The judicial system
2. Moses to Joshua
3. The judges period
4. The monarchy
5. Into exile and after the return
6. The Sanhedrin
i. The hierarchy of the clergy
ii. The composition of the Sanhedrin
Having silenced both the Pharisaical and Sadducean attempts at undermining His own standing before the people (Mtw 22:15-40) and of presenting them with a conundrum that forced them to reconsider their own ideas about what the Messiah was to be like (Mtw 22:41-46), Jesus returns to His teaching of the crowds but takes up, as His theme, the danger inherent in the religious leaders.
Although the chapter division causes this passage to seem as if we should deal with it separately as if spoken at a later time, the words naturally follow on from the close of chapter 22 and we should see it as a response to the religious leaders’ attempts at undermining the work of the Gospel through Jesus.
Mark 12:38 simply records for the reader that, immediately after the ‘Son of David’ question, Jesus began to include in His teaching His denunciation of the leadership, an open proclamation for any who wished to hear and which would, necessarily, have caused great offence amongst the leaders. Luke 20:45 states that Jesus spoke these words
‘...in the hearing of all the people...’
but that His original intention was to teach His disciples as they were gathered round. Whatever Jesus’ original intention, Mtw 23:1 records the ultimate result that
‘...Jesus [spoke] to the crowds and to His disciples...’
and any religious leaders who may have been standing around listening.
Matthew chapter 23 is extensive and the parallel passages in both Mark 12:38-40 and Luke 20:45-47 record just one snippet of the proclamation in the Temple with one unique verse in those two records (Mark 12:40, Luke 20:47) which Matthew omits (unless Mtw 23:14 is accepted as being original - the position of this verse in Matthew, however, changes the people to whom the words come from being directed at the crowds in Mark and Luke to being aimed directly at the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew). Mattask, along with many other commentators considers it obvious that
‘...Matthew has assembled sayings uttered by Jesus on various occasions against those scribes and Pharisees...’
but this seems unfair to assert. Even if we do find similar passages in other places in the Gospels, it doesn’t follow that Jesus used the material but once (as I repeatedly maintain) and a lengthy attack on the religious leadership of Israel is fully in keeping with the treatment He’s received at their hands in the previous couple of chapters.
As a broad overview of the chapter, we may divide it into three main sections:
a. Mtw 23:1-12 which are primarily addressed to both the disciples and the crowds as noted above. They deal with what the Pharisees do (specifically v.1-7) while going on to outline what His own followers should rather do (v.8-12).
b. Mtw 23:13-36 turn their attention to direct speech towards the religious leaders and it’s probably not going too far to see Jesus raise His head at the leaders going about the Temple and speaking across the courts to announce directly His assessment of their lifestyles, making the crowds and His disciples more like bystanders who were observing a conversation between two parties.
There are seven woes recorded here if verse 14 is omitted as most modern translations do, the first two dealing with entering the Kingdom (Mtw 23:13,15), the second two with the inversion of values (Mtw 23:16-24), the third two with inner cleanliness (Mtw 23:25-28) and the final one with the judgment which was about to fall upon them.
c. Mtw 23:37-39 concludes the section with a few short sentences directed at the city of Jerusalem, with the judgment which had already fallen upon it and of the Messiah’s return to the city.
Jesus’ attention at this point is now taken away from both the leadership and the crowds which were gathered before Him and onto the city as a whole. It’s fitting that, in Matthew’s Gospel, this is the last recorded teaching of Jesus in the Temple for it ties in well with His words (Mtw 23:39) that
‘...you will not see Me again...’
Both Mark and Luke record one final incident concerning the gifts which were being put into the treasury within the Temple (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4) but even they bring the teaching discourses in the Temple to a close - Luke’s note in 21:37-38 is probably meant to be taken as a summation of the time of His teaching and not meant to infer that Jesus returned the following day to teach after the declaration concerning the end of days (Matthew chapters 24-25, Mark chapter 13, Luke 21:5-36).
After all, immediately after this discourse to the disciples, Jesus is recorded as saying (Mtw 26:2) that
‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming...’
and Mark 14:1 records simply a time statement that
‘It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread...’
and this would place the opening verses probably on our Tuesday evening after sundown but, in the Jewish reckoning of time, on the Wednesday night period before the day dawned the following morning, the Passover meal being eaten on our Thursday evening but the Jews’ Friday night period before the following day (owing to the fact that the Jewish day began at sundown whereas ours begins at midnight).
Matthew chapter 23 reads like a continuation of His discussions with the religious leaders and as a response to them once they depart and, as this took place on the Tuesday, there seems little reason to doubt that it took place on the same day and that Jesus chose not to return to the Temple on the Wednesday.
Finally, there has been a significant Jewish ‘backlash’ against this entire chapter in Matthew, Matfran noting that it has been summarised as
‘...grossly unfair, even libellous’
and commentators rush to point out that Jesus is more concerned to deal with the Pharisaic system of interpretation which caused oppression to come upon real believers than He is about denouncing the religious group which bore the labels of ‘scribes’ and ‘Pharisees’. Mathag even goes so far as to comment that it is necessary to
‘...affirm Pharisaism as something to be held in high esteem’
and that the chapter shouldn’t be used
‘...to portray the Pharisees or [first century] Judaism negatively’
but this is deceitful language - Jesus is severely opposed to Pharisaism (as can be seen by some of the language He uses here - is ‘child of hell’ really a term of endearment [Mtw 23:15]?!) and has been since its opposition of Him both behind the scenes by denouncing the power at work in Him as demonic in origin and of openly calling Him to account for His failure to observe their own interpretation of the Law. No, Jesus was both accurate and vitriolic in His attack and we certainly shouldn’t lessen the force of His words but, as we will see, neither should we take His words as being anti-Semitic.
Jesus is most definitely against Pharisaism but He’s not against the Jewish nation - rather, we may label Him anti-leadership (which is a misguided label as well!) but not anti-Semitic throughout the chapter and neither should we take His words as a comment on Jewish religion throughout the world today. What Jesus said here is important to the first century situation and should a group use the same labels as ‘Pharisee’ and ‘scribe’ but be demonstrably different, the implications of the chapter simply do not apply.
