As we start the season of Lent and move inexorably towards Passiontide, the following is an examination of the key element of the Passion itself – the trial of Our Lord which led to His suffering and death. Understanding the juridical authority of the people involved is vital to realising the merit of Our Lord and an answer to the charges, so easily bandied about today, of anti-semitism. In order to judge the accusers of our Lord fairly we need to look at the people involved and the acts of their assembly itself, the Sanhedrin.
The Sanhedrin was the Grand Council of the Jews established in Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. It was modelled on the Council of seventy ancients established by Moses in the desert which had disappeared after the entry into the Promised Land. Before the time of Our Lord it had a relatively brief existence appearing somewhere between 170 and 106 B.C. Its late origin may be seen in the Greek etymology of the word meaning a seated assembly. There were three chambers of 23 members each – the priests, the scribes and doctors, and the ancients. Towards the end of the Jewish history these numbers were not strictly adhered to and the priests tended to predominate. There were two presidents, the prince of the assembly and the father of the tribunal who was in practice the vice president. This made a sanhedrin of 71 members. Although, historically, the president wasn’t of necessity a priest, during the Roman occupation this was practically the case. Certainly the sanhedrin had the highest authority, even Herod the Great had to appear before it at one stage in his youth, but it was still bound by certain rules, particularly, as in the case we are considering here, in the matter of pronouncing a sentence of death, which could only be done in the temple in the room of the cut stones.
This had been the law but, 23 years before the trial of our Lord, the power of capital punishment was taken away from the Council by the Romans. Herod’s successor, Archelaus, was deposed and, to bring it into line with all other Roman provinces, the province of Judah and its legislative body, the sanhedrin, had its jus gladii (the right to put someone to death) taken away. It still had the right to excommunicate, imprison and scourge but not to condemn to death. Various Jewish sources contrive to suggest that, either because of the great number of crimes at that time, or because of the Roman occupation, it was impossible or unsuitable to condemn Jews to death so the sanhedrin voluntarily left the room of the cut stones so that they wouldn’t be able to condemn anyone. But this is trying to put a brave face on a harsh reality. Moreover, already in Genesis it had been prophecied that the Messiah would come only after the kingdom of Judah had fallen and its jus gladii been taken away (Gen. 49,8-10). In fact the sceptre had been taken away from Judah for some time. With the Babylonian captivity the sceptre passed to the Levites, the Machabees, then to the Herods who were Edomites and not Jews at all. That was the royal power gone, but in A.D. 11 the judiciary power was also taken away. To acknowledge that openly would mean that the Jews would also have to recognise that the time for the Messiah had come.
Of the 71 members of the sanhedrin at the time of our Lord we have information on around forty of them. This comes from the Gospels, from the Jewish History of the contemporary Jew, Joseph, and the Talmud. To conclude this instalment, we shall look at the first of the three chambers, the priests.
Of the priests perhaps the two most well known are the High priests, Annas and Caiphas. That there should be two High priests at that time is already something of an indictment on the house of priests. The office of High priest had been hereditary and for life but already under Herod priests had seen themselves deposed and replaced. Under the Romans this became a regular occurrence. Thus it was that at the time of our Lord’s trial there were not just two but around a dozen deposed High priests who were all members of the Council along with the simple priests. Someone like Annas could make sure that the office would stay in his family for almost fifty continuous years but, once the position of power became up for grabs, as it were, it became the object of ambitious scheming and even treachery which scandalised the Jews themselves.
Caiphas was officially the acting High priest but much of the authority remained with his father in law, Annas. This latter had five sons who had been or who were to be High priest at the tune of our Lord and as such they were all members of the Council. They, along with the sons of Simon Boethius (3) and indeed the other ten who are mentioned in the sources, were little edifying in their personal lives. Joseph says they were violent thieves and the Talmud, normally only too full of praise for Jewish institutions and personages, calls the priests at that time a plague. Thus the vast majority (the known 18 of the 23 members) of the house of priests was corrupt. Next time we shall move on to the scribes and doctors and the ancients before looking at, not so much the personal qualities of the Council but the moral value of its