san'-he-drin (canhedhrin, the Talmudic transcription of the Greek sunedrion):
The Sanhedrin was, at and before the time of Christ, the name for the highest Jewish tribunal, of 71 members, in Jerusalem, and also for the lower tribunals, of 23 members, of which Jerusalem had two (Tosephta' Chaghighah] 11 9; Sanhedrin 1 6; 11 2). It is derived from sun, "together," and hedra, "seat." In Greek and Roman literature the senates of Sparta, Carthage, and even Rome, are so called (compare Pausan. iii.11, 2; Polyb. iii.22; Dion Cassius xl.49). In Josephus we meet with the word for the first time in connection with the governor Gabinius (57-55 BC), who divided the whole of Palestine into 5 sunedria (Ant., XIV, v, 4), or sunodoi (B J, I, viii, 5); and with the term sunedrion for the high council in Jerusalem first in Ant, XIV, ix, 3-5, in connection with Herod, who, when a youth, had to appear before the sunedrion at Jerusalem to answer for his doings in Galilee. But before that date the word appears in the Septuagint version of Proverbs (circa 130 BC), especially in 22:10; 31:23, as an equivalent for the Mishnaic beth-din = "judgment chamber."
In the New Testament the word sometimes, especially when used in the plural (Matthew 10:17; Mark 13:9; compare Sanhedrin 1 5), means simply "court of justice," i.e. any judicatory (Matthew 5:22). But in most cases it is used to designate the supreme Jewish Court of Justice in Jerusalem, in which the process against our Lord was carried on, and before which the apostles (especially Peter and John, Stephen, and Paul) had to justify themselves (Matthew 26:59; Mark 14:55; 15:1; Luke 22:66; John 11:47; Acts 4:15; 5:21; 6:12; 22:30; 23:1; 24:20). Sometimes presbuterion (Luke 22:66; Acts 22:5) and gerousia (Acts 5:21) are substituted for sunedrion.
In the Jewish tradition-literature the term "Sanhedrin" alternates with kenishta', "meeting-place" (Meghillath Ta'-anith 10, compiled in the 1st century AD), and beth-din, "court of justice" (Sanhedrin 11 2,4). As, according to Jewish tradition, there were two kinds of sunedria, namely, the supreme sunedrion in Jerusalem of 71 members, and lesser sunedria of 23 members, which were appointed by the supreme one, we find often the term canhedhrin gedholah, "the great Sanhedrin," or beth-din ha-gadhol, "the great court of justice" (Middoth 5 4; Sanhedrin 1 6), or canhedhrin gedholah ha-yoshebheth be-lishekhath hagazith, "the great Sanhedrin which sits in the hall of hewn stone."
2. Origin and History:
There is lack of positive historical information as to the origin of the Sanhedrin. According to Jewish tradition (compare Sanhedrin 16) it was constituted by Moses (Numbers 11:16-24) and was reorganized by Ezra immediately after the return from exile (compare the Targum to Song of Solomon 6:1). But there is no historical evidence to show that previous to the Greek period there existed an organized aristocratic governing tribunal among the Jews. Its beginning is to be placed at the period in which Asia was convulsed by Alexander the Great and his successors.
The Hellenistic kings conceded a great amount of internal freedom to municipal communities, and Palestine was then practically under home rule, and was governed by an aristocratic council of Elders (1 Macc 12:6; 2 Macc 1:10; 4:44; 11:27; 3 Macc 1:8; compare Josephus, Ant, XII, iii, 4; XIII, v, 8; Meghillath Ta`anith 10), the head of which was the hereditary high priest. The court was called Gerousia, which in Greek always signifies an aristocratic body (see Westermann in Pauly's RE, III, 49). Subsequently this developed into the Sanhedrin.
During the Roman period (except for about 10 years at the time of Gabinius, who applied to Judea the Roman system of government; compare Marquardt, Romische Staatsverwaltung, I, 501), the Sanhedrin's influence was most powerful, the internal government of the country being practically in its hands (Ant., XX, x), and it was religiously recognized even among the Diaspora (compare Acts 9:2; 22:5; 26:12). According to Schurer (HJP, div II, volume 1, 171; GJV4, 236) the civil authority of the Sanhedrin, from the time of Archelaus, Herod the Great's son, was probably restricted to Judea proper, and for that reason, he thinks, it had no judicial authority over our Lord so long as He remained in Galilee (but see G.A. Smith, Jerusalem, I, 416).
