The Sanhedrin English The Sanhedrin English

The 'Sanhedrin' in the New Testament

The many hardships that befell our people towards the end of the Second Temple era produced sects that withdrew from normal life. Disheartened by life's harshness, they chose isolation, settling in small groups in the Judean wilderness near the Dead Sea, in villages around Jerusalem and in the Galilee. From this ferment of sects and factionalism, Christianity was the only movement to achieve long-lasting success. It satisfied the longing for a "messiah" and it offered spirituality without the rigorous performance of the commandments. Yeshua [Jesus] of Nazareth, the founder of Christianity, was one leader of the many messianic sects. The new religion grew as the years went by and drew kings and rulers into its orbit. Because Christians blamed the Jews for their rejection and death of the Christian messiah, the Jews became a particular and permanent target of severe persecution. Christian leaders taught the masses of their followers to hate the Jews with a violence that has been -- and still is -- responsible for untold Jewish suffering and loss of life. [HOJP I, pp.152]

The Talmud

The Talmud contains no discussion of the sect's origins, yet medieval Christian censors removed a story from the Talmud on the grounds that it disparages Yeshua. According to Christian versions of Yeshua's life, however, that supposition is an impossibility. The Talmudic account speaks of an incident with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachiah and an apostate student of his named Yeshu, in which the student was guilty of deplorable behavior. But the incident under discussion occurred under the oppressive reign of King Yannai or, according to some, under the even earlier reign of Yochanan Hyrkanus. Thus it took place between 120 and 140 years before the time of the Roman consul Pontius Pilate, whom Christianity identifies as Yeshua's executioner. [HOJP I, ibid]

The New Testament, according to gospel accounts, says that Jesus was brought at night before the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, presided over by high priest Joseph Caiaphas (a Sadducee). There is no record of such a trial in the Talmud and it is unknown in contemporary Rabbinic Literature. This 'trial' has not only been the source of unmeasurable trouble and persecution of the Jewish people, but it is also not logical from a Jewish point of view as there are many disagreements between the New Testament account and Rabbinic procedure. See below "Excepts from 'The Trial of Jesus' "

Rabbinic Judaism rejects any connection with the trial of Jesus with or without a "sanhedrin". Modern Judaism is called Rabbinic Judaism and claims descent from the Pharisees, a group at odds with the Sadducees. It is possible that the trial was as a Sadducean illegal court, or perhaps the details as we know them today are incomplete or inaccurate. Josephus (Ant. 20:9, etc) generally portrays the Sadducees as antagonistic to early Christianity, while the New Testament (John 3:2, Acts 5:34, etc) portrays Pharisees as being tolerant (see Acts 23:6 for both roles). The role of the Sadducees in trying and executing early Christians is explicitly referenced in Josephus. In 62 CE the Jewish priest and Sadducee, Ananus, convened the Sanhedrin in his house and condemned Yaakov [James], half-brother of Yeshua, who is then summarily executed.[Josephus, ibid]

Excerpt from "The Trial of Jesus"

Excerpt from "The Trial of Jesus" by Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law:

Around 200 C.E., Sanhedrin becomes a technical term for a rabbinic court. A tractate in the Mishnah prescribes procedures the Sanhedrin is to use. The excerpts below, taken from the Mishnah Tractate, may shed light on the procedures used in the case of Jesus. One caution, however: the Mishnah was not compiled until 200, and it is therefore possible that some of the procedures and restrictions described in the Mishnah Tractate were not in force in the time of Jesus.

The gospel of John indicates that the Sanhedrin turned Jesus over to Pilate because it lacked the power to impose death: "Pilate said to them, 'Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.' The Jews replied, 'We are not permitted to put anyone to death.'" The Mishnah, however, clearly shows that the Sanhedrin did have the power to impose death for certain crimes--at least sometime before 200 C.E. In particular, Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.1 to 6.4 specify the procedures for stoning. There is no evidence to suggest that the power did not exist in 30 C.E. On the contrary, there is evidence that the Romans preferred to leave as much power as possible to control religious crimes in the hands of Jewish authorities.

Mark and Matthew indicate that the trial before the Sanhedrin occurred at night and a capital trial at night was illegal. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.1 confirms the illegality of a capital trial at night, assuming that the law stated in the Mishnah existed in 30 C.E.

Mark indicates that the charge against Jesus was blasphemy: "You have heard the blasphemy (Mark 14:64)." Under Mishnah Tractate 7.5, blasphemy consists only of uttering the name of God, so there is reason to question whether in fact that was the charge against Jesus. If it is assumed to be the charge, however, Mishhah Tractate 7.4 makes clear that execution by stoning was an available option for such a crime.

Information for this page is drawn largely from The Trial of Jesus by Alan Watson (1995).

