Saul, the church persecutor, and his conversion on the Damascus road is a memorable New Testament story.
Paul, as he was called after his conversion, was born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus and later moved to Jerusalem to continue his studies under the Rabbi Gamaliel. Paul claims he was “circumcised on the eight day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee.” In his letter to the Philippians (ca. 62 CE) he writes his persecution was the result of his zeal, while in the letter to the Galatians he was “persecuting it excessively.” Acts records Paul moving “house by house” arresting Christians. He operated under writ of the high priest. This writ explains how his jurisdiction extended beyond Jerusalem to include Damascus, a polis independent of the Judean province. But some scholars doubt the ability of a Jewish legal body under Roman law to operate with a large degree of regional and civil authority, including the power to condemn to death in particular.
That Paul was affiliated with the Sanhedrin council is evident; however, Acts quotes Paul as having “cast [his] vote against [Christians] when they were being condemned to death,”so there is a possibility that he once even held a position.
The Sanhedrin is obscure with regard to who exactly comprised it as well as the range of its legal sovereignty. It was essentially “the Jewish council of state, with political and judicial functions, meeting under the presidency of the high priest.” There are few ancient sources concerning. The most exhaustive is the Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin, but it wasn’t composed until around 500 CE. So there is uncertainty on its faithfulness to actual practice of earlier centuries. The first century Gospels are another source, but they offer discrepancies when compared to the Talmud. Scholars are divided on both the functions of the Sanhedrin and its structure.
The Gospels are biased, but still are probably more reliable than the later rabbinic sources, many of which were likely attempts to associate the courts of their day with Temple authority or to portray idealized Pharisaic Temple practices. In particular, Matthew’s Gospel is fairly accepted as being written by a Jewish Christian to an intended audience of Jews or Jewish Christians.The text demands understanding of Jewish customs and culture without explaining them. It would be odd, (and self-defeating if the goal is to win converts), for the gospel to have described the Sanhedrin to readers who would be familiar with its form and function in ways that were demonstrably false.
But complicating matters is confusion concerning the Greek word from which the word Sanhedrin is derived. Synedrion may simply stand for any body assembled in council and is often used this way. Also, the term is only one of several used to describe the Sanhedrin: There is presbyterion (e.g. Luke 22.66) and gerousia (e.g. Acts 5.21); both the Gospels and Josephus use boule (cf. B.J. 2.331; Mark 15.43). And Acts 5.21 uses two of the terms as though they have different meanings.
This vagueness concerning what was supposed to be the leading governmental court in Jerusalem indicates the Sanhedrin of the Gospels was not the highly formal or prestigious body we find in the Talmud. The presentation as a supreme court of sorts resembles other similar governmental bodies in cultures such as the Athenian assembly and Roman senate. According to the Babylonian Talmud, the Sanhedrin’s most grandiose powers were carried out only when the maximum seventy-one members were present. These powers included setting up smaller sanhedrins (with a maximum of twenty-three members) in other cities, making additions to Jerusalem and the Temple courtyard, waging war, declaring a city “apostate,” and judging tribes, false prophets, and high priests. Its lesser functions required as little as three present members depending upon the importance of the case involved.More than likely, the Sanhedrin did at some point in the past operate as the highest court in the land.
But by the turn of the Common Era it probably consisted of nothing more than the High Priest and whomever he chose to summon for advice.This drastic change was most likely the result of internal strife caused by influence of foreign powers, notably the Diadochi and the Romans. For instance, from Josephus we learn that Herod, backed by the Roman governor of Syria, came before the Sanhedrin to be tried and basically bullied the members into an acquittal by bringing his troops to the meeting.
During the time of Jesus and Paul the Sanhedrin’s power was only as great as that of its members. As such, if it was an ad hoc advisory council or some form of senate with flexible powers, then the limits of its jurisdiction may not have been isolated simply to Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin’s authority could have extended beyond the traditional limits — to Damascus for example
In the Gospels, the High Priest and the other chief priests are backed by the temple police with power to arrest.Jesus, and presumably any other prisoner, was taken to the High Priest’s house, and because it was located in the temple precinct may have been the designated court or hall of justice.A trial is performed, but the lack of legal rigor we find in the Gospels (which is often interpreted as bias by the court against Jesus) may simply be owed to the Sanhedrin’s rules of operation not always being clearly defined. For example, upon finding Jesus “guilty” no sentence is proclaimed, but rather he is brought to trial before the Roman governor.