The Sanhedrin was abolished after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD). The beth-din (court of judgment) in Jabneh (68-80), in Usah (80-116), in Shafran (140-63), in Sepphoris (163-93), in Tiberias (193-220), though regarded in the Talmud (compare Ro'sh ha-shanah 31a) as having been the direct continuation of the Sanhedrin, had an essentially different character; it was merely an assembly of scribes, whose decisions had only a theoretical importance (compare Sotah 9 11).
The Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was formed (Matthew 26:3,17,59; Mark 14:53; 15:1; Luke 22:66; Acts 4:5; 5:21; 22:30) of high priests (i.e. the acting high priest, those who had been high priests, and members of the privileged families from which the high priests were taken), elders (tribal and family heads of the people and priesthood), and scribes (i.e. legal assessors), Pharisees and Sadducees alike (compare Acts 4:1; 5:17,34; 23:6). In Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50, Joseph of Arimathea is called bouleutes, "councillor," i.e. member of the Sanhedrin.
According to Josephus and the New Testament, the acting high priest was as such always head and president (Matthew 26:3,17; Acts 5:17; 7:1; 9:1; 22:5; 23:2; 24:1; Ant, IV, viii, 17; XX, x). Caiaphas is president at the trial of our Lord, and at Paul's trial Ananias is president. On the other hand, according to the Talmud (especially Haghighah 2 2), the Sanhedrin is represented as a juridical tribunal of scribes, in which one scribe acted as nasi', "prince," i.e. president, and another as 'abh-beth-din, father of the judgment-chamber, i.e. vice-president. So far, it has not been found possible to reconcile these conflicting descriptions (see "Literature," below).
Sanhedrin 4 3 mentions the cophere-ha-dayanim, "notaries," one of whom registered the reasons for acquittal, and the other the reasons for condemnation. In the New Testament we read of huperetai, "constables" (Matthew 5:25) and of the "servants of the high priest" (Matthew 26:51; Mark 14:47; John 18:10), whom Josephus describes as "enlisted from the rudest and most restless characters" (Ant., XX, viii, 8; ix, 2). Josephus speaks of the "public whip," Matthew mentions "tormentors" (18:34), Luke speaks of "spies" (20:20).
The whole history of post-exilic Judaism circles round the high priests, and the priestly aristocracy always played the leading part in the Sanhedrin (compare Sanhedrin 4 2). But the more the Pharisees grew in importance, the more were they represented in the Sanhedrin. In the time of Salome they were so powerful that "the queen ruled only in name, but the Pharisees in reality" (Ant., XIII, xvi, 2). So in the time of Christ, the Sanhedrin was formally led by the Sadducean high priests, but practically ruled by the Pharisees (Ant., XVIII, i, 4).
In the time of Christ the Great Sanhedrin at Jerusalem enjoyed a very high measure of independence. It exercised not only civil jurisdiction, according to Jewish law, but also, in some degree, criminal. It had administrative authority and could order arrests by its own officers of justice (Matthew 26:47; Mark 14:43; Acts 4:3; 5:17; 9:2; compare Sanhedrin 1 5). It was empowered to judge cases which did not involve capital punishment, which latter required the confirmation of the Roman procurator (John 18:31; compare the Jerusalem Sanhedrin 1 1; 7 2 (p. 24); Josephus, Ant, XX, ix, 1). But, as a rule, the procurator arranged his judgment in accordance with the demands of the Sanhedrin.
For one offense the Sanhedrin could put to death, on their own authority, even a Roman citizen, namely, in the case of a Gentile passing the fence which divided the inner court of the Temple from that of the Gentiles (BJ, VI, ii, 4; Middoth 11 3; compare Acts 21:28). The only case of capital punishment in connection with the Sanhedrin in the New Testament is that of our Lord. The stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54) was probably the illegal act of an enraged multitude.