Although there were most certainly some good Pharisees and scribes who were at least willing to listen and consider the demands and teaching of the Gospel (John 3:1-2), we should note that Jesus is on the warpath against the people who have been opposing Him and not just against the organisational structures of which they were a part.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Pharisees were instrumental in opposing Jesus by claiming that His power was satanic in origin (Mtw 9:34, 12:24) and not just because He interpreted the Law differently in matters of the sabbath or of ceremonial defilement. Therefore, although it may be a successful apologetic to claim that Jesus is only thinking (as Matfran) of the
‘...faults inherent in the Pharisaic approach to religion’
it’s impossible to differentiate between the system and its adherent and the chapter is most definitely an attack against both the Pharisee and scribe who have been opposing the new move of God which had been coming into the nation through the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven.
If the scribe and the Pharisee are being condemned because they were in positions of religious authority but were failing to discharge the responsibility which that position warranted, we should look to ourselves rather than to present day Jewish parallels and see whether, as God’s leaders within Jesus’ Church, we’re doing the very same things as were being condemned.
If we’re true to the burden of Jesus’ words, we would see that, instead of shunning the way characterised by the scribes and Pharisees, we have adopted many of their practices and stand in no better position than they did.
The judicial system
Even though, at first glance, the set up of the judicial system in first century Israel doesn’t appear to be particularly relevant to the passage under discussion, it helps us to interpret Jesus’ words concerning the scribes and Pharisees sitting on Moses’ seat (Mtw 23:2) and that the crowds and disciples listening to Him speak were to (Mtw 23:3)
‘...practice and observe whatever they tell you’
a strange statement if we consider other events in Jesus’ life where He categorically refused to accept their interpretation of Mosaic Law (Mtw 15:1-9). The Jewish judicial system in Israel was headed up by the Great Sanhedrin which sat in Jerusalem and, under this, lesser courts existed and probably even lesser ones under these also which decided upon both civil and religious matters, attempting to enforce law and order throughout Jewish society (we will look at the set up of these in the final two articles in this series of notes).
This word ‘sanhedrin’ is almost a direct transliteration from the Greek (Strongs Greek number 4892), Kittels noting that the word originally meant in secular Greek the ‘place of assembly’ but that it was applied more generally by the Jews to a governing body or council which sat over all or part of the nation. We’ll look at the composition and function of this council at the very end of our discussion of the judicial system through Bible history seeing as it sits as the result of what’s gone before, but we should note from the outset that the word for ‘sanhedrin’ occurs numerous times in the NT even though it’s normally rendered with the word ‘council’ rather than with the more technical and equally correct transliteration (Mtw 5:22, 10:17, 26:59, Mark 13:9, 14:55, 15:1, Luke 22:66, John 11:47, Acts 4:15, 5:21,27,34,41, 6:12,15, 22:30, 23:1,6,15,20,28, 24:20).
Zondervan comments that the word translated ‘Senate’ by the RSV in Acts 5:21 (Strongs Greek number 1087) bears the same meaning as ‘sanhedrin’ along with the phrase ‘council of elders’ employed in both Luke 22:66 and Acts 22:5. But this isn’t obvious by the context for the first verse reads that
‘...the high priest came and those who were with him and called together the council [sanhedrin] and all the senate of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought’
which implies that the senate and the council were either two distinct and separate groups or that one was a part of the other - and Luke 22:66 reads that
‘...the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes; and they led Him away to their council [sanhedrin]...’
which again presupposes that the group of people described as the elders were instrumental in bringing Jesus to the council but that they weren’t necessarily one and the same body. It seems best to accept the more technical term ‘sanhedrin’ for the regular Greek word but to view with caution any of the other descriptions which may mean something either slightly or totally different.
Having said that, it’s not always easy to see whether the full meeting of the Jerusalem council of its seventy-one members is being meant when the word is being employed in the NT for a body of Jews resident within Jerusalem or whether lesser, twenty-three member, councils are meant when the word is employed outside the boundaries of the capital city. Even when the council is being referred to within the city, a hastily convened court of Law - for instance, the one assembled to try Jesus - may not have had to have had each of the recognised Jewish members present even though the sources which speak about the Sanhedrin in ancient writings fail to make any such allowance for less than this number as far as I can determine (I am attempting to use the word ‘sanhedrin’ capitalised when it’s certain that the Jerusalem seventy-one member Sanhedrin is being described to try and show a distinction between the more general ‘sanhedrin’ which means just ‘an assembly of law’ or a ‘court’ and, though singular can be used to refer to a plurality of courts scattered throughout the land).
I noted in a previous web page that the composition of the Sanhedrin was made up of what could be summarised as (Luke 20:1 Cp Mark 11:27)
‘...the chief priests and the scribes with the elders...’
where Luke 19:47 seems to use the phrase ‘the principal men of the city’ synonymously for the descriptor ‘elders’. The Sanhedrin are also mentioned as being comprised of (Mtw 21:23)
‘...the chief priests and the elders of the people’
and the indication of such passages isn’t that a representative Jewish leadership approached Jesus to question Him but that the full council assembled to glean what information they could to justify a formal hearing in which they were at pains to be able to find Him guilty and sentence Him to death - though such a sentence had to be enforced by the Roman authorities over them and a charge which was seen to undermine the established Roman Empire would have had to have been proved.
Very simply, the two religious parties which made up the Jerusalem or Great Sanhedrin were the Pharisees and Sadducees though the former were held in such high regard amongst the people that, when it came to the interpretation of the Mosaic Law, the latter could do very little but approve their decisions and pronouncements - they may well have sat in the minority even though they had the high priest as one of their adherents. Strictly speaking, therefore, Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees can’t be referring to the entire body of the Sanhedrin simply because the Sadducees are being omitted but the function of the Sanhedrin is being referred to in Mtw 23:2-3 which makes a consideration of the judicial system somewhat of a necessity to be able to understand Jesus’ words more fully.