Verdicts in Capital Trials Only to be Reached in Daytime

[Under the Mishnah Tractate, Sanhedrin]

Mishnah Sanhedrin

4.1 In noncapital cases they hold trial during the daytime and the verdict may be reached during the night; in capital cases they hold the trial during the daytime and the verdict must also be reached during the daytime. In noncapital cases the verdict, whether of acquittal or of conviction, may be reached the same day; in capital cases a verdict of acquittal may be reached on the same day, but a verdict of conviction not until the following day.

Requirements for Conviction

Mishnah Sanhedrin

5.1 They used to prove witnesses with seven inquiries: In what week of years? In what year? In what month? On what day? In what hour? In what place? (R. Jose says: [They aked only,] On what day? In what hour? In what place?) [They also asked:] Do you recognize him? Did you warn him? If a man committed idolatry [they asked the witnesses], What did he worship? and, How did he worship it?

5.2. The more a judge tests the evidence the more he is deserving of praise: Ben Zakkai once tested the evidence even to inquiring about the stalks of figs. Wherein do the inquiries differ from the cross-examination? If to the inquiries one [of the two witnesses] answered, "I do not know," their evidence becomes invalid; but if to the cross-examination one answered, "We do not know," their evidence remains valid. Yet if they contradict one another, whether during the inquiries or the cross-examination, their evidence becomes invalid.

5.3. If one said, "On the second of the month," and the other said, "On the third," their evidence remains valid since one may have known the month was intercalated and the other did not know the month was intercalated; but if one said, "On the third," and the other said, "On the fifth," their evidence becomes invalid. If one said, "At the second hour," and the other said, "At the third," their evidence remains valid; but if one said, "At the third hour," and the other said, "At the fifth," their evidence becomes invalid. R. Judah says: It remains valid; but if one said, "At the fifth hour," and the other said, "At the seventh," their evidence becomes invalid since at the fifth hour the sun in in the east and at the seventh it is in the west.

5.4. They afterward brought in the second witness and proved him. If their words were found to agree together they begin [to examine the evidence] in favor of acquittal. If one witness said, "I have somewhat to argue in favor of his acquittal," or if one of the disciples said, "I have somewhat to argue in favor of his acquittal," they bring him up and set him among them and he does not come down from thence the whole day. If there is any substance in his words they listen to him. Even if the accused said, "I have somewhat to argue in favor of my acquittal," they listen to him, provided there is any substance to his words.

Postponement of Final Sentence Until the Day After Trial Under the Mishnah

Mishnah Sanhedrin

5.5 If they found him innocent they set him free; otherwise they leave his sentence over until the morrow. [In the meantime] they went together in pairs, they ate a little (but they used to drink no wine the whole day), and they discussed the matter all night, and early on the morrow they came to the court. He that favored acquittal says: "I declared him innocent and I still declare him innocent"; and he that favored conviction says, "I declared him guilty and I still declare him guilty." He that favored conviction may now acquit, but he that had favored acquittal [the day before] may not retract and favor conviction."

Capital Punishment By Stoning

Mishnah Sanhedrin

6.1. When sentence has been passed, they take him forth to stone him. The place of stoning was outside the court, as it is written, Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp. One stands at the door of the court with a towel in his hand, and another, mounted on a horse, far away from him [but where he is able] to see him. If one [in court] said, "I have somewhat to argue in favor of his acquittal," that man waves the towel and the horse runs and stops him [the stoner]. Even if he himself said, "I have somewhat to argue in favor of my acquittal," they must bring him back, be it four times or five, provided that there is any substance in his words. If they found him innocent, they set him free; otherwise he goes forth to be stoned. A herald goes out before him [announcing], "Such-a-one, the son of such-a-one, is going forth to be stoned for that he committed such or such an offense. Such-a-one and such-a-one are witnesses against him. If any man knoweth anything in favor of his acquittal, come let him plead it."

6.2. When he was about ten cubits from the place of stoning they used to say to him, "Make your confession," for such is the way of them that have been condemned to death to make confession, for every one that makes his confession has a share in the world to come. For so we have found it with Achan. Joshua said to him, My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and make confession unto him, and tell me now what you have done; hide it not from me. And Achan answered Joshua and said, Of a truth I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done. Whence do we learn that his confession made atonement for him? It is written, And Joshua said, Why have you troubled us? The Lord shall trouble thee this day--this day you shall be troubled, but in the world to come you shall not be troubled. If he knows not how to make his confession they say to him, "Say, May my death be an atonement for all my sins." R. Judah says: If he knew that he was condemned because of false testimony he should say, "Let my death be an atonement for all my sins excepting this sin." They said to him: If so, every one would speak after this fashion to show his innocense."

6.3. When he was four cubits from the place of stoning, they stripped off his clothes. A man is kept covered in front and a woman both in front and behind. So R. Judah. But the Sages say: a man is stoned naked but a woman is not stoned naked.

