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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Sanhedrin (2)

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SANHEDRIN.—The supreme council and high court of justice in Jerusalem during the Greek and Roman periods.

1. Names and Composition

(a) Of the whole body: (α) Greek: (1) συνέδριον, so first, in point of historical reference, in Josephus Ant. xiv. ix. 3–5, and thereafter frequent in Josephus and NT. (2) γερουσία, first, in point of reference, in Ant. xii. iii. 3; frequent in OT Apocrypha: once in NT, Acts 5:21* (cf. below). (3) βουλή, fairly frequent in Josephus, especially in the BJ, but NT never uses βουλή in this sense, though βουλευτής is used of Joseph of Arimathaea in Mark 15:43 and Luke 23:50. (4) πρεσβυτέριον, Luke 22:66, Acts 22:5. (5) Josephus also uses τὸ κοινόν, or κοινὸν τῶν Ἰεροσολυμιτῶν, esp. in the Vita, with special reference to the Sanhedrin. (β) Hebrew: (1) In the Talmudic literature the commonest word is סַנְהָדְרִין, a transliteration of συνέδριον, also written סַנֶּדְרַין, and even סַנְהֶדְרֵי, from which again plurals were formed סַנְהֶדְרָיוֹת, or סַנְהָדְרָאוֹת (cf. Jastrow, Dict. of Talmud, 1005). Variations are סַנְהֶדְרִין גְּדוֹלָה and סַנְהֶדְרִין שֶׁל שִׁבְעִים וְאֶהָד. (2) בֵּית דַּין הַגָּדוֹל. (3) On Hasmonaean coins הָבֶר ‘collegium,’ is associated with the reigning high priest, and presumably designates the Sanhedrin.

These names throw light upon the composition and functions of the court. συνέδριον suggests a court of justice, and so, still more explicitly, does בֵּית דִּין. γερουσία is a term applied only to aristocratic eouncils, and the Hasmonaean חָבֶר suggests an aristoeratic body associated with the monarch.* [Note: Acts 5:21 presents a certain difficulty in its use of the phrase τὀ συνεδριον καὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γερουσὶκν. According to this, the γερουσἰα would have a wider meaning than συνέδριον, whereas in OT Apocrypha it is the regular word for συνέδριον. The identity of the two terms can hardly he doubted, as there is no evidence of the existence of any other court to which the name γερουσία might he applied. As it is unnatural to take καἰ in an explanatory sense (= i.e.) here, it must be supposed that the author used one of the words loosely, regarding συνἐδριον as an inner circle within the general court. Possibly he wished to emphasize the fact that on this occasion not only the necessary quorum but the whole council of 71 members was summoned.]

