By Julius Magath
The Study of the Personal Character of the Members
of the Sanhedrim that Sat at the Trial of Christ
The Moral Character of
Who Sat at the Trial of
As we have already noticed, the members of the Sanhedrim that judged Christ were seventy-one in number, and were divided into three chambers; but we must know the names, acts, and moral character of these judges. That such knowledge would throw a great light on this celebrated trial can be easily understood. The characters of Caiaphas, Ananias, and Pilate are already well-known to us. These stand out as the three leading figures in the drama of the Passion. But others have appeared in it; would it not be possible to produce them also before history? This task, we believe, has never yet been undertaken. It was thought that documents were wanting. But this is an error; such documents exist. We have consulted them; and in this century of historical study and research, we shall draw forth from the places where they have been hidden for centuries, the majority of the judges of Christ.
Three kinds of documents have, in a particular manner, enabled us to discover the character of these men: the books of the evangelists, the valuable writings of Josephus the historian, and the hitherto unexplored pages of the Talmud. We shall bring to light forty of the judges, so that more than half of the Sanhedrim will appear before us; and this large majority will be sufficient to enable us to form an opinion of the moral tone of the whole assembly.
To proceed with due order, we will begin with the most important chamber — viz., the chamber of the priests.
I. The Chamber of the Priests
We use the expression “chamber of the priests.” In the Gospel narrative, however, this division of the Sanhedrim bears a more imposing title. Matthew, Mark, and other evangelists, designate it by the following names: the council of the high priests, and the council of the princes of the priests, Matthew 2:4, 21:15, 26:3, 47, 59; Mark 11:18, 15:11; Luke 19:47, 20:1; John 11:47, 12:10.
But we may ask, why is this pompous name given to this chamber by the evangelists? Is this not an error on their part? An assembly of priests seems natural, but how can there be an assembly of high priests, since according to the Mosaic institution there could be only one high priest, whose office was tenable for life. There is, however, neither an error nor an undue amplification on the part of the Gospel narrators; and we may also add here that both Talmuds positively speak of an assembly of high priests, (Dérembourg, Essai sur l’histoire et la géographie de la Palestine, p. 231, note 1). But how, then, can we account for the presence of several high priests at the same time in the Sanhedrim? Here is the explanation, to the shame of the Jewish assembly:
For nearly a century a detestable abuse prevailed, which consisted in the arbitrary nomination and deposition of the high priest. The high priesthood, which for fifteen centuries had been preserved in the same family, being hereditary according to the divine command, (Josephus, Ant., Book 20, Chap. 10.1; 15, 3.1) had at the time of Christ’s advent become an object of commercial speculation. Herod commenced these arbitrary changes (Josephus, Ant., Book 15, Chap. 3.1) and after Judea became one of the Roman conquests the election of the high priest took place almost every year at Jerusalem, the procurators appointing and deposing them in the same manner as the praetorians later on made and unmade emperors, (Josephus, Ant., Book 18, Chap. 2.3; Book 20, Chap. 9.1, 4). The Talmud speaks sorrowfully of this venality and the yearly changes of the high priest.
This sacred office was given to the one that offered the most money for it, and the mothers were particularly anxious that their sons should be nominated to this dignity. (See Talmud, Yoma, or the Day of Atonement, fol. 35, recto; also Dérembourg, work above quoted, p. 230, note 2.)
The expression, “the council of the high priests,” used by the evangelists to designate this section of the Sanhedrim, is therefore rigorously correct; for at the time of the trial of Christ there were about twelve former high priests, who still retained the honorable title of their charge, and were, by the right of that title, members of the high tribunal. Several ordinary priests were also included in this chamber, but they were in most cases related to the high priests; for in the midst of the intrigues by which the sovereign pontificate was surrounded in those days, it was customary for the more influential of the chief priests to bring in their sons and allies as members of their chamber. The spirit of caste was very powerful, and as M. Dérembourg, a modern Jewish savant, has remarked: “A few priestly, aristocratic, powerful, and vain families, who cared for neither the dignity nor the interests of the altar, quarreled with each other respecting appointments, influence, and wealth,” (Essai sur l’histoire et la géographie de la Palestine, p. 232).
To sum up, we have, then, in this first chamber a double element — high priests and ordinary priests. We shall now make them known by their names and character, and indicate the sources whence the information has been obtained.
Caiaphas, high priest then in office. He was the son-in-law of Ananos, and exercised his office for eleven years — during the whole term of Pilate’s administration, 25-36 A.D. It is he who presided over the Sanhedrim during this trial, and the history of the Passion as given by the evangelists is sufficient to make him known to us. (See Matthew 26:3; Luke 3:2, etc.; Jos., Ant., Book 18, Chap. 2.2.)
Ananos held the office of high priest for seven years under Coponius, Ambivius, and Rufus (7-11 A.D.). This personage was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, and although out of office, was nevertheless consulted on matters of importance. It may be said, indeed, that in the midst of the instability of the sacerdotal office, he alone preserved in reality its authority. For fifty years this high office remained without interruption in his family. Five of his sons successively assumed its dignity. This family was even known as the “sacerdotal family,” as if this office had become hereditary in it. Ananos had charge also of the more important duties of the Temple, and Josephus says that he was considered the most fortunate man of his time. He adds, however, that the spirit of this family was haughty, audacious, and cruel, (Luke 3:2; John 18:13, 24; Acts 4:6; Jos., Ant., Book 15, Chap. 3.1; 20, 9.1, 3; Jewish Wars, Book 4, Chap. 5. 2, 6, 7).
Eleazar was high priest during one year, under Valerius Grattus, 23-24 A.D. He was the eldest son of Ananos, (Jos., Ant., Book 18, 2.2).
Jonathan, son of Ananos, simple priest at that time, but afterward made high priest for one year in the place of Caiaphas when the latter was deposed, after the disgrace of Pilate, by Vitellius, Governor-general of Syria, 37 A.D., (Jos., Ant., B. 18, 4.3).
