Was Paul a Member of the Sanhedrin?

06 Mar

The evidence for such an understanding is sketchy, but it is a possibility that Saul / Paul was indeed a member of the Sanhedrin during the 1st century CE when Stephen was stoned. He tells us in his letter to the Galatians that he had been excelling above his peers in the Jewish faith. In Acts 8:1 we are told that Saul “gave his approval” to the killing of Stephen. Does this mean he generally agreed that Stephen’s death was justified, or that he actually gave his “vote” in the Sanhedrin? Notice how Paul, himself, describes similar accounts concerning those believers he brought to Jerusalem for judgment when he spoke before King Agrippa:

Acts 26:9-10 ASV  I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  (10)  And this I also did in Jerusalem: and I both shut up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, and when they were put to death I gave my vote against them.

The phrase: I gave my vote comes from two Greek words kataphero (G2702) and psephos (G5586). According to “The New Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon,” kataphero means “to bear down, bring down, cast down” and when used with psephos, “a small, worn, smooth stone, a pebble”, it means: “to cast a pebble or calculus into the urn, i.e. give one’s vote, to approve.” Thayer goes on to say that “…in the ancient courts of justice the accused were condemned by black pebbles and acquitted by white.” Thus, we have Paul implying that he was a voting member of the Sanhedrin who condemned the early believers in Jesus. If this conclusion is true, then Paul was probably one of the members of the Sanhedrin who condemned Stephen.

According to Acts 7:58, Stephen was taken outside the city, as commanded by Deuteronomy 17:2-7. The Scripture further says the witnesses against Stephen were to cast the first stones. Leviticus 24:14 makes the same point saying that he who cursed was to be stoned outside the city, and remember the accusation against Stephen was “blasphemy” i.e. he cursed God in that he was saying the Temple upon which the Name of God was would be destroyed. The Talmud has an interesting account of the act of stoning that bears mention concerning Paul. Notice:

“When the trial was over, they take him [the condemned person] out to be stoned. The place of stoning was at a distance from the court, as it is said, ‘Take out the one who has cursed’ (Leviticus 24:14). A man stands at the entrance of the court; in his hand is a signaling flag [Hebrew sudarin = sudar, ‘scarf, sweater’]. A horseman was stationed far away but within sight of him. If one [of the judges] says, ‘I have something [more] to say in his favor,’ he [the signaler] waves the sudarin, and the horseman runs and stops them [from stoning him]. Even if [the condemned person] himself says, ‘I have something to say in my favor,’ they bring him back, even four of five times, only provided that there is some substance to what he is saying.” [Sanhedrin 42b]

Notice that it is said in Acts 7:58 “the witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of the young man named Saul.” The Jewish New Testament Commentary by David H. Stern has an interesting comment about the above excerpt from the Talmud. Notice:

“…Joseph Shulam thinks sudar in later Hebrew can also mean ‘coat.’ Thus, he conjectures, the Greek translator of Acts from a presumed original Hebrew text didn’t understand the Jewish context and therefore wrote of laying coats at Sha’ul’s feet, whereas actually Shu’ul was a member of the Sanhedrin, specifically, the one who held the sudar.”

So, was Paul a member of the Sanhedrin? Maybe, and maybe not, but the idea is an interesting one. One point against the idea would be, that an actual trial of life and death was not supposed to be held on a Holy Day according to the Talmud—and according to my study Stephen was stoned on the Day of Atonement in 34 CE. The account of Stephen’s trial seems a bit sketchy itself. Nothing is actually said about a vote taken against the accused, so was Stephen’s death an actual verdict of the court or was the matter decided by mob-rule? Luke just isn’t as clear as we would like him to be, so interpreting matters concerning the trial, the verdict and the sentence are questionable.

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Posted by on March 6, 2011 in Acts of the Apostles, Paul


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6 responses to “Was Paul a Member of the Sanhedrin?

  1. Travis

    June 28, 2014 at 08:14

    Please pardon my posting on an old blog post of yours. If Paul were a member of the Sanhedrin, which it seems there is strong evidence for this conclusion, then would it not be necessary for him to have also been married and have children (at least one child) at the time of his induction to the Sanhedrin since this was a requirement for membership? As I understand it, vote-casting members of the Sanhedrin were required to have children as they beleived this would make them more merciful. Can you comment on this conclusion?

    • Eddie

      June 28, 2014 at 12:53

      Greetings Travis and thank you for reading my blog and especially for taking the time to comment

      I have read that it was required by Judaism that members of the Sanhedrin must be married (but were there exceptions?). However, I’ve never read that the member also had to have at least one child. Do you have a source for your understanding? But, concerning Paul’s marital status, it has been argued that he was married but his wife had died, or perhaps, if he married well in the Jewish hierarchy, Paul’s father-in-law may have demanded his daughter divorce Paul because of his confession of Christ.

      No reference to Paul’s family is mentioned before Acts 23:16 where Paul’s nephew exposes a Jewish plot against his life. This knowledge seems to point to Paul’s family being very well placed in 1st century Judaism, since Paul’s sister’s son was privy to such knowledge in the first place. It seems only someone near to the high priest would know of such things (barring, of course of accidentally coming upon the knowledge). But since Paul’s own teacher, Gamaliel, was very important in 1st century Judaism, we can assume that Paul’s family was important, and not merely a Tarsus boy who made good.

