It might surprise many readers to know that even today there are Jewish courts of law. I am not speaking of the country of Israel, but of Jewish religious courts which have existed since the time of Moses until today.
The Torah tells us "Appoint yourselves judges and police for your tribes in all your settlements that G-d your L-rd is giving you, and make sure that they administer honest judgment for the people. Do not bend justice and do not give special consideration [to anyone]. Do not take bribes, since bribery makes the wise blind and perverts the words of the righteous. Pursue perfect honesty, so that you will live and occupy the land that G-d your L-rd is giving you." D'varim / Deuteronomy 16:18-20.
Notice I highlighted to important concepts:
בית דין הגדול / Beit Din HaGadol (the Great Court) Sanhedrin ( a word familiar to most Christians and Jews) was a combination of a court of law (the supreme court of the land) and a governing body. During the days of Moses the Elders who comprised the Sanhedrin of his day were co-governors with Moses. This is all found in the Torah, but not in Hollywood movies. Thus many people who have more familiarity with movies or children's versions of bible stories do not realize this fact. The origin of the בית דין הגדול / Beit Din HaGadol (the Great Court) Sanhedrin can be found in the Council of the seventy elders founded by Moshe Rabbenu (Moses): "G-d said to Moses, 'Assemble seventy of Israel's elders - the ones you know to be the people's elders and leaders." (Bamidbar / Numbers 11:16).
The Torah commands there to be magistrates "in all your settlements." Indeed, as we read further we learn that there were local courts and higher courts in Jerusalem.
Since the time of Moses we Jews have always had judges / courts of law / democratic governing bodies ever since. Even in the days of King Saul and King David this was true. Berachot 4a implies that the אב בית דין / Av Beit Din (Head of the Court) of the "supreme court / congress" (Sanhedrin) during David's reign was בניהו בן יהוידע / Binayahu ben Yehoyada. David was likely the Nasi Beit Din (Prince / President of the Court). Meod Katon 26a says that King Saul was president of the Sanhedrin in his reign, with his son, Yonatan, also a member.
Want more? Read about Jehoshaphat (Y'hoshafat): "in Jerusalem, Jehoshaphat set up judges of the Levites and the priests and of the chiefs of the fathers' [houses] of Israel, for the judgment of the L-rd and for quarrels, and they returned to Jerusalem." (Divrei Hayamim II / 2 Chronicles 19:8).
Jewish courts do not use a jury system, but rather a group of judges, to decide legal decisions. The smallest Jewish court consists of three judges, and these courts still exist today. In ancient times appeals could be made to courts with 23 judges, all the way "up" to the great court which had 71 judges (this number is fixed in the Torah).
A three judge court could, for example, rule on theft cases. A capital punishment case (for example) required a court of 23 judges (a small Sanhedrin), but false prophets had to be adjudicated by the great Sanhedrin of 71 judges (the Great Sanhedrin). (Mishna, Sanhedrin 1:1-6).
The number (23) is derived from Bambidar (Numbers) 35:24-25 as discussed in the Rambam's Mishna Torah: "What is the source which teaches that capital cases may be judged only by a court of 23? Although this is a matter conveyed by the Oral Tradition, there is an allusion to it in the Torah. Bamidbar / Numbers 35:24-25 states: "And the congregation shall judge... and the congregation shall save...." Implied is that there must be the possibility of a congregation judging - and condemning him to death - and a congregation saving - and seeking his acquittal. Now a congregation is no less than ten. Thus there are at least 20 judges. We add three judges so that there not be an equally balanced court and to allow the possibility of "following after the inclination of the majority."
The number (71) for the Great Sanhedrin is also discussed in the Mishna Torah: "Great Sanhedrin. It was composed of 71 judges. This is derived from Bamidbar / Numbers 11:16 which states: "Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel." And Moses presided over them, as the verse continues: "And they shall stand there with you." Thus there are 71."
A death penalty could be appealed to the "supreme court" of the land -- the "Great Sanhedrin."
