The Great Sanhedrin was the Supreme Court of ancient Israel. In total there were 71 members. The Great Sanhedrin was made up of a Chief/Prince/Leader called Nasi (at some times this position may have been held by the Cohen Gadol or the High Priest), a vice chief justice (Av Beit Din), and sixty-nine general members. In the Second Temple period, the Great Sanhedrin met in the Hall of Hewn Stones in the Temple in Jerusalem. The court convened every day except festivals and Shabbat.
The last binding decision of the Sanhedrin was in 358, when the Hebrew Calendar was adopted. The Sanhedrin was dissolved after continued persecution by the Roman Empire. Over the centuries, there have been attempts to revive the institution of the Sanhedrin, such as the European Sanhedrin convened by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Further, God commanded Moses to lay hands on Joshua son of Nun. It is from this point, classical Rabbinic tradition holds, the Sanhedrin began: with seventy elders, headed by Moses, for a total of seventy-one. As individuals within the Sanhedrin died, or otherwise became unfit for service, new members underwent ordination, or Semicha. These ordinations continued, in an unbroken line: from Moses to Joshua, the Israelite elders, the prophets (including Ezra, Nehemiah) on to all the sages of the Sanhedrin.It was in the year 191 BCE that the sanhedrin was established. It was not until sometime after the destruction of the Second Temple the Sanhedrin dissolved.
Jewish tradition proposes non-Greek derivations of the term Sanhedrin. P'siqta D'Rav Kahana (chapter 25) teaches that the first letter of the word, sin, referring to the Torah that was received at Mount Sin-ai, was combined with the second part of the word, hadrin, meaning, "glorification," to express the Great Court's role, the glorification of God's Torah through its application. Rabbi Ovadia Bartenura suggests an alternative meaning, also taking the term as a combination of two words to mean "son'im hadarath pan'im b'din," "foes (opposing litigants) give respect and honor to its judgment. Other commentators confirm his interpretation, suggesting further that the first letter was changed from "sin" to "samekh," at a later date.
Before 191 BCE the High Priest acted as the ex officio head of the Sanhedrin, but in 191 BCE, when the Sanhedrin lost confidence in the High Priest, the office of Nasi was created. After the time of Hillel the Elder (late 1st century BCE and early 1st century CE), the Nasi was almost invariably a descendant of Hillel. The second highest-ranking member of the Sanhedrin was called the Av Beit Din, or "Head of the Court" (literally, Beit Din = "house of law"), who presided over the Sanhedrin when it sat as a criminal court.
The Sanhedrin met in a building known as the Hall of Hewn Stones (Lishkat Ha-Gazith), which has been placed by the Talmud and many scholars as built into the north wall of the Temple Mount, half inside the sanctuary and half outside, with doors providing access both to the Temple and to the outside. The name presumably arises to distinguish it from the buildings in the Temple complex used for ritual purposes, which had to be constructed of stones unhewn by any iron implements.
In some cases, it was only necessary for a 23-member panel (functioning as a Lesser Sanhedrin) to convene. In general, the full panel of 71 judges was only convened on matters of national significance (e.g., a declaration of war) or in the event that the 23-member panel could not reach a conclusive verdict.
The Sanhedrin is mentioned frequently in the Gospels. According to the Gospels, the council conspired to have Jesus killed by paying one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, thirty pieces of silver in exchange for delivery of Jesus into their hands. When the Sanhedrin was unable to provide evidence that Jesus had committed a capital crime, the Gospels state that witnesses came forward and accused the Nazarene of blasphemy — a capital crime under Mosaic law. But, because the Sanhedrin was not of Roman authority, it could not condemn criminals to death, according to . This did not prevent them from doing so at other times; records them ordering the stoning of Saint Stephen and also Jesus half-brother, James the Just according to Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1
Circa 30, the Gospels continue, Jesus was brought before the Roman governor of Iudaea Province, Pontius Pilate, for decision. The Christian account says that Pilate disagreed with the Sanhedrin's decision, and found no fault — but that the crowd demanded crucifixion. Pilate, it is speculated, gave in because he was concerned about his career and about revolt — and conveyed the death sentence of crucifixion on Jesus. For more information on this subject, see Jesus' Roman Trial.
