The Old Testament Ecclesiastical Sanhedrin.
By Dr. Richard Bacon
Copyright 2001 © First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett

This extract is Chapter Four in Dr. Bacon’s dissertation ‘A Pattern in the Heavens Part One: Ecclesiology.’

[From the introduction to v.10 #1: The following is a further excerpt from Dr. Bacon's dissertation on ecclesiastical government. "This particular selection actually began as an appendix to the first volume to demonstrate that there actually was an ecclesiastical government in the Old Testament that was distinct from the civil government. The article demonstrates from Scripture and from many Reformed commentators that this is, and has been, the Reformed understanding for many years. Those who claim that the Old Testament government was the same for both church and state (such as Verduin in his The Anatomy of A Hybrid) have simply ignored what the Old Testament says about its own government."]

This series of articles has and will continue to assert or presume at certain places that there was a distinct ecclesiastical Sanhedrin in Old Testament Israel. To support such an assertion, it is common to point to Second Chronicles chapter nineteen and the reformation of the southern kingdom under Jehoshaphat. There, at verse 11, the reformation quite clearly indicates that there were separate heads for “matters of the LORD” and for “all the king’s matter.”[1] Given the fact that the chief priest Amariah (kohen haro’sh) is over the matters of the Lord and a Judahite, Zebediah, is over the king’s matters, there is a pretty strong presumption in favor of a dual court system, whether co-located or not, and perhaps even hearing some of the same cases with an eye to the distinct ecclesiastical and civil concerns involved in each case.[2]

Exodus 24:1

The first appearance of a specifically ecclesiastical Sanhedrin, as opposed merely to the existence of elders,[3] seems to be at Exodus 24:1 where God called not only Moses and Aaron, but seventy of the elders to “come up.” We should note that at that point in time in the history of Israel there was not yet a cultic establishment. Therefore the sacrifices were performed in Exodus twenty-three by “young boys” rather than by Aaron and his sons. Aaron and his sons would not be set apart for office until Exodus chapter twenty-eight and following. The understanding of this dissertation is that the elders of Exodus twenty-four were not the seventy elders chosen for governing the commonwealth of Israel in Numbers chapter eleven, nor were they the elders or judges chosen on the advice of Jethro in Exodus chapter eighteen. Rather these men were chosen as the first group of seventy elders and would become the foundation for the Old Testament ecclesiastical Sanhedrin.

The group of seventy elders of Exodus 24:1 was not the same as the group in Numbers 11:16ff., because the elders in Exodus chapter twenty-four were chosen shortly after the children of Israel came out of Egypt and while they were still at Mount Sinai. But on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year they moved their encampment from Sinai to the Paran wilderness (Numbers 10:11-12). While in the wilderness of Paran they pitched their tents at Hibroth-Hataavah (Numbers 33:16). It was at that encampment at Hibroth-Hataavah that the seventy were chosen to relieve Moses of the burden of government, as Jethro had earlier advised in Exodus chapter eighteen. So the choosing of the seventy in Exodus twenty-four was prior to the choosing of the seventy in Numbers eleven and not at the same time.

But neither is it likely that the seventy elders of Exodus 24:1 are the elders of Exodus eighteen, in which passage Jethro advised his son-in-law Moses to establish elders in broader and narrower courts according to population in order to help him with the task of judging the people. Though Exodus eighteen is, of course, prior to chapter twenty-four in the internal structure of the book of Exodus, it is the opinion of some Reformed and Presbyterian scholars that chapter eighteen actually anticipates an episode that took place after chapter twenty-four chronologically and was perhaps never implemented until the episode at Hibroth-hataavah in Numbers chapter eleven.[4] The evidence is not overwhelmingly compelling in this author’s opinion, yet it does seem to make sense of all the data and is therefore coherent. The time line is such that Jethro did not come to Moses until about a year after the coming up from Egypt. The law was given on the third day after the children of Israel came to Sinai. But Tostatus claimed that it was impossible that Jethro could have heard that Moses and the people were at Sinai; that Moses could have gone forth to greet him and entertain him; that Jethro could have observed the manner of Moses’ government and given counsel to set it in better shape and that Moses could have taken all the steps necessary to rectify his government all in the space of three days. These days were also appointed specifically for the sanctifying of the people and so it is no small question whether Moses would even have been hearing cases during those days. Finally, one must consider that the elders of Exodus twenty-four could not have been civil judges before Jethro came or else Jethro would not have observed that Moses was hearing all the cases without assistance.

