The Judean senate.

The Judean senate.

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, Joseph, and their descendants. That is, till the Egyptians took over and enslaved ’em.
  • Then the LORD rescued Israel’s descendants from Egypt. So Israel became a theocracy, where God and his commands ruled Israel… with Moses and the judges serving as the LORD’s deputies.
  • Of course, since the judges weren’t proper kings, Israelis fell back on patriarchy, ruled as they pleased, didn’t obey God, and triggered the cycle time and again. Read Judges. It’s a mess.
  • Then monarchy, the rule of kings. The people wanted the stability of human kings (such as it is), so the LORD gave ’em kings. In theory these kings were to function the same as judges, with the LORD really in charge. In practice they ruled as they pleased, same as the patriarchs.
  • Then foreign kings: The Babylonian emperors, Persian emperors, Greek emperors, Egyptian kings, Seleucid kings. Each of ’em put governors, like Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, over Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee.
  • Back to local kings: The Maccabees (who were head priests) overthrew the Seleucids and took charge. They accepted the title “king” and ruled till Herod 1 toppled them.
  • And 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.

So in Jesus’s day, the Caesars were Israel’s kings. First Augustus Caesar, then Tiberius.

The Caesars appointed governors—military prefects like Pontius Pilatus, puppet kings like the Herods, and procurators. These guys represented Rome’s interests, and made 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 the 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. Unlike our senates, it wasn’t an elected body. It consisted of Roman nobles; those who had the most to lose if the fortunes of Rome changed. The Roman Republic was an oligarchy, run 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.

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. Ex 24.1 By the first century this συνέδριον/synédrion (Greek for “seated together,” which the Mishnah translated סנהדריןsanhédrin) consisted of 71 people: Seventy elders of Judea, supposedly representing the great Judean families; and the head priest, its נָשִׂיא/naši, “chief,” nowadays translated “president.”

This is the group which ran Judea in the New Testament… under the suspicious eye of the Romans.

A “judicial body.” (No, not really.)

Roman governors didn’t care about the day-to-day lives of the people. But the senate did. The governors had the power to overrule its decisions, and only they could legally put people to death. Jn 18.31 (Yes, Stephen was stoned to death by what look like senators, Ac 7.57-60 but the Romans would’ve considered that illegal. Hey, nobody’s saying the system wasn’t broken.) But that’s largely all the Romans did: Kill insurgents, collect taxes, and enforce Roman peace. The senate ran everything else.

Today’s senates are legislatures. The Roman senate likewise wrote and passed laws. But the Judean senate didn’t do that. Technically couldn’t: The Law had been handed down to Moses by the LORD, and they were forbidden from adding to it or subtracting from it. Dt 12.32 Law-making was absolutely off the table.

Well… officially off the table, but unofficially what the senate did was issue binding rulings on how the Law was to be interpreted: Here’s what they figured the LORD meant about this command or that, and here’s how they were gonna enforce it.

Sometimes, as Christ Jesus objected, their interpretations bent and broke the Law. Mk 7.13 But this was how they got round Deuteronomy’s prohibition against any new commands. They weren’t writing laws; they were interpreting the Law. Much as the United States Supreme Court does… and arguably goes too far in some of its interpretations.

In any event Christian historians tend to refer to the senate as a court, not a legislature. 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 senate’s hands. And they considered their rulings binding over not just the land and people of Judea: All Israel, All Jews, arguably into the Galilee Mk 3.22 and Damascus. Ac 9.1-2

Whenever people needed an executive decision, or a definitive opinion on the Law, they typically sought out an elder who was in 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 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 third-century 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 Mishnah’s procedures. But that’s like claiming Abraham broke the Ten Commandments—which weren’t handed down till 6 centuries after Abraham died.)

Political parties.

In Jesus’s day, Pharisees didn’t run the senate. That’d be the other major Jewish party, the Sadduccees. The head priest and his family were all Sadducee.

Technically Pharisees and Sadducees were denominations of the Hebrew religion. But back then there was no such thing as separation of church and state, so in senate they functioned as political parties. Yep, with all the corruption and politicking you’ll find in today’s parties.

Most devout Judeans were Pharisees, and Pharisees dominated the senate till the second century BC. Then John Hyrcanus (ruled 135–05BC), king and head priest, grew sick and tired of the Pharisees treating him like their lapdog. He quit the Pharisees, joined the Sadducees, and kicked the Pharisees out of the senate. His daughter-in-law, Queen Alexandria (ruled 76–67BC) let ’em back in, but the head priest’s family remained Sadducee from then on, and that faction dominated the senate.

Well, probably dominated the senate. Y’see, the Romans wiped out the Sadducees in the year 70. So our history was written by the survivors… the Pharisees. Arguably re-written. Pharisees retroactively inserted a ton of Pharisees into earlier senate history. According to Pharisee rabbis, the head priest didn’t lead the senate; the naší was a Pharisee, and apparently had been Pharisee ever since the senate gave King Onias bar Simon a vote of no confidence in 191BC.

But rabbinic history contradicts both the gospels and Flavius Josephus. Those records describe the head priests, not some imaginary Pharisee naší, running the senate. Mt 62.3-4, Mk 14.60-64, Jn 11.47-53 Plus it contradicts commonsense: Why would the smaller religious party get to hold the senate presidency?—and overrule the head priest?

Most likely the rabbis’ list of senate presidents, from 191BC onward, were just leaders of the Pharisee opposition. Pharisees rewrote history to make themselves look more prominent. As people do.

There was no third party. Other denominations, like Essenes, the Qumran sect, Samaritans, and Zealots, were shut out. They held no senate seats, and did their own thing; the Samaritans even had their own senate. For the most part, these other denominations figured the Judean senate and priests were corrupt “sons of darkness” whom God and his Messiah would someday overthrow.

Senate leadership.

Like I said, the head priest was the senate president. Once Herod 1 took power—and as an Idumean, not a Jew, couldn’t become head priest—he claimed power to appoint the head priest, and 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 7–15CE). His five sons, and son-in-law Joseph Kahiáfa (KJV “Caiaphas”), succeeded him. Joseph was officially head priest at the time Jesus was executed, but Judeans arguably considered Annas the real head priest, Ac 4.6 regardless of whom the Romans appointed.

Other officers of the senate were the סָגָן/sagán, “ruler,” 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. Ac 5.34 (The writers of the Mishnah tended to claim these guys were president, as they did with Gamaliel.)

Both Pharisees and Sadducees had among them scribes (KJV “lawyers”) who were bible experts who knew the Law backwards and forwards. The scribes were the folks you consulted whenever you needed proof texts for your decisions. Although some scribes played really fast and loose with the text—as Jesus was known to complain.

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 senate. 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 power.

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.)