The various groups composing the Sanhedrin at the time of Christ

This is an edited version of Julius Magath’s 1909 translation of the original work of M M Lemann.

(Work in progress – only the following chapters are currently available): 

  • The study of the composition of the Sanhedrin that sat at the trial of Christ
  • Chapter One – the various groups composing the Sanhedrin

The Sanhedrin, or Grand Council, was the high court of justice and the supreme tribunal of the Jews. It was established at Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, and it is said that the famous council of seventy elders instituted by Moses in the wilderness [i] served as a model for this assembly.

In consequence of this resemblance the rabbis, who are always inclined to exaggeration whenever there is an opportunity of glorifying the Jewish institutions, have maintained that the assembly of the Sanhedrin was no other than the one that Moses himself had established. It is their opinion that the council of seventy established by Moses was maintained and perpetuated through the centuries of the dispensation of the Law, side by side with the royal power. The further assert that its name was changed in the latter times to Sanhedrin instead of Council of Ancients.

This assertion is doubtless an exaggeration, for the council of seventy ordained by Moses remained in office for a limited time only. Having been created in order to assist the great Hebrew legislator in the administration of justice, it disappeared on the entrance of the children of Israel into the promised land. For if, as the rabbis maintain, it was perpetuated side by side with the royal power, surely the Bible, Josephus, or Philo, would have mentioned the fact.

The truth is, the Sanhedrim appears for the first time during the Maccabean era. Some place the date of its foundation under the government of Judas Maccabeus, others under that of Jonathan, others again under the reign of John Hyrcanus. Whichever opinion we may adopt, the date of the establishment of the first Sanhedrim Council is between 170 and 106 B.C.

The reader may also learn with interest the etymology of the word Sanhedrim.[ii]  Borrowed from the Greek (*aovidpwv), it signifies the assembly of a council in a sitting posture. It is well known with what calmness and gravity the Orientals are in the habit of deliberating on important matters.

Such are, so to speak, the external facts concerning this famous assembly. Let us now consider its composition. We shall endeavor, to some extent, to introduce the reader to the interior of the Sanhedrim.

It was composed of seventy-one members, including the presidents. This is the number given by Josephus and all Jewish historians.[iii]  At the time of Christ these seventy-one members were divided into three chambers, as follows :

  • the chamber of the priests;
  •  the chamber of the scribes, or doctors;
  •  the chamber of the elders.

Each chamber was ordinarily composed of twenty-three members, which together with the presi- dents, of whom we shall presently speak, gave the number of seventy-one.

The chamber of priests, as the name indicates, was composed exclusively of those who held the rank of priest.

The chamber of scribes included the Levites and such of the laymen as were particularly versed in the knowledge of the law.

The chamber of ancients was formed of the most venerable men of the nation.

Such was the constitution of the assembly represented by the three principal estates of the Hebrew nation, as recorded by all the Hebrew and Christian contemporary writers. The New Testament declares that the priests, the scribes, and the ancients assembled to judge Christ,[iv]  and Maimonides, who is so well informed as to the traditions and usages of the Israelites, says : ‘Only such priests, Levites, and Israelites were made judges as by the nobility of their origin were worthy to be placed beside those who held the sacred office of the priesthood.’ [v]

Although constitutionally the ‘seventy-one’ were to be divided in equal numbers in each of the three chambers, namely:

  • twenty-three in the chamber of the priests,
  • twenty-three in the chamber of the scribes,
  • twenty-three in the chamber of the elders —

nevertheless this equal division was not always rigorously maintained; and it occurred more than once, especially toward the close of the Jewish history of that period, that the chamber of the priests contained a majority of the members of the Sanhedrim. The reason for the preponderance of the priestly element has been given by Abarbanel, one of the most renowned rabbis of the synagogue. ‘The priests and the scribes,’ says he, ‘naturally predominated in the Sanhedrim because, not having like the other Israelites received lands to cultivate and improve, they had abundant time to consecrate to the study of law and justice, and thus became better qualified to act as judges.’ [vi]

The remark of this learned rabbi is also supported by the evangelists, who in many places[vii] leave us to suppose that the chamber of the priests far surpassed in numbers and influence those of the scribes and the ancients.