We should further note that the seventy elders who were chosen in Exodus twenty-four were invested with the authority to judge the very matters in which Aaron or Hur presided. “And he said unto the elders, Tarry ye here for us, until we come again unto you: and behold Aaron and Hur are with you: if any man have any matters to do, let him come unto them” (Exodus 24:14).

These seventy elders were joined in the company with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and were called up into the mount along with them. The section of Exodus in which this occurs follows the giving of the judicial or civil laws to Israel in chapters twenty-one to twenty-three. Chapter twenty-four forms a sort of transition or even an introduction to the section of Exodus that follows and which deals more specifically with the ceremonial or cultic laws of Israel. It is also noteworthy that these seventy elders had no function in the civil cases and suits regarding the magisterial government, for in Numbers chapter eleven, which was still future to the events in Exodus chapter twenty-four, Moses still judged civil cases single-handedly.

Last of all, these elders in Exodus chapter twenty-four seem to be inducted into office in the context of specifically ecclesiastical ceremonies rather than civil ceremonies with a religious cast. Of course ancient Israel was not a secular nation (few nations ever have been) and so the civil and ecclesiastical cannot be altogether divorced. Yet the concomitants of installation all have an ecclesiastical context more similar to Aaron’s anointing than to either Saul’s (First Samuel 10:1ff.) or to David’s (First Samuel 16:13). First the covenant was ratified immediately upon the selection of the seventy elders, and that in the context of sacrifice and offering (verses 5 to 8). Second, the elders received an epiphany in the context of eating what must certainly have been regarded as a covenantal meal. “And they saw the God of Israel…also they saw God, and did eat and drink” (verses 10 and 11).

These trains of thought taken together seem to invest these elders with an ecclesiastical authority and with no civil authority. But if they have ecclesiastical authority without also having civil authority, then they are a distinct ecclesiastical government. Consider: they are accompanied by those whom God chose to be priests (Hebrews 5:4); they had a certain authority to judge of some matters (Exodus 24:14), but not of others (Numbers 11:14); they entered office via a sacred banquet which may even have included the eating of holy things offered to the Lord (Exodus 24:5, 10, 11). Though it was still quite early in the life of the Jewish church in Exodus 24 and therefore things are often seen in Scripture at that point in embryonic forms, still one can see in Exodus chapter 24 an eldership of seventy that is distinct from civil judges.

Deuteronomy 17:8

The next evidence of an ecclesiastical government or Sanhedrin can be taken from Deuteronomy 17:8-13. In that passage we may observe several indications of distinct ecclesiastical and civil governments. First, virtually all Reformed commentators agree that this passage sets forth at the very least a Supreme Court of civil judges. Traditionally the authority of the civil Sanhedrin has been based upon this very text. Calvin went so far as to say that the civil alone is in view in the passage: “for although God seems only to refer to civil controversies, yet there is no doubt but that by synecdoche He appoints them to be interpreters of the doctrine of the Law.”[5] Keil and Delitzsch’s commentary on this passage is also instructive, where they correctly pointed out that the issue in Deuteronomy chapter seventeen has nothing to do with an appeal by a losing party to a dispute. “This is evident,” the professors informed us, “from the general fact, that the Mosaic law never recognizes any appeal to higher courts by the different parties to a lawsuit, and that in this case also it is not assumed, since all that is enjoined is, that if the matter should be too difficult for the local judges to decide, they themselves were to carry it to the superior court.”[6] The commentary continues on to indicate regarding verse 10, “And this is more especially evident from what is stated in ver. 10, with regard to the decisions of the superior court, namely that they were to do whatever the superior judges taught, without deviating to the right hand or to the left.”[7] Regardless, however, of whether we regard the supreme court as receiving appeals from parties or from the lower courts, it must be acknowledged that there exists in this passage a final court of appeal—a court beyond which one could not properly appeal and to whose judgment one must therefore acquiesce.

