SANHEDRIN (săn'hē-drĭn, Talmudic Heb. transcription of the Gr. synedrion, a council). The highest Jewish tribunal during the Greek and Roman periods, often mentioned in the NT, where the KJV always has “council” for the Greek name. The Talmud connects the Sanhedrin with Moses' seventy elders, then with the alleged Great Synagogue of Ezra’s time; but the truth is that the origin of the Sanhedrin is unknown, and there is no historical evidence for its existence before the Greek period. During the reign of the Hellenistic kings Palestine was practically under home rule and was governed by an aristocratic council of elders, which was presided over by the hereditary high priest. The council was called gerousia, which always signifies an aristocratic body. This later developed into the Sanhedrin. During most of the Roman period the internal government of the country was practically in its hands, and its influence was recognized even in the Diaspora (Acts.9.2; Acts.22.5; Acts.26.12). After the death of Herod the Great, however, during the reign of Archelaus and the Roman procurators, the civil authority of the Sanhedrin was probably restricted to Judea, and this is very likely the reason why it had no judicial authority over the Lord so long as he remained in Galilee. The Sanhedrin was abolished after the destruction of Jerusalem (a.d. 70). A new court was established bearing the name “Sanhedrin,” but it differed in essential features from the older body: it had no political authority and was composed exclusively of rabbis, whose decisions had only a theoretical importance.

The Sanhedrin was composed of seventy members, plus the president, who was the high priest. Nothing is known as to the way in which vacancies were filled. The members probably held office for life, and successors were likely appointed either by the existing members themselves or by the supreme political authorities (Herod and the Romans). Since only pure-blooded Jews were eligible for the office of judge in a criminal court, the same principle was probably followed in the case of the Sanhedrin. New members were formally admitted by the ceremony of the laying on of hands.

The Sanhedrin at first met in “the hall of hewn stones,” one of the buildings connected with the temple. Later, the place of meeting was somewhere in the court of the Gentiles, although they were not confined to it. They could meet on any day except the Sabbath and holy days, and they met from the time of the offering of the daily morning sacrifice until that of the evening sacrifice. The meetings were conducted according to strict rules and were enlivened by stirring debates. Twenty-three members formed a quorum. While a bare majority might acquit, a majority of two was necessary to secure condemnation, although if all seventy-one members were present, a majority of one was decisive on either side. To avoid any hasty condemnation where life was involved, judgment was passed the same day only when it was a judgment of acquittal. If it was a judgment of condemnation, it could not be passed until the day after. For this reason, cases involving capital punishment were not tried on a Friday or on any day before a feast. A herald went before the condemned one as he was led to execution and cried out: “So-and-so has been found worthy of death. If anyone knows anything to clear him, let him come forward and declare it.”——SB

(Gr. synedrion, “a council”). The term was used by the Rabbis both for the supreme council and court of the Jews in Jerusalem of seventy-one members and for the lesser tribunals of twenty-three. The rules governing them are found in tractates Sanhedrin and Makkot of the Mishnah, but it is certain that in their present formation they are later than the fall of Jerusalem, and many probably represent an ideal. The Sanhedrin in this form probably began with the election of Simon to the high-priesthood (142 b.c.); it became an ideal when John Hyrcanus broke with the Pharisees. It may have been reintroduced under Alexandra Salome (76 b.c.), but it certainly ceased to exist from the time of Herod. In the NT the Sanhedrin was a body dominated by the high priest and aristocratic Sadducees. Büchler's idea that there were two sanhedrins, one political and the other religious, has little to commend it.

Sources for the study of the Sanhedrin.

The three primary sources of information for our knowledge of the Sanhedrin are (1) the NT documents, (2) the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus, and (3) rabbinic tradition particularly as codified in the Mishnah (in the tractate “Sanhedrin”), but also found in other places such as the “Sanhedrin” tractate in the Tosefta (“Supplement”) and in the Gemaras of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds. The information that can be gleaned from the NT and Josephus is, of course, indirect, whereas the rabbinic materials often intend specifically to provide information about the Sanhedrin. This fact is counterbalanced, however, by the comparatively late date (about a.d. 200) at which the rabbinic materials that had been handed down orally were finally written down.

