The chief priests, and all the Sanhedrin, looked for evidence for a capital charge against Jesus, but they didn’t find any. Several people invented fictitious charges against him, but their evidence didn’t agree. Then some stood up with this fabricated charge: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple, which human hands have made, and in three days I’ll build another, made without human hands.’” But even so their evidence didn’t agree. [Mark 14:55-59 (NTE)]
The Great Sanhedrin was the Supreme council (high court) of the Jews. Formed around 200 BC and modeled after the 70 elders who helped Moses in governing the Israelites, its 71 members consisted of scribes, priests, and elders with the high priest acting as its presiding officer. Along with religious and ritualistic Temple matters, the Sanhedrin addressed secular criminal matters, proceedings in connection with the discovery of a corpse, trials of adulterous wives, tithes, the preparation of Torah Scrolls, and drew up the calendar. As long as the Sanhedrin maintained public order and the Jews kept paying their taxes to Rome, the Romans were content to leave most of the nation’s judicial matters to them. While the Sanhedrin were supposed to administer justice, in the case of Jesus, they were anything but just; in fact, they sought perjured testimony.
The Sanhedrin’s members had to be of pure Israelite descent. The leading Jews of Jerusalem, they probably were appointed to the position. In the New Testament, the Sanhedrin is also referred to as the “council,” the “chief priests and elders,” the “chief priests, elders, and scribes,” or simply as the “chief priests.” When Judas went to the “chief priests” and offered to betray Jesus, he went to the Sanhedrin. During Jesus’ first trial, the Sanhedrin charged Him with blasphemy but changed the charge to treason when they brought Him to Pilate. It was the Sanhedrin who encouraged the crowd to call for Barabbas to be freed rather than Jesus and they were the ones who bribed the soldiers to say that the body of Jesus had been stolen from the tomb.
While the majority of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, its scribes were Pharisees and usually the most educated men in the community. Scribes wrote up legal documents, recorded deeds, acted as ancient notary publics and court recorders, and carefully made copies of the Torah. Men of influence, they were well respected and, as professional scholars, were expert teachers and interpreters of Mosaic law.
“Elders” was a general term describing the older leaders of the community. Aristocrats with Sadducee learnings, they probably were priests or lay readers. The priests of the Sanhedrin were high-ranking, wealthy, influential Sadducees. Descending from the tribe of Levi, they served in the Temple and ensured that Temple service was carried out correctly. Originally, the Sanhedrin had the right to appoint or confirm the high priest (who was supposed to be a descendant of Aaron) and the office was a life-long position. By the time of the Herods, however, civil authorities appointed the high priests based on their political and religious sentiments and the position was not permanent. Herod the Great, for example appointed six different high priests during his reign. Because this position should have been life-long, even though Annas was ousted by the Romans in 15 AD, many Jews still considered him the high priest, which is why Jesus was first taken to Annas following His arrest. After this pre-trial hearing, Jesus was then taken to Caiaphas (Annas’ son-in-law), a Sadducee who was the high priest.
For the Sanhedrin, Lazarus’ resurrection was the last straw—a miracle that could not be denied. Thinking that Jesus’ many miraculous deeds would cause everyone to believe He was the Messiah and lead to their wanting to make Him king, they were fearful that an insurrection would follow. They reasoned that, if Jesus were allowed to continue His preaching, the Romans would destroy the Temple, nation, and their secure positions and aristocratic lifestyle (which they eventually did in the Great Revolt of 66-70 AD). In spite of their religious differences, the members of the Sanhedrin agreed that Jesus had to be stopped.
It was the high priest Caiaphas who suggested that, by eliminating Jesus, they would save the nation from Rome’s reprisal. Little did the priest know that his words were prophetic and he was playing right into God’s hand. Yes, one man, Jesus, had to die for the people but he was mistaken in thinking Jesus had to die to save the Jews from the Romans. That one man, Jesus, had to die to save all mankind from sin and death.