• Greek: syn, with; hedra, seat


The supreme council and court of justice among the Jews. Whilst some Jewish Doctors would trace back the Sanhedrin to the council of 70 elders instituted by Moses (Numbers 11), the earliest undisputed mention which we possess touching the council of elders of Jerusalem dates from the time of Antiochus the Great (223-187 B.C.); the institution may have evolved gradually from the council of nobles, chiefs, and ancients on which the ruling of the restored community devolved at the time of Nehemias and Esdras (1 Esdras 5; 6; 10; 2 Esdreas 2; 4; 5; 7). The Sanhedrin consisted of 71 members, president included, appointed probably for life, and the formal installation of new members was accompanied by an imposition of hands. At the height of the Sanhedrin’s power, criminal causes, according to the Talmud, were tried before a committee of 23 members presided over by the Ab-Beth-Din (president); two other committees, also of 23 members each, studied the questions to be submitted to plenary meetings. The members sat in a semi-circle; two clerks stood before them, one on either side, to take down the votes. The members spoke standing. On matters of civil or ceremonial law, the voting began with the oldest member of the assembly; whereas the youngest member was the first to cast his vote in criminal trials. For criminal judgments a quorum of at least 23 members was required; a majority of one vote was sufficient for acquittal, but for conviction a majority of two votes was necessary; a unanimous vote for conviction set the defendant free, the court, by some fiction of law, being by this very fact declared incompetent. The extent of the Sanhedrin’s jurisdiction varied in the course of time. Prior to the reduction of Judea to the status of a Roman province, criminal law was administered by the Sanhedrin and by a number of lesser courts in various towns, the Sanhedrin acting as a court of appeals and having also the function of a trial court in certain cases. After the removal of Archelaus, however, when Judea became one of the provinces ruled by procurators appointed by the emperor, criminal jurisdiction resided in these officials alone; the Sanhedrin had police powers permitting the arrest of alleged breakers of the law, and upon it devolved the duty of gathering the evidence and preparing the indictment for the procurator, who alone was qualified to hear the case and pronounce the sentence. This view accounts for all the details of the prosecution of Our Lord as narrated in the Gospels; and is supported by what is known of Roman provincial administration throughout the empire.

MLA Citation

  • “Sanhedrin”. New Catholic Dictionary. CatholicSaints.Info. 29 April 2012. Web. 12 May 2021. <>