(b) Of its component parts. Quite as suggestive are the names of the various classes of members of the court. The principal expressions, ignoring minor variations, are οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς, οἱ ἄρχοντες, οἱ πρεσβύτεροι, οἱ δυνατοί, οἱ πρῶτοι, οἱ γνώριμοι, οἱ γραμματεῖς. Some of these terms are interchangeable, or nearly so, and they fall into three main classes. (1) Most important of all were the ἀρχιερεῖς, the chief priests, the members of the sacerdotal aristocraey. In Josephus and NT they are almost invariably mentioned first when the names of the classes composing the Sanhedrin are given (cf. Matthew 27:41; Josephus BJ ii. xvii. 2, and frequently). Often they are the only class particularly mentioned (cf. Mark 14:55 οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ ὅλον τὸ συνέδριον). The high priest was president of the court according to Josephus and NT (cf. Acts 5:17, which testifies not only to the presidency of the high priest, but also to the fact that the priestlyparty was Sadducee; cf. also Josephus Ant. xiv. ix. 3–5, and other passages from both sources). This is in agreement with the general constitution of the post-exilic Jewish community, in which civil-as well as religious authority was in the hands of the high priest. The priestly nobility were the leading persons in the community, and they were the most conspicuous members of the Sanhedrin. See Chief Priests, High Priest. The ἄρχοντες may be roughly identified with the ἀρχιερεῖς as the ‘rulers’ of the community. Occasionally they are mentioned where one would expect ἀρχιερεῖς: so frequently in Josephus (cf. Acts 4:5 τοὺς ἄρχοντας καὶ τοὺς πρεσβυτέρους καὶ τοὺς γραμματεῖς, Acts 4:8 ἄρχοντες τοῦ λαοῦ καὶ πρεσβύτεροι || Acts 4:23 οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι). Very occasionally, however, the ἄρχοντες are mentioned alongside of the ἀρχιερεῖς (cf. Luke 23:13), showing that the term might be used loosely for ‘leaders’ or ‘rulers.’ (2) πρεσβύτερο = וִקֵנִים, in the first instance a general name for the principal men of the community, and so, apparently, a general designation of members of the Sanhedrin (cf. πρεσβυτέριον). But in actual practice it describes those members who were neither ἀρχιερεῖς nor γραμματεῖς. The πρεσβύτεροι made common cause with the ἀρχιερεῖς against the γραμματεῖς, i.e. they belonged in general to the Sadducee party (cf. Acts 23:1-14). With this class may be identified the δυνατοί, πρῶτοι, or γνώριμοι (unless qualified in some way, as, γνώριμοι τῶν Φαρισαίων). Josephus frequently uses δυνατοί along with ἀρχιερεῖς, evidently as the equivalent of πρεσβύτεροι. They were the secular nobility of Jerusalem, closely allied to the sacerdotal aristocracy. (3) οἱ γραμματεῖς, the scribes, a class which hardly requires description here. In the main they formed the Pharisee element in the Sanhedrin, though individual members of the other classes may have been Pharisees, and many Pharisees, adhering to the scribal party, were not themselves professional scribes. See Scribes.

These names indicate with sufficient clearness the general character and composition of the court. It was an aristoeratic assembly and high court of justice, in which, alongside of the priestly nobility and the noble families outside the priestly circle, representatives of the more numerous Pharisee party found a place, the Sadducee element, however, retaining the weight of influence.

As to the method of appointment to the Sanhedrin, nothing definite can be gathered from the Greek sources. According to the Mishna, new members were appointed by the court itself. At first, membership was confined to the aristocratic families. Subsequently the political rulers of the country seem to have appointed members by their own authority in some cases at least (cf. Salome’s introduction of a Pharisee element).

The Greek sources agree in giving one picture of the Sanhedrin, while the Mishnic representation is radically different. That the representations are mutually irreconcilable, and that of the Greek sources is preferable in all respects, is now generally recognized by scholars, and the point requires to be stated rather than argued here. According to the Greek sources, as appears from the above, the Sanhedrin was composed of chief priests, elders, and scribes, and was presided over by the high priest. The chief priests and elders belonged in general to the Sadducee party, while the scribes formed the Pharisee element, which, however influential among the people, was seldom in the ascendant in the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was thus a political assembly and court of justice, representing in the main the aristocratic elements in the Jewish community. According to the Mishnic literature, on the other hand, it was a court of Rabbis, presided over by the leading Rabbi of the time, in which the priestly element as such does not appear, while the Sadducees are mentioned only as heretics to be refuted. The presiding Rabbi bears the title Nasi (otherwise a political title), and another, apparently the vice-president, is called Ab-beth-din. It was an ecclesiastical rather than a political assembly. The irreconcilability of the two representations is most marked in the answer they give to the question, Who was the President of the Sanhedrin? We have lists of Rabbis filling the offices of Nasi and Ab-beth-din during the two centuries preceding the destruction of Jerusalem, whereas the Greek sources furnish explicit evidence that during this period the high priest presided. Where individual names are mentioned in both sources the contradiction is very evident: e.g. Gamaliel was president according to the Mishna, but in Acts 5:34 he appears simply as Φαρισαιος ὀνοματι Γαμαλιήλ. The Greek sources are contemporary, while the Mishna is late and was compiled under totally changed conditions. The account given in the Greek sources accords with all that is known of the constitution and history of the Jewish community, from the Maccabaean revolt to the destruction of Jerusalem. Further, the evidence they furnish, while perfectly explicit, is largely incidental, proceeding from no theory, but simply reflecting the actual state of affairs. There is no trace of ‘tendency,’ and no motive for misrepresentation. On the other hand, the Mishnic account is true only of the reconstituted Sanhedrin which sat at Jamnia after the destruction of Jerusalem and the disappearance of the old aristocratic and Sadducee element. The character of this Sanhedrin, which bore little more resemblance to the older court than the ‘Sanhedrin’ which Napoleon endeavoured to establish, was transferred to the assembly of which we have accurate descriptions in the contemporary Greek sources. How far the Mishna has preserved reliable traditions on points of detail connected with the Sanhedrin is not easy to determine. Considerable use is often made of it even by those who admit the superiority of the Greek sources (cf. Bacher, art. ‘Sanhedrin’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ). In view, however, of the chasm which the destruction of Jerusalem made in the constitution and history of Judaism, and the radically false conception of the Sanhedrin which appears in the Mishnic tradition, statements based on the unsupported authority of the Mishna must be regarded as little better than conjectures.

