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SANHEDRIN , a Hebrew and Jewish-Aramaic loanword from the Greek sunedrion, is believed to be the name of the supreme autonomous institution of the Jews of Palestine during the Roman and early Byzantine periods (63 bce to the fifth or sixth century ce). The generally accepted view of the Sanhedrin is as follows. Composed of seventy or seventy-one members, it possessed administrative, judicial, and quasi-legislative powers that were also recognized by the Jews of the Diaspora. Until 70 ce the Sanhedrin met in the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple. Following the destruction of the Temple in that year, a reconstituted Sanhedrin met at various sites in Palestine.

Historical Evidence

The historicity of the Sanhedrin is the subject of much disagreement in modern scholarship. The disagreement results from inconsistencies among the sources used to reconstruct the history of the institution. Strictly speaking, the Sanhedrin is mentioned only in Hebrew and Aramaic sources, of which the most important is the rabbinic literature of the first five centuries ce. In addition, scholars adduce evidence from references to the word sunedrion in Greek sources relating to the Jews of Roman Palestine. The most important of these are the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (37c. 100 ce) and the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. The use of the Greek sources poses two problems. First, the word sunedrion exhibits a variety of meanings: "place of assembly, session, assembly, council, court." Thus not every mention of the word in Josephus or in the New Testament necessarily refers to the Sanhedrin. Second, even when sunedrion seems to refer to the supreme Jewish institution, that institution is rather different from the Sanhedrin of rabbinic sources. The latter is an assembly of Torah scholars presided over by the leader of the Pharisees. The Jerusalem sunedrion of the Greek sources is an aristocratic council presided over by the high priest. The attempt to resolve this inconsistency has produced three basic approaches. Some simply reject one set of sources, usually the rabbinic, as unhistorical. A second approach posits the existence of two Sanhedrins in Jerusalem. The Greek sources describe a political Sanhedrin closely associated with the Roman provincial authorities, while the rabbinic sources describe a purely religious Sanhedrin that dealt with issues of Jewish law. Since none of the sources hints at the simultaneous existence of two supreme assemblies, a third approach attempts to harmonize the sources by less radical means. Some argue that the composition and competence of the Sanhedrin varied over time. Others suggest that it comprised subcommittees, each with its own chairman, that dealt with different types of issues. All three approaches appear in current scholarship. In the following sections this article shall summarize the evidence of each set of sources in the light of historical criticism.

Evidence in rabbinic literature

Since relatively few rabbinic traditions explicitly mention the Sanhedrin, they may be supplemented by other traditions, more numerous and more detailed, that use the Hebrew term beit din (pl., batei din ), meaning "court." These two sets of traditions, one referring to the Sanhedrin and one to the beit din, overlap in many details and appear side by side in rabbinic documents. That the terms Sanhedrin and beit din refer to the same institution emerges clearly from the overlap of their function and structure recorded in rabbinic literature. According to these traditions, each town with a certain minimum population could establish a "small Sanhedrin" or beit din of twenty-three scholars, competent to try even capital cases. Matters that the local institutions could not resolve were referred to the "Great Sanhedrin" or "Great Beit Din" (beit din ha-gadol, i.e., "great court") of seventy-one members. This latter body, meeting in the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Jerusalem Temple, would resolve the matter on the basis of precedent or by majority vote. Some traditions that speak of the beit din describe a "four-tier" system, interposing two additional bodies of three members each between the local and supreme bodies (e.g., Tosefta ag. 2.9; Sheq. 3.27, San. 11.24). Membership in a lower body was a prerequisite for appointment to a higher one. The supreme body, whether called the Great Beit Din as in Tosefta agigah 2.9 or the Great Sanhedrin as in Mishnah Middot 5.4, had authority over the priesthood. It possessed political as well as religious powers: declaring offensive wars, playing a role in the appointment of kings, and so forth. The sources also allude both to Sanhedrins and to batei din of the tribes (e.g., San. 1.5; cf. Hor. 1.5) and to the possibility of small Sanhedrins outside of Palestine (Tosefta San. 1.5). The most important feature of the rabbinic account of the Sanhedrin is that it describes an idealized and admittedly distant past, which will be renewed only with the full restoration of the Israelite polity. The tradition of the four levels of courts (Tosefta ag. 2.9) relates how at first this system prevented dissension by resolving all questions of law. But then, in the generation after Hillel and Shammai, dissension was rampant. Thus, the source implies that the system had broken down by the beginning of direct Roman rule in 6 ce, for Hillel and Shammai are generally considered contemporaries of King Herod. Further, the rabbinic account is replete with details that concern things the sources admit did not exist in the Roman period, such as the tribal system and prophecy. Moreover, rabbinic traditions on events from the Roman conquest (63 bce) onward assign no role whatsoever to the Great Sanhedrin or Great Beit Din. By contrast, rabbinic literature does mention Sanhedrins of the biblical period, from the time of Moses to the Babylonian exile. In sum, the rabbinic sources on the Sanhedrin make no claim to describe an institution of the Roman period.

