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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.


Supreme council and court of justice among the Jews

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Sanhedrin, the supreme council and court of justice among the Jews. The name Sanhedrin is derived originally from the Greek word sunedrion, which, variously modified, passed at an unknown period into the Aramaic vocabulary. Among the Greek-speaking Jews, gerousia, “the assembly of the Ancients” was apparently the common name of the Sanhedrin, at least in the beginning; in post-Biblical Hebrew the appellation Beth-Din, “house of judgment”, seems to have been quite popular.

History.—An institution as renowned as the Sanhedrin was naturally given by Jewish tradition a most venerable and hallowed antiquity. Some Doctors, indeed, did not hesitate to recognize the Sanhedrin in the Council of the seventy Elders founded by Moses (Num., xi, 16); others pretended to discover the first traces of the Sanhedrin in the tribunal created by Josaphat (II Par., xix, 8): but neither of these institutions bears, in its composition or in its attributions, any resemblance to the Sanhedrin as we know it. Nor should the origin of the Sanhedrin be sought in the Great Synagogue, of which tradition attributed the foundation to Esdras, and which it considered as the connecting link between the last of the Prophets and the first Scribes: for aside from the obscurity hovering over the functions of this once much-famed body, its very existence is, among modern scholars, the subject of the most serious doubts. Yet it may be that from the council of the nobles and chiefs and ancients, on which the ruling of the restored community devolved at the time of Nehemias and Esdras (Neh., ii, 16; iv, 8, 13; v, 7; vii, 5; I Esd., v, 5, 9; vi, 7, 14; x, 8), gradually developed and organized, sprang up the Sanhedrin. At any rate, the first undisputed mention we possess touching the gerousia of Jerusalem is connected with the reign of Antiochus the Great (223-187 B.C.; Joseph., “Antiq.”, XII, iii, 3). From that time on, we are able to follow the history of the Sanhedrin until its disappearance in the overthrow of the Jewish nation.

As under the Greek rulers the Jews were allowed a large measure of self-government, many points of civil and religious administration fell to the lot of the high priests and the gerousia to settle. But when, after the Machabean wars, both the royal and priestly powers were invested in the person of the Hasmonean kings, the authority of the Sanhedrin was naturally thrown in the background by that of the autocratic rulers. Still the Sanhedrin, where a majority of Pharisees held sway, continued to be “the house of justice of the Hasmoneans” (“Talm.”, Aboda zara, 36b; Sanh., 82a). A coup detect of John Hyrcanus towards the end of his reign brought about a “Sadducean Sanhedrin” (“Antiq.”, XVI, xi, 1; Sanh., 52b; Megillat Taanith, 10), which lasted until Jannaeus; but owing to the conflicts between the new assembly and Alexander, it was soon restored, to be again overthrown by the Pharisaic reaction under Alexandra. The intervention of Rome, occasioned by the strife between the sons of Alexandra, was momentarily fatal to the Sanhedrin in so far as the Roman proconsul Gabinius, by instituting similar assemblies at Gadara, Jericho, Amathonte, and Sapphora, limited the jurisdiction of the gerousia la of Jerusalem to the city and the neighboring district (57 B.C.). In 47, however, the appointment of Hyrcanus II as Ethnarch of the Jews resulted in the restoring of the Sanhedrin’s authority all over the land. One of the first acts of the now all-powerful assembly was to pass judgment upon Herod, the son of Antipater, accused of cruelty in his government (“Antiq.”, XI, ix, 4). The revengeful prince was not likely to forget this insult. No sooner, indeed, had he established his power at Jerusalem (37 B.C..), than forty-five of his former judges, more or less connected with the party of Antigonus, were put to death (“Antiq.”, XV, i, 2). The Sanhedrin itself, however, Herod allowed to continue; but this new Sanhedrin, filled with his creatures, was henceforth utilized as a mere tool at his beck (as for instance in the case of the aged Hyrcanus). After the death of Herod, the territorial jurisdiction of the assembly was curtailed again and reduced to Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, the “ethnarchy” allotted to Archelaus. But this condition of affairs was not to last; for after the deposition of the Ethnarch and the annexation of Judea to the Roman province of Syria (A.D. 6), the Sanhedrin, under the control of the procurators, became the supreme authority of the Jewish people; only capital sentences pronounced by the assembly perhaps needed confirmation from the Roman officer before they could be carried into execution. Such was the state of things during the public life of the Savior and the following thirty years (Matt., xxvi, 57; Mark, xiv, 55; xv, 1; Luke, xxii, 66; John, xi, 47; Acts, iv, 15; v, 21; vi, 12; xxii, 30; xxiii, 1 sq.; xxiv, 20; “Antiq.”, XX, ix, 1; x; “Bell. Jud.”, II, xv, 6; “Vita”, 12, 13, 38, 49, 70). Finally when the misgovernment of Albinus and Gessius Florus goaded the nation into rebellion, it was the Sanhedrin that first organized the struggle against Rome; but soon the Zealots, seizing the power in Jerusalem, put the famous assembly out of the way. Despite a nominal resurrection first at Jamnia, immediately after the destruction of the Holy City, and later on at Tiberias, the great Beth-Din of Jerusalem did not really survive the ruin of the nation, and later Jewish authors are right when, speaking of the sad events connected with the fall of Jerusalem, they deplore the cessation of the Sanhedrin (Sota, ix, end; Echa Rabbathi on Lam., v, 15).