      Nevertheless, nearly all of this is assumption, including the marital status of Paul—yea or nay. We assume all the other Apostles were married (except for Barnabas), yet the text refers to only Peter’s marital status, yet we don’t know Peter’s wife’s name or whether or not they had children, nor is she mentioned directly in any passage in the New Testament. We know of her only through the healing of her mother. Therefore, we need to be careful about making our judgments too firm. We simply aren’t sure one way or another about many things like these.

      Concerning Paul’s membership in the Sanhedrin, I don’t think we can assume he was one of the 70, i.e. of the high court. But there were smaller sanhedrins (courts of law) throughout Palestine, even in Jerusalem. Paul could have been a member of one of those courts, or he could have been an office of the lower court at Jerusalem or even of the high court, the Sanhedrin or the ‘Supreme Court’ of Judaism, i.e. not one of the seventy but one of the officers—a lawyer, one who held he sudar (mentioned in my blog) or someone sent to perform the Court’s business (like going to Damascus and arrest Messianic Jews there) etc.

    • Travis

      July 11, 2014 at 20:44

      Eddie, thank.
      This was the conclusion of Conybeare & Howson (The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, p. 59 note 6 and p. 64 note 2). However, they do not provide a satisfactory reference for their conclusion (only Hipploytus ii.344 (I think this is the Baron Bunsen text, which I have not been able to acquire)).

      While this is an interesting topic I believe you are correct in that we will likely never know. From what I have been reading it seems the Sanhedrin’s authority/structure was in a state of flux during Paul’s time. I have read various accounts of the regulations (ranging from marital status of the members, to the number in the Sanhedrin).

      I think I have put as much time into this as I am willing to give since there are far more important topics to tackle. I am just starting an in-depth study of Romans and came across this interesting tidbit and decided to pursue it for a while.

      On a side note, if Paul were married then we would have a much more problematic interpretation of his statement in the first epistle to the Corinthians wherein he said he wished all could be as he is, regarding marriage. Does he mean divorced, widowed, separated? Interesting.

    • Eddie

      July 12, 2014 at 08:15

      Greetings again Travis, and thanks for the reference. I hope you find fulfillment in your new study of Romans.

      In regard to Paul’s 1Corinthians 7:7-8, if Paul was widowed or divorced, he had no wife. He was single and had no care but for the Church of God. I think this is the sense rather than “be as I am–a widower” or “be as I am–divorced.” Anyway, those are my thoughts. Blessings to you.

  2. Raymond McAlister

    April 19, 2012 at 12:58

    The Sanhedrin did not have the authority to put Jesus to death, hence they took Him to Pilate. Why then did they stone Stephen and other Christians? If you have already answered this, would you please direct me to the answer? Thanks

    • Ed Bromfield

      April 25, 2012 at 05:28

      Dr. McAlister, I am sorry it has taken so long to reply to you, but my days are up and down as far as pain is concerned and computer time adds to the pain, but I’ll give this a shot now and see what happens. I am having a problem tracking down my extra-biblical references.

      Regarding the power of the Sanhedrin, I’ll say “yes and no.” It is clear from John 19:6 that the Sanhedrin could crucify Jesus if they wished, but it is also clear from John 18:31 that the Jewish authorities believed they had no such right. On the other hand this same council believed they had the authority to slay all of the Apostles (Acts 5:33). Either there is a reasonable explanation for these apparent contradictions, or John and Luke are writing down random thoughts regardless of their validity.

      When Rome banished Archelaus and assumed governmental responsibility of Judea and Samaria (cir.6 CE), this meant that they held supreme power over all Jewish governmental affairs, including appointing the high priests, the highest Jewish office in Palestine. This meant that a foreign power could give or take away any and all power that the Jews had up to that time exercised over themselves. It seems apparent from John 19:6 that the Roman governor, Pilate, had placed power of execution into the hands of the Sanhedrin, but this “privilege” was tempered with an expectation of orderly rule that would not cause an uprising among the people and thereby disturb the Pax Romana. It was because of this very issue that Pilate was finally persuaded to execute Jesus (Matthew 27:24).

      Therefore, if the Sanhedrin had the power over life and death, and it seems obvious they did have such power (cp. 1Maccabees 15:21 and JOSEPHUS Antiquities 14.10.2 and Wars 6.2.4), why did the Jewish authorities say they hadn’t the power to crucify Jesus (John 18:31)? According to some ancient Jewish writings, first written down cir. 200 CE, the Sanhedrin couldn’t try and condemn a person on the same day (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.1). Knowing this, we can understand why the Sanhedrin needed Pilate to carry out Jesus’ execution. People are very fickle, and, while they had popular support for the moment to release Barabbas, it wouldn’t be long before support for Jesus could be rallied and the court would have to release Jesus or a tumult would occur.

      If this doesn’t suffice, please don’t hesitate to request further explanation. Lord bless you.



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