The exact composition of the councils are still much disputed by scholars and there appears to be no generally accepted consensus of opinion, but I shall be using Jeremias’ discussion to construct a likely make up of the assembly in Jerusalem at the end of these notes, though the reader will find great variations if they consult other sources.
The first number of headers, however, shouldn’t contain too much which is seen to be at variance with standard Biblical teaching for, in them, we are attempting to trace the judicial system within the nation of Israel by use of Scripture alone until we come to a time when it seems certain that what was known as the sanhedrin in first century Israel had been formed and was functioning (even if it be in a slightly different form earlier in its history).
Most of my comments concerning the first century sanhedrin are reserved for the final article, however, so that the council
can be seen as being the conclusion of all that has gone before.
Wherever man has grouped together in communal societies, there has been a need for law-making and law-enforcement. Man’s laws define the conduct that’s expected from each person within society and show the boundaries over which individuals are forbidden to cross, with punishments and consequences for transgressions - it’s not surprising that there are rules and regulations scattered throughout written history in ancient records.
These laws may be based upon purely humanistic principles as they are today in the West or, as in ancient culture, more likely to be a reflection of what was considered to be the character of the god which the society served, but the need for Law is vitally necessary if a culture is to function properly.
To think that one can overthrow legal boundaries and allow the ‘inner goodness’ of man to shine through is to be sincerely deceived into thinking that law restricts man from attaining to his ultimate good and to a perfect expression of the ‘spark of life’ resident within, a phrase which is used in many of the more Celtic religions of our present day.
Early man realised the need for restrictions and set about defining bad and evil conduct that was untenable with a residency in their midst. Present man must do the same if society is ever to know the difference between right and wrong, and the continued existence of men and women who exploit others is sure evidence that, although the West has become affluent, disregard for other people isn’t a result of poverty but something which sweeps down to the lowest and up to the highest classes of people in the world.
Although many like to think of themselves as striving to return to some golden age where there was no law because man was ‘one with nature’, the evidence suggests that even the nearest society to such an age (if one, indeed, ever existed at all) realised that restrictions had to be placed upon behaviour because of what was present within themselves.
Simple law-making is not sufficient if there’s not a law-enforcement of the rules made. Any society can have the most righteous and god-fearing principles on its statute books but, if the eyes are turned away from those who do what is clearly contrary to the law, it’s no better than another society that allows such offences to take place by failure to mention it in its statutes.
Therefore, even from ancient time, there’s been a need both for enforcement and for impartial judgment, this latter being also vitally necessary where disputes and arguments arise between individuals that need resolving and settling that society might live in some form of peace.
The earliest records in the Bible from the Book of Genesis don’t comment on there being a specific ‘judicial system’ amongst those civilisations but it need not be expected to record such phenomena as it’s concerned with the history of one specific lineage who grew to be a separate nation at the beginning of the Book of Exodus due to its size.
However, in Gen 16:5 and 31:53, God is called upon to be Judge between two parties and, in Gen 31:37, men are called upon to judge between two individuals. A judicial system may have been commonly in existence in the gate of certain cities of specific people where the elders gathered and gave their ruling on the cases which were brought before them. Such meetings would have been informal, everyday meetings of the people who were considered ‘wise’ in their own society’s eyes and wouldn’t have formed an official sitting of a law council that met, as does today, in a special chamber with the authority of the throne under which they sit.
It was a simple way to resolve disputes, to remove law-breaking from their midst and to punish the wrongdoer that he might not continue doing those things which were found to be offensive. This set up seems to have been the way the earliest of Biblical records shows that law was enforced.
That some sort of law ‘in the gates’ continued seems certain from the condemnation of the judicial procedure that took place there (Is 29:20-21, Prov 22:22, Amos 5:10,12,15) but it’s difficult to be certain what it’s relationship was under both the judges, the monarchy and whether it was viewed differently by the northern and southern kingdoms after the division.
2. Moses to Joshua
By the time of Moses, the Israelites were many and must have had a judicial system of sorts. The concept is certainly not lacking even before the giving of the Law at Sinai. When Moses exhorted two Hebrews to be reconciled to one another rather than to fight, one answered him angrily (Ex 2:14)
‘Who made you a prince and a judge over us?’
which seems to presuppose the existence of some sort of established law enforcement.
After the Exodus but before the Law was given, Moses sat as the only judge over the nation (Ex 18:13) though this was quickly rectified (Ex 18:14-27) with the appointment of men to decide the lighter cases, referring only those considered hard and difficult to Moses.
Why Moses should ever have been seen as the only man capable of impartial judgment after the nation had had a judicial system in Egypt is difficult to imagine except that, perhaps, because God was seen to be with Him, He was naturally looked to for decisions which would reflect the character of God. It may also have been the case, however, that the judges over the nation in Egypt had been Egyptian and that the courts the offended went to were those organised and run by the ruling authorities. If this was the case, leaving the nation meant that the Egyptian judges would have been left behind and no recognised judicial system would have come with them.
The Law which was given shortly afterwards gave specific guidelines for the judges in their own office and legislated ‘case law’ in its contents which often began with the words ‘if’ or ‘when’ showing the conditional nature of the instructions. These sorts of commands weren’t ones which were simply recountable such as the ten commandments by the ordinary people but instructions for the judges to guide impartial judgment. Such a body of rules and regulations can be found in Exodus 21:1-23:19 with a specific warning to all the nation’s judges (Ex 23:2-3) which reads that they must not be
‘...partial to a poor man in his suit’
so that justice might always be seen to be done (see also Lev 19:15, Deut 16:19-20 and Deut 1:17 which was a command of Moses to the original set up of the judicial system before the Law was given). After the giving of the Law, the judicial system took upon itself a clear enforcement of what was written rather than being a decision of the judge based upon his own experience and moral conviction, applying the statutes to everyday situations which would have been brought before them, but passing on more difficult cases to Moses so that precedents might be set which could be handed down for future situations.
In these ‘difficult cases’, YHWH was consulted directly and a new statute entered the Law which would have been subsequently made known to the judges (Lev 24:12-13, Num 27:5-6, Num 36:5-6).
