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What do ancient sources tell us about Caiaphas the High Priest?

Joseph son of Caiaphas—most often referred to simply as Caiaphas—was the high priest in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus from 18 CE to 36 or 37 CE. According to Josephus, he was appointed by the Roman governor of Judea, Valerius Gratus (A.J. 18.33-35), kept on in this position by Pontius Pilate, and then removed by Vitellius, the legate of Syria, at the time that Pilate was sent back to Rome (A.J. 18.90-95). Aside from noting his arrival and departure, however, Josephus is silent about Caiaphas. Caiaphas is far more important for New Testament authors, because he was the high priest at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion. In at least two of the gospels, and much of subsequent Christian tradition, literature, art, drama, and film, Caiaphas played a key role in the events leading up to Jesus’s death.

What was Caiaphas’s role in the events leading up to Jesus’s death?

How much Caiaphas actually knew or cared about Jesus is hard to say. Each of the gospels portrays his involvement in different ways. According to John’s Gospel, Caiaphas was worried that Jesus’s success in attracting followers would lead Rome to crack down on the entire population, and for that reason he convinced the Council to plot Jesus’s death (John 11:49-52). But John does not assign to Caiaphas any direct role in the events that lead to Jesus’s death. Matthew’s Gospel describes a group of Jewish leaders who assembled in Caiaphas’s house where they took the decision to kill Jesus but does not say that Caiaphas participated in that gathering (Matt 26:3-4). Matthew does, however, portray Caiaphas as the one presiding over the session of the chief priests and council at which testimony against Jesus is heard (Matt 26:57-75). Matthew’s Caiaphas asks Jesus under oath whether he is the Messiah, the Son of God. Upon hearing Jesus’s response, Caiaphas tears his garment, declares Jesus guilty of blasphemy, and elicits a guilty verdict from the council. Mark’s Gospel does not mention Caiaphas by name, but he does portray the “high priest” as presiding over a similar council session (Mark 14:56-64). The Gospel of Luke, like John, does not associate Caiaphas with any interrogation or investigation whatsoever. None of the gospels extend the high priest’s role into the rest of the passion account, that is, the trial before Pilate, the condemnation of Jesus, and the crucifixion itself. Acts includes Caiaphas among a list of authorities who interrogate the apostles Peter and John after Jesus’s death (Acts 4:6), but Caiaphas is not singled out for any particular role.

As a high priest, Caiaphas would have overseen the sacrifices and other practices that were performed regularly at the Jerusalem temple. Especially important would have been his role on the Day of Atonement, when he, and only he, would have entered the Holy of Holies to seek God’s forgiveness on behalf of himself and the entire nation. As a high priest in the era after 6 CE, when Judea came under direct Roman rule, Caiaphas would also have been subject to the authority of the Roman governor, who had the power to appoint a high priest of his choosing, and also to take custody of the high priest’s magnificent and valuable sacred garments when it was politically expedient to do so. As a high priest who served for many years under two Roman governors, Caiaphas would likely have been experienced and skilled at walking the fine line required in order to serve his people without unduly angering the Roman governor.

It is understandable that Josephus, who may or may not have known about Jesus, did not provide any details about Caiaphas’s role in Jesus’s own story. And while it might seem that, taken together, the gospels provide ample evidence of Caiaphas’s involvement in the events leading to Jesus’s death, we must remember that they were written towards the end of the first century, several decades after the crucifixion and at least several years after the temple itself was destroyed and the high priesthood dismantled. It is possible, of course, that Caiaphas was indeed the mastermind behind the plot to have Jesus condemned to death. Nevertheless, we must also consider that the gospel writers, or the traditions upon which they relied, had to create a coherent narrative to explain why and how a Galilean Jew would have been sentenced to death by the Roman governor. Caiaphas, a Jewish high priest who conceivably might have felt threatened by a charismatic Galilean leader, fit the bill perfectly.

  • reinhartz-adele

    Adele Reinhartz is Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, in Canada. She was the general editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature (2012–2018) and president of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2020. Her books include Befriending the Beloved Disciple: A Jewish Reading of the Gospel of John (Continuum, 2001), Caiaphas the High Priest (University of South Carolina Press, 2011; Fortress 2012), and Cast Out of the Covenant: Jews and Anti-Judaism in the Gospel of John (Lanham, MD: Lexington/Fortress Academic, 2018). Adele was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2005 and to the American Academy of Jewish Research in 2014.