The Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, like the Areopagus at Athens, was the highest and most awful court of judicature, especially in matters that pertained to religion (like what happened to Stephen). Unlike, however, the Athenian tribunal, its real power gradually shrunk, though the reverence attached to its decisions remained. It probably assumed its systematic form under the second Hyrcanus and it became a fixed institution in the Commonwealth under his sons, who would be glad to have their authority nominally limited, but really supported, by such a council.
Under the Herods, and under the Romans, the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin was curtailed. We are informed, on Talmudical authority, that forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem, it was formally deprived of the power of inflicting death. If this is true, we must consider the proceedings at the death of Stephen as tumultuous and irregular. And nothing is more probable than that Pontius Pilate would willingly connive, in the spirit of Gallio at Corinth, at an act of unauthorized cruelty in "a question of words and names and of the Jewish law" (Acts 18:15). The Jews would willingly assume as much power as they dared, when the honor of Moses and the Temple was in jeopardy.
The council assembled in solemn and formal state to try Stephen. There was great and general excitement in Jerusalem. The people had been stirred up by the members of the Hellenistic Synagogues (Acts 6:12). It is evident, from that vivid expression which is quoted from the accusers' mouths, that the meeting of the Sanhedrin took place in the close neighborhood of the Temple. Their ancient and solemn room of assembly was the hall Gazith, or the "Stone Chamber," partly within the Temple Court and partly without it. The president sat in the less sacred portion, and around him, in a semicircle, were the rest of the seventy judges.
Before these judges Stephen was made to stand, confronted by his accusers. The eyes of all were fixed upon his countenance, which grew bright, as they gazed on it, with a supernatural radiance and serenity. In the beautiful Jewish expression of the Scripture, "They saw his face as it had been that of an angel." The judges, when they saw his glorified countenance, might have remembered the shining on the face of Moses, and trembled lest the voice of Stephen should be about to speak the will of Jehovah, like that of the great lawgiver. They might have recognized in the spectacle before them the Shechinah of the Christian soul, which is the living Sanctuary of God. But the trial proceeded.
The judicial question, to which the accused was required to plead, was put by the president, "Are these things so?" Stephen answered with a clear voice that was heard in the silent council-hall. He went through the history of the chosen people, proving his own deep faith in the sacredness of the Jewish economy, but suggesting, here and there, that spiritual interpretation of it which had always been the true one, and the truth of which was now to be made manifest to all.
Stephen began, with a wise discretion, from the call of Abraham, and traveled historically in his argument through all the great stages of their national existence, from Abraham to Joseph, from Joseph to Moses, from Moses to David and Solomon. And as he went on he selected and glanced at those points which made for his own cause. He showed that God's blessing rested on the faith of Abraham, though he had not so much as to set his foot in the land of promise (Acts 7:5), on the piety of Joseph, and on the holiness of the Burning Bush (verse 30). He dwelt in detail on the Lawgiver, in such a way as to show his own unquestionable orthodoxy. He quoted, however, the promise concerning "the prophet like unto Moses" (verse 37), and reminded his hearers that the Law had not kept their forefathers from idolatry (verse 39).
And so Stephen, during his testimony at his trial, passed on to the Temple, which had so prominent a reference to the charge against him. While he spoke of it, he alluded to the words of Solomon himself (1Kings 8:27, 2Chronicles 3:6, 6:18) and of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 66:1, 2) who denied that any temple "made with hands" could be the place of God's highest worship. And thus far they listened to him. It was the story of the chosen people, to which every Jew listened with interest and pride.