Hey guys, so in the last video, we talked about the geography and political landscape of the Palestine area in the time of Christ. We talked about the Samaritans, Herod the Great, his successors, how the kingdom was divided — lots of great stuff that will help you make much more sense of the events happening in the Gospels, in the New Testament. But there’s still more we need to talk about. Throughout Christ’s life, he made a lot of enemies. Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, elders, the Sanhedrin, etc. Today we’re going to take a closer look at who these people are, what they believe, why they’re important, and how they are all connected. Let’s do it!
Alright, so in Christ’s time, the Romans ultimately had power over Palestine. But Rome largely allowed the Jews to govern themselves. The Sanhedrin “ruled as a Jewish law court in matters of faith, manners, and law in which Roman interests were not directly affected.” In other words, the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was essentially the Jewish Supreme Court. Remember, there was no separation of church and state at this time. Religious leaders were often also civil leaders. Religious laws were civil laws. The word “Sanhedrin” comes from the Greek word, Synhedrion. But in the King James Version of the Bible you won’t find it translated as “Sanhedrin”, you’ll find it translated as “council,” which makes sense because the Sanhedrin was a kind of council traditionally composed of 71 members, led by the high priest of the temple.
Now, who were the members of the Sanhedrin? The New Testament references them all over the place. For example, Matthew 26 says, “Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, And consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty, and kill him.” Why are these people meeting with the high priest, Caiaphas? Because Caiaphas, the high priest, is the leader of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin is composed of chief priests, scribes, and elders.
The chief priests were men of the tribe of Levi who worked in the temple. “Scribes … are sometimes called lawyers or doctors of the law [in the New Testament]. They developed the law in detail and applied it to the circumstances of their time.” The title “elder” means a few different things throughout the Bible, but when it comes to the Sanhedrin these were just well-respected men and community leaders, usually older in age. Whenever you read about the chief priests, scribes, and elders acting together, think Sanhedrin. Think Jewish government officials.
Members of the Sanhedrin generally belonged to two ideological groups: The Pharisees and the Sadducees. You can almost think of these groups as two opposing religiopolitical parties. These two ideologies approached scripture in different ways.
The Pharisees believed that the oral law, the oral tradition, was just as binding as written scripture. They were more popular among the common people than the Sadducees, but the Sadducees held the majority in the Sanhedrin. “The Sadducees were the party of high priests, aristocratic families, and merchants—the wealthier elements of the population.” They were more conservative when it came to scripture — only written scripture was binding. Interestingly, the Sadducees did not believe in supernatural things like resurrection, angels, or an afterlife — heaven or hell. The Pharisees did. These doctrines are sort of a big deal, so it’s not hard to see why these two groups didn’t get along… until they could rally together against a common enemy, like Jesus.
The Pharisees didn’t like Jesus because they viewed him as a heretic. Christ condemned them and defied their traditions at every opportunity. The Sadducees didn’t like Jesus because he was teaching all of this stuff about an afterlife and resurrection and performing a bunch of supernatural miracles that the Sadducees didn’t believe were possible. And of course he also publicly disrupted their little money-grubbing scheme in the temple.
And then you had another group that you’ll want to be familiar with called the Zealots. The Zealots were essentially the Resistance against Rome. They refused to support Roman rule, and despised the Jews who did. Naturally, they didn’t get along with the Sadducees and Pharisees who may not have been happy with Roman rule, but accepted it and cooperated. An extremist offshoot of the Zealots, called the Sicarii (which means daggermen), fought against Rome via terrorism and assassination.
Fun fact, the word Sicarii comes from the Latin “sicarius”, which means assassin. You might be familiar with the Spanish term for assassin, “sicario,” which derives from the same Latin word.
One of Christ’s disciples was known as Simon the Zealot. It’s possible this is a reference to his zeel for the gospel or another cause, or he may have at one time been associated with the Zealots or even the Sicarii. There’s a lot of debate on that issue.
As you know, Christ was betrayed by the apostle, Judas, and arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. He was not arrested by Romans. He’s arrested by officers of the Sanhedrin. The guy who gets his ear cut off by Peter was not a Roman soldier, he was the servant of Caiaphas, the high priest, and leader of the Sanhedrin. It’s not until after Christ’s sham trial with the Sanhedrin that they bring Him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect in charge, to be executed. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not the Sanhedrin had power to legally execute people, but at least in the biblical account it appears that in Christ’s case, they couldn’t, hence why they had to get the Romans involved.
Anyway, there’s a little bit of background for you that will hopefully be helpful to you as you traverse the gospels and the New Testament in general. Check out the resources in the description to learn more. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- “Sanhedrin” via Encyclopedia Britannica: https://bit.ly/2YU8EZe
- “Sanhedrin” via the Bible Dictionary: https://bit.ly/3j2QEmv
- “The Sanhedrin: The Jewish Court System” via Chabad.org: https://bit.ly/3CNuz31
- “Sadducee” via Encyclopedia Britannica: https://bit.ly/3AZHUnu
- Some relevant commentary from BibleHub: https://bit.ly/3lGPw9R
- “Zealot” via Encyclopedia Britannica: https://bit.ly/3BDLXXz
- “Pharisee” via Encyclopedia Britannica: https://bit.ly/3k6ucJF
- “Pharisees” in the Guide to the Scriptures: https://bit.ly/3GLjwtD
- Josephus talks about the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, and a fourth group not mentioned in the New Testament called the Essenes, in 18.1.2-6 of “Antiquities of the Jews”