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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
(Hebraized [see Buxtorf, Lex. Chal. Talm. s.v.] Sanhedrin, סִנְהֶדְרַין , from the Greek Synedrium, συνέδριον, as in the New Test. [Matthew 5:22; Matthew 26:59; Mark 14:55; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66; John 11:47; Acts 4:15; Acts 5:21; Acts 5:27; Acts 5:34; Acts 6:12; Acts 6:15; Acts 22:30; Acts 23:1; Acts 23:6; Acts 23:15; Acts 23:20; Acts 23:28; Acts 24:20], and Josephus [Life, 12; Ant. 14, 9, 3]; apocopated סִנְהֶדְרַי, plural סִנְהֶדְרַיּוֹת ), the supreme council of the Jewish nation in and before the time of Christ. In the Mishna it is also styled בֵּית דַּין, Beth-Din, "house of judgment;" and in the Apocrypha and New Test. the appellations γερουσία, senate, and πρεσβυτέριον , presbytery, seem also to be applied to it (comp. 2 Maccabees 1:10; Acts 5:21; Acts 22:5; 1 Maccabees 7:33; 1 Maccabees 12:35, etc.). As there were two kinds of Synedria, viz. the supreme or metropolitan Sanhedrim, called סִנְהֶרַין גַּדוֹלָה, the Great Sanhedrim (Mishna, Sanhedrin, 1, 5), and provincial councils called סִנְהֶדְרַין קְטֹנָה, the Small Sanhedrims (ibid.) — differing in constitution and jurisdiction from each other — we shall describe their respective organizations and functions separately, and close with an account of their history, largely as contained in the treatise of the Talmud which is devoted to this subject.
I. The Great Sanhedrim, or Supreme Council. —
1. Number of Members and their Classification. — The Great Sanhedrim, or the supreme court of justice (דַּין הִגָּדוֹל בֵּית ) as it is called (Mishna, Homrajoth, 1, 5; Sanhedrin, 11, 4), or κατ᾿ ἐξοχήν, בֵּית דַּין, the court of justice, the judgment hall, because it was the highest ecclesiastical and civil tribunal, consisted of seventy-one members (Mishna, Sanhedrin, 2, 4; Shebuoth, 2, 2). This is the nearly unanimous opinion of the Jews as given in the Mishna (Sanhedrin, 1, 6): "The Great Sanhedrim consisted of seventy-one judges. How is this proved? From Numbers 11:16, where it is said, ‘ Gather unto me seventy men of the elders of Israel.' To these add Moses, and we have seventy-one. Nevertheless, R. Judah says there were seventy." The same difference made by the addition or exclusion of Moses appears in the works of Christian writers, which accounts for the variation in the books between seventy and seventy-one. Baronius, however (Ad Ann. 31, § 10), and many other Roman Catholic writers, together with not a few Protestants, as Drusius, Grotius, Prideaux, Jahn, Bretschneider, etc., hold that the true number was seventy-two, on the ground that Eldad and Medad, on whom it is expressly said the Spirit rested (Numbers 11:26), remained in the camp, and should be added to the seventy (see Hartmann, Verbindung des A.T. p. 182; Selden, De Synedr. lib. 2, cap. 4).
These members represented three classes of the nation, viz.
(a) The priests, who were represented by their chiefs, called in the Bible the chief priests ( הָאָבוֹת לְכֹהֲנַים ראֹשֵׁי=πάντες οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς ), of whom there were most probably four-and-twenty (1 Chronicles 24:4; 1 Chronicles 24:6; with Matthew 27:1; John 7:32; John 11:47; John 12:10).
(b) The elders, זְקֵנַים. = πρεσβύτεροι (Matthew 16:21; Matthew 21:23; Matthew 26:3; Matthew 26:47; Matthew 26:57; Matthew 26:59; Matthew 27:1; Matthew 27:3; Matthew 27:12; Matthew 27:20; Matthew 27:41; Matthew 28:12; Mark 8:31; Mark 11:27; Mark 14:43; Mark 14:53; Luke 9:22; Luke 20:1; Luke 22:52; John 8:9; Acts 4:5; Acts 4:23; Acts 6:12; Acts 23:14; Acts 25:15); also called the elders of the people (ἄρξοντες τοῦ λαοῦ Acts 4:8, with Acts 4:5), because they were the heads of the families and tribes of the people, for which reason πρεσβύτεροι and ἄρχοντες are also synecdochically used for βουλή and συνέδριον (Luke 23:13; Luke 24:20; Acts 3:7, etc.); these elders, who most probably were also twenty-four in number (Revelation 4:4), were the representatives of the laity, or the people generally.
