Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Seventy Angry Men: Who Were the 70 Elders of the Sanhedrin, and How Did They Get to Be the Deciders of Jesus' Fate?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Seventy Angry Men: Who Were the 70 Elders of the Sanhedrin, and How Did They Get to Be the Deciders of Jesus' Fate?

Article excerpt

How much power does anyone have? Often it depends on where we sit. At the Lincoln Memorial, for example, Abe sits in one of the largest chairs you're likely to see. He had the authority to change the history of his country--and he did. Most of us sit in far humbler chairs. In the cheap seats on the bleachers of world history, our contributions can appear quite small.

Yet our faith insists that what we do has cosmic and eternal significance. Every mortal decision is a choice for or against the forces for good. Do we speak for unity or division, love or prejudice, hope or cynicism? It matters. The same way it matters what every nameless person in the Bible chose to do with human freedom.

Power is an interesting subject for those who have it and those who wish they did. Adam and Eve wanted power from the beginning, as the story goes; Pontius Pilate argues with Jesus about power at ground zero of Christian history. The subject of who's in charge never goes away and is renewed around dinner tables nightly. Which makes one wonder about the activities of the Sanhedrin in the gospels and Acts: Who comprised this fateful assembly, and how did they get to be the deciders anyway?

Since Christians generally first become aware of the Sanhedrin in the context of Jesus arrest, it can seem like this power machine leaped from the shadows wholly formed. Actually, the idea of 70 elders wielding judgment over Israel originated in the time of Moses.

At Mount Sinai God commands Moses to bring this precise number of elders up the mountain to eat and drink before the Lord, sealing the covenant with this meal (Exodus 24). Seven is a number significant in many cultures, representing fullness and totality. Multiplying it evokes limitlessness.

The tradition of the 70 isn't lost after Israel settles into the land of promise. It's submerged under the monarchy established in David. When he wrests control of the nation from Saul, David calls the elders together to make a covenant with him and proclaim him king at Hebron (2 Samuel 5:3). This seems to be the last use David makes of them. Later kings will consult with the eiders, but they don't take their advice to heart (1 Kings 12:6-17; 20:7-43).

The influence of the 70 is subdued from the time of Moses (1300 B.C.) until after the Babylonian exile, when Israel's monarchy is effectively eradicated (587 B.C.).

Then things get interesting. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi--all operating after the return to Jerusalem around 515 B.C.--are the last seers of the biblical era of prophecy. Jewish tradition maintains they were part of what was known as the Great Assembly, the precursor to the Sanhedrin as the New Testament generation will know it.

Once the monarchy tanks, the role and authority of this consultative group expand significantly. By the time of the Maccabeans of the second century B.C., the Council (as it is now called) is a force to be reckoned with.

The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the first century A.D., describes this now-influential group as being made up of three groups. First come the elders, representing various tribes and important families. The second group includes all former high priests who are still alive. Scribes, experts in Mosaic law mostly drawn from the ranks of the Pharisees, are the final component.

The Hebrew synedrion, translated as Sanhedrin, means "sitting together": Its members did so in a semi-circle in the Temple complex. The total membership was 71, including the current high priest. …

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