It’s Makeup: The Sanhedrin was composed of 71 members. Some historians trace the number 70 to the time that Moses was instructed by God to gather together 70 men chosen from the elders of Israel (see Numbers 11:16). These men were chosen to help Moses in leading and judging matters of the people during the time they were in the wilderness. When Moses is included in the numbering, there were 71.
It seems that the Sanhedrin was composed of: (1) the high priest, (2) 24 “chief priests” who represented the 24 orders of the priesthood [see I Chronicles 24:4,6]; (3) Twenty four “elders” who represented the common people and (4) twenty two scribes who were the experts in matters of the law and the traditions that had sprung up around the law. The scribes were made up entirely of Pharisees and they were probably the most influential group within the Sanhedrin. The rest were generally Sadducees.
It is interesting to note that the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was called the “Great Sanhedrin” and that there were smaller sanhedrins, made up of 23 members in some of the larger cities. There was even a smaller or “local” Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. The local Sanhedrins had limited authority and had to refer difficult matters to the Greater Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
Membership: The membership requirements for the Great Sanhedrin were very complicated and strict. The late Dr. C. D. Ginsburg listed the following as qualifications:
“The application had to be morally and physically blameless. He had to be middle-aged, tall, good-looking, wealthy, learned both in the Divine Law and in diverse branches of profane science such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, magic, idolatry, etc., in order that he might be able to judge in those matters. He was required to know several languages, so that the Sanhedrin might not be dependent on an interpreter in case any foreigner or foreign question came before them. Very old persons, proselytes, and eunuchs were ineligible because of their idiosyncrasies, nor could such candidates be elected as had no children, because they could not sympathize with domestic affairs, nor those who could not prove that they were the legitimate offspring of a priest, Levite, or Israelite, who played dice, lent money on usury, flew pigeons to entice others, or dealt in produce of the Sabbatical year. In addition to all the qualifications, a candidate for the Great Sanhedrin was required, first of all, to have been a judge in his native town.”
It’s Authority: The authority of the Sanhedrin, in all religious questions, was binding on all Jews everywhere. Its main function was to interpret, apply and enforce the written Law of God (also known as the Torah) and the oral interpretations of this Law (known as the Mishna). When you consider that the country was intended to be a Theocracy, (ruled only by God) then you can easily see the authority of any group such as this who always was right when it came to what God said. (At least they claimed they were always right!)
The Sanhedrin had responsibility in at least 9 different areas: They kept very careful records of all the priestly families to assure that the lineage was not corrupted. Since the priests could only come from the tribe of Levi, this was of absolute importance.
They handled all cases of alleged immorality among the wives and daughters of the priests. This also had its roots in the need to keep the lineage of the priesthood pure. They oversaw all the religious teachings and traditions of the nation. They gave special attention to any accusations of idolatry.
They tried all those accused of being false prophets.
They were especially watchful over the conduct of any king, high priest or public authority in religious questions.
They gave counsel to the king on the question of going to war.
They made all decisions as to whether the city limits of Jerusalem could be enlarged or not. They were the only one that could pronounce ground consecrated.
They were responsible for the appointment of the members of the smaller local sanhedrins.
They adjusted the Jewish calendar to match the solar and lunar years.
It’s Meetings: There had to be 23 members present in order for the deliberation to have any authority. In matters of capital crime (when the death sentence was a possibility) the voting process had very strict rules to be followed: the vote was taken with the youngest and most recently appointed members voting first. This was to ensure that they would not be influenced by the votes of the older and more experienced men.
The members are said to have sat in a semicircle in order that all might see one another, while in front of them on the right and left two scribes were positioned, who kept a written record of the testimony for acquittal or conviction.
A verdict of “not guilty” could be given on the same day, but a “guilty” verdict had to be reserved for the next day. For this reason, a trial involving a capital offense could not begin on the day just before a Sabbath or a festival. The judges who voted in favor of conviction had to fast all day. All votes were recorded by the two scribes along with the names of the ones voting. Each member had to stand as he was voting. If one member of the Sanhedrin ever spoke for acquittal he could not reverse his opinion. He could, however, if he had spoken for condemnation, change his vote to one for acquittal. For acquittal, a simple majority was enough, but for condemnation, there had to be a majority of 2/3’s or more.
The Sanhedrin was set up to be more than fair in dealing with any and all accused. It is tragic that this particular Sanhedrin let its blindness and hatred of Jesus cause it to break every safeguard they had built to protect the innocent.
Some Members In the New Testament: Not all of the members of the Sanhedrin were as blind, hate-filled and prejudiced as those who carried the majority in the condemnation of Jesus.
Gamaliel, a very just and fair man, was a member of the Sanhedrin. It was his reasoned and unbiased intervention that spared the life of Peter and the other apostles (see Acts 5:17-42).
There was also Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38 and Nicodemus, the man who came to Jesus by night (see John 3:1-5 and 7:50).
The End Of The Sanhedrin: The destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. saw the end of the Sanhedrin. There were attempts to reconstitute it but since Jerusalem was no longer the administrative center for the nation of Israel these attempts were never successful. The temple had been destroyed and all attempts to restore the Sanhedrin to its former authority ended in failure. Such attempts finally ended completely in A.D. 425.
Some Closing Observations: It is sometimes a little difficult for us to conceive the power and wealth of those who made up the Sanhedrin. They are so far removed and so remote in history that it is hard for us to grasp. They were the elite of the Jewish nation. They were the most powerful men of their time. They had the power of life and death over people. They controlled, through their decisions and determinations, the lives of millions of people.
There are some major lessons we can learn from the Sanhedrin and the men who composed it. Earthly power, wealth, and influence do not last. The Lord Jesus, once so haughtily condemned and crucified by this powerful group, has uncounted and uncountable followers in all the world. He was penniless and homeless. He had no goals that would have given him the kind of fame and fortune the men of the Sanhedrin had.
It just might be that we should examine very carefully our own convictions and commitments. We certainly can take no comfort in the fact that our own particular fellowship seems so strong and prosperous. Each of our convictions must be carefully weighed in the light of the never failing word of God. It could be that we might need to be one of the Nicodemuses, who was a member of the Sanhedrin, but not so blinded by their traditions that he was not able to see Jesus as the Messiah. We must never let our loyalty to any group of men keep us from being a part of the powerless minority that follows after Christ.
We would do well to keep in mind that the Sanhedrin was a religious assembly. Its whole purpose was to protect religious teaching. Jesus’ crucifixion was demanded by the religious leaders of the day. We sometimes think that the greatest threat to the cause of Christ is the local bar or tavern or house of ill repute. That wasn’t so in the days of Jesus and probably isn’t so today. We are in greater danger of denying Christ’s claims on our lives by our excessive loyalty to religious groups than we are to the things of the world. To be sure, worldly things are to be identified and avoided as not worthy of the Christian calling. However, such things are so obvious that I feel they present less danger than the subtle things that we do in our churches that are not in keeping with the will of our Lord. We should remember that any time a church or fellowship is more interested in protecting some tradition than in following the word of God, it is acting exactly in the same way as the Sanhedrin.