Click to donate today!
Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
Sanhe´drim, more properly Sanhedrin, the supreme judicial council of the Jews, especially for religious affairs. This council consisted of seventy members. To this number the high priest was added, 'provided he was a man endowed with wisdom.' According to Dr. Jost, the members of the council 'consisted of the most eminent priests, and of the scribes of the people, who were chosen for life, but each of whom had to look to his own industry for his support.' In the New Testament they are frequently termed Priests, Elders, and Scribes. By the first are to be understood, not such as had sustained the office of high-priest, but the chief men among the priests; probably the presidents of the twenty-four classes into which the priesthood was divided. By the second, we are probably to understand the select men of the people—persons whose rank or standing led to their being raised to this distinction. And by the last are designated those, whether of the Levitical family or not, who gave themselves to the pursuit of learning, especially to the interpretation of Scripture, and of the traditions of the fathers.
In the council the office of president belonged to the high-priest, if he was a member of it. Next in rank to him was the vice-president, who bore the title of Father of the House of Judgment; whose duty it was to supply the place of the president in case he should be prevented by any accidental cause from discharging his duties himself. The third grade of rank was that of the sage, whose business was to give counsel to the assembly. The assembly, when convened, sat in the form of a semicircle, or half-moon, the president occupying the center. At each extremity stood a scribe, whose duty it was to record the sentence pronounced by the council. The meetings of this council were usually held in the morning. Their place of meeting was a hall, close by the great gate of the temple, and leading from the outer court of the women to the holy place. In cases of urgency the Sanhedrim might be convened in the house of the high-priest ().
The functions of the Sanhedrim were, according to the Jewish writers, co-extensive with the civil and religious relations of the people. But in the notices of this body, contained in the New Testament, we find nothing which would lead us to infer that their powers extended beyond matters of a religious kind. Questions of blasphemy, of sabbath-breaking, of heresy, are those alone which we find referred to their judicature (comp.;;; , sq.; , sq., etc.). On those guilty of these crimes they could pronounce sentence of death; but under the Roman government, it was not competent for them to execute this sentence.
At what period in the history of the Jews the Sanhedrim arose, is involved in much uncertainty. The Jews trace this council to the times of Moses, and find the origin of it in the appointment of a body of elders as the assistants of Moses in the discharge of his judicial functions (). There is no evidence, however, that this was any other than a temporary arrangement for the benefit of Moses; nor do we, in the historical books of the Old Testament, detect any traces whatever of the existence of this council in the times preceding the Babylonish captivity, nor in those immediately succeeding the return of the Jews to their own land. The earliest mention of the existence of this council by Josephus, is in connection with the reign of Hyrcanus II, B.C. 69. It is probable, however, that it existed before this time—that it arose gradually after the cessation of the prophetic office in Judah, in consequence of the felt want of some supreme direction and judicial authority—that the number of its members was fixed so as to correspond with that of the council of elders appointed to assist Moses—and that it first assumed a formal and influential existence in the later years of the Macedo-Grecian dynasty.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Sanhedrim'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/kbe/s/sanhedrim.html.