The Sanhedrin

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: History


  • The Sanhedrin was considered the supreme court of ancient Israel.
  • There were 71 members - see Origins section below for why there are 71 members.
  • They met every day in a building known as the Hall of Hewn Stones, which was built adjacent to the Temple.
  • The word Sanhedrin means “sitting together,” “council,” or “assembly.”
  • Needless to say, their judgment was instrumental in the deaths of Jesus and several of the apostles – including Stephen and James the Just.

Primary Duties

  • The primary responsibility of the Sanhedrin was to oversee the Temple service and make sure that everything was done in accordance with the Law.
  • They were responsible for answering all questions relating to religious law.
  • They supervised various rituals and traditions, including the burning of the Red Heifer.
  • They set harvest tithes and rendered judgment in cases of adultery.
  • They were in charge of the Jewish calendar.


  • Some scholars think the Sanhedrin had its origin in Numbers 11:16 where “the Lord said to Moses, ‘Bring me seventy of Israel’s elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people.  Have them come to the Tent of Meeting, that they may stand there with you….They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone’.” 70 elders, plus Moses = 71 members.
    • Legend has it that as each of those elders passed on, they were replaced by another, yielding an unbroken line of members from Moses to the third century C.E.  (It’s a great theory, but hard to believe.)
  • But other scholars point to an account in 2 Chronicles 19:8 where Jehoshaphat appointed some “Levites, priests, and elders to administer the law of the Lord and to settle disputes” as the origin of the Sanhedrin.
  • However, Most scholars agree that neither of these two institutions resemble the Sanhedrin of the first century.
  • The oldest reference to the Sanhedrin by name dates to about 191 B.C.E., the time of Antiochus and the Hasmoneans.

Members of the Sanhedrin

  • Before 191 B.C.E., the chief High Priest had been descents of Aaron. 
    • Antiochus, however, deposed the authentic high priest and installed an individual who promised to pay a tidy sum for the privilege around 175 B.C.E.
    • It is during this time that we first hear terms like “Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Sanhedrin.”
  • Later on, the Hasmoneans would appropriate the office for themselves.
    • The Sanhedrin (now comprised mostly of Pharisees) was thought to be the “house of justice of the Hasmoneans.”
  • John Hyrcanus (ca 100 B.C.E.) is credited with diverting more control into the hands of the Sadducees.
  • The last independent ruler of Judea, Salome Alexandra (ca 67 B.C.E.), favored the Pharisees, and reorganized the Sanhedrin according to their wishes.  From that time onward, the Sanhedrin was the official “Supreme Court,” offering the last word on many judicial and religious issues.  (It probably goes without saying that there was much conflict between the Pharisees and Sadducees from early on.)
  • Later on, Herod (ca 37 B.C.E.) would stock the Sanhedrin with his favorites, who were pretty much at his beck and call.  But this would not last long.


  • The Sanhedrin was probably instrumental in the final struggle against Rome in 66-70 C.E.  After the destruction of the Temple, those members that survived fled to Jamnia.
  • From there, the Sanhedrin moved to various cities until about 200 C.E.  Then it settled in Tiberias and maintained some of its functions.
  • In 6 C.E., the Jewish ruler of Judea was deposed and Judea was annexed to Syria.  Thereafter, the Sanhedrin was under the jurisdiction of the procurators from Rome.  The Sanhedrin was able to adjudicate all but capital sentences.  Those required an authorization from the Romans.
  • As the Empire became more and more Christianized, the influence of the Sanhedrin diminished.  Finally, by about 350 C.E., the organization was forbidden to assemble, and rabbis who received “ordination” were subject to death by Imperial decree.  (“Ordination” was the culmination of formal training whereby a rabbi had the authority to give advice or render judgment on matters of the law.)
  • The Sanhedrin probably held its last clandestine meeting, in which it made some final mathematical changes to the calendar, around 358 C.E.
  • Modern attempts to revive or replicate the Sanhedrin have not been successful.

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