It is important to realize that missionaries who reject Jewish judges claiming they rely "only" on the bible (sola scriptura) are actually rejecting the Jewish bible since the bible itself dictates listening to Jewish judges -- and it was Jewish judges who decided which books to include and exclude in the T'nach (e.g. Prophets and Writings).
The written Torah tells us:
To appoint judges and officers in every community of Israel (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 16:18)
Judge honestly between each man and his brother (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 1:16)
Do not testify as a false witness against your neighbor. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 20:13)
A single eyewitness may not testify against a person where the death penalty is involved. (Bambidar (Numbers) 35:30)
Do not pervert justice. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:6)
Do not join forces with a wicked person to be a corrupt witness. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:1)
Do not follow the majority to do evil. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:2)
Do not speak up in a trial to pervert justice. A case must be decided on the basis of the majority. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:2)
Keep away from anything false. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:7)
Do not accept bribery. Bribery blinds the clear-sighted and twists the words of the just. (Sh'mot (Exodus) 23:8)
You must investigate and probe, making careful inquiry. (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 13:15)
One witness must not testify against a person to inflict any punishment or penalty for a crime that he may have committed. A case must be established through the testimony of [at least] two or three witnesses. (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 19:15)
This is what you must do] if a corrupt witness acts to testify falsely against a person. Two men who have testimony to refute [the false witnesses] shall stand before G-d, before the priests and judges who are involved in that case. The judges shall carefully interrogate [the refuting witnesses], and if the [first] two witnesses are found to have testified falsely against their brother you must do the same to them as they plotted to do to their brother, thus removing evil from your midst. (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 19:15-19)
Do not give anyone special consideration when rendering judgment. Listen to the great and small alike, and do not be impressed by any man, since judgment belongs to G-d. If any case is too difficult, bring it to me, and I will hear it.' (D'varim (Deuteronomy ) 1:17)
Do not pervert justice (D'varim (Deuteronomy) 24:17)
Let's discuss the Jewish legal system. Today Jewish courts (בית דין / Beit Din / House of Judgement) are comprised of three judges. Rabbis are judges -- this is one of their primary responsibilities and roles.
Why three judges? “You should not judge alone, for there is none qualified to judge alone, only the One.” Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:8. It must be more than two because the Torah tells us "Do not follow the majority to do evil. Do not speak up in a trial to pervert justice. A case must be decided on the basis of the majority." Sh'mot / Exodus 23:2. Two judges are not enough to have a majority (one might have a "tie"). This is why all Jewish courts (including the minor Sanhedrins and Great Sanhedrin) were uneven numbers of 23 and 71. . .
This Jewish court system is still in place today. We do not have the "minor Sanhedrins" or "Great Sanhedrins" of ancient times, but those are expected to return in the messianic age. The larger courts worked similar to the American court system of appellate and supreme courts.
In ancient times cities of more than 120 grown men had "minor Sanhedrins." These courts were comprised of 23 judges. (Mishna, Sanhedrin, 1:4a). Ergo the court system was somewhat similar to the American system of courts, appellate courts and a supreme court. The minor Sanhedrins did indeed have the ability to pass the death penalty. The number (23) is derived from Bambidbar (Numbers) 35:24-25. They held court at the city's entrance as we are told in Amos 5:15: "And you shall present judgment in your gates."
Minor Sanhedrins could try death penalty cases, but a condemned could "appeal" to the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. In minor and Great Sanhedrin, the judges selected among them a prosecutor and defense "attorney." After hearing the testimony of the witnesses, the judges align with the prosecution or defense and debate would ensue where a judge would give his view of the evidence and try to convince his fellow judges to rule according to his view. The Sanhedrin would then vote. If all the judges voted "guilty" or even all but one voted "guilty" the accused was set free. There had to be at least two judges voting for innocent for a man to actually be condemned to death. This is one reason the death penalty was so rare (one in 70 years was rare).
If a man was convicted of unintentional killing (what we would call manslaughter) he was exiled to one of the “cities of refuge."
