The Legal Power of the Sanhedrim is Restricted
Twenty-three Years Before the Trial of Christ
We have sketched the organization of the Sanhedrim, which, in the time of Christ, was composed of three chambers. Afterwards we determined the extent of the judiciary power. This was very great, as the reader has, doubtless, been able to judge. A great event has, however, shaken and reduced its authority. To describe this important event we have especially reserved this chapter.
Twenty-three years before the trial of Christ the Sanhedrim lost the power of passing the death sentence.
This took place after the deposition of Archelaus, son and successor of Herod, 11 A.D., or 7 V.E. (Josephus, Ant., Book 17, Chapter 13.1-5). Judea had become a Roman province, and the procurators who administered justice in the name of Augustus deprived the Sanhedrim of its supreme power in order that they themselves might exercise the jus gladii; that is to say, the sovereign right over life and death. Every province annexed to the Roman Empire had to submit to this; and, as Tacitus says, the Romans reserved to themselves the right of the sword, and neglected all else.
The Sanhedrim still, however, retained the right to excommunicate, John 9:22, to put in prison, Acts 5:17, 18, and to inflict corporeal punishment, Acts 16:22, but the principal right of its sovereignty — namely, the right over life and death — it possessed no longer. The Talmud itself, jealous as it is of the independence of the Jewish nation, is constrained to admit this fact: A little more than forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the power of pronouncing capital sentences was taken away from the Jews, (Talmud, Jerusalem, Sanhedrim, fol. 24, recto). These forty years, says the learned Israelite, M. Dérembourg, form a round number, and it designates the epoch of the procuratorship of Pontius Pilate (18-37). It is hardly possible, however, that the jus gladii had remained in the Jewish power until that period. It must have ceased since Coponius, 7 A.D. (Essai sur l’histoire et la géographie de la Palestine, d’aprés les Talmuds et les autres sources Rabbinique, p. 90: Paris, 1867.) This was a terrible blow to Judea, from which neither the Jews contemporary with Christ nor their descendants have ever recovered. Rabbi Rachmon says: “When the members of the Sanhedrim found themselves deprived of their right over life and death, a general consternation took possession of them; they covered their heads with ashes and their bodies with sackcloth, exclaiming: ‘Woe unto us, for the scepter has departed from Judah, and the Messiah has not come!’” (Raymond Martin, Pugio fidei, 872; Leipsic edition). They even tried on several occasions to free themselves from the royal decree; and they have always endeavored to persuade themselves that although they had lost the power of carrying a capital sentence into execution, they still preserved the power to pronounce judgment in matters pertaining to religion. What an illusion! Every time they pronounced a sentence of death, as in the case of Christ, of Stephen, (Acts 6:12-15, 7:56-57) and of James the son of Alphaeus, they did it in manifest violation of the Roman laws.
Josephus, the most eminent of Jewish historians, an eyewitness of this decadence, says expressly: “After the death of the procurator Festus, when Albinus was about to succeed him, the high priest Ananus considered it a favorable opportunity to assemble the Sanhedrim. He therefore caused James the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, and several others, to appear before this hastily assembled council, and pronounced upon them the sentence of death by stoning. All the wise men and strict observers of the law who were at Jerusalem expressed their disapprobation of this act. . . . Some even went to Albinus himself, who had departed to Alexandria, to bring this breach of the law under his observation, and to inform him that Ananus had acted illegally in assembling the Sanhedrim without the Roman authority,” (Josephus, Ant., 20, Chapter 9.1). This incident and the testimony of Josephus prove indisputably that in his eyes, and in those of the wisest and strictest observers of the law in the nation, the power of the Sanhedrin over life and death was gone.
But it was not the Sanhedrim alone that manifested so much concern at the loss of this power; we may say that the whole nation shared in this grief. In order, however, to palliate the blow which the national independence had sustained, and to make believe that the Sanhedrim still possessed the supreme power over life and death, the rabbis invented the following fiction:
It was not, say they, the Romans who first deprived that assembly of its supreme power. It was the assembly itself, which judged it necessary, for a time, to impose upon itself this restriction. The reason for such an act is given as follows: The members of the Sanhedrim, having noticed that the number of murderers had increased to such an extent in Israel that it became impossible to condemn them all to death, they concluded among themselves [and said], It will be advantageous for us to change our ordinary place of meeting for another, so that we may avoid the passing of capital sentences (Talmud, Bab., Aboda Zarah, or of Idolatry, fol. 8, recto). The frequency of homicide was so great that, in order to avoid condemnations, the Sanhedrim banished itself from its place of session (Abraham Jackuth, Liber Juchasin). See also the Great Book of Precepts, by Rabbi Michael Kotsensis, p. 102. This eminent rabbi lived at Toledo in 1230. His book on precepts is a résumé on both Talmuds, and was edited for the first time in Venice in 1522. A second edition appeared in Bamberg in 1547.) Thus forty years before the destruction of the second Temple criminal sentences ceased in Israel, although the Temple was still standing. This was due to the fact that the members of the Sanhedrim quitted the Hall of Hewn Stones and held their sessions there no longer, (Maimonides, Const. Sanhedrim, Chapter 14. See also Talmud, Bab., Aboda Zarah, fol. 8).