(c) The scribes (q.v.) or lawyers ( סוֹקְרַים=γραμματεῖς ), who, as the interpreters of the law in ecclesiastical and civil matters, represented that particular portion of the community which consisted of the literary laity, and most probably were twenty-two in number. As the chief priests, elders, and scribes constituted the supreme court, these three classes are frequently employed in the New Test. as a periphrasis for the word Sanhedrim (Matthew 26:3; Matthew 26:57; Matthew 26:59; Matthew 27:41; Mark 8:31; Mark 11:27; Mark 14:43; Mark 14:53; Mark 15:1; Luke 9:22; Luke 20:1; Luke 22:66; Acts 5:1; Acts 6:12; Acts 22:30; Acts 25:15); while John, who does not at all mention the Sadducees, uses the term Pharisees to denote the Sanhedrim (John 1:24; John 4:1; John 8:3; John 11:46, etc.).
2. Qualification and Recognition of Members. — The qualifications for membership were both very minute and very numerous. The applicant had to be morally and physically blameless. He had to be middle aged, tall, good looking, wealthy, learned (both in the divine law and diverse branches of profane science, such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, magic, idolatry, etc.), in order that he might be able to judge in these matters. He was required to know several languages, so that the Sanhedrim might not be dependent upon an interpreter in case any foreigner or foreign question came before them (Menachoth, 65 a; Sanhedrin, 17 a; Maimonides, Iad Ha-Chezaka, Hilchoth Sanhedrin, 2, 1-8). Very old persons, proselytes, eunuchs, and Nethinim were ineligible because of their idiosyncrasies; nor could such candidates be elected as had no children, because they could not sympathize with domestic affairs (Mishna, Horajoth, 1, 4; Sanhedrin, 36 b); nor those who could not prove that they were the legitimate offspring of a priest, Levite, or Israelite, who played dice, lent money on usury, flew pigeons to entice others, or dealt in produce of the Sabbatical year (Mishna, Sanhedrin, 3, 3).
In addition to all these qualifications, a candidate for the Great Sanhedrim was required, first of all, to have been a judge in his native town; to have been transferred from there to the Small Sanhedrim, which sat at the Temple mount or at its entrance ( הִר הִבֵּיתַ or פְּתִח הִר הִבֵּית ), thence again to have been advanced to the second Small Sanhedrim, which sat at the entrance of the Temple hall ( פְּתִח הִר הִבֵּית orחֵיל ), before he could be received as member of the seventy-one (Sanhedrin, 32 a, 88 b; Maimonides, Iad Ha-Chezaka, Hilchoth Sanhedrin, 2, 8).
The ordination took place when the candidate was first appointed judge in his native place. In olden days every ordained teacher could ordain his disciples; afterwards, however, the sages conferred this honor upon Hillel I, B.C. 30; it was then decreed that no one should be ordained without the permission of the president of the Sanhedrim (נָשַׂיא ); that the president and the vice-president should not ordain in the absence of each other, but that both should be present; and that any other member may ordain with the permission of the president and the assistance of two non-ordained persons, as no ordination was valid if it was effected by less than three persons (Mishna, Sanhedrin, 1, 3). The ordination was effected, not by the laying on of hands on the head of the elder, but by their calling him rabbi, and saying to him, "Behold, thou art ordained, and hast authority to judge even cases which involve pecuniary fines" (Maimonides, ibid. 4, 1-4).