2. History.—The Mishnic tradition connects the Sanhedrin with Moses’ seventy elders, then with the alleged Great Synagogue of Ezra’s time, then with such names of leading Rabbis as had escaped oblivion (cf. opening sections of Pirke Aboth), and so gives the Sanhedrin of Jamnia an appearance of historical continuity with the past. In point of fact, however, the Sanhedrin emerges into authentic history first in the Greek period. It must have existed earlier, but its origin is covered by the darkness which obscures all Jewish history from the time of Nehemiah (and even earlier) till the Maccabaean rising. The post-exilic Jewish community was nominally a theocracy, enjoying a certain measure of independence under foreign rule. At its head was the high priest, who was assisted by a γερουσία consisting chiefly of members of the aristocratic sacerdotal caste. The administration of secular affairs tended to produce in this caste a certain worldliness, a more or less exclusive interest in worldly business and culture, and consequently a readiness to fall under the influence of Hellenism. Passively opposed to them were the Hăsîdîm, the pious students of the Law and the legal tradition, whose interests and aspirations were exclusively religious and ecclesiastical. When the crisis came under Antiochus Epiphanes, the aristocratic caste, and consequently the γερουσία, or Sanhedrin, was in the main ready to yield completely to the pressure of an enforced Hellenism. The Hăsîdîm continued to offer steadfast but passive resistance to the persecutor. There arose, however, a third group, consisting of men who, while not specially in sympathy with the Hăsîdîm, wished to maintain the ancient religion and also the liberties of the people. The Hasmonaean family led them in armed revolt, and under the skilful leadership of Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers they not only regained religious liberty, but achieved the political independence of the Jewish State, of which the Hasmonaeans and their loyal followers became the rulers. The old aristocracy was practically destroyed, and the remnants of it were forced to acquiesce in the rule of the new dynasty. The Hăsîdîm, who had supported the Hasmonaeans until liberty of religion was secured, drifted away from them as the political aspect of the struggle became more prominent, and resumed towards them the same attitude of passive opposition which had characterized their relation to the older aristocracy. They were especially incensed at the Hasmonaean assumption of the title and functions of the high-priesthood, which they regarded as usurpation and as a secularizing of the theocracy. At the time of John Hyrcanus, therefore, the Sanhedrin consisted of adherents of the Hasmonaean dynasty—the new aristocracy combined with the remnants of the old, representing two of the three elements of the later court, the chief priests and the elders—and was overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, Sadducee. The Pharisees, the representatives of the earlier Hăsîdîm, stood aloof, and devoted themselves to the cultivation of their moral and religious influence with the people. It became necessary to conciliate them, and Hyrcanus made an effort to do so.* [Note: Josephus (Ant. xiii. x. 5–6) relates a story which tells how Hyrcanus broke with the Pharisees, to whom he had hitherto been attached, and went over to the Sadducees. But a critical examination of the story, and a comparison of its presuppositions with the previous history as related in 1 Mac., show that what took place was not a breach with the Pharisees, but an unsuccessful attempt to conciliate them. There is no evidence that they sat in the Sanhedrin before Salome’s change of policy. Cf. Wellhausen, Pharisäer und Sadducäer.] But their terms were too high. They demanded that Hyrcanus should resign the high-priesthood, and thus destroy the constitution and government which his father and uncles had established. His refusal to concede the demand made the opposition of the Pharisees to the ruling party more acute, and under Alexander Jannaeus there was open war. The Sanhedrin, composed as it was of the Hasmonaean nobility, supported Jannaeus. But the attitude of the people showed that the Pharisees could no longer with safety be left in opposition. Salome reversed the policy of her predecessors, and admitted them to a share in the government—for a time the dominant share—and to the Sanhedrin.

