The High Priests
Aaron, the brother of Moses was the first to be anointed as high priest (Lev 8-9). From then, the office of high priest was passed down the family of Aaron, from father to son. This family line continued without interruption for more than 1100 years, until Onias III, who was deposed in 175 BC, and murdered in 170 BC. Under Roman rule, the high priesthood became a political appointment, when high priests were appointed and deposed by the Roman governor. Many of the high priests only ruled for one year or less. Their appointment often depended on how much they were willing to pay or bribe the governor. If someone was willing to pay more, then the current high priest would be removed, to make way for him.
Annas, or Ananias, or Ananus, son of Seth, was appointed high priest by Quirinius, the governor of Syria in AD 6. This Quirinius is also mentioned in Lk 2:2, as the governor of Syria as the time of the birth of Jesus. Annas was finally deposed by the Roman governor Valerius Gratus in AD 15. The next two high priests, including one of his sons, were both deposed after about a year, before Joseph Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas, was appointed (Jos Ant 18:2:2).
After being deposed, he remained a powerful figure in Jerusalem, and even though he had no official position was still referred to as “high priest”. Through skilful diplomacy and probably much bribery, he was able to ensure that family remained dominant in Judea for many years. To give a date for the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Luke refers to the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (Lk 3:2). At first sight, this would seem to imply that there were two high priests in office at the same time, but instead indicates that power and influence that Annas continued to exercise, even after he was deposed. By this time, Annas had been deposed for more than ten years, and Caiaphas was the current high priest.
The Bazaars of Annas
Annas was a member of the Sadducees, the aristocracy of first century Judea. He shared their characteristics of being arrogant, ambitious, and having enormous wealth, which they used to maintain their political control. His family were notorious for their greed. The Talmud records a popular rhyme which described the family of Annas:
“Woe to the house of Annas!
Woe to their serpent’s hiss!
They are high priests;
their sons are keepers of the treasury,
their sons-in-law are guardians of the temple,
and their servants beat people with staves.” (Pesahim 57a)
The family of Annas had gained much of their wealth from the four “booths of the sons of Annas”, which were market stalls located on the Mount of Olives. They also had other market stalls inside the temple complex, in the Court of the Gentiles. Through these, they had a monopoly on the sale of sacrificial animals, as well as on the exchanging of money into temple coins for the offerings. This enabled them to charge exorbitant prices, effectively gaining their wealth through the exploitation and oppression of the poor.
When Jesus entered the temple, he saw all this, became angry and drove them all out of the temple, denouncing them by saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of robbers” (Mk 11:17). When the chief priests heard about this, they looked for a way of killing Jesus. His action had hurt the family of Annas financially, so they wanted to kill him.
The Family of Annas
Over the next fifty years, seven different members of the family of Annas ruled as high priests. From AD 6 to AD 43, they ruled almost without interruption, then there was a gap of just under twenty years, then another eight years of their rule.
1. Eleazar son AD 16-17
2. Caiaphas son-in-law AD 18-36
3. Jonathan son AD 36-37
4. Theophilus son AD 37-41
5. Matthias son AD 42-43
6. Annas II son AD 61-62
7. Matthias grandson AD 65-68 (son of Theophilus)
Luke refers to the high-priestly family when Peter and John were brought before the Sanhedrin after healing the lame man at the Beautiful Gate (Acts 4:5). He lists Annas the high priest (even though it was fifteen years since he was deposed from being high priest), as well as Caiaphas (the current high priest), John (or Jonathan), who became the next high priest in AD 36, and Alexander. From this it appears that the family of Annas dominated the Sanhedrin, and were particularly opposed to the apostles and the preaching of the name of Jesus (4:18).
