at  the  time  of  Christ

From  the  book  "The  Trial  and  Death  of  Jesus"  by  Haim  Cohn


It is Jewish law that the high priest is appointed for life,1 but then Roman governors had introduced the innovation that the appointment would be made and unmade by them at pleasure.2 It was, also under Jewish law, the Great Sanhedrin of Seventy-one which had the prerogative of appointing and impeaching incumbents,3 but the Roman governors imagined that, by arrogating the power to appoint and remove, by seeing to it that their choices were always Romanophile and trustworthy, they could effectively control the Jews.4 The high priesthood was the symbol of Jewish national pride and aspirations, of Jewish religious superiority. National and religious life centered in the temple at Jerusalem, of which the high priest was exalted guardian and supreme commander. The temple police was the only Jewish armed force officially tolerated. By striking at the autonomy and independence of the high priest, the Romans struck at the nerve ganglion of Jewish autonomy and independence. Josephus tells nothing of the reaction of his people to this shocking degradation of the high priesthood. His silence is surely eloquent, for that reaction, even if it did not find active expression, must have been very bitter."5 That the Jews were  likely to lose confidence in Roman nominees to the sacred office is one thing; but every expression of anger that the sacrosanct right of the Great Sanhedrin was being usurped and profaned would only magnify the hatred that the Romans felt for them.


Kaiaphas, the high priest, had been appointed by Pilate's predecessor, Valerius Gratius, and held office for eighteen years, from 18 to 36, a much longer spell than Pilate's as governor of Judaea.6 It has been said that the very fact that Pilate allowed Kaiaphas to abide undisturbedly throughout his own term speaks for great amity and close understanding between the two.7 It has also been suggested that Pilate's successor got rid of Kaiaphas as a friendly gesture of conciliation toward the Jews, who destested the high priest for what he had done to Jesus.8 The true reason for Kaiaphas' retention in office by Pilate may well be that he had paid the price of it in good money: we know that the high-priestly appointment had developed into a lucrative source of private income for the governors—if an incumbent could or would not pay the price, he would be unseated, and one more forthcoming would replace him.9 But if a governor could earn as much by letting the incumbent be, why go to the trouble of deposition and a new appointment?


In Roman times the high priesthood was confined to a few families: identical names recur again and again. It was not that qualified candidates could not be found in other circles, but that these were the only Jerusalem clans that could afford the costs involved. How rich the popular imagination made them out to be is shown by a talmudic tradition that their elders used only and always vessels of silver and gold.10 All the families belonged to the Sadducean aristocracy, so that the mass of the people found itself faced by an apparent alliance between the hateful alien overlord and the rich and wealthy Jews: the natural and social aversion to the prosperous and mighty was joined, and intensified, by the natural and patriotic aversion to the enemy oppressor, of which the high priests—and the rich in general—were, of course, well aware. They knew not only how intensely the Romans were hated, but also that their own collaboration with the Romans and their dependence on them were popularly viewed with scorn and disgust. And the fact that it was by their wealth alone that the high priests had qualified for the holy office, and had procured and went on holding it, did nothing to enhance their standing or give them added goodwill.


But however little he was liked, however odious the form and incidents of his appointment and tenure, the high priest was always in supreme command of the temple administration, the temple police included, and responsible, without reserve, for all temple services.11 And from the point of view of external relations, he would be regarded—especially, but not exclusively, by the Roman governor—as chief and spokesman of the nation, not only because the Romans would not recognize any but their own nominees as accreditable negotiators,12 but also because the Jews would rather that any unavoidable contact with the enemy be made by his own puppet. It was a curious and ambivalent situation: on the one hand, the Jews despised the high priests as Roman quislings; on the other, they had to, and did, use the sacerdotal good offices in mediacy with the authorities. It is, perhaps, no less strange that a similar ambivalence prevailed internally: on the one hand, the Jews despised the high priest for his Sadducean affiliations and his moral and professional flaws; on the other, they had to, and did, duly recognize him as the lawful holder of the highest national and religious post. A modern politician might be in the like predicament when his party adversary, at whose qualifications he scoffs and whose opinions he vehemently scouts, has been elected to high office: while never forsaking his own views or betraying his own ideals, he will—at least outwardly—spare no conscious effort at loyal cooperation with him.


