The Gospels and Acts utilize this Greek term for council, which literally means “sitting together,” both for the locus of opposition to Jesus and his movement, often in combination with elders and chief priests, and for the venue where both Jesus and his followers make their defense (Matt. 26.59 par.; John 11.47; Acts 4.5–22; 5.17–43; 6.12–15; 22.30–23.10).
This term for a kind of judicial and administrative body goes back in Roman Palestine at least to Pompey the Great. When Pompey was pulled into a domestic dispute between two quarreling Hasmonean brothers in 66 BCE, the Romans decided to run Palestine directly. Pompey reorganized Palestine as part of his larger project of subduing and organizing the entire Greek East for the Roman Senate, dividing it into five councils (synedria; Josephus, Ant. 14.5.91; War 1.8.170).
The fact that this neutral administrative term becomes firmly imbedded in the Gospel tradition as a place of local officials hostile to the Jesus movement and with the power to do something about it highlights the utilization of local elites by Rome in their ever‐expanding colonial rule. The Sanhedrin was a court made up of local elite, probably with some sort of Roman oversight, that handled census, tax, and other administrative and military responsibilities. In the divided socioeconomic context of Roman imperial rule, as time went on the Sanhedrin had a negative connotation for many who had to pay an increasing amount in taxes, stood a good chance of losing their land, and had to contend regularly with the reality of foreign occupation.
In the rabbinic period (ca. 200 CE) Sanhedrin became a technical term for the rabbinic court. This court and its leaders adjudicated many of the rulings that made their way into the Mishnah, the first codification of rabbinic law and debate. There is an entire tractate in the Mishnah devoted to Sanhedrin.
J. Andrew Overman