The High Priest Who Condemned Jesus
IN November 1990, men working on a park and a road less than a mile [about a kilometer] south of Jerusalem’s Old City made a fascinating discovery. A tractor accidentally collapsed the roof of an ancient burial cave. The surrounding area had served as a huge necropolis from the first century B.C.E. to the first century C.E. Intriguing indeed was what archaeologists found inside the chamber.
The cave contained 12 ossuaries, or bone boxes, into which the bones of the dead had been placed after they had lain in tombs for about a year and their flesh had decomposed. Scratched on the side of one splendidly carved ossuary—one of the finest ever found—was the name Yehosef bar Caiapha (Joseph son of Caiaphas).
Evidence suggests that this may be the tomb of the high priest who presided over the most important trial ever held—that of Jesus Christ. Jewish historian Josephus identifies this high priest as “Joseph, who was called Caiaphas.” In the Scriptures, he is simply called Caiaphas. Why should we be interested in him? What motivated him to condemn Jesus?
Family and Background
Caiaphas married the daughter of Annas, another high priest. (John 18:13) The match was probably arranged years before the wedding, as both families would have wanted to be sure that they were making a good alliance. This meant scrutinizing genealogies to ensure the purity of their priestly lineage. Both families were apparently rich and aristocratic, likely deriving their wealth from large estates in the Jerusalem area. Annas no doubt wanted to be sure that his future son-in-law would be a reliable political ally. It seems that both Annas and Caiaphas belonged to the powerful sect of the Sadducees.—Acts 5:17.
As a member of a distinguished priestly family, Caiaphas would have received an education in the Hebrew Scriptures and their interpretation. His temple service would have begun when he was 20 years old, but the age at which he became high priest is unknown.
High Priests and Chief Priests
The high priesthood was originally a hereditary and lifelong appointment. But in the second century B.C.E., the Hasmonaeans usurped the high priesthood.a Herod the Great appointed and deposed high priests, making it obvious that he was the real authority behind this office. Roman governors followed a similar practice.
These developments led to the formation of a group that the Scriptures refer to as “chief priests.” (Matthew 26:3, 4) Besides Caiaphas, this group included former high priests, such as Annas, who had been deposed but continued to hold the title. The group also included the close families of current and former high priests.
The Romans allowed the day-to-day administration of Judaea to rest with the Jewish aristocracy, including the chief priests. This enabled Rome to control the province and secure tax revenues from it without sending many soldiers there. Rome expected the Jewish hierarchy to maintain order and defend her interests. Roman governors had little love for Jewish leaders, who resented Roman domination. But it was in their mutual best interests to cooperate for the sake of a stable government.
By the time of Caiaphas, the high priest was the Jewish political leader. Annas was appointed to this post by Quirinius, Roman governor of Syria, in 6 or 7 C.E. Rabbinic tradition indicates that greed, nepotism, oppression, and violence characterized the leading Jewish aristocratic families. One writer supposes that as high priest, Annas would ensure that his son-in-law was “quickly promoted up the temple hierarchy; after all, the higher the position Caiaphas held, the more useful he was to Annas.”
Valerius Gratus, governor of Judaea, deposed Annas in about 15 C.E. Three others, including one of Annas’ sons, held the post of high priest in quick succession. Caiaphas became high priest about 18 C.E. Pontius Pilate, who was appointed governor of Judaea in 26 C.E., kept him in office throughout Pilate’s ten-year governorship. Caiaphas’ tenure spanned the period of Jesus’ ministry and the early preaching of his disciples. But Caiaphas was ill-disposed toward the Christian message.
Fear of Jesus, Fear of Rome
Caiaphas viewed Jesus as a dangerous rabble-rouser. Jesus challenged the hierarchy’s interpretation of Sabbath laws and drove the merchants and money changers out of the temple, declaring that they had made it into “a cave of robbers.” (Luke 19:45, 46) Some historians believe that those temple markets were owned by the house of Annas—perhaps another reason why Caiaphas tried to silence Jesus. When the chief priests sent officers to arrest Jesus, they were so astounded by his words that they returned empty-handed.—John 2:13-17; 5:1-16; 7:14-49.
Consider what happened when the Jewish hierarchy heard that Jesus had resurrected Lazarus. John’s Gospel reports: “The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Sanhedrin together and began to say: ‘What are we to do, because this man performs many signs? If we let him alone this way, they will all put faith in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’” (John 11:47, 48) The Sanhedrin saw Jesus as a threat to the authority of the religious establishment and to public order, for which Pilate held them responsible. Any popular movement that the Romans might interpret as seditious could provoke their intervention in Jewish affairs—something that the Sanhedrin wanted to avoid at all costs.
