From New World Encyclopedia
Aaron, the first high priest, in the tabernacle

Caiaphas (Greek Καϊάφας) was the Roman-appointed Jewish high priest between 18 and 37 C.E., best known for his role in the trial of Jesus. His full name was Yosef Bar Kayafa (Hebrew יוסף בַּר קַיָּפָא), which translates as Joseph, son of Caiaphas.

A member of the party of the Sadducees, Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, a previous high priest who had also succeeded in placing several of his own sons in the office. Caiaphas, however, held the position much longer than his immediate predecessors, probably due to his skill in pleasing his Roman overlords while maintaining a degree of order among the various religious factions in Jerusalem.

The Gospels of Matthew and John (though not those of Mark and Luke) mention Caiaphas in connection with the trial of Jesus. According to these accounts, Jesus was arrested by Temple guards and taken by night either to the home of Annas (according to the Gospel of John) or directly to Caiaphas (in the Gospel of Matthew), where he was questioned and accused of blasphemy. Caiaphas declared him guilty and worthy of death for this crime. From the home of Caiphas, Jesus was taken to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, where he was convicted of the charge of sedition against Rome, the crime under which he was sentenced to crucifixion.

Caiaphas also figures in the trial of the apostles Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, where he was overruled after the Pharisaic leader Gamaliel opposed his plan to punish the apostles. He retained his position as high priest until shortly after Pontius Pilate was recalled to Rome.


The high priest's office carried great prestige and considerable political power in ancient Israel. Traditionally originating with Aaron, the brother of Moses, it had for many centuries been occupied by the descendants of Zadok, one of the high priests appointed by King David. Under Greek rule in the Second Temple period, the office became a political tool, first of the Greek rulers and then of the Hasmonean kings. During the period of national independence under the Maccabees, the high priests ruled with princely authority, combining the priestly office with that of the king and leading to allegations of corruption. The Pharisees arose in part as an opposition to the priesthood of this period, as did the Essenes.

The advent of Roman power brought an end to the combination of royal and priestly power under the Hasmoneans. The high-priesthood ceased to be a hereditary office, nor did its occupant serve for life, as he had in previous times. Indeed, high priests were appointed and removed with great frequency. Herod the Great nominated no less than six high priests. His son Archelaus appointed two during his much briefer reign. After this, the Romans governed Judea through a procurator and appointed the high priest directly, causing the office to be seen by some as a puppet of the Romans. The high priest was also the presiding officer of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council in Jerusalem. Deposed high priests seem to have retained the title, and to have continued to exercise certain functions, as is reported in the case of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas. Annas himself had been high priest c. 6-15 C.E. and was the head of a family which produced five high priests during the Herodian period (Josephus, "Ant." xx. 9, § 1), not counting Caiaphas, who was his daughter's husband.

Caiaphas was the last of the four high priests appointed by the Roman procurator Valerius Gratus between 15 and 26 C.E. His appointment is generally dated to 18. He remained in his position during the administration of Pontius Pilate, holding his office until c. 36 C.E., when he was removed by Vitellius, the Roman legate of Syria. His administration thus lasted about 18 years, a long term when compared with that of most other high priests of the Roman period. Since he served at the pleasure of the Romans, his relative longevity of his office was probably due to his submissiveness to the policy of the Roman government, which made him unpopular among the more patriotic elements such as the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. He belonged to the party of the Sadducees and probably shared their fondness for Hellenistic culture, as did his father-in law Annas and his wife's brother Annas the Younger (Josephus, Ant., XX, ix. 1).

In the New Testament

Jesus as a messianic threat

Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem

One of the challenges Caiaphas had to deal with was the problem of would-be Messiahs causing disturbances that could cause the Romans to react with violent repression. In John 11, Caiaphas considers with other members of the Sanhedrin what to do about Jesus, whose influence is spreading. They worry that if they "let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation."

Messianic movements had long been considered a threat to the public order, and the above scenario implies that Jesus had developed a significant enough following among the Jews to represent a threat. A high priest who was incapable of controlling the messianic impulse to restore Israel's national sovereignty could not expect to remain in office long. Caiaphas quickly made the appropriate political calculation, arguing, apparently against those who supported taking no action against Jesus: "You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (John 11:49-50). John indicates that from this point onward, Caiaphas and his supporters looked for a means to apprehend Jesus and kill him.

An attempt to do deal with Jesus is also described in John 7, where Jesus is brought before the "chief priests and the Pharisees," apparently in a meeting of the Sanhedrin. Here, however, the faction opposed to Jesus does not prevail, as the majority agrees with the Pharisee Nicodemus that Jesus had done nothing worthy of condemnation (John 7:45-53).

The opportunity Caiaphas had sought finally presents itself after Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, in which it became obvious that Jesus was presenting himself as the Messiah, the returning king of the Jews. Jesus also took the dramatic step of violently overturning the money-changers' tables in the Temple courtyard, an act in direct defiance of Caiaphas' authority, especially during the Passover festival, when the high priest had a very visible role. Meanwhile, a disagreement between Jesus and his disciples over the use of money led to Judas Iscariot's going to the "chief priests," probably meaning Caiaphas and his associates, to denounce Jesus (Mark 14:4-10). With Judas' aid, Jesus was soon apprehended at the Garden of Gethsemane, as the disciples he had posted as guards slept instead of keeping watch.

