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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Hebrew-Aramaic term originally designating only the assembly at Jerusalem that constituted the highest political magistracy of the country. It was derived from the Greek συνέδριον. Josephus uses συνέδριον for the first time in connection with the decree of the Roman governor of Syria, Gabinius (57 B.C.), who abolished the constitution and the then existing form of government of Palestine and divided the country into five provinces, at the head of each of which a sanhedrin was placed ("Ant." 14:5, § 4). Jerusalem was the seat of one of these. It is improbable, however, that the term "synhedrion" as a designation for the chief magistracy was used for the first time in connection with this decree of Gabinius; indeed, from the use made of it in the Greek translation of the Proverbs, Bacher concludes that it must have been current in the middle of the second century B.C.
The Great Sanhedrin.
In the Talmudic sources the "Great" Sanhedrin at Jerusalem is so called in contradistinction to other bodies designated by that name; and it was generally assumed that this Great Sanhedrin was identical with the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem which is mentioned in the non-Talmudic sources, in the Gospels, and in Josephus. The accounts in the two different sets of sources referring to the Sanhedrin, however, differ materially in their main characteristics. The Great Sanhedrin is designated in the Talmudic sources as "Sanhedrin Gedolah hayoshebet be-lishkat ha-gazit" = "the Great Sanhedrin which sits in the hall of hewn stone"(Sifra, Wayiḳra, ed. Weiss, 19a). The mention of "sanhedrin" without the epithet "gedolah" (Yer. Sanh. 1:19c) seems to presuppose another body than the Great Sanhedrin that met in the hall of hewn stone. For neither Josephus nor the Gospels in speaking of the Sanhedrin report any of its decisions or discussions referring to the priests or to the Temple service, or touching in any way upon the religious law, but they refer to the Sanhedrin exclusively in matters connected with legal procedure, verdicts, and decrees of a political nature; whereas the Sanhedrin in the hall of hewn stone dealt, according to the Talmudic sources, with questions relating to the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and matters of a kindred nature. Adolf Büchler assumes indeed that there were in Jerusalem two magistracies which were entirely different in character and functions and which officiated side by side at the same time. That to which the Gospels and Josephus refer was the highest political authority, and at the same time the supreme court; this alone was empowered to deal with criminal cases and to impose the sentence of capital punishment. The other, sitting in the hall of hewn stone, was the highest court dealing with the religious law, being in charge also of the religious instruction of the people (Sanh. 11:2-4).
I. The Political Sanhedrin:
This body was undoubtedly much older than the term "sanhedrin." Accounts referring to the history of the pre-Maccabean time represent a magistracy at the head of the people, which body was designated see see GERUSIA. In 203 Antiochus the Great wrote a letter to the Jews in which he expressed his satisfaction that they had given him a friendly reception at Jerusalem, and had even come to meet him with the senate (γερουσία; "Ant." 12:3, § 3). Antiochus V. also greeted the gerusia in a letter to the Jewish people. This gerusia, which stood at the head of the people, was the body that was subsequently called "sanhedrin." The date and the manner of its origin can not now be determined. Josephus calls it either συνέδριον or βουλή, and its members πρεσβΎτεροι (="elders," e., ) or βουλευταί (="councilors"), whose number was probably the same as that of the members of the Sanhedrin in the hall of hewn stone, namely, seventy or seventy-one. There are no references to indicate whence the Sanhedrin derived its authority or by whom it was elected, unless it be assumed that the convocation of that body by the high priest and at times by the Jewish king, as mentioned in the sources, refers to the manner of its election. This Sanhedrin, which was entirely aristocratic in character, probably assumed its own authority, since it was composed of members of the most influential families of the nobility and priesthood (comp. Sanh. 4:2, where there is an allusion to the composition of this body). The Pharisees had no great influence in this assembly, although some of its members may have been friendly to them at various times. Though there are no definite references to gradations in rank among the several members, there seems to have been a committee of ten members, οὶ δέκα πρῶτοι, who ranked above their colleagues (comp. Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., 2:201-202).
Place of Meeting.
The meetings took place in one of the chambers of the Temple in order that the discussions and decrees might thereby be invested with greater religious authority. According to a passage in the Mekilta (Mishpaṭim, 4 [ed. Weiss, p. 87a]), the Sanhedrin, which was empowered to pass the sentence of capital punishment, sat "in the vicinity of the altar," e., in one of the chambers of the inner court of the Temple. It was called "the hall of the βουλευταί" because the latter sat there. Subsequently it was called "lishkat parhedrin" = "the hall of the πρόεδροι" (Yoma 8b). In this hall there was also a private room for the high priest (Yoma 10a; Tosef., Yoma, 1:2). The βουλευταί or the πρόεδροι assembled in this private room (comp. Matthew 26:57; Mark 14:63) before they met in the hall.