It is, unfortunately, impossible to reconcile the description of the Sanhedrin in the rabbinic materials with that found in the NT and Josephus. An attempt has been made to do just this, however, by alleging that there were two major Sanhedrins in Jerusalem: (1) a political Sanhedrin composed of a priestly aristocracy headed by the high priest, concerned with civil affairs and the administration of criminal justice (of which we read in the NT and Josephus) and (2) a religious Sanhedrin composed of a laity of Pharisees headed by a rabbi, concerned with matters of religious life and the interpretation of Torah (of which we read in the rabbinic materials). While this ingenious and attractive theory has been accepted by a number of Jewish scholars (e.g. Lauterbach, Hoenig, Zeitlin, Mantel), it has not found general consent and is here rejected as a conjecture that is too facile and goes too far beyond what the concrete evidence warrants. As historical sources the reliability of the NT and Josephus far exceeds that of the rabbinic writings, which often reflect the state of affairs after, rather than before, the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. Consequently the traditions of the rabbis, while they may sometimes convey trustworthy information concerning the Sanhedrin, must be used critically. Where there is conflicting testimony between the NT and Josephus on the one hand and the rabbinic materials on the other hand, historically speaking, one is on safer ground to accept the former as trustworthy and to reject the latter as anachronistic.


In the rabbinic sources, the word סַנְהֶדְרִין is the common word used to refer to the council. There are, however, other words and phrases for the same body: e.g. בֵּית דִּין גָּדוֹל, “great house of justice”; כְּנִישְׁתָּא, “assembly.”


After the Rom. occupation of 63 b.c. the council continued to exist under the leadership of the high priest Hyrcanus (II). Within a few years however, Gabinius, the Rom. governor of Syria (57-55 b.c.), greatly reduced the power of the Jerusalem council by dividing the land into five “sanhedrins” (συνέδρια, Jos. Antiq. XIV. 5. 4; σύνοδοι, Jos. War I. 8. 5) or administrative councils. The high council thereby became merely one among the five, and its regional jurisdiction diminished considerably. This limitation was only temporary, however, for under the direction of Caesar, Hyrcanus was reappointed “ethnarch,” and the Jerusalem council regained its status, appearing again to have had authority over the whole of the land. Indeed, in 47 b.c. there is the remarkable occurrence of Herod being summoned from Galilee to appear before the Sanhedrin for having executed a certain Hezekiah without the permission of the high court. (Jos. Antiq. XIV. 3ff. In this passage the actual word συνέδριον, G5284, occurs for the first time in historical sources in reference to the Jerusalem council, after which however this use of the word becomes common.) For the sake of Hyrcanus, Herod was absolved of this crime, only later—after he had been made king of the Jews—to take bloody revenge by killing the members of this Sanhedrin (Jos. Antiq. XIV. 9. 4; it is doubtful whether “all” the members are to be taken literally; cf. XV. 1. 2). The Sanhedrin continued to exist under Herod, but it was filled with tractable men and its power was severely limited. Herod used the court to carry out his will, but did not allow it or the high priest (Herod was unqualified for this office) to interfere with his reign. At the death of Herod in 4 b.c. his kingdom was divided among his three sons, the most important part (including Judea and Samaria) going to Archelaus who ruled as “ethnarch.” Despite the plea of the people to Augustus for more self-government (cf. Jos. Antiq. XVII. 11. 2ff.), the status and power of the Sanhedrin underwent no particular change.

