The Sanhedrin (Acts 23)

The Greek noun synedrin can be used generically to indicate a civic council or a local court. Within the New Testament, however, the Sanhedrin refers to the highest Jewish judicial council in Jerusalem, under the leadership of the high priest (Acts 5:21, 22:1-2). According to rabbinic sources, the Jerusalem Sanhedrin was comprised of 71 members, reflecting the Biblical practice instituted by Moses (70 elders plus Moses; see Exodus 24:1, 9, Numbers 11:16).

The idea of a ruling council composed of leading aristocratic citizens reflects the structure of Greek civic constitutions. The high priestly aristocracy played a leading role from the outset, but the Sanhedrin was gradually forced to make way for lay representatives drawn largely from the Pharisees. During the New Testament period, the Jerusalem Sanhedrin consisted of a sometimes mutually-hostile mixture of aristocratic, priestly Sadducees and learned, lay Pharisees (Acts 23:6-9). Membership in the Sanhedrin was conferred by appointment and accompanied by a ceremony of ordination through the laying on of hands (cf. Numbers 27:18-23, Deuteronomy 34:9).

The Sanhedrin functioned as the supreme Jewish court, trying appellate cases sent up from lower courts and maintaining an exclusive competence over certain cases. For example, a high priest or a false prophet could be tried only by the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. Even during the era of direct Roman rule, the Sanhedrin retained a significant degree of juridical authority. This was particularly true on matters deemed to be of importance specially within Jewish law (John 18:31, Acts 18:15, 24:6).

The authority of the Sanhedrin to adjudicate capital crimes during the first century A.D. has been the focus of much research and debate. Prior to this time the Sanhedrin, like other supreme courts in the ancient world, clearly possessed such authority. But afterward the power of the sword appears to have lain exclusively in Roman hands. The real situation of the first century reflects a period of legal ambiguity, in which both Roman and Jewish leaders competed for ultimate control. On the one hand, key sources attest to a gradual increase in Roman claims to try and execute capital crimes (Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.1, Wars 2.8.1). Some Jewish and Christian sources suggest that capital authority was removed from Israel during this period (John 18:31). On the other hand, literary and archaeological sources suggest that the Sanhedrin did in fact possess authority in capital cases, especially in those pertaining to the desecration of the sanctuary or other specifically religious charges, such as blasphemy (Matthew 26:59-66, Acts 6:11-7:60, 21:27-33, Antiquities 20.9.1, Wars 6.2.4).

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