Josephus said this about the family of Annas: “Now the report goes, that this elder Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of
high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests” (Ant 20:198)
Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, by marriage to his daughter. He was appointed by the Roman governor Valerius Gratus in AD 18 (Jos Ant 18:2:2), and ruled as high priest for eighteen years. This was the longest reign of any high priest in New Testament times. He remained high priest under Pontius Pilate, and was finally deposed in AD 36 by Vitellius, the governor of Syria. He was replaced by Jonathan, another son of Annas (Jos Ant 18:4:3). Pontius Pilate was removed from office a few months before Caiaphas, after killing large numbers of Samaritans (Jos Ant 18:4:2). Caiaphas was replaced by Jonathan, another son of Annas. His elaborately carved ossuary (bone box) was discovered in 1990, which contained the bones of a man of about 60 years old, a woman, two children and two infants. It is displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
When the Sanhedrin met to discuss what to do about Jesus following the raising of Lazarus, it was Caiaphas that said, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50). The members of the Sanhedrin were concerned that if they allowed Jesus to continue performing signs, then everyone will believe him, and the Romans will come and destroy the holy place (temple) and the nation (11:48). John makes the comment that he did not say this on his own, but prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation (11:51). His cynical comment that it is better for one innocent man to die to preserve the nation had a far deeper meaning. Without him realising, God spoke through him, that the death of Jesus will bring true salvation to the nation, as well as to the Gentiles. After this meeting, the Sanhedrin decided to put plans into motion to kill Jesus (11:53).
The Trial of Jesus
According to John, Jesus was first brought before Annas (Jn 18:13, 19-23), before being sent to Caiaphas (18:24), who, as the current high priest, he would be the leader of the Sanhedrin. John uniquely records a brief account of the trial before Annas (v19-23), when Annas interrogated Jesus about his teaching, and Jesus was struck on the mouth for challenging the way the trial was being conducted. Although Annas does not appear to play a leading role in the trial of Jesus, it is most likely that he was the one who should be held the most responsible for the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. As the power behind the ruling class, he would have directed the events of his capture, trials before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate, and eventual crucifixion.
Following the hearing before Annas, Jesus was taken for a trial before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, in the high priest’s house. This trial is described in the synoptic gospels (Mt 26:57-68, Mk 14:53-65, Lk 22:54-55, 63-71), but not in John’s Gospel. The accounts in Matthew and Mark are very similar, but Luke’s account is far briefer.
The trial took place in the house of the high priest (Mt 26:57), where Peter denied knowing Jesus. This made the trial illegal, as trials were only to be held in the temple complex, and not at night, and not on the evening before a Sabbath or festival. It is very unlikely that this was a full meeting of the seventy-one members of the full Sanhedrin, but more of a smaller and informal gathering in Caiaphas’ house of those particularly opposed to Jesus.
No witnesses could be found to agree a charge, and the only accusation they were able to bring against Jesus was his claim, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days” (Mt 26:51, quoting the words of Jesus in Jn 2:18). John explains that Jesus was actually speaking of the temple of his own body (Jn 2:21), not the temple in Jerusalem.
Caiaphas then broke all the rules for a legal trial by putting Jesus on oath to say whether he was or was not the Messiah. The high priest was supposed to be an impartial judge, and was not allowed to act as prosecutor. Jesus effectively condemned himself by saying, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:64, quoting Ps 110:1 and Dan 7:13). For Caiaphas, these words were blasphemous, and deserving death (Mt 26:65).
Annas II, the son of Annas, was high priest when James, the brother of Jesus, was killed in AD 62. Josephus describes him as “a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who were rigid in judging offenders” (Jos Ant 20:199).
Annas took advantage of the absence of a Roman governor following the death of Festus to bring an accusation against James and have him stoned to death, before the arrival of Albinus, the next Roman governor. Following objections from the citizens for this action, Annas was removed from being high priest by king Agrippa, and was replaced by Jesus son of Damneus, who was not a member of the family of Annas (Ant 20:200-203). This is the description Josephus gives of the martyrdom of James: “Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” (Ant 20:200).
This is what Josephus wrote about Annas II after he was deposed:
“As for the high priest Ananias, he increased in glory everyday, and this to a great degree, and had obtained the favour and esteem of the citizens in a signal manner, for he was a great hoarder of money; he cultivated the friendship of Albinus (the Roman governor), and of the high priest (Jesus) by making them presents. He also had servants who were very wicked, who joined themselves to the boldest sort of people, and went to the thrashing floors, and took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence, and did not refrain from beating such as would not give these tithes to them. So the other high priests acted in the like manner, as did those his servants without anyone being able to prohibit them, so that (some of the) priests, that of old were wont to be supported with those tithes, died for want of food” (Ant 20:9:205-207).
Bruce, F.F. New Testament History. Pickering 1985.
Edwards, D.M. Annas in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), ed. Geoffrey Bromiley, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1979.
Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews. Translated William Whiston. Hendrickson, Peabody, 1988.