The Sanhedrin did not, however, always retain this place of meeting; for, according to Josephus, the βουλή was in the vicinity of the xystus ("B. J." 5:4, § 2), hence beyond the Temple mount, or, according to Schürer (c. 2:211), on it, though not within the inner court. In the last years of the Jewish state, therefore, to which the account in Josephus must be referred, the Sanhedrin left its original seat, being compelled to do so perhaps by the Pharisees, who, on gaining the upper hand, would not permit the secular Sanhedrin to sit in the sanctuary. Indeed, while the Sanhedrin still sat in the Temple, it was decreed that a mezuzah was to be placed in the hall of the πρόεδροι. This was not required in any of the other apartments of the Temple; and R. Judah b. Ila'i, who was otherwise thoroughly informed as to the earlier institutions of the Temple, was unable to assign a reason for the decree (Yoma 10a). It may be explained only on the assumption that it was intended to secularize the sittings of this Sanhedrin. It may have been for the same reason that the body was subsequently excluded entirely from the Temple, inasmuch as the latter and its apartments were intended for the cult and matters connected with it, while the discussions and decrees of this Sanhedrin were political and secular in nature.
Functions and Position.
The extant references to the Sanhedrin are not sufficient to give an exact and detailed idea of its functions and of the position which it occupied. It is certain, however, that the extent of its power varied at different times, and that the sphere of its functions was restricted in various ways by the Roman government. One of these restrictions was Gabinius' above-mentioned division of the Jewish territory into five provinces, each with a sanhedrin of its own, whereby the authority and the functions of the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem were materially diminished. Its power was insignificant under Herod and Archelaus. After the death of these rulers its authority again increased, the internal government of the country being largely in its hands. It administered the criminal law, and had independent powers of police, and hence the right to make arrests through its own officers of justice. It was also empowered to judge cases that did not involve the death penalty, only capital cases requiring the confirmation of the procurator.
The high priest, who from the time of Simeon wasalso the head of the state, officiated as president of the Sanhedrin. He bore the title "nasi" (prince), because the reins of government were actually held by him. Subsequently, when they were transferred to other hands, the high priest retained the title of nasi as president of the Sanhedrin. The powers of the latter official were restricted under the procurators, without whose permission the body could not be convened ("Ant." 20:9, § 1). This Sanhedrin, since it was a political authority, ceased to exist when the Jewish state perished with the destruction of Jerusalem (70 C.E.).
II. The Religious Sanhedrin:
The Great Bet Din.
This body, which met in the hall of hewn stone and was called also "the Great Bet Din" or simply "the Bet Din in the hall of hewn stone" (Tosef., Hor. 1:3; Tosef., Soṭah, 9:1; Yer. Sanh. 1:19c), was invested with the highest religious authority. According to Talmudic tradition it originated in the Mosaic period, the seventy elders who were associated with Moses in the government of Israel at his request (Numbers 11:4-31) forming together with him the first Sanhedrin (Sanh. 1:6). The institution is said to have existed without interruption from that time onward (comp. Yer. Sanh. 1:18b, where, in a comment on Jeremiah 52:24 et seq. and 2 Kings 25:18 et seq., it is said that Nebuzar-adan brought the Great Sanhedrin to Riblah before Nebuchadnezzar); but the fact that no passage whatever in the pre-exilic books of the Bible refers to this institution seems to indicate that it was not introduced before the time of the Second Temple. Originally it was probably not a regularly constituted authority, but merely a synod which convened on special occasions for the purpose of deliberating on important questions or of issuing regulations referring to religious life. The first assembly of this nature was that held under Ezra and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8-), which was called "the Great Synagogue" ("Keneset ha-Gedolah") in Jewish scholastic tradition. Subsequently, at a date which can not be definitely determined, this occasional assembly was replaced by a standing body. The latter, which was called "Sanhedrin" or "Bet Din," was regarded as the continuation of the synods which had previously been convened only occasionally.
Influence of the Pharisees.
