Summary: So what can we learn from Caiaphas and his role in the ministry and crucifixion of Jesus?
Matthew 26:1-5, 57-68
Joseph surnamed Caiaphas which in Greek means “searcher” is only mentioned four times in the New Testament: at the raising of Lazarus in John chapter 11, at the trial of Jesus in Matthew 26 and John 18 and at the trial of Peter and John in Acts chapter 4. And yet, he played a crucial role in the plot to crucify Jesus. He was present throughout Jesus’ trial, beating, and crucifixion. But who was Caiaphas? Caiaphas was born of the tribe of Levi whom God had set apart to be the priests and religious leaders of Israel. He married into one of the most influential families of his day, the High Priest Annas who served as High Priest from 6-15 AD. But the Romans had become disenchanted with him so from that time on, the Romans made sure that they had total control over the all the affairs of Judea, reserving the right to appoint the high priest of their choice, someone thy could “work” with or control.
The three High Priests before Caiaphas were short-lived and quickly removed from office. Caiaphas served as High Priest for 18 years. Although Caiaphas was the official High Priest, most Biblical scholars believe that Annas continued to be the power behind the throne. We see this in John 18:13 where it says, “And they led Him away to Annas first, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas who was high priest that year." And Luke 3 says, “while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests,…” Thus, even though he was out of office, Annas played a major role in the religious affairs of Israel and in Jesus' trial, an indication he may have advised or even controlled Caiaphas. He was so influencial after he was removed that he was able to obtain poistions for five of his sons at the temple.
The High Priest served as the Jew's representative to God. He led the people in worship and performed religious rituals in strict obedience to the Mosaic law. Once a year the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, the most sacred of places where God’s throne the Ark of the Covenant resided, and he would offer sacrifices to Yahweh. The High Priest was also in charge of the temple treasury, controlled the temple police and lower ranking priests and attendants, and served as president of the Sanhedrin.
The ancient Jewish court system was called the Sanhedrin. They were the supreme religious court in Israel during the time of Jesus. 71 rabbis were a part of the Sanhedrin and met daily in the Chamber of Hewn Stones in the Temple. According to law, they only met during the daytime, and did not meet on the Sabbath, festival eves or during religious festivals. It was the final authority on Jewish law and any scholar who went against its decisions was put to death. The Sanhedrin judged accused lawbreakers, but could not initiate arrests. In about 30 C.E., the Sanhedrin lost its authority to inflict capital punishment. Only the Romans had that power, hence why Caiaphas had to go to Pilate about Jesus’ punishement. All decisions had to be by majority of at least two votes. Cases that were the most difficult or the most critical for the Jewish people were decided by the Sanhedrin. Hence why Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin.
The Sanhedrin was made up of rabbis from the two main religious parties: The Pharisees and the Sadducees. They were in open opposition to each other in both beliefs and practices. The Sadduccees were drawn from the wealthy, educated elite of the day while the Pharisees were composed of the common working class people. Caiaphas was a Sadducee. Sadducees denied the oral (spoken) law that the Pharisees openly taught. For them the first five books of the Bible was the divine authority. They did not believe in the resurrection or the existence of spirits and angels. In short, hand they did not believe in the supernatural.
The high priest had another, more controversial function in first-century Jerusalem: He served as a liaison between the Romans and the Jewish population. Rome decided it was beneficial to allow the people they conquered to continue to worship their gods(s). But this was a right they could always revoke. So Rome looked to the High Priest and the Sanhedrin to keep the Jewish population in line. Although little is known of Caiaphas’ 18 year tenure, the length suggests that he must have worked well with Roman authority. Many scholars believe that Caiaphas had a close working relationship with Pontius Pilate. Regardless, Caiaphas was shrewd and adaptable enough to appease the Romans while still protecting the religious freedom of Israel. High Priests were both respected and despised by the Jewish population. They were seen as playing a critical role in the religious life of the nation. At the same time, many Jews resented the close relationship they maintained with Roman authorities, suspecting them of being influenced, taking bribes or practicing other forms of corruption.