The Sanhedrin was a Jewish high court that was the supreme authority for Jewish law during the second Temple period. There seem to be a references to a central group of Sages in Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy 17:8-12. Also, there were Judges in Israel before the monarchy.

I know there are a number of potential aggadic references to such a court, such as Sanh 101b for one in Samaria that is inveigled into sanctioning Jeroboam's idol worship, and 107a for one in Judah that separates from David when he contracts tzaraat.

Please provide biblical or historic, (not aggadic) evidence for a High Court in Judah and/or Samaria. Alternatively, provide evidence for systems in lieu of such a court.

3 Answers 3


There are no Biblical or reliable Historical references to a High Court or a Sanhedrin type system. When I say there aren't any reliable historical references, I mean that there aren't any references from works close to being in the same time period. We have plenty of later commentaries that anachronistically insert High Court systems into the Bible, but we can't confirm the authenticity of such statements as they occur so many centuries after the actual events. Also, any systems of judgment mentioned in the Bible are vague often change as the Bible goes on. For example, the Priests are said to be given the authority to provide judgments and to teach the Torah to the people

Deuteronomy 17

ח כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר לַמִּשְׁפָּט, בֵּין-דָּם לְדָם בֵּין-דִּין לְדִין וּבֵין נֶגַע לָנֶגַע--דִּבְרֵי רִיבֹת, בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ: וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ--אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ. 8 If there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke, even matters of controversy within thy gates; then shalt thou arise, and get thee up unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose. ט וּבָאתָ, אֶל-הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, וְאֶל-הַשֹּׁפֵט, אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם; וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ לְךָ, אֵת דְּבַר הַמִּשְׁפָּט. 9 And thou shall come unto the priests the Levites, and unto the judge that shall be in those days; and thou shalt inquire; and they shall declare unto thee the sentence of judgment. י וְעָשִׂיתָ, עַל-פִּי הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יַגִּידוּ לְךָ, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ. 10 And thou shalt do according to the tenor of the sentence, which they shall declare unto thee from that place which the LORD shall choose; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they shall teach thee. יא עַל-פִּי הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ, וְעַל-הַמִּשְׁפָּט אֲשֶׁר-יֹאמְרוּ לְךָ--תַּעֲשֶׂה: לֹא תָסוּר, מִן-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-יַגִּידוּ לְךָ--יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל. 11 According to the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do; thou shalt not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto thee, to the right hand, nor to the left. יב וְהָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה בְזָדוֹן, לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹעַ אֶל-הַכֹּהֵן הָעֹמֵד לְשָׁרֶת שָׁם אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אוֹ, אֶל-הַשֹּׁפֵט--וּמֵת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא, וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. 12 And the man that doeth presumptuously, in not hearkening unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die; and thou shalt exterminate the evil from Israel. יג וְכָל-הָעָם, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ; וְלֹא יְזִידוּן, עוֹד. {ס} 13 And all the people shall hear, and fear, and do no more presumptuously. {S}

Deuteronomy seems to say that the courts would be held by Levites and Priests, followed then by judges and the like. Compare that to other places in the Torah which speak only of judges, then compare that to the book of Judges where most of them aren't priests, compare that to Solomon giving judgments on his own, even though he's not a priest, a levite, nor a judge. And so you are left with several vague systems that often change throughout time as the Bible progresses. So looking for any High Court references in the Bible will not turn up anything reliable. Especially since the High Court or Sanhedrin idea comes late in the Second Temple period. And part of answering your question is tracing the history of the word Sanhedrin, because it's likely that the high court system developed alongside the word Sanhedrin.

The word Sanhedrin itself is actually a Greek word, though most Jews aren't aware of this. The "Hebrew" word Sanhedrin (סַנְהֶדְרִין) comes from the Greek: Συνέδριον,1 synedrion, "sitting together," hence "assembly" or "council." Since the word is taken so directly from the Greek, some scholars say it shows that the Sanhedrin came to be during the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty (think time of the Maccabees).

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanhedrin

The closest Biblical references to something like a Sanhedrin are those in the books of Maccabees. Many scholars believe the books of Maccabees were part of the Hebrew Bible since we see them as part of the canon of the Septuagint. Which is why the Catholic church still has the books of the Maccabees, as they canonized the Septuagint. Although at a later point the books of Maccabees were taken out of Biblical canon amongst Jews, we still rely on the historical information present in them. And although the word Sanhedrin/High Court isn't used in Maccabees, a word that describes something similar is used.

