Since the early days of Israel as a nation, the elders of the people, senior members of the Jewish community, heads of leading families, etc., had been influential (e.g. Ex 3.16; Num 11.16; Deut 19.12). This continued to be so in New Testament times, so there were elders in all the villages and towns of the Jewish lands such as Judea, Perea (beyond Jordan), and Galilee (e.g. Capernaum, Lk 7.3), but particularly in Jerusalem (Mt 16.21; 21.23; 26.3,47,57,59; 27.1,3,12,20,41; 28.12).
At a local level, these could be rulers of the synagogue, like Jairus (Mk 5.22-38; Lk 8.41-49; 13.14), while some other forms of local or national authority are also envisaged (Mt 9.18-23; Mk 13.9, Lk 18.18; 21.12; 23.13,35; 24.20; Jn 3.1). At one point in Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus spoke out so boldly without any official opposition that some actual inhabitants of the city asked, "Do the rulers know indeed that this is the very [i.e. true] Christ" (Jn 7.26). Then some Pharisees taunted Him saying, "Have any of the rulers…believed on him?" (Jn 7.48), implying that they had not believed on Him. Actually this was not true since "among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue" (Jn 12.42).
The Herodians were a Jewish political group in New Testament times aligned with the puppet king Herod (Antipas), his family and friends, who had been appointed by the Roman occupiers to rule over part of the lands of the Jews, from about 4 BC (when his father King Herod the Great had died) to about AD 39. They believed in a political solution to Israels problems and thus supported the Herodian dynasty, seeing them as their only realistic hope of retaining some Jewish influence instead of being under total direct Roman rule. So they collaborated with the Roman authorities and upheld the Herodian family dynasty as the best compromise under the circumstances.
When it suited the Roman authorities they would appoint a local, submissive ruler, or else choose their own Roman governor. For instance, during the public ministry of the Lord Jesus the Herod family members Herod Antipas and Philip were such artificial kings of Galilee and Perea, and Ituræa and Trachonitis respectively (Lk 3.1), but at the same time Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea, Ituræa and Samaria. Later the Herodian Agrippa I was made king of Judea in AD 41 by his friend, the Roman emperor Claudius. However Agrippa died in AD 44 and once again Judæa reverted to direct Roman rule. Such changes often happened, and during these changes the Herodian party would lobby for a local Herodian king in as many Jewish provinces as possible. They did not appreciate that "there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God" (Rom 13.1). (At the opposite end of the spectrum were the Zealots who thought that violence against the Romans was the answer, unlike the Herodians who thought that political compromise was the solution.)
Obviously, when the Herodians thought Jesus was a rival king to their Herod, and thus the "status quo" might be upset, they did all they could to dispose of the Lord Jesus, since His popularity was seen as a political threat to their Roman masters (e.g. Lk 23.2). They gladly colluded with their religious counterparts. The Pharisees had long tried to gather evidence against the Lord Jesus and, when all their own ideas failed, in desperation they turned to their own opponents the Herodians for help, thinking they might come up with a good way of trapping Jesus in what He said (Mk 3.6). The outcome was that the Pharisees "sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth…Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not?" (Mt 22.16-17). However, "Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?". His eventual answer was masterly: "Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Cæsars. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsars; and unto God the things that are Gods" (vv.18-21). They realised that they had failed miserably and "they marvelled, and left him, and went their way" (v.22), utterly defeated. This question provided by the Herodians contained an obvious political angle - their speciality.
The Zealots were a Jewish nationalist group made up of freedom-fighters/terrorists opposed to Roman rule. Their influence peaked when they led a major revolt against Roman rule, which culminated in the first Jewish–Roman War (AD 66-73). This led in AD 70 to the destruction of Jerusalem (which was then in the hands of the Zealots) and the Temple by a Roman army under General Titus, the future Roman emperor. By the time Jerusalem had fallen and the revolt was crushed, over a million people were dead and about 100,000 had been enslaved, including all the Zealots. Their efforts, however courageous and selfless, failed completely.
Simon the Zealot (Zelotes) was a disciple of the Lord Jesus (Lk 6.15; Acts 1.13), and although we have nothing written about the circumstances of his discipleship, we may imagine the grace he needed to get on with Matthew the publican! They had previously been at the opposite ends of Jewish society and thought. One, the idealistic Zealot, had been prepared to sacrifice his life for principle, and the other, the collaborationist, cheating publican, who beforehand would have been self-centred, looking out for his own interests only and quite prepared to defraud. However, both had been converted, changed their minds and followed the Lord Jesus. If Simon had continued as a Zealot, all would have ended up in disaster, but he came to understand the ways of God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Sanhedrin (a name derived from the Greek word synedrion and referred to in the AV as the "council"; "sanhedrim", JND) was based at Jerusalem and was the national Jewish parliament/high-court. It was made up of 71 members, with the high priest as president, ordinary members made up of the chief priests (ex-high priests, the heads of the twenty-four courses of priests, see Lk 1.5,8), and lawyers, scribes and elders as lay members. The Romans allowed it to deal with "all causes, and over all persons, ecclesiastical and civil". Its decisions were binding on Jews everywhere, but its powers were limited by the Romans, so for instance the Sanhedrin were prevented from putting any one to death, at least legally (Jn 18.31).
In the New Testament the following people appeared before the Sanhedrin:
• The Lord Jesus (Lk 22.66)
• Peter and John (Acts 4.1-23; 5.17-41)
• Stephen (Acts 6.12-15)
• Paul (Acts 22.30-23.10).
No doubt there were factions and coalitions as it suited the members. Hence Herodians, Sadducees and chief priests would favour Greek and Roman influence, while the Pharisees would be happier with separation. When it suited them, common-interest groups formed against the Lord Jesus: apart from individuals such as Joseph and Nicodemus, no group supported Him for they all saw Him as a threat to their privileged position (Mt 27.18; Mk 15.10).
What a travesty of justice that the judges tried to manufacture false evidence against the accused (Mt 26.59; Mk 14.55), even deciding the sentence beforehand. When they were in session, the Sanhedrin accused the Lord Jesus by asking Him if He was the Christ, the Son of Man and the Son of God (Lk 22.66-70). When they felt that they had enough evidence they took the Lord Jesus to Pilate (Mk 15.1), who eventually allowed the death penalty that the Sanhedrin could not pass.
Note. Sometimes "a council" might mean a get-together of groups, as in John 11.47, Matthew 12.14, but "the council" always meant the whole Sanhedrin. There were also local versions of the Sanhedrin, probably associated with synagogues; see the "councils" (AV) referred to by the Lord Jesus (Mt 5.22; 10.17; Mk 13.9).
To be continued.