Joseph Caiaphas: In Search of a Shadow

The Gospels, despite their differences, all suggest that Jesus had two trials, one before Caiaphas (or at least the Jewish priestly leaders) and one before Pilate.  In fact, the initiative for the arrest seems to have come from Caiaphas and his chief priestly colleagues; Pilate's role appears to have been merely to ratify the sentence pronounced by the Jewish high priest.  Why, then, is Caiaphas' name so little known?

By Helen Bond
Senior Lecturer in New Testament Language,
Literature and Theology
University of Edinburgh
April 2005

After spending most of my twenties writing a monograph on Pontius Pilate, I have now spent the first half of my thirties writing about Joseph Caiaphas (the result of which has recently been published as Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus? Westminster John Knox, 2004). Throughout the research, I was continually struck by one rather odd fact: whereas everyone had heard of Pilate (and most were only too happy to offer an opinion as to his character and motivation), few people had heard of Caiaphas. The object of my inquiries was met with that polite yet glazed expression so well-known to scholars of antiquity.

Yet - as I was keen to point out - the Gospels, despite their differences, all suggest that Jesus had two trials, one before Caiaphas (or at least the Jewish priestly leaders) and one before Pilate. In fact, the initiative for the arrest seems to have come from Caiaphas and his chief priestly colleagues; Pilate’s role appears to have been merely to ratify the sentence pronounced by the Jewish high priest. Why, then, is Caiaphas’ name so little known? Is it merely because Pilate made it into the Christian creed? Or is it because Pilate’s all-too-human struggle with "the Truth" powerfully captured the imagination of theologians, artists, and dramatists in a way that the oriental priest’s surrender of his countryman could not? Or was it because Judas, with his inexplicable betrayal of his master and friend and the possibility of repentance and redemption inherent in his story, made a more satisfying villain than the high priest whose only character traits in the Gospels are jealousy and rage?

Caiaphas in the Gospels

The reason, I concluded, was to be found in the Gospels themselves. All four canonical gospels were written in the late first century at a time when Christian communities were defining themselves over and against the synagogue and reflected the pain and hostility of those traumatic times. Each gospel, in its own way, sought to place as much blame as possible for Jesus’ death on the Jewish leadership. This does not mean that Pilate and Rome were exonerated (my earlier work argued that Pilate is not the sympathetic, weak figure he is often assumed to be in the Gospels), [1] but it does mean that in the synoptic gospels in particular the Jewish leadership are presented as little more than caricatures, hostile stereotypes intent only on preserving their position and doing away with Jesus.

So, for example, Mark’s Gospel (widely believed to be the first written and the basis for at least Matthew and Luke) presents its audience with a final courtroom scene, the decisive showdown between the forces of good (Jesus) and evil (the Jewish leadership). The chief priestly judges, intent on having Jesus executed, convene a kangaroo court, solicit charges against the prisoner, and, after his condemnation, mock and deride him themselves. Their rejection of Jesus signals the beginning of their own rejection by God (Mk 12.1-12). Jesus stands trial in this gospel before a nameless high priest, a feature which loosens the proceedings from their historical moorings and gives the scene a timeless air. The literary parallels between Peter denying everything outside in the courtyard while Jesus accepts the charges against him inside the courtroom suggest that pastoral concerns were uppermost for Mark’s readers. They presumably saw similarities between the trials of Jesus and Peter and their own treatment at the hands of hostile councils, synagogues, governors, and kings (Mk 13.9) – and knew which example they were to follow. The figure of Caiaphas, therefore, and his precise historical role in events, have been obscured in favor of a presentation which had more contemporary relevance to Mark’s late first-century audience.

Luke goes further still: although he is quite well aware that Caiaphas was the high priest at the time (along with Annas? Luke 3.2, Acts 4.6), [2] his trial contains no reference to a high priest whatsoever. Instead, Jesus is interrogated by a chief priestly chorus which speaks and acts in unison, questioning and finally rejecting Jesus over his claims to be the Christ and the Son of God. In Luke, the figure of the (unnamed) high priest makes an entry only in the trial of Stephen (Acts 6.8 – 8.1), a trial which is largely modeled on the trial of Jesus in Mark. Just as Mark’s trial signaled God’s repudiation of Israel’s leadership, so Luke’s trial of Stephen shows quite decisively that the old Jewish leaders are no longer the trustees of God’s promises – the future of Christianity will lie instead with Gentile Christianity and its apostolic leadership. The presentation of the leaders of "old Israel" as vengeful, self-seeking, and fundamentally misguided is common to both these evangelists.

