Questions & Answers
What was the Sanhedrin?
The Sanhedrin was the supreme court of the Jewish Law, whose function was to administer justice by interpreting and applying both the oral and written tradition of the Torah. At the same time it represented the Jewish people before the Roman authorities.
According to ancient tradition it had seventy-one members, who were supposed to inherit the tasks of the seventy elders who assisted Moses in administering justice, plus Moses himself. It appears to have developed during the Persian period, i.e. from the fifth to fourth centuries BC, its members taken from the priestly caste and noble families. It is first mentioned (under the Greek designation gerousia, “council of Elders”) as existing in the time of King Antiochus III of Syria (223-187 BC).
It is referred to as the synedrion in the time of Hyrcanus II (63-40 BC). At that point it was presided over by the Hasmonean King Hyrcanus, who was also the High Priest.
When Herod the Great began his rule, he had many members of the Sanhedrin executed – forty-five according to Josephus (Antiquitates Iudaicae 15, 6) – for daring to remind him of the limits to his power. He replaced them with people who would bow to his wishes. During his reign and afterwards, in the time of Archelaus, the Sanhedrin carried virtually no weight. In the period of the Roman governors, including Pontius Pilate, the Sanhedrin again exercised its judicial functions in civil and penal trials, within the territory of Judaea. In that period its relations with the Roman administration were good, and it was given a degree of relative autonomy, in accordance with Roman practice in conquered lands. However, it is highly likely that at that period the potestas gladii, the authority to impose the death sentence, was reserved to the Roman governor or Prefect, along with other powers received from the Roman Emperor, as was habitual at that time. So although the Sanhedrin could conduct its own trials it could not actually condemn someone to death.
The nighttime meeting of members of the Sanhedrin to question Jesus was simply a preliminary investigation to sort out accusations that would merit the death penalty, so as to bring them against Jesus in the trial before the Roman Prefect next morning.
- Joachim Gnilka, Jesus of Nazareth: Message and History, Ada, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1994.