In a study of the gospels and the book of the Acts of the Apostles, several times Jesus and His followers were brought in front of a body of rulers known as the Sanhedrin. Jesus went before the Sanhedrin in Mark 14:53-55, Peter and the apostles were sent to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:27-40, Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin in Acts 6:12, and Paul was forced to appear before the Sanhedrin in Acts 22:30. What do we know from history about this group and what was its function in the Jewish time period that Jesus was here on the earth? A look into history reveals some interesting information.
First of all, the word, “Sanhedrin”, has three meanings in the Hebrew language. This is not uncommon, because Hebrew is a “poor” language, meaning that it has a relatively small number of characters compared to other languages (85,000 vs. 600,000 in English). Because of this, many words must necessarily have more than one meaning and you must translate a word according to the context in which it occurs. As you can imagine, this occasionally causes some problems. Here are the the three meanings:
- Sanhedrin (with a capital “S”) – referring to the highest Jewish judicial council in Jerusalem, under the leadership of the high priest. It was the final authority on Jewish law, much like the Supreme Court. During New Testament times it was made up of seventy members plus the High Priest. This arrangement came from Numbers 11:16, where God told Moses to elect seventy elders to help Moses carry the burden of leading the people. Membership in the Sanhedrin was conferred by appointment and an ordination ceremony called S’mekah, that involved the laying on of hands. The appointment was evidently for life. Members came from three groups; chief priests, scribes and elders; although it is not clear how they were divided out. Some sources say that during the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin consisted of the High Priest, sixty five Saducees, and five Pharisees. We know there were Pharisees on the Council because Nicodemus was a member of the Council (John 3:1) and also Gamaliel (Acts 5:34-35), but evidently they were a small minority. The Pharisees represented the lay class of people, while the Saducees were all aristocracy. This mixture and the different beliefs that each group espoused led to a sometimes hostile environment (see Acts 23:9-10).
- Sanhedrin – can also be a place, as in the building, where the Council met (council house). The Council met in a place called the “Hall of Hewn Stones” in the Temple complex in Jerusalem. Several scholars argue that Jesus was taken not to the Council itself, but to the building where the Council met.
- sanhedrin (with a little “s”) – as in a local ruling council. Every town and every synagogue and even the Temple itself had a ruling council that governed their local affairs and this council was also called, “sanhedrin”. This is similar to the way in which organizations in the United States are structured today; each having a president, board members, and rules of order.
When you read, “Sanhedrin” in the story of Jesus’ trial, it is possible that it could have been the local council in charge of the Temple and not the Supreme Court that sent Jesus to Pilate. Even if this is true, it wouldn’t diminish the seriousness of what they did, but would totally change who did it. If the whole Sanhedrin body had been present, you would have expected some remarks and defense by the Pharisee group similar to what happened in Acts 5:34 and Acts 23:9-10. If, in fact, it was not the huge body that represented the whole Jewish nation, but a small group of Temple officials who convicted and condemned Jesus, then it begins to make more sense. The Temple officials were very angry at Jesus when he turned over the tables in the Temple and called them a den of thieves. He had upset the whole Temple economy. Caiphas’ remarks in John 11:49-50 supports this thinking process. They had to get rid of Jesus, not because of his religious beliefs, but because he was a threat to their livelihood.
In summary, because of the three possible definitions of the Hebrew word translated into Greek as Sanhedrin, there are several theories as to who and what was actually involved in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. It is just an interesting thought that maybe it was a smaller Temple council, the sanhedrin, that gave the orders to send Jesus to Pilate and not the much larger ruling council that might have given Jesus a fairer hearing.