Although unable to deny that Jesus performed powerful works, Caiaphas did not exercise faith but sought to maintain his prestige and authority. How could he acknowledge the raising of Lazarus? As a Sadducee, Caiaphas did not believe in the resurrection!—Acts 23:8.
Caiaphas’ wickedness was exposed when he told fellow rulers: “You do not reason out that it is to your benefit for one man to die in behalf of the people and not for the whole nation to be destroyed.” The account continues: “This, though, he did not say of his own originality; but because he was high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was destined to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that the children of God who are scattered about he might also gather together in one. Therefore from that day on they took counsel to kill [Jesus].”—John 11:49-53.
Caiaphas was not aware of the full significance of his words. By virtue of his office as high priest, he did prophesy.b Jesus’ death would be beneficial—but not for the Jews only. His ransom sacrifice would provide the means to release all mankind from bondage to sin and death.
A Murderous Conspiracy
Jewish chief priests and older men gathered at Caiaphas’ home to discuss how to seize and kill Jesus. The high priest likely had a hand in determining with Judas Iscariot the price for Jesus’ betrayal. (Matthew 26:3, 4, 14, 15) One murder, however, was not enough to attain Caiaphas’ evil ends. “The chief priests now took counsel to kill Lazarus also, because on account of him many of the Jews were . . . putting faith in Jesus.”—John 12:10, 11.
Malchus, a slave of Caiaphas, was in the mob sent to arrest Jesus. The prisoner was led first to Annas for questioning and then to Caiaphas, who had already convened the Jewish older men for an illegal nighttime trial.—Matthew 26:57; John 18:10, 13, 19-24.
Caiaphas was not thwarted when false witnesses failed to agree in their testimony against Jesus. The high priest knew the opinions of his fellow conspirators regarding any self-proclaimed Messiah. So he demanded to know whether Jesus claimed that title. Jesus responded that his accusers would see him “sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” In a show of piety, “the high priest ripped his outer garments, saying: ‘He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses?’” The Sanhedrin agreed that Jesus deserved to die.—Matthew 26:64-66.
Executions had to be approved by the Romans. As intermediary between them and the Jews, Caiaphas was probably the one who presented the case to Pilate. When Pilate sought to free Jesus, Caiaphas was likely among the chief priests who shouted: “Impale him! Impale him!” (John 19:4-6) Caiaphas probably urged the crowds to clamor for the release of a murderer instead of Jesus and was among those chief priests who hypocritically proclaimed: “We have no king but Caesar.”—John 19:15; Mark 15:7-11.
Caiaphas rejected evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. He opposed Peter and John and then Stephen. Caiaphas also authorized Saul to arrest any Christians whom he might find in Damascus. (Matthew 28:11-13; Acts 4:1-17; 6:8–7:60; 9:1, 2) About 36 C.E., however, Caiaphas was deposed by Vitellius, the Roman legate of Syria.
Jewish writings present Caiaphas’ family in an unfavorable light. For instance, the Babylonian Talmud laments: “Woe is me because of the house of Hanin [Annas], woe is me because of their whisperings,” or “calumnies.” This grievance is thought to refer to “secret conclaves to devise oppressive measures.”
A Lesson Caiaphas Teaches
One scholar characterized the high priests as men who were “tough, shrewd and competent—and very likely arrogant.” Arrogance prevented Caiaphas from accepting the Messiah. So it should not dismay us when people today reject the Bible’s message. Some are not sufficiently interested in Scriptural truth to abandon cherished beliefs. Others may feel that becoming humble preachers of the good news is beneath their dignity. And Christian standards repel those who are dishonest or greedy.
As high priest, Caiaphas could have helped fellow Jews to accept the Messiah, but lust for power caused him to condemn Jesus. That opposition likely continued until Caiaphas was laid in his tomb. The record of his conduct shows that bones are not all we leave behind when we die. By our actions, we establish a lasting reputation with God, either for evil or for good.
a For a history of the Hasmonaeans, please see The Watchtower of June 15, 2001, pages 27-30.
b Jehovah previously used wicked Balaam to utter truthful prophecies concerning the Israelites.—Numbers 23:1–24:24.
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Joseph son of Caiaphas
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The recently discovered ossuary
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Ossuary, inscription, and cave in background: Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority