views updated May 23 2018


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


views updated May 21 2018


Great Sanhedrin usually means the supreme political, religious, and judicial body in Palestine during the Roman period, both before and after the destruction of the Temple, until the abolishment of the patriarchate (c. 425 c.e.). The precise definition of the term Sanhedrin has engaged the attention of historians in the past century, owing to the apparent conflict between the Hellenistic and rabbinic sources as to its nature and functions. While in the Hellenistic sources, in Josephus and the Gospels, it appears as a political and judicial council headed by the ruler, the tannaitic sources depict it chiefly as a legislative body dealing with religious matters, and in rare cases acting as a court – for instance, to try a false prophet or high priest.

The first historical mention of the Sanhedrin is in the statement of Josephus that in 57 b.c.e.*Gabinius divided the country into five synedria (Ant., 14:91) or synodoi (Wars, 1:170). Most scholars agree that the reference is to a purely political body, as the Romans did not interfere with the religious life of conquered people. Their objective was, as Schalit points out, the prevention of uprisings. The next report describes *Hyrcanus, as ethnarch of Judea, presiding over the Sanhedrin trying Herod, the strategus of the Galilee, for political murder (Ant., 14:168–70). Subsequently, when Herod became king, he had the Sanhedrin condemn Hyrcanus for plotting against him (Ant., 15:173), though according to another account, he did so himself without the Sanhedrin (15:176). Josephus' next reference to a Sanhedrin is to one that consisted of Roman high officials, convened at the suggestion of Augustus in Syria, to try the sons of Herod for rebellion against their father (16:356ff.); according to Josephus (Wars, 1:537), this Sanhedrin consisted of Herod's "own relatives and the provincial governors." When the Sadducean high priest, Ananus, "convened the judges of the Sanhedrin" (Jos., Ant., 20:200) to condemn James, the brother of Jesus, his opponents, the Pharisees, took great pains to have him removed. Their plea before the Roman governor that Ananus "had no authority to convene the Sanhedrin without his consent" (20:202) was obviously a pretext. Ananus' Sanhedrin was no doubt a Sadducean one, so that in removing Ananus shortly after this, Agrippa ii pleased the Pharisees. On the other hand, the Sanhedrin convened by Agrippa ii to permit the levitical singers to wear the priestly linen garments – apparently in accord with ii Chronicles 5:12 – was a Pharisaic one (Arakh. 11a–b). Josephus' objection to this ruling (Ant., 20:216–18) represents the priestly-Sadducean view. Josephus received his commission as a supreme commander from the Sanhedrin (Life, 62), though he usually refers to it as the koinon (ibid., 190, 309) and describes it as the assembly of the leading people of Jerusalem (ibid., 28, see also Wars, 2:562).

The Gospels describe three trials before the Sanhedrin, all of them presided over by the high priest, but apparently in different locations. Jesus was tried on Passover night, or on the preceding night, in the palace of the high priest (Mark 14:53ff.; John 18:13). His disciples, Peter and John Zebedee, were questioned at "eventide," "in Jerusalem" (Acts, 4:3–6). In the case of Paul, the chief priest "and all their Sanhedrin" were ordered to meet in the chief captain's quarters (Acts, 22:25–30). The tannaitic sources, however, depict the Great Sanhedrin as an assembly of sages permanently situated in the Chamber of Hewn Stone in the Temple, meeting daily, only during the daytime between the hours of the two daily sacrifices (approximately 7:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m.), and never at night, on the Sabbaths or festivals, or on their eves. It was the place "where the Law went forth to all Israel" (Sanh. 11:2; Tosef., Sanh. 7:1) and was the final authority on halakhah; the penalty of contravening its decisions on the part of a scholar – *zaken mamre – was death (Sanh. ibid.). Settling questions of priestly genealogy was also within the province of the Great Sanhedrin (Mid. 5:4; Tosef., Sanh. loc. cit.). Actual cases are recorded of questions being sent to "the sages in the Chamber of Hewn Stone" (Eduy. 7:4) and of Rabban Gamaliel going to the Chamber and receiving a reply to a question which he put (Pe'ah 2:6).

