WHAT WAS THE SANHEDRIN?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Our English term “Sanhedrin” is the transliteration of the Greek, “sunedrion,” which literally means “sitting together.” (A related word is “synagogue,” whose study which read, linked at the end of this article.) The King James scholars rendered it “council” in all cases. “Sanhedrin” can be used two ways. While it often refers to the large, Jerusalem tribunal, it sometimes applies to smaller or local Jewish courts.
THE GREAT SANHEDRIN OF JERUSALEM
According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem consisted of 71 members—scribes (Hebrew Bible copyists and teachers), elders (older men—see our related study linked at the end of this article), members of the high priestly families, and the high priest (who served as president). “The more important causes were brought before this tribunal, inasmuch as the Roman rulers of Judaea had left to it the power of trying such cases, and also of pronouncing sentence of death, with the limitation that a capital sentence pronounced by the Sanhedrin was not valid unless it were confirmed by the Roman procurator (cf. John 18:31; Josephus, Antiquities 20, 9, 1).” Perhaps the easiest illustration is to liken the Sanhedrin to the United States Supreme Court—albeit it was Israel’s Supreme Court.
Consider these few verses as summation: “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (Matthew 16:21). “And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). “Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas,…” (Matthew 26:3). “…[T]he chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (Mark 14:43). “And they led Jesus away to the high priest: and with him were assembled all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes” (Mark 14:53).
Now, some more specific passages about the Sanhedrin:
- During the Jewish phase of His trial, the Lord Jesus Christ stood before the Sanhedrin in Matthew chapter 26 (cf. verse 59), Mark chapter 14 (cf. verse 55), Mark chapter 15 (cf. verse 1), and Luke chapter 22 (cf. verse 66).
- After healing the lame man at the Temple, the Apostles Peter and John were brought before this body in Acts chapter 4 (cf. verses 1,5-6,15,23).
- All 12 Apostles stood before the Sanhedrin after performing miracles in Acts chapter 5 (cf. verses 17,21,24,27,34,41).
- Stephen, filled with the Holy Ghost (like the Apostles), was brought before the Sanhedrin to stand trial in Acts chapter 6 (cf. verses 12,15).
- The Apostle Paul stood before the Sanhedrin in the latter part of Acts (cf. 22:30; 23:10,15,20,28; 24:20).
Nicodemus (John 3:1; John 7:50) and Joseph of Arimathaea (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50-51) were two “secret” followers of Christ who were members of the Sanhedrin. However, if you study the above passages carefully, you will realize the pervasive unbelief of this body of religious leaders. These court proceedings were corrupt, so political depravity should not surprise us today. The Sanhedrin was bitterly opposed to Jesus Christ and all His preachers. Sadducees, who denied resurrection (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8), formed 90% of the Sanhedrin, especially since the high priest was both a Sadducee and the leader of the Sanhedrin (cf. Acts 5:17). To be sure, Christ and His Apostles performing miracles of raising the dead, and preaching resurrection, made them most unpopular with the Sanhedrin!
THE LOCAL SANHEDRINS OR COUNCILS
Every Jewish town had a (smaller) Sanhedrin for the decision of the less important cases. These are found twice in the King James Bible:
- Matthew 10:17: “But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues;….”
- Mark 13:9: “But take heed to yourselves: for they shall deliver you up to councils; and in the synagogues ye shall be beaten: and ye shall be brought before rulers and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them.”