Having thus defined the constitution of the assembly,[viii] let us now see who presided over the debates.

There were two presidents. One was styled prince (nassi, ***) of the assembly, and was its real president; the other was called the father of the tribunal (av-beth-din, ***), and was the vice-president. Both had their places of honour, and were seated on thrones at the extremity of the hall, having their colleagues at their sides on seats placed in the form of a semi-circle. At each end of the semi-circle was placed a secretary.

But out of which of the three chambers was the president chosen? Some authors, Basnage[ix] among them, have maintained that the presidency belonged by right to the high-priest. This is an error; for as in the primitive assembly established in the wilderness, it was Moses and not the high-priest Aaron who was president, so the presidency of the Sanhedrim was reserved, as a rule, for the most worthy man of the nation. And in fact, in the catalogue of presidents preserved by the Talmud we find many who did not belong to the priesthood. Besides, Maimonides, who has studied the subject thoroughly, says expressly : ‘Whosoever surpassed his colleagues in wisdom was made by them chief of the Sanhedrim.’ [x]

It is, however, necessary to add that when the influence of the high-priesthood became preponderant — and such was the case when Judea became a Roman province — the officiating high-priest usually assumed the presidency of the Sanhedrim also. Cases are on record even where the presidency was taken possession of by violence. Need we, then, be surprised at their mercenary spirit and lack of justice? The mode of the election being corrupt, their administration became corrupt also. Thus they did not scruple, on many occasions, to decide the most important questions when only a halt or even a third of the members were present. We said important questions, for it was to the superior light of the Sanhedrim that the most intricate questions of justice, doctrines, and administrations were referred.

‘The judgment of the seventy-one is besought when the affair concerns a whole tribe or is regarding a false prophet or the high-priest ; when it is a question whether war shall he declared or not; when it has for its object the enlargement of Jerusalem or its suburbs ; whether tribunals of twenty-three shall be instituted in the provinces, or to declare that a town had become defiled, and to place it under ban of excommunication.’[xi]

From this extract from the Mishnah we see how great the judiciary powers of the Sanhedrim were. That this assembly possessed indeed a supreme authority may be seen from the fact that Herod the Great, during his prefectorate, was obliged to appear before it as a criminal for having caused a band of robbers to be killed by its own chief;[xii] not even the royal prerogatives of King Hyrcanus himself being able to exempt him from the mandates of the Sanhedrim Council. The extent of the power of the Sanhedrim was therefore equal to that of royalty itself, and sometimes even exceeded it.

Here, however, we must notice a very important restriction which the Sanhedrim imposed upon itself with regard to the power it possessed over life and death. We shall also very soon find to what extent the Sanhedrim enjoyed this power under the Roman constitution. What we particularly desire to point out here is the limitation as to the place itself where the sentence of death could be pronounced.

There was but one hall in Jerusalem where a capital sentence could be pronounced. This hall was called ‘Gazith’, or the hall of hewn stones. It was situated in one of the courts of the Temple,[xiii] and owed its name to the fact that it was built of square and highly polished stones, which were considered very elegant at that time in Jerusalem.[xiv]

That it was there, and there only, that a capital sentence could be pronounced, the Jewish traditions are unanimous in declaring. ‘After leaving the hall of Gazith,’ says the Talmud, ‘no sentence of death can be passed against any one soever.’[xv] ‘Capital sentences are not pronounced in all places,’ adds the commentary of R. Solomon, ‘but only when the Sanhedrim is assembled in the hall of hewn stone.’ Here is also the testimony of Maimonides : ‘There can be no sentence of death unless the Sanhedrim is assembled in its place.’[xvi]

This custom of confining the pronouncing of capital sentences exclusively to the hall Gazith was only adopted in the latter times of Jewish national history, about a century before Christ. We do not see the slightest trace of so singular a custom either in the time of the judges or the kings. When justice required it, the sentence of death was pronounced in any place. One has only to open the Bible to be convinced of this fact. This resolution which includes, so to speak, the right over life and death in the hall of heivn stones, was introduced, as we have said, in the last period of Hebrew history. How was this introduced? No author gives any information on the subject. The motive only which prompted the passage of such a resolution is known.[xvii]