In a.d. 6, however, when Judaea was made a Rom. province, the Sanhedrin and its president, the high priest, were granted almost exclusive control of the internal affairs of the nation, similar to that which it had under the Hel. kings. The sacred status of Jerusalem and its environs was recognized by the Romans and, so long as public order was maintained and tax revenues were forthcoming, they were content for national matters to be under the control of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. It is during the period of the Rom. procurators (a.d. 6-66) that the Sanhedrin came to possess the greatest power and jurisdiction of its history, although the Jewish authority was always ultimately answerable to the Rom. governor. Josephus can speak of the dominion of the nation as having been entrusted to the high priests of this period (Antiq. XX. 10).

This is the Sanhedrin which we encounter in the NT documents. It is a body composed largely of members of the aristocracy (the chief priests and Sadducees), which under the leadership of the high priest, exercises considerable judicial authority in handling Jesus of Nazareth according to the gospels, and his disciples according to the Book of Acts. Its area of jurisdiction also appears to include the Diaspora to some degree (witness Paul’s request for letters to the synagogue at Damascus from the high priest, Acts 9:1f.).

With the Jewish rebellion, which began in a.d. 66, martial law came into effect, and when Jerusalem finally fell in a.d. 70 the Sanhedrin was permanently dissolved. From this point onward Pal. was governed solely by orthodox Rom. provincial administration. Almost immediately, it appears, a new “Sanhedrin” was constituted at Jamnia. This “Sanhedrin,” however, was markedly different from its predecessor in that, needless to say, it had no political or governing power whatsoever, and was limited exclusively to the judgment of religious questions. Despite the rabbinic claims that this “Sanhedrin” stood in continuity with the Sanhedrin of earlier periods, it is evident that by comparison the new Sanhedrin was powerless. Whereas the Jerusalem Sanhedrin of the period of the Rom. procurators consisted largely of aristocratic men led by the high priest, the decrees of which were binding under penalty of severe punishment, the new Sanhedrin or Beth Din (court of Justice), as it was called, consisted exclusively of rabbinic scholars under a scholar-president whose decrees were theoretical and bore only the authority warranted by voluntary respect for scholarly wisdom.


Although the rabbinic tradition knows only of a Sanhedrin composed entirely of scholarly scribes and Pharisees, historically it is known that throughout its history the Sanhedrin was dominated by a priestly aristocracy. And, to speak in terms of the parties that developed during Hasmonean times, the nobility almost without exception consisted of Sadducees. Pharisees were admitted into the Sanhedrin in considerable numbers at two particular junctures in its history: once under Salome Alexandra (as noted above) and subsequently under Herod the Great, who took this measure to limit more effectively the power of the older nobility who opposed him. According to the Mishnah (San. 1:6) the membership of the Great Sanhedrin numbered seventy-one. This seems to reflect accurately the situation before the fall of Jerusalem. (Mention is made also of smaller, local sanhedrins composed of twenty-three members.) Tribunals were quite prob. modeled in number after the tribunal of seventy instituted by Moses according to Numbers 11:16f. (There are a number of indications that, among the Jews, councils of seventy were favored.) The extra man was apparently the leader or president of the Sanhedrin, which according to the evidence of Josephus and the NT, was the high priest. The rabbinic tradition, however, does not associate the Great Sanhedrin with the high priest. Instead, it attributes the leadership of the council to a president (נָסִיא or “prince”) who was merely one of the scribes of the council. He was assisted by a vice-president (אַב בֵּית הַדִּין, or “father of the house of justice”) who was also a scribe. This almost certainly reflects the post a.d. 70 situation and is wrongly taken as accurately describing the Sanhedrin of the time of Christ.

The office of high priest was, of course, hereditary although on occasion this was altered for political expediency. Exactly how other members of the Sanhedrin came to hold office remains obscure. A likely conjecture is that the body was self-perpetuating in the sense of electing its own members. The office was prob. given for life, but again this is uncertain. The criteria for membership were prob. age and wealth, although the Mishna mentions only one necessity—that the candidate be learned in rabbinic doctrine.