Theophilus, son of Ananos, simple priest at that time, but afterward made high priest in the place of his brother Jonathan, who was deposed by Vitellius. Theophilus was in office five years, 38-42 A.D., (Jos., Ant., B. 19, 6.2; Munk, Hist. de la Palestine, p. 568).
Matthias, son of Ananos, simple priest; afterward high priest for two years (42-44 A.D.). He succeeded Simon Cantharus, who was deposed by King Herod Agrippa, (Jos., Ant., 19, 6.4).
Ananus, son of Ananos, simple priest at the time; afterwards made high priest by Herod Agrippa after the death of the Roman governor, Portius Festus (63 A.D.). Being a Sadducee of extravagant zeal, he was deposed at the end of three months by Albanus, successor of Portius Festus, for having illegally condemned the apostle James to be stoned, (Acts 23:2, 24:1; Jos., Ant., B. 20, 9.1).
Joazar, high priest for six years during the latter days of Herod the Great and the first years of Archelaus (4 B.C.-2 A.D.). He was the son of Simon Boethus, who owed his dignity and fortune to the following dishonorable circumstance, as related by Josephus the historian: “There was one Simon, a citizen of Jerusalem, the son of Boethus, a citizen of Alexandria and a priest of great note there. This man had a daughter, who was esteemed the most beautiful woman of that time. And when the people of Jerusalem began to speak much in her commendation, it happened that Herod was much affected by what was said of her; and when he saw the damsel he was smitten with her beauty. Yet did he entirely reject the thought of using his authority to abuse her . . . so he thought it best to take the damsel to wife. And while Simon was of a dignity too inferior to be allied to him, but still too considerable to be despised, he governed his inclinations after the most prudent manner by augmenting the dignity of the family and making them more honorable. Accordingly, he forthwith deprived Jesus, the son of Phabet, of the high priesthood, and conferred that dignity on Simon.” Such, according to Josephus, is the origin — not at all of a supernatural nature — of the call to the high priesthood of Simon Boethus and his whole family. Simon, at the time of this trial, was already dead; but Joazar figured in it with two of his brothers, one of whom was, like himself, a former high priest, (Jos., Ant., B. 15, 9.3; 17, 6.4; 18, 1; 19, 6.2).
Eleazar, second son of Simon Boethus. He succeeded his brother Joazar when the latter was deprived of that function by King Archelaus (2 A.D.) Eleazar was high priest for a short time only, the same king deposing him three months after his installation, (Jos., Ant., B. 17, 13.1; 19.6.2).
Simon Cantharus, third son of Simon Boethus, simple priest at the time; was afterwards made high priest by King Herod Agrippa (42 A.D.), who, however, deposed him after a few months, (Jos., Ant., B. 19, 2, 4).
Jesus ben Sie succeeded Eleazar to the high priesthood, and held the office for five or six years (1-6 A.D.) under the reign of Archelaus, (Jos., Ant., 17, 13.1).
Ismael ben Phabi, high priest for nine years under procurator Valerius Grattus, predecessor of Pontius Pilate. He was considered, according to the rabbins, the handsomest man of his time. The effeminate love of luxury of this chief priest was carried to such an extent that his mother, having made him a tunic of great price, he deigned to wear it once, and then consigned it to the public wardrobe, as a grand lady might dispose of a robe which no longer pleased her caprices, (Talmud, Pesachim, or of the Passover, fol. 57, verso; Yoma, or the Day of Atonement, fol. 9, verso; 35, recto; Jos., Ant., 18, 2.2; 20, 8.11; Bartolocci, Grand Bibliotheque Rabbinique, T. 3, p. 297; Munk, Palestine, pp. 563, 575).
Simon ben Camithus, high priest during one year under procurator Valerius Grattus (24-25 A.D.). This personage was celebrated for the enormous size of his hand, and the Talmud relates of him the following incident: On the eve of the Day of Atonement it happened, in the course of a conversation which he had with Arathus, King of Arabia — whose daughter Herod Antipas had just married — that some saliva, coming out of the mouth of the king, fell on the robe of Simon. As soon as the king left him, he hastened to divest himself of it, considering it desecrated by the circumstance, and hence unworthy to be worn during the services of the following day. What a remarkable instance of Pharisaical purity and charity! (Talmud, Yoma, or the Day of Atonement, fol. 47, verso; Jos., Ant., 18, 2.2; Dérembourg, Essai sur l’histoire, p. 197, n. 2.)
John, simple priest. He is made known to us through the Acts of the Apostles. “And Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest, were gathered together in Jerusalem,” Acts 4:6.
Alexander, simple priest; also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles in the passage above quoted. Josephus also makes mention of him, and says that he afterwards became an Alabarch — that is to say, first magistrate of the Jews in Alexandria. That he was very rich is to be learned from the fact that King Herod Agrippa asked and obtained from him the loan of two hundred thousand pieces of silver, (Acts 4:6; Jos., Ant., 18, 6.3; 20, 5.2; Petri Wesselingii, Diatribe de Judaeorum Archontibus, Trajecti ad Rhenum, p. 69-71).
Ananias ben Nebedeus, simple priest at that itme; was elected to the high priesthood under procurators Ventideus, Cumanus, and Felix (48-54 A.D.). He is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and by Josephus. It was this high priest who delivered the apostle Paul to procurator Felix. “Ananias the high priest descended with the elders, and with a certain orator named Tertullus, who informed the governor against Paul,” Acts 24:1. According to Jewish tradition, this high priest is chiefly known for his excessive gluttony. What the Talmud says of his voracity is quite phenomenal. It mentions three hundred calves, as many casks of wine, and forty pairs of young pigeons as having been brought together for his repast, (Talmud, Bab., Pesachim, or the Passover, fol. 57, verso; Kerihoth, or Sins Which Close the Entrance to Eternal Life, fol. 28, verso; Jos., Ant., 20, 5.2; Dérembourg, work quoted above, p. 230, 234; Munk, Palestine, p. 573, n. 1).