Such a set up is also a specific word of instruction to present day believers though it must be stressed that the New Testament believer is not under an external written code but under the guiding power of the Holy Spirit. Each believer is to move in the revelation already received from God but, whenever situations are encountered that are new to them, they need to ask for specific insight and direction that, in everything, they might prove themselves to be pleasing to the God they serve.
The judge of the Mosaic Law had the right to inflict punishment on the wrongdoer and thereby to remove any supposed right of vengeance from the midst of the people of Israel (Deut 25:1-3, Lev 19:18). When the nation of Israel joined itself to the god Ba’al of Peor, it was the judges who were called upon to implement YHWH’s judgment on the people (Num 25:5) and the principle both here and in other places seems to be that the one who passes judgment or bears witness is the one who must go through with its implications (Lev 20:2, 24:14). Obviously, judges were not men who could be in the least bit squeamish.
Judges were commanded to enquire diligently in the case of suspected false witnesses (Deut 19:18) but the inference here is that diligence was something which would also have been obligatory in all the cases that were being brought before them and that they weren’t to superficially gloss over a case but make sure that all the available evidence was brought before them so that the correct verdict might be arrived at.
Two Scriptures in the Mosaic Law refer directly to the judicial system when the Israelites were to finally take possession of the land of Canaan. Deut 16:18 commands that
‘You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God gives you, according to your tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment’
and, beginning with the judges which were in existence as the nation entered the land, successors were to follow who would be people recognised in specific locations who would be gone to for judicial decisions to be made. As we’ll see when we come to Samuel the prophet, this doesn’t appear to have been taking place over the area in which the prophet presided.
But there was also the possibility that new situations uncovered by the Law would come about and that cases which needed to be dealt with were too difficult to be decided upon (for instance, when there was one man’s word against another with no other witnesses) and the Law made provision for a higher court to be brought into being to which all the problematical cases could be despatched (Deut 17:8-13).
This court was to be the final word on the matter and was to be established in
‘...the place which the Lord your God will choose’
which, presumably, would initially have been where the Tabernacle and presence of the Lord was set up, for the passage goes on to speak of consulting the Levitical priests as well as the judge (which originally may have been the high priest).
Eventually, this place would have been taken to be Jerusalem where the ark of the covenant finally came to rest within the Temple built by king Solomon.
It was this ‘great court’ that became known as the ‘Great Sanhedrin’ in NT times and to which Jesus would have been brought to be sentenced to death. However, it would be wrong to think of the set up of the judicial system as being the same as that which had been commanded in the Mosaic Law for, here, there were only single judges which were originally empowered to decide matters of law, though Deut 16:18 (quoted above) may infer that groups were to be brought together to bear the responsibility, with the one single possibility of referral to the greater court.
The judicial set up in NT times, however, had at least three recognised ‘courts’ as we’ll see below.
One final word needs to be said about the appointment of the judges over the nation by Moses in Ex 18:24-26 for, to justify the number of members of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, the Pharisees cited the incident of Num 11:16-17 in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 1:6 - we will look at this later) and interpreted it as being the time when seventy judges were elevated over the nation to give justice. But the OT passage actually says no such thing for it concerns Moses’ feeling of insufficiency in leading the people into Canaan so that these men were those who were given a leadership function rather than a judicial one.
It’s quite possible that the impartation of justice was part of their mandate but, initially, it was to provide leadership to the nation of Israel that Moses felt unable to give - there was already a judicial structure in place at the time of their appointment.
3. The judges period
It would appear that from the commencement of the Book of Judges (and after the death of the seventy elders - Judges 2:7), YHWH was in the habit of raising up one supreme judge over the nation of Israel who not only decided legal cases but acted as a deliverer of the people. Judges 2:16-19 is a good summary of this part of the nation’s experience and is an accurate description of at least a substantial part of this Book, especially the earliest chapters.
Without a specific leader, therefore, judges took on that role whenever necessary but the elevation of one of their ranks seems only to have been achieved by the anointing and appointing of God. Although there was a supreme judge over them all, a ‘judge of judges’, it must also be true that judges in each city were also called upon to administer local justice, referring harder cases to the place where the Lord was residing (Deut 17:8-13) and where ‘the judge’ was seated - this latter person doesn’t have to have been the ‘supreme’ judge mentioned earlier as the person Moses and is more likely to have been the high priest who would have been able to enquire directly from the Lord as to the necessary decision to be given.
There are numerous mentions of these judges (Judges 3:9-10 - Othniel, 3:15 - Elud, 3:31 - Shamgar, 4:4 - Deborah, 10:1-2 - Tola, 10:3 - Jair, 12:7 - Jephthah, 12:8 - Ibzan, 12:11 - Elon, 12:13 - Abdon and the list goes on) but, perhaps the two most memorable are Samson (Judges 16:31) and Samuel (I Sam 7:15), the latter of which shows that such a judge structure for the nation would have continued into the following history of the Books of Ruth and Samuel and even upto the time of the first God-appointed Israelite king, Saul.
There were just four specific judges who are noted as deliverers even though Judges 2:18 may be taken to infer that there were a whole lot more - these four specific deliverers were Othniel (3:9-11), Ehud (3:15), Shamgar (3:31) and Samson (13:5) but, to these, we should, perhaps, consider the two judges who were also named as prophets and who did a substantial amount of work along the same lines - Deborah (4:4) and Samuel (I Sam 3:20).
In a sense, all judges had to be prophets for it was necessary not just to rely upon the written decisions which had been handed down to them from Moses but to also ‘forth-tell’ the mind, will and judgment of God in every case brought before them. It may be going too far to summate all three functions of the known judges into one person but judge, deliverer and prophet seem to have been the three functions expected of each judge as and when the need arose.
Although it may not have been the case throughout the entire nation, by the time of Samuel, the simple structure of having judges in each of the Israelite cities seems to have been reinterpreted perhaps when no sufficient person was to be found - perhaps, though, this was the first general reorganisation of the judicial system within Israelite society for we read in I Sam 7:15-17 that
‘Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. And he went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal and Mizpah; and he judged Israel in all these places. Then he would come back to Ramah for his home was there and there also he administered justice to Israel...’