But if this passage indicates a supreme civil court, then it seems by the same parity of reasoning to hold forth a supreme ecclesiastical jurisdiction as well. The passage does not resolve civil cases with the judgment of the high priest, nor does it resolve ecclesiastical cases with the judgment of the judge(s). Rather, in verse nine the sentence of the priest(s) is carried as far as is the sentence of the judge(s) who “shall be in that day.” Further, as George Gillespie pointed out, the sentence was carried forth “in a disjunctive way, as two powers, not one, and each of them binding respectively in its proper sphere.”[8] While the objection might be made that the priest was there merely as a teacher of the law to help interpret the law for the civil judge, this dissertation does not agree with such an assessment. Verse 12 indicates that there is a disjunction between the priest that stands to minister and the judge who shall be in that day. The priest is to be obeyed. He will give authoritative, and not merely advisory, legal opinion. It was not merely that the opinion would be binding upon the judge; it would be binding also on the parties to the case.

A second consideration from the Deuteronomy seventeen passage has to do with the three categories mentioned that might be too hard for the local justices to determine for themselves. These categories are characterized in the Authorized Version as “between blood and blood, between plea and plea, and between stroke and stroke” (Deuteronomy 17:8). Although R. J. Rushdoony has indicated that a correct understanding of these distinctions comes down to a practical application of God’s law, he limits the understanding of this passage to matters civil. Thus Rushdoony maintains, “The expression in Deuteronomy 17:8, ‘between blood and blood,’ means a decision between murder and manslaughter. ‘Between plea and plea’ means between one type of plea for right as against another. ‘Between stroke and stroke’ refers to varieties of bodily injury; ‘matters of controversy with thy gates’ means matters of controversy within the community. In these very practical questions of law and the application of the law, the ultimate authority that binds and looses is God’s law-word. This law must govern the court, and the court must at the very least be fully grounded in the law.”[9] This dissertation certainly adopts the view that sees biblical law as the basis for all court decisions in Old Testament Israel. But in this author’s opinion there is a wider consideration in Deuteronomy chapter seventeen than Dr. Rushdoony expounds in his Institutes.

Unquestionably, it could be agreed, the first matter of blood and blood is a community or civil matter.[10] However the third question—which at first seems to be a matter for civil litigation—may actually be a matter for the priest. And if it is a matter for the priest, then it follows that the priest’s court would have a primarily ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The Hebrew word “nega`,” translated in verse 8 as “stroke” is the same thing that the priest is to determine as to whether or not a skin eruption or other matter is a leprosy.[11] If the first matter is civil and the last matter is for the priest, what is “plea for plea” or “between plea and plea?” The Hebrew word translated as “plea” is “din” as in “beth din” or house of judging. Thus the plea may be common to both civil and ecclesiastical. It may be remembered that the tribe of Dan was named because God is judge. So, a beth din is a house of judging or house of judgment. The application of the beth din to the New Testament church as well as the Old Testament church will be discussed further in subsequent articles.

Significantly also, the conjunction “or” is used in verse 13 indicating yet again two jurisdictions that can be and ought to be distinguished. This is demonstrated in the Hebrew ‘o, the LXX’s ê as well as our Authorized Version. The Greek ê is a disjunctive that separates opposites.[12] So it is used in just that way in the New Testament in such verses as Matthew 5:36 “white or black,” Revelation 3:15 “cold or hot,” and Matthew 21:25 “from God or from men.” The Hebrew particle ‘o also carries the connotation of “or rather” or “or else.”[13] It is therefore the burden of verse 12 that cases on appeal will go to an ecclesiastical court or to a civil court at Jerusalem.

There may also be a distinction in the passage between jurisdictions or sentences. Verse eleven speaks of both “the sentence of the law which they shall teach there,” and “the judgment which they shall tell thee.” It is well established in Scripture that the priests were given an accountability to teach the meaning of the law of God. “For the priest’s [not the judge’s—reb] lips should preserve knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth” (Malachi 2:7). There is a distinction, then, not only of persons (priest and judge), but also of sentence (law and judgment), and of controversy (blood and leprosy). This certainly goes a long way toward demonstrating that each had a right of judgment and further that their respective judgments were supreme in suo genere. If it was a controversy that was in its substance a cultic or ceremonial issue (between leprosy and leprosy) as Leviticus 10:9-11 or Ezekiel 22:26 or if it was a fundamentally doctrinal matter, then he that would not follow the sentence of the priest who was the president of the ecclesiastical sanhedrin must die the death (Deuteronomy 17:10-12). But if the cause was criminal, or between blood and blood, and the guilty party would not submit to the decree of the civil Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, then he should die the death. When the priest—the president of the ecclesiastical Sanhedrin—brought sufficient warrant from Scripture for the judgment he passed (Ezekiel 44:23-24), he who contumaciously disobeyed him also disobeyed God (Luke 10:16; Matthew 10:14). A competent adjudication based upon the Word of God must be obeyed.

