God’s People, part 228: Caiaphas

Read John 18:12-14, 19-24

“Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.’”  (John 11:49-50, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Jospeh Ben Caiaphas’s Ossuary

Part 228: Caiaphas. It is easy for us to read the Gospels and to see the people who opposed Jesus as being the “bad guys” and as not being “God’s People.” With that said, that is a trap we really ought to not fall into. The people who were the religious leaders, for instance, were not “evil” people who were looking to destroy Jesus of Nazareth for completely malicious reasons.

The reality is that the times in which Jesus lived in were as complex and confusing as our own times. The religious leadership, just like the rest of Judaea, was living under the reality of Roman occupation and oppression. The Temple, and Caiaphas as the High Priest, is the greatest example of that complexity.

The primary sources we have on Caiaphas are the New Testament and the writings of the first century Jewish/Roman historian Flavius Josephus. Caiaphas’ full name was actually Joseph ben Caiaphas (meaning Joseph son of Caiaphas). So, properly speaking, Joseph was his name and Caiaphas was his father’s name. Beyond his name, we can gather a lot from Jospehus that creates an even broader picture when considered along with the New Testament account.

Here’s a basic summary of who Caiaphas was and what made him tick. First, he was in a line of High Priests who were connected to the Sadducee party. He was not directly in the line, but only through marriage to the High Priest Annas. The Sadducees were mostly the Jewish elite and of prominent wealth, and so Joseph ben Caiaphas married into an extremely wealthy and powerful family.

Joseph ben Caiaphas came to be High Priest during a very turbulent time in Jewish history. His father-in-law had been High Priest, but was deposed after the death of the Emperor Augustus. Still, Annas continued to have quite an amount of sway and power despite his being deposed. He was succeeded by his son Eleazar. Eleazar was succeeded by someone outside of the line of Annas, by the name of Simon ben Camithus, who was so unpopular that he only served a year. Simon was succeeded by Caiaphas.

The role of the High Priest was both spiritual role and a political role. The High Priest was the head officiant at the Temple and was the leader of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a council that weighed in on Jewish Law. With that said, High Priests were appointed by the Roman governor. At the time of Caiaphas’ ascent to the position, Valerius Gratus was the governor; therefore, Valerius Gratus was the governor.

What this means is that Caiaphas must have built a strong and good relationship, probably with the help of his father-in-law, with Gratus. As such, he was appointed and remained in the position at the pleasure of the governor and was in that position for a very long time. When Pontius Pilate became the governor, he chose to leave Caiaphas right where he was as High Priest. This shows that the Romans trusted Caiaphas to be politically good for them in that position.

Of course, being in good with the Romans made the High Priests subject to fierce criticism from different Jewish sects. The Essenes left Jerusalem and lived in the wilderness because of the disgust they had toward what they saw as the corruption of the Temple. The violent political Jewish party called the Zealots, were enraged by the Roman hands appointing Jewish leaders and priests, and they were constantly threatening the Jewish religious hierarchy and Roman rule.

These were very tense times that Jesus came onto the scene during. This Nazarene not only challenged the Pharisees and their understanding of the Torah, but he also overturned the tables in the Temple and called himself the Son of God and the Messiah. Caiaphas’ position depended on his being able to deal with any threat to Jewish order and Roman peace. To Caiaphas, this Jesus was a real threat who could inspire a rebellion. If that happened, many Jews would be slaughtered, he would lose his position as High Priest, and possibly even his own life. He could not let that happen.

But Caiaphas also could not just bring Jesus up on charges of blasphemy, for those charges would not concern Pontius Pilate in the slightest; rather, Caiaphas had to prove that Jesus was not only a threat to the religious order, but also to Roman rule. Caiaphas had no authority to kill Jesus, only the Romans could do that, so the only way to remove this threat was to make the case that Jesus was not just a blasphemer, but a traitor against Rome. Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God (a title reserved for the Roman Emperor: divi filius) and the messiah (or anointed King of Israel in the line of David) gave Caiaphas a strong case to present to Pilate.

Caiaphas did what he did for many reasons. He did it to maintain power, authority, and status. He also did it to maintain peace and keep many people from being slaughtered (John 11:49-50). He did it out of fear, but he also did it out of his sacred duty to be the shepherd of his people. He did it for political motivations and ambitions, but he no doubt believed he was doing what was the right thing to do.

The challenge for us is to realize that even though we are God’s people, we can still make decisions and carry out actions that are very, very wrong. Our pride and our need to maintain the status quo can lead us to actually turn our backs on the God we love and claim to follow. Caiaphas is not alone in doing that. He was was complex man, but we are all complex people. The challenge for us is to look at ourselves through the mirror of Scripture and be cautious in our own motivations in how we act and behave.

“The way of sinners is paved with smooth stones, but at its end is the pit of Hades.” – Ben Sira of Jerusalem” (Sirach 21:10, NRSVA).

Lord, help me to be a person who looks past my own complexity to you, your grace, and your Word for guidance. Amen.

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