Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 25 September 2012; Revised 20 May 2018
Sources: References to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud, 34 vol. ed. Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein (1894–1962). Soncino Press, 1948. Available online at Halakhah.com 2003. Click here for Talmud Tractate Abbreviations.
Vocabulary: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Torah (Law), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
The Jewish system of jurisprudence is described in the in the section of the Talmud known as Seder ("Order") Nezikin ("Damages"), which consists of twelve tractates. In the oldest sources of the Talmud Seder Nezikin was designated "Seder Yesu‘oth," the "Order of Salvation." This title is well deserved, considering that it was under this system that Yeshua brought salvation to the nation of Israel and to the world. Seder Nezikin comprises the whole of Jewish civil and criminal law and procedure. The purpose of the Seder is to prevent injustice and preserve all the rights of citizenship in the nation. The criminal law is set forth in Tractates Sanhedrin ("Court of Justice") and Makkoth ("Floggings").
The court system consisted of three types of courts called "Beit Din" or "house of judgment." The courts are described by the number of their members and their functions are given in Sanh. 1:1. Two important terms are used in Tractate Sanhedrin to describe and prescribe the court system. The term "Sanhedrin" serves as a title of the deliberative body and is only used of two levels. The much more frequently used term in the Tractate is Beth din, which means "house of judgment." Beth din refers to the function of the court to make decisions and is applied to all three levels.
● The Court of Three found in villages or small towns decided monetary and personal injury cases, as well as certain crimes, such as theft, assault, rape, seduction and libel. Yeshua no doubt referred to this court in Matthew 5:22, "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court." The mention of "court" in this verse is Grk. tē krisei (lit. "the judgment"), and probably is a short form of Beth din ("house of judgment).
● The Court of Seven was appointed in some towns to handle criminal and civil complaints, according to Josephus (Ant. IV, 8:14).
● The Court of Twenty-Three (also called the Small Sanhedrin) was found in towns of at least 230 population based on the principal of one ruler for ten people and handled civil, religious and criminal cases, including capital cases requiring the death penalty. Two Courts of Twenty-Three convened in the Jerusalem Temple, one at the entrance to the Temple mount and one at the entrance to the Court of the Israelites (Sanh. 10:4; 88b). Yeshua alluded to this court in Matthew 5:21, "You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and `Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court (Grk. tē krisei, lit. "the judgment"). As in the previous paragraph the noun "judgment" probably is a short form of Beth din and the crime of murder falls within the jurisdiction of the Beth din of Twenty-three.
● The Court of Seventy-One (also known as the Great Sanhedrin), located in Jerusalem, dealt with religious controversies, such as interpretation of Torah and Temple ritual (which the Sadducees and Pharisees often differed over), oversaw drawing up the calendar and preparation of Torah Scrolls for the king and the Temple. The Great Sanhedrin was the final authority on Jewish law. The Sanhedrin heard appeals from the lower courts and also judged accused lawbreakers. The Court of Seventy-One was the only court that could hear a case involving a tribe, a false prophet and a high priest. This court also had to give approval for a declaration of war. Lastly, no addition to the city of Jerusalem or the Temple court-yards could be sanctioned without this court's approval (Sanh. 1:1).
Yeshua mentioned this court in Matthew 5:22, "whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court." The word "supreme court" is Grk. tō sunedriō ("the council," from sunedrion) and in this context refers to the Great Sanhedrin. The epithet "good for nothing (Grk. raka) probably alludes to Exodus 22:28, "You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people." The offense of cursing God or a ruler would be heard by the Great Sanhedrin.
The membership of the Court of Three were drawn from the "congregation of Israel," i.e., lay persons. The members would be men of stature, perhaps elders in the village or town. For settlement of purely civil non-tort disputes, adversaries could select a three member arbitration panel. Each person would select an arbitrator and then the two would select the third. Majority vote decided the matter. The Court of Twenty-Three were drawn from the "congregation of Israel" and selected by the Court of Seventy-One. The members would be considered "elders" because they were selected on the basis of one ruler for ten.
The Great Sanhedrin was led by a president (Heb. nasi, "prince," San. 11a; 42a; 66a) and a vice-president called the av beit din (lit. "father of the court") (Taan. 2:1). Generally, the high priest filled the role of president, unless deposed for some reason. According to Josephus (Ant. IV, 8:14; XX, 10) and the apostolic record (Matt 26:3,17; Acts 5:17-21; 6:12-15; 7:1; 9:1-2; 22:5; 23:2-5; 24:1) the ruling high priest presided over its deliberations during this era. The Sanhedrin was patterned after the original seventy men that God directed Moses to choose came from the "elders" of the people (Num 11:24), although its own existence can only be traced back to the Hellenistic period.
The membership of the Great Sanhedrin consisted of chief priests, elders, Pharisees and scribes (Matt 16:21; 26:57; 27:41, 62; John 7:32; 11:47; 18:3). The chief priests included the high priest in office at the time, former holders of the high priest office and still living, and other priests of a high rank, such as those who provided overall supervision to the twenty-four divisions of priests. The "elders" designated men who had ruling authority or acted in some official capacity. They could be found at all levels of Israelite culture. Every village and town was governed by a group of elders. The term "elders" has a dual meaning with respect to the Great Sanhedrin. Some of the members that represented the most influential and wealthy lay families in Jerusalem were called elders. In addition, the entire Great Sanhedrin was called the Council of Elders (Luke 22:66).