Only Matthew and John actually name Caiaphas in the Jewish proceedings against Jesus, but here too the high priest’s presence is not simply due to historical reminiscence. It is probably no coincidence that these are the most Jewish of the Gospels, that John shows a particular interest in the Temple cult and its annual cycle of feasts, and that Matthew’s community seems to have continued to offer sacrifice in the Temple perhaps until its destruction in 70 CE (Mt 5.23). For both, it may be assumed, the fall of the Temple and the cessation of the cult was a traumatic event which needed to be reflected upon in the light of their new messianic beliefs. Both, in very different ways, contrast Jesus with Caiaphas. For Matthew, Caiaphas is a human representative of the Jewish high priesthood, which for him and his readers has been encompassed and transcended by Jesus. John departs from his common practice of referring to Jesus’ opponents as "the Jews" and devotes a reasonable amount of narrative space to Caiaphas and Annas, continually drawing attention to their high priestly status. Through a deliberate ambiguity in 18. 19-23, Jesus is tried by "the high priest," and the reader is invited to contrast Jesus’ majestic divinity with that of the priest before him. For John, Jesus is not only the replacement of Jewish feasts and institutions but is also the "true" high priest, the one who mediates between humans and God, the one who atones for the sin of the world through his sacrificial death on the cross.

Caiaphas, I had to conclude, perhaps more than any other figure in the gospel tradition, has been molded according to the interests of the evangelists. Is there, then, any possibility of recovering the historical priest behind the rhetoric of the Gospels? Or must we simply admit defeat?

The Historical Caiaphas

To say that our sources for the historical Caiaphas are limited is an understatement. Beyond the Gospels and Acts, there are a couple of references in Josephus, possibly a hint or two in rabbinic literature, and one or two archaeological clues (possibly his house and his tomb). It is clear that any biography of the man (in the modern sense of the word) is impossible; we simply know too little. After several years of pondering over him, I would love to know what he looked like, how he sounded, and the details of his domestic life (these elements are all there in my imagination, though – in the interests of scholarly integrity – that is where they must stay!). I would give a lot to know of his temperament, his real estimate of Pilate, and his views on other Jewish groups. Without a time machine, all this information is lost. This does not mean, however, that it is time to switch off the computer and find another project. Besides the specific links to Caiaphas listed above, we actually know quite a lot about the first-century high priesthood and attitudes towards it from a variety of contemporary sources. I suggest there are two ways by which to forward this examination: first, to evaluate some current views of Caiaphas and second, to situate the man in his historical context.

(1) A corrupt priesthood?

"Of all men mentioned in the crucifixion records, Caiaphas is surely the most despicable. He was that not uncommon phenomenon - a man of low character in a high place. In religion he found, not a conviction, but a career; and so there fell upon him the nemesis of those who traffic in high things, without making to them an adequate spiritual response" (Hastings’ Dictionary). [3]

"From at least the time of Malachi there had been protests about the priests, whose corruption meant that the sacrifices offered in the temple were neither pure nor pleasing to the Lord" (M. D. Hooker). [4]

"There is significant evidence of greed and corruption among the ruling priests, particularly some of the ruling families (especially that of Annas)" (C. A. Evans). [5]

Taking a relatively uncritical approach, older scholarship tended to be interested in Caiaphas’ character and motivation. Hastings’ estimate (cited above) represents a valiant attempt to flesh out his personality, though it is clearly heavily dependent on the presentations of the Gospels (perhaps also in a sense that the enemies of Jesus must have been despicable men and that cultic worship by its very nature must have been superficial). Modern scholarship tends to be much more cautious, avoiding in particular any discussion of the high priest’s disposition, but still charges of "corruption," "greed," "bribery," and "collaboration" are routinely brought against him. (This is the case in both Christian and Jewish writings; while texts involving Pharisees are nowadays read with a high degree of suspicion, those involving Sadducees or priests are not. It is tempting to imagine that it suits a wide range of scholars to lay accountability for Jesus’ death on a small band of aristocratic leaders with no modern-day successors to champion their cause).