It further appears from Ab. 1:2-4 that the Great Bet Din was regarded as a continuation of the Keneset ha-Gedolah; for the so-called "zugot" who were at the head of the Great Bet Din are named after the men of the Great Synagogue, which was regarded as the precursor of the Great Bet Din. This explains why the latter is sometimes called also "synagogue" (; Meg. Ta'an., in Neubauer, "M. J. C." 2:16). Originally the members of this bet din also were priests belonging to prominent families, probably under the presidency of the high priest. The Pharisees, however, held at various times more or less prominent positions in this body, according as they were the victors or the vanquished in their conflict with the Sadducees. When John Hyrcanus toward the end of his reign turned from the Pharisees ("Ant." 16:11, § 1), he seems to have effected their dismissal from the Sanhedrin or bet din and to have formed a Sadducean bet din (Sanh. 52b), or a Sadducean Sanhedrin, as it is called in another passage (Meg. Ta'an. c. p. 17). Under Alexander Jannæus, Simeon b. Sheṭaḥ succeeded in ousting the Sadducean members from the bet din and in reorganizing it so that it was composed only of Pharisees. But the latter lost their prestige in the subsequent quarrel with Alexander, gaining the upper hand again only under his successor, Salome Alexandra, from which time the Great Bet Din was composed exclusively of Pharisees. According to the Mishnah (Sanh. 1:5; Sheb. 2:2), the bet din, at least during the last years of its existence at Jabneh, where it had been reorganized, consisted of seventy or seventy-one members, according as the president was included in or omitted from the list. Simeon b. 'Azzai (first half of the 2d cent.) says that seventy-two elders ("zeḳenim," e., members of the Sanhedrin) were present when R. Eleazar b. Azariah was elected president together with Rabban Gamaliel II. (Zeb. 1:3; Yad. 3:5, 4:2); this was one more than the usual number, and included probably, besides the seventy other members, the two presidents, Gamaliel and Eleazar b. Azariah.
Appointment and Promotion of Members.
According to R. Jose b. Ḥalafta, the members of the Great Bet Din were required to possess the following qualifications: scholarship, modesty, and popularity among their fellow men (Tosef., Ḥag. 2:9; Sanh. 88b). According to an interpretation in Sifre, Num. 92 (ed. Friedmann, p. 25b), they had also to be strong and courageous. Only such were eligible, moreover, as had filled three offices of gradually increasing dignity, namely, those of local judge, and member successively of two magistracies at Jerusalem (Jose b. Ḥalafta, c.). R. Johanan, a Palestinian amora of the third century, enumerates the qualifications of the members of the Sanhedrin as follows: they must be tall, of imposing appearance, and of advanced age; and they must be learned and must understand foreign languages as well as some of the arts of the necromancer (Sanh. 19a).
Functions and Authority.
The hall of hewn stone ("lishkat ha-gazit") in which the bet din sat was situated on the southern side of the inner court of the Temple (Mid. 5:4). It was used for ritual purposes also, the priests drawing lots there for the daily service of the sacrifices, and also reciting the "Shema'" there (Tamid , end, to , beginning; , end, to , beginning). The larger part of the hall was on the site of the court of laymen. There were two entrances: one from the court of the priests, which was used by the latter; the other in the Water gate, used by the laity. The Great Bet Din sat daily, except on the Sabbath and on feast-days, between the morning and evening sacrifices (Tosef., Sanh. 7:1). On the Sabbath and on feast-days, on which there were no meetings in the hall of hewn stone, the members of the bet din assembled in the schoolhouse on the Temple mount (ib.). According to the accounts given in the Talmudic sources, the Great Bet Din had the following functions, which it exercised in part as a body and in part through committees of its members: It had supervision over the Temple service, which was required to be conducted in conformity with theLaw and according to Pharisaic interpretation. It decided which priests should perform the Temple service (Mid., end). It supervised especially important ritual acts, as the service on the Day of Atonement (Yoma 1:3). It had in charge the burning of the Red Heifer and the preparation of the water of purification (Tosef., Sanh. 3:4). When the body of a murdered person was found, members of the Great Bet Din had to take the necessary measurements in order to determine which city, as being the nearest to the place of the murder, was to bring the sacrifice of atonement (Soṭah 9:1; Tosef., Sanh. 3:4; comp. Soṭah 44b-45a). It had also to decide as to the harvest tithes (Peah 2:6). It sat in judgment on women suspected of adultery, and sentenced them to drink the bitter water (Soṭah 1:4; ORDEAL). It arranged the calendar (R. H. 2:5 et seq.), and provided correct copies of the Torah roll for the king, and probably for the Temple also (Tosef., Sanh. 4:4; Yer. Sanh. 2:20c). In general it decided all (doubtful questions relating to the religious law (Sanh. 88b) and rendered the final decision in regard to the sentence of the teacher who promulgated opinions contradicting the traditional interpretation of the Law ("zaḳen mamreh"; Sanh. 11:2-4; ELDER, REBELLIOUS).
