With the re-establishment of the Jewish nation after the Jews’ return from captivity in Babylon, there were significant developments in the Jewish religion. Many of these were connected with the establishment of synagogues (or meeting places) in the Jewish communities, and the rise of people known as scribes (or teachers of the law). The scribes usually had positions of power in the synagogues and used them as places from which to spread their teachings (see SCRIBES; SYNAGOGUE). Under Ezra groups of elders and judges had been appointed to administer civil and religious law in Israel (Ezra 7:25-26; 10:14). It was probably on this basis that such people became leaders of the synagogues and rulers in the Jewish communities.

As the scribes and other leaders on the synagogue committees grew in power, a system of local Jewish rule developed that eventually produced a council known as the Sanhedrin. Although any local Jewish council may have been called a Sanhedrin, the word was used most commonly for the supreme Jewish council in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Sanhedrin consisted of a maximum of seventy members, not counting the high priest. (The number was probably based on the ancient arrangement by which Moses and seventy elders administered Israel; see Num 11:24.) The composition of the Sanhedrin changed from time to time, depending on political developments within the nation. In New Testament times it consisted of scribes, elders, priests and other respected citizens, and included both Pharisees and Sadducees. The high priest acted as president (Matt 26:3,57-59; Luke 22:66; 23:50; Acts 4:5-7; 5:17-21,34; 22:30; 23:1-6). Any meeting of the Sanhedrin required at least twenty-three members to be present. Rome gave the Sanhedrin authority to arrest, judge and punish Jewish people for offences relating to their religious law and for certain civil offences (Mark 14:43; Acts 5:17-21,40; 6:11-15; 9:2). The one exception concerned the death sentence. Although it could pass the death sentence, the Sanhedrin could not carry it out without permission from Rome (Matt 26:66; 27:1-2; John 18:30-31). From details of Sanhedrin procedures recorded in ancient Jewish writings, it is clear that Jesus’ trial, conviction and execution were illegal. The Jews’ execution of Stephen was also illegal, but the Roman authorities probably considered it safer to ignore the incident and so avoid trouble with the Jews (Acts 7:57-58; cf. 18:14-17; Matt 27:24).

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