, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Thanks Bill, your comment has been helpful to me. Much apprectiated! Do you perhaps have any references we can quote? We are currently doing research for an article about the calendar at the time of Y’shua. Thank you!

    • Bill Petro on March 25, 2014 at 3:26 pm

      Elsa,

      I studied this so long ago that I don’t recall my sources. I’d point you to any good study Bible, which usually has an historical section (between the Testaments) on the religio-political parties at the time: Zealots, Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians, high priestly family. The ESV Study Bible or the Reformation Study Bible are good places to start. Look for “Intertestamental history” or “Greco-Roman world”.

      -Bill

      • Dennis w HOLLAND on August 17, 2017 at 10:52 am

        Bibliotheca Sacra has great information about the High Priest,

  5. Elsa Klee on March 26, 2014 at 3:04 am

    Thanks, will do

    Blessings in Y’shua

    • Bill Petro on March 26, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      You’re welcome Elsa.

      -Bill

  6. Susan on April 17, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    Important question: Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin: Gospels say ‘all’ of the Sanhedrin decided on Jesus’ guilt and sentence and so they sent him to Pilot. (They could not under Roman law give a death penalty, themselves.) However, scripture says later that Joseph of Aramathea, who was on the council, did not ‘consent’ to his death. Sounds like he was there with a vote because of the word ‘consent’. So was he not present or does the ‘all the Sanhedrin’ possibly mean the majority voted for his death. That would be similar to the US Supreme Court -a decision 3-6 but later it is simply know as the court’s final decision without the reference to the vote. I am teaching on this and would so appreciate your expertise .

    • Bill Petro on April 17, 2014 at 5:08 pm

      Susan, good question. I take it that Joseph of Aramathea either was not present or did not agree. This means two possibilities: there was a quorum, enough to meet and vote without him there… or he was there and the majority carried the vote. “All” need not mean unanimous, there could have been abstentions or negative votes, but still the vote carried.

      -Bill

  7. John Paul on April 26, 2014 at 1:11 am

    Very detailed and informative grassroots knowledge of the topic. I learned a lot from this.

  8. bijukannan on August 9, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    thank you for giving the informations about sanhedrin . it helped me in my study notes God bless u more.

  9. Kingsley Onuoha on August 17, 2014 at 2:39 am

    Thank You so much for this article about the Sanhedrin Council. It is very insightful to have this information.
    Please is it possible to know the qualifications of those who can be Members of this council. For example I have had series of Preachers who believe that to be a Member you have to be Married. And I am confused about that. Again was Paul married, are there biblical and historical proof for that.

    • Bill Petro on August 17, 2014 at 3:59 pm

      I have heard the same from preachers, but I cannot confirm it. We know that most rabbis were married as were most Pharisees, but I can find no specific requirement in the historical documents.

  10. Kingsley Onuoha on August 17, 2014 at 3:00 am

    Sir the passages you have mentioned did not say Paul was married, but that he was unmarried. That he uses the same word for those who have not married before and the widowers represent the state in which those people were at the time of his writing. Don’t you think that Paul being who he was would have made mention of his marital status if he was once married, but in no where did he do that throughout his writing rather he keeps referring to himself as single.

    • Bill Petro on August 17, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      At the time of Paul’s writing to the church at Corinth, he was unmarried. The Greek word “agamos” could mean bachelor or widower. I don’t believe Paul needed to mention that he was formerly married if he was. Peter does not mention that he was married, and we know he had a mother-in-law.

  11. egunjobi lawrrence on September 26, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    i like the article.

  12. kennedy Tandeo on March 14, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    this artcle has helped me lot.Keep fire burning.

  13. eric on April 6, 2015 at 10:38 am

    Why would Saul/Paul (a religious spy/saboteur) give his life for Christianity if he didn’t believe in it? Perhaps the Sanhedrin commissioned Saul for this purpose?

    “What FOOLS you are! DON’T YOU REALIZE that it is better that one man die (Saul) for the sake of the Jewish Nation, than for the whole Jewish Nation to be
    destroyed”. This applies to Saul/Paul as well as to Jesus, but in a different respect. True Scripture is multi-faceted, like a diamond, with many
    meanings/applications.

    Likely Scenario:
    So the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin) cast lots, and the lot fell on Saul, and Saul was commissioned to preach Jesus to the Gentiles, to divert the Roman authorities’ attention away from the Jewish nation. And Saul went about his work with as much zeal as he did persecuting the followers of THE WAY (i.e. Christianity known by many), spreading the news (like wildfire) to the Gentile nations. IF YOU CAN’T BEAT THEM, JOIN THEM. FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE. THE WAY (e.g. Christianity) could not be quenched, so the only way to protect the Jewish nation was to divert that fire with fire (towards the Gentile nations). 

