Some Observations on High Priests in the Gospels and Acts

Jesus before Caiaphas

The high priest, the Sanhedrin, and the Roman administration play an important part of Jesus’ trial and execution in the Gospels. Jesus’ trial thus provides the somewhat rare opportunity for known figures from history to be mentioned. There are some oddities when it comes to the key role of the Jerusalem high priest, however. Let’s take a look at who is cast in this role in the four Gospels as well as Acts.

Mark and the High Priest Who Shall Not Be Named

It makes sense to start with the Gospel of Mark, our earliest extant Gospel which provided the basic narrative on which all the others (even John, I think) are based. The first mention of the high priest appears in the arrest scene at the Garden of Gethsemane:

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him.  Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. (Mark 14:43–47)

A few notes here. The same Greek word (ἀρχιερεύς) is actually translated first as “chief priests” and then as “high priest”, the reason being that since there is only ever one high priest in office, the plural form used in verse 43 must refer to priests of a lesser rank, or perhaps former high priests. Josephus was similarly loose with his terminology at times, and it seems likely (at least, to me) that Mark made use of Josephus’ Wars of the Jews to fill in some historical details.

What’s interesting about Mark is that he does not name the high priest — not here, nor in the high priest’s nighttime trial that immediately follows. Yet he knows the name of Pontius Pilate, who interrogates Jesus and decides to have him crucified. (Incidentally, Pilate is mentioned in Josephus’ Wars, but the high priest during his tenure is not.)

Matthew: Mark Version 2.0

Matthew copies Mark’s arrest scene and trial almost word-for-word, but he provides some additional detail — the name of the high priest, Caiaphas. Compare Mark and Matthew side-by-side, with the same wording (some minor conjugation differences aside) indicated in italics:

Mark 14:53–54

They led Jesus off to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, into the courtyard of the high priest;

Matthew 26:57–58

Those who had arrested him led Jesus off to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, into the courtyard of the high priest;

Matthew has inserted “Caiaphas” into the text, and he gives the correct identity of the high priest as far as we know. Josephus identifies Caiaphas as the high priest from 18 to 36 CE, which includes all of Pontius Pilate’s tenure as prefect of Judaea.

Christ Before Caiaphas by Duccio di Buoninsegna

Christ Before Caiaphas by Duccio di Buoninsegna

Luke, and a Mystery in Acts Four

Luke also uses Mark as a source for Jesus’ ministry, trial, and crucifixion. Like Mark, Luke does not mention the name of the high priest throughout the trial narrative. Luke 22:54, for example, is the equivalent to the Markan and Matthean passages quoted above, which Luke has edited for brevity:

54 Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance.

Ah, but Luke has mentioned the high priest earlier on, in Luke 3:1–2 when he sets the stage for John the Baptist. But that’s the confusing part.

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius… 2 under Annas the high priest and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

English translations paper this over, but the Greek says “ἐπὶ ἀρχιερέως Ἅννα καὶ Καϊάφα”—”under the high priest (singular) Annas, and Caiaphas”. The 15th year of Tiberius is 28 CE, putting us squarely in the high priesthood of Caiaphas. “Annas” is generally considered to be Ananus ben Seth, a very influential Jew who served as high priest from 6 to 15 CE and was still pulling strings in Caiaphas’ day. Thus, the usual explanation is that Luke is referring to Ananus/Annas by his former title, much like Josephus frequently did. Still, given the apparent care Luke gives in this passage to name various historical characters and establish a specific date, we would expect him to specify Caiaphas rather than Annas as the high priest.

The odd focus on Annas continues in Acts 4:5–6, which describes a scene that occurs shortly after Jesus’ death:

 5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.

Again, reading this verse, you would never know that it was Caiaphas, rather than Annas, who held the office of high priest during this time—and he had done so for almost two decades. As brilliant, famous, and probably good-looking scholar Steve Mason writes in Josephus and the New Testament:

In other words, if we had only Luke-Acts, we would not have guessed that Caiaphas was high priest during Jesus’ trial (according to Josephus and Matthew), for this author implies that Annas held the office.  Josephus is also confusing at times in his use of the title “high priest,” but the difference is that he clarifies the situation, if we but read on for a few paragraphs. Luke does not, so it remains a question whether he knew who was high priest at the time of Jesus’ death. (p. 191)

Incidentally, anyone who has read Luke-Acts carefully has noticed how fond Luke was of throwing out historical references (most of whom also appear in Josephus), though he sometimes gets the details mixed up.