One of the things which struck me as I researched the book was how little evidence there is for any of these frequent charges:

* Many of the texts commonly cited are to be found in rabbinic literature which is extremely difficult both to date with any kind of accuracy and to interpret correctly. V. Eppstein’s suggestion, for example, that Caiaphas himself introduced the dove-sellers into the Court of the Gentiles in 30 CE in a fit of pique against the sons of Hanan who had set up shop on the Mount of Olives is commonly cited, though it is – as B. Chilton notes – "a tissue of speculation." [6]

* That the high priest had a monopoly on the Temple sacrifices or allowed his staff to charge inflated prices (though clearly possible) cannot be substantiated by any contemporary text.

* The incident recorded by the priestly Josephus in which the servants of the high priest Ananias stole the ordinary priests’ tithes from the threshing floor (Ant 20.204-10) if historically true (Josephus had told the same story earlier in War 2.272-6 without any antipathy towards the high priest) belongs in any case to the turbulent years prior to the outbreak of war and cannot be used as evidence for "ordinary" high priestly conduct in an earlier phase, still less as evidence for Caiaphas’ behavior.

* Bribery was a common feature of first-century Mediterranean society (and was presumably rife among all who had anything worth having), but while it is possible that Caiaphas offered "gift" and "incentives" to Pilate now and then, it is unlikely that he maintained his post simply due to bribery – as D. R. Schwartz points out, it is inherently unlikely that the incumbent should offer the highest bribe for all eighteen years of Caiaphas’ tenure. [7]

* With the charge of "collaborator," we at first appear to be on solid ground; Caiaphas clearly owed his position to Roman good will, and the Gospels present both men working together in the execution of Jesus. It is often suggested that Caiaphas’ lack of intervention – or even presence – during the series of uprisings against Pilate narrated by Josephus and Philo, suggests a willingness to bow at all times to Roman control. But here, too, we need to be cautious – most of the incidents known to us occur at feasts (when Caiaphas would have been occupied with his high priestly duties in the Temple); it is therefore difficult to know what to make of his absence. The fact that the two men maintained peace for over a decade is a sign of a good (or at least functioning) working relationship, but not necessarily "collaboration" (in its more negative sense). If D. R. Schwartz is correct in his suggestion that by the time of Caiaphas high priests were appointed and deposed by the Syrian legate rather than the Judaean prefect, [8] Caiaphas might well have felt less beholden to the Roman governor than his predecessors.

* Appeal to texts such as the Testament of Moses, the Testament of Levi, or the Dead Sea Scrolls does not help much – the texts are too uncertain historically and are highly polemic in nature. What they provide, however, is evidence of intra-Jewish disputes over the Temple, proper cultic observance, and the conduct of the priesthood, together underlining the immense importance of the Temple within first-century society. If we are to reject the common picture of Caiaphas as little more than a corrupt, self-serving cleric, then, it is primarily in his relation to the Temple that the "historical Caiaphas" must be situated.

(2) Caiaphas’ Historical Context

Reading the gospel stories, it is difficult sometimes to imagine historical characters having their own life beyond their encounter with Jesus. Caiaphas, of course, did not simply emerge as high priest in the 30s CE but had a long history of experiences behind him. Attempting to reconstruct these external forces may shed some light on the man himself.

Caiaphas’ origins are unknown, though tradition links his family – which must have been wealthy, aristocratic, and of high priestly lineage [9] - to Beth Meqosheth, a settlement which may have been close to Jerusalem (tos.Yebamoth 1.10). He married into the prestigious high priestly family of Annas (or Ananus as Josephus calls him). Annas was the first high priest appointed by Rome when Judaea was made a province in 6 CE; he himself occupied the high priesthood for nine years and was followed at various points prior to 70 CE by five of his sons, one grandson, and, of course, his son-in-law, Caiaphas. (Jn 18.13 is the only evidence for this marriage - and I argue in my book that John does have a theological reason to stress the close relationship between the two men - but it seems likely historical). The union would have promoted Caiaphas into the highest echelons of Judaean society.