This annual circuit (all three cities lay within Ephraimite territory whereas his own home town of Ramah was within that given to Benjamin) was some twenty miles from west to east and may be the cities which were the furthest extensions of his influence rather than being the only three cities at which he dispensed justice, but it’s equally possible that disputes were brought before him from the surrounding area at the time which had been prearranged for him to be there. It’s quite possible that other judges did the same thing even before Samuel arose when there was a lack of suitable individuals who could act effectively as judges - but we have no way of knowing from the Biblical record.
One final note is that Gen 49:16 notes that it was God’s intention to use the Danites as judges in Israel but, of all the judges that we have records of, only Samson is recorded as descending from that tribe (Judges 13:2).
4. The monarchy
With the advent of the monarchy, the ‘supreme’ judge function seems to have transferred to the king of Israel so that cases which could not be adequately settled in the local courts were referred to him for a final and enforceable decision.
There are two specific examples in the life of king David that show this set up at work, one of which occurred in the earlier years of his united reign over Israel. Although we often look at the approach of Nathan the prophet in II Sam 12:1-6 as simply the means towards the end of bringing David to his senses as to what he’d done against both God and man, we need to realise that such a situation could only have come about if there was a way in which the king could be petitioned on behalf of someone in his kingdom who saw an injustice and wished for it to be corrected by royal authority.
Therefore, we may not be going too far wrong to see Nathan’s approach before the king as transpiring on a normal day’s work for king David as he sat on the throne deciding between one man and his fellow as cases were brought before him. If this is the case, Nathan’s declaration would have been all the more public and shocking and would have soon been transmitted throughout the kingdom just as news was in those days. Even if this was a private meeting, it still presupposes the accessibility of the king to ordinary men and women who needed their matters dealing with.
The next incident in II Sam 14:1-17 gives us a similar picture where a woman pretending to be a mourner approached the king for a decision concerning David’s own son. Though we may have thought that Nathan’s approach before the king was purely on the grounds that he was a recognised prophet of YHWH, there can be no similar factor here for David speaks with her solely on the basis that she has a complaint which she is petitioning him to resolve.
It seems certain, therefore, that the king regularly sat to decide matters of Law which had gone unresolved by the lesser courts which were in existence then throughout the nation, confirmed and interpreted later by II Sam 15:2-4 where we read of Absalom’s cunning in his reaction when he met men as they entered the city when they
‘...had a suit to come before the king for judgment...’
Absalom observing that
‘...there is no man deputed by the king to hear you’
which would imply that the king was the last word on the matter but that there were appointed judges under him who would hear the case first and only pass judgment on for the king to decide when they felt unable or unwilling to make a decision. Certainly, Absalom’s final statement that, if he were king
‘...every man with a suit or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice’
is one which was based upon his own desire to have the nation go after himself as the next king and may not be an accurate description of how inaccessible the king was at that time. Whatever, the king does seem to have been only ‘disturbed’ with cases which had been unable to be decided upon by those appointed under him. In this way, the set up of Deut 17:8-13 seems to have been reflected where ‘the judge’ would ultimately have been the king and the judges under him may have possibly been appointed Levites who were expected to know the Law of YHWH.
When Solomon acceded to the throne, it’s recorded that he gathered all Israel to him and specifically that he called to himself the judges (II Chron 1:2), implying a similar set up to that of David. More so because of the judgment he was required to give in the case of the two harlots (I Kings 3:16-28) which would appear to have been too difficult to be determined by those under his authority. Such a judgment did nothing but elevate Solomon’s own renown throughout the nation, the final verse recording that
‘...all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to render justice’
an apparent answer to Solomon’s prayer a short time before in I Kings 3:9 where he prayed for
‘...an understanding mind to govern thy people, that I may discern between good and evil...’
There seems to be no good reason to think that there was any change in the structure of the judicial courts under Solomon, therefore, and the record that a Hall of Judgment was completed would seem to indicate that such an arrangement was actually more firmly provided for (I Kings 7:7).
What took place between the time of Solomon and Jehoshaphat is impossible to determine but there was a need for reform that the latter king undertook for the sake of the nation (II Chron 19:4-11). The inference from the opening verse of this passage is that the judicial system had fallen into either disuse or abuse for we read, seemingly, of the appointment of judges where none existed before.
These new judges were appointed within all the fortified cities of the nation and reminded of their obligation to judge impartially by fearing YHWH. The implication is that any case which arose within a town was to be committed to the nearest fortified city where it would be decided upon by these judges - it may not be intended to infer that there was no judicial procedure in the rural villages but this remains a possibility.
Realising, however, that cases would be brought before the judges in the fortified cities which they felt unable to give decisions in, Jehoshaphat also appointed a supreme court in Jerusalem to which referrals could be made, comprised of (II Chron 19:8)
‘...certain Levites and priests and heads of families of Israel...’
and who had two ultimate leaders in Amariah the chief priest and Zebadiah the son of Ishmael who appear to have been appointed to give advice on the Mosaic Law and civil law respectively or, perhaps, more supervisory in nature, were to have significant input in leading the appointed judicial Levites in making that decision.
This supreme court, therefore, replaced any influence that the king would have in making judicial decisions and would, ultimately, have been able to theoretically decide on matters which went against the king, sitting as it did outside the direct influence of the throne. In that day and age, however, it’s unlikely that any court of the land would have made such a decision seeing as their authority was bestowed upon them by the throne itself.
From this point onwards in Jewish history, the monarchy seems to have totally relinquished their major function of the judging and enforcing of law though it’s impossible to determine through silence what reforms to this system were instituted by successive kings.
5. Into exile and after the return
The injustice of the judicial system was one of the pointers that judgment was about to fall upon the nation, resulting in the Babylonian exile (Jer 5:28, Micah 3:9-11, Amos 5:7, 6:12, Hab 1:4, Zeph 3:3) so that, even though we’ve seen that a structure existed that should have imparted righteousness to the nation, it was being abused by those who were placed as authorities over their fellow man.