Particularly in the NT, one encounters repeated references to “chief priests” (ἀρχιερει̂ς), the pl. of “high priest,” ἀρχιερεύς, G797. This group which forms the leading component of the Sanhedrin, consisted of former high priests including members of the most important of the priestly families. Probably next to this group in prestige was the lay nobility, who like the priestly aristocracy were also of Sadducean sympathies, and who are prob. referred to under the title “elders” (πρεσβύτεροι). Another important group, an element of increasing importance in the Sanhedrin of the 1st cent., is that of the “scribes” (γραμματει̂ς), the professional scholars who were experts in matters of Mosaic law (hence, “lawyers”). The scribes, by way of contrast with the other groups, were Pharisees. Although they were a minority in the Sanhedrin, they apparently enjoyed considerable popular support. So much so, that not only could nothing be accomplished without the Pharisees, but as Josephus indicated, the Sadducees often went along with them in order merely to be tolerated by the masses (Antiq. XVIII. 1. 4).


The Sanhedrin, like other local courts according to the Mishnah, almost certainly was prohibited from meeting on the Sabbath or on feast days. Whether it could in extreme circumstances legally meet on a feast day as it did in the trial of Jesus cannot be known, but seems improbable. In cases involving capital punishment, the sentence could not lawfully be delivered until the day following the trial, and therefore such trials were also prohibited on the eve of either a Sabbath or a feast day (San 4:1). Cases involving potential capital punishment were similarly barred from taking place at night (San 4:1). According to Tosephta (San 7:1), the hours of meeting on regular days were from the time of the morning sacrifice to the evening sacrifice.

There is some disagreement concerning where the Sanhedrin held its meetings. According to the Mishnah it met in the Temple precincts to the S of the Temple court, in what was called “The Chamber of Hewn Stone” (Mid 5:4). Josephus, however, appears to locate the meeting place of the Sanhedrin (βουλή, G1087, or βουλευτήριον) in two different spots (cf. War V. 4. 2; VI. 6. 3), but this has been explained as referring to later meeting places. The NT has the Sanhedrin gathered at the palace of the high priest for the trial of Jesus, but the circumstances are exceedingly irregular (the meeting at night was illegal, and could not have taken place in the Temple precincts which would have been locked) and cannot be taken as normative in any sense.

The Mishna provides us with further information concerning the meetings of the Sanhedrin. The members are said to have sat in a semicircle in order that all might see one another, while in front of them on the right and left two scribes were positioned, who kept a written record of the testimony for acquittal or conviction (San 4:3). Also present were three rows of “disciples of the Sages” from which additional judges could be appointed, while a member of the congregation would be chosen to fill the gap caused among the disciples of the Sages (San 4:4). A great amount of additional information of the actual process of justice (e.g. capital cases had to begin with reasons for acquittal, and whereas testimony in such cases could be unanimous for acquittal, it could not be unanimous for condemnation—someone had to argue on behalf of the accused, San 4:1) is available in the Mishnah, but the question of whether or not such information can be accepted as at all accurate for the period of our concern remains crucial.


The Sanhedrin certainly had complete control of the religious affairs of the nation as the Mishnah indicates. The high court was the supreme authority in the interpretation of Mosaic law and, when it mediated in questions disputed in the lower courts, its verdict was final. Beyond this, the Sanhedrin also governed civil affairs and tried certain criminal cases under the authority of the Rom. procurator. The Romans were quite content to let subject nations regulate internal affairs, but there were, of course, always limits. They, for example, would have reserved the right to intervene at will, and while it is probable that they usually went along with the high court’s decisions, they were under no compulsion to do so.

One of the most vexing questions concerning the Sanhedrin was whether or not the Romans had granted it the power of capital punishment. There is a fair amount of evidence which seems to indicate that the Sanhedrin did have the right to try capital cases and to execute capital punishment. In the Mishnah regulations are given for different types of execution. (Four kinds of capital punishment which could be inflicted by the court are enumerated in San 7:1.) There is, moreover, reference to the burning of a priest’s daughter for adultery, which prob. occurred before the fall of Jerusalem. Further records of actual executions are found in Josephus (Antiq. XX. 9. 1) who provides an account of the Sanhedrin’s trial and stoning of James, the brother of Jesus, as well as some other Christians. Documentary evidence has been discovered by archeologists which proves that Gentiles (even Rom. citizens) could be put to death by the Jewish authorities for trespassing the restricted areas of the Temple precinct. In the NT itself there is the account of the trial and stoning of Stephen by the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:9-8:1).