Two persons were at the head of the bet din: one, the actual president with the title "nasi"; the other, the second president or vice-president, who bore the title "ab bet din" (father of the court). The existence of these two offices is well authenticated from the time following the Hadrianic persecution. R. Johanan (3d cent.) says that in the college which was regarded as the continuation of the Great Bet Din in the hall of hewn stone R. Nathan officiated as second president ("ab bet din") side by side with R. Simeon b. Gamaliel II., who was president ("nasi"; Hor. 13b). In a mishnah (Ḥag. 2:2) five pairs of scholars are enumerated who were at the head of the Great Bet Din at the time of the Second Temple; and it is stated that one of each pair was nasi and the other ab bet din. These five pairs of scholars, who collectively are also designated "zugot" (Peah 2:6), were at the same time the most prominent representatives of the tradition (Ab. 1:1 et seq.) and at the head of the Pharisaic school. There is therefore no reason to doubt the statement that from the time the bet din came under Pharisaic influence these Pharisaic teachers stood at its head. The fact that the high priest had formerly been the president of this bet din explains why there were two presidents. Since the high priest was probably frequently prevented from presiding at the meetings, or was perhaps not competent to do so, another officer had to be chosen who should be the actual director of the body. The double office was retained when, with the growing influence of the Pharisees, the nasi of the bet din was a scribe and no longer the high priest. The title "nasi," which the president of the bet din bore, may have originated at the time when the high priest—the real prince and the head of the state—acted as president. The following reason also may have determined the retention of the title, even after the high priest no longer officiated as president: The bet din, which, as shown above, was called also (corresponding to the Hebrew ), was identified with the Biblical "'edah" (comp. Sifre, Deut. 41 [ed. Friedmann, p. 59b]; Sifra, Wayiḳra, ed. Weiss, 19a, where it is expressly stated that the Great Bet Din in the hall of hewn stone is the 'edah); and, since only a director of the 'edah is called "nasi" in Exodus 16:22 and Numbers 4:34, it may have seemed desirable to retain the title "nasi" for the president of the bet din.
Order of Business.
Business at the meetings of the bet din was transacted according to a certain order. Reliable traditions describing the procedure and the balloting have been preserved in the Mishnah; but it is impossible to distinguish between the regulations obtaining in the bet din at the time of the Second Temple and those obtaining in the school of Jabneh, which was regarded as a continuation of the Sanhedrin. The following are some of these regulations: The members of the bet din sat in a semicircle in order that they might see one another (Sanh. 4:2; Tosef., Sanh. 8:1). The president sat in the center (Tosef., c.). Two secretaries recorded the various opinions expressed by the members; according to one tradition there were three secretaries (Sanh. c.). When a question was raised and a member of the college declared that he was in possession of a tradition according to which the question might be decided, such tradition was decisive. When no member knew of any tradition relating to the question at issue, discussion followed and a ballot was taken (Tosef., Sanh. 7:1). Three rows of scholars sat in front of the bet din, and filled vacancies in the latter when necessary (Sanh. 4:4; Tosef., Sanh. 8:2). This regulation, however, refers only to the school of Jamnia and not to the bet din of the time of the Second Temple; for only such men were appointed to membership in the latter as had previously sat in less important bodies.
After the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem and the downwall of the Jewish state, the Academy of Jabneh was organized as the supreme religious authority, being therefore regarded as the continuation of the Great Bet Din in the hall of hewn stone. The later Jewish academies under the presidency of the patriarchs of the family of Hillel—hence, down to the end of the fourth century—were also regarded as the continuation of that institution (this is the meaning of the sentence "The bet din of the hall of hewn stone went on ten journeys until it finally settled at Tiberias"; R. H. 31a, b); they accordingly retained its organization, and the president bore the title of nasi, the second president officiating side by side with him as ab bet din.
- Schürer, Gesch. 2:188-189, where the literature on the subject is given;
- Jacob Reifmann, Sanhedrin, Berdychev, 1888;
- Bacher, art. Sanhedrin, in Hastings, Dict. Bible;
- Adolf Büchler, Das Synhedrium in Jerusalem und das Grosse Bet Din in der Quaderkammer des Jerusalemischen Tempels, Vienna, 1902, the chief source for the view given above.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Sanhedrin'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/s/sanhedrin.html. 1901.
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16