Jews and Christians read their own ideas about authority into this ancient legislative institution.

The Sanhedrin (from the Greek sunedrion–‘sitting in counsel’), was the supreme court composed of seventy (or seventy-one) members which sat in the ‘chamber of hewn stone’ in Jerusalem until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, after which it was located in various other cities. Such is the picture of the Sanhedrin which emerges from the Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin, and other Rabbinic sources.

Jewish & Christian Sources

The references to the Sanhedrin in the New Testament present a different picture. Here the High Priest, in his palace, presides over the Sanhedrin (e.g. in the trial of Jesus (Matthew 26:57-68)), rather than a Nasi (‘Prince’) as in the Rabbinic sources.

The older view among Christian scholars was that the New Testament account is correct and that of the Mishnah incorrect. Among Jewish scholars the opposite was said to be true: the Mishnaic account is the reliable one, the Christian account has been altered for doctrinal purposes.

Some later Jewish scholars suggested that there were two Sanhedrins: one a political body, a kind of parliament, the other a body to decide matters of Jewish law. This suggestion is now seen to be untenable.

Both sources no doubt preserve ancient traditions of a supreme legislative assembly that existed in former times but each has read ideas of its own into the ancient institution.

Authority Since the Sanhedrin

When the Roman government abolished the office of Nasi, the Sanhedrin came to an end. There was no longer any central authority for Jews, although the Babylonian Geonim did enjoy a measure of authority for Jews in other parts of the world.

In any event, the Sanhedrin plays no role in later Jewish life. The attempt, soon after the establishment of the State of Israel, to revive the Sanhedrin for the purpose of introducing new legislation was doomed from the outset. There were those who held that Jewish law changes automatically whenever the need arises and those who denied that Jewish law can be changed even by a Sanhedrin.

Both succeeded in quashing the idea that the Sanhedrin be revived. Nowadays, it was seen, a Sanhedrin would either be superfluous or ineffective.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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