The word "Sanhedrin" is a Greek term meaning "assembly". The Great Sanhedrin was a court of spiritual leaders in ancient Israel that included 70 men and the high priest. During the New Testament period, these men met in the Jewish temple every day except for the Sabbath and holy days.
A look at the Sanhedrin's origins finds its first mention much earlier. In Numbers 11:16, the Lord commanded Moses to assemble 70 elders to serve as leaders among the people. This was likely connected to the advice Moses had received earlier from his father-in-law Jethro in Exodus 18. There Jethro recommended that Moses delegate leadership to others so he would not wear himself out.
A group called the Great Sanhedrin formed later, possibly under the leadership of Ezra upon the return of worship in Jerusalem following 70 years of exile. Both a spiritual and legal body, the Sanhedrin was the authority in religious matters in Jerusalem, limiting the influence of other nations that ruled over Israel, especially the Roman Empire that would later take power in the region.
During the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin held significant power, but could not sentence a person to death under Roman law. This explains why the Jewish leaders took Jesus to Pilate following their time with Him in trial (Mark 15:1).
The Sanhedrin also persecuted the early church. Following the healing of the man at the temple gate in Acts 3, Peter and John stood trial before the Sanhedrin: "So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus" (Acts 4:18).
The last mention of the Sanhedrin in the New Testament shows them arresting the apostles: "and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name" (Acts 5:40-41). The apostles were not dismayed or stopped—"And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus" (Acts 5:42).
Following the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70, the influence of the Sanhedrin suffered greatly. Religious practice shifted from a central focus in the temple in Jerusalem to small gatherings that shifted power to local synagogues in which local Jews worshiped.
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