We discussed in previous instalments the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes and the elders. In this instalment, we will address the Sanhedrin. Depending on the Bible translation, the Sanhedrin is also referred to as the “Council.”
According to Young’s Analytical Concordance under “council,” we read that “Sanhedrin” means “a sitting together.”
The Wikipedia Encyclopaedia elaborates:
“The Sanhedrin (… Greek… synedrion, ‘sitting together,’ hence ‘assembly’ or ‘council’) were assemblies of either twenty-three or seventy-one elders… appointed to sit as a tribunal in every city in the ancient Land of Israel.
“There were two classes of Jewish courts called Sanhedrin, the Great Sanhedrin and the Lesser Sanhedrin. A lesser Sanhedrin of 23 judges was appointed to each city, but there was to be only one Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges, which among other roles acted as the Supreme Court, taking appeals from cases decided by lesser courts. In general usage, ‘The Sanhedrin’ without qualifier normally refers to the Great Sanhedrin, which was composed of the Nasi, who functioned as head or representing president, and was a member of the court; the Av Beit Din or chief of the court, who was second to the nasi; and sixty-nine general members (Mufla)…
“In the Second Temple period, the Great Sanhedrin met in the Temple in Jerusalem, in a building called the Hall of Hewn Stones. The Great Sanhedrin convened every day except [during] festivals and the sabbath day (Shabbat).”
The website of learnreligions.com explains:
“During the time of Roman governors such as Pontius Pilate, the Sanhedrin had jurisdiction only over the province of Judea. The Sanhedrin had its own police force that could arrest people, as they did Jesus Christ. While the Sanhedrin heard both civil and criminal cases and could impose the death penalty, in New Testament times it did not have the authority to execute convicted criminals. That power was reserved for the Romans, which explains why Jesus was crucified—a Roman punishment—rather than stoned, according to Mosaic law…”
In other words, at the time of Christ, the Sanhedrin could find a person guilty and give the death sentence, but they could not carry it out. Only the Romans could put a person to death.
Continuing with learnreligions.com:
“Caiaphas was the high priest or president of the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus’ trial and execution. As a Sadducee, Caiaphas did not believe in the resurrection. He would have been shocked when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Not interested in the truth, Caiaphas preferred to destroy this challenge to his beliefs instead of supporting it…
“The Great Sanhedrin was comprised not only of Sadducees but also of Pharisees, but it was abolished with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 66-70 A.D.”
Since that time, there has been no Jewish high priest, for national sacrifices ceased with the destruction of the Second Temple. However, the Bible reveals that sacrifices will be given again shortly before Christ’s return, and a Third Temple will be built.
The Wikipedia Encyclopaedia states:
“The Sanhedrin is traditionally viewed as the last institution which commanded universal authority among the Jewish people in the long chain of tradition from Moses until the present day. Since its dissolution in 358 CE, there has been no universally recognized authority within Jewish law (Halakha).”
The website of reasonabletherology.com adds:
“Despite their small numbers, the Sadducees were able to maneuver themselves politically to positions of power within the Sanhedrin… and allied themselves with the Romans…”
jewelsofjudaism.com has some interesting comments about the Pharisees and Sadducees uniting with their disagreements with Jesus, stating as follows:
“The majority of the  seats of the Sanhedrin were filled by Sadducees with a minority filled by the Pharisees… because the Pharisees had the majority of the Jewish population under their influence, the Pharisees often swayed the decisions in the Sanhedrin….
“Even though the Sadducees and Pharisees were diametrically opposed to each other regarding their belief system within Judaism, they were forced to work together… One person that united these two factious groups was the person of (Jesus).
“… the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, ‘What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.’ Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that (Jesus) was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they planned together to kill Him. – John 11:47-53….
“In the above scenario, we read about the chief priests and the Pharisees. The chief priests would be from the group of the Sadducees. Therefore when we read about the chief priests and the Pharisees working together we are actually reading about the Sadducees and Pharisees working together. We also see the connection between the priests and the Sadducees explained in context in the book of Acts: ‘But the high priest rose up, along with all his associates (that is the sect of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy’ (Acts 5:17). The priests and those associated with the priests were generally from the sect of the Sadducees…”
It so often happens that when a situation arises, former adversaries can put aside their personal differences in order to achieve a common aim. This was certainly the case with the religious opponents of Jesus.