The competence of the Sanhedrin is listed in tannaitic literature. "A tribe, a false prophet, or the high priest may not be tried save by the court of seventy-one; they may not send forth the people to wage a battle of free choice save by the decision of the court of one and seventy; they may not add to the City [of Jerusalem], or the Courts of the Temple save by the decision of the court of seventy-one; they may not set up sanhedrins for the several tribes save by the decision of the court of one and seventy; and they may not proclaim [any city to be] an *Ir ha-Niddaḥat [cf. Deut. 13:13–19] save by the decision of one and seventy" (Sanh. 1:5). The Tosefta enumerates still other functions: "They may not burn the red heifer save according to the instructions of the court of 71; they may not declare one a zaken mamre save the court of 71; they may not set up a king or a high priest save by the decision of the court of 71" (Tos., Sanh. 3:4). Elsewhere the Mishnah rules that the rites of the water of ordeals (see *Sotah; Sot. 1:4) and the *eglah arufah – i.e., the breaking of the heifer's neck in order to atone for the sin of an anonymous murder (cf. Deut. 21: 1–9) – may be performed only under the supervision of the Great Bet Din in Jerusalem (Sot. 9:1).

Unlike Buechler (see bibl., pp. 56ff.) and Zeitlin (see bibl., pp. 70–71) who regard the tannaitic list of the functions of the Great Bet Din as merely ideal, Tchernowitz (see bibl., 242ff.) insists upon its practical reality. Thus, Simeon the Hasmonean was appointed high priest and "Prince of the people of God" (see *Asaramel) by the Great Assembly of priests and heads of the nation (i Macc., 14:27ff.; cf. Tosef., Sanh. 3:4). Again, "Jonathan, after the war with Demetrius, returned and called the elders of the people together; and took counsel with them to raise the height of the walls of Jerusalem, and to raise a great mound between the citadel and the city" (ibid. 12:35–36), things which could only be done, according to the Mishnah, with the consent of the Great Court (Sanh. 1:5; Shevu. 2:2). Yet, in rebuilding the ruins of the city and its walls and carrying on defensive wars, Jonathan did not consult with the Assembly; neither did Simeon take counsel with regard to the fortifying of Judea (i Macc., 13:33). These things did not require the consent of the Sanhedrin (Tchernowitz, op. cit., 243–7). Furthermore, the reference to "tribes," as Alon says, is to sections of the country; or else, the term "tribes," like "false prophet" may put into legal formulation practices current in the biblical period, as Z. Karl suggests.

Another aspect of the conflict between the sources is that, whereas the tannaitic documents represent the Sanhedrin as being composed of Pharisaic scholars, headed by the foremost men of the sect – the nasi and av bet din – the Hellenistic accounts usually make the high priest, or the king, the president of the body. Thus Samaias and Pollion (that is, probably, Shemaiah and Avtalyon, or Shammai and Hillel) and Simeon b. Gamaliel, who are mentioned in Josephus, and Gamaliel i, who is cited in the Book of Acts, are referred to in these books merely as prominent members of the Sanhedrin, though in the tannaitic documents they are represented as the presidents of that body. In the Book of Acts, moreover, the Sanhedrin is depicted as being "one part Sadducees and the other Pharisees" (Acts, 23:6).

The historians' answers may be classified into three groups. Some scholars maintain that there was a single Sanhedrin, the supreme political, religious and judicial body, but they differ among themselves as to the other aspects of the reconstruction. Schuerer, who dismisses the rabbinic sources, regards the high priest as the presiding officer. Hoffmann held the highest office to belong to the Pharisaic nasi, though the secular rulers often usurped the role. Jelski, following a middle course, divides the functions of the presidency between the high priest, upon whom he bestows the title nasi, and the Pharisaic av bet din. Similarly, G. Alon believes that the Sanhedrin was composed of Pharisees and Sadducees, each dominating it by turns. Chwolson thinks that the Great Sanhedrin of the rabbinic documents was nothing but a committee on religious law appointed by the Sanhedrin (so, too, Dubnow and Klausner). Common to all these theories is the erroneous assumption that there can be only one Sanhedrin in a city. In reality, a Sanhedrin can be the king's or ruler's council, a body of high officials; a congress of allies or confederates, a military war council, etc. (see Liddell-Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. συνέθριον).