Helcias, simple priest, and keeper of the treasury of the Temple. It is probably from him that Judas Iscariot received the thirty pieces of silver, the price of his treason (Jos., Ant., 20, 8.11).
Sceva, one of the principal priests. He is spoken of in the Acts apropos of his seven sons, who gave themselves up to witchcraft, Acts 19:13, 14.
Such are the chief priests that constituted the first chamber of the Sanhedrim at the time of the trial of Christ.
From the documents which we have consulted and the résumé which we have just given, we gather:
1. That several of the high priests were personally dishonorable.
2. That all these high priests, who succeeded each other annually in the Aaronic office in utter disregard of the order established by God, were but miserable intruders. We trust that these expressions will not offend our dear Israelitish readers, for they are based on the statements of eminent and zealous Jewish writers.
To begin with, Josephus the historian. Although endeavoring to conceal as much as possible the shameful acts committed by the priests composing this council, yet he was unable, in a moment of distrust, to refrain from stigmatizing them. “About this time,” he says, “there arose a sedition between the high priests and the principal men of the multitude of Jerusalem, each of which assembled a company of the boldest sort of men, and of those that loved innovations, and became leaders to them. And when they struggled together, they did it by casting reproachful words against one another, and by throwing stones also. And there was nobody to reprove them; but these disorders were done after a licentious manner in the city, as if it had no government over it. And such was the impudence and boldness that had seized on the high priests that they had the hardness to send their servants into the threshing floors, to take away those tithes that were due the [simple] priests. Insomuch that the poorest priests died of want,” (Jos., Ant., 20, 8.8). Such are the acts, the spirit of equity and kindness that characterized the chief judges of Christ! But the Talmud goes farther still. This book, which ordinarily is not sparing of eulogies on the people of our nation, yet, considering separately and by name, as we have done, the high priests of that time, it exclaims: “What a plague is the family of Simon Boethus; cursed be their lances! What a plague is the family of Ananos; cursed be their hissing of vipers! What a plague is the family of Cantharus; cursed be their pens! What a plague is the family of Ismael ben Phabi; cursed be their fists! They are high priests themselves, their sons are treasurers, their sons-in-law are commanders, and their servants strike the people with staves.” (Talmud, Pesachim, or of the Passover, fol. 57, verso.) The Talmud continues: “The porch of the sanctuary cried out four times. The first time, Depart from here, descendants of Eli; (The high priests designated under the name of the descendants of Eli are those who, as sons of the high priest Eli, polluted the Temple by their immorality.) (See I Kings 3:22-25; I Samuel 2:12-17, 22-25.) ye pollute the Temple of the Eternal! The second time, Let Issachar ben Keifar Barchi depart from here, who polluteth himself and profaneth the victims consecrated to God! (This Issachar was a priest of such a dainty nature that in order to touch the sacrifices he covered his hands with silk.) The third time, Widen yourselves, ye gates of the sanctuary, and let Israel ben Phabi the willful enter, that he may discharge the functions of the priesthood! Yet another cry was heard, Widen yourselves, ye gates, and let Ananias ben Nebedeus the gourmand enter, that he may glut himself on the victims!” In face of such low morality, avowed by the least to be suspected of our own nation, is it possible to restrain one’s indignation against those who sat at the trial of Christ as members of the chambers of priests? This indignation becomes yet more intense when one remembers that an ambitious hypocrisy, having for its aim the domineering over the people, had perverted the law of Moses in these men. The majority of the priests belonged, in fact, to the Pharisaic order, the members of which sect made religion subservient to their personal ambition; and in order to rule over the people with more ease, they used religion as a tool to effect this purpose, encumbering the law of Moses with exaggerated precepts and insupportable burdens which they strenuously imposed upon others, but failed to observe themselves. Can we, then, be astonished at the murderous hatred which these false and ambitious men conceived for Christ? When His words, sharper than a sword, exposed their hypocrisy and displayed the corrupt interior of these whitened sepulchers wearing the semblance of justice, the hatred they already cherished for Him grew to a frenzied intensity. They never forgave Him for having publicly unmasked them. Hypocrisy never forgives that.
Such were the men composing the council of priests, when the Sanhedrim assembled to judge Christ. Were we not justified in forming of them an unfavorable opinion? . . . . But let us pass on to the second chamber, viz., the chamber of the scribes.
II. Chamber of the Scribes
Let us recall in a few words who the scribes were. Chosen indiscriminately among the Levites and laity, they formed the corps savant of the nation; they were doctors in Israel, and were held in high esteem and veneration. It is well-known what respect the Jews, and the Eastern nations generally, have always had for their wise men.
Next to the chamber of the priests, that of the scribes was the most important. But from information gathered from documents to which we have already referred, we are constrained to affirm that, with a few individual exceptions, this chamber was no better than that of the priests.
The following is a list of the names and histories of the wise men who composed the chamber of the scribes at the trial of Christ:
Gamaliel, surnamed the ancient. He was a very worthy Israelite, and his name is spoken of with honor in the Talmud as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. He belonged to a noble family, being a grandson of the famous Hillel, who, coming from Babylon forty years before Christ, taught with such brilliant success in Jerusalem. Gamaliel acquired so great a reputation among his people for his scientific acquirements, that the Talmud could say of him: “With the death of Rabbi Gamaliel the glory of the law has departed.” It was at the feet of this doctor that Saul, afterwards Paul the Apostle, studied the law and Jewish traditions, and we know how he gloried in this fact (Acts 22:3). Gamaliel had also among his disciples Barnabas and Stephen, the first martyr for the cause of Christ. When the members of the Sanhedrim discussed the expediency of putting the apostles to death, this worthy Israelite prevented the passing of the sentence by pronouncing these celebrated words: “Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men. . . . . And now I say unto you, refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought; but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” Acts 5:34-39. Gamaliel died nineteen years after Christ (52 A.D.). (Acts 5:34-39; 22:3. Mishnah, Sotah, or the Woman Suspected of Adultry, C.9 Sepher Juchasin, or the Book of the Ancestors, p. 53; David Ganz, Germe de David ou Chronologie to 4768; Bartolocci Bibliotheca magna Rabbinica, T. 1, pp. 727-732.)
