Who Was Caiaphas, the Official at the Trial of Jesus?
Caiaphas, an important official in the city of Jerusalem, is mentioned nine times by name in the New Testament (Mt. 26:3,57; Lk. 3:2; Jn. 11:49; 18:13,14,24,28; Acts 4:6).
Next to Pilate, the Roman governor, Caiaphas was the most powerful dignitary in Judea. He served for eighteen years (A.D. 18-36) as an appointee of the Roman government. This unusually long administration reveals that he was a skillful politician.
There are several significant matters to be considered in connection with this man.
The “High Priest”
On several occasions Caiaphas is referred to as a “high priest” (Mt. 26:3,57; Jn. 11:49; 18:13). On the other hand, Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas (Jn. 18:13), is also called a “high priest” (Acts 4:6). Curiously, Luke states that John the Baptizer was preaching in the wilderness “in the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (Lk. 3:2).
Some have charged the Bible with an “error” in this matter (Chilton, 806). But this is entirely unwarranted. There are several possible ways of reconciling these differences. Annas had been high priest (A.D. 7-15) until he was removed by the Roman procurator, Valerius Gratus (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.2.2). “It is likely that the Jewish people still regarded him as the legitimate holder of the office, which according to the Law [of Moses] was for life” (Harrison, 82).
On the other hand, some contend that the term archiereus (high priest) was used in New Testament times “of all priests belonging to the ruling class” (Foakes-Jackson, 34). Lewis notes that the term came to designate “the man in office, the former officeholders, and the elite families from whom candidates were chosen” (141).
The Enemy of Christ
Caiaphas was a vicious enemy of Jesus. Following the resurrection of Lazarus, as some of the Jewish leaders began to sense the impact of Christ’s miracles, a council was convened. The fear was expressed that if the Lord was simply ignored the whole populous might be swept away with this mania, and that could bring the Romans down upon them (Jn. 11:47, 48). It was Caiaphas who suggested that there was a solution —put this man to death (49-53). [Note: It is one of the major ironies of history that this very “solution” was that which brought about the end of the Hebrew nation (cf. Mt. 21:33-44; 22:1-7).]
The scheme to kill Jesus was vigorously discussed in “the court of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas” (Mt. 26:3), and when the Lord was later arrested, he was led to Caiaphas’ house (26:57; cf. Jn. 18:24). It was he who fiercely interrogated Christ, charging the Savior with blasphemy. This fueled the crowd to a feverish pitch and ultimately brought about the Lord’s death (cf. Mt. 26:62ff).
After the establishment of the church, Caiaphas was a persecutor of Christians (cf. Acts 4:6ff). Hendriksen was quite accurate when he described this high priest as
“a rude and sly manipulator, an opportunist, who did not know the meaning of fairness or justice and who was bent on having his own way ‘by hook or by crook’” (163).
In view of the abominable character of this wretch, it is a surprise when one notes that Caiaphas, on one occasion, is said to have “prophesied.” When the suggestion was made that the influence of Jesus imperiled the nation, Caiaphas declared:
“You know nothing at all, nor do you take account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.”
The inspired writer adds:
“Now this he said not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation; and not for the nation only, but that he might also gather together into one the children of God that are scattered abroad” (Jn. 11:49-52).
There are several important points here.
First, in his own inexplicable fashion, God was able to use the mouth of a corrupt ruler to declare a divine truth. Caiaphas meant his utterance for evil, but Jehovah so ordered the words that they expressed a magnificent truth (cf. Gen. 50:20).
Second, the statement heralded the doctrine of the atoning death of Jesus. It was said that “one man should die for (huper) the people....” The Greek preposition huper literally means “over.” Out of that concept grew the sense of protection or defense (Robertson, 630). Thus, Jesus was to die “on behalf of,” or “for the benefit of,” others. Without him, there is no salvation.
Next, John also notes that the Lord’s death would result in redemption being offered universally, i.e., to the Jewish “nation,” and to “the [potential] children of God that are scattered abroad” (Gentiles).
Finally, all who submit to Christ (Heb. 5:8-9) are to be “gathered together into one” (i.e., body, church —Eph. 4:4; 1:22-23).
In 1990, just south of Jerusalem, a Jewish burial cave was accidentally discovered. When the cave was finally entered, archaeologists found several limestone ossuaries (boxes containing bones). One of these contained the remnants of several persons, including those of a man about sixty years of age. The box was elaborately decorated, suggesting that it housed the remains of someone important.
On the exterior were these words, “Joseph, son of Caiaphas,” or, as scholars suggest the meaning may be, “Joseph of the family of Caiaphas.” “Caiaphas” was apparently a family nickname. According to Josephus, the high priest who succeeded Annas was “Joseph Caiaphas” (Antiquities, 18.2.2; 18.4.3).
Ronny Reich, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, suggests that these bones are “in all probability” the bones of that same high priest who prosecuted Jesus Christ (30). Now, he awaits judgment!
- Chilton, Bruce. 1992. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 1. David Noel Freedman, Ed. New York, NY: Doubleday.
- Foakes-Jackson, F. J. 1931. The Acts of the Apostles. New York, NY: Harper & Bros.
- Harrison, Everett F. 1975. Acts: The Expanding Church. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Hendriksen, William. 1954. The Gospel According to John. Vol. II. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Lewis, Jack P. 1976. The Gospel According to Matthew. Vol. II. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Co.
- Reich, Ronnie. 1992. Biblical Archaeology Review. Sep/Oct.
- Robertson, A. T. 1914. Historical Grammar of the Greek New Testament. London: Hodder & Stoughton.