While this evidence is weighty, it is not necessarily conclusive. The regulations in the Mishnah quite prob. describe the situation after the “re-constitution” of the Sanhedrin at Jamnia. The execution of the priest’s daughter referred to in the Mishnah may be readily explained if it occurred during the reign of Herod Agrippa I (who ruled as king over the whole of Pal.) in the years a.d. 41-44 when there was a temporary interruption in the procuratorial system of government in Pal. The stoning of James, it is known, took place just in this interval between Rom. procurators. The executions were still illegal, and Agrippa quickly had the high priest responsible (Annas II, or Ananus) removed from office (Jos. Antiq. XX. 9. 1). It is also during this period that the slaying of James the son of Zebedee took place, this by the hand of Agrippa (Acts 12:1ff.). The right of capital punishment over those trespassing the holy places of the Temple is surely to be regarded as an extraordinary privilege granted by the Romans merely for the sake of expediency. It would be rash to extrapolate from this and allege that therefore the Sanhedrin would also possess the right of capital punishment in other matters, at least over its own people, the Jews. The stoning of Stephen took place after a trial before the Sanhedrin on the charge of blasphemy. (Herein lies another problem in that technically Stephen was not guilty of blasphemy since he did not pronounce the ineffable Name, and thus at most he should have received forty stripes lacking one.) However, the execution bears the marks of precipitate action on the part of an enraged mob. On the other hand, if it was the carefully deliberate action of the Sanhedrin, it is not difficult to believe that occasionally the Jewish authority perpetrated an illegality which to the Romans was not very significant, and which was thus conveniently overlooked.

The NT data clearly point to the conclusion that the Sanhedrin did not possess the power of capital punishment. Jesus appears to have been turned over to the Romans because the crime of which He was alleged to be guilty was regarded as deserving of capital punishment. At any rate, the assertion of John 18:31 made by the Jews to Pilate is beyond question: “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.” Remarkably, there is a piece of Talmudic evidence that supports this assertion. In the Jerusalem Talmud (San 1:1; 7:2), it is said that the right of capital punishment was taken from Israel forty years prior to the destruction of the Temple. The round number forty quite prob. means to convey the period of Rom. procuratorship (precisely, a.d. 6-66). All of this fits with what is known of the Rom. custom in the government of the provinces. Capital punishment was almost always held by the governor as his own personal prerogative. It was on occasion granted to free cities in the empire, but that it would be granted to a city such as Jerusalem, or to a nation so infamously unruly as Judaea is hardly to be expected.

The Sanhedrin in the NT.

The action of the Sanhedrin in the NT bears out the picture here presented. The Sanhedrin is perhaps most conspicuous in its role in the trial of Jesus in the gospels. Without getting into the intricacies of the trial itself, the following may be said. The Sanhedrin had every right to prosecute Jesus for alleged crimes whether religious or civil. From what can be pieced together from the Gospel narratives (Matt 26; Mark 14; Luke 22; John 19) the Sanhedrin rather than being a vehicle for the accomplishment of justice—for which the rabbinic model in the Mishnah is exemplary—here became guilty of a gross travesty of justice. The time and nature of its meetings, the manner in which the “trial” was conducted, its strange outcome—all point to the intent desire of the Jewish authorities to do away with Jesus. Here we have a group of desperate men who, while trying to keep a show of propriety and at least a semblance of “legality,” take what can only be regarded as very desperate measures. Long before His arrest and trial they had determined to have Jesus put to death (Matt 12:14; Mark 3:6; John 11:53). It was only a question of how to do this, and under what charges to hand him over to the Romans for the capital punishment they themselves could not legally administer. Ultimately they found this in the political charge of sedition.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the Sanhedrin on occasion behaves more as one should expect this council to act. The apostles are brought before the court and admonished not to continue stirring up the people with their message (4:5-22; 5:17-42). At one point when some members of the council wanted to kill them (5:33) a Pharisee of the council, the famous rabbi Gamaliel, made an eloquent plea for justice (5:35ff.). Similarly, when Paul was arraigned before the Sanhedrin, he was able (with some skill and knowledge) to elicit support from the Pharisees of the council who declared, “We find nothing wrong in this man” (Acts 23:9). In the stoning of Stephen, however, the court appeared in a bad light, being guilty of an illegal, as well as an impetuous act.

