The Gospels and Acts mention the Sanhedrin quite a bit. But what do you know about them? Test your knowledge with this excerpt from the John volume of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. We guarantee you’ll learn something new!

The Sanhedrin: A Ruling Council

A high priest acting without the approval of the rest of the assembly could provoke that assembly’s anger (Josephus Life 309). A sanhedrin (Gr. synedrion) was a ruling council, equivalent to a local senate; the title was sometimes used for Rome’s senate. Cities such as Tiberias had their own ruling senates composed of the leading citizens and distinct from the larger citizen assembly (Josephus Life 300).

Josephus applies the term both to district councils and to Jerusalem’s council.

According to later rabbinic (and probably Pharisaic) ideals, judges who proved themselves locally could be promoted to the Sanhedrin (t. Sheqalim 3:27), but in actuality the Sanhedrin in the apostles’ day probably consisted largely of members of the Jerusalem aristocracy and wealthy landowners in the vicinity.

The Sanhedrin in Rome

Rome ruled through local aristocracies, in Judea as elsewhere. Municipal senates consisted of aristocrats that the Romans called decurions, ranging from as few as thirty to as many as five hundred members. Local senates often had property qualifications, and sometimes those who wished admittance to such a senate, especially if beyond the requisite number, had to pay significant fees (Pliny Ep. 10.112.1–2).

Jerusalem’s Sanhedrin was the ruling council for Jerusalem, Judea’s urban center. Just as the Roman senate wielded power far beyond Rome because of Rome’s power, Jerusalem’s Sanhedrin wielded some influence in Judean affairs, to the degree that Roman prefects and (at other times) Herodian princes allowed. They also had a police force of Levite guards; Rome allowed municipal aristocracies such limited forces.

Traditional Claims

At some point the Sanhedrin may have held seventy-one members, as tradition claims; it is, however, doubtful that all members were always present. Seventy may have been only an average figure. Later tradition claims that they met in the Chamber of Hewn Stone on the Temple Mount; first-century sources show that they met at least close to the Temple Mount (Josephus J.W. 5.144).

ZIBBC NT Sanhedrin Temple Mount
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem

Herod the Great & the Sanhedrin

Rulers like Herod the Great appointed the Sanhedrin members they wished and obtained the results they wished. Before Herod came to power, the Jerusalem Sanhedrin exercised significant authority (Josephus Ant. 14.177). But if we may take Josephus literally, Herod executed the members of the former sanhedrin that had resisted him (Ant. 14.175), after which he assembled his own councils as needed (Ant. 16.357, 360; 17.46). After appointment by Herod the Great, its membership was probably largely hereditary and self-selecting; hence it undoubtedly represented the most powerful political interests.

These were most commonly associated with traditional aristocratic priestly families. In Pilate’s time, without Herod the Great’s interference and with Rome expecting local aristocracies to administer the business that they could (cf. Josephus J.W. 2.331, 405; Ant. 20.11), we should not be surprised that chief priests would convene a sanhedrin (Josephus Ant. 20.200), especially since the priestly aristocracy constituted a large portion of it. We should also not be surprised if the Sanhedrin found supporting Rome to be in their own interests, since they maintained their status by virtue of Roman benevolence.

In Josephus, as in the Gospels, the Sanhedrin, consisting of “chief priests, scribes, and rulers or influential citizens (=elders),” judged and sentenced those found guilty of crimes. They also constituted the leading Jewish body with which Roman rulers would deal. Clearly, as Raymond Brown observes, they “played a major administrative and judicial role in Jewish self-governance in Judea.”

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  1. Malcolm Horlock

    Hmm … the notes on the Sanhedrin are more-or-less identical to those found on Acts 4. 5 in Craig Keener’s ‘Acts: An Exegetical Commentary’, volume 2 – published in 2013. Much of the text in your extract from ‘the new John volume of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary’ is the same verbatim!

    • Cierra Loux

      Good eye! Yes, this new John volume is written by Craig Keener. He must have repurposed some of his other research for this project.