Composition.—According to the testimony of the Mishna (Sanh., i, 6; Shebuoth, ii, 2), confirmed by a remark of Josephus (“Bell. Jud.”, II, xx, 5), the Sanhedrin consisted of seventy-one members, president included. Jewish tradition appealed to Num., xi, 16, to justify this number; but whether the text of Num. had actually any influence on the determination of the composition of the Beth-Din, may be left undecided. The New-Testament writers seem to divide the members into three classes: the chief priests, the scribes, and the ancients; but it might be wrong to regard these three classes as forming a regular hierarchy, for in the New Testament itself the word “ancients”, or the phrase “the ancients of the people”, is quite frequently equivalent to “members of the Sanhedrin”, just as is in Josephus the word bouleutai “members of the council”. They were styled “ancients” no doubt in memory of the seventy “ancients” forming the assembly set up by Moses (Num., xi), but also because the popular mind attached to the word a connotation of maturity of age and respectability (See in “Talm.”, Bab., Sanh. 17b, 88a, also in Sifre, 92, the moral and intellectual qualifications required for membership). Since the Beth-Din had to deal frequently with legal matters, it was natural that many of its members should be chosen from among men specially given to the study of the Law; this is why we so often hear of the scribes in the Sanhedrin. Most of these scribes, during the last forty years of the institution’s existence, were Pharisees, whereas the members belonging to the sacerdotal caste represented in the assembly the Sadducean ideas (Acts, iv, 1; v, 17, 34; xxiii, 6; “Antiq.” XX, ix, 1; “Bell. Jud.”, II, xvii, 3; “Vita”, 38, 39), but history shows that at other periods the Pharisean influence had been far from preponderating. According to what rules the members were appointed and the vacancies filled up, we are unable to state; it seems that various customs prevailed on this point at different periods; however, from what has been said above, it is clear that politics interfered more than once in the transaction. At any rate we are told (Sanh., iv, 4) that a semikah, or imposition of hands, took place at the formal installation of the new appointees; and there is every reason to believe that the appointment was for life.

Who was president of the Sanhedrin? The Bible and Josephus on the one hand, and the Talmud on the other, contain statements which may shed some light on the subject; unfortunately these statements appear to be at variance with each other and need careful handling. In I Mach., xiv, 44, we read that no meeting (Greek: sustrothed) might be called in the land outside of the high priest’s bidding: but it would be clearly illogical to infer from this that the high priest was appointed by Demetrius ex officio president of the Sanhedrin. To conclude the same from the passage of Josephus narrating Herod‘s arraignment before the Sanhedrin (Antiq., XIV, ix, 3-5) would likewise perhaps go beyond what is warranted by the text of the Jewish historian: for it may be doubted whether in this occurrence Hyrcanus acted as the head of the Hasmonean family or in his capacity of high priest. At any rate there can be no hesitation about the last forty years of the Sanhedrin’s existence: at the trial of Jesus, Caiphas, the high priest (John, xi, 49), was the head of the Beth-Din (Matt., xxvi, 57); so also was Ananias at the trial of St. Paul (Acts, xxiii, 2), and we read in “Antiq.”, XX, ix, 1, about the high priest Ananus II summoning the Sanhedrin in A.D. 62. What then of the Rabbinical tradition speaking persistently of Hillel, and Simon’ his son, and Gamaliel I his grandson, and the latter’s son Simon, as holding the office of Nasi from 30 B.C. to A.D. 70 (Talm., Bab. Shabbath, 15a)? Of one of these men, Gamaliel, we find mention in Acts, v, 34; but even though he is said to have played a leading part in the circumstances referred to there, he is not spoken of as president of the assembly. The truth may be that during the first century B.C., not to speak of earlier times, the high priest was not ex officio the head of the Sanhedrin, and it appears that Hillel actually obtained that dignity. But after the death of Herod and the deposition of Archelaus, which occurred about the time of Hillel‘s demise, there was inaugurated a new order of things, and that is possibly what Josephus means when, speaking of these events, he remarks that “the presidency over the people was then entrusted to the high priests” (Antiq., XX, x, end). It was natural that, in an assembly containing many scribes and called upon to decide many points of legislation, there should be, next to the Sadducean presidents, men perfectly conversant with all the intricacies of the Law. Gauged by the standard of later times, the consideration which must have attached to this position of trust led to the misconception of the actual role of Hillel‘s descendants in the Sanhedrin, and thus very likely arose the tradition recorded in the Talmud.