From that time onwards the Sanhedrin consisted of chief priests, elders, and scribes. It was a house divided against itself, and the bitter conflicts of Sadducee and Pharisee contributed in no small degree to the confusion and decay of the century and a half preceding the destruction of Jerusalem. The path of the Romans and of the Herodian house was made smooth by the inability of the Sanhedrin to act in unity and lead a united people. Pompey abrogated the kingship, but left the high priest at the head of the people and of the Sanhedrin, as heretofore. Gabinius went further, and established five συνέδρια in place of the single court, thus largely destroying its influence (57–55 b.c.). Some years later, however, the Sanhedrin was restored to its former position, and resumed the exercise of authority over the whole Jewish territory. Herod is stated to have commenced his reign with a massacre of the members of the Sanhedrin (Josephus Ant. xiv. ix. 4). According to another account (ib. xv. i. 2), he put to death 45 members of the party of Antigonus. His object was to destroy the influence of the Sadducee nobility, his consistent opponents and only possible rivals. With the same object in view, he reduced the dignity and importance of the high-priesthood by making it no longer hereditary and tenable for life, and by frequent changes. Under his rule the Sanhedrin had but little influence,—less probably than at any other time. Herod’s death was followed by the dismemberment of his kingdom, and the authority of the Sanhedrin ceased to extend beyond the limits of Judaea.

The government of the Roman procurators was on the whole favourable to the Sanhedrin. They had not the Herodian jealousy of the local nobility, and were content to leave considerable powers of internal control in their hands. Josephus and the NT bear witness to the influence and authority of the Sanhedrin during this period. So long as it retained control of the people, there was a fair measure of peace and good government. Ultimately, however, the people, under the influence of the Zealots, became unmanageable, and, against the advice of the older and more experienced aristocrats, embarked on the fatal revolt against the Roman authority. Even then the Sanhedrin, had it been left to itself, might have saved Jerusalem from total destruction. But the Zealots usurped its authority, rid themselves of those who counselled moderation, and inaugurated a Reign of Terror, which was terminated only by the entry of the Roman troops into the city.

Under the totally new conditions which prevailed after the destruction of Jerusalem, a new court established itself, bearing the name ‘Sanhedrin,’ but differing in essential features from the older body. The new Sanhedrin had no political authority, and was composed exclusively of Rabbis, whose discussions and decisions were mainly theoretical. It exercised considerable judicial authority over the Jewish people, owing to its moral influence, but was quite without governmental importance. The real Sanhedrin fell with the city.