Simon, son of Gamaliel, like his father, had a seat in the assembly. The rabbinical books speak of him in the highest terms of eulogy. The Mishnah, for instance, attributes to him this sentence: “Brought up from my infancy among learned men, I have found nothing that is of greater value to man than silence. Doctrines are not the chief things, but work. He who is in the habit of much talking falls easily into error.” This Simon became afterwards the intimate friend of the too-celebrated bandit, John of Goscola, whose excesses and cruelty toward the Romans, and even the Jews, caused Titus to order the pillaging of Jerusalem. Simon was killed in the last assult in 70 A.D., (David Ganz, Chronologie to 4810; Mishnah, Aboth, or of the Fathers, C.1; Talmud, Jerusalem, Berachoth, or of Blessings, fol. 6, verso; Historia Doctorium Misnicorum, J. H. Otthonis, pp. 110-113; De Champagny, Rome et la Judee, T. 2, 86-171).
Onkelos was born of heathen parents, but embraced Judaism, and became one of the most eminent disciples of Gamaliel. He is the author of the famous Chaldaic paraphrase of the Pentateuch. Although the rabbinical books do not mention him as a member of the Sanhedrim, yet it is highly probable that he belonged to that body, his writings and memory having always been held in great esteem by the Jews; even at the present day every Jew is enjoined to read weekly a portion of his version of the books of Moses. Onkelos carried the Pharisaical intolerance to the last degree. Converted from idolatry to Judaism, he hated the Gentiles to such an extent that he cast into the Dead Sea, as an object of impurity, the sum of money that he had inherited from his parents. We can easily understand how that, with such a disposition, he would not be favorably inclined toward Jesus, who received Gentiles and Jews alike, (Talmud, Megilla, or The Festival of Esther, fol. 3, verso; Baba-bathra, or the Last Gate, fol. 134, verso; Succa, or the Festival of Tabernacles, fol. 28, verso; Thosephthoth, or Supplements to the Mishnah, C. 5; Rabbi Gedalia, Tzaltzeleth Hakkabalah, or the Chain of the Kabalah, p. 28; Histor. Doct. Misnic., p. 110; De Rossi, Dizionario degli, Autori Ebrei, p. 81).
Jonathan ben Uziel, author of a very remarkable paraphrase of the Pentateuch and the Prophets. There is a difference of opinion regarding the precise time at which he lived. Some place it several years before Christ; others at the time of Christ. We believe, however, that not only was he contemporary with Christ, but that he was also one of his judges. In support of our assertion we give the two following proofs, which we think indisputable: 1. Jonathan, the translator of the Prophets, has purposely omitted Daniel, which omission the Talmud explains as due to the special intervention of an angel who informed him that the manner in which the prophet speaks of the death of the Messiah coincided too exactly with that of Jesus of Nazareth. Now, since Jonathan has intentionally left out the prophecies of Daniel on account of their coincidence with the death of Christ, it proves that he could not have lived before Christ, but must have been contemporary with him. 2. In comparing the paraphrase of Onkelos with that of Jonathan, we find that the latter had made use of the work of the former, who lived in the time of Christ. Examples may be found in Deuteronomy 22:5; Judges 5:26; Numbers 21:28-29. If, then, Jonathan utilized the work of Onkelos, who lived in the time of Christ, the fact proves beyond question that he could not have lived before Christ. The Talmudists, in order to reward this person for having, through his hatred of Christ, erased the name of Daniel from the roll of prophets, eulogize him in the most absurd manner. They relate that while engaged in the study of the law of God, the atmosphere which surrounded him, and came in contact with the light of his understanding, so caught fire from his fervor that the birds, silly enough to be attracted toward it, were consumed immediately, (Talmud, Succa, or the Festival of Tabernacles, fol. 28, verso; David Ganz, Chronol. 4728; Gesenius, Comm. on Isaiah, part I, p. 65; Zunz, Culte divin des Jnifs, Berlin, 1832, p. 61; Dérembourg, work quoted above, p. 276; Hanneburg, Revelat Bibliq., 2. 163, 432).
Samuel Hakaton, or the Less. Surnamed to distinguish him from Samuel the prophet. It was he who, some time after the resurrection of Christ, composed the famous imprecation against the Christians, called “Birchath Hamminim,” (Benedictions of Infidels). The “Birchath Hamminim,” says the Talmud, and the commentary of R. Jarchi, “was composed by R. Samuel Hakaton at Jabneh, where the Sanhedrim had removed after the misconduct of the Nazarene, who taught a doctrine contrary to the words of the living God.” The following is the singular benediction: “Let there be no hope for the apostates of religion, and let all heretics, whosoever they may be, perish suddenly. May the kingdom of pride be rooted out; let it be annihilated quickly, even in our days! Be blessed, O Lord, who destroyest the impious, and humblest the proud!” As soon as Samuel Hekaton had composed this malediction, it was inserted as an additional blessing in the celebrated prayer of the synagogue, the “Shemonah-Essara,” (the eighteen blessings). These blessings belonged to the time of Ezra — that is to say, five centuries before the Christian era; and every Jew has to recite it daily. St. Jerome was not ignorant of this strange prayer. He says: “The Jews anathematize three times daily in their synagogue the name of the Christian, disguising it under the name of Nazarene.” According to R. Gedalia, Samuel died before the destruction of Jerusalem, about fifteen or twenty years after Christ, (Talmud, Berachoth, or of Prayers, fol. 28, verso; Megilla, or the Festival of Esther, fol. 28, verso; St. Jerome, Comment. on Isaiam, B. 2, C.5.18,19; Tom. 4, p. 81 of the Valarsius, quarto edition; Vitringa, de Synagoga vetr., T. 2, p. 1036, 1047, 1051; Castellus, Lexicon heptaglotton, art. Min).