6.4. The place of stoning was twice the height of a man. One of the witnesses knocked him down on his loins; if he turned over on his heart the witness turned him over again on his loins. If he straightaway died that sufficed; but if not, the second took the the stone and dropped it on his heart. If he straightaway died, that sufficed; but if not, he was stoned by all Israel, for it is written, The hand of the witnesses shall be firt upon him to put him to death and afterward all the hand of all the people. All that have been stoned must be hanged. So R. Eliezer. But the Sages say: None is hanged save the blasphemer and the idolater. A man is hanged with his face to the people and a woman with her face to the gallows. So R. Eliezer. But the Sages say: A man is hanged but a woman is not hanged. R. Eliezer said to them: Did not Simeon ben Shetah hang women in Ashkelon? They answered: He hanged eighty women, whereas two ought not to be judged in one day. How did they hang a man? They put a beam into the ground and a piece of wood juttted from it. The two hand were brought together and it was hanged. R. Jose days: The beam was made to lean against a wall and one hanged the corpse thereon as butchers do. And they let it down at once: if it remained there overnight a negative command is thereby transgressed, for it is is written, His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shall surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is a curse against God; as if to say, Why was this one hanged? Because he blessed the Name, and the Name of Heaven was found profaned.

[Other forms of capital punishment under Jewish law included burning, decapitation, and strangulation, each of which has its own set of crimes meriting such punishment.]

Crimes Meriting Stoning


7.4 These are they that are to be stoned: he that has connexion with his mother, his father's wife, his daughter-in-law, a male, or a beast, and the woman that suffers connexion with a beast, and the blasphemer and the idolator, and he that offers any of his seed to Molech, and he that has a familiar spirit and a soothsayer, and he that profanes the Sabbath, and he tht curses his father or his mother, and he that has a connexion with a girl that is betrothed, and he that beguiles [others to commit idolatry], and he that leads [a whole town] astray, and the sorcerer and a stubborn and rebellious son.

Source: The Trial of Jesus by Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law

Christian Traditions

The Sanhedrin is mentioned frequently in the New Testament. According to the Gospels, the council conspired to have Jesus killed by paying one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, thirty pieces of silver in exchange for delivery of Jesus into their hands. When the Sanhedrin was unable to provide evidence that Jesus had committed a capital crime, the Christian Bible states that false witnesses came forward and accused the Nazarene of blasphemy — a capital crime under Jewish law. But, because the Sanhedrin was not of Roman authority, it could not condemn criminals to death. For more information on this subject, see Jesus' Sanhedrin Trial.

Circa 30 CE, the New Testament continues, Jesus was brought before the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, for an official decision. The Christian account says that Pilate disagreed with the Sanhedrin's decision, and found no fault — but that the crowd (with the Sanhedrin present) demanded crucifixion. Pilate, it is speculated, gave in because he was concerned about his career and about revolt — and conveyed the death sentence of crucifixion on Jesus. For more information on this subject, see Jesus' Roman Trial.

It should be noted, however, that the New Testament also claims certain members of the Sanhedrin as followers of Jesus. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are two such men that are named in the Gospels.

The Christian accounts of the Sanhedrin, and role the council played in the crucifixion of Jesus, is a controversial issue. Opposition to Christian historical accounts Although the New Testament's account of the Sanhedrin's involvement in Jesus' crucifixion is detailed, the factual accuracy is disputed. Some scholars believe that these passages present a caricature of the Pharisees and were not written during Jesus' lifetime but rather some time after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE - a time when it had become clear that most Jews did not consider Jesus to be the messiah. Also, this was a time Christians sought most new converts from among the gentiles - thus adding to the likelihood that the New Testament's account would be more sympathetic to Romans than to the Jews. Furthermore, it was only after 70 that Phariseeism emerged as the dominant form of Judaism.

Some claim that the New Testament portrays the Sanhedrin as a corrupt group of Pharisees, although it was predominantly made up of Sadducees at the time. This does agree with the New Testament where the Sanhedrin's leadership - Annas and Caiaphas were Sadducees. The Gospels also consistently make a distinction between the Pharissees and "the elders," "the teachers of the law," and "the rulers of the people"

The opposition continues by saying that in order for the Christian leaders of the time to present Christianity as the legitimate heir to the Hebrew Scriptures, they had to devalue Rabbinic Judaism. In addition to the New Testament, other Christian writings relate that the Apostles Peter, John, Stephen, and Paul were all brought before the Sanhedrin for the blasphemous crime (from the Jewish perspective) of spreading their Gospel. However, the Gospels exist, and do give an account of events that happened well before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, although most scholars consider them to have been penned after the Temple was destroyed (however, see Gospel of Mark and Gospel of Matthew for views on earlier historical dating). Those scholars may believe them to have been based on earlier sources, rather than giving a first-person account; though the Gospels are not entirely dismissed, they are presumed to be biased rather than factual. However, Streeter and others of the Tuebingen school hold that Christian NT writtings which discuss the Sanhedrin actually may date much earlier than previously thought.

Source: Wikipedia: Sanhedrin

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