The Establishment of the Sanhedrin
The Sanhedrin appears to have been established before or during the reign of Antiochus the Great, who ruled from 223–187 B.C. Although Moses established a council of seventy, there is no apparent connection between that and the Sanhedrin council of seventy-one. It served as the Jewish Senate and was the highest law of the land, even over religious issues and had the ability to arrest people and to carry out sentences, although power of life and death was removed forty years before the fall of Jerusalem. The members of the council came from the chief priests, scribes, and elders.
The Power within Sanhedrin Councils
During Jesus’ ministries, the Pharisees were the strongest power in the council, although the Sadducean had a strong influence in the form of the inclusion of the chief priests and scribes. Both Greeks and Romans who ruled over Jews gave the council a great deal of power and self-government.
Its power changed over the years. Herod was called before the council while governor, but in Jesus’ time, they could not control Him while He was preaching in Galilee and Perea, because their authority only extended to Judea. It was Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem for His last Passover that allowed them to arrest Him. They accused Him of blasphemy and then convinced Pilate, who was the Roman procurator to have Him killed, since Pilate’s approval was required.
The Accused Brought Before the Sanhedrin
The Supreme Court was located in Jerusalem, but smaller local courts were called Sanhedrin Councils.
The Sanhedrin met in the temple colonnade and sat in a semi-circle. Those accused were brought to them wearing mourning clothing. If the council found them guilty, it determined the sentence. Although it could decree capital punishment, it was not allowed to carry out such a sentence. Death sentences had to be approved by the Roman procurator.
Stephen was tried before the Sanhedrin, who brought false witnesses to testify against him. Those in the council saw, as they looked at him, one who had the face of an angel. He testified to them that he had seen a vision of Christ on the right-hand of God, and the people cast him out and stoned him. It appears that this was the work of the people, not of the Sanhedrin.
The Sanhedrin imprisoned Peter and John when they were healing. They were able to escape through angelic intervention.
Prior to his conversion, Paul had authority to represent the Sanhedrin in persecuting Christians over a wide range of territory. He may have been a member of this council himself.