Introduction: What is the Sanhedrin?
Sanhedrin comes from the Greek term sunedrion (literally, "sitting together") meaning council. The Sanhedrin is both a Jewish judicial and administrative body. The Sanhedrin was composed of local elites--including members of the high-priestly family, scribes (religious experts), and lay elders. It probably operated under some sort of Roman oversight, at least with respect to its taxing, law enforcement, and other administrative functions.
According to gospel accounts, Jesus was brought before the Jerusalem Sanhedrin, presided over by high priest Joseph Caiaphas.
Around 200 C.E., Sanhedrin becomes a technical term for a rabbinic court. A tractate in the Mishnah prescribes procedures the Sanhedrin is to use. The excerpts below, taken from the Mishnah Tractate, may shed light on the procedures used in the case of Jesus. One caution, however: the Mishnah was not compiled until 200, and it is therefore possible that some of the procedures and restrictions described in the Mishnah Tractate were not in force in the time of Jesus.
The gospel of John indicates that the Sanhedrin turned Jesus over to Pilate because it lacked the power to impose death: "Pilate said to them, 'Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.' The Jews replied, 'We are not permitted to put anyone to death.'" The Mishnah, however, clearly shows that the Sanhedrin did have the power to impose death for certain crimes--at least sometime before 200 C.E. In particular, Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.1 to 6.4 specify the procedures for stoning. There is no evidence to suggest that the power did not exist in 30 C.E. On the contrary, there is evidence that the Romans preferred to leave as much power as possible to control religious crimes in the hands of Jewish authorities.
Mark and Matthew indicate that the trial before the Sanhedrin occurred at night and a capital trial at night was illegal. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.1 confirms the illegality of a capital trial at night, assuming that the law stated in the Mishnah existed in 30 C.E.
Mark indicates that the charge against Jesus was blasphemy: "You have heard the blasphemy (Mark 14:64)." Under Mishnah Tractate 7.5, blasphemy consists only of uttering the name of God, so there is reason to question whether in fact that was the charge against Jesus. If it is assumed to be the charge, however, Mishhah Tractate 7.4 makes clear that execution by stoning was an available option for such a crime.
Information for this page is drawn largely from The Trial of Jesus by Alan Watson (1995).
Verdicts in Capital Trials Only to be Reached in Daytime
[Under the Mishnah Tractate, Sanhedrin]
Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.1
In noncapital cases they hold trial during the daytime and the verdict may be reached during the night; in capital cases they hold the trial during the daytime and the verdict must also be reached during the daytime. In noncapital cases the verdict, whether of acquittal or of conviction, may be reached the same day; in capital cases a verdict of acquittal may be reached on the same day, but a verdict of conviction not until the following day.
Requirements for Conviction
Mishnah Sanhedrin 5.1-4
5.1 They used to prove witnesses with seven inquiries: In what week of years? In what year? In what month? On what day? In what hour? In what place? (R. Jose says: [They asked only,] On what day? In what hour? In what place?) [They also asked:] Do you recognize him? Did you warn him? If a man committed idolatry [they asked the witnesses], What did he worship? and, How did he worship it?
2. The more a judge tests the evidence the more he is deserving of praise: Ben Zakkai once tested the evidence even to inquiring about the stalks of figs. Wherein do the inquiries differ from the cross-examination? If to the inquiries one [of the two witnesses] answered, "I do not know," their evidence becomes invalid; but if to the cross-examination one answered, "We do not know," their evidence remains valid. Yet if they contradict one another, whether during the inquiries or the cross-examination, their evidence becomes invalid.
3. If one said, "On the second of the month," and the other said, "On the third," their evidence remains valid since one may have known the month was intercalated and the other did not know the month was intercalated; but if one said, "On the third," and the other said, "On the fifth," their evidence becomes invalid. If one said, "At the second hour," and the other said, "At the third," their evidence remains valid; but if one said, "At the third hour," and the other said, "At the fifth," their evidence becomes invalid. R. Judah says: It remains valid; but if one said, "At the fifth hour," and the other said, "At the seventh," their evidence becomes invalid since at the fifth hour the sun in in the east and at the seventh it is in the west.
4. They afterward brought in the second witness and proved him. If their words were found to agree together they begin [to examine the evidence] in favor of acquittal. If one witness said, "I have somewhat to argue in favor of his acquittal," or if one of the disciples said, "I have somewhat to argue in favor of his acquittal," they bring him up and set him among them and he does not come down from thence the whole day. If there is any substance in his words they listen to him. Even if the accused said, "I have somewhat to argue in favor of my acquittal," they listen to him, provided there is any substance to his words.
