A Sanhedrin (Hebrew: סנהדרין; Greek: συνέδριον, synedrion, "sitting together," hence "assembly" or "council") is an assembly of 23 judges Biblically required in every city. The Great Sanhedrin is an assembly of 71 of the greatest Jewish judges who constituted the supreme court and legislative body of ancient Israel. The make-up of the Great Sanhedrin included a chief justice (Nasi), a vice chief justice (Av Beit Din), and sixty-nine general members who all sat in the form of a semi-circle when in session. "The Sanhedrin" without qualifer normally refers to the Great Sanhedrin. When the Temple in Jerusalem was standing, (prior to its destruction in 70), the Great Sanhedrin would meet in the Hall of Hewn Stones in the Temple during the day, except before festivals and Shabbat.
The Greek root for the name suggests that the institution may have developed during the Hellenistic period. Judaism asserts it was founded by Moses, at the command of God. The Torah records God commanded Moses as follows:
- "Assemble for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the people's elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with you." Numbers 11:16
Further, God commanded Moses to lay hands on Joshua son of Nun. Numbers 27:23. It is from this point, classical Rabbinic tradition holds, the Sanhedrin began: with seventy elders, headed by Moses, for a total of seventy-one.
- Main article: Sanhedrin Trial of Jesus
The Sanhedrin is mentioned frequently in the Gospels. 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 Gospels states that witnesses came forward and accused the Nazarene of blasphemy — a capital crime under Mosaic law. But, because the Sanhedrin was not of Roman authority, it could not condemn criminals to death, according to John 18:31, but this claim is disputed.
Circa 30, the Gospels continues, Jesus was brought before the Roman governor of Iudaea Province, Pontius Pilate, for decision. The Christian account says that Pilate disagreed with the Sanhedrin's decision, and found no fault — but that the crowd 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.
A Sanhedrin also appears in Acts 4-7:60 and Acts 22:30-Acts 23:24, perhaps the one led by Gamaliel.
The Dissolution of the Classical SanhedrinEdit
See also: Council of Jamnia
During the period when it stood on the Temple Mount, the Sanhedrin achieved its quintessential position, legislating on all aspects of Jewish religious and political life within the parameters laid down by Biblical and Rabbinic tradition. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70, the Sanhedrin was re-established with reduced authority, although it was still universally recognized as the ultimate authority in religious matters. This authority was reinforced by the official sanction of the imperial Roman government and legislation.
The Sanhedrin was re-established in Yavneh [70-80]. From there it was moved to Usha under the presidency of Gamliel II ben Shimon II [80-116]. Afterwards it was conveyed back to Yavneh, and again back to Usha. It was moved to Shefaram under the presidency of Shimon III ben Gamliel II [140-163], and to Beth Shearim and Sephoris, under the presidency of Yehudah I [163-193]. Finally it was moved to Tiberias, under the presidency of Gamliel III ben Yehudav I -, where it became more of a consistory, but still retained, under the presidency of Yehudah II ben-Shimon III [220-270], the power of excommunication.
During the presidency of Gamliel IV ben Yehudav II, due to persecution of an increasingly Christianized Rome it dropped the name Sanhedrin, and its authoritative decisions were subsequently issued under the name of Beth HaMidrash. As a reaction to Julian's pro-Jewish stance, Theodosius forbade the Sanhedrin to assemble and declared ordination illegal. (Roman law declared capital punishment for any Rabbi who received ordination and complete destruction of the town where the ordination occurred). Because the Jewish Calendar is based on witnesses' testimony, and that had become far to dangerous to collect, Hillel II recommended a mathematical Calendar that was adopted at a clandestine, and maybe last, meeting . This marked the last universal decision made by that body. Gamliel V [400-425] was the last president. With the death of this patriarch, who was executed by Theodosius II for erecting new synagogues contrary to the imperial decree, the title Nasi, the last remains of the ancient Sanhedrin, became illegal to be used after 425 AD.
Modern attempts to revive the SanhedrinEdit
Modern attempts to revive the Sanhedrin are the efforts from 1538 CE until the present day to renew the Sanhedrin which was dissolved in 358 CE by the edict of the Byzantine emperor. The latest effort was in 2004 when a group of seventy one rabbis claiming to represent varied communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded. That group claimed to re-establish the body, based on the proposal of Maimonides and the Jewish legal rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo. As of March, 2010 that effort is still ongoing.
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