First Chronicles 23:3

A third line of argumentation proceeds from the reordering of the Levites by David. In First Chronicles chapter twenty-three all the Levites over the age of thirty were numbered and found to be 38,000 (verse 3). Of the 38,000, a number of 24,000 were to “set forward” the work of the house of the Lord. The “setting forward” is more clearly defined in verses 28-32 and basically includes everything except the functions delegated specifically to the priests alone to do.[14] Another 8,000 were made porters and “praisers with instruments” (verse 5). In the midst of this arrangement of temple duty, David designated 6,000 Levites to be “officers and judges.”

Strictly speaking, the shophtim (judges) were those who gave sentence and the shoterim were those who ensured the execution or the carrying out of the sentence.[15] There is no linguistic reason to think that the designation of the office was strictly ecclesiastical, for there were civil officers with the same title. So it was that Chenaniah and his sons were also “officers and judges” (First Chronicles 26:29). Thus there were 6,000 Levites whose specific (and apparently sole) function it was to be “officers and judges.” But it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that it would have required 6,000 officers and judges to be over only 32,000 other Levites. The ratio of one to ten is as low as Scripture ever goes for judges, but this would be a ratio on the order of one judge for each five and one third Levites.

Rather, we should understand these 6,000 Levites to have the task of judging and giving sentence when any controversy was brought from outlying districts of the land. We see in these officers and judges the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 17:8-13, discussed earlier in this chapter. It is also possible, though not explicit, that they served either in courses as the priests did or that they were divided according to the various tribal districts in Israel. If anyone would object that these Levites were the Levites spread out through various cities, far from contradicting the idea that these were ecclesiastical officers, the objection would simply demonstrate ecclesiastical government existed throughout the land. Yet they would then have been subordinate to the ecclesiastical Sanhedrin at Jerusalem as lower courts.

But we must follow David’s story to its conclusion. In First Chronicles 28:1 we read, “And David assembled all the princes of Israel, the princes of the tribes, and the captains of the companies that ministered to the king by course, and the captains over the thousands, and captains over the hundreds, and the stewards over all the substance and possession of the king, and of his sons, with the officers, and with the mighty men, and with all the valiant men, unto Jerusalem.” Surely no biblical student would maintain that the Levites were officers and judges of the same kind, in the same manner, or for the same ends with the civil rulers, judges, and military commanders in Israel. Nor should any biblical student maintain that there was no distinction between the power of ruling (binding) given to the Levites and the power of ruling (binding) given to the Princes respectively. But if we admit of a distinction, it is that very distinction that this dissertation maintains distinguishes between civil and ecclesiastical government in Old Testament Israel.

Much of the difficulty in making this proper distinction arises, in this author’s opinion, from the fact that there was not a civil (or judicial) law in Old Testament Israel apart from the law of God. Thus the civil courts and ecclesiastical courts were both working from the same corpus juris. There was not a separate corpus juris canonici, and so it is an easy and even natural conclusion that if we see the same laws and the same people being governed that we must also be seeing a single court system. Here is where the Presbyterian understanding of ecclesiastical government diverges from the Erastian view that the civil magistrate is the governor of the church. But at the same time the Presbyterian understanding diverges from that of the Roman state church that places the claims of the Roman antichrist over the civil magistrate in respect to civil matters. It is in part due to this understanding of the Old Testament distinctions between civil and ecclesiastical government that the Westminster divines proclaimed, “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of church-officers, distinct from the civil magistrate”[16] and in that statement repudiated Erastianism. In the same document the divines also repudiated the claim that ecclesiastical government has any business meddling (or “intermeddling” as they said) with the affairs of civil government. “Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical; and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs, which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition, in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”[17]