Chanania ben Chiskia. He was a great conciliator in the midst of the doctrinal quarrels so common at that time; and it happened that the rival schools of Shammai and Hillel, which were not abolished with the death of their founders, often employed him as their arbitrator. This skillful umpire did not always succeed, however, in calming the disputants; for we read in the ancient books that in the transition from force of argument to argument of force, the members of the schools of Shammai and Hillel frequently came to blows. Hence the French expression se chammailler. It happened, however, according to the Talmud, that Chanania once departed from his usual system of equilibrium in favor of the prophet Ezekiel. It appears that on one occasion the most influential members of the Sanhedrim proposed to censure, and even reject, the book of this prophet, because, according to their opinion, it contained several passages in contradiction of the law of Moses; but Chanania defended it with so much eloquence that they were obliged to desist from their project. This fact alone, reported fully as it is in the Talmud, would be sufficient to show the laxity of the study of the prophecies at that time. Although the exact date of his death is uncertain, it is, nevertheless, sure that it took place before the destruction of the Temple, (Talmud, Chagiga, or the obligations of the males to present themselves three times a year at Jerusalem, 2, 13; Shabbath, or of the Sabbath, C.1; Sepher Juchasin, or the Book of Ancestors, p. 57).
Ismael ben Eliza, renowned for the depth of his mind and beauty of his face. The rabbins record that he was learned in the most mysterious things; for example, he could command the angels to descend from heaven and ascend thither. We have it also from the same authority that his mother held him in such high admiration that one day on his return from school she washed his feet, and, through respect for him, drank the water, which she had used for that purpose. His death was of a no less romantic nature. It appears that after the capture of Jerusalem, the daughter of Titus was so struck with his beauty that she obtained permission of her father to have the skin of his face taken off after his death, which skin she had embalmed, and having perfumed it, she sent it to Rome to figure among the spoils as a trophy, (Talmud, Aboda Zarah, or of Idolatry, C.1; Rabbi Gadalia, Tzaltzeleth Hakkabalah, or the Chain of the Kabalah, p. 29; Sepher Juchasin, or the Book of Ancestors, p. 25; Tosephoth Kiddushin, C.4).
Rabbi Zadok. He was about forty years old at the trial of Christ, and died after the burning of the Temple, aged over seventy. The Talmud relates that for forty years he ceased not from fasting, that God might so order it that the Temple should not be destroyed by fire. Upon this the question is propounded in the same book, but no answer given, as to how this rabbin could have known that the Temple was threatened with so great a calamity. We believe that Rabbi Zadok could have obtained information of this terrible event in one of two ways — either from the prophetic voice of Daniel which proclaimed more than forty years previous to the occurrence that abomination and desolation should crush the Temple of Jerusalem when the Messiah should have been put to death; or by the voice of Jesus Himself, who said forty years before the destruction of the Temple: “See ye not all these things?” (i.e., the buildings of the Temple) “verily, verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down,” (Mishnah, Shabbath, or of the Sabbath, C.24.5 to end; Eduth, or the Testimony, C.7.1; Aboth, or of the Fathers of Tradition, 4.5; David Ganz, Chronol. 4785; Seph. Juchasin, fol. 21, 26; Schikardi, Jus Regium Hebraeorum, p. 468; Daniel 9:25-27; Luke 21:6; Matthew 24:2).
Jochanan ben Zakai. The rabbinical books accord to this rabbi an extraordinary longevity. From their writings it would appear that, like Moses, he lived a hundred and twenty years, forty years of which he consecrated to manual labor; another forty to the study of the law; and the last forty years of his life he devoted to imparting his knowledge to others. His reputation as a savant was so well-established that he was surnamed the Splendor of Wisdom. After the destruction of the Temple, he rallied together the remaining members of the Sanhedrim to Jabneh, where he presided over this remnant for the last four or five years of his life. He died in the year 73 A.D. When he breathed his last, says the Mishnah, a cry of anguish was heard, saying: “With the death of Jochanan ben Zakai the splendor of wisdom has been quenched!” We have, however, other information regarding this rabbi, which is, so to speak, like the reverse side of a medal. The Bereshith Rabba says that Rabbi Jochanan was in the habit of eulogizing himself in the most extravagant manner, and gives the following as a specimen of the praises he bestowed upon himself: “If the skies were parchment, all the inhabitants of the world writers, and all the trees of the forest pens, all these would not suffice to transcribe the doctrines which he had learned from the masters.” What humility of language! One day his disciples asked him to what he attributed his long life. “To my wisdom and piety,” was his reply in his tone of habitual modesty. Besides, if we were to judge of his moral character by an ordinance of which he is author, his morality might be equal to the standard of his humility. He abolished the Mosaical command of the order of bitter waters, immorally isolating a passage in Isaiah from its context. Finally, to fill up the measure of his honesty, he became one of the lewdest courtiers of Titus, and the destroyer of his country. But while obsequious to human grandeur, he was obdurate to the warnings of God, and died proud and impenitent, (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, or of the New Year, fol. 20, recto; 31, recto; Sotah, or of the Woman Suspected, etc., 9.9; Yoma, or the Day of Atonement, fol. 39, recto, and 43; Gittin, or of Divorce, fol. 56, verso and recto; Succa, or of the Festival of Tabernacles, fol. 28, verso; Mishnah, Chapter, Egla arupha; Sepher Juchasin, or the Book of Ancestors, fol. 20, recto; Seph. Hakkabalah; Otthonis, Hist. Doct. Misn., pp. 93-103; Hosea 4:14; Jos., Wars, 6,5.3; De Champagny, Rome et la Judee, T.1, p. 158).