The Website of neverthirsty writes:
“The Sanhedrin Council was also called the ‘Senate,’ gerousia, which means ‘the Council of the Elders.’ The Council was the supreme political and religious body of Israel. In John 3:1 we are introduced to a man called Nicodemus, a Pharisee. In that verse he is called a ‘ruler of the Jews.’ Then in verse 10 of the passage he is called ‘the teacher of Israel.’… Both passages reveal that Nicodemus was a political ruler of Israel and a religious teacher. This reveals the Council was a political and religious body…
“The Sanhedrin Council is referred to twenty-one times in the New Testament… Luke 22:66 reveals that the Sanhedrin Council at the time of the New Testament… included [the elders,] the chief priests and scribes. Acts 23:1-7 reveals that the Council was composed of Pharisees, Sadducees and chief priests…
“Acts 5:34-35 indicates that the famous rabbi Gamaliel was a member of the Council and made an eloquent plea for justice for Peter and the apostles. The only other members of the Council named in the New Testament… are Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea…
“The gospel records… report that the Council tried to force Christ to lie. We assume that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea did not or were not in attendance. One wonders if the great rabbi Gamaliel attended this mockery of a trial…”
Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, is mentioned in three places in the Gospel of John. He first visits Jesus one night to discuss Jesus’ teachings (John 3:1–21). In Luke 23:50, we learn that Joseph of Arimathea was a part of the Council or Sanhedrin as well. However, we read that Joseph was opposed to the Council’s decision and was in fact a secret follower of Jesus.
We may wonder whether Paul, named Saul before his conversion, was a member of the Sanhedrin.
Bible Questions Answered [bibleq.net] states:
“… it [is] likely that Paul was at one time, a member of the Sanhedrin Council: Paul ‘cast his vote against’ the saints [Acts 26:10-11]… Paul consented to the execution of Stephen, a decision made by the Sanhedrin [Acts 20:22]… Paul advanced in Judaism beyond many of his own age [Galatians 1:13-14].”
As the Sanhedrin consisted of Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and elders, it is no surprise that they conspired together to kill Christ.
Below are a few examples of the word “Sanhedrin” being used in the New International Version (NIV), but, generally, the word is translated as “Council”. There is no doubt that they were one and the same.
Matthew 26:59 states: “The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death” [NIV].
Mark 14:55 adds: “The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any” [NIV].
Acts 6:12 reads: “So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin” [NIV].
Acts 6:15 states: “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel” [NIV].
As Jesus faced the Sanhedrin (the subtitle in the New King James Bible), we read in Mark 14:55: “Now the chief priests and all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none.”
And in Mark 15:1, we read: “Immediately, in the morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council; and they bound Jesus, led Him away, and delivered Him to Pilate.”
In both of the above Scriptures, the word “council” is translated “Sanhedrin” in the NIV.
We read that Jesus appeared before the council or Sanhedrin in Matthew 26:59-68; Mark 14:55-65; Luke 22:66-71 and John 18:19-24.
The “trial” of Jesus Christ was without legal precedent. He was convicted and executed even though Pilate found Him innocent! Let us notice many of the outstanding reasons why the arrest, “trial,” and conviction of Jesus were illegal.
- There was no legal basis for Jesus’ arrest, because no one had presented a formal charge of any crime; He was simply taken. Moreover, those who went with Judas to have Jesus arrested included the priests and elders—His judges (Luke 22:52)—among whom were the ones who bribed Judas!
- Jesus was subject to a secret preliminary examination at night (John 18:12-14, 19-23). Jewish law permitted only daylight proceedings.
- The indictment against Jesus was illegal, because the judges themselves brought up the charge without any prior testimony by witnesses. The Sanhedrin was not allowed by law to originate charges.
- The Sanhedrin illegally proceeded to hold its trial of Jesus before sunrise so that no one would be available to testify on his behalf.
- The trial began on a day before an annual Sabbath (John 18:28) even though Jewish law did not permit the trial of a capital offence to begin on a Friday or on the day before an annual Sabbath. Jesus was arrested and tried on the 14th of Nisan, the day before the first annual Sabbath, the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
- Jesus’ trial was concluded in one day. Jewish law says: “If a sentence of death is to be pronounced, it [a criminal charge] cannot be concluded before the following day” (Mishna, “Sanhedrin” IV, 1). This was done to allow sufficient opportunity for any witnesses in support of the accused to present themselves. Jesus’ trial was conducted in private and completed in less than nine hours!