John: Bananas for Annas

John, possibly working with Luke’s text in mind, incorporates both Annas and Caiaphas into his narrative. John’s version of events differs notably from the Synoptics, however, and he introduces some new wrinkles. It is the resurrection of Lazarus that sets the priests and Pharisees into a panic, and John 11:49 introduces us to Caiaphas, whom John says “was high priest that year”. He repeats Caiaphas’ status as high priest that year in 11:51 and 18:13. If the reader didn’t know otherwise, he or she would assume that the high priest was a short-term office that changed on a yearly basis.

And then there are the trials. Whereas Matthew has Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas and Luke doesn’t specify the high priest, John has his nighttime trial take place at the house of Annas, whom he explicitly refers to as “the high priest” (18:19, 22). Annas then sends Jesus bound to Caiaphas, who is also described as “the high priest”. Then Jesus is whisked off to Pilate’s headquarters, without any description of what happened between him and Caiaphas.

It’s difficult to know what John thought about the office of the high priest. A reader who didn’t know better might assume that it was a dual office held by two concurrent priests, and that it changed annually. Some have suggested that John got this idea from some of the tumultuous periods in the 40s and 60s during which high priests were appointed and removed from office on a yearly basis for various reasons.

Acts Again

Lastly, two scenes in Acts are worth mentioning. One occurs in Acts 19, where the seven sons of “a Jewish high priest named Sceva” are attempting, with hilarious results, to perform exorcisms in Jesus’ name. It’s a mystery who the author is referring to here, since there was never any high priest by that name. Presumably, the name had some meaning to him and his audience.

The other is Paul’s famous Jerusalem courtroom scene in Acts 23. As Paul starts to speak, the high priest Ananias orders someone to smack Paul on the mouth. (Is the order carried out? We’re never told.) Paul rebukes the council, and then apologizes when he finds out that the man giving the orders is the high priest. It’s strange Paul didn’t know that. But who is Ananias anyway? The answer is almost certainly Ananias ben Nebedaeus, another high priest of roughly that time period. However, it is difficult to know whether (1) Ananias was the sitting high priest at that time, (2) whether Luke thinks he was but is mistaken, or (3) whether he imagines Ananias as a former high priest and uses the title in an honorary manner. The narrative has Felix as the procurator who tries Paul and keeps him imprisoned, but Felix is replaced by Festus two years later, putting the courtroom scene somewhere around 54–56 CE. The high priests and procurators around this time are difficult to date, because Josephus (our most thorough source) gives no exact dates, and there are discrepancies between his information (both in Wars and Antiquities) and what other historians (e.g. Tacitus) say.

Was Ananias ben Nebedaeus the high priest in 54 CE? Some (like Steve Mason) think so, and that is the impression on gets from Josephus’ Wars. However, Antiquities specifies that Ananias was hauled off in chains early in his high priesthood (perhaps as early as 49 CE) to stand trial in Rome before Claudius for his role in a violent riot. (Hm, that sounds suspiciously like Paul’s situation in Acts.) Antiquities does not speak of his return, and it implies that Ishmael ben Phiabi was the high priest under Felix. Josephus also states in the same work that Ishmael was high priest during the famine of the late 40s (mentioned in Acts 11, by the way). My best guess is that Ishmael was the sitting high priest during the timeframe depicted in Acts, but opinions vary—and historically speaking, most biblical exegetes come from a confessional background and have been rather keen to preserve as much historicity in Acts as possible.


I’m tired of constantly cross-referencing dates, so I’ve taken the trouble of making a big timeline of Jewish and Roman rulers based on the various resources I had on hand. You can download a handy PDF from the link below. Bear in mind that this is not a definitive chronology of the period; many of the dates are uncertain, and there is genuine scholarly debate about much of this information. Still, I hope you find it useful.

Chronology of Palestine and Syria, 40 BCE to 70 CE

(No trees were harmed in the making of this diagram. Several beers may have perished, however.)

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