When, however, we come to details of the high priest's competences, we shall find it not at all easy to grope our way through the tangle of disputatious scholarship. For instance, on the first question that springs to mind in connection with the trial of Jesus, the scholars are hopelessly divided. Did the high priest preside over the Sanhedrin or did he not? Was he, or was he not, competent to convene it? Scores of theories have been developed on this issue,13 ranging from the assertion that he presided and convened at will14 to the denial that he ever presided or had the right to preside or convene,15 with intermediate assertions and denials.16 None of the Gospels says expressly that it was the high priest who presided over the meeting in the matter of Jesus, and for our specific purpose, we might leave it at that and take no stand in the controversy. It is only the possible bearing, on the question of ultimate "responsibility," of our adopting or rejecting this or the other theory that requires us clearly to decide on the position that we are going to take.


The dignity, fame, and sacrosanctity of the high-priestly office were such that it would, I think, be virtually inconceivable for its holder to attend any session of the Sanhedrin or council in which he would not, as a matter of course and tradition, preside. He was the only man chosen and qualified to enter the Holy of Holies in the temple once a year (Lev. 16:32): he who was nearest to God, at least physically, and anointed to represent the people before God, would certainly be the first among men and entitled to preside over them.


Nothing much is known of Kaiaphas in particular. We have it on the authority of the Fourth Gospel that he was the son-in-law of a former high priest, Annas (John 18:13): Annas functioned between the years 6 and 15, which means his displacement fifteen years before our events.17 Whether it was because of the comparative lack of standing or importance of the three intervening incumbents, or because they were no longer alive, we find both Annas and Kaiaphas described as high priests during the governorship of Pilate (Luke 3:2), and, in another context, Annas as the only high priest and Kaiaphas as just one of his kindred (Acts 4:6). It would seem that Annas' official reputation lasted longer than Kaiaphas': notwithstanding the role ascribed to Kaiaphas in the Passion story, it is the name of Annas that loomed large in later traditions. But only in the Fourth Gospel is any part in the questioning of Jesus attributed to Annas (John 18:19-23); the remarkable omission of all mention of the high priest's name in the trial accounts of Mark and Luke may predicate a lack of interest in his identity, and it has, indeed, been said to lend "considerable force to the argument that the hierarch's actual part in the proceedings against Jesus was far from being as commanding as the evangelists suggest."18


A high priest by the name of Elionai son of Kaiaph,19 mentioned in the Jewish sources, has been taken to be a son of our Kaiaphas.20 He has also been identified with a high priest of whom Josephus speaks, Elionaeus son of Kantheras.21 The Greek name Kantheras was understood by Jewish traditional lexicographers to mean donkey, and the Hebrew or Aramaic Kaiaph to mean monkey, 22 both, ostensibly, regarded as fit zoological descriptions to serve our Kaiaphas as sobriquets of abuse or ridicule. Whether this interpretation is warranted, whether Kaiaph was not just an innocent and meaningless surname, cannot now be ascertained. A possible sense of Kaiaph might be fortuneteller,23 but the theory that Pilate conferred on the high priest the name or title of Kaiaphas as meaning inquisitor or accuser24 has no historical or etymological support.


It was Kaiaphas, then, possibly with the high priest emeritus Annas at his side, who presided over the council. 

What was this council, how was it composed, what were its functions?

It has been suggested that there were several such "councils" in Jerusalem at the time, all mistakenly and indiscriminately referred to in the Jewish sources as "Sanhedrin" and in the Gospels as the "whole council" (Mark 15:1) of chief priests, elders, and scribes. Only one of them, it is said, and that a political or a priestly one, would be controlled and presided over by the high priest, and his Sadducean intimates would form its membership.25 Confining the high priest to the presidency of a purely political body, directed by him and constituted at his pleasure, not unlike the family or privy councils reported to have been called together time and again by King Herod 26 for specific consultations, would, of course, answer the purpose, intended or not, of freeing the true and real Great Sanhedrin of Israel of all responsibility for whatever had happened in the case of Jesus, and placing it, as far as the Jews were concerned, squarely on the shoulders of the high priest whom the Romans had appointed and his personal clique. According to this theory, the high priest and his council were charged by the Roman governor not only with sacerdotal matters, but also, perhaps mainly, with "native affairs,"27 that is, with inquiry into local anti-Roman activities and their denunciation, and it was in that capacity that they "delivered" Jesus into his hands.

I see no reason to decry the character of "the whole council" of which the evangelists tell us. There is no case for regarding the assembly that night in the high priest's home as some high-priestly ad hoc council in which the great majority of chief priests, elders, and scribes was unrepresented. On the contrary, I shall assume that what the Gospels call "the chief priests and elders and all the council" (Matt. 25:59), or "all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes" (Mark 14:53; similarly Luke 22:66), was indeed the Great Sanhedrin of Seventy-one "from which the Torah went out to all Israel,"28 and that no more august, representative, or authoritative body could have foregathered there that night. That it had, indeed, been convened by the high priest and that it had been invited into his home are circumstances which will claim our attention in due course.