Postponement of Final Sentence Until the Day After Trial Under the Mishnah
Mishnah Sanhedrin 5.5
If they found him innocent they set him free; otherwise they leave his sentence over until the morrow. [In the meantime] they went together in pairs, they ate a little (but they used to drink no wine the whole day), and they discussed the matter all night, and early on the morrow they came to the court. He that favored acquittal says: "I declared him innocent and I still declare him innocent"; and he that favored conviction says, "I declared him guilty and I still declare him guilty." He that favored conviction may now acquit, but he that had favored acquittal [the day before] may not retract and favor conviction."
Capital Punishment By Stoning
Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.1-4
1. When sentence has been passed, they take him forth to stone him. The place of stoning was outside the court, as it is written, Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp. One stands at the door of the court with a towel in his hand, and another, mounted on a horse, far away from him [but where he is able] to see him. If one [in court] said, "I have somewhat to argue in favor of his acquittal," that man waves the towel and the horse runs and stops him [the stoner]. Even if he himself said, "I have somewhat to argue in favor of my acquittal," they must bring him back, be it four times or five, provided that there is any substance in his words. If they found him innocent, they set him free; otherwise he goes forth to be stoned. A herald goes out before him [announcing], "Such-a-one, the son of such-a-one, is going forth to be stoned for that he committed such or such an offense. Such-a-one and such-a-one are witnesses against him. If any man knoweth anything in favor of his acquittal, come let him plead it."
2. When he was about ten cubits from the place of stoning they used to say to him, "Make your confession," for such is the way of them that have been condemned to death to make confession, for every one that makes his confession has a share in the world to come. For so we have found it with Achan. Joshua said to him, My son, give, I pray thee, glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and make confession unto him, and tell me now what you have done; hide it not from me. And Achan answered Joshua and said, Of a truth I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel, and thus and thus have I done. Whence do we learn that his confession made atonement for him? It is written, And Joshua said, Why have you troubled us? The Lord shall trouble thee this day--this day you shall be troubled, but in the world to come you shall not be troubled. If he knows not how to make his confession they say to him, "Say, May my death be an atonement for all my sins." R. Judah says: If he knew that he was condemned because of false testimony he should say, "Let my death be an atonement for all my sins excepting this sin." They said to him: If so, every one would speak after this fashion to show his innocense."
3. When he was four cubits from the place of stoning, they stripped off his clothes. A man is kept covered in front and a woman both in front and behind. So R. Judah. But the Sages say: a man is stoned naked but a woman is not stoned naked.
4. The place of stoning was twice the height of a man. One of the witnesses knocked him down on his loins; if he turned over on his heart the witness turned him over again on his loins. If he straightaway died that sufficed; but if not, the second took the stone and dropped it on his heart. If he straightaway died, that sufficed; but if not, he was stoned by all Israel, for it is written, The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death and afterward all the hand of all the people. All that have been stoned must be hanged. So R. Eliezer. But the Sages say: None is hanged save the blasphemer and the idolater. A man is hanged with his face to the people and a woman with her face to the gallows. So R. Eliezer. But the Sages say: A man is hanged but a woman is not hanged. R. Eliezer said to them: Did not Simeon ben Shetah hang women in Ashkelon? They answered: He hanged eighty women, whereas two ought not to be judged in one day. How did they hang a man? They put a beam into the ground and a piece of wood jutted from it. The two hand were brought together and it was hanged. R. Jose days: The beam was made to lean against a wall and one hanged the corpse thereon as butchers do. And they let it down at once: if it remained there overnight a negative command is thereby transgressed, for it is is written, His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shall surely bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is a curse against God; as if to say, Why was this one hanged? Because he blessed the Name, and the Name of Heaven was found profaned.
[Other forms of capital punishment under Jewish law included burning, decapitation, and strangulation, each of which has its own set of crimes meriting such punishment.]
Crimes Meriting Stoning
These are they that are to be stoned: he that has connexion with his mother, his father's wife, his daughter-in-law, a male, or a beast, and the woman that suffers connexion with a beast, and the blasphemer and the idolator, and he that offers any of his seed to Molech, and he that has a familiar spirit and a soothsayer, and he that profanes the Sabbath, and he that curses his father or his mother, and he that has a connexion with a girl that is betrothed, and he that beguiles [others to commit idolatry], and he that leads [a whole town] astray, and the sorcerer and a stubborn and rebellious son.