Q: #200. What was the Sanhedrin?
A: The Bible is relatively silent on many details about the Sanhedrin. Much of what we know is taken from outside sources, in particular Jewish sources. In addition, these sources seem to contradict each other at times, so we cannot be certain about some things, but here is some of what I have gathered.
It appears that there were 2 different Sanhedrins (some sources say 3). There was a greater and lesser Sanhedrin (Gr: sunedrion “a settling together”). The lesser Sanhedrin consisted of 23 judges and was basically found in every city in Israel (with at least 120 households). They would make decisions on most matters brought before them, much like our court system in each city today. However, there were matters that carried greater significance or couldn’t be decided in the lower court, and these were passed on to the greater Sanhedrin.
There was only 1 greater Sanhedrin, and it convened at (or near) the Temple in Jerusalem in a building most believe was called the “Chamber Of Hewn Stones.” They would make decisions on things of “national” importance. For instance, declarations of war, issues dealing with whole tribes, an issue with the High Priest, false prophets, etc… In addition, they dealt with matters pertaining to ritual and Jewish law such as blasphemy, adultery, tithing, idolatry, etc… It also appears that some or all death penalty cases may have been filtered through them (when they had the power to carry out the death penalty, see below). They functioned much like our Supreme Court today, except that they did not take on cases that the lesser Sanhedrin had already ruled on, with the purpose of overturning those rulings.
The great Sanhedrin is the Sanhedrin spoken of in the Bible (usually translated as “council”). It was made up of 71 members, with the High Priest being in charge (the president or “nasi”) and a 2nd in command vice-president. The other 69 members were mainly Sadducees (chief priests and elders [family heads]) or Pharisees (scribes). These were the 2 main groups in Judaism, and are mentioned numerous times in the New Testament. There was also division between the two groups at times (see Acts 23:6-10).
It appears that the number 71 came from (Num 11:16-17) when the Lord told Moses to commission 70 “elders of Israel” to help him rule over the people of Israel (Also see: Ex 18:13-26, Deut 1:9-19).
A great Jewish scholar named Maimonides said these men were to be wise and sensible, learned in law and full of knowledge (experts on the Torah), acquainted to some extent with other subjects such as medicine, arithmetic, astronomy, and astrology. A judge must not be too old (another source says he also must not be under 18 and at least 40), nor may he be a childless man. He must be pure in mind, pure from bodily defects, and a man of stature and imposing appearance. Another source says they were also to have Jewish parentage and must come from an unblemished family (i.e. not a child from adultery).
Apparently, this court was to meet every day during daytime hours except on the Sabbath or holy days.
In the Bible, every time the Sanhedrin is mentioned, it is in connection with persecuting people. The Sanhedrin was primarily responsible for having Jesus crucified. They plotted to have Him murdered (Jn 11:47-53), paid Judas Iscariot 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus (Mt 26:14-16)(Mk 14:10-11)(Lk 22:1-6), had Him arrested and tried Him using false witnesses to accuse Him (Mt 26:47-66)(Mk 14:43-65)(Lk 22:47-53)(Jn 18:1-27), then pressured Pontus Pilate into having Him crucified (Mt 27:1-26)(Mk 15:1-15)(Lk 23:1-25)(Jn 18:28-19:16). (It is interesting that the Sanhedrin was not to meet on the Sabbath or holy days, but broke this rule to condemn Jesus.)
*** Note: The Sanhedrin did not have the power under Roman authority to put someone to death (Jn 18:31). This power was supposedly revoked in 30 A.D. However, it did not stop them from later participating in the murder of Stephen (verses below).
The Sanhedrin also ordered Peter and John not to proclaim the name of Jesus (Acts 4:1-22), and when they would not stop, they had them beaten (Acts 5:17-42). The Sanhedrin listened to the charges brought against Stephen (Acts 6:8-7:1) and then either allowed or actually participated in the murder of Stephen by stoning (Acts 7:54-60). Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin and spoke to them (Acts 22:30-23:6), and afterwards they conspired to murder him (Acts 23:12-22). In addition, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, in 62 A.D. the High Priest named Ananus assembled a Sanhedrin who condemned James, the Lord’s brother, “on the charge of breaking the law” and had him stoned to death.
The New Testament gives us the names of 6 members of the Sanhedrin: Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:43)(Lk 23:50-51), Gamaliel (Acts 5:34)(he taught Paul, Acts 22:3), Nicodemus (Jn 3:1)(Jn 7:47-52), High Priests Annas (Acts 4:57), Caiaphas (Mt 26:3,57)(Jn 11:45-49)(Acts 4:5-7), and Ananias (Acts 22:30-23:2). The Bible shows that Nicodemus and Joseph Of Arimathea were believers in Jesus. Joseph offered his never used tomb for the body of Jesus after His crucifixion (Mt 27:57-60) (Mk 15:42-46)(Lk 23:50-53), and together he and Nicodemus helped bury Him (Jn 19:38-42).
***Note: It is believed by many that Paul was also a member of the Sanhedrin at one point. Different sources say that one of the requirements for being a member of the Sanhedrin was that he had to be married (i.e. Maimonides said a requirement was he must not be “a childless man”). If true, Paul would have been a widower, since we know from the Bible he was unmarried during his time as a Christian (1 Cor 7:6-10).
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D., most believe that the great Sanhedrin ceased to exist, although some sources say they continued in some form for a short time afterwards.