Abba Saul. He was of prodigious height, and had the charge of superintending the burials of the dead, that everything might be done according to the law. The rabbins, who delight in the marvelous, affirm that in the exercise of his duties he found the thighbone of Og, the King of Bashan, and the right eye of Absalom. By virtue of the marrow extracted from the thigh of Og, he was enabled to chase a young buck for three leagues; as for the eye of Absalom, it was so deep that he could have hidden himself in it as if in a cavern. These stories, no doubt, appear very puerile; and yet according to a Talmudical book (Menorath-Hammoer, the lighted candlestick), which is considered of great authority even in the modern [orthodox] synagogue, we must judge of these matters in the following manner: “Everything which our doctors have taught in the Medrashim (allegoric or historical commentaries) we are bound to consider and believe in as the law of Moses our master; and if we find anything in it which appears exaggerated and incredible, we must attribute it to the weakness of our understandings, rather than to their teachings; and whoever turns into ridicule whatever they have said will be punished.” According to Maimonides, Abba Saul died before the destruction of the Temple, (Mishnah, Middoth, or of the Dimensions of the Temple, Chapter, Har habbaith; Talmud, Nidda, or the Purification of Women, C.3, fol. 24, recto; Maimonides, Proef ad zeraim; Drach, Harmonies entre l’ Eglise et la Synagogue, T. 2, p. 375).
R. Chanania, surnamed the Vicar of the Priests. The Mishnah attributes to him a saying which brings clearly before us the social position of the Jewish people in the last days of Jerusalem. “Pray,” said he, “for the Roman Empire; for should the terror of its power disappear in Palestine, neighbor will devour neighbor alive.” This avowal shows the deplorable state of Judea, and the divisions to which she had become a prey. The Romans seem, however, to have cared very little for the sympathy of R. Chanania, for, having possessed themselves of the city, they put him to death (Mishnah, Aboth, or of the Fathers of Tradition, C.3.2; Zevachim, or of Sacrifices, C.9.3; Eduth, or of Testimony, C.2.1; David Ganz, Chronologie, 4826; Sepher Juchasin, or the Book of Ancestors, p. 57).
Rabbi Eleazar ben Partah, one of the most esteemed scribes of the Sanhedrim, on account of his scientific knowledge. Already very aged at the destruction of the Temple, he yet lived several years after that national calamity, (Talmud, Gittin, or of Divorces, C.3.4; Sepher Juchasin, p. 31).
Rabbi Nachum Halbalar. He is mentioned in the rabbinical books as belonging to the Sanhedrim in the year 28 A.D., but nothing particular is mentioned of his history, (Talmud, Peah, or of the Angle, C.2.6, Sanhedrim).
Rabbi Simon Hamizpah. He also is said to have belonged to the Sanhedrim in the year 28 A.D. Beyond this but little is known, (Talmud, Peah, C.2.6).
These are, according to Jewish tradition, the principal scribes, or doctors that composed the second chamber of the Sanhedrim at the time of the trial of Christ. The ancient books, which speak of them are, of course, filled with their praises. Nevertheless, blended with these praises are some remarks which point to the predominant vice of these men — namely, pride. We read in Rabbi Nathan’s book, Aruch (a Talmudical dictionary of great authority), (Rabbi Nathan, son of Rabbi Yechiel, was the disciple of the celebrated Moses, the preacher and first rabbi of the synagogue at Rome in the ninth century. His work forms a large folio volume, and contains some minute explanations of the most difficult passages in the Talmud): “In the past and more honorable times the titles of rabbin, rabbi, or rav, (i.e., lord) to designate the learned men of Babylon and Palestine were unknown; thus when Hillel came from Babylon the title of rabbi was not added to his name. It was the same with the prophets who were styled simply Isaiah, Haggai, etc., and not Rabbi Isaiah, Rabbi Haggai, etc. Neither did Ezra bring the title of rabbi with him from Babylon. It was not until the time of Gamaliel, Simon, and Jochanan ben Zackai that this imposing title was first introduced among the worthies of the Sanhedrim.”
This pompous appellation appears, indeed, for the first time among the Jews contemporary with Christ. “They love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.” Proud of their titles and learning, they laid claim to the foremost rank in society. A wise man, say they, should be preferred to a king; the king takes the precedence of the high priest; the priest of the Levite; the Levite of the ordinary Israelite. The wise man should be preferred to the king, for if the wise man should die he could not easily be replaced; while the king could be succeeded by an Israelite of any order, (Talmud, Jerus., Horayoth, or Regulations of Justice, fol. 84, recto). Basing the social status on this maxim we are not astonished to find in the Talmud, (Talmud, Jerus., Shevuoth, or of Oaths, fol.19, verso) that at a certain time twenty-four persons were excommunicated for having failed to render to the rabbi the reverence due his position. Indeed, a very small offense was often sufficient to call forth maledictions from this haughty and intolerant dignitary. Punishment was mercilessly inflicted wherever there was open violation of any one of the following rules established by the rabbis themselves:
If any one opposes his rabbi, he is guilty in the same degree as if he opposed God himself, (Tanchumah, or Book of Consolation, fol. 68, recto).
If any one quarrels with his rabbi, it is as if he contended with the living God, (Ibid.).
If any one thinks evil of his rabbi, it is as if he thought evil of the Eternal, (Ibid., and Sanhedrim, fol. 110, verso).
This self-sufficiency was carried to such an enormous extent that when Jerusalem fell into the hands of Titus, who came against it armed with the sword of vengeance of Jehovah, Rabbi Jehudah wrote with an unflinching pen: “If Jerusalem was destroyed, we need look for no other cause than the people’s want of respect for the rabbis,” (Talmud, Shabbath, or of the Sabbath, fol. 119, recto).