Caiaphas at Jesus' trial

The Gospels present differing accounts about the trial of Jesus and Caiaphas' role in it. Caiaphas is not mentioned in Luke's or Mark's account, while in the Gospel of John the trial is portrayed as a late-night interrogation conducted mainly by Caiaphas' father-in-law. In the Gospel of Matthew, it appears as a much larger event, but still conducted at irregular hours.

The Gospel of John indicates that the Temple guards who arrested Jesus brought him to the home of Annas. Jesus is also questioned by Annas, who is confusingly called "high priest," probably referring not to his current role but to his former office. When Jesus does not answer to the satisfaction of those present, one of his accusers strikes him in face for disrespecting Annas. After this, "Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest" (John 18:12-23). All of this takes place late at night after Jesus' arrest, and in the morning Jesus' accusers take him from Caiaphas' house to the residence of Pontius Pilate, where they charge him with treason against Rome for his claim to be the Messiah.

In Matthew 26:57-26:67 Jesus is taken directly to Caiaphas, not Annas. There, he is heard by the "whole Sanhedrin," certainly an exaggeration, especially given the hour. Witnesses are brought forth who testify that Jesus has prophesied against the Temple. Caiaphas then demands to know from Jesus whether he in fact claims to be the Messiah: "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Jesus admits that he indeed makes this claim and adds, "In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." Caiaphas tears his garment and declares that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy. (In fact the claim to be the Messiah was not considered blasphemous, although it was certainly dangerous.) As the crime of blasphemy is a "sin unto death," Caiaphas declares that Jesus is guilty of a capital offense. The accusers then beat Jesus and spit in his face. However, the problem still remains that under Roman administration, Caiaphas lacks the authority to execute the death sentence, and the Romans are not interested in merely religious crimes under Jewish law.

Jesus next appears before Pilate. As with the Gospel of John, Caiaphas is not mentioned as being present, his accusers being identified as "the chief priests and the elders," apparently a coalition of Sadducees and Pharisees, though certainly not including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both identified as Sanhedrin members who supported Jesus.

Caiaphas in the Book of Acts

The only other mention of Caiaphas by name in the New Testament occurs in Acts 4, where Peter and John are taken before Annas and Caiaphas after having healed a crippled man. Luke here makes Annas the "high priest" with Caiaphas identified as part of his family. This may be a simple error, or it may reflect the fact that Annas was still referred to by his formal title and still enjoyed considerable authority as head of his priestly family. Alternatively, the episode may take place several years later, when the younger Annas had become high priest, with Caiaphas attending as a former occupant of the office.

In any case, the priests question the apostles' authority to perform such a miracle. When Peter answers that Jesus of Nazareth is the source of their power, Caiaphas and the other priests are surprised at his eloquence, since he had no formal education. Not being able to deny that the miracle had occurred, they warn the apostles not to spread the name of Jesus. Peter and John, however, refuse to comply, saying, "We cannot keep quiet. We must speak about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).

In Acts 5, Caiaphas (or another "high priest") convenes a session of the Sanhedrin to deal with the fact that Christians are still openly preaching in Jesus' name despite having been warned not to. Here, the high priest is specifically identified as a member of the party of the Sadducees. A debate ensues in which the Pharisaic leader Gamaliel prevails by arguing: "If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail… If it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God" (Act 5:38-39). The incident evidences a growing tension between the Pharisees and Sadducees, in which the underlying issue may have been dealing with groups seen as a possible threat to the Romans.

Later life and legacy

Caiaphas tears his clothes upon hearing Jesus admit that he is the Messiah.

After Pontius Pilate was recalled from office, Caiaphas was removed by the new governor, Vitellius (Josephus, "Ant." xviii. 4, § 3). He was succeeded by Jonathan, who was probably one of of the younger sons of Annas. A later Syrian Christian tradition held that Caiaphas eventually converted to Christianity, and even that he was identical with the historian Josephus Flavius]. The latter report is clearly erroneous, however.

Caiaphas' high priesthood, as well as that of Annas, is confirmed by Josephus, one of the few ancient sources to mention him outside of the New Testament. Like several other leading figures of the time, such as Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas became famous for an incident which in his day went unnoticed by contemporary historians, namely his role in the trial of Jesus. For this act, however, he would go on to become a major figure in Christian art, drama, fiction, and film.

From the standpoint of Judaism, Caiaphas was one of the last of the high priests in the days shortly before the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. As a wealthy and leading member of the Sadducees, his policy of accommodation to Rome exacerbated the feeling that the priesthood had become corrupt and no longer represented the interests of the Jewish people. The New Testament description of his role in the trial of Jesus and the suppression of Christianity shows that at least the one wing of the Pharisees, as represented by Gamaliel, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea, did not favor suppression of the Jesus movement, while the Sadducees actively sought to do away with it as a possible threat.

Caiaphas' house outside Jerusalem is still shown. In 1990, two miles south of present day Jerusalem, 12 ossuaries in the family tomb of a "Caiaphas" were discovered. One ossuary was inscribed with the full name, in Aramaic of "Joseph, son of Caiaphas," and a second with simply the family name of "Caiaphas." After examination the bones were reburied on the Mount of Olives.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bond, Helen K. Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus? Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. ISBN 9780664223328.
  • Metzger, Bruce M., and Michael D. Coogan (eds.). The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0195046455.
  • VanderKam, James C. From Joshua to Caiaphas: High Priests After the Exile. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004. ISBN 9780800626174.
  • Watson, Alan. The Trial of Jesus. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. ISBN 9780820317175.

External links

All links retrieved November 25, 2023.


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