The time of Israel’s judges was again promised (Is 1:26 Cp I Sam 8:4-9) because, throughout that era, YHWH alone was their King, the judges being mediators of God’s will to His people and to the Israelite society as a whole.
This is, surely, also a call to the new nation of believers, the Church, to be everything the judges of ancient Israel were supposed to be - judges, deliverers and prophets - in the land in which they find themselves.
As Judges, God’s people are to make known God’s will concerning specific situations that need a decision - as deliverers, they are to set free the people who are taken captive by sin and satan, enforcing the victory of the cross in their lives - as prophets, they are to forth-tell what God requires, not just with regard to specific cases and instances but teaching under the inspiration and anointing of the Holy Spirit. Even in the NT, Paul was to observe that the Church should fulfil its calling in both justice and judgment in the present earthly experience (I Cor 6:1-6).
After the exile, we have a record in Ezra 7:25 of the command from king Artaxerxes to Ezra to
‘...appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River, all such as know the laws of your God...’
and the existence of judges in all the cities is testified to later in Ezra 10:14. The prophet Zechariah, however, was still compelled by YHWH to reiterate the necessity for rendering true judgments in at least two places (Zech 7:9, 8:16), words which would have been specifically relevant for those people who were recognised judges in the land.
The latter of these two verses also infers that local courts were held in the gates of the city and it seems likely that a similar set up to the one instituted by Jehoshaphat was being practised upon their immediate return into the land.
6. The Sanhedrin
The reader may wonder at the sudden jump in the descriptions of the judicial system from the time of the return from exile to first century Israel but the origin of what was in existence during the first century appears to be shrouded in a great deal of mystery seeing as claims were made that such authority of the courts extended back even to Moses himself by a direct succession when it’s obvious from the preceding study that reforms in the nation successively introduced different judicial set ups.
The first definite reference to the Sanhedrin according to some authorities is in Josephus (Antiquities 12.3.3) which speaks of the ‘senate’ of the Jews coming to meet the Greek king Antiochus but the function of such a group of people is not explained here, only that there was such a council which appears to have been the leading representatives of the nation.
Others see this set up as a forerunner of the judicial sanhedrin structure outlined in the Mishnah as existing in the first century AD and this is, perhaps, the better position to take. Zondervan notes that
‘In AD 6...when Judea was made a Roman province, the Sanhedrin and its president, the high priest, were granted almost exclusive control of the internal affairs of the nation...It is during the period of the Roman procurators (AD 6-66) that the Sanhedrin came to possess the greatest power and jurisdiction of its history, although the Jewish authority was always ultimately answerable to the Roman governor’
That the origin of the court system seems to be shrouded in some mystery means that it’s probably best to jump immediately to the role of the Jewish courts of law in the first century while noting that, according to the Mishnah, the arrangement was claimed to be in keeping with the Mosaic legislation.
Just how far the Jews were allowed to run their own affairs under the jurisdiction and control of Rome is very difficult to say but it would appear that the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem knew that it didn’t have the right to sentence anyone to death (John 18:31) even though they sometimes took the law into their own hands and, if it was seen to be expedient, a blind eye was turned by the Roman authorities (Acts 6:15, 7:54-60).
Just how accurate a description the Mishnah presents to the reader is, again, difficult to determine for, although it is normally taken to be a compilation of the events and arrangements in the land before the destruction of the Temple in 70AD, there’s no remarks which indicate that the Pharisees regarded their subjugation by the Roman authorities as binding upon them and their statements regarding what the set up was may be more the ideal situation without the Romans than it was the actual one. Even so, most of what we read in chapter one of the tractate Sanhedrin is taken by myself to be a fairly reliable authority.
In the Mishnah, then, we read of three specific courts of law.
The first was held with the presence of three judges (Sanhedrin 1:1-3) and should probably be taken to be those courts and hearings which were held in rural locations that didn’t warrant a continued coming together of a law court. These three judges only decided on the more minor of issues such as property disputes, theft, personal injury, damages involving restitution and even offences which would result in scourging.
Jesus’ mention of His followers being subject to scourging because of their association with Him (Mtw 10:17, Mark 13:9) is a direct reference to this court of three and the former reference that scourging would take place in synagogues may indicate that they frequently met to judge cases in these buildings whenever possible.
Perhaps more worrying to our own society is that rape was considered by just the three rather than to be committed to a higher court, but such incidents should have been fairly cut and dried. There’s also mention of decisions needing to be decided upon by ‘the five’ and ‘the seven’ but it’s difficult to be certain whether this is meant to be another court located elsewhere or whether it was the court of the three with added members for difficult decisions. For most decisions of a daily basis, the court of the three was sufficient.
The higher court had twenty-three members (Sanhedrin 1:4) and dealt with
‘Cases...punishable by death...’
which covered all manner of Mosaic regulations which had this as the ultimate punishment including illicit sexual union between man and beast, the judgment upon a man whose ox had gored a man to death and the judgment upon a wild animal which had killed a man (strange as that might sound, it appears that they actually needed to decide whether a wild animal was culpable and, therefore, deserving death rather than release).
The third court, the Great Sanhedrin, had seventy-one members and had the sole right to judge matters which pertained to (Sanhedrin 1:5)
‘A tribe [the majority of which had committed apostasy and spiritual adultery], a false prophet [presumably as in the case of Jesus though ‘blasphemy’ appears to have been the final pronouncement] or the High Priest...’
along with a few other areas over which they held jurisdiction and which seems to have elevated them into the position of a ruling class with no superior over and above them. For instance, they were to decide on whether a military campaign was necessary against another people something which an OT king would have felt was his right and responsibility.
These two councils of seventy-one and twenty-three were referred to as the Greater and Lesser Sanhedrins respectively but there was only one of the former and that sat in the capital city, Jerusalem.
The reader may be wondering why such an odd number of members of the council was ever decided upon but the explanation is given in Sanhedrin 1:6 where we see that the appointment of the seventy elders of Israel in Num 11:16 was taken to be an appointment not of leadership but of a judiciary to which was added the person of Moses to make up the number to seventy-one.