Such is the first motive alleged by the rabbis as a reason why the right over life and death ceased to be exercised by the Sanhedrim. Thus the abstaining from pronouncing capital sentences is attributed to the unfortunate times when the number of victims would be too numerous.
But to this explanation, which is nowhere justified in history, the rabbins thought it best to add another of a more plausible character: “The members of the Sanhedrim,” they add, “had taken the resolution not to pass capital sentences as long as the land of Israel remained under the government of the Romans, and the lives of the children of Israel were menaced by them.” This motive appears very plausible indeed. “To condemn to death a son of Abraham at a time when Judea is invaded on all sides, and is trembling under the march of the Roman legions, would it not be to insult the ancient blood of the patriarchs? Is not the least of the Israelites, by the very fact that he is a descendant of Abraham, a superior being to the Gentiles? Let us, therefore, quit the Hall of Hewn Stones, outside of which no one can be condemned to death, and in protestation of which let us show by our voluntary exile and by the silence of justice that Rome, although ruling the world, is nevertheless mistress over neither the lives nor the laws of Judea,” (See Lightfoot, in Evangelium Matthaei, horae hebraicae, p. 275, 276: Cambridge, 1658).
Every one will agree that to speak and act thus is to manifest a lofty spirit. Unhappily, however, all this is fiction; the members of the Sanhedrim have never voluntarily banished themselves from the Hall of Hewn Stones.
In the seventh year of the Roman era, after the deposition of Archelaus, and when Judea had been converted into a Roman province, the Sanhedrim was deprived of the sovereign power it possessed over life and death.
But let us inquire into the cause of this stubborn reluctance on the part of the members of the Sanhedrim, as well as that of the Jewish posterity, to acknowledge this unhappy state of things. We will admit that the Hebrews possess some pardonable national pride; but after all, Judea was no exception to the rule. All the nations subdued by the Romans were deprived of their right to pronounce capital sentences, and yet none of them ever refused to acknowledge the humiliation. Why is it, then, that the Jewish people alone have never consented to do so?
Here is the explanation: At the disappearance of the sovereign power, the time appointed by Jacob’s prophecy for the coming of the Messiah seemed definitely and indisputably to have arrived. But as the synagogue refused to recognize the Messiah in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, it endeavored to arrest its fulfillment. To accomplish this it hesitated not to cling tenaciously, in the face of Roman authority and before their posterity, to that power over life and death, the suppression of which was the divinely appointed mark that the Messiah had come.
What, then, is the import of this prophecy? It is time, O Israelites, that it be explained to you in all its clearness.
Jacob was on his deathbed; his twelve children, grouped around him, received each, in order of his age, the prophetic blessing according to the inspiration of God. But when Judah’s turn came, the old man’s accents grew more sublime. “Judah,” he exclaimed, “thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: Thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The Scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a Lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be,” Genesis 49:8-10. Regarding this prophecy of Jacob, the rabbins of Jewish antiquity unanimously declare that it refers to the Messiah.
According to them, two signs were to precede the coming of the Messiah, so as to keep the minds of the people on the watch: first the removal of the scepter; then, the suppression of the judicial power. Commenting on the above passage, the Talmud says: “The Son of David shall not come unless the royal power has been taken from Judah,” and again: “The Son of David shall not come unless the judges have ceased in Israel,” (Sanhedrim, folio 97, verso). But at the time of the Roman conquest, the scepter, or the royal power, had long ago disappeared from Judah; for since the return from captivity — that is to say, more than four hundred years before that epoch — none of the descendants of David wielded the royal scepter. The Maccabean princes, (See Maccabees, Book 2) who were the last Jewish kings to reign in Jerusalem, belonged to the tribe of Levi; but Herod the Great, who succeeded them, had not even Jewish blood in him, being of Idumean descent.
The first sign, or the removal of the scepter from Judah, was then visibly accomplished. There remained yet the second sign, or the suppression of the judicial power; and behold its accomplishment! For it is a noteworthy fact that as soon as the authority for passing capital sentence was taken away by the Romans, there was no longer a true legislator between the feet of Judah. Our Hebrew brethren are too well acquainted with the figurative language of the East to require much explanation regarding the expression, “the feet of Judah.” They have certainly not forgotten that when a legislator or doctor in ancient Palestine was in the act of teaching, all his disciples were seated before him in the form of a semicircle. The teacher was thus literally placed among the feet, which were extended toward him as unto the center of a semicircle. (See Jacobi Alting, Schilo seu Laticinio patriarchae Jacobi, p. 168.)
Between the feet of Judah there was then no longer a true legislator, nor was there in his hand a scepter visible. “The judicial power once suppressed,” says the Talmud, “the Sanhedrim ceased to be.” And now, since the members of the Sanhedrim had refused to recognize in Jesus of Nazareth the promised Messiah, we can understand how that on the day when the sovereign right over life and death was taken from them, they should have exclaimed in despair: “Woe unto us, for the scepter has been taken from Judah, and the Messiah has not appeared!” (Talmud, Bab., Sanhedrim, Chapter 4, fol. 37, recto). Yes, the scepter has been removed. Judah possesses no longer either royal or legal power. The council of the Sanhedrim is nothing more than a mutilated body, and when Jesus shall appear in its presence, it can, if it wishes, censure his doctrines; it may even hurl at him its excommunication. All this it still has power to do. But should it condemn him to death, it will do it in manifest violation of the laws of Rome.