Another group of scholars believes that there were in Jerusalem three small Sanhedrins, each of a different composition and task – priestly, Pharisaic, and aristocratic – each consisting of 23 members. A joint meeting of the three Sanhedrins, headed by a nasi and av bet din, constituted the Great Sanhedrin of 71 (Geiger, Derenbourg, etc.). This imaginary reconstruction flounders on the Tosefta (Ḥag. 2:9 and Sanh. 7:1) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanh. 1:7, 19c), according to which, contrary to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 88b), the small Sanhedrin consisted only of three. The third group of scholars is agreed that there were two supreme bodies in Jerusalem, a political and a religious, but disagree on almost everything else. Buechler thinks that the religious body was properly called Bet Din ha-Gadol she-be-Lishkat ha-Gazit ("Great Bet Din in the Chamber of Hewn Stone"), and the application to it of the term Sanhedrin was a misnomer. Zeitlin points out that there is no evidence that the political Sanhedrin was called "Great," but his view that the division between the political and the religious authorities dates back to Simeon the Hasmonean is questionable. More likely the separation was the result of the fact that the political views of the religious Sanhedrin were not sought by Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, the sons of Salome, nor by Herod, nor by the high priests who were appointed by Romans.

The opponents of the theory of the double Sanhedrin base themselves mainly on three arguments: no proof exists that the nasi headed the Sanhedrin in the days of the Temple; the priests' authority to "declare" the law is scripturally prescribed (Deut. 17:9), so that the high priest must have at least formally headed the religious Sanhedrin, as he did among the Qumran sect; and in Judaism there is no division between the religious and the secular. As against these arguments, it has been pointed out: the law concerning the assignment of one's property to the nasi (Ned. 5:5), which dates from Temple days, assumes that the nasi headed the Sanhedrin, just as he did in the post-destruction era; the Pharisaic exegesis dispensed with the need of priests in issuing legal decisions, the Pharisees basing their ruling on the superfluous words "and to judge" (Deut. 17:9; see Sif., Deut. 153); and the Pharisees did not voluntarily relinquish their right to judge on political matters. The political rulers simply did not consult them. After the destruction of the Temple the religious Sanhedrin was reconvened in *Jabneh, and, under the presidency of the nasi, it now became also the supreme political instrument for all the Jews of the Roman Empire. When Judea was destroyed as a result of the failure of Bar Kokhba, the Sanhedrin moved to Galilee. At first it met in Usha, then in nearby Shefaram, subsequently, in Judah ha-Nasi's time, in Bet She'arim and Sepphoris, and in the end in Tiberias. The Romans apparently withdrew their recognition of the Sanhedrin when they dissolved the patriarchate.


Geiger, Urschrift; Derenbourg, Hist; D. Hoffmann, in: Jahres-Bericht des Rabbiner-Seminars fuer das Orthodoxe Judenthum pro 5638 (1878); Schuerer, Gesch, 2 (19074); I. Jelski, Die innere Einrichtung des grossen Synedrions zu Jerusalem (1894); A. Buechler, Das Synedrion in Jerusalem (1902); A. Schalit, Ha-Mishtar ha-Roma'i be-Ereẓ Yisrael (1937); S. Zeitlin, Who Crucified Jesus? (1942); Ch. Tchernowitz, Toledot ha-Halakhah (1935–50), especially 4 (1950), 215–61; Alon, Toledot, 2 (19612), 38f. and passim; S. Hoenig, The Great Sanhedrin (1953); H. Mantel, Studies in the History of the Sanhedrin (1961).

[Hugo Mantel]


views updated Jun 11 2018


SANHEDRIN (Heb. סַנְהֶדְרִין), fourth tractate in the Mishnah order of Nezikin. The sequence of the tractates within an order being as a rule determined by the size of the tractates, it should be remembered that the three Bavot originally constituted one large tractate of 30 chapters, to which Sanhedrin, together with *Makkot which was originally united with it, is second in size. *Sanhedrin, in the context of this tractate, means "court of justice," referring to the great bet din, which comprised 71 ordained scholars, and the subordinate courts, composed of 23 judges, functioning in various towns. The general term bet din usually referred to minor courts of three members. In general, the tractate deals with the composition and power of the courts of different kinds and degrees, with legal procedure and criminal law.

