Deuteronomy 17:8-9 states that in cases of legal issues that are not solved in the municipal court, one should appeal to a higher court –
|If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge—whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults—take them to the place the LORD your God will choose. 9Go to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict.|
Such a higher court is not documented in the Old Testament, but in the Second Temple to Talmudic Periods (5th century BCE to 5th Century CE), when Judaism was highly influenced by Hellenism, we have a good record of a higher Jewish court called “Sanhedrin“. The term is Greek, and it literally means “sitting together”.
According to ancient Jewish sources, the Sanhedrin had a lower court, with 23 members, and a higher court, with 71 members. The head of the higher court was a Nassi. In the time of the temple it was occasionally the high priest, and at times it was the king.
During the period of the Temple, the higher court could only assemble in the “Hall of hewn stones,” which was in the temple. After the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the Sanhedrin was resumed. It first operated in Yavne, and later in Usha, Sheferam, Beth-Shearim, Sepphoris, and Tiberias.
The Sanhedrin was disbanded around 425 CE by the Byzantine Christian Authorities, and never resumed.
Archaeological Evidence of the Sanhedrin?
Next to the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount, a massive scale stone structure was uncovered in the 1970’s. Next to it, a fragment of a lapidary inscription was uncovered, mentioning “elders.” This led some scholars to suggest that the building was used for the lower Sanhedrin court.
In the lower Galilee site of Beth-Shearim, a tri-apsidal stone structure was found in the southern part of the site. A Jewish ritual bath (miqveh) was also installed in the corner.
In the official publications of the site it is labeled as an ancient synagogue, but it is also quite possible that it was also designed for assemblies of the Sanhedrin.
Sanhedrin Prison in Tiberias?
In the 1990s, in the archaeological park of Tiberias, Prof. Yizhar Hirschfeld uncovered a Byzantine era public building. Some of its rooms were on a lower level. At the time of its discovery, Hirschfeld speculated that this may have been the assembly house of the Sanhedrin when operating in Tiberias.
The lower rooms, he suggested, were prison cells. This opinion is no longer popular as there is no further evidence at the site to support this theory.