    • Bill Petro on April 18, 2015 at 6:58 pm

      Innovative interpretation, thanks for the comment. I don’t share your speculation, as I believe Luke had one meaning in mind, not any that one chooses.

      Paul always preached to the Jews first when he visited a town, if it had a synagogue. He was typically rejected and would then take the message to the Gentiles.

      -Bill

  14. Diana on May 6, 2015 at 5:57 am

    Is there a difference in the first council of Jerusalem in the expansion period (that was formed in 48-49 AD) and the Sanhedrin? Who was it made up of?

    • Bill Petro on May 22, 2015 at 9:21 am

      Diana,

      I’m not sure I understand your question. The 1st Council of Jerusalem around 50 AD, mentioned in Acts 15, was for the Christian church. The topic was around the question of Gentiles in the church. The Sanhedrin was a Jewish religious/governing body.

      -Bill

  15. BevB on September 7, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    I am interested and enjoyed reading this article. However, I saw no scholarly or historical references and sources from which you acquired your information. I would have liked to see some reference for further information and research. Thank you. BB

    • Bill Petro on September 14, 2015 at 11:59 pm

      BevB,

      I have found over the last 30 years of writing these articles that my readers don’t care for a bibliography. In some obscure or controversial topics — I love a discussion — I will bring those out.

      -Bill

  16. Rynna on September 14, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    Thanks Bill for a well written article.

  17. Jerrie H on April 14, 2016 at 10:48 am

    Thanks for the history lesson on the Sanhedrin Court. Was there a rotation of High Priest and others and how were they chosen to serve on the high court?

    • Bill Petro on April 16, 2016 at 3:30 pm

      Jerrie,

      The high priest needed to be of priestly descent, from Aaron, brother of Moses. Typically this meant someone of the tribe of Levi. Between Aaron and the time of Herod the Great there were a total of 55 high priests. The Levitical family along with all the priests would cast lots for the next high priest. Usually the office stayed in the family of the previous high priest. However, there were two historic interruptions to this practice. The debate over the high priesthood was one of the elements that fomented such a disagreement that an appeal was made to the legate of Rome to settle it. And settle it they did, with the arrival of Pompey the Great who besieged Jerusalem and ultimately conquering the land in 63 BC. And that is how Roman occupation began.

      Shortly thereafter the Roman’s set up a client king, Herod the Great. He wanted to choose the high priest. He did this in the hope of keeping the people quiescent in the face of Roman occupation and getting them to continue paying their taxes to Caesar. Herod nominated 6 high priests, his son the tetrarch Archelaus appointed 2. The Roman legate Quirinius (mentioned in Luke 2), and Herod Agrippa I, and his son Agrippa II also appointed high priests, along with Herod of Chalsis, son of Aristobulus and grandson of Herod the Great.

      -Bill

      • Jerrie H on April 16, 2016 at 7:34 pm

        Thanks so much. How did the Pharisees and the tribal group get on the court? Did they have that position for life? Were they chosen by rolling the dice?

        • Bill Petro on April 17, 2016 at 10:41 pm

          Jerrie,

          The members were more recognized than elected. There were a set of requirements of the individuals in terms of maturity, experience and spiritual qualifications. At the time of Jesus the Grand Sanhedrin numbered 70 or 71. At other times it was of different sizes and had other roles and responsibilities. Also, the makeup in terms of Pharisees widely varied over time. At this time, the Pharisees were in the minority. The majority was Sadducees and the priestly familees. Note that Pharisees were not priests, they were laymen. Devout, studious, and respected. Their domain was the synagogue. The Sadducee party was dedicated to the Temple, where the Sanhedrin met at this time.

          -Bill

          • Jerrie H on April 18, 2016 at 7:39 pm

            Thank you for this information. God bless!



  18. Dickson Atnadu on June 2, 2016 at 9:54 am

    Iam told the Sanhedrin helped in spreading the early Church, how did it happened?

    • Bill Petro on June 5, 2016 at 8:32 pm

      The Sanhedrin did not help in spreading the early Church… at least not directly. Rather, they forbid the Apostles from preaching the gospel, according to the account in Acts 5:40. However, the effect of this was that the Apostles “did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”

      -Bill

  19. Ron on July 5, 2016 at 10:19 am

    I am looking for more information on Joseph of Arimathea and where he fits in on the Sandedrin. Any ideas as to his role? His status? Also, at the trial of Jesus, do you think they met in the temple itself of somewhere outside in the city?
    Some historians theorize Joseph may have been the uncle of Jesus and was instrumental in bringing the gospel to England. I know this is form non biblical sources but what do you think?
    Thank you for any information or insights you may have.