Evidence in Josephus Flavius

Jewish literature in Greek from before 70 ce never mentions a supreme Jewish institution called the sunedrion. The word does occur, but only in the general sense of "assembly, council, court." The same situation prevails in the writings of Josephus. In almost every case Josephus uses the word to denote what the Romans called a consilium. This was an ad hoc assembly of friends and advisers convened by an official to assist in policy decisions or in trying a case. In only three instances does Josephus use sunedrion to designate a formally constituted ongoing institution. In one instance he refers to the leadership of the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 ce as "the sunedrion of the Jerusalemites" (The Life 62 ). But elsewhere (in The Life and in The Jewish War ) he designates this body by a variety of names, most commonly koinon ("corporation, community"). Hence, sunedrion was not the formal or usual name. More apropos is the second instance, concerning Aulus Gabinius, the Roman governor of Syria in 57 bce. Gabinius stripped the high priest John Hyrcanus II of his political powers and divided the Jewish state into five districts, each ruled by what Josephus calls a sunodos in one place (War 1.170) and a sunedrion in another (Jewish Antiquities 14.96). One of these bodies sat in Jerusalem. This recalls the measures taken by Rome in Macedonia in 168 bce. The latter kingdom was divided into four regions, each administered by a council of senators that Livy calls a synhedros (Annals 45.32.2). In any case, Gabinius's arrangements lasted no more than ten years, for in 47 bce Julius Caesar restored Hyrcanus to nationwide political power. The third instance of Josephus's mention of the term is the closest parallel to the rabbinic Sanhedrin. His Jewish Antiquities (14.158184) reports the trial of the future king Herod before "the sunedrion " in Jerusalem in 47/6 bce. From this account it emerges that the latter was an ongoing institution with nationwide jurisdiction and unique competence in capital cases. However, in a parallel account of these events in his earlier history, The Jewish War (1.204215), as well as in a brief reference to them in Jewish Antiquities (15.34), Josephus does not mention the sunedrion. The version in Antiquities 14 has a close parallel in rabbinic literature (B.T., San. 19ab), but with no mention of the Sanhedrin. The sunedrion as described in Antiquities 14 does not reappear in the writings of Josephus. Given the rabbinic parallel (one of several in Antiquities ) and the fact that the hero of the story is a Pharisee, it appears that Josephus transmits here a Pharisaic version of the trial of Heroda version whose historicity is not certain. Josephus also mentions three judicial or administrative bodies of seventy members each, all from around 66 ce, but does not call any of them a sunedrion. These are (1) the assembly established by Josephus himself when he assumed command of Galilee in the revolt against Rome, (2) the deputation of the leading men of the colony of Babylonian Jews in Batanaea, and (3) a jury convened in the Jerusalem Temple to try a charge of treason. Josephus's arrangements in Galilee reflect his interpretation of Deuteronomy 17:89 in Antiquities 4.214218, where he calls the assembly of priests, Levites, and the judiciary a gerousia (council of elders). The number seventy obviously derives from the seventy elders assembled by Moses according to Numbers 11:16. But aside from the regional sunedrion s (or sunodose s) established by Gabinius and the sunedrion that tried Herod (according to a unique version of this event), Josephus does not mention any continuing institution by this name.