3. Functions and authority.—The trustworthy sources give only incidental indications of the functions of the Sanhedrin and the extent of its authority. The changes in the constitution, also, from the time of the Maccabaean rising to the fall of the city, were so great and so frequent, that it is difficult to say how much authority was actually vested in the Sanhedrin at any one time. Under the Hasmonaeans it must have been considerable, both in administration and jurisdiction, though the stronger kings, like Jannaeus, may have ruled very independently. It was much more limited under the Herodian kings, whose authority was quite independent of the Jewish constitution. By the Romans the constitution was as far as possible respected, and the Sanhedrin, though subordinate to the Roman authority, had again considerable powers, perhaps greater than at any other time. The system of short tenure of the high-priestly office would throw more influence into the hands of the permanent body. In these later days, also, its moral authority over the Jewish people was much wider than its actual power. Territorially its actual authority extended under the procurators over Judaea only. On the other hand, its recommendations were regarded by orthodox Jews outside Judaea as possessing the force of commands (cf. Acts 9:2). In general, it may be said that under the procurators the Sanhedrin exercised such authority as was not either within the competence of local councils or reserved by the Romans, and that, while it had considerable powers of police administration and in the levying of taxes, and a certain responsibility for the maintenance of order, its main function was that of a supreme judicial tribunal. Except in the case of capital sentences, its authority was absolute, and it had the power to carry its decisions into effect. An effective sentence of death could be pronounced only by the procurator’s court. The stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:57 ff.) without the sanction of the procurator was an illegal act, not an execution but a ‘lynching.’ In the case of one offence, that of profanation of the sanctuary, even Roman citizens might be tried and condemned by the Sanhedrin, subject, of course, to the procurator’s revision of the capital sentence. In spite, however, of the constitutional powers conceded to the Sanhedrin, the Roman authority was always absolute, and the procurator or the tribune of the garrison could not only summon the Sanhedrin and direct it to investigate a matter, but could interfere and withdraw a prisoner from its jurisdiction, as was done in the case of St. Paul (Acts 22:30; Acts 23:23 ff.).

4. Sessions and procedure.—The Sanhedrin could sit on any day except the Sabbath and holy days; and as sentence of death could be pronounced (according to the Mishna) only on the day after a trial on a capital charge, such charges were not heard on the day preceding a Sabbath or holy day. The place of meeting is called by Josephus the βουλή, and was near the Xystus, which appears to be indicated in the Mishnic לִשְׁכַּת הַגָּזִית ‘hall of hewn stone’ (cf. Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , ii. 211). It was close to the upper city, but not in it, as it was destroyed by the Romans before they had reduced the upper city (Josephus BJ vi. vi. 3). The references in NT to meetings of the Sanhedrin (cf. Acts 23) show that its proceedings might be enlivened by stirring debates, and by the stormy scenes which occasionally take place even in the most dignified political assemblies. In the case of ordinary trials, the procedure may have resembled that described in the Mishna. According to its account, the proceedings were conducted according to strict rules, and the members gave judgment in regular order. Twenty-three members formed a quorum, and while a bare majority might acquit, a majority of two was necessary to secure condemnation. If a majority of one gave a verdict of guilty, more members were summoned, until either the requisite majority was obtained for a legal verdict, or the full number of seventy-one members was reached, when a majority of one was decisive on either side.

The accounts of the trial of Jesus present considerable difficulty, and it is not easy to accommodate them to the regular procedure of the Sanhedrin. See art. Trial of Jesus Christ.

Literature.—This is extensive, comprising all Histories of the Jews during the period b.c. 200–a.d. 70, as well as the relevant articles in all Bible Dictionaries, and some special works. The most useful and accessible comprehensive statement is that of Schürer, GJV [Note: JV Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes.] 3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ii. 188–214 [HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. i. 163 ff.]. The most illuminating account of the history and composition of the Sanhedrin is Wellhausen, Pharisäer und Sadducäer. To these may be added Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Sanhedrin’ (Bacher); EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] , artt. ‘Synedrium’ (Canney), and ‘Government’ (Benzinger), § 28–31.

C. H. Thomson.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sanhedrin (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/s/sanhedrin-2.html. 1906-1918.

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