    • Bill Petro on July 6, 2016 at 6:27 pm

      Ron,

      What we know about Joseph of Arimathea from the New Testament Gospels is limited. Mark 15 says he was a respected member of the council (Sanhedrin), who was himself looking for the kingdom of God. Matthew says he was rich and a disciple of Jesus, while John says he asked Pilate for Jesus’ body for burial. Luke discusses the urgency for that burial due to the Sabbath coming (Friday sunset) and that Joseph’s own tomb was used for Jesus’ burial. There is a passage in Isaiah 53 that prophesies that Jesus would be buried “with the rich in his death.”

      That’s it historically. While the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus discusses Joseph’s request for Jesus’ body, this is not considered canon, nor historical. The topic of Joseph bringing Christianity to Britain is legendary. We see a corpus of legends around Joseph appearing in the second century, but most of the ones you’re familiar with — and popularized by Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code novel — gained visibility during the Middle Ages. We know THAT Christianity came to Britain early, perhaps as early as the early 3rd century, but not HOW. Joseph’s association with the Holy Grail are also legendary.

      However, Good Queen Bess (Elizabeth I) told the bishops of the Church of Rome that Joseph brought Christianity to Britain from the Holy Land, long before the Church from Rome arrived. That doesn’t make it history, but it makes a great story.

      -Bill

  20. George Mwansa on April 27, 2017 at 11:11 pm

    This article is brilliantly written and very easy for lay people to have an understanding of the Sanhedrin and what it stood for. Thank you for sharing it with the world. May the Lord richly bless you

  21. Dwight Snider on December 11, 2017 at 9:33 am

    I searched this site because I recently watched George Stevens’ production of “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. I have avoided watching it all these years, though I’m not sure why, since I was a fan of Both Max von Sydow and Stevens. Perhaps because of that. Or maybe I had seen too many Ingmar Bergman films.
    At any rate, I was not surprised by the film. Stevens’ script followed the Scriptures, but he seemed more interested in the cinematography than the script. His crowd scenes were as carefully staged as a renaissance painting, except only the wealthy and powerful wore clothing of color.
    That said, I was curious about the Sanhedrin trial. The Sadducees were concerned about Jesus warnings to the wealthy, and Caiaphus was angry about that, and the talk of immortal souls. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, wasn’t concerned about either of those. However, when Jesus said he was the Son Of God, all agreed he had convicted himself of blasphemy.
    Pilate found no fault because Romans did not enforce local ecclesiastical laws. However, the Messiah of prophecy would be the new King Of the Jews, and claiming you were the true king was sedition.
    Your article explains all of that. Thank you.

    • Bill Petro on December 11, 2017 at 9:47 am

      Thanks Dwight. My article on Herod the King discusses the explosiveness of the term “king of the Jews” at Jesus’ birth.

      -Bill

  22. Joann T. on February 17, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Thank you for this article. I am preparing a lesson about the plot to kill Jesus, and this has been most helpful.

  23. Chelse Padgett on July 9, 2018 at 7:38 am

    Thanks a million for this wonderful breakdown. Over the last year I’ve been reading the bible from Genesis and now I’m in Acts. The Holy
    Spirit prompted me to learn more about the Sanhedrin and your article came up. Republicans and Democrats come to mind as I’m reading more. Also, I’m young (35) and this breakdown about the age of most members and Jesus age further proves 1 Timothy 4:12, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”

  24. Courtney Haughton on August 1, 2018 at 3:40 pm

    I enjoyed reading this article. It was very informative.

    • billpetro on August 4, 2018 at 12:19 pm

      Thanks Courtney.

      -Bill

  25. Deborah Lindstrom on August 23, 2018 at 3:13 pm

    Who might have represented the distinctly numbered 7 devils (not 4, not 8, not 6) but the specificly defined SEVEN DEVILS it is said Jesus took out of Mary Magadelene?

    I am wondering whether what we’re caled “devils” were in fact 7 members of the priesthood of Jaresalem who were political opposites of Jesus. and the so-called devils were members of the politacal group Mary Magdalene “used to” believe in?

    • billpetro on August 23, 2018 at 5:02 pm

      Deborah,

      I’ve not heard that story.

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