The ancient Jewish court
system was called the Sanhedrin. The Great
Sanhedrin was the supreme religious body
in the Land of Israel during the time of
Temple. There were also smaller religious
Sanhedrins in every town in the Land of Israel,
as well as a civil political-democratic Sanhedrin.
These Sanhedrins existed until the abolishment
of the rabbinic patriarchate in about 425
The earliest record of a
Sanhedrin is by Josephus who wrote of a political
Sanhedrin convened by the Romans in
57 B.C.E. Hellenistic sources generally depict
the Sanhedrin as a political and judicial
council headed by the countrys ruler.
Tannaitic sources describe
the Great Sanhedrin as a religious assembly
of 71 sages who met in the Chamber of Hewn
Stones in the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Great Sanhedrin met daily during the
daytime, and did not meet on the Sabbath, festivals or
festival eves. It was the final authority
on Jewish law and any scholar who went against
its decisions was put to death as a zaken
mamre (rebellious elder). The Sanhedrin
was led by a president called the nasi (lit. "prince")
and a vice president called the av bet
din (lit. "father of the court").
The other 69 sages sat in a semicircle facing
the leaders. It is unclear whether the leaders
included the high priest.
The Sanhedrin judged accused
lawbreakers, but could not initiate arrests.
It required a minimum of two witnesses to
convict a suspect. There were no attorneys.
Instead, the accusing witness stated the
offense in the presence of the accused and
the accused could call witnesses on his own
behalf. The court questioned the accused,
the accusers and the defense witnesses.
The Great Sanhedrin dealt
with religious and ritualistic Temple matters,
criminal matters appertaining to the secular
court, proceedings in connection with the
discovery of a corpse, trials of adulterous
wives, tithes, preparation of Torah Scrolls
for the king and the Temple, drawing up the
calendar and the solving of difficulties
relating to ritual law.
In about 30 C.E., the Great
Sanhedrin lost its authority to inflict capital
punishment. After the Temple was destroyed,
so was the Great Sanhedrin. A Sanhedrin in
Yavneh took over many of its functions, under
the authority of Rabban Gamliel. The rabbis
in the Sanhedrin served as judges and attracted
students who came to learn their oral traditions
and scriptural interpretations. From Yavneh,
the Sanhedrin moved to different cities in
the Galilee, eventually ending up in Tiberias.
Local Sanhedrins consisted
of different numbers of sages, depending
on the nature of the offenses it dealt with.
For example, only a Sanhedrin of 71 could
judge a whole tribe, a false prophet or the
high priest. There were Sanhedrins of 23
for capital cases and of three scholars to
deal with civil or lesser criminal cases.
Sources: Blackman, Philip. Introduction
to Tractate Sanhedrin of the Mishnah. New
York: The Judaica Press, 1963; Dimont, Max. Jews, Jews,
God and History. New York: The
New American Library, 1962; Encyclopedia
Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971; Kung, Hans. Judaism. New
York: Crossroad, 1992; Seltzer, Robert M. Jewish
People, Jewish Thought. New York:
Macmillian Publishing Co, 1980.