2 Maccabees 11:27-33New American Bible (Revised Edition) (NABRE)

27 The king’s letter to the people was as follows: “King Antiochus sends greetings to the Jewish senate and to the rest of the Jews. 28 If you are well, it is what we desire. We too are in good health. 29 Menelaus has told us of your wish to return home and attend to your own affairs. 30 Therefore, those who return by the thirtieth of Xanthicus will have our assurance of full permission 31 to observe their dietary and other laws, just as before, and none of the Jews shall be molested in any way for faults committed through ignorance. 32 I have also sent Menelaus to reassure you. 33 Farewell.” In the one hundred and forty-eighth year, the fifteenth of Xanthicus.[a]

Source: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Maccabees+11%3A27-33&version=NABRE

The word used there in Maccabees is Gerousia – "senate" or "council." This is the oldest term which was used toward the end of the Persian period (cf. Josephus' Antiquities 12.3.3 and II Maccabees 11:27). It is used in the New Testament in the book of Luke in Acts 5:21 along with "Sanhedrin." The author of Luke may have used the word Gerousia juxtaposed to Sanhedrin as a way of explaining the term to Greek speaking readers who did not use the term Sanhedrin the same way the Jews were using it. In much the same way my wife has to explain to me that a "kitchen roll" isn't a type of bread, but how British people say "paper towels."

So the final answer is: No, there are no Biblical or Historical sources for a High Court in Judea. You are asking for sources that do not exist, about a system which we have no reliable evidence existed. You could try narrowing your question to asking for sources of what types of court systems exist, or open up your sources to allow for Aggadic or other Rabbinic references.

  • 1
    Downvoters, care to comment? This answers the question now, quite well...
    – Baby Seal
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 1:07
  • 1
    @Baby Seal thanks for asking. I would also like to know why my answer was downvoted :/
    – Aaron
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 1:21
  • " And part of answering your question is tracing the history of the word Sanhedrin, because it's likely that the high court system developed alongside the word Sanhedrin..." This portion of your answer still bothers me. Why can't the word be a naming convention that arose later?
    – Baby Seal
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 3:04
  • @Baby Seal Because we have no evidence a prior institution existed. It would be like asking what was the role of the President of the US when the US was a British colony. The answer is there was NOTHING like a president before the first president was elected. The word/role developed with the constitution and the founding fathers etc.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 3:34
  • but we KNOW there was no president of the US before the US. We haven o evidence a prior institution didn't exist either
    – Baby Seal
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 3:39

Not necessarily a High Court, but the story of Ahab and Naboth seems to indicate the existence of a judicial system:

וַיַּעֲשׂוּ אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ הַזְּקֵנִים וְהַחֹרִים אֲשֶׁר הַיּשְׁבִים בְּעִירוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁלְחָה אֲלֵיהֶם אִיזָבֶל כַּאֲשֶׁר כָּתוּב בַּסְּפָרִים אֲשֶׁר שָׁלְחָה אֲלֵיהֶם

קָרְאוּ צוֹם וְהֹשִׁיבוּ אֶת נָבוֹת בְּרֹאשׁ הָעָם

יָּבֹאוּ שְׁנֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים בְּנֵי בְלִיַּעַל וַיֵּשְׁבוּ נֶגְדּוֹ וַיְעִדֻהוּ אַנְשֵׁי הַבְּלִיַּעַל אֶת נָבוֹת נֶגֶד הָעָם לֵאמֹר בֵּרַךְ נָבוֹת אֱלֹהִים וָמֶלֶךְ וַיֹּצִאֻהוּ מִחוּץ לָעִיר וַיִּסְקְלֻהוּ בָאֲבָנִים וַיָּמֹת:

And the men of his city did, the elders and the officials that dwelled in his city, as Jezebel sent to them, as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them.

They proclaimed a fast, and they set Naboth at the head of the people.

And the two wicked men came and sat opposite him, and the wicked men testified against Naboth in front of the people saying, "Naboth cursed God and the king." And they took him out of the city and stoned him with stones, and he died.

The fact that Jezebel needed to go to such effort to orchestrate the scene and find "wicked men" to falsely testify against Naboth implies that there was some sort of court system in place that was not wholly controlled by the Crown.


These are not definitive sources, but the question acknowledges other oblique references to groups of elders and judges, lending these citations weight.

Rehoboam consulted an established group of elders, possibly a Judiciary body, (I Kings 12:6, II Chron 10:6):

וַיִּוָּעַץ הַמֶּלֶךְ רְחַבְעָם, אֶת-הַזְּקֵנִים אֲשֶׁר-הָיוּ עֹמְדִים לִפְנֵי שְׁלֹמֹה אָבִיו, בִּהְיֹתוֹ חַי, לֵאמֹר: אֵיךְ אַתֶּם נוֹעָצִים, לְהָשִׁיב לָעָם-הַזֶּה דָּבָר.

And king Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, that had stood before Solomon his father while he yet lived, saying: 'What counsel give ye me to return answer to this people?'

The newly crowned Jeroboam also took council before erecting golden calves at Beth El and Dan,(I Kings 12:28):

וַיִּוָּעַץ הַמֶּלֶךְ--וַיַּעַשׂ, שְׁנֵי עֶגְלֵי זָהָב; וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, רַב-לָכֶם מֵעֲלוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם--הִנֵּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold; and he said unto them: 'Ye have gone up long enough to Jerusalem; behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.'

Based on these verses, it seems that at the very least kings of both states had groups of advisors. Whether these groups had judicial power is unclear, but it would seem that they worked under the king, and had some say in his policy. Perhaps when it came to more mundane judicial matters, they were given authority.

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