The number twenty-three, however, was more bizarre as a conclusion to a Scriptural consideration beginning with the definition of a congregation as being ten people from Num 14:27 where the ‘evil generation’ is taken to be a reference to the ten spies of the twelve who brought back an evil report about the land of Canaan and a doubling of this number inferred from Num 35:24-25 where the congregation is said to both judge and deliver.
The additional three members is obtained from Ex 23:2 which adds a further two (in a most peculiar fashion which I don’t understand at all) and an additional one so that an odd number is obtained because
‘...a verdict of condemnation must be reached by the decision of a majority of two’
Please don’t contact me and say that this is ludicrous and confusing because I would have to agree - but you can read it for yourself in Sanhedrin 1:6 and, hopefully, you’ll be able to make more sense out of it than I can!
The court of twenty-three was only formed in cities that had either a hundred and twenty men or two hundred and thirty depending on which authority you followed - the former, however, seems to have been the one which was followed by the majority of Rabbis and it therefore is an inference that this court was set up in most areas where Jews were gathered in order to regulate their affairs.
I can’t find a reference that difficult cases were passed on to higher authorities when a judgment was felt inappropriate to be reached but, rather, the type of case determined which court was to decide on the matter and that the decision reached was binding.
The Sanhedrin functioned in two areas - both religious and civil - and was empowered to decide upon matters that affected both areas of everyday life. Indeed, civil rules and regulations would probably only have been seen as a response of God to the society over which He reigned as King and, therefore, even in a civil decision there would have had to have been some religious aspect which came into being.
While a humanist might say that murder is wrong because of his own ideas on morality, the courts of Israel would have to point back to the giving of the Mosaic Law and declare it to be because it came as a direct command from God Himself, reasoning that it was an expression of His nature and character.
There could have been nothing, therefore, which was purely secular.
Many commentators have gone on to propose that there were two sanhedrins in existence in Jerusalem (as Zondervan mentions only to reject the hypothesis) and that, while one legislated over religious affairs, the other gave decisions of a more civil nature. This certainly appears to be in opposition to the testimony of the Mishnah, however, which makes no distinction between the one supreme court and the other one proposed which could have been functioning and to which cases could be referred. A court of the twenty-three was situated within all the towns which had a minimum number in its population and it’s observably distinct from the Jerusalem-located Great Sanhedrin but it had decisions to make which would have been the right of this proposed second sanhedrin.
It’s important to note that the difference in the types of cases which could be decided upon means that the twenty-three was considered to be a lesser court and so had lesser important cases to consider. A secondary civil sanhedrin would have assumed a similar role of secondary importance but this is unlikely.
Besides, in the trial of Jesus, although the authorities decided that Jesus was a blasphemer and deserving of death (Mtw 26:65-66 see Sanhedrin 7:5 for the false charge which was being affirmed - only if the sacred name was being used could blasphemy be said to have been committed), their approach to the Roman authorities were on the grounds of treason (Luke 23:2), something which hadn’t been brought before them when they met to decide His fate. Indeed, it seems as if it was only their scheming which caused them to formulate such a charge after the religious one had been accepted (Mark 15:1).
If there really was a secondary sanhedrin which decided on matters of civil law, it would have been expected that Jesus would have been tried here before being committed to the Roman authorities - but such a trial is never recorded as having taken place.
It’s also interesting to note here that it was the Great Sanhedrin which convened a meeting of its members not to judge on a case which was being brought before it but to decide on how they should handle Jesus (John 11:47). In other words, if this was common practice, the Sanhedrin was also formed to decide on matters which needed a national response for the benefit of the nation and, therefore, were often functioning as a political group which was seeking to oversee the nation in much the same way as the UK’s House of Commons seeks to discuss important matters that need addressing on behalf of the people below them.
Therefore, we should see the Jerusalem or Great Sanhedrin as functioning as both a religious and a secular court of law where even civil matters would have had to have been related directly back into an interpretation of the Books of the Old Testament making them both civil and religious at one and the same time.
The following two charts have been compiled from Jeremias’ work ‘Jerusalem in the time of Jesus’.
The first, ‘The hierarchy of the clergy’, from pages 147-221 and the second, ‘The composition of the Sanhedrin’, from pages 222-267.
While there’s a great deal of difference of opinion on these organisational structures, Jeremias’ reasoning seems the best and the reader is referred to his work for any further study.
i. The hierarchy of the clergy
This authority structure shows the importance in which one family would have been regarded for the twelve top positions went to the members of just the one family. Although not in itself ‘evil’, it should be noted that it made the way for such a leadership to rule with such authority that there would have been very few people powerful enough to have been able to take them on without being virtually eliminated from the nation.
ii. The composition of the Sanhedrin
Although the scribes are here described as the Pharisees, the two labels refer to different people though an individual could be both a scribe and a Pharisee. The Pharisaic scribes which made up the Sanhedrin, on the whole, tended towards the Pharisaic beliefs and practices even though it’s known that some were Sadducean.
The main difference between the scribes and Pharisees is that the former were men of theology, the thinkers, interpreters of the Law whereas the latter were men of practice, the doers and observers of the Law. The scribes were nearly all Pharisaic in outlook and were men who were able at committing to writing those things which were being decided upon by the Sanhedrin whereas the Pharisee could be fairly illiterate but still retain their belief in the main principles of their group and discuss matters which needed decisions.
In the discourse directed against the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew chapter 23), it’s probably correct to see certain points relating to one group specifically (for example, 23:3 and 23:4 to the scribes and 23:5 to the Pharisees) but that Jesus joins them together because they were so similar in belief as to warrant a harmony of their positions.
It’s probable that, together, the chief priests and the elders were known as Sadducees but that, within the rulers and elders there may at times have been those of Pharisaic belief and allegiance. After all, both Sadducees and Pharisees are simply two labels of religious belief systems rather than positions of authority in the same way as we could assert today that we knew of a local church council which comprised of a Baptist deacon and an Anglican vicar - the former word of each is more likely to describe the religious belief while the latter describes the authority which he asserts within the congregation.