Evidence in the New Testament

The New Testament includes several instances of the word sunedrion, usually translated as "council" (RSV). In a few cases the word refers to local Jewish courts (certainly in Mark 13:9 and parallels in Matthew 10:17 and possibly in Matthew 5:21). However, in the accounts of the passion of Jesus and the trials of the apostles, sunedrion seems to designate the supreme Jewish institution in Jerusalem. Closer analysis reveals several uncertainties. The Synoptic Gospels and Acts of the Apostles frequently allude to the Jewish leadership as composed of "the chief priests, elders, and scribes" or the like. As is generally agreed, this means the priestly and lay aristocracies along with a professional class of experts in Jewish law. In certain passages these three elements constitute some sort of sunedrion. In some of these passages, the term sunedrion can be interpreted in its general meaning of "assembly" or "session." This is the case in John 11:47 (cf. Mk. 11:48 and Lk. 19:47), Luke 22:66 (cf. Mk. 15:1 and Mt. 27:1), and Acts 4:15. In other instances sunedrion appears to be a proper name. Thus in Mark 14:55 and Matthew 26:59, "the chief priests and the whole council [sunedrion ]" conduct a formal trial of Jesus on the night following his arrest. In Mark 15:1 (but not Mt. 27:1; cf. Lk. 22:6623:1) "the chief priests, with the elders and scribes, and [Gr., kai ] the whole council [sunedrion ]" reconvene the following morning. Presumably, here the kai is explanatory, to be translated as "that is." Acts, attributed to the author of Luke, refers to the sunedrion in connection with the second arraignment of Peter and the arraignments of Stephen and Paul (e.g., Acts 5:21, 6:12, 23:1). But the terminology of Luke and Acts is not consistent. According to Luke 22:66, the consultation on the morning following the arrest of Jesus was attended by "the assembly of the elders of the people [presbuterion ] , both chief priests and scribes." Similarly, in Acts 22:5 Paul calls on "the high priest and the whole council of elders [presbuterion ]" to attest his earlier persecution of the believers in Jesus. And Acts 5:21 has Peter brought before "the council [sunedrion ] and [kai ] all the senate [gerousia ] of Israel." The word kai here may be explanatory, or it may reflect the author's belief that the sunedrion was more exclusive than the gerousia. It may be noted in passing that only Mark and Matthew report a trial of Jesus before the sunedrion. Luke reports only a morning consultation of the presbuterion, chief priests and scribes. And John merely has "the Jews" accuse Jesus before Pontius Pilate. In the present context one can ignore the much-debated questions of whether the trial is a Markan invention and whether Luke or John relies on independent sources. What is consistent in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts is the characterization of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem as composed of the priestly and lay aristocracies and the scribes. This much is confirmed by Josephus, as is the New Testament picture of these groups consulting and acting in consort. But the institutionalization of these consultations and joint actions in the form of a regularly meeting assembly called the sunedrion is not clear from the New Testament evidence itself. And Josephus, who was born in Jerusalem within a decade of the crucifixion of Jesus and still lived there during the troubles of Paul, makes no mention of the sunedrion as an ongoing body in his account of this period.

The Sanhedrin after 70 ce

Some scholars posit the existence of a Sanhedrin at Yavneh after 70, at Usha (in the Galilee) after 135, and still later at other locations. Whatever the nature of the institutions that existed at these places, they are never called Sanhedrins in the ancient sources. In fact, two second-century traditions refer to the Sanhedrin as a thing of the past: Mishnah Sotah 9.11 explicitly and Makkot 1.10 implicitly. A single post-70 reference to a contemporary "Great Court," at Tosefta Ohalot 18.18, is probably only rhetorical. A relatively late and probably non-Palestinian tradition in the Babylonian Talmud (R. ha-Sh. 31ab, with parallel at Gn. Rab. 97) lists a number of towns, mostly in Galilee, as consecutive sites of post-70 Sanhedrins. This tradition probably reflects the fact that these towns served as the residence of Jewish patriarchs (sg., nasiʾ and the site of rabbinical conclaves. The sources do mention groups of rabbis meeting together to resolve questions of law, fix the calendar, and make similar decisions, but these meetings are never called Sanhedrins. (See, for example, Shabbat 1.4, Ohalot 18.9, Yadayim 4.1; Tosefta Ohalot 18.18; B.T., Berakhot 63 b; J.T., agigah 3.1, 78d; Song of Songs Rabbah 2.5.) The reference in a law of Theodosius II from 429 to "the sunedrion s of the two Palestines" probably refers to local Jewish courts and reflects New Testament usage. Finally, a Babylonian source, perhaps from the eighth century, mentions a Sanhedrin in Tiberias in 520, but this source probably misconstrues an earlier text that does not mention this institution.