The Sanhedrim was presided over by a president called Nasi (נָשַׂיא ) = prince, patriarch, and a vice-president styled אָב בֵּית דַּין, the father of the house of judgment. The power of electing these high officials was vested in the corporate assembly of members, who conferred these honors upon those of their number who were most distinguished for wisdom and piety. The king was the only one disqualified for the presidential throne, because according to the Jewish law it is forbidden to differ from him or to contradict his statement; but the high priest might be elected patriarch provided he had the necessary qualifications (Sanhedrin, 18 b; Maimonides, Had Ha-Chezaka, Hilchoth Sanhedrin, 2, 3). After the death of Hillel I, however, the presidency became hereditary in his family for thirteen generations. (See HILLEL) I. The functions of the Nasi or the patriarch were more especially external. Being second to the king, the Nasi represented the civil and religious interests of the Jewish nation before the Roman government abroad, and before the different Jewish congregations at home; while in the Sanhedrim itself he was simply the reciting and first teacher. The vice-president, on the other hand, had his sphere of labor more especially within the Sanhedrim. It was his office to lead and control their discussions on disputed points; hence his appellation, "father of the house of judgment." Next to the vice-president, or the third in rank in the Sanhedrim, was the חָכָם, sage, referee, whose office it was to hear and examine the pending subject in all its bearings, and then to bring it before the court for discussion. This dignitary we first meet with under the presidency of Gamaliel II the teacher of the apostle Paul, (See GAMALIEL), and his son Simon 2 (Horajoth, 13; Tosephta Sanhedrin, cap. 7; Frankel, Monatsschrift, 1, 348). Besides these high functionaries, there were sundry servants not members of the seventy-one, such as two judges' scribes (הִדַּינְין סוֹפְרֵי ), or notaries, one of whom registered the reasons for acquittal, and the other the reasons for condemnation (Mishna, Sanhedrin, 4:3); and other menial officials, denominated בֵּין שֹׁטְרַים שַׂמְשֵׁי= ὑπηρέτης, πράκτωρ (Matthew 5:25; Matthew 26:58 : Mark 14:54; Mark 14:65; Luke 12:58; John 7:32; John 7:45; John 18:3; John 18:12; John 18:18; John 18:22; John 19:6; Acts 5:22; Acts 5:26; Acts 23:2, etc.).
3. Place, Time, and Order in which the Sessions were held. — There seems not to have been any prescribed place for holding the sessions in the early part of the Sanhedrim's existence. In all probability they were held in some place adjoining the Temple, as the neighborhood of the sanctuary was deemed specially appropriate for the solemn assemblies which had to decide upon the most momentous questions affecting life and death, time and eternity. It was Simon ben-Shetach (B.C. 110-65) who built the Hall of Squares (הִגָּזַית לַשְׁכִּת ), or, more briefly, the Gazith (גָּזַית ), where both the Sanhedrim and the priests permanently held their meetings. This basilica, the floor of which was made of hewn square stones — whence its name (Yoma, 25 a) — was situated in the center of the south side of the Temple court, the northern part extending to the court of the priests (קדש ), and the southern part to the court of the Israelites (חול ); it was thus lying between these two courts, and had doors into both of them (Mishna, Sanhedrin, 11, 2; Pea, 3, 6; Middoth, 5, 3, 4; Herzfeld. Geschichte des Volkes Israel, 1, 394 sq.; Jost, Geschichte des Judenthums, 1, 145, 275). (See TEMPLE).
This hall henceforth became the prescribed court for the sessions of the Sanhedrim. The assembling of the Sanhedrim in the high priest's house was illegal. Equally illegal was the assumption of the presidency by this sacerdotal functionary over this supreme court recorded in the New Test. (Matthew 26:3; Acts 5:21; Acts 5:27; Acts 23:2), as Gamaliel I was then the legitimate president (Pesachim, 88 b). When it is remembered that this sacred office was at that time venial, and that the high priest was the creature of the Romans, this priestly arrogance will not be matter of surprise. "Forty years before the destruction of the Temple [i.e. while the Savior was teaching in Palestine], the sessions of the Sanhedrim were removed from the Hall of Squares to the Halls of Purchase" (Sabbath, 15 a; Aboda Sara, 8 b), on the east side of the Temple mount.
The Sanhedrim sat every day from the termination of the daily morning sacrifice till the daily evening sacrifice, with the exception of the Sabbath and festivals, when they retired to the synagogue on the Temple mount and delivered lectures (Sanhedrin, 88 b; Maimonides, Iad Ha-Chezaka, Hilchoth Sanhedrin, 3, 1). The order in which they sat was as follows: the president (נָשַׂיא ) sat in an elevated seat; on his right hand sat the vice- president (אָב בֵּית דַּין ), and at his left the chakamn (חָכָם ), or referee; while the members, seated on low cushions, with their knees bent and crossed in the Oriental fashion, were arranged, according to their age and learning, in a semicircle, so that they could see each other, and all of them be seen by the president and vice-president. The two notaries stood before them, one to the right and the other to the left. Before them sat three rows of disciples (חֲכָמַים תִּלְמַידֵי ), in places appropriate to their respective attainments. From the first of these rows the ranks of the judges were always filled up. When those of the second row took their seat in the first, those of the third took the seats of the second, while members of the congregation generally were selected to fill the lowest places vacated in the third row (Mishna, Sanhedrin, 3, 3, 4; Maimonides, ibid. 1, 3). Under ordinary circumstances all the seventy-one members were not required to be present in their seats, so that most of them could attend to their business, since twenty-three members formed a quorum. Less than this number during any part of the session was illegal; hence before one could go out he was obliged to look round in order to ascertain that there was the legal quorum without him (Sanhedrin, 88 b; Tosephta Shekalim, at the end; Maimonides, Hilchoth Sanhedrin, 3, 2).