The Christian accounts of the Sanhedrin, and the role the council played in the crucifixion of Jesus, is frequently cited as a cause of Christian anti-Semitism, and is thus normally considered a sensitive topic.
A Sanhedrin also appears in and , perhaps the one led by Gamaliel.
Some claim that the New Testament portrays the Sanhedrin as a corrupt group of Pharisees, although it was predominantly made up of Sadducees at the time. This does not agree with the New Testament in which the Sanhedrin's leadership - Annas and Caiaphas were Sadducees. The Gospels also consistently make a distinction between the Pharisees and "the elders," "the teachers of the law," and "the rulers of the people."
The opposition continues by saying that in order for the Christian leaders of the time to present Christianity as the legitimate heir to the Hebrew Scriptures, they had to devalue Rabbinic Judaism. In addition to the New Testament, other Christian writings relate that the Apostles Peter, John, and Paul, as well as Stephen (one of the first deacons), were all brought before the Sanhedrin for the blasphemous crime--from the Jewish perspective--of spreading their Gospel. Others point out that this is speculative. However, the Gospels exist, and they do give an account of events that happened well before the destruction of the Temple in 70, although many scholars consider them to have been penned after the Temple was destroyed (however, see Gospel of Mark and Gospel of Matthew for views on earlier historical dating). Those scholars may believe them to have been based on earlier sources, rather than giving a first-person account; though the Gospels are not entirely dismissed, they are presumed to be biased rather than factual.
However, Streeter and others of the Tuebingen school hold that Christian New Testament writings which discuss the Sanhedrin actually may date much earlier than previously thought, so supporters claim that the NT accounts quite possibly are more accurate than thought heretofore.
According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to convene a court of justice on a holy day, such as Pesach (Passover), making it highly unusual that religious Jews would have come together to hand down a death sentence on the stated day.
According to the gospel of Matthew however, (considered by some to have been a religious Jew) the religious authorities in that time might have been sufficiently agitated to make them break their own rules and judge him even on the feast of Passover (Pesach); according to the gospel, Jesus was a very popular figure among the ordinary people, and he publicly dismissed the Pharisees as hypocrites (Matthew 15:12-14). In Jesus' time, the Sanhedrin was the highest Jewish authority, as the Roman empire occupied the land at the time, and it was exerting the highest authority in every field except in religious legislature - this was left to the Sanhedrin. Christians as well as Jewish believers in Jesus' message say this is also in line with the history of Pesach, which was, in their vision, the historical predecessor of the death and resurrection of Jesus, being the fulfillment of Pesach. The transition of being delivered out of a land of slavery into freedom (Exodus 3:7-10) is being paralleled by them to being delivered from a life of sin into holiness (Colossians 1:13-14).
Additionally, Josephus seems to imply that there was a 'political' sanhedrin of Sadducee collaborators with the Roman rule of Iudaea province. Since proclaiming oneself Moshiach is not forbidden under halakha (there were many springing up at the time), but was illegal under Roman law as a challenge to imperial authority, perhaps this may be a more likely alternative. However, cites the religious Sanhedrin using this argument to sway Pilate.
Hyam Maccoby's book "The Mythmaker" presents an interesting account of a different historical interpretation.
By the end of the Second Temple period, the Sanhedrin achieved its quintessential position, legislating on all aspects of Jewish religious and political life within the parameters laid down by Biblical and Rabbinic tradition.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70, the Sanhedrin was re-established in Yavneh with reduced authority. The imperial Roman government and legislation still recognized it as the ultimate authority in Jewish religious matters.
