The endurance of the Sanhedrin . . .


(by Helen Bond). Reading through a few student essays recently (not from Edinburgh, I’d like to point out!), I was surprised by how many simply assume the presence of a formal, fixed council known as the Sanhedrin in first century Judaea. But perhaps students can’t be blamed too much; gospel commentators also show a remarkable resistance to dispense with the idea of a fixed council which governed Roman Judaea.

Yet several eminent scholars (E. P. Sanders, M. Goodman, J. S. McLaren, L. Levine, D. Goodblatt) have shown over the last few decades that the Great Council of 71 was simply wishful thinking on the part of the rabbis, and that government in Judaea operated principally through the high priest who – like other rulers in the ancient world – gathered an ad hoc group of friends and advisers around him to discuss the matter at hand. The time seems long overdue to relegate the idea of ‘the Sanhedrin’ finally to the mythic land where it belongs.


9 responses »

  1. What about sanhedrins (plural) as in Matthew 10:17? Best to understand this as referring to courts like most English translations? (HCSB has “sanhedrins.”) Are you only saying that scholarship is pointing toward dispensing with the notion of the seventy odd member Great Sanhedrin?

  2. Thanks, Drew. Yes, ‘courts’ is a better translation for the passage you mention. The word ‘sanhedrin’ of course can be used in a fairly loose way – a sitting down with, a gathering, besides a court, or something more formal like a council.

    The scholars I mentioned aren’t just advocating replacing the Pharisaic council of 71 in the mishna for another more or less permanent body. They argue that there simply wasn’t a regular council with a fixed membership which regularly met to discuss matters of law, policy and government at the time of Jesus. There may have been an administrative council (perhaps the boule that Josephus mentions a handful of times), which oversaw taxes and routine civic matters, but it didn’t govern the land.

    McLaren’s study (Power and Politics in Palestine, Sheffield, 1991) painstakingly goes through every incident between 100 BCE and 70 CE and notes the complete absence of any kind of a council in decision making. Instead, the references to ‘a/the sanhedrin’ in Josephus seem to refer to an advisory body, summoned by the high priest, to aid him in what was essentially his judgement (the ‘monarchic principle’ Goodblatt calls it).

    The NT authors give the impression of a fixed body, but its not clear from the gospels and Acts whether it was made up of chief priests, elders and scribes (so Mark), whether Pharisees were involved (so clearly Acts), or what it was called (gerousia, boule, sanhedrin). I suspect that they are giving a formality (especially in the trial of Jesus) to an ad hoc gathering which originally had little in the way of formality.

  3. I quite agree, Helen. It’s one of those areas where the wheels turn very slowly. I wonder if a large part of it is the beguiling nature of English translations, with their capital “S” “Sanhedrin” in the Gospels.

  4. Good to hear from you, Mark. Yes, I think you’re right – the capital instantly transforms it into something formal and fixed. The definite article too sounds like ‘the Sanhedrin’ was something well known and permanent that could be alluded to. If you translated it more along the lines of ‘that particular gathering’ the formality would disappear.

  5. Pingback: Donnerstag Digest (August 19, 2010) « New Testament Interpretation

  6. Helen,

    Thanks for these thoughts. I remember reading an argument, I think by David Flusser, that when Jesus taken to the Sanhedrin that it may not mean a specific assembly of people but a location within the temple precincts, meeting room of sorts. This is one of the definition options given in BDAG, 967. Perhaps the assembly that was formed later took its name from the room? What are your thoughts on this?


    • Dear John,
      Thanks for this – an intriging idea, though Sanhedrin sounds rather a vague term for a specific room to me. What is interesting, though, are the references to the Chamber of Hewn Stone in rabbinic texts. Was this a place that existed in the first century, and is it the same as Josephus’ Xystos? was this a council chamber, perhaps for the boule? If only we knew . . .

  7. I read in a Jewish source concerning their traditions of Jesus of Nazareth, which talks about “the senators of the sanhedrin.” Gives a little more weight to Francesco Carotta’s hypothesis that the sanhedrin was merely a transposition of the Roman Senate.

  8. Hi, do you remember the Jewish source? Certainly some (depending on the date) might have wanted the Jewish constitution to look like it resembled Rome’s (I suspect that is why Josephus inserts a couple of references to rather senate-like councils early on in his retelling of biblical antiquities in the Ant). What several scholars are arguing for here is that the government of Judaea was more like a Roman senator and his concilium (group of advisers etc) rather than a formal senate as such.
    Thanks for your comment,

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