High Priests Ananias and Caiaphas: Arbiters in the Trial of God

Originally appeared at: The Catalogue of Good Deeds

We are free to change our decisions, and God humbly waits for us to make up our minds, as long as we are still alive.  But one day the time comes for us to make that final choice. For many people surrounding Christ in the days of His earthly life, this time came on the eve of His suffering. Each of them then had to decide whether he was with Christ or with his opponents.

According to the Law of Moses, the Israelites could only have one high priest. He was at the head of all other ministers of the Jerusalem Temple and decided on key issues related to the religious life of the people. It was a very important ministry assigned for the term of one’s life.

In the Gospel, we repeatedly find references to high priests. However, at the time of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, the Jewish people (the heir of ancient Israel) were more concerned about external rituals than about fulfilling the law of God.

So, de facto, there were two high priests in Jerusalem at that time – Ananias (short for Anan, meaning “mercy” in Hebrew) and his son-in-law Joseph Caiaphas. Strictly speaking, Ananias only served as high priest for nine years (from 6 to 15 A.D), and then was removed from office by the new prefect (Roman governor) of Judea, Valerius Gratus, the predecessor of Pontius Pilate. But after retiring, Ananias retained great influence, perhaps not least because he controlled the temple trade in sacrificial animals, was very rich and often lent money to the Romans living in Jerusalem.

Caiaphas served as high priest for a longer time (from 18 to 36 A.D.), but it seems that in everything he obeyed his powerful father-in-law. This is probably why after being captured in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ was first brought to Ananias, who then sent Him to Caiaphas in order to keep the appearance of order and legality.

Both Ananias and Caiaphas belonged to the religious party of the Sadducees. Clearly, they believed in God, but they did not believe in the afterlife of the soul, whose very existence they seem to have doubted. It was the Sadducees who ironically asked Christ whose wife a woman would be  after her death if she had seven husbands and remained childless.

The high priests had wanted to “settle scores” with Jesus for a long time, and it was not for nothing that they constantly sent Him provocateurs who tried to catch Him doing something illegal.

First, they didn’t like what Christ was saying, because He filled the traditional rituals of the law with their primordial meaning. Besides, He openly denounced the leaders of the Jewish people, who sat on the seat of Moses, laying heavy and unbearable burdens on the shoulders of others while themselves being unwilling to lift a finger to move them. (Matt 23: 2, 4)

Secondly, they did not like that He spoke “as one having authority”, and not as the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt 7:29).

What they disliked most was the impression that Jesus made on the people. There were different opinions about Him: some considered Him a great teacher of wisdom, others thought that He was a prophet (or even one of the great prophets risen from the dead), still others believed that He was the long-awaited Messiah, Christ, the Anointed of God. One thing however was obvious to everyone: Never has anyone spoken like this! (John 7:46).

Therefore, envy and anger were the banal passions tormenting the high priests.

But looking envious and vindictive, in the eyes of the people was the last thing that they wanted. They were afraid to publicly denounce (let alone arrest) such an authoritative Teacher as Christ. They needed a reason, but there was none.

However, after Jesus resurrected Lazarus, who had been lying in the tomb for four days, the high priests could wait no longer. This miracle was too obvious, too embraceable… and besides it happened too close to the capital and with too many witnesses (Bethany is only three kilometers from Jerusalem)! “Jesus must be urgently put out of the way”, such was the verdict of the council urgently convened by the high priests and the Pharisees. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him” (John 11:48).

“To make things worse”, the Passover was coming in a few days. Jerusalem was going to be full of people, and the usual crowd around Jesus would make approaching Him simply impossible. So, the high priests decided to hurry up and “resolve the issue” before the holiday, as quietly and imperceptibly as possible.

And then Caiaphas said his famous “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11: 50-51). Despite being a cruel man, Caiaphas was still a high priest and, without realizing it, uttered a prophecy. Christ truly died for all people, voluntarily taking responsibility for everyone’s sins.

However, the plans of Ananias and Caiaphas were realized only partially. They failed at executing Christ “quietly”, and they had to purposely  incite the huge crowd gathered at Pilate’s trial against Jesus. The execution at Calvary also gathered many spectators. They did manage to finish everything before the big holiday, but it was no longer important. The day after the Jewish Passover, Christ was resurrected, and the holiday acquired a new meaning and a new content.

Trying to fulfill their plan as soon as possible, the high priests made their trial look like a pure and obvious travesty, which was probably why Jesus did not answer their questions during it.

And yet, it cannot be said that Ananias and Caiaphas did not have an opportunity to turn around and back-pedal their plan. The trial of the Savior could be lawfully carried out during the daytime, with all members of the Sanhedrin (the supreme court),  and real witnesses without the rush in pronouncing the verdict. Perhaps, after hearing Christ answer their direct question “Are you the Christ, the Son of God?” they could have thought twice before blackmailing Pilate, who was ready to release the innocent, with messages like “If you release Him, you are not Caesar’s friend.”

But the high priests did not take advantage of any of these opportunities. This happens when a person has firmly decided not to listen to the voice of conscience and, closing his eyes, rushes towards his own death.

… In 1990, archaeologists found in Jerusalem the burial place of a certain Caiaphas and members of his family. One of the skulls contained a coin. It was customary among pagans to put a coin in the mouth of the deceased to cover the fair of Charon, the ferryman crossing the river between the worlds of the living and the dead. If this is the same Caiaphas (which is likely since ordinary people did not have individual tombs), then his death was quite in accordance with his life.

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