Second Chronicles 19:8

The fourth passage that provides evidence of an ecclesiastical government and sanhedrin in Old Testament Israel distinct from civil government is Second Chronicles 19:8-11, alluded to earlier, when Jehoshaphat restored the church government that was first instituted by Moses and later settled by David. “Moreover in Jerusalem did Jehoshaphat set of the Levites, and of the priests, and of the chief of the fathers of Israel, for the judgment of the Lord and for controversies,” etc. There is no question over whether a civil Sanhedrin existed. What must be proved is that there was in Jerusalem, side by side with the civil government, a distinct ecclesiastical government. The passage in Second Chronicles provides for a court made up of ecclesiastical members, judging ecclesiastical causes, for an ecclesiastical end, having final authority to decide matters brought from inferior courts, moderated by an ecclesiastical president, and whose sentence was put into effect by ecclesiastical officers. But that is just what would constitute a distinct ecclesiastical Sanhedrin. One may wish to call it by some other name, but in proving the parts we shall prove the whole.[18]

First, in this passage we find Levites and priests as members of the court together with certain of the “chief of the fathers of Israel” who together made up the government of the church. This is the very passage adduced by the Westminster Assembly of divines for their statement, “As there were in the Jewish church elders of the people joined with the priests and Levites in the government of the church;” etc.[19] Further, according to Gillespie, this is the passage adduced by Protestants against the Roman apologist Robert Bellarmine to prove that others than “clergy” ought to have a voice in church councils.[20]

Second, this court was judging ecclesiastical cases. Those cases or controversies were called by the name of “the judgment of the Lord” in verse eight and “the matters of the Lord” in verse 11 to distinguish them from “the king’s matters.”[21] The nature of a controversy such as “between blood and blood” may refer to the distinction between unintentional man killing as opposed to “lying in wait” (i.e. with premeditation). However, it is also quite possible and some commentators would even say likely, that what is in view is the law regarding consanguinity in marriage.[22] The phrase “ye shall warn them” in verse 10 certainly seems to have more in common with synodical decrees (cp. Acts 16:4) than with civil punishments such as restitution, fines, and corporal punishments.

Third, the court had an ecclesiastical end—”Ye shall warn them that they trespass not against the Lord.” Jehoshaphat did not charge them to warn the lower courts not to sin “against one another,” but “against the Lord.” This seems to be for two reasons primarily. The first reason would be that this court would be involved not so much in tort law and criminal law as in first table offenses. But secondly, even in the case of trespasses and controversies involving personal injury or public criminality the supreme court was tasked with warning the lower courts not to mistake or misunderstand the law—they were to determine the law and its intent such that they not trespass against the giver of the law.[23]

Fourth, cases could come before them from the outlying cities (whether by appeal or by reference is immaterial in this respect). When such a case came before the court they were required to “finally decide” it. Their decision was ultimate and therefore it was the authoritative determination of the case. There was not a civil court to which the litigation could then be appealed. If there were, then the ecclesiastical system would, in its final determinations, have been subordinate to the civil system. That would have made the Old Testament system fundamentally Erastian in its nature. This was the point that the Erastians in the Westminster Assembly thought was their strongest; and it was the point that they finally had to concede to the Presbyterians after the learned Gillespie arrived. William M. Hetherington described some of the difficulties the Erastians experienced with the young Gillespie:

“When the subject was resumed, another direction was given to the discussion by Selden, who produced a long and learned argument to prove that the passage of Scripture in question contained no authority for ecclesiastical jurisdiction. His object was, to guard against any conclusion of the Assembly, which might contradict the Erastian theory, and therefore he laboured to represent the whole as relating to the ordinary practice of the Jews in their common courts; by whom as he asserted, one sentence was excommunication, pronounced by the civil court. Herle and Marshall both attempted answers, but, says Lightfoot, ‘so as I confess gave me no satisfaction.’ Gillespie then came to the rescue, and in a speech of astonishing power and acuteness, completely confuted Selden, even on his own chosen ground, and where his strength was greatest. He proved that the passage could not mean a civil court,… This appears to have been the speech referred to by Wodrow, and of which there still exist many traditionary anecdotes, illustrative of the very extraordinary effect produced upon all that heard it. Selden himself is reported to have said at its conclusion, ‘That young man, by this single speech, has swept away the labours of ten years of my life;’ and it is remarkable that Selden made no attempt to reply to Gillespie, though he answered some of the arguments used by others who spoke after him.”[24]

Fifth, this court had a clearly ecclesiastical moderator or president. Verse eleven maintains “Amariah the chief priest is over you in all matters of the LORD” whereas Zebediah, of the tribe of Judah, was Prime Minister respecting civil matters—or the king’s matters. Amariah was not merely present as another voting member. He was over the court as its prolocutor.[25] This diversity of having not a single head, but two heads, is enough to prove two bodies. Any creature with two heads but a single body is a monstrosity. But here we dare not accuse Jehoshaphat of creating a monstrosity. Therefore there were two bodies. The same man might be the member of two bodies—a civil and an ecclesiastical—or he may be a member of three or four courts without causing a puzzle to us. But for the same court to have two presidents would be strange at least. So the distinction of presidents and of subject matter to each president, makes two distinct courts.

