Jews under Roman Rule - W. D. Morrison

The Sanhedrin, or Supreme National Council

It was one of the fixed principles of Roman policy to interfere as little as possible with the internal organization of the various peoples who fell under the sway of Rome, and when Judaea, after the deposition of Archelaus (A.D. 6), was placed in charge of a procurator, the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem acquired a wider range of authority within the new province than it had possessed since the Maccabees assumed the title of king. It is not possible to say with certainty when this supreme council first came into existence. According to Jewish tradition its origin dates back to the time of Moses, but there is no evidence to show that Moses organized a permanent assembly with functions similar to those of the Sanhedrin. Nor is this institution to be confounded with the elders of the people or the court of justice at Jerusalem referred to in the Old Testament. The first distinct mention of it in Jewish literature occurs in the reign of Antiochus the Great (B.C. 223-187), and the first faint traces of its existence do not go further back than the Persian period. In the time of Antiochus it is not called a Sanhedrin, but a Senate (Gerousia); it is an aristocratic body, the High Priest as the most prominent member of the community is at its head; and as the Greek kings who succeeded Alexander the Great generally left local affairs in the hands of the vassal states, the Jewish Senate would be in possession of very extensive powers. Under the Maccabees the Senate still continued to hold a place in Jewish life, but the autocratic tendencies developed by some of these princes must have led to a curtailment of its authority. Pompey did not interfere with the Sanhedrin when he abolished the Maccabaean monarchy (B.C. 63), but his successor Gabinius (B.C. 57-55) deemed it prudent to divide its authority with two other local bodies which he established in Judaea. The arrangements of Gabinius were soon afterwards annulled by Julius Caesar when he effected a settlement of Eastern affairs after the fall of Pompey (B.C. 47); the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem again received its ancient powers and its jurisdiction once more extended over the whole Jewish portion of Palestine. Although Herod the Great, at the commencement of whose career the High Council is first expressly called a Sanhedrin, mercilessly decimated its members on his accession to the throne, it is not likely that he altogether terminated its existence. It seems more probable that he purged this institution of all elements which were openly hostile to himself, and filled up the vacancies thus created with representatives of that section of the Pharisees who acquiesced in his rule. The division of Herod's kingdom into three parts (B.C. 4) had the effect of limiting the direct jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin to the province of Judaea; no alteration in this respect took place on the advent of the procurators; the scope of its authority continued to remain unchanged till the outbreak of the Jewish war (A.D. 66), at the end of which the Sanhedrin finally disappeared.

According to a Jewish tradition of comparatively late origin, the Sanhedrin was merely a college of scribes, at the head of which stood a Nasi, or president, and an Ab-beth-din, or vice-president. An assembly of this description no doubt came into existence after the destruction of the Jewish state, but it is not to be identified with the Sanhedrin mentioned in the writings of Josephus and the New Testament. In these authorities the Sanhedrin, besides being an ecclesiastical court, possesses legislative, administrative, and judicial powers as well, and it is the High Priest, the representative of the nation both in civil and ecclesiastical affairs who is its president. When Jesus is brought to trial at Jerusalem it is the High Priest Caiaphas who is head of the Sanhedrin which condemns Him; and when St. Paul is afterwards charged before the same council, it is the High Priest Ananias who performs the functions of presiding judge. In the few places where Josephus mentions a sitting of the Sanhedrin he is entirely in agreement with the writings. of the New Testament, and these contemporary witnesses are surely to be preferred to the dubious traditions of the Mischna. At the head then was the high priest; the other members belonged to the priestly aristocracy, and the most eminent representatives of the scribes, together with the elders, the men of years and experience who always filled a prominent place in Jewish affairs. It is not possible to say with certainty of how many members the Sanhedrin was composed, but it is highly probable that Jewish tradition is correct when it assigns the number as amounting to seventy-one. It appears that new members were admitted by the laying-on of hands, but no record remains of the qualifications necessary to obtain a seat in their council of the nation. Although the priestly aristocracy was the official element in the Sanhedrin and transacted its business and played the leading part before the public, the real masters of the situation were the scribes, and they unquestionably exercised the greatest influence within the council itself. The secret of this influence lay in the fact that the scribes almost entirely belonged to the popular party, and the priests, who were mostly Sadducees, were obliged to shape the policy of the Sanhedrin in accordance with the views of those among its members who possessed the ear of the multitude.

So few historic traces are left which bear on the activity of the Sanhedrin, that it is difficult to define with accuracy the exact scope of its authority. It is clear, however, that its action was limited, on the one hand, by the large powers entrusted to the procurator, and, on the other, it did not extend to cases which lay within the competence of the eleven local councils which existed in the province of Judaea at the commencement of the Christian era. Its direct authority did not extend beyond Judaea itself, but within the boundaries of this province, in all likelihood it possessed very much the same judicial and administrative power as was confided to the provincial councils of the neighbouring Greek provinces. The Sanhedrin had practically no power over the lives and property of the Roman citizens who had settled temporarily or permanently in Judaea. They were subject to the jurisdiction of the procurator alone, and had the privilege of appealing from him to the emperor. If, however, a Roman profaned the Temple he immediately came within the jurisdiction of Jewish law, and the Sanhedrin had a right to summon him to appear before its tribunal. To be permitted to judge a Roman at all was an immense concession to Jewish religious feeling, but the Caesars appear to have made another almost equally great when they permitted Jews in different parts of the empire to be handed over for trial to the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem even if the offence had not been committed in Judaea, and was purely a question of religious belief. That this was the case is plainly shown by the nature of the commission which St. Paul received from the high priests when he went from Jerusalem to take proceedings against the Christians who lived in Damascus. Even cases which the Sanhedrin was not competent to decide, and which had to be referred to the procurator, were, as a rule, decided by him in accordance with the maxims of Jewish law. He, as well as the tribune of the troops in Jerusalem, had the power of calling the Sanhedrin together. But the procurator's sanction was not requisite to legalize a sitting of the Sanhedrin, or to give validity to its sentences, except when they were of a capital nature. It is chiefly in its capacity as a court of justice that the Sanhedrin is mentioned in the New Testament. Jesus and Stephen were both condemned by it as guilty of blasphemy; Paul was charged before it as a transgressor of the Law; Peter and John as false prophets and fomenters of sedition. It was the supreme interpreter of the laws and traditions of the Jewish people, that is to say, of a code of regulations which embraced the entire civil and religious life of Judaism, and its decisions were regarded as obligatory on every member of the Jewish race throughout the world.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


Besides the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem there also existed in those parts of Palestine where the Jews preponderated in Judaea, Galilee, and Peraea a number of local councils which possessed criminal and legislative jurisdiction within their respective districts. Most towns and villages had one of these local councils in their midst. The smallest of them consisted of seven members, and in larger towns the number of members amounted to twenty-three. It was only in those cases where the local Sanhedrin could not arrive at a decision, or was doubtful as to the interpretation of the Law, that the issue had to be decided by the High Council of Jerusalem. In all other respects the local Sanhedrin appears to have possessed very much the same powers as the one in the Holy City, and to have pronounced sentences involving fines, imprisonment, and death. The sittings of these local bodies usually took place in the synagogue, which was transformed for the time being into a court of justice, and in order to constitute a legal sitting it was necessary for at least three members to be present. The hearing of causes took place on Mondays and Thursdays; two witnesses were required to procure a conviction, and sentences of corporal punishment were inflicted on the spot. It is these local councils which Jesus has in His mind when He says, "Beware of men; for they will deliver you to the councils, and scourge you in their synagogues; "and it is with reference to the power the local council has of sending men to prison that He says, "Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing."