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Judicial Courts

In the earliest stage of the Exodus migration Moses had the responsibility of holding court sessions in the Israelite camp, along with all of his executive and military duties. At the advice of his father-in-law Jethro (Exod 18:17-26) Moses delegated to an ascending series of petty and appellate judges (who are called “heads” or “rulers” over squads of ten soldiers, captains or lieutenants over larger units) to hear all original cases. Only the more difficult problems for which there was no clear precedent were to be referred to Moses as the court of final appeal. During the period of the Judges it was apparently Deborah who figured prominently as a jurist, holding court sessions under her palm tree (Judg 4:5). The other national leaders (who bore the title of šōpetīm, “judges”) evidently included court hearings with their other responsibilities as executives and military commanders. This function was taken over by the king after the Heb. monarchy was instituted; David maintained an “appellate court” for his entire kingdom (2 Sam 15:2), and Solomon as well (1 Kings 3:9), even before the erection of his aforementioned hall of justice. 1 Chronicles 23:4 states that David appointed 6,000 of the Levites as officers and judges to serve in the lower courts (see also 26:29). By the time of Jehoshaphat (2 Chron 19:5-8) it became necessary to enlarge even the central tribunal at Jerusalem into a larger complex consisting of priests, Levites and heads of clans. Perhaps it was from this measure that the later Sanhedrin, or Council of Seventy, developed (although there is no specific mention of it until Hel. times), which functioned under the presidency of the high priest.

By NT times there had intervened several centuries of Gr. influence and example, and it became more usual to hold court hearings inside of a building constructed as a courthouse. In Gr. cities like Philippi, criminal cases could be tried in the open, in the agora or “market-place” (likewise the unsuccessful prosecution of Paul in Corinth before Gallio’s bema, Acts 18:12-17), and indeed the court sessions or days for judicial business were known as agoraioi (at Ephesus, Acts 19:38). Another distinctive feature of NT times was the activity of lawyers. These nomikoi like the order of scribes (to which they themselves may have belonged) were careful students of the Torah, but also of the “traditions of the elders,” and could be relied upon to assist the judges with any interpretation or precedent that had previously arisen in Jewish history. The “teachers of the Law” with whom the boy Jesus consulted (Luke 2:46) were presumably equivalent to law school professors who trained these nomikoi. Under the Rom. government the Jews of Pal. were permitted to adjudicate their own civil cases, and even their criminal cases which did not involve the death penalty. But the Sanhedrin itself was not legally competent to execute capital punishment on Jesus (John 18:31, 32), and the later episode when Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:57f.) may have taken place in the reign of Herod Agrippa I, when there was no direct Rom. authority present. Where the rights of Rom. citizens were concerned, they had a right to be heard before a Rom. court, presided over by the procurator (as Paul before Felix and Festus), and even to appeal from that tribunal to the court of the emperor at Rome (Acts 25:11, 12).


L. Köhler, “Der Hebräische Mensch” (1953), esp. 143-171, “Die hebräische Rechtsgemeinde”; J. van der Ploeg, “Les šōṭerim d’Israél” in Oudtestamentische Studien, X (1954), 185-196; R. de Vaux, “Ancient Israel” (1961), ch. 10.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

joo-dish’-al, ju-dish’-al.

1. Their Organization:

At the advice of Jethro, Moses appointed judges (shopheTim, Ex 18). In Egypt it appears that the Hebrews did not have their own judges, which, of course, was a source of many wrongs. Leaving Egypt, Moses took the judicial functions upon himself, but it was impossible that he should be equal to the task of administering justice to two and one-half million people; hence, he proceeded to organize a system of jurisprudence. He appointed judges over tens, fifties, hundreds, thousands--in all 78,600 judges. This system was adequate for the occasion, and these courts respectively corresponded practically to our Justices of the Peace, Mayor’s Court, District Court, Circuit Court. Finally, there was a Supreme Court under Moses and his successors. These courts, though graded, did not afford an opportunity of appeal. The lower courts turned their difficult cases over to the next higher. If the case was simple, the judge over tens would take it, but if the question was too intricate for him, he would refer it to the next higher court, and so on until it finally reached Moses. There were certain kinds of questions which the tens, fifties, and hundreds would not take at all, and the people understood it and would bring them to the higher courts for original jurisdiction. When any court decided it, that was the end of that case, for it could not be appealed (Ex 18:25,26). On taking possession in Palestine, the judges were to be appointed for every city and vicinity (De 16:18), thus giving to all Israel a speedy and cheap method of adjudication. Though not so prescribed by the constitution, the judges at length were generally chosen from among the Levites, as the learned class. The office was elective. Josephus states this plainly, and various passages of the Scriptures express it positively by inference (see De 1:13). Jephthah’s election by vote of the people is clearly set forth (Jud 11:5-11).