The accounts of the Sanhedrin in these sources neither overlap chronologically nor confirm one another. Moreover, each account is problematic. The rabbinic is idealized, and the New Testament is inconsistent. Josephus describes in one case a short-lived system imposed by the Romans, and in the other case his own parallel accounts know nothing of the sunedrion. So there is no unequivocal historical evidence for the Sanhedrin. What is probably in the Greek sources are the historical realities from which the rabbinic account of the Sanhedrin was created: an aristocratic council (gerousia or presbuterion ), judicial or administrative bodies of seventy, and possibly a municipal council (boulē ) in Jerusalem. One should also note that unlike other Greek administrative terms borrowed in the Semitic vernaculars of the Roman East, sunedrion is a loanword only in Hebrew and Jewish-Aramaic (apart from a very few instances in Syriac, probably from writers who knew Greek). This unique borrowing, especially as a term for an important Jewish institution, suggests that some Jewish body of Roman times was called sunedrion in Greek. But as has been seen, the evidence does not establish what that body was. Thus the existence of a supreme governing body in Jerusalem called the Sanhedrin cannot be proven by the sources, and if it existed, it cannot be described.

See Also



The best treatment of the problem of the Sanhedrin is Yehoshua Efron's Hebrew article "The Sanhedrin as an Ideal and as Reality in the Period of the Second Temple," in Doron, edited by S. Perlman and B. Shimron (Tel Aviv, 1967). An English summary appears under the same title in Immanuel 2 (1973): 4449. Efron's differentiated and consistently critical survey of almost all the relevant sources manages to transcend the stagnant debate still prevailing in the scholarly literature. His method and conclusions have greatly influenced this article.

The two major studies in English both adopt the theory of two Sanhedrins. They are Sidney B. Hoenig's The Great Sanhedrin (New York, 1953) and Hugo Mantel's Studies in the History of the Sanhedrin (Cambridge, Mass., 1961). Mantel presents detailed summaries of the scholarly debate and a very full bibliography. For a recent, sophisticated version of this theory, see Ellis Rivkin's "Beth Din, Boulé, Sanhedrin: A Tragedy of Errors," Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975): 181199.

Other recent surveys adopt variations of the moderate harmonistic approach. Most useful are Edmund Lohse's "Sunedrion," in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1971), pp. 860867; Samuel Safrai's "Jewish Self-Government," in The Jewish People in the First Century, edited by Samuel Safrai and Menachem Stern, vol. 1 (Assen, 1974), pp. 379400; and Emil Schürer's The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, a new English version revised and edited by Géza Vermès et al., vol. 2 (Edinburgh, 1979), pp. 199226.

New Sources

Albeck, Shalom. Bate ha-din bi-yeme ha-Talmud. Ramat-Gan, Israel, 1980.

Boyarin, Daniel. "A Tale of Two Synods: Nicaea, Yavneh, and Rabbinic Ecclesiology." Exemplaria 12 (2000): 2162.

Efron, Joshua. Studies on the Hasmonean Period. Leiden and New York, 1987.

Graff, Gil. "Priests, Sages and the Jurisdiction of the High Court, 50100 c.e.: A Note on the Demotion of Rabban Gamaliel." Shofar 8 (1990): 17.

Hezser, Catherine, ed. Rabbinic Law in Its Roman and Near Eastern Context. Tübingen, 2003.

Kee, Howard Clark. "Central Authority in Second-Temple Judaism and Subsequently: From Synedrion to Sanhedrin." Annual of Rabbinic Judaism 2 (1999): 5163.

Livingstone, Reuven. "Beyond Reasonable Doubt: In Search of a Just Justice." Le'ela 40 (1995): 2327.

David Goodblatt (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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