Caiaphas was appointed to the high priesthood in roughly 19 CE by the prefect Gratus who had deposed the last three incumbents in as many years. Perhaps he was simply dissatisfied with his other appointments and finally found in Caiaphas a man who could be trusted to pursue Roman interests; alternatively, Gratus may have been experimenting with a yearly high priesthood before his meddling earned him a reprimand and (as Schwartz suggests, see above) the right to appoint and depose high priests was transferred to the Syrian legate. At all events, Caiaphas outlasted the tenures of both Gratus and Pilate and was eventually dismissed by a Syrian legate in 37 CE. It is important to note that Caiaphas’ tenure belongs to the first phase of direct Roman rule of Judaea (6-41 CE). Apart from two brief periods, the high priesthood was held entirely by members of Annas’ family during this time, presumably giving the post an air of much-needed stability and hereditary succession. Things changed dramatically in the second phase of direct rule (44-66), especially in the years prior to the revolt which were characterized, among other things, by warring high priestly parties. But Caiaphas’ term of office belongs to the earlier period when the only house to be reckoned with was that of Annas.

Although no text specifically states that Caiaphas was a Sadducee, it seems more than likely (certainly the rest of Annas’ family seems to have belonged to this group, Acts 4.1, 5.17, Ant 20.199). This party, perhaps more than any other, presents historical difficulties: none of their literature survives and what we know about them comes only from opponents. What is clear, though, is that the Sadducees were intimately connected with the Temple and the maintenance of its cult; presumably they developed a body of liturgies and practical guidance for the accurate observance of the feasts; perhaps, too, they saw the details of the festivals as imitations of the heavenly cult. Cultic worship in the Temple not only atoned for sin and guaranteed the fertility of Israel but affected the whole world. Yahweh was the God of the Universe (whether or not the Gentiles realized it), and the architecture and designs of the Temple underlined the cosmic dimension of worship. It is true (as many modern commentators point out) that the Temple made heavy financial demands on Jews everywhere, but to underestimate the immense religious significance of the place would be a grave mistake.

The Sadducees were presumably ready to do anything in their power to safeguard the cult – even if that meant compromise with Rome. They had seen what Rome could do in the turbulent times after the death of Herod I in 4BCE when Roman troops had overrun the Temple and burned the outer porticoes. Caesar could take their land, they might have thought, if they kept control of the Temple. Of course, not everyone would have agreed with them; those of a more nationalistic persuasion might have thought that any compromise was wrong; but the Sadducees, perhaps more worldly and realistic than the nationalists, knew that rebellion was futile. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the compromise eventually crumbled, that internal and external pressures pushed the nation towards war, and the very thing that the Sadducees tried so hard to protect burned to the ground in 70CE. Yet none of this was available to Caiaphas in the 20s and 30s; as far as he was concerned, the compromise probably had every chance of success.

All four Gospels suggest that it was over the Temple that Caiaphas clashed with Jesus. The synoptics specifically link Jesus’ outburst in the Temple with his arrest (Mk 11.18 and parallels), while in Jn 11.48 the council fear that his activities might bring down Rome’s wrath against both the Temple and the nation (a fear which has a historical ring about it). Arriving in Jerusalem with a following at the busiest time of the year, at a festival celebrating liberation from bondage, when tensions were often high, Jesus must have known himself that he was courting trouble. Talk of a Kingdom and the offer to forgive sins apart from the Temple could only make the situation worse. What sealed his fate, though, was perhaps not so much his teaching (the chief priests had taken the much stronger criticism of the Essenes in their stride) but the fear of Caiaphas and his colleagues that Jesus might do something to disrupt the feast or to provoke Roman intervention. The smooth running of the feast had to be safeguarded at all costs, even if it meant sacrificing a misguided peasant to Rome; the consequences of disruption, not only for Israel but also for the whole cosmos, could be disastrous.

