The New International Encyclopædia/Sanhedrin

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Edition of 1905.  See also Sanhedrin on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

SAN′HEDRIN (Heb. sanhedrin, from Gk. συνέδριον, synedrion, council, from σύν, syn, together + ἕδρα, hedra, seat). The name in ancient times of the highest court of justice and supreme council in Jerusalem, in a wider sense applied also to lower courts of justice. Josephus designates the council established by Gabinius, the Roman Governor of Syria (B.C. 57-54), in each of the five districts of Palestine as synedrion, but this intentional degradation of the Synedrion at Jerusalem points to the introduction of the term at an earlier period, and in fact it occurs in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (second century B.C.). According to the Talmud, also, the name goes back to the second century, for the chief council in the days of John Hyrcanus is called a Sadducean Sanhedrin (Tal. Bab., Sanhedrin, 52b). The Sanhedrin is identical with the Geronsia, which occurs as a designation of the chief Jewish council in the days of Antiochus the Great (c.200 B.C.) and somewhat later. The degradation of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin by Gabinius was only temporary, and soon after we find the council at Jerusalem exercising supreme authority and even utilized by rulers to serve their ends. The Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, as finally constituted, consisted of 71 members, and was presided over by the Ab-bēth-dīn (‘Father of the Tribunal’), with whom was associated in the post-Hadrianic era the Nāsī (Prince). Its members belonged to the different classes of society. There were priests; elders, that is, heads of families, men of age and experience; scribes, or doctors of the law; and others exalted by eminent learning, but we have no authentic source for determining who composed the Sanhedrin or on what principle vacancies were filled. The presidency appears to have been conferred for a time on the high priest in preference, if he happened to possess the requisite qualities of eminence; otherwise ‘he who excels all others in wisdom’ was appointed, irrespective of his station. The limits of its jurisdiction are not known with certainty; but there is no doubt that the supreme decision over life and death and all questions of general importance were exclusively in its hands. Besides this, however, the regulation of the sacred times and seasons, and many matters connected with the cultus in general, except the sacerdotal part, which was regulated by a special court of priests, were vested in it. It fixed the beginnings of the new moons; intercalated the years when necessary; watched over the purity of the priestly families by carefully examining the pedigrees of those priests born out of Palestine, so that none born from a suspicious or ill-famed mother should be admitted to the sacred service; and the like. By degrees the whole internal administration of the commonwealth was vested in this body, and it became necessary to establish minor courts, similarly composed, all over the country, and in Jerusalem itself. Thus we hear of two inferior tribunals at Jerusalem, each consisting of 23 men (lesser synedrion), and others of three men only. These courts, however, probably represent only smaller or larger committees chosen from the general body. Excluded from the office of judge were those born in adultery; men born of non-Israelitish parents; gamblers, usurers; those who sold fruit grown in the Sabbatical year; and, in single cases, near relatives. All these were also not admitted as witnesses. Two clerks were always present, one registering the condemnatory, the other the exculpatory votes; and, according to another opinion, there was still a third clerk who noted all the votes as a kind of check. The mode of procedure was exceedingly complicated; and such was the caution of the court, especially in matters of life and death, that capital punishment was pronounced in the rarest instances only. The general place of assembly was a certain hall (lishkat hagaziz, ‘hall of hewn stones’), probably situated at the southeast corner of one of the courts of the temple. With exception of Sabbath and feast days it met daily. The double presidency of the Nasi and Ab-beth-din appears to have been instituted to insure greater impartiality, those chosen representing the two factions or two diverging tendencies in the interpretation of the law. In questions involving civil rights, the voting began with the principal members; in questions of life and death with the younger members, so that they might not be influenced by the leaders. Twenty-three members constituted a quorum for judgments of life and death, but if the court showed a majority of only one for ‘guilty,’ the number had to be increased by two successively till the full court was formed; and only in the case of a full court was a majority of one against the prisoner sufficient for condemnation. The Sanhedrin survived the fall of Jerusalem and what it lost in authority it gained in the veneration in which it continued to be held by the Jews, both in Palestine and in the dispersion. As late as the fifth century we find an institution in Jerusalem that can be regarded as a continuation of the great Sanhedrin. Subsequently, however, we find the name applied to a body of the most eminent scholars of Babylonia — to the 70 members of the learned assemblies that occupied the first seven rows.

Bibliography. Schürer, History of the Jewish People in the Times of Jesus Christ, vol. ii. (Edinburgh, 1886-90); Kuenen, “Ueber die Zusammensetzung des Sanhedrins,” in Gesammelte Abhandlungen (Freiburg, 1894); Hoffman, Der oberste Gerichtshof in der Stadt des Heiligthums (Berlin, 1878); Jelski, Die innere Einrichtung des grossen Synedrions zu Jerusalem, etc. (Breslau, 1894).