Acts 23:6 is worthy of note here even though it’s fairly inconclusive. But the inference is that it wasn’t an accepted fact that the Great Sanhedrin was divided fairly equally between Sadducees and Pharisees for Paul is recorded as perceiving the division. It may be that such a balance between different religious adherents was only a problem at certain points within its history and that, since Paul had left Jerusalem many years earlier, the council had become increasingly divided to the point where he found it easy to pit one group against the other by his mention of the resurrection of the dead.
The scribes’ teaching ultimately became embodied in the writings such as the Mishnah and Talmud which were compiled after 70AD, the Sadducees almost ceasing to exist after the fall of the city of Jerusalem.
Having spent the vast majority of this web page giving the reader background to the judicial system throughout the Biblical period culminating in the set up which was in existence at the time of Jesus and His followers, it will probably come as a shock that my notes on the actual passage are so brief! But it’s true that, unless we get our understanding correct of what Jesus was talking about, we will find that we run into untold difficulties in trying to comment accurately on it.
For instance, how can it be that Jesus should denounce the interpretation of the Mosaic Law in the traditions of the elders (Mtw 15:1-3) and oppose their emphasis on an interpretation of the sabbath that was devoid of Scriptural backing (Mtw 12:1-2) and yet, at the same time, announce to the crowds and His disciples that they should
‘...practice and observe whatever they tell you...’
It’s demonstrably apparent, therefore, that either the Gospels contradict themselves or that we must interpret Jesus’ words with reference to the set up of the ruling body of religious leaders which sat over the nation of Israel.
As part of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the ultimate ruling court in the land, the scribes and Pharisees had the authority of their position to interpret the Mosaic Law and apply it to the particular cases brought before them. And, as the highest authority in the land outside the Roman Empire, it was their obligation and calling to teach the Law of Moses to Israel both accurately and authoritatively.
Therefore, to ‘sit on Moses’ seat’ (Mtw 23:2) was to take the position of authority and teaching with regard to the Law given to the Israelites by Moses - but, when the real intention of the Law was clouded into a set of rules and regulations that had to be observed (Mtw 23:4 - the oral law), then they were overstepping their authority and laying upon the people grievous and binding legislation that burdened their service of God into nothing but an impossible load of external rites. It’s also been noted by Matcar that to sit on another’s seat was a way of saying that the position was one of succession and that the authority of that ‘seat’ was being claimed by the ones now sat there. If this is the case - and it seems the best interpretation of the phrase - the scribes and Pharisees saw themselves as the inheritors of Moses’ authority to uphold the Law and to teach God’s rules and regulations to all Israel, a position which Jesus doesn’t object to. Matfran observes that Jesus
‘...accepts the legitimacy of the scribes’ function but questions the way they exercise it’
and this seems the best way to see Jesus’ dealing with the two groups.
Instead of grasping hold of love for the neighbour (Mtw 22:39), they had caused him to be oppressed and over burdened (Mtw 23:4). One only has to casually flick through the pages of the Mishnah to see what an amazing catalogue there must have been of irrelevant rules which were being imposed upon believers in order that they might ‘please God’!
Mtw 23:2-3, then, are instruction which contrast the right of the scribes and Pharisees to judge cases of law and to teach the Mosaic Law (which, in fact, was their obligation) and their failure to observe the same Law (Mtw 23:3) by insisting on their own oral tradition as the correct and binding interpretation of Scripture (Mtw 23:4 Cp Sanhedrin 11:3).
Mattask goes one step further than this and comments (my italics) that
‘...Jesus recognises the rightful claims of the scribes, the legal experts of the Pharisaic party, to be exponents of the Law; and so long as they confine themselves to that task, their words, he insists, are to be respected even if the conduct of some of them is inconsistent with their teaching...’
but it’s solely because of their insistence on their own interpretation that their conduct becomes adverse to the plain teaching of the Law and it’s not so much that they fail to observe the Law but that they are replacing it by their own rules which begin to oppose the clear statements of Scripture. The statement by Jesus that they preach but don’t practice therefore becomes not that they say but don’t do as much as they say but do what they think they’ve interpreted the words to mean.
Instead of forsaking the Mosaic Law, they would have loudly asserted that they observed it - but it’s in their interpretation that their observance is actually nullified. What the Law says, therefore, should be followed but what they interpret it to mean should be rejected.
Matcar provides a lengthy discussion in his commentary in which he concludes that Mtw 23:2-3a are ironical whereas Mtw 23:3b-4 are non-ironical advice given to His hearers. If this is the case, Jesus’ statement concerning the scribes and Pharisees’ assumed authority is presented to the hearer in a way that immediately makes them realise that Jesus isn’t being serious in His command to them - a device which is extremely difficult to convey when words are being written down without accompanying facial expressions and inflections in the tone of one’s voice.
Although this does appear to have an element of appeal, it tends to undermine Jesus’ respect for the religious leadership of His day as being the people who were called upon to teach Israel the Law and to guide it into recognising those sent to them by God.
It’s not that Jesus doesn’t accept their position but that He refuses to accept that they are discharging their responsibility adequately and, for this reason, Matcar’s suggestion seems to me to be possible but unlikely.
The reference to ‘their finger’ which concludes this four verse passage is a way of saying that the Pharisees wouldn’t even give the slightest effort to remove the burdens which they imposed upon the nation in their service of God. Matmor is undoubtedly correct when he writes that
‘The regulations they evolved for ritual purity were much harder for people in trades and similar walks of life than for the more leisured and scholarly Pharisees’
but we can’t be absolutely sure that all Pharisees were ‘unemployed’ but that many of their band were required to work to support their own families. Many of the more important Pharisees, however, were no doubt supported by certain wealthy donors who saw in the distribution of their wealth a way to please God.
What it should warn us against, however, instead of allowing ourselves to point the finger simply at first century Judaism is that Church-funded leadership can suffer from the same problems by expecting too much from those who they have been raised up over, not seeing that, in secular life, not everyone can devote entire days to service of God in the way that they do.
Leadership can sometimes expect too much of those believers who have to work to live and care must be uppermost in leaders’ minds that they don’t impose conditions upon service of God which makes the congregation fail in its walk with Jesus.
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