4. Jurisdiction of the Sanhedrim. — Being both legislative and administrative, the functions of the Sanhedrim in the theocracy extended to the institution of ordinances and the definition of disputed points in ecclesiastical matters, as well as to the adjudication of ecclesiastical and secular questions, including even political matters. The tribunal had, in the first place, to interpret the divine law, and to determine the extension or limitation of its sundry enactments, inasmuch as the members of the Sanhedrim were not only the most skilled in the written word of God, but were the bearers of the oral law which was transmitted to them by their predecessors, and which they again in succession handed down to the other members of this body. Thus the Sanhedrim had
(a) to watch over the purity and legality of the priests who ministered in holy things. For this purpose they appointed trustworthy persons to keep family registers ( סֵפֶר יוּחָסַין genealogies) of the priests in Egypt, Babylon, and in all places where the Jews resided, stating the names, and giving all the particulars both of the head of the family and all his male descendants, and to supply every priest with such a document attested by the Sanhedrim, inasmuch as those priests who could not prove that they were not the issue of proscribed marriages were disqualified for ministering in holy things, and were ordered to divest themselves of their sacerdotal robes and put on mourning (Mishna, Sanhedrin, 1, 5; Middoth, 5, 4; Bechoroth, 45 a; Tosephta Chagiga, cap. 2; Josephus, Cont. Apion. 1, 7).
(b) To try cases of unchastity on the part of priests' daughters, and married women who were accused by their husbands of infidelity, which were questions of life and death (Mishna, Sota, 1, 4; Sanhedrin, 52 a).
(c) To watch over the religious life of the nation, and to try any tribe which was accused of having departed from the living God to serve idols (ibid. 1, 5).
(d) To bring to trial false prophets or any heretic who promulgated doctrines contrary to the tenets of the scribes or the Sanhedrim (דַּבַרֵי סוֹפְרַים ): "Such a one is not to be executed by the tribunal of his native place, nor by the tribunal at Jabne, but by the supreme court of Jerusalem; he is to be kept till the forthcoming festival, and to be executed on the festival," as it is written (Deuteronomy 17:13), "and all the people shall hear and fear, and do no more presumptuously" (Mishna, Sanhedrin, 11, 3, 4; comp. also Matthew 26:65; Matthew 27:63; John 19:7; Acts 4:2; Acts 5, 28; Acts 6:13). In accordance with this is the remark of our Savior, "It cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem" (Luke 13:33, with Josephus, Ant. 14, 9, 3).
(e) To see that neither the king nor the high priest should act contrary to the law of God. Thus the Talmud tells us that Alexander Jannseus was summoned before the Sanhedrim to witness the trial of his servant, who had committed murder (B.C. 80), under the presidency of Simon ben- Shetach (Sanhedrin, 19 a), and we know that Herod had to appear before this tribunal to answer for his conduct (Josephus, Ant. 14, 9, 4).
(f) To determine whether a war with any nation contemplated by the king is to be waged, and to give the sovereign permission to do so (Sanhedrin, 1, 5; 2, 4).
(g) To decide whether the boundaries of the holy city or the precincts of the Temple are to be enlarged, inasmuch as it was only by the decision of the Sanhedrim that these additions could be included in the consecrated ground (ibid. 1, 5; Shebuoth, 14 a).
(h) To appoint the provincial Sanhedrim, or courts of justice (Sanhedrin, 1, 5; Gemara, ibid. 63 b; Tosephta Sanhedrin, cap. 7; ibid. Chagiga, cap. 2; Jerusalem Sanhedrin, 1, 19 b).
(i) To regulate the calendar and harmonize the solar with the lunar year by appointing intercalary days (Sanhedrin, 10 b). This jurisdiction of the Sanhedrim was recognized by all the Jews both in Palestine and in foreign lands (Acts 9:2; Acts 26:10; with Mishna, Manoth, 6, 10; Tosephta Sanhedrin, cap. 7; Chagiga, cap. 2). Thereby this supreme court secured unity of faith and uniformity of practice.
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Sanhedrim'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/s/sanhedrim.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.