It moved to Usha under the presidency of Gamaliel II in 80. In 116 it moved back to Yavneh, and again back to Usha. It moved in 140 to Shefaram under the presidency of Shimon ben Gamliel II, and to Beth Shearim and Sephoris in 163, under the presidency of Yehudah I. Finally, it moved to Tiberias in 193, under the presidency of Gamaliel III (193-220) ben Judah haNasi, where it became more of a consistory, but still retained, under the presidency of Judah II (220-270), the power of excommunication.
During the presidency of Gamaliel IV (270-290), due to persecution of an increasingly Christianized Rome, it dropped the name Sanhedrin, and its authoritative decisions were subsequently issued under the name of Beth HaMidrash.
As a reaction to the emperor Julian's pro-Jewish stance, Theodosius I forbade the Sanhedrin to assemble and declared ordination illegal. (Roman law prescribed capital punishment for any Rabbi who received ordination and complete destruction of the town where the ordination occurred).
However, since the Hebrew calendar was based on witnesses' testimony, that had become far too dangerous to collect, Hillel II recommended change to a mathematically-based calendar that was adopted at a clandestine, and maybe final, meeting in 358. This marked the last universal decision made by that body.
Gamaliel VI (400-425) was the Sanhedrin's last president. With his death in 425, executed by Theodosius II for erecting new synagogues contrary to the imperial decree, the title Nasi, the last remains of the ancient Sanhedrin, became illegal. An imperial decree of 426 diverted the patriarchs' tax (post excessum patriarchorum) into the imperial treasury.
The Sanhedrin is seen as the last institution which commanded universal Jewish authority among the Jewish people in the long chain of tradition from Moses until the present day. Since its dissolution in 358 by imperial decree, there have been several attempts to re-establish this body either as a self-governing body, or as a puppet of a sovereign government.
There are records of what may have been of attempts to reform the Sanhedrin in Arabia , in Jerusalem under the Caliph 'Umar, and in Babylon (Iraq), but none of these attempts were given any attention by Rabbinic authorities and little information is available about them.
The "Grand Sanhedrin" was a Jewish high court convened by Napoleon I to give legal sanction to the principles expressed by the Assembly of Notables in answer to the twelve questions submitted to it by the government (see Jew. Encyc. v. 468, s.v. France).
On October 6, 1806, the Assembly of Notables issued a proclamation to all the Jewish communities of Europe, inviting them to send delegates to the Sanhedrin, to convene on October 20. This proclamation, written in Hebrew, French, German, and Italian, speaks in extravagant terms of the importance of this revived institution and of the greatness of its imperial protector. While the action of Napoleon aroused in many Jews of Germany the hope that, influenced by it, their governments also would grant them the rights of citizenship, others looked upon it as a political contrivance. When in the war against Prussia (1806-7) the emperor invaded Poland and the Jews rendered great services to his army, he remarked, laughing, "The sanhedrin is at least useful to me." David Friedländer and his friends in Berlin described it as a spectacle that Napoleon offered to the Parisians.
There have been rabbinical attempts to renew Semicha and re-establish a Sanhedrin by Rabbi Jacob Berab in 1538, Rabbi Yisroel Shklover in 1830, Rabbi Aharon Mendel haCohen in 1901, Rabbi Zvi Kovsker in 1940 and Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon in 1949.
In October 2004 (Tishrei 5765), a group of rabbis claiming to represent varied communities in Israel undertook a ceremony in Tiberias, where the original Sanhedrin was disbanded, which they claim re-establishes the body according to the proposal of Maimonides and the Jewish legal rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo. The controversial attempt has been subject to debate within different Jewish communities.
Among this group, there is also debate about how it would be possible to fit a system of a council of 71 wise men, who are the highest legislative authority of Israel, into the judicial system of a modern, western, secular democracy. The same debate took place among secular scholars and politicians around 1948, the year the state of Israel was re-established. The idea of reinstalling the Sanhedrin was then discarded because there were too many practical difficulties found on the way, although this decision might have also been taken because the majority of Jews who were leaders in the founding of the modern state of Israel were not religious.