Sixth, and finally, the court had ecclesiastical officers to put its sentences into effect. In verse 11 we read, “The Levites shall be officers before you.” As we saw in First Chronicles 23:26, some of the Levites were shophtim and others were shoterim. The latter were the officers to see that the sentence of the shophtim was put into effect, and to cause those who would otherwise be refractory to obey the court. So also in this passage some of the Levites were appointed to judge and others were appointed to carry out the ecclesiastical censures. Levites were appointed to carry out the censures in part to obviate the possibility of the civil sword being used to place church censures into effect.

Jeremiah 26:7-9

A fifth passage that might be adduced comes more to observation than to precept, but nevertheless counts as evidence for the existence of a distinct ecclesiastical court, whether by jus divinum or some other reason. Jeremiah chapter twenty-six sets forth a distinction of authority between the court of the priests and prophets in verses 7 to 9 and the court of the princes of Judah in verses 10 through 24. The prophets spoken of here in Jeremiah were not true prophets of God, but clearly were false prophets. Yet even in that capacity of prophet (whether true or false matters not) they had the authority to summon Jeremiah before them (i.e., they “took” him in verse 8). In this court, Jeremiah was accused and convicted (wrongly of course—it would be more accurate to say he was convicted even before he was taken) of being a false prophet, verse 9. Yet though they had judged him worthy to die, he was acquitted by the court of the princes in verses 10, 11, and 16.

Then in verses 17 and following “certain of the elders of the land” gave the justification for their decision to reverse the ecclesiastical court. An Erastian may be inclined to cite this passage to prove an appeal from an ecclesiastical court to a civil court. We will take from the Erastian what he gives, viz., that there was a distinction of courts. But we disagree with the Erastian idea that this constitutes a process to be followed in every Old Testament ecclesiastical case; and that for two reasons. First, the court of the priests and prophets had no power of capital punishment. If they had, then they would simply have signed Jeremiah’s death warrant and would have been done with him.

The reason Jeremiah’s case went from one court to another was due to the fact that the ecclesiastical court was calling for a sentence that it did not have authority in itself to carry out. There must be a concurrence of the civil court to carry out a corporal sentence. Yet second, the court did have a power to judge Jeremiah as a false prophet, and one who ought to be punished in a certain way corporally according to the law of God. Their judgment was wrong respecting Jeremiah’s guilt, but their jurisdiction was never denied: not by them, nor by Jeremiah, nor by the court of the princes. Rather, what the court of the princes determined was that the court of the priests and prophets applied a wrong standard to Jeremiah’s case. The priests’ and prophets’ court applied a standard that maintained that anyone speaking against the temple was worthy of death. The civil court reversed the judgment because Jeremiah had done nothing truly worthy of death. The justification for the reversal contained both principle and precedent—very much as we would expect from a separate court. Had the civil court carried out the sentence, it would have become a partaker of the ecclesiastical court’s sin.

Jeremiah 18:18

A sixth Scripture that may be brought forth to intimate a separate ecclesiastical Sanhedrin is Jeremiah 18:18. In that verse, Jeremiah’s adversaries said, “Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, and let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words.” Jeremiah’s persecutors were committing the genetic fallacy or an argument from [false] authority. The force of their argument lay in the fact that because those who are of the greatest authority in the church disagree with Jeremiah and he must therefore be a false prophet. These accusers made the same error that the followers of the Pope continue to make—they thought that “the church” could not err. But where would they get such an idea? Certainly they must have adduced the law of the sanhedrin in Deuteronomy 17:10-12, “And thou shalt do according to the sentence which they of that place which the Lord shall choose shall show thee; and thou shalt observe to do according to all that they inform thee: according to the sentence of the law which they shall teach thee, and according to the judgment which they shall tell thee, thou shalt do: thou shalt not decline from the sentence which they shall shew thee, to the right hand nor to the left. And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the LORD thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.”

