History of the Sanhedrin: Who was this Council?

SANHEDRIN

The Greek word sunedrion, translated “council” 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 the Greek and Roman powers granted the Jewish nation. Its origin can be traced back as far as 200 B.C. The council had 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).

At the time of Jesus two religio-political parties within Judaism were represented in this membership: 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, 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. However, during the time of Jesus, the council had lost to the Roman governor the power of capital punishment. 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.

Although 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. 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. 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 angels and demons. This they had in common with Jesus, and it should be noted that these 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.

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

The New Testament calls two men high priest, Annas and 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 high priest. He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas and had been high priest from A.D. 6-15, when he had been deposed by the Roman governor, 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, 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.

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

from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment, or subscribing to the news feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader, or to your email.

17 comments… add one
  • 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.

    Reply
  • Great article! Thanks.

    Reply
  • 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!

    Reply
    • 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

      Reply
  • 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!

    Reply
    • 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

      Reply
  • Thanks, will do

    Blessings in Y’shua

    Reply
  • 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 .

    Reply
    • Susan, good question. I take it that Joseph of Aramathea either was not present of 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

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

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

    Reply
  • 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
  • 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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply

Leave a Comment

Copyright © 1984-2014 · Bill Petro. All rights reserved, unless otherwise stated.
Powered by WordPress, the Thesis theme and Promo skin.
%d bloggers like this: