The scribes, the learned ones of Israel, formed the second chamber of the Sanhedrin. Whereas there is little edifying to learn from the chamber of priests, the scribes counted one or two exceptions to a decadent house at the time of our Lord.
Gamaliel, for example, is praised in both the Talmud and the Acts of the Apostles. Among his disciples were St. Paul, St. Barnabas and St. Stephen. When the Sanhedrin was plotting the death of the Apostles he gave them the advice: Leave them alone – if it is a human belief it will die anyway, if it’s not you won’t be able to destroy it. A short while afterwards he converted to Christianity himself. Other members were not so edifying.
His son, Simeon, for example, although also gifted with a great wisdom, became the intimate friend of the bandit John of Giscala whose cruelty and excesses against the Romans and even Jews led to the sack of Jerusalem in 70.
Onkelos, born a pagan, had all the fervour of a Pharisaic convert, even throwing his inheritance in the Dead Sea because it came from his Gentile parents. He was, obviously, not well disposed to our Lord.
Jonathan, the famous translator of the Pentateuch missed out, in his translation of the prophets, the book of Daniel because the way he described the death of the Messiah was too close to that of our Lord.
Samuel (the less) is the composer of the curse against the Christians which was added by the Sanhedrin to the synagogue ‘blessing’ Shemone Esdrah which, St. Jerome remarks, Jews are supposed to pray three times a day.
Of the other eighteen we know at least the names of half of them. Though they were certainly gifted with a certain wisdom the evidence all points to most of them being filled with pride. Hence, at the time of our Lord, the rather recent predilection for the title Rabbi. This was not a title used by the scribes historically – Hillellor Esdras had this title at the time of the captivity. But by the time of our Lord the coveting of titles had become such that He could reproach them for it in Mt. 23,6-7. They introduced 24 excommunications against those who didn’t show them sufficient respect, comparing themselves to God Himself. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Rabbi Judah wrote, “If Jerusalem has seen destroyed one has to look no further for the cause than the lack of respect shown to the scribes and doctors”.
The third chamber of the Sanhedrin was that of the Ancients. They had the least influence and so it is not surprising that we have less information about them than others. Nonetheless, we can suppose something of around half of them from contemporary records. From the Gospels, for example, we know that Joseph of Arimathea was a member. Like the other members he was a rich man but is nonetheless credited with the title of ‘just senator’ – that is to say that he was one of the ten magistrates under the Romans to govern the city. He shares his just character with another disciple of Christ, albeit a secret one, Nicodemus, who was also one of the three richest men in Jerusalem. The other two mentioned by the Talmud were Ben Calba Shebua and Ben Tsitsit Haccassat. It is, however, probably more indicative of the interest of the Talmud than a lack of any real virtue that they are all only praised for their riches and, particularly in the case of the two latter, their sumptuous lifestyle. We know but the names of six others and of those only the notorious cruelty of one of them, Doras, who was responsible for killing the high Priest Jonathan under the governor Felix. It could be, therefore, that this least influential chamber of the Sanhedrin had better qualities than the previous two.
One fact which we learn from Josephus Flavius seems to make this unlikely, however. The Ancients of the Sanhedrin were recruited from the rich inhabitants of Jerusalem. But it was also from the rich that the Sadducees took their members. It was the Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection and this belief in the death of the soul with the body led to a profound materialism – hardly likely to be compatible with our Lord’s teaching. An interesting incident from the Acts of the Apostles confirms that Sadduceeism was rife in the Sanhedrin. When St. Paul is brought before the Council he cleverly causes an instant dissension amongst them by siding with the Pharisees and unleashing a pandemonium of recriminations and confusion. If it is the case that at the time of our Lord the highest Council of the Jews is filled with notorious heretics it doesn’t augur well for a just trial.
Indeed, what else could one expect from a Council made up of ambitious and degenerate priests, mostly Pharisees who thought themselves infallible? They were awaiting a Messiah, certainly, but not one who exposed their hypocrisy, rejected their invented prescriptions and called for the abolition of their illegal tithes with which they oppressed the people.
What else could one expect from Scribes filled with pride in their own knowledge? The Messiah they were to judge proclaimed blessed those who were humble of heart, his disciples were ignorant artisans and fishermen.
What else could one expect from Ancients many, if not most, of whom were Sadducees, happy with the goods of this life, neither caring for their soul, nor God, nor the resurrection?
Continued next issue