Jesus, then, had to be eliminated before the festival. The date of Jesus’ arrest is disputed: John’s gospel locates it on the night before Passover, while the synoptics claim that it occurred on the night of the Passover itself. Both dates are problematic historically and clearly reflect the theology of the two traditions (for John, Jesus is to die as the new paschal lamb; for the synoptics, the Christian eucharist is the replacement of the Jewish Passover meal). In all probability, Jesus was arrested some time before the feast and different strands of Christian memory, reflecting on his death "at Passover," relocated it to express more clearly distinctive theological views. It is unlikely that there was any kind of formal Jewish trial (as Mark and Matthew suggest); as we have seen, the Gospels are highly tendentious at this point, and recent scholarship has questioned whether a fixed council (or Sanhedrin) such as we find here ever existed. John’s presentation, in which Jesus was brought before Caiaphas and one or two high priestly advisers for a preliminary interrogation, is probably more likely. Having satisfied themselves that Jesus was a potential threat, the aristocratic priests determined to hand him over to Pilate (who would be equally happy to eliminate a potential source of unrest). John may also be correct in his recollection of Annas’ part in the proceedings; although no historical text proves that he retained influence after he relinquished his post as high priest in 15 CE, his place at the head of the high priestly house along with the respect with which he was still presumably held as a former high priest, would probably guarantee that his opinions carried weight. Given Caiaphas’ Passover duties, it is quite possible that Annas played an important part in ordering Jesus’ arrest and negotiating the transfer to Pilate. The Jewish charge itself was probably not blasphemy (which reflects the situation of the evangelists’ readers in the late first century) but that of stirring up the people or of being a false prophet – the punishment for both, according to Deut 13 and 18, was death.

Once Jesus was out of the way, that seems to have been an end of things as far as Caiaphas and his colleagues were concerned. There is very little evidence for a vendetta against the Christian movement (as is often suggested). We see some attempts to silence disciples in the early chapters of Acts (though Luke has clearly attempted to maximize high priestly involvement here and in his account of Paul’s receipt of letters in 9.1; theologically he is interested in the priestly leaders of "old Israel" giving way to the apostolic leaders of "new Israel"). Generally, as we have seen, the priesthood seems to have been ready to live with a high degree of criticism and alternative perspectives and was not in the habit of eliminating its detractors. The "great persecution" of Acts 8.1, as Craig Hill suggests, [10] is to be read as a Lukan literary device designed to allow the disciples to continue their missionary work outside Jerusalem; while the death of James, the brother of Jesus, later in the century, as James McLaren has shown, is not an example of high priestly vengeance against the Christian movement (his faith seems almost incidental to Josephus’ account in Ant 20.199-203), but of rivalry between various high priestly houses in the troubled years prior to the revolt. The only real persecution of Christians at this early period, then, was at the hands of Agrippa I (Acts 12.1-3).

Caiaphas was deposed from the high priesthood in early 37, probably at the Passover, after the Syrian legate Vitellius had restored the high priestly vestments to Jewish control (presumably Caiaphas had led the Jewish petition) and relinquished a number of taxes. Was the deposition of Caiaphas yet another act of beneficence? Or was it rather that the high priest, flushed with success over the vestments and sure of his position now that Pilate had been removed a couple of months before and replaced only with interim governors, was becoming too powerful? Or was he, after eighteen years, rather too elderly and infirm? The details of Caiaphas’ last few years are now lost. It is tempting to believe that the tomb found in November 1990 in the Peace Forrest to the south of Jerusalem was his final resting place. The ornate ossuary, however, with its roughly carved inscriptions, has divided scholarly opinion. We perhaps should not be too surprised to find his final resting place every bit as enigmatic and divisive as his life.


[1] Helen K. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation Cambridge: CUP, 1998.

[2] I discuss the odd syntax here on pp. 111-12.

[3] Cited by A. Borland, Personalities at the Crucifixion (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1969), p. 47.

[4] The Gospel According to St Mark (London: A & C Black, 1991), p. 264.

[5] "Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?" in B. Chilton and C. A. Evans, Jesus in Context (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997), p. 435.

[6] B. Chilton, "Caiaphas," ABD 1.803-6.

[7] "Pilate’s Appointment to Office and the Chronology of Josephus," Antiquities Books 18-20’ in D. R. Schwartz, Studies in the Jewish Background of Christianity (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1992).

[8] op cit

[9] I argue that Caiaphas (and indeed all the high priests at this period) were Zadokites, Caiaphas, pp. 149-53.

[10] Hellenists and Hebrews: Reappraising Division within the Earliest Church (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).

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