5. Place and Time of Meeting:
The Talmudic tradition names "the hall of hewn stone," which, according to Middoth 5 4, was on the south side of the great court, as the seat of the Great Sanhedrin (Pe'-ah 2 6; `Edhuyoth 7 4, et al.). But the last sittings of the Sanhedrin were held in the city outside the Temple area (Sanhedrin 41a; Shabbath 15a; Ro'sh ha-shanah 31a; Abhodhah zarah 8c). Josephus also mentions the place where the bouleutai, "the councilors," met as the boule, outside the Temple (BJ, V, iv, 2), and most probably he refers to these last sittings.
According to the Tosephta' Sanhedrin 7 1, the Sanhedrin held its sittings from the time of the offering of the daily morning sacrifice till that of the evening sacrifice. There were no sittings on Sabbaths or feast days.
The members of the Sanhedrin were arranged in a semicircle, so that they could see each other (Sanhedrin 4 3; Tosephta' 8 1). The two notaries stood before them, whose duty it was to record the votes (see 3, above). The prisoner had to appear in humble attitude and dressed it, mourning (Ant., XIV, ix, 4). A sentence of capital punishment could not be passed on the day of the trial. The decision of the judges had to be examined on the following day (Sanhedrin 4 1), except in the case of a person who misled the people, who could be tried and condemned the same day or in the night (Tosephta' Sanhedrin 10). Because of this, cases which involved capital punishment were not tried on a Friday or on any day before a feast. A herald preceded the condemned one as he was led to the place of execution, and cried out:
"N. the son of N. has been found guilty of death, etc. If anyone knows anything to clear him, let him come forward and declare it" (Sanhedrin 6 1). Near the place of execution the condemned man was asked to confess his guilt in order that he might partake in the world to come (ibid.; compare Luke 23:41-43).
Our knowledge about the Sanhedrin is based on three sources:
the New Testament, Josephus, and the Jewish tradition-literature (especially Mishna, Sanhedrin and Makkoth, best edition, Strack, with German translation, Schriften des Institutum Judaicum in Berlin, N. 38, Leipzig, 1910).
See the article, TALMUD.
Consult the following histories of the Jewish people:
Ewald, Herzfeld, Gratz, but especially Schurer's excellent HJP, much more fully in GJV4; also G. A. Smith, Jerusalem. Special treatises on Sanhedrin: D. Hoffmann, Der oberste Gerichtsh of in der Stadt des Heiligtums, Berlin, 1878, where the author tries to defend the Jewish traditional view as to the antiquity of the Sanhedrin; J. Reifmann, Sanhedrin (in Hebrews), Berditschew, 1888; A. Kuenen, On the Composition of the Sanhedrin, in Dutch, translated into German by Budde, Gesammelte Abhandlungen, etc., 49-81, Freiburg, 1894; Jelski, Die innere Einrichtung des grossen Synedrions zu Jerusalem, Breslau, 1894, who tries to reconcile the Talmudical statements about the composition of the Sanhedrin with those of Josephus and the New Testament (especially in connection with the question of president) by showing that in the Mishna (except Chaghighah 11 2) nasi' always stands for the political president, the high priest, and 'abh-beth-din for the scribal head of the Sanhedrin, and not for the vice-president; A. Buchler, Das Synedrium in Jerusalem und das grosse Beth-din in der Quaderkammer des jerusalemischen Tempels, Vienna, 1902, a very interesting but not convincing work, where the author, in order to reconcile the two different sets of sources, tries to prove that the great Sanhedrin of the Talmud is not identical with the Sanhedrin of Josephus and the New Testament, but that there were two Sanhedrins in Jerusalem, the one of the New Testament and Josephus being a political one, the other a religious one. He also thinks that Christ was seized, not by the Sanhedrin, but by the temple authorities.
See also W. Bacher's article in HDB (excellent for sifting the Talmudic sources); Dr. Lauterbach's article in the Jewish Encyclopedia (accepts fully Biichler's view); H. Strack's article in Sch-Herz (concise and exact).