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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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SANHEDRIN . The Gr. word synedrion ( EV [Note: English Version.] council ) became so familiar to the Jews that they adopted it in the form of Sanhedrin , which occurs very frequently both in Josephus and in the Talmud.

1 . According to Rabbinical tradition, the Sanhedrin was originally created by Moses in obedience to Divine command (cf. Numbers 11:16 ), and it is taught that this assembly existed, and exercised judicial functions, throughout the whole period of Biblical history right up to Talmudic times. That this cannot have been the case is seen already in the fact that, according to Biblical authority itself, king Jehoshaphat is mentioned as having instituted the supreme court at Jerusalem ( 2 Chronicles 19:8 ); but that this court cannot have been identical with the Sanhedrin of later times is clear from the fact that, whereas the latter had governing powers as well as judicial functions, the former was a court of justice and nothing else. It is possible that the ‘ elders ’ mentioned in the Book of Ezra ( Ezra 5:5; Ezra 5:9; Ezra 6:7; Ezra 6:14; Ezra 10:8 ) and ‘rulers’ in the Boo k of Nehemiah ( Nehemiah 2:18; Nehemiah 4:8; Nehemiah 4:18; Nehemiah 5:7; Nehemiah 7:5 ) constituted a body which to some extent corresponded to the Sanhedrin properly so called. But seeing that the Sanhedrin is often referred to as a Gerousia ( i.e. an aristocratic, as distinct from a democratic, body), and that as such it is not mentioned before the time of Antiochus the Great (b.c. 223 187), it is reasonably certain that, in its more developed form at ail events, it did not exist before the Greek period. The Sanhedrin is referred to under the name Gerousia ( EV [Note: English Version.] senate ) In Malachi 1:10 Malachi 1:10; 2Ma 4:44 , Jdt 4:8; Jdt 11:14; Jdt 15:8 and elsewhere in the Apocr. [Note: Apocrypha, Apocryphal.] , in Acts 5:21 , and frequently in Josephus, e.g. Ant . IV. viii. 41.

The Sanhedrin was conceived of mainly as a court of justice , the equivalent Heb. term being Beth Dîn , and it is in this sense that it is usually referred to in the NT (see, e.g. , Matthew 5:22; Matthew 26:59 , Mark 15:1 , Luke 22:66 , John 11:47 , Acts 4:15; Acts 5:21; Acts 6:12; Acts 22:30 etc.). Sometimes in the NT the terms Presbyterion and Gerousia are used in reference to the Sanhedrin ( Acts 5:21; Acts 22:5 ). A member of this court was called a bouteutes (‘councillor’). Joseph of Arimathæa was one ( Mark 15:43 , Luke 23:50 ). The Sanhedrin was abolished after the destruction of Jerusalem (a.d. 70).

2 . As regards the composition of the Sanhedrin, the hereditary high priest stood at the head of it, and in its fundamental character it formed a sacerdotal aristocracy, and represented the nobility, i.e. predominantly the Sadducæan interest; but under Herod, who favoured the Pharisaic party in his desire to restrict the power and influence of the old nobility, the Sadducæan element in the Sanhedrin became less prominent, while that of the Pharisees increased. So that during the Roman period the Sanhedrin contained representatives of two opposed parties, the priestly nobility with its Sadducæan sympathies, and the learned Pharisees. According to the Mishna, the Sanhedrin consisted of seventy-one members ( Sanhed . i. 6); when a vacancy occurred the members co-opted some one ‘from the congregation’ to fill the place ( Sanhed . iv. 4), and he was admitted by the ceremony of the laying on of hands.

3 . The extent of the Sanhedrin’s jurisdiction varied at different times in its history; while, in a certain sense, it exercised civil jurisdiction over all Jewish communities, wherever they existed, during the time of Christ this was restricted to Judæa proper; it was for this reason that it had no judicial authority over Him so long as He remained in Galilee. Its orders were, however, very soon after the time of Christ, regarded as binding by orthodox Jews ail over the world. Thus we see that it could issue warrants for the apprehension of Christians in Damascus to the synagogue there ( Acts 9:2; Acts 22:5; Acts 26:12 ); but the extent to which Jewish communities outside of Judæa were willing to submit to such orders depended entirely on how far they were favourably disposed towards the central authority; it was only within the limits of Judæa proper that real authority could he exercised by the Sanhedrin. It was thus the supreme native court, as contrasted with the foreign authority of Rome; to it belonged all such judicial matters as the local provincial courts were incompetent to deal with, or as the Roman procurator did not attend to himself. Above all, it was the final court of appeal for questions connected with the Mosaic Law; its decision having once been given, the judges of the lower courts were, on pain of death, bound to acquiesce in it. The NT offers some interesting examples of the kind of matters that were brought before it: Christ appeared before it on a charge of blasphemy ( Matthew 26:57 , John 19:7 ), Peter and John were accused before it of being false prophets and deceivers of the people ( Acts 4:5 ff.), Stephen was condemned by it because of blasphemy ( Acts 7:57-58 ), and Paul was charged with transgression of the Mosaic Law ( Acts 22:30 ). It had independent authority and right to arrest people by its own officers ( Matthew 26:47 , Mark 14:48 , Acts 4:3; Acts 5:17-18 ); it had also the power of finally disposing, on its own authority, of such cases as did not involve sentence of death ( Acts 4:5-23; Acts 5:21-40 ). It was only in cases when the sentence of death was pronounced that the latter had to be ratified by the Roman authorities ( John 18:31 ); the case of the stoning of Stephen must be regarded as an instance of mob-justice.

While the Sanhedrin could not hold a court of supreme jurisdiction in the absence, or, at all events, without the consent, of the Roman procurator, it enjoyed, nevertheless, wide powers within the sphere of its extensive jurisdiction. At the same time, it had sometimes to submit to the painful experience of realizing its dependent position in face of the Roman power, even in matters which might be regarded as peculiarly within the scope of its own jurisdiction; for the Roman authorities could at any time take the initiative themselves, and proceed independently of the Jewish court, as the NT testifies, e.g. in the case of Paul’s arrest (see also Acts 23:15; Acts 23:20; Acts 23:28 ).

4 . The Sanhedrin met in the Temple, in what was called the Lishkath ha-Gazith (the ‘Hall of hewn-stones’) as a general rule, though an exception is recorded in Matthew 26:57 ff., Mark 14:53 ff. The members sat in a semicircle in order to be able to see each other; in front stood clerks of the court, and behind these, three rows of the disciples of the ‘learned men.’ The prisoner had always to be dressed in mourning. When any one had spoken once in favour of the accused, he could not afterwards speak against him. In case of acquittal the decision might be announced the same day, but a sentence of condemnation was always pronounced on the day following, or later; in the former a simple majority sufficed, in the latter a majority of two-thirds was required.

W. O. E. Oesterley.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sanhedrin'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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