The Greek word Συνέδριον, sunedrion, means literally “sitting together” and is usually translated as “council.” It is referred to in the New Testament alternately 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. It reflected the local autonomy that first, the Greek and later the Roman powers granted the Jewish nation during their successive sovereignty over the Land of Israel.
Origin of the Sanhedrin
Its origin can be traced back as far as 200 B.C. during the “Intertestamental Period,” meaning that period extending about 400 years after the close of the Old Testament to the beginning of the New Testament writings. We hear about it during the Hasmonean period, following the Maccabean Revolt — which you can read more about in the History of Chanukah — and there are references to it in the Mishnah section of the Talmud. But 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 and the Sanhedrin
At the time of Jesus, two religiopolitical 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. But 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 of the Sanhedrin
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 high priest’s house.
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 whether he himself was the Messiah. There were about a dozen false Messiahs running around during the first part of this century, deceiving the people. It was the responsibility of the council to identify and denounce them. This is why Jesus had to come into contact with them eventually.
Although the minority party within the council was the Pharisees, they were the majority party outside the council. The Jewish philosopher Philo tells us they numbered six thousand across the Roman world during the first century. 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 ones, which were considered pagan. They first appeared more than a century before Jesus, though they had little interest in politics by this time. 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
- The existence of angels and demons
These 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 some names you might know: 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 the Hebrew word צדיק, 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 highly 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 the previously mentioned Caiaphas. It turns out that Caiaphas was actually the current high priest at this time, though there are several 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. He was the senior ex-high priest and may have presided over the council at times.
This is why Jesus was first brought to Annas during his trial on Good Friday.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time