The Great Sanhedrin was the supreme court of the land, the court which met in the Temple in the Chamber of Hewn / Carved Stone. It was comprised of priests, scribes and judges -- normally 71 judges. This number is taken from Bambidbar (Numbers) 11:16 "Gather for Me seventy men from the elders of Israel." Moses was the 71st.
After the Temple was destroyed (68 CE), so was the Great Sanhedrin. A Sanhedrin met in Yavneh after Jerusalem's burning by the Romans, meeting under the authority of Rabban Gamliel. The rabbis in the Sanhedrin served as judges and attracted students who came to learn their oral traditions and scriptural interpretations. From Yavneh, the Sanhedrin moved to different cities in the Galilee, eventually ending up in Tiberias nearly 300 years into the common era.
Since this blog focuses on countering false missionary claims, let's discuss the supposed trial of Jesus as portrayed in the Christian bible. The legal power of the Sanhedrin to pass a death penalty was taken away by the Romans when Archelous was banished in year 6 of the common era (CE). The Sanhedrin lost the ability to try death penalty cases at that time -- that power was given to the puppet Roman procurator. See Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 2, chapter 8, quote "Judea was reduced into a province, and Caponius, one of the Equestrian order of the Romans, was sent as a procurator, having the power of life and death put into his hands by Caesar!"
Thus by the time of Jesus execution the power of life and death was given to the Roman procurator (in this case Pontius Pilate) – the Jews had no power to pass a death sentence.
Although the Christian bible portrays Pilate in a good light (as if he did not want to execute Jesus) history paints a very different picture of Pilate. In Josephus' "War of the Jews" (2.175-177), written in the first century of the common era, we learn that Pilate had soldiers, dressed as civilians, enter a crowd of Jews and kill many of them. ידידיה הכהן / Yedidia HaKohen (Jedediah the Priest) also known as Philo wrote of Pilate: "his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity” (Gaium 302, circa 40 CE).
Philo also wrote of Pilate that he "was a man of inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition." (Embassy 38:299-305 (Smallwood translation) circa 40 CE).
Ergo the Christian bible version of Pilate is at great variance with the actual historical reality. Pilate was more than willing to attack and kill Jews with little to no pity. His behavior was so horrid that Pilate was recalled by Rome after he was said to have slaughtered thousands of Samaritan pilgrims.
If Jesus existed and if he was crucified by Rome this was done by the orders of the Romans. Pilate was highly unlikely to be swayed by Jewish arguments to either save the man or kill him -- given historical details about his governing of the land.
The Christian bible says a Jewish court met to condemn Jesus to death – but this is not possibly true. A death penalty could only be handed down in Jewish Law by a Minor Sanhedrin consisting of 23 Judges, sitting in the לִשְׁכַּת הַגָּזִית / lishkat hagazit (“Chamber of Hewn Stone”) located in the Temple. This chamber was destroyed around 30 CE – meaning that could not possibly have been condemned to death by the Sanhedrin. The trial of Jesus as described in the Christian bible is a total impossibility.
There are other reasons the story of Jesus’ condemnation by the Jewish court as portrayed in the Christian bible is false – beside the fact that both by Jewish law and Roman law the Jews had no authority to pass a sentence of death.
The Jews didn't have the authority to pass a death sentence and the "trial" as portrayed in the GT is nothing but a farce. It is akin to thinking the United States Supreme court would meet in Vice President Biden's house with Biden acting as the head of the court.
The executed criminal had his dead body was hung from a tree during that day (again this was not done with Jesus, who was supposedly killed by the Roman method of crucifixion. However, when Jesus was dead the Christian bible states that his body was buried – not hung on a tree). . .
The body is taken down and buried before nightfall – again, not applicable to Jesus since his dead body was not hung on a tree post-death. The body is removed before nightfall because humans are created in G-d's image and it would be disrespectful to G-d to leave the body hanging in shame for that long a period of time.