We ask now of every sincere Israelite, What opinion can be formed of the members of the second chamber who are about to assist in pronouncing judgment upon Christ? Could impartiality be expected of those proud and selfish men, whose lips delighted in nothing so much as sounding their own praises? What apprehensions must one not have of an unjust and cruel verdict when he remembers it was of these very men that Christ had said: “Beware of the scribes, which desire to walk in long robes . . . they make broad their phylacteries and enlarge the borders of their garments, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi . . . which devour widows’ houses; and for show make long prayers,” Luke 20:46; Matthew 23:5-7; Mark 12:38, 39. The remembrance of this rebuke, so galling to their pride, continually rankled in their minds; and when the opportunity came, with what remorseless hate did they wreak upon him their vengeance! We may, then, conclude from the forgoing facts that the members of the chamber of the scribes were no better than those composing the chamber of the priests. To this assertion, however, there is one exception to be made; for, as we have already seen, there was among those arrogant and unscrupulous men, (some remarkable pages respecting the pride of the Jewish scribes and doctors may be found in Bossuet’s Meditations on the Gospel) one whose sense of justice was not surpassed by his great learning. That man was Gamaliel.
III. The Chamber of the Elders
This chamber was the least influential of the three; hence, but few names of the persons composing it at the period to which we refer have been preserved.
Joseph of Arimathea. The Gospel makes of him the following eulogy: Rich man; honorable counselor; good and just man; the same had not consented to the counsel and deed of the others. Joseph of Arimathea is called in the Vulgate, or the Latin version of the Bible, “noble centurion,” because he was one of the ten magistrates or senators who had the principal authority in Jerusalem under the Romans. His noble position is more clearly marked in the Greek version. That he was one of the seventy may be concluded. First, because it was common to admit senators who were considered the ancients of the people in this assembly; they were indeed the chiefs and the princes of the nation — seniores populi, principes nostri. Second, because these words, “he had not consented to the counsel and deed of the others,” proves that he had a right to be in the grand assembly and take part in the discussions, (Matthew 27:57-59; Mark 15:43-46; Luke 23:50; John 19:38; Jacobi Alting, Schilo seu de Vaticinio patriarchae Jacobi, p. 310; Goschler, Diction. Encyclopediq.; word, “Arimathea”; Cornelius Lapidus, Comment. in Script. Sac., edition Vives, T. 15, p. 638, second col.).
Nicodemus. St. John the Evangelist says that he was by profession a Pharisee, a prince of the Jews, a master in Israel, and a member of the Sanhedrim, where he one day attempted to oppose his colleagues by speaking in defense of Jesus. This act brought down upon him the disdainful retort from the others, “Art thou also a Galilean?” He was one, it is true, but in secret. We know from the Gospel account of him that he possessed great riches, and that he used nearly a hundred pounds of myrrh and spices for the burial of Christ. The name of Nicodemus is mentioned in the Talmud also; and, although it was known that his attachment to Christ was great, he is, nevertheless, spoken of with honor. But this fact may be due to his great wealth. There were, says the Hebrew book, three eminent men in Jerusalem — Nicodemus ben Gurien, ben Tzitzith Hacksab, ben Kalba Shevuah — each of whom could have supported the whole city for ten years, (John 3:1-10, 7:50-52, 19:39; Talmud, Gittin, or of Divorces, C.5, fol. 56, verso; Abodah Zarah, or of Idolatry, C.2, fol. verso; Taanith, or of the Fast days, 3., fol. 25, verso; Midrash Rabbath on Koheleth, 7.11; David Ganz , Chron. 4757; Knappius, Comment. in Colloquium Christi cum Nicodemo; Cornelius Lapidus, Comment. In Joan, Cap. 3., et seq.).
Ben Kalba Shevuah. After stating that he was one of the three rich men of Jerusalem, the Talmud adds: “His name was given to him because whosoever entered his house as hungry as a dog came out filled." There is no doubt that his high financial position secured for him one of the first places in the chamber of the ancients. His memory, according to Ritter, is still preserved among the Jews in Jerusalem, (Talmud, Gittin, or of Divorces, C. v., fol. 56, verso; David Ganz, Chronol. 4757; Ritter, Erkunde, xvi. 478).
Ben Tzitzith Hacksab. The effeminacy of this third rich man is make known to us by the Talmud, where it is stated that the border of his pallium trained itself always on the softest carpets. Like Nicodemus and Kalba Shevuah, he no doubt belonged to the Sanhedrim, (Talmud, Gittin, C. v., fol. 56, verso; David Ganz, Chron. 4757).
Simon. From Josephus the historian we learn that he was of Jewish parentage, and was highly esteemed in Jerusalem on account of the accurate knowledge of the law which he possessed. He had the boldness, one day, to convoke an assembly of the people and to bring an accusation against King Herod Agippa, who, he said, deserved, on account of his bad conduct, that the entrance into the sacred portals should be forbidden him. This took place eight or nine years after Christ — that is to say, in the year 42 or 43 A.D. We may safely conclude that a man who had power enough to convoke an assembly and sufficient reputation and knowledge to dare accuse a king, must undoubtedly have belonged to the council of the Sanhedrim. Besides, his birth alone at a time when nobility of origin constituted, as we have already said, a right to honors, would have thrown wide open to him the doors of the assembly, (Jos. Ant., 19. 7. 4; Dérembourg, Essai sur l’histoire et la géographie de la Palestine, p. 207, n. 1; Frankel, Monatsschrift., 3. 440).
Doras was a very influential citizen of Jerusalem, and is thus spoken of by Josephus. He was, however, a man of cruel and immoral character, not hesitating, for the sake of ingratiating himself with Governor Felix, to cause the assassination of Jonathan, the high priest who had made himself obnoxious to that ruler by some just remonstrances respecting his administration. Doras effected the assassination in cold blood by means of murderers hired at the expense of Felix (52 or 53 A.D.). The prominence which this man for a long time maintained in Jerusalem warrants the presumption that he was a member of the Sanhedrim, (Jos. Ant., 20. 8. 5).