Chapter 1 defines the various courts and their competence: i.e., the "courts of three" with monetary matters; that of 23 with criminal cases which may involve the death penalty; and that of 71 with exceptional cases, like trying a high priest or a whole city accused of idolatry. Chapter 2 deals with the privileges of the high priest and the king in general. Chapter 3 describes the setting up of ad hoc "courts of three," rules concerning the qualification of judges and witnesses, and questions of judicial procedure. Chapter 4 discusses the differences between criminal and civil procedure, and Chapter 5 gives details on the way witnesses were examined. Chapter 6 gives information as to how the death penalty by stoning was carried out, and Chapter 7 enumerates the four modes of execution: stoning, burning, decapitation, and strangulation, but stoning having been discussed in the previous chapter, it proceeds with the details of the three other modes of execution. The subject of stoning is then taken up again, giving the crimes to which this mode of execution applies. Chapter 8 deals with the "stubborn and rebellious son" (Deut. 21:18–21). Chapter 9 discusses the crimes to which the penalties of burning and decapitation are applicable, and goes in detail into the various aspects of the crime of murder, especially the question of intent (premeditation). Some extraordinary modes of punishment are also discussed here. Chapter 10 opens with the well-known statement that "all Israel have a portion in the world to come," implying that even criminals put to death by order of the court will be resurrected at the end of days, but then it goes on to list certain categories of sinners (specific kinds of heretics and idolaters) to whom the comfort of resurrection is denied. Chapter 11 deals with the crimes to which the penalty of strangulation applies, discussing the case of the *zaken mamre ("rebellious teacher") and the false prophet, in particular. In the Babylonian Talmud this last chapter is placed tenth, while the mishnaic tenth becomes the concluding chapter. The rabbis go to great lengths (90b–92a) to prove that the belief in the resurrection of the dead was rooted in the Torah. There is Gemara to both Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. In the Tosefta, this tractate is divided into 14 chapters.

Incorporated in the Mishnah Sanhedrin are ancient halakhot and even mishnayot from the time of the Second Temple. "The king can neither judge nor be judged" (2:4) is an early enactment dating from the time of Alexander *Yannai, and earlier still is the statement, "when [the king] sits in judgment [the Torah scroll] shall be with him" (ibid). Mishnah 4:2, which deals with those who married into the priesthood, also belongs to the time when Jerusalem was at the height of its glory, and the whole order of the four capital cases certainly – by its very nature – dates from Temple times. Chapter 9:6 is connected apparently with the *Hasmonean era, and this is most certainly the case with regard to the Mishnah "Kanna'im [zealots] fall upon one who has intercourse with an Aramean woman" (9:6). The well-known Mishnah at the beginning of chapter 10 is anti-Sadducean, and this testifies to its early origin. Naturally the views of tannaim of a very much later period were incorporated in the final arrangement of the Mishnah. Recognizable and particularly conspicuous in Sanhedrin are additions from the halakhic Midrashim, most of which are from the school of Akiva. Some of them belong to the school of R. Ishmael and were apparently added by R. Simeon b. Yoḥai, since many anonymous mishnayot are in accordance with their view. The English translation of the tractate in the Soncino Talmud (1935) is by J. Shachter and H. Freedman.


Epstein, Tanna'im, 417–21; Ḥ. Albeck, Shishah Si drei Mishnah, 4 (1959), 163–8.

[Arnost Zvi Ehrman]


views updated Jun 08 2018

Sanhedrin (Heb. loan from Gk., sunhedrion). When or if it existed, the supreme political, religious and judicial body in Erez Israel during the Roman period. There is much scholarly discussion therefore as to the composition and function of the Sanhedrin, especially whether there were two or more ‘sanhedrins’, or councils, from which the impression of a single Sanhedrin was formed—in other words, the assimilation of councils into Sanhedrin would mean that the Sanhedrin as such never existed in the period of the second Temple.


views updated May 14 2018

sanhedrin, -im highest court and supreme council of the Jews at Jerusalem. XVI. — late Heb. sanhedrīn — Gr. sunédrion council, f. sún together (SYN-) + hédra seat (see SIT). The common incorrect form in -im seems to be due to the notion that the orig. -īn was the Aram. pl. suffix equiv. to Heb. -īm.


views updated Jun 11 2018

Sanhedrin Ancient Jewish religious council, prominent in Jerusalem during the period of Roman rule in Palestine. The Great Sanhedrin is believed to have served as a legislative and judicial body on both religious and political issues. Jesus Christ appeared before the Sanhedrin after his arrest.


views updated May 17 2018

Sanhedrin the highest court of justice and the supreme council in ancient Jerusalem, with seventy-one members. The word comes via late Hebrew from Greek sunedrion ‘council’, from sun- ‘with’ + hedra ‘seat’.

The title Sanhedrin was used by Napoleon as a designation for an assembly of representatives of Jewish rabbis and laymen convened in 1807 to report on certain points of Jewish law.


views updated Jun 11 2018

San·hed·rin / sanˈhedrən; -ˈhēdrin; sän- / the highest court of justice and the supreme council in ancient Jerusalem.


views updated May 21 2018


From the Aramaic sanhedrin, itself from the Greek sunedrion, meaning "assembly." Name of the supreme political, religious and judiciary tribunal of Judaism in Palestine, during the Roman Occupation.