Jurisdiction and Procedure.—We have seen above how the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin varied in extension at different periods. At the time of the public life of the Savior, only the eleven toparchies of Judea were de jure subject to the Great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem; however, de facto the Jews all the world over acknowledged its authority (as an instance of this, see Acts, ix, 2; xxii, 5; xxvi, 12). As the supreme court of justice of the nation, the Sanhedrin was appealed to when the lower courts were unable to come to a decision (Sanh., vii, 1; xi, 2); moreover, it had the exclusive right of judgment in matters of special importance, as for instance the case of a false prophet, accusations against the high priest, the sending out of an army in certain circumstances, the enlarging of the city of Jerusalem, or of the Temple courts, etc. (Sanh., i, 5; ii, 4; iii, 4); the few instances mentioned in the New Testament exemplify the cases to which the competency of the Sanhedrin extended; in short, all religious matters and all civil matters not claimed by Roman authority were within its attributions; and the decisions issued by its judges were to be held inviolable (Sanh., xi, 2-4). Whether or not the Sanhedrin had been deprived, at the time of Jesus Christ, of the right to carry death-sentences into execution, is a much-disputed question. On the one hand, that such a curtailing of the Sanhedrin’s power did actually take place seems implied in the cry of the Jews: “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death” (John, xviii, 31), in the statement of Josephus (Ant., XX, ix, 1) and in those of the Talmud of Jer. (Sanh., 18a, 24b). Still we see in Acts, vii, St. Stephen put to death by the Sanhedrin; we read likewise in Talm. Jer. (Sanh., 24, 25) of an adulteress burnt at the stake and a heretic stoned; and these three facts occurred precisely during the last forty years of the Temple‘s existence, when the power of life and death is supposed to have been no longer in the Sanhedrin. Assuming the two facts recorded in Talm. Jer. to be historical, we might explain them away, just as the stoning of St. Stephen, and reconcile them with the curtailing of the Sanhedrin’s rights by attributing them to outbursts of popular passion. Some scholars, however, deny that the Romans ever deprived the Sanhedrin of any part of its power: the Sanhedrin, they say, owing to the frequency of cases half-religious and half-political in nature, in order not to alienate the feelings of the people and at the same time not to incur the displeasure of the Roman authorities, practically surrendered into the hands of the latter the right to approve capital sentences; the cry of the Jews: “it is not lawful for us to put any man to death”, was therefore rather a flattery to the procurator than the expression of truth.

It should be noticed, however, that of these views the former is more favorably received by scholars. At all events, criminal causes were tried before a commission of twenty-three members (in urgent cases any twenty-three members might do) assembled under the presidency of the Ab Beth-Din; two other boards, also of twenty-three members each, studied the questions to be submitted to plenary meetings. These three sections had their separate places of meeting in the Temple buildings; the criminal section met originally in the famous “Hall of the Hewn Stone” (Mishna, Peah, ii, 6; Eduyoth, vii, 4) which was on the south side of the court (Middoth, v, 4) and served also for the sittings of the “Great Sanhedrin”, or plenary meetings; about A.D. 30, that same section was transferred to another building closer to the outer wall; they had also another meeting place in property called khanyioth, “trade-halls”, belonging to the family of Hanan (cf. John, xvii, 13). The members of the Sanhedrin sat in a semicircle that they might see one another while deliberating (Mishna, Sanh., iv, 2; Tos., Sanh., vii, 1). Two clerks stood before them, the one to the right and the other to the left, to take down the votes (Mishna, Sanh., iv, 2). The members stood up to speak, and on matters of civil or ceremonial law the voting began with the principal member of the assembly, whereas the younger members were the first to give their opinion in criminal affairs. For judgments of the latter description a quorum of at least twenty-three members was required: a majority of one vote sufficed for the acquittal; for a condemnation a majority of two votes was necessary, except when all the members of the court (seventy-one) were present (Mishna, Sanh., iv; Tos., Sanh., vii).

Since in spite of the identity of names there is little in common between the old Great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem and the schools of Jamnia and Tiberias, it is quite useless to dwell on the latter, as well as on the Kalla assemblies of Babylon. But it will not be amiss to mention the fact that before the fall of Jerusalem there were, besides the Great Sanhedrin we have dealt with above, local courts of justice sometimes designated by the same name, in all the Jewish cities.


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