In the book of Deuteronomy it is written : ‘If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, . . . then shalt thou arise, and get thee up into the place which the Lord thy God shall choose ; . . . and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee.’[xviii]

Exaggerating the import of this commandment, the chiefs of the synagogue who lived a century before Christ persuaded themselves that, in order to obey punctually this commandment, ‘they had to go to the place which the Lord had chosen’ every time that ‘ a matter too hard in judgment’ presented itself; and, according to their opinion, could there be a harder matter in judgment than that of pronouncing the sentence of death, and what other place could the Lord have chosen if not the Temple? Starting thus from this narrow and forced interpretation of Scripture, the judges in Israel would no more exercise the right over life and death unless they were assembled in a special hall in the Temple — hence the custom which restricted the trial of capital offenses to the hall Gazith.

We see, then, that the exaggerated and literal interpretation of the Word of God which the Talmudists afterwards carried to such an enormous extent had already commenced.

It is thus established beyond doubt that the custom of pronouncing the sentence of death in the hall of hewn stones only, had in the time of Christ acquired the force of law, and that any sentence pronounced outside of that place was void. This fact is of importance, and the reader will under- stand it more fully as he advances.

[i] Deut. 17:8.

[ii] This supreme tribunal is also designated in history by other names. In the second book of Maccabees it is called *yepovaia, or senate. (Chap. i. 10; x. 1, 2.) In the Vulgate it is known under the name of Concilium, or grand council. (Matt. xxvi. 59; Luke xxii. 66.) The Talmud names it sometimes the tribunal of the Maccabees, but more frequently Sanhedrim. All these names are synonymous, although that of Sanhedrim has generally prevailed in history. It is used in the Greek text of the Gospels, by the historian Josephus, and in the rabbinical writings. (Jos. Ant., xiv., Chap. v. 4; Wars of the Jews, I. viii. 5; Talmud, Sanhedrim.)

[iii] Josephus, Wars of the Jews, IT. xx. 5; Maimonides, Yodchazaka (mighty hand), or Abridgment of the Talmud,

Book xiv. ; Constitution of the Sanhedrim, Chap. i.

[iv] Mark xiv. 53, xvi. 1; Matt. xvi. 21; John xi.; Acts iv. 5.

[v] Maimonides’s Constitution of the Sanhedrim, Chap. ii.

[vi] Abarbanel, Comm. on the Law, fol. 366, recto.

[vii] Matt. xxvi. 59; John xi. 47, 56, xii. 10; Acts v. 21, 24,

27, xxii. 30.

[viii] This constitution of the high assembly of priests, scribes, and elders had a precedent in Jewish history: “Moreover in Jerusalem did Jehoshaphat set of the Levites, and

of the priests, and of the chief of the fathers of Israel,

for the judgment of the Lord, and for controversies, when

they returned to Jerusalem.” (2 Chron. xix. 8.)

[ix] History of the Jews, vi. 23; la Have edition, 1716.

[x] Mairaonides’s Const, of the Sanhedrim, Chap. i.

[xi] Mislinah, Sanhedrim, Chap. i. 5.

[xii] Josephus, Ant.j Book xiv., Chap. ix. 4.

[xiii] Talmud, Sanhedrim, Chap. xiv. “We should not be sur-

prised that the Sanhedrim held its sessions in the buildings

of the Temple. A council of elders had already assem-

bled there in the times of the kings. See Second Book of


[xiv] The Scriptures remark that Solomon ordered in the

building of the Temple that only large stones were to be

used, and that they were to be cut with great precision.

(1 Kings V. 17.) On the polishing of the hewn stones, see

Amos V. 2.

[xv] Talmud, Bab., Aboda Zarah, or of Idolatry, Chap, i., fol. 8, recto.

[xvi] See Pugio fidei of Kaymond Martin, p. 872, Leipsig edition.

[xvii] Talmud, Bab., Sanhedrim, Chap. xiv.

[xviii] Deut. xvii. 8-10.

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