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Title: Sanhedrin
Original Title: Sanhédrin
Volume and Page: Vol. 14 (1765), pp. 625–626
Author: Louis, chevalier de Jaucourt (biography)
Translator: Robin Vose [St. Thomas University,]
Subject terms:
Sacred criticism
Original Version (ARTFL): Link

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Citation (MLA): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Sanhedrin." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Robin Vose. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2015. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Sanhédrin," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 14. Paris, 1765.
Citation (Chicago): Jaucourt, Louis, chevalier de. "Sanhedrin." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Robin Vose. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2015. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Sanhédrin," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 14:625–626 (Paris, 1765).

Sanhedrin, a word which comes from the Greek synedrion , assembly; it was a tribunal among the Hebrews, the institution of which is said to go back to Moses, who on the advice of Jethro his father-in-law chose seventy of the elders of Israel to help him carry the weight of government (Numbers 2:16). Members of this council were elected within each tribe. The leader was called hanasee , president; the second in command was ab , father of the council; and the third was hacam , sage; but there were also other subordinate courts of justice among the Jews, which were called sanhedrins .

In order to give the reader an idea of these various tribunals as they were in the time before Jesus Christ, it must be noted that when Gabinius [1] re-established Hyrcanus in the supreme sacrificial office, he made great changes in the civil government by transforming it from the monarchy it had been into an aristocracy. Until then, the prince had ruled the nation by means of two types of councils or courts of justice: one of twenty-three persons, called the lesser sanhedrin , and the other of seventy two, which was the great sanhedrin . There was one of the first type in each city. In Jerusalem alone, because of its grandeur and the quantity of business that took place there, there were two, which were held in two separate rooms.

As for the great sanhedrin , there was only one for the whole nation; it held its assemblies in the temple, and had always done so. The lesser sanhedrins took note of all matters pertaining to justice for the city, and the territory in which they were held. The great Sanhedrin presided over the affairs of the nation in general, received appeals from the inferior courts, interpreted the laws, and from time to time made new regulations for their better implementation. Gabinius abolished all these tribunals, and in their place introduced five different courts or sanhedrins , each independent from the others and sovereign in its jurisdiction. The first was placed in Jerusalem; the second in Jericho, the third in Gadara; the fourth in Amathus; and the fifth at Sephoris. The whole country was divided up into five provinces or departments, and each province was obliged to seek justice at one of the courts that he had established, which is to say that which had been assigned to it, and business was concluded there without appeal.

The tyranny of Alexander Jannaeus [2] had left the Jews disgusted with monarchic government. They asked Pompei to have it abolished, when he entered discussions over resolving the conflict of the two brothers at Damascus. [3] It was to satisfy them that he removed the diadem and the name of king from Hyrcanus, while nevertheless granting him sovereignty under another name, since he left him with complete power. But in this encounter they managed to get Gabinius to remove the power, just as the other had removed the name; and he accomplished this by means of the change which I previously mentioned. His settlement effectively transferred the whole of government from the hands of the prince to those of the grandees who entered into these five sovereign courts; the monarchy was thus changed into an aristocracy. Later Julius Caesar, passing through Syria, returned sovereignty to Hyrcanus, and restored things to their previous footing.

When Herod mounted the throne thirty seven years before Jesus Christ, he spilled the blood of those from the faction opposing him, of whom he had the most to fear from their credibility and activity. All the members of the great sanhedrin could be found among their number, aside from Pollion and Sameas, who are called Hillel and Shammai by Josephus; and of all their doctors of the Mishnah [4], these are the ones who are the most discussed. The descendants of Hillel were presidents of the sanhedrin for ten generations. Simeon his son is the one who took the infant Jesus in his arms, when he was presented to God in the temple, and who pronounced the Nunc dimittis when he saw him (Luke 2). [5] Gamaliel, son of Simeon, presided over the sanhedrin when Saint Peter and the other apostles appeared before it (Acts 5 :34). He is also the master at whose feet Saint Paul was elevated into the sect and justice of the Pharisees ( Acts 22 :3). He lived up to the year 18 before the destruction of Jerusalem, and his son who succeeded him perished in the sack of that city by the Romans.

I have yet to say a few words about a third type of sanhedrin established by the Jews, which was untouched by the vicissitudes we have been discussing, and which maintained itself intact. It was the court of three which decided all differences between individuals, concerning markets, sales, contracts and other similar affairs. In all these cases, one of the parties chose one arbiter as judge; the other chose a second; and these two arbiters agreed on a third. These three persons together made up a court which, after hearing the parties, decided on a final judgment.

These generalities may suffice to convey some idea of the sanhedrins of the ancient Jews; but more curious readers will find further details in the Mishnah, in the Gemara [6], in Maimonides, in Selden [7], Lightfoot [8], Cock [9], and several others who have dealt with this subject in depth.


1. Roman statesman and general who brought forward Lex Gabinia , circa 67 BCE.

2. King of Judea from 103 to 76 BCE.

3. A reference to the struggle of the warring Hasmonean brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, as described in Josephus.

4. A redaction of the oral Torah of ancient Judaism, divided into 6 orders or “seders” and comprising a portion of the Talmud.

5. “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.” Luke 2: 29-32 [New King James Version].

6. Commentary in the Talmud on the Mishna, published in 350-400 and 500 CE.

7. See Selden, John. Ioannis Seldeni De synedriis & praefecturis juridicis veterum Ebraeorum . (Londini: Typis Jacobi Flesher, 1655). (vols. 3-4)

8. See John Lightfoot’s Horae hebraicae et talmudicae , in Lightfoot, John, and Johannes Leusden. Joh. Lightfooti Opera omnia: hac nova editione operibus ejusd. posthumis, nunquam hactenus editis, locupletata; quorum syllabus, pagina post vitam auctoris ultima, exhibetur. Johannes Leusden textum Hebraicum recensuit et emendavit . (Utrajecti: apud Guilielmum Broedelet, 1699).

9. See Coch, Joannes. 1629. Duo Tituli Thalmvdici Sanhedrin et Maccoth: quorum ille agit de Synedriis, judiciis, suppliciis capitalibus Ebraeorum ; Hic de poena falsi testimonii, exsilio et asylis, flagellatione: cum Excerptis utriusque Gemara . (Amsterodami: Janssonius, 1629).