These gatherings of ‘priests,’ ‘elders,’ and the like before Pilate, are unrecognizable as Jewish courts, at least as described in rabbinic sources.” It’s not clear if these accounts are descriptive of a Jewish or Roman trial. The narrative describes Jewish authorities presenting their case before Romans. This is more in line with what is expected under Roman law. There is a defendant and a plaintiff before a magistrate. Lending credence to the Roman trial view is that common legal words are called into use. The chief priests and scribes are described as “vehemently accusing,”and they take on the role of plaintiff rather than law or fact-finder.
According to Mark, Jesus was charged with attacking or threatening to destroy the Temple, as well as blasphemy. Matthew repeats these charges. However, in both Mark and Matthew, when Jesus actually appears before Pilate, claims concerning the Temple and blasphemy are not put forward. Roman law would not have provided actions for a transgression of Jewish religious laws. But the Jewish people would have been allowed a limited power to punish transgressions of their religious law. These disciplinary actions would have corresponded exactly to the methods Paul was practiced. Beatings, or floggings, and imprisonment would have been “common means of discipline.”
In the case of Jesus, that Jewish authorities recognized the lack of Roman actions is probably evident because the text show no proper charges were brought. The question is then: why did the Jewish authorities bother presenting the case before the Romans? To carry out a legitimate death sentence, the Sanhedrin likely had to present itself before the Romans, because, Roman law generally was jealous of the power of capital punishment. For example, the Gospel of John portrays an exasperated Pilate telling the Jewish authorities to “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law” to which they reply “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” This exchange is not in the Synoptic Gospels, but regardless of whether it actually happened it does accurately describe the law. But consider Origen (d. 254 CE) who writes the death penalty was not unknown and often the Romans turned a blind eye to its use by the Jewish religious authorities.
Paul’s participation in the Sanhedrin likely did not consist of permanent membership, and it’s possible the only permanent member was the High Priest. Though certain leading religious leaders or scholars may have participated regularly. In this regard it probably resembled the Roman Senate very closely. In Rome “the attendance at meetings varied widely.” Paul’s participation probably occurred on relatively few occasions. Participation may have been less a membership than an adjunct role. For example, Paul may have been called in solely for help with a single subject, the Christians.
Membership likely did not confer any special title. In Matthew we find: “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest.” The Gospels make consistent use of these two terms as well as the word “scribes,” which is a term Paul, as an advanced student, would have been probably classified under. The book of Acts hints that Gamaliel was not only a member of the council but was also well respected. Paul was one of his students and would have stood out as a select student: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age.” Probably Paul’s close apprenticeship to Gamaliel is what gives the reader of Acts intimate knowledge with the council’s activities. To qualify as a participant in a Sanhedrin probably required being a “chief priest,” “elder,” and “scribe,” but these designations ought not be read as synonymous with a member of the Sanhedrin. In at least one instance the chief priests seem no to be included in the Sanhedrin.
It is likely that Paul was acting with the blessing if not the direct authority of the Sanhedrin in his persecution of the Christians. The manner of his persecution would have also fit the common remedies. The death sentence also was not unheard of in extreme cases, but the circumstances of the few examples that survive hint that it is highly unlikely it was commonly used. Notably, those who were being punished were being corrected, and in this regard the Christians were still viewed as members of Judaism at large. Paul was certainly close to the Sanhedrin, and if he was not an outright member then the letters he carried indicate he was deputized in some way.
SOURCES and FURTHER READING
Feldman, Louis H. and Meyer Reinhold. Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
France, R.T. “Matthew.” Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985.
Goodman, Martin. The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt Against Rome A.D. 66-70. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Hooker, Morna. Paul: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.
Hultgren, A.J. “Paul’s Pre-Christian Persecutions of the Church: Their Purpose, Locale, and Nature.” Journal of Biblical Literature. Vol. 95, No. 1 (Mar., 1976), pp. 97-111.
Life Application Study Bible. New Living Translation. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publisher, Inc., 1988.
O’Connor, J.M. Paul: A Critical Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Scwartz, Earl. “The Trials of Jesus and Paul.” Journal of Law and Religion. Vol. 9, No. 2 (1992), pp. 501-513.
“XXIIIA Tractate Sanhedrin.” The Talmud of Babylonia: An American Translation. Ed. Neusner, Jacob. Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1984.
Taylor, Lily R. and Scott T. Russel. “Seating Space in the Roman Senate and the Senatores Pedarii.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 100. (1969), pp. 529-582.
Trites, Allison. “The Importance of Legal Scenes and Language in the Book of Acts.” Novum Testamentum. Vol. 16, No. 4 (Oct., 1974), pp. 278-284.