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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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SANHEDRIN, or SYNEDRIUM, among the ancient Jews, the supreme council or court of judicature, of that republic; in which were despatched all the great affairs both of religion and policy. The word is derived from the Greek συνεδριον , a council, assembly, or company of people sitting together; from συν , together, and ηδρα , a seat. Many of the learned agree, that it was instituted by Moses, Numbers 11; and consisted at first of seventy elders, who judged finally of all causes and affairs; and that they subsisted, without intermission, from Moses to Ezra, Deuteronomy 27:1 ; Deuteronomy 31:9 ; Joshua 24:1 ; Joshua 24:31 ; Judges 2:7 ; 2 Chronicles 19:8 ; Ezekiel 8:11 . Others will have it, that the council of seventy elders, established by Moses, was temporary, and did not hold after his death; adding, that we find no sign of any such perpetual and infallible tribunal throughout the whole Old Testament; and that the sanhedrim was first set up in the time when the Maccabees, or Asmoneans, took upon themselves the administration of the government under the title of high priests, and afterward of kings, that is, after the persecution of Antiochus. This is by far the most probable opinion. The Jews, however, contend strenuously for the antiquity of their great sanhedrim; M. Simon strengthens and defends their proofs, and M. Le Clerc attacks them. Whatever may be the origin and establishment of the sanhedrim, it is certain that it was subsisting in the time of our Saviour, since it is spoken of in the Gospels, Matthew 5:21 ; Mark 13:9 ; Mark 14:55 ; Mark 15:1 ; and since Jesus Christ himself was arraigned and condemned by it; that it was held at Jerusalem; and that the decision of all the most important affairs among the Jews belonged to it. The president of this assembly was called nasi, or prince; his deputy was called abbethdin, father of the house of judgment; and the sub-deputy was called chacan, the wise: the rest were denominated tzekanim, elders or senators. The room in which they sat was a rotunda, half of which was built without the temple, and half within; that is, one semicircle of the room was within the compass of the temple; and as it was never allowed to sit down in the temple, they tell us this part was for those who stood up; the other half, or semicircle, extended without the holy place, and here the judges sat. The nasi, or prince, sat on a throne at the end of the hall, having his deputy at his right hand, and his sub-deputy at his left; the other senators were ranged in order on each side.

The sanhedrim subsisted until the destruction of Jerusalem, but its authority, was almost reduced to nothing, from the time in which the Jewish nation became subject to the Roman empire. The rabbins pretend, that the sanhedrim has always subsisted in their nation from the time of Moses to the destruction of the temple by the Romans; and they maintain that it consisted of seventy counsellors, six out of each tribe, and Moses as president; and thus the number was seventy-one: but six senators out of each tribe make the number seventy-two, which, with the president, constitute a council of seventy-three persons, and therefore it has been the opinion of some authors that this was the number of the members of the sanhedrim. As to the personal qualifications of the judges of this court, it was required that they should be of untainted birth; and they were often of the race of the priests or Levites, or of the number of inferior judges, or of the lesser sanhedrim, which consisted of twenty-three judges. They were to be skilful in the written and traditional law; and they were obliged to study magic, divination, fortune telling, physic, astrology, arithmetic, and languages. It was also required, that none of them should be eunuchs, usurers, decrepid or deformed, or gamesters; and that they should be of mature age, rich, and of good countenance and body. Thus say the rabbins.

The authority of the sanhedrim was very extensive. This council decided causes brought before it by appeal from inferior courts. The king, high priest, and prophets, were subject to its jurisdiction. The general officers of the nation were brought before the sanhedrim. How far their right of judging in capital cases extended, and how long it continued, have been subjects of controversy. Among the rabbins it has been a generally received opinion, that about forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem, their nation had been deprived of the power of life and death. And most authors assert, that this privilege was taken from them ever since Judea was made a province of the Roman empire, that is, after the banishment of Archelaus. Others, however, maintain that the Jews had still the power of life and death; but that this privilege was restricted to crimes committed against their law, and depended upon the governor's will and pleasure. In the time of Moses, this council was held at the door of the tabernacle of the testimony. As soon as the people were in possession of the land of promise, the sanhedrim followed the tabernacle, and it continued at Jerusalem, whither it was removed, till the captivity. During the captivity it was kept at Babylon. After the return from Babylon, it remained at Jerusalem, as it is said, to the time of the sicarii or assassins; afterward it was removed to Jamnia, thence to Jericho, to Uzzah, to Sepharvaim, to Bethsamia, to Sephoris, and last of all to Tiberias, where it continued till its utter extinction. Such is the account which the Jews give of their sanhedrim. But, as stated above, much of this is disputed. Petau fixes the beginning of the sanhedrim to the period when Gabinius was governor of Judea, by whom were erected tribunals in the five cities of Judea, namely, Jerusalem, Gadara, Amathus, Jericho, and Sephoris. Grotius agrees in the date of its commencement with the rabbins, but he fixes its termination at the beginning of Herod's reign. Basnage places it under Judas Maccabaeus and his brother Jonathan. Upon the whole, it may be observed, that the origin of the sanhedrim has not been satisfactorily ascertained; and that the council of the seventy elders, established by Moses, was not what the Hebrews understood by the name of sanhedrim.

Before the death of our Saviour, two very famous rabbins had been presidents of the sanhedrim, namely, Hillel and Schammai, who entertained very different opinions on several subjects, and particularly that of divorce. This gave occasion to the question which the Pharisees put to Jesus Christ upon that head, Matthew 19:3 . ( See DIVORCE. ) Hillel had Menahem for his associate in the presidency of the sanhedrim. But the latter afterward deserted that honourable post, and joined himself with a great number of his disciples, to the party of Herod Antipas, who promoted the levying of taxes for the use of the Roman emperors with all his might. These were probably the Herodians mentioned in the Gospel, Matthew 22:16 . To Hillel succeeded Simeon his son, who by some is supposed to have been the person who took Jesus Christ in his arms, Luke 2:28 , and publicly acknowledged him to be the Messiah. If this be the case, the Jewish sanhedrim had for president a person that was entirely disposed to embrace Christianity. Gamaliel, the son and successor of Simeon, seems to have been also of a candid disposition and character. There were several inferior sanhedrims in Palestine, all depending on the great sanhedrim at Jerusalem. The inferior sanhedrim consisted each of twenty-three persons; and there was one in each city and town. Some say, that to have a right to hold a sanhedrim, it was requisite there should be one hundred and twenty inhabitants in the place. Where the inhabitants came short of the number of one hundred and twenty, they only established three judges. In the great as well as the inferior sanhedrim were two scribes; the one to write down the suffrages of those who were for condemnation, the other to take down the suffrages of those who were for absolution.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Sanhedrim'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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