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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 (
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,
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)
1. Their Organization:
At the advice of Jethro, Moses appointed judges (shopheTim,
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 (
(1) No man was to be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law (
(2) Two or three witnesses were required to convict anyone of crime (
(3) Punishment for crime was not to be transferred or entailed (
(4) A man’s home was inviolate (
(5) One held to bondage but having acquired liberty through his own effort should be protected (
(6) One’s homestead was inalienable (
(7) Slavery could not be made perpetual without the person’s own consent (
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" (
(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.
Frank E. Hirsch