There can be little question that the Sanhedrin in its full complement included some outstanding men. In addition to Gamaliel, already mentioned, the council included Joseph of Arimathea who was a disciple of Jesus secretly (John 19:38), and Nicodemus who was also drawn to Jesus. The latter showed a genuine concern for justice in the high council’s intentions concerning Jesus when he said to his fellow members, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7:50). One may only suppose that in the fiasco which served as Jesus’ trial, these more honorable members of the Sanhedrin were not present at the clandestine meetings, or that we have no record of their protestations. It has occasionally been suggested that Saul of Tarsus was a member of the Sanhedrin prior to his conversion. Acts 8:1 and 26:10 do not necessarily mean that Saul voted as a member of the council. What is meant is prob. only that he gave his assent unofficially, for it is virtually impossible that Saul at his young age could have been a member of the august council of elders.


Primary sources in addition to the NT include: Josephus, Loeb Classical Library, 9 volumes, eds. H. St. J. Thackeray, R. Marcus, A. Wikgren (1926-1963); The Mishnah (trans. H. Danby) (1933), esp. the tractate Sanhedrin, 382-400.

Secondary materials: E. Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the time of Jesus Christ (1885), 163-195; J. Z. Lauterbach, “Sanhedrin,” JE XI (1905), 41-46; H. Danby, “The Bearing of the Rabbinical Criminal Code on the Jewish Trial Narratives in the Gospels,” JTS XXI (1919), 51-76; S. Zeitlin, “The Political Synedrion and the Religious Sanhedrin,” JQR XXXVI (1945-1946), 109-140; “Synedrion in Greek Literature, the Gospels and the Institution of the Sanhedrin,” JQR XXXVII (1946-1947), 189-198; J. Jeremias “Zur Geschichtlichkeit des Verhörs Jesu vor dem hohen Rat,” ZNW XLIII (1950-1951), 145-150; S. B. Hoenig, The Great Sanhedrin (1953); T. A. Burkill, “The Competence of the Sanhedrin,” VB X (1956), 80-96; J. Blinzler, The Trial of Jesus (1959); H. Mantel, Studies in the History of the Sanhedrin (1961); P. Winter, On the Trial of Jesus (1961); T. A. Burkill, “Sanhedrin,” IDB IV (1962), 214-218; J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (1962; E. T. 1967), esp. 222-232; E. Lohse “συνέδριον, G5284,” TWNT VII, part 2 (1964), 858-869; E. Bammel (ed.), The Trial of Jesus, Cambridge Studies in honor of C. F. D. Moule (1970).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(canhedhrin, the Talmudic transcription of the Greek sunedrion):

1. Name:

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."

See Senate.

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 (Nu 11:16-24) and was reorganized by Ezra immediately after the return from exile (compare the Targum to So 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 Ac 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).

3. Constitution:

According to Josephus and the New Testament, the acting high priest was as such always head and president (Mt 26:3,17; Ac 5:17 ff; 7:1; 9:1 f; 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" (Mt 5:25) and of the "servants of the high priest" (Mt 26:51; Mr 14:47; Joh 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).

4. Jurisdiction:

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 (Mt 26:47; Mr 14:43; Ac 4:3; 5:17 f; 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 (Joh 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 Ac 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 (Ac 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.

6. Procedure:

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 Lu 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).