- Two false witnesses charged Jesus with saying He would destroy the temple made with hands (Mark 14:58); yet He was condemned by the court on another false charge – that of blasphemy. He was condemned on His own testimony (Luke 22:67-71). But according to Jewish law, a person could not be condemned on his own testimony.
- The merits of Jesus’ defence were not considered. Despite Deuteronomy 13:14, the high priest did not “inquire, and make search, and ask diligently” to see whether Jesus’ statement was blasphemous. The law in the Mishna says, “The judges shall weigh the matter in sincerity of their conscience” (Sanhedrin IV, 5). Instead, the court pronounced a sentence instantly and unanimously!
- Those who would have voted against condemnation were apparently not at Jesus’ trial. Joseph of Arimathaea was a member of the court, yet he had not consented to the verdict (Luke 23:50-51). Jesus’ opponents had made sure that only those who hated Him would be there.
- The sentence was pronounced in a place forbidden by law. The trial took place at the high priest’s house (Luke 22:54). According to the law, a death sentence could be pronounced only in the court’s appointed place.
- Most of the judges were not legally qualified to try Jesus. Some had bought their way into office, according to Josephus. Since they were known enemies of Jesus, Jewish law required that they disqualify themselves so He could be tried by impartial judges.
- The court illegally switched the charges from blasphemy to treason before Pilate. Jesus’ opponents wanted Him killed. So they charged Him with treason (Luke 23:2) – a Roman crime – so the Romans would be responsible for His death. No evidence was presented (John 18:29-30). Pilate, after a brief interview, saw that Jesus was not guilty (John 18:38; 19:4; Matthew 27:18). Fearing the crowd, however, he allowed the crucifixion of an innocent man. Pilate did not even pronounce Him guilty; He merely turned Him over to the soldiers. In fact, as Pilate pronounced Him to be innocent, He had to be released, according to the law, at that moment.
What a mockery of justice this trial was! All this illegality, in addition to His crucifixion, Jesus willingly suffered to pay the penalty of sins in our stead!
In the foreword in the book “The Trial of Jesus” by J C McRuer, Chief Justice of the High Court for Ontario, Canada, the following comments are made about the author: “Never have I seen the evidence of injustice in the trial of Jesus so well collated and united, and the cumulative effect of violation after violation of injustice and illegality is most profound.”
In our free booklet, “Jesus Christ—a Great Mystery!”, under Part 4, we discuss numerous additional reasons which show that His arrest, “trial” and crucifixion were illegal and that He was murdered by the Romans and the Sanhedrin. For instance, even after the sentence had been issued, the Sanhedrin had the legal duty to reconvene if a new witness in favour of the accused showed up. Judas was that new witness. He said, “I have betrayed innocent blood.” The Sanhedrin, however, violated that legal duty as well.
Quoting from our above-mentioned booklet, we say this:
“The Bible confirms that Christ was murdered. It was not an execution of a legally charged and legally convicted person. It was a state-approved and state-commanded murder. His disciples were not afraid to say so.” We then quote among other passages Acts 5:27-30 and Acts 7:51-52, where Peter and the apostles and Stephen accused the Sanhedrin of having murdered Jesus.
But we also explain in great detail WHY Christ was willing to be wrongfully captured and accused by the Sanhedrin, tortured and subsequently murdered, and what this means for you and for me.
In conclusion, we read in The Wikipedia Encyclopaedia:
“Over the centuries, there have been attempts to revive the institution, such as the Grand Sanhedrin convened by Napoleon Bonaparte, and modern attempts in Israel. In October 2004… a group of rabbis representing varied Orthodox communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded, in which it claimed to re-establish the body according to the proposal of Maimonides and the Jewish legal rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo… As of March 2010, that effort is ongoing and is supported by The Temple Institute.”
It would be interesting if such a Grand Sanhedrin would be re-established prior to Christ’s return, as most Jews will reject Christ when He returns. So will professional Christianity as well.
(To Be Continued)
Lead Writers: Brian Gale (United Kingdom) and Norbert Link