A misapplication of the law of the Sanhedrin would cause them to think that a duly appointed council of priests, wise men so-called, and prophets could not err. Therefore they preferred the pronouncements of the ecclesiastical Sanhedrin to the word of the Lord from Jeremiah. This seems to be an ecclesiastical Sanhedrin rather than a civil Sanhedrin. This conclusion follows for several reasons.

First, they make no mention of the judge from Deuteronomy seventeen, but only of the priests and prophets and the wise, by which we should understand those who excelled in the knowledge of the law of God. Thus Christ referred to his disciples in Matthew 23:34. So, too, Jeremiah 8:8-9 defines the wise in terms of those who know the law of the Lord (even though they really did not know it). Isaiah distinguished in Isaiah 3:2 between the prudent and the judge. Further if we compare Matthew 23:34 (referenced above) with Luke 11:49, we learn that “wise men” and “scribes” are semantically equivalent terms to “Apostles.”

Second, however, their determination to smite Jeremiah with the tongue fits perfectly well with an ecclesiastical Sanhedrin, but not so well with what we would expect from a civil Sanhedrin. Thus it may be that they were determined to smite him for his tongue, that is, for false doctrine. Or the phrase may import that they desired to smite him in his tongue so that by ecclesiastical censure he no longer would be permitted or licensed to preach. Or the terminology could refer to an ecclesiastical declaration or sentence. Then the meaning would be, “do not smite him with the sword, for that belongs only to the civil magistrate. Smite him rather with the tongue by declaring him to be a false prophet and thus ministerially and declaratively determining that controversy and that case.”[26]

Ezekiel 7:26

Seventh, we may consider Ezekiel 7:26 where we read, “…then shall they seek a vision of the prophet; but the law shall perish from the priest, and counsel from the ancients.” Once again the priests and the ancients are to be regarded collectively or jointly in session and not severally and distributively as alone. Here is the meaning: in God’s providential discipline the people would seek after a vision from the Lord, but they would not be able to find it regardless of where they looked. A person may not be disappointed or surprised if a single elder or priest or prophet had no word from the Lord because then it might be sought elsewhere. But if the entire consistory of priests and elders were devoid of wisdom and counsel and knowledge of the law, then the light of Israel would become as darkness. Many Protestant writers at the time of the Reformation cited this verse to show that ecclesiastical councils can err. But if they were sensible in their citations, then they must have regarded this passage to have reference to such councils.[27]

Zechariah 7:1-3

An eighth passage from the Old Testament also holds forth the authority, if not the form, of a distinct ecclesiastical council and that is Zechariah 7:1-3. Some Jews sent Sherezer and Regemmelech to Jerusalem or to the house of the Lord to speak to the priests and prophets who were there in that day and the question they were told to ask was “Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these many years?” Here is clearly an ecclesiastical question having to do with God’s worship and possibly also having to do with a case of conscience.[28] But the reason that the Jews inquired from this council was because they clearly believed that this council had the authority to “finally decide” the controversy. By the term “finally decide,” church courts convey that there is no further appeal by either party to the case.

The New Testament Record

Finally, this dissertation should consult the New Testament on the matter, for it also holds out an ecclesiastical Sanhedrin among the Jews of the first century. Whether Rome had fully taken away the civil Sanhedrin in the days she ruled Palestine might be controverted. Yet there was certainly an ecclesiastical government in the hands of church officers in those days.[29] Note first, there was a council that consisted of the priests, elders, and scribes (Matthew 2:4; 16:21; 21:23; 26:57, 59; 27:1, 12; Mark 14:43; Luke 22:66; and Acts 4:5). Note further that the council was designated in the Greek language of the New Testament as the presbuterion in Luke 22:66 and Acts 17:5. But that is the very name Paul gave to the explicitly ecclesiastical eldership that ordained Timothy (First Timothy 4:14). It is very doubtful that the Apostle would transfer the name of an exclusively civil court to an exclusively ecclesiastical one without some explanation. Finally, note that this council examined Jesus concerning his disciples and his doctrine, received witnesses against him, and pronounced him guilty of blasphemy (Matthew 26:57, 65-66 cp. Mark 14:53-55 and John 18:19; 19:6-7; Luke 22:66; etc.).