In Israelite culture a scribe was a legal scholar and a teacher of the Torah. Like the elders, scribes could be found at all levels of Israelite society. They were secretaries, teachers, lawyers, doctors of the law, and some were members of the Sanhedrin (Matt 16:21). Some scribes belonged to the party of the Pharisees (Matt 22:34-35; Mark 2:16) and some were "of the people" (Matt 2:4), suggesting no party affiliation. The terms "scribes" and "Pharisees" are paired together 19 times in the apostolic narratives, perhaps suggesting that the some of the scribes were Sadducees or belonged to no party. The scribes are also paired with the chief priests 21 times in passages depicting their acting in concert with respect to Yeshua's prediction of his Passion and its fulfillment.
For membership standards the rule was as follows: "None are to be appointed members of the Sanhedrin, but men of stature, wisdom, good appearance, mature age, with a knowledge of sorcery, and who are conversant with all the seventy languages of mankind, in order that the court should have no need of an interpreter" (Sanh. 17a). In addition, no appointee could be an aged man, a eunuch or one who is childless (Sanh. 36b). In the Sayings of the Fathers a man gained "full strength" at age 30, "understanding" at age 40 and "the ability to give counsel" at age 50 (Avot 5:21). Therefore, it was preferable that the "mature age" would be at least 40 as the minimum age for membership on the Sanhedrin and the President should be at least 50. (See The Jewish Court System at Aish.com for all the qualifications to sit on the Sanhedrin).
Some Gospel passages identify Pharisees as associated with the Great Sanhedrin. Pharisees were among the elders, since they are paired with the other two groups on the Sanhedrin. In fact, John's Gospel does not use the term "elders" as a division of the Sanhedrin, but identifies them uniformly as Pharisees (John 1:24; 3:1; 4:1; 7:32, 45, 47, 48; 8:3, 13; 9:13, 15, 16, 40; 11:46, 47, 57; 12:19, 42; 18:3). Some passages pair the Pharisees with the scribes. Matthew 15:1 speaks of "scribes and Pharisees who came from Jerusalem." Yeshua described the scribes and Pharisees as having "seated themselves in the chair of Moses" (Matt 23:2), probably an allusion to the Sanhedrin who sat on chairs. Pharisees and scribes are often identified as acting together to oppose Yeshua's teaching and ministry (e.g. Mark 7:5; Luke 5:21; 11:53; 15:2; John 8:3).
In other passages Pharisees are paired with the chief priests in which they are seen acting in concert (Matt 21:45; 27:62; John 7:32, 45; 11:47, 57; 18:3). In John 11:47 the chief priests and Pharisees convene a council to consider how to kill Yeshua. Nicodemus is described as both a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews (John 3:1), so he must have been an elder. Joseph of Arimathea, who donated his tomb for Yeshua, is also described as a rich man (Matt 27:57) and a member of the Council (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50). He, too, was probably an elder and possibly a Sadducee. (The Sadducees were associated with the upper social and economic echelon of Judean society, Josephus, Ant. XIII, 10:6).
The Temple proper contained six large chambers (three on the north and three on the south), in which courts met. These locations are described in the Mishnah (Sanh. 10:4). The first Beit Din, the Court of Three, sat in the gate of the Temple Mount. Rashi, the Medieval Jewish commentator, says it was the Court of Women (fn 20, Sanh. 10:4). The second Beit Din, the Court of Twenty-Three, sat in the gate of the Court of Israelites. The third Beit Din, the Sanhedrin, a court of seventy-two, regularly sat in the Hall of Hewn Stones (Heb. Gazith), located on the south side of the Temple (Sanh. 10:4; 88b), also known as the Cell of the Counselors (Yoma 1:1). The Sanhedrin members sat on throne-like chairs in the form of a semi-circle, so that they might see one another, and they were flanked by a court clerk on either side who recorded the minutes of the meeting (Sanh. 4:2).
The Sanhedrin normally met daily during the daytime, and did not meet on the Sabbath, festivals or festival eves. Civil cases could be concluded at night, but capital cases had to begin and end in the daytime (Sanh. 4:1). The second and fourth days of the week (Monday and Thursday) were the usual days to hold court hearings (Sanh. 8a, see f21; B.K. 112b, see f27). However, on Sabbaths and during festivals (such as Pesach) the Sanhedrin would meet within the "Chel" to conduct discussions on application of Torah (Sanh. 88b). The Tractate Middoth 1:5, 2:3 describes the Chel as being a level promenade or terrace running along the north and south sides of the temple, 10 cubits broad, with 12 steps leading up to it. See the illustrations here and here. The Sanhedrin changed their meeting place so they would not appear to be conducting a trial, which is forbidden on these days (Sanh. 4:1).
There were no attorneys. Instead, the accusing witness stated the offense in the presence of the accused and the accused could call witnesses on his own behalf. The court questioned the accused, the accusers and the defense witnesses. According to the Torah facts in a legal proceeding were established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut 17:6; 19:15). Decisions were made by majority vote, except that imposition of the death penalty required a minimum majority vote of two (San. 4:1).
The Mishnah identifies four means of capital punishment that could be imposed by the Sanhedrin: stoning, burning, beheading and strangulation (Sanh. 7:1). No one could be put to death on the testimony of one witness (Num 35:30). The normal penalty for blasphemy under the Torah would be stoning. In about A.D. 30 the Romans took away the authority of the Sanhedrin to inflict capital punishment. In reality, if the Sanhedrin had decided to stone Yeshua, the Romans would probably have looked the other way as they did in the case of Stephen.
In a guilty verdict the Council could not act the same day to carry out punishment.
"If they find him not guilty, he is discharged, if not, it [the trial] is adjourned till the following day, Whilst they [the judges] go about in pairs, practice moderation in food, drink no wine the whole day, and discuss the case throughout the night. Early next morning they reassemble in court. (Sanh. 5:1)
The presence of 23 members was required for any case involving capital punishment (Sanh. 1:1).
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