The folks who ran Judea… and condemned Jesus to death.
Something Americans need to be reminded of, from time to time: Ancient Israel was never a democracy.
- Originally it was a
patriarchy, run by the male heads of the Hebrew families: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
- Then the Egyptians took over and enslaved ’em.
- Then the L
ORDrescued ’em from Egypt. So it became a theocracy, where God and his commands ruled Israel… with Moses and the judges serving as the L ORD’s deputies.
monarchyhere on out: The rule of kings. The people wanted kings; the L ORDgave ’em kings. In theory the kings were to function the same as the judges, with the L ORDreally in charge. In practice they did whatever the heck they wanted.
- Then foreign kings: The Babylonian emperors, Persian emperors, Greek emperors, Egyptian kings, Seleucid kings. Each of ’em put governors, like Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, over the Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.
- Back to local kings: The Maccabees overthrew the Seleucids and put the head priests in charge, who accepted the title “king” and ruled till Herod 1 toppled them.
- Back to foreign kings: Augustus Caesar took over from the Herods, and the Romans ruled till the caliphs conquered Jerusalem in 638. And so we move into the middle ages and Crusades.
In Jesus’s day, the Romans emperor was king. The Caesars appointed governors—military prefects like Pontius Pilate, puppet kings like the Herods, and procurators—to represent Rome’s interests, and make sure the locals didn’t do anything which’d interfere with taxes and “peace,” as the Romans defined peace. Everything else was left in the hands of upper-class locals: The head priests, the leaders of the older and wealthier families, the “elders” of Israel.
In Latin, “elder” is senex, and that’s where they got the word for their council of elders, senatus. It wasn’t an elected body, like our senates. It consisted of Roman nobles. Those who had the most to lose if the fortunes of Rome changed. The Roman Republic was an oligarchy, ran by the upper class. And when the emperors took over, and commandeered many of the senate’s powers, they still sought the senate’s advice and consent.
Well, Judea had a similar senate. After the Persians permitted Jewish exiles to return and rebuild Jerusalem, Persian governors organized the elders into a governing council, loosely based on the 70 elders of Israel in Moses’s day.
This is the group which ran Judea in the New Testament… under the suspicious eye of the Romans.
A “judicial body.” (No, not really.)
Today’s senates are legislatures. The Roman senate likewise wrote and passed laws. But technically the Judean senate couldn’t write and pass laws. There already was a Law, handed down to Moses by the LORD, and they were forbidden from adding to it or subtracting from it.
Well, officially off the table. Unofficially, what the Judean senate did was issue rulings on the Law: Here was what they figured the L
Because the senate enacted binding rulings instead of passing laws, Christian historians tend to refer to the senate as a court, not a legislature. You know, kinda like how a Supreme Court’s rulings function as the law of the land without actually being laws. The senators merely interpreted Israel’s “constitution,” the Law; they had final say as to what it meant.
But as Judea’s only branch of government, the senate also recorded its rulings like a legislature, and commanded police like an executive. All power, unless the Romans overruled them, was in the hands of the senate. And they considered their rule binding over all Israel, all Jews, not just the land and people of Judea: Arguably into the Galilee,
So whenever people needed an executive decision, or an opinion on the Law, they sought out an elder who sat on the senate, i.e. a senator. If it had to be an official ruling, the Mishnah indicates it required the agreement of three or five senators. If it involved the death penalty, 23 senators. And if they were to censure a whole tribe or city, deal with a false prophet or head priests, go to war, expand Jerusalem or the temple, or establish a lesser council for a Jewish community, it had to be a unanimous 71. Mishnah, Sanhedrin 1.5
The governors didn’t care about the day-to-day lives of the people. The senate did. The governors had the power to overrule its decisions, and only they could legally put people to death.
The Mishnah includes a lot of details about how the senate was to run. But bear in mind the Mishnah wasn’t written in the first century, by people who saw the senate in action. It was compiled centuries later by Pharisees, and described how Pharisees ran their senates. It’s why the Mishnah contradicts the New Testament in some parts. (It’s also why various Christian commentators insist Jesus’s trial was illegal—because it violated the procedures in the third-century Mishnah. It’s a lot like claiming Abraham broke the Ten Commandments—which were handed down 6 centuries after Abraham died.)
Yeah, the Pharisees had their own senates when the Mishnah was written. In Jesus’s day they were one of the two main parties: Pharisees and Sadducees.
Technically these groups were denominations of the Hebrew religion. But back then there was no such thing as separation of church and state: In the senate they functioned as political parties. With all the corruption and politicking you’ll find in these parties.
Most religious Judeans were Pharisees, so Pharisees dominated the senate till the second century
Well, probably dominated the senate. Y’see, the Romans wiped out the Sadducees in the year 70, and history has been written by the survivors—the Pharisees. Or, I should say, re-written. They inserted a whole lot of Pharisees into earlier senate history. According to rabbinic history, the head priest didn’t lead the senate; the naší was always a Pharisee—ever since the senate gave King Onias bar Simon a vote of no confidence in 191
Yeah, like I said, the Pharisees rewrote stuff. The rabbis’ list of senate presidents, from 191
There was no third party. Other denominations, like the Essenes, the Qumran sect, the Samaritans, and the Zealots, were shut out, and held no senate seats. They did their own thing. And for the most part, figured the senate and priests were corrupt “sons of darkness” whom God and his Messiah would someday overthrow.
As I said, the head priest was the naší/“president.” Once Herod 1 took power—and as an Idumean, not a Jew, couldn’t become head priest—he claimed the power to appoint the head priest. So it became a political office. Herod switched up head priests many times. So did the Roman governors who followed him.
In Jesus’s day, the head priests came from the family of the former head priest Annas bar Sethi (ruled 7–15
Other officers of the senate were the sagán/“deputy,” the head priest’s second-in-command, a job which was considered a prerequisite for head priest; and treasurers and secretaries. Pharisee traditions also include an av beth din/“father of a house of judgment,” the most senior senator. Typically he’s described as the Pharisee everyone listened to, like when Gamaliel got up to speak at the apostles’ trial.
Both Pharisees and Sadducees had among them
After the New Testament.
After Jerusalem was destroyed, the Pharisees reconvened the senate in Yavneh, and moved to the Galilee in the year 80. Since there was no more head priest, the most venerable Pharisee became president. The Pharisees rewrote the rules to suit their traditions, and that’s what we have in the Mishnah. It continued to exist until emperor Theodosius 1 outlawed it around the year 358.
Since then there’ve been several attempts to start another one. Problem is, just like Christians, there are way too many denominations of Jews—and not all of ’em are gonna recognize the authority of any “Sanhedrin” where they lack a say.
The current group, which was founded in October 2004, wants to become the State of Israel’s senate, with the Knesset as its lower house. They also wanna become Israel’s supreme court on all things biblical—including the power to veto any of the Knesset’s laws which they consider unbiblical.
Understandably, this bothers a lot of people who don’t trust these guys’ interpretations of the scriptures. Particularly Israelis who want their nation to be more secular, and separate synagogue from state—lest, as usual, the politics of the state corrupt the teachings of the synagogue.
Something we Americans also need to bear in mind.