2. Character of the Judges:

Among the Hebrews, the law was held very sacred; for God Himself had given it. Hence, those who administered the law were God’s special representatives, and their person was held correspondingly sacred. These circumstances placed upon them the duty of administering justice without respect to persons (De 1:17; 16:18). They were to be guided by the inalienable rights granted to every citizen by the Hebrew constitution:

(1) No man was to be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law (Nu 35:9-34).

(2) Two or three witnesses were required to convict anyone of crime (De 17:6; 19:2-13).

(3) Punishment for crime was not to be transferred or entailed (De 24:16).

(4) A man’s home was inviolate (De 24:10,11).

(5) One held to bondage but having acquired liberty through his own effort should be protected (De 23:15,16).

(6) One’s homestead was inalienable (Le 25:23-28,34).

(7) Slavery could not be made perpetual without the person’s own consent (Ex 21:2-6).

3. Their Work:

Gradually a legal profession developed among the Hebrews, the members of which were designated as "Lawyers" or "Scribes" also known as "Doctors of the Law" (Lu 2:46). Their business was threefold:

(1) to study and interpret the law;

(2) to instruct the Hebrew youth in the law; and

(3) to decide questions of the law. The first two they did as scholars and teachers; the last either as judges or as advisers in some court, as, for instance, the Senate of Jerusalem or some inferior tribunal. No code can go into such details as to eliminate the necessity of subsequent legislation, and this usually, to a great extent, takes the form of judicial decisions founded on the code, rather than of separate enactment; and so it was among the Hebrews. The provisions of their code were for the most part quite general, thus affording large scope for casuistic interpretation. Regarding the points not explicitly covered by the written law, a substitute must be found either in the form of established custom or in the form of an inference drawn from the statute.

As a result of the industry with which this line of legal development was pursued during the centuries immediately preceding our era, Hebrew law became a most complicated science. For the disputed points, the judgments of the individual lawyers could not be taken as the standard; hence, the several disciples of the law must frequently meet for a discussion, and the opinion of the majority then prevailed. These were the meetings of the "Doctors." Whenever a case arose concerning which there had been no clear legal decision, the question was referred to the nearest lawyer; by him, to the nearest company of lawyers, perhaps the Sanhedrin, and the resultant decision was henceforth authority.

Before the destruction of Jerusalem technical knowledge of the law was not a condition of eligibility to the office of judge. Anyone who could command the confidence of his fellow-citizens might be elected, and many of the rural courts undoubtedly were conducted, as among us, by men of sterling quality, but limited knowledge. Such men would avail themselves of the legal advice of any "doctor" who might be within reach; and in the more dignified courts of a large municipality it was a standing custom to have a company of lawyers present to discuss and decide any new law points that might arise. Of course, frequently these men were themselves elected to the office of judge, so that practically the entire system of jurisprudence was in their hands.

4. Limitations under Roman Rule:

5. Time and Place of Sessions:

The city in which the Sanhedrin met was Jerusalem. To determine the particular building, and the spot on which the building stood, is interesting to the archaeologist, not to the student of law. The local courts usually held their sessions on the second and fifth day (Monday and Thursday) of the week, but we do not know whether the same custom was observed by the Great Sanhedrin. On feast days no court was held, much less on the Sabbath. Since the death penalty was not to be pronounced until the day after the trial, such cases were avoided also on the day preceding a Sabbath or other sacred day. The emphasis placed on this observance may be seen from the edicts issued by Augustus, absolving the Jews from the duty of attending court on the Sabbath.

See Doctor; Lawyer; Sanhedrin; Scribes.

Frank E. Hirsch