A testimony is established in the mouths of two or three witnesses. But this chapter has called three times the required number to establish a matter: eight passages from the Old Testament, plus the testimony of the New Testament. Lest this author be misunderstood in what he thinks this chapter has demonstrated, he does not claim that the ecclesiastical government of the Old Testament was so clearly delineated as it is in the New Testament. Nor does this work claim that there was as clear and complete a distinction of subjects, matters, and offices as exists in the New Testament between the ecclesiastical government and the civil government. Nor does the author claim that the ecclesiastical government of the Old Testament was always limited in its censures in an identical way that the New Testament ecclesiastical government is limited.

Rather, the viewpoint of the author of this dissertation is much simpler than that. God distinguished in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament between the church and the state. The church and state were co-extensive in the Old Testament and that is no longer the case. The idea of a “national church” is really an anachronism given the fact that the church catholic (universal) is the holy nation of God today (Matthew 21:43 cp. First Peter 2:9). The church and state are no longer co-extensive with respect to their subjects and so the limits of each are much more easily discerned today. But there was a distinction, embryonic though it may have been—which of the ordinances of God was not embryonic in the Old Testament, after all—between the church government that God placed in the hands of church-officers and the civil government that God placed in the hands of others.


[1] See below in this article for a more detailed treatment of Second Chronicles chapter nineteen.

[2] Although it is possible to distinguish between two court “systems” in the Old Testament, it would be incorrect to suppose that some cases were of a strictly ecclesiastical nature while others were of a strictly civil nature. Likewise, most of the Old Testament legislation contained both ecclesiastical and civil aspects and applications.

[3] As in English, the Hebrew word for ‘elder’ is related to the adjective ‘old.’ Apart from an actual ecclesiastical or civil function revealed in the context it would be impossible to say with certainty whether the term “elder” at a given Scripture referred to an office-holder or simply to an old man and whether the office was civil, ecclesiastical, or both.

[4] Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, p. 5 and citing also Willet and Tostatus in Commentaries on this passage in Exodus ch. 24.

[5] Calvin, Commentaries: Harmony of the Four Last Books of Moses (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984 reprint), 2.262.

[6] Keil & Delitzsch, op. cit., I.iii.382. Emphasis added.

[7] Ibid., Emphasis added.

[8] Gillespie, op. cit. p. 6.

[9] R. J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1973), 620.

[10] Though it could be argued that the “blood and blood” refers even here to consanguinity as it does elsewhere.

[11] Neither is this so far-fetched as may seem at first. The Vulgate translates this phrase as “causam lepram et non lepram.”

[12] Arndt & Gingrich, op. cit., pp. 342-43.

[13] Richard Whitaker, Ed. The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997), in loco.

[14] Keil & Delitzsch, op. cit., III.ii.253.

[15] Or the shoterim may simply have been recording clerks. The word is clearly a qal active participle of an unused verb shatar. The participle is used to describe the prefects of the people in Egypt in Exodus 5:6-19 and is therefore an ancient designation.

[16] WCF XXX.1, Confession, 120.

[17] WCF XXXI.5, Confession, 123.

[18] Some may wish to call this “duck logic.” If something quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck, and flies like a duck and has a bill like a duck, and is always found in company with known ducks, it is most likely a duck. Lawyers often set forth this same principle with the saying, “if you hear hoof-beats, think ‘horses,’ not ‘zebras.’” The present author is aware of the fallacy of composition, and has not committed it with this argument. The author is not attributing the characteristics of the parts to the whole, but demonstrating how each of the parts is consistent with the whole.

[19] “The Form of Church-Government,” in Confession, 402.

[20] Gillespie, op.cit., 8.

[21] debar YHWH and debar hammelek respectively.

[22] E.g., Gillepie in op. cit.

[23] Matthew Henry, op. cit., in loco.

[24] William M. Hetherington, History of the Westminster Assembly of Divines (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1991 reprint of 1856 third edition), 201-202.

[25] Hebrew `aleykem.

[26] As would be the only authority a church court would have operating according to WCF XXXI.3, Confession, 122.

[27] Gillespie, op. cit., 12.

[28] “It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience;” WCF XXXI:3, Confession, 122.

[29] See WCF XXX.1, Confession, 120.