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Before entering Canaan, Moses instructed the Israelites to establish a system of justice. He said, “Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly” (Deut 16:18). This command laid the foundation for the judicial system in ancient Israel. Each city was required to have a court, or Sanhedrin. For Jews, a single judge was insufficient for a court; the minimum number of judges required was three in small villages of fewer than 120 men. If the population was higher, a Sanhedrin or court of 23 judges formed the judiciary. The Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, comprising 71 members, was the supreme court of the Jews. Thus, there were three classes of courts: the Great Sanhedrin, the Lesser Sanhedrin, and the Court of Three or Seven.


The Court of Three or Seven
In small communities, local judges handled minor disputes and legal matters. This local court, consisting of three or seven judges, provided immediate justice at the grassroots level, ensuring that even the smallest grievances were addressed.

The Lesser Sanhedrin
For larger towns and cities, the Lesser Sanhedrin, comprising 23 judges, was established. These courts dealt with more complex cases that went beyond the capacity of the local courts. They had the authority to handle serious criminal cases, including those involving capital punishment.

The Great Sanhedrin
The Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was the highest judicial body. Composed of 71 members and headed by the High Priest, it served as the final court of appeal. It also took on cases of national significance and those involving religious matters. The Great Sanhedrin met every day except on festivals and the Sabbath in the Hall of Hewn Stones in the Temple. This council held a unique position of authority, blending religious, civil, and criminal jurisdiction.

The Role and Authority of the Sanhedrin

The term “Sanhedrin” literally means “sitting together” or assembly. It was established after the Babylonian exile and became central to the governance of Israel. Each city’s Sanhedrin comprised twenty-three rabbis, ensuring that justice was administered uniformly across the land.

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem functioned not only as a supreme council but also as the highest court, addressing appeals from lesser courts. However, the Sanhedrin’s authority was significantly restricted when the Romans came to power, limiting their ability to carry out capital punishment without Roman approval.

Biblical Basis for the Sanhedrin’s Authority

The Bible provides a clear mandate for the administration of justice. For example, those who committed murder were to be put to death: “Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death” (Lev 24:21). Additionally, Numbers 35:16 states, “If anyone strikes someone a fatal blow with an iron object, that person is a murderer; the murderer is to be put to death.” These laws underscore the importance of justice and the role of the judiciary in maintaining social order.


The judicial system of the Lesser Sanhedrin in the cities and the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was a well-structured governance model for the Jews. However, despite their adherence to the law, the Sanhedrin failed in accepting the Messiah, Jesus Christ, and played a crucial role in His persecution and that of the early church. This historical context provides valuable lessons for us as Christians today. The Sanhedrin’s failure was rooted in self-interest and prejudice. We, too, must guard against letting selfish motives and biases cloud our judgment and actions. Proverbs 21:3 reminds us, “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice”. We are called to administer justice with integrity and humility, ensuring that our actions reflect God’s righteousness.

Furthermore, Jesus taught us to prioritize love and mercy in our dealings with others. He said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5:7). As followers of Christ, we must strive to uphold justice while embodying His love and grace. Let us commit to examining our hearts regularly, seeking God’s guidance to avoid the pitfalls of prejudice and self-interest. By doing so, we can ensure that our actions do not harm others and that we remain on the path to eternal salvation. In all things, let us seek to glorify God through our pursuit of justice, mercy, and humility.

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