John, son of John. Dorotheas, son of Nathanael. Tryphon, son Theudion. Cornelius, son of Ceron. These four personages were sent as ambassadors by the Jews of Jerusalem to Emperor Claudius in the year 44, when Cuspius Fadus was governor of Judea. Claudius mentions this fact in a letter sent by him to Cuspius Fadus, and which Josephus has preserved. It is very probable that either they themselves or their fathers were members of the chamber of the ancients; for the Jews appointed as their ambassadors only such members of the Sanhedrim as were distinguished for superior learning, (Jos. Ant., 20., 1. 1, 2).
The rabbinical books limit their information concerning the members of this chamber to the names we have just mentioned. To be guided, then, by the documents quoted, one would suppose that although this chamber was the least important of the three, yet its members were perhaps more just than those composing the other two, and consequently manifested less vehemence against Christ during His trial. But a statement by Josephus the historian proves beyond doubt that this third chamber was made up of men no better than were to be found in the others. It was from among the wealthy element of Jewish society, says Josephus, that Sadduceeism received most of its disciples (Jos. Ant, 18., 7. 4). Since then, the chamber of ancients was composed principally of the rich men of Jerusalem, we may safely conclude that the majority of its members were infected with the errors of Sadduceeism — that is to say, with a creed that taught that the soul dies before the body (Ibid.). We are, then, in the presence of real materialists, who consider the destiny of man to consist in the enjoyment of material and worldly things (Munk, Palestine, p. 515), and who are so carnally-minded that it would seem as if the prophetic indignation of David had stigmatized them beforehand when he says: “They have so debased themselves as to become like the beasts that have no understanding,” Psalms. Let not our readers imagine that in thus speaking we at all mean to do injustice to the memory of these men. A fact of great importance proves indisputably that Sadducees or Epicureans were numerous among the Sanhedrim. When, several years after the trial of Christ, the apostle Paul had in his turn to appear before that body, he succeeded by the skill of his oratory in turning the doctrinal differences of that assembly to his benefit. “Men and brethren,” he exclaimed, “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question,” Acts 23:6. Hardly had the apostle pronounced these words when a hot discussion arose between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, all of them rising and speaking in great confusion — some for the resurrection, others against it — and it was in the tumult of recrimination and general uproar that the apostle was able peacefully to withdraw. Such was the state of things in the supreme council of the Hebrews; and men of notorious heresy, and even impiety, were appointed as judges to decide on questions of doctrine. Among these materialists there were, however, two just men; and, like Lot among the wicked inhabitants of Sodom, there were in this assembly Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
We shall now briefly sum up the contents of the preceding chapter. We possess certain information respecting more than one-half of the seventy-one members of the Sanhedrim. We know almost all the high priests, who, as we have already said, formed the principal element of this council. This majority, as we have intimated, is sufficient for the forming of an estimate of the moral tone of all the judges; and before the debates begin, it is easy to foresee the issue of the trial of Christ.
What, indeed, could have been the issue of a trial before the first chamber, composed as it was of demoralized, ambitious, and scheming priests? Of priests who were mostly Pharisees — that is to say, men of narrow minds, careful only of the external, haughty, overbearing, and self-satisfied, believing themselves to be both infallible and impeccable? (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16, 9:11, 14, 12:2, 23:5, 15, 23; Luke 5:30, 6:2, 7, 11:39, etc., 18:12; John 9:16; Perkeh Avoth, or Sentences of the Fathers, 1. 16; Jos. Ant., 17. 2. 4; 18. 1. 3; Vita, 38; Talmud, Bab., Sotah, fol. 22, recto). It is true they expected a Messiah; but their Messiah was to subdue unto them all their enemies, impose for their benefit a tax on all the nations of the earth, and uphold them in all the absurdities with which they had loaded the law of Moses.
But this Man who was about to be brought before them has exposed their hypocritical semblance of piety, and justly stripped them of the undeserved esteem in which they were held by the people. He has absolutely denounced the precepts which they invented and placed above the law. He even desired to abolish the illegal taxes which they had imposed upon the people. Are not all these more than sufficient to condemn Him in their eyes and prove Him worthy of death?
Can a more favorable verdict be expected of the members of the second chamber, composed as it was of men so conceited and arrogant? These doctors expected a Messiah who would be another Solomon, under whose reign and with whose aid they would establish at Jerusalem an academy of learning that would attract all the kings, even as the Queen of Sheba was attracted to the court of the wisest king of Israel. But this Jesus, who claims to be the Messiah, has the boldness to declare blessed those who are humble in spirit. His disciples are but ignorant fishermen, chosen from the least of the tribes; His speech of a provoking simplicity, condemning before the multitude the haughty and pretentious language of the doctors. Are not these things sufficient to bring down upon Him their condemnation?
And what justice can we expect, in conclusion, from the third chamber, when we remember that most of its members were depraved Sadducees, caring only for the enjoyment of the things of the world, heedless of the welfare of the soul, almost denying the existence of God, and disbelieving in the resurrection of the dead? According to their views, the mission of the Messiah was not to consist in the regenerating of Israel as well as of the whole human race, but in the making of Jerusalem the center of riches and worldly goods, which would be brought hither by the conquered and humbled Gentiles, who were to become the slaves of the Israelites. But the Man upon whom they are called to pass judgment, far from attaching great importance to wealth and dignity, as did they, prescribes to His disciples the renunciation of riches and honors. He even despises those things which the Sadducees esteem most — viz., pedigree, silk attire, cups of gold, and sumptuous repast. What could have rendered His condemnation surer than such manifestations of contempt for the pride and voluptuousness of these men?
To limit our inquiry to the moral character of the judges alone, the issue of the trial can be but fatal to the accused; and so, when the three chambers constituting the Sanhedrim council had entered into session, we can well imagine that there was no hope for the acquittal of Jesus; for are not all the high priests, as well as the majority of the scribes and ancients, against Him? “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto His disciples, how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes,” Matthew 16:21.
The further study of this trial will amply confirm such a supposition. We have done with the investigation of the moral characters of the judges, and will next take up the study of the legal estimate of their acts.