In listing chief priests, elders, and scribes as making up the membership of the—then—Sanhedrin, the authors of the Gospels may have disregarded technical terminology, but, in essence, they were not far from giving an accurate picture of its three main groups: first, the leading priests and Levites, 29 representing the sacerdotal authorities; second, "senators," as they would say in Rome, men of ancient lineage or aristocrats, into whose families even officiating priests were allowed to marry without question; 30 and last, members co-opted from time to time from among the scholars entitled to attend sessions. 31 Not only the moral, professional, and political impact of the third group, but also its numerical strength, had risen progressively with the rise of scholars in reputation and popularity, and the corresponding decline of many of the priests and aristocrats in moral stature and professional qualification. So far from boycotting the council in which sat so many factions adverse to them, the scholars (called "sages") advisedly took part: just 

as the holiness of the temple was not impaired in the estimation of the sages by the high priests who were unworthy of officiating, so it never entered their minds to repudiate the institution of the Sanhedrin, or to set up a rival to it in the form of a competing court, even if they did not approve of its composition, and even if they opposed the high priest and his entourage. They endeavoured rather to exercise their influence and to introduce their rulings and views even into the ritual of the temple service and into the Sanhedrin's methods of operation.32


These scholars were Pharisees, whereas among the chief priests and elders many were Sadducees; and we have the testimony of Josephus that the Sadducees would always vote with the Pharisees, "because the people would not have it otherwise,"33 a remarkable index of the practical influence which public opinion exerted on the decisions of the Sanhedrin, and of the sensitivity of priests and elders to vox populi and popular sentiment. There can be no doubt that public opinion in Judaea and Jerusalem was as anti-Roman as it was pro-Pharisaic, and that with the growth of Pharisaic popularity the Sadducees lost more and more of their positions. Not that the masses had the capacity, or interest, to assess the respective merits or demerits of Pharisaic and Sadducean doctrine, for if they had, they would, in all probability, have preferred the simple and straightforward Sadducean conception of strict and exclusive adherence to the written word of Scripture to the vagaries and complications of the Pharisaic oral law, about whose scope and content the scholars were endlessly disputing among themselves, and often in diametrical opposition to one another. If the generality followed the Pharisees and accepted Pharisaic teachings, it was because the Pharisaic scholars were men after their own hearts: we have the evidence of such an un-Pharisaic witness as Josephus that they were poor and did not aspire to worldly affluence; that they were prudent and always acted after careful deliberation and to the best of their knowledge; that they were humble and showed respect to their elders; and that they were pious and believed that a merciful God would requite all good and righteous men in a better world to come for the misery suffered on earth.34 But, most important of all, the Pharisees held popular sympathy because, true Jewish patriots that they were,35 they could safely be relied upon, in the counsels of state, to provide the required counterbalance to potential or actual collaborators with Rome. 

It cannot be gainsaid that among the Pharisaic scholars themselves there were differences of approach and opinion in respect of Roman politics: even from the purely theological standpoint, some, inevitably, would bow to foreign dominion as a God-sent calamity which must be taken to be merited and accepted with love and humility and an unswerving faith in divine justice. Others may have seen in heathen rule an affront to God and His chosen people and His holy land, which could not, at any cost, be endured.36 

However manifest these doctrinal discords may have been, what distinguished the Pharisaic scholars from other groups would be that in making their decisions they would be actuated only by Jewish concerns: they would not direct their minds to any considerations other than those reflecting what they knew to be in the best general Jewish interest. In this respect, they differed from the well-to-do and well-established, whose primary solicitude would always be for their own vested interests; and, needless to say, from those who—like the high priest—depended on Roman goodwill for continuation in office or status or had to render to the Romans account of their conduct. 

Popular mistrust of all sorts of collaborators, and of all ideologies underlying collaboration, was deeply entrenched—the spectacle of the "moral and spiritual decadence of the once exalted family" of the Hasmonaeans, who had become "pure assimilationists," was still vivid enough in the consciousness of the people to "strengthen the morale and increase the numbers of the Pharisaic opposition."37 As oppression by the Roman occupying power mounted, it was equally inevitable that, in the course of time, the strengthened Pharisaic opposition and its scholarly spokesmen should come to be regarded and revered, in the public mind, as the embodiment of genuine Jewish patriotism.

But the popular pro-Pharisaic sentiment gives only one side of the picture. 

No public opinion can avail, unless the powers-that-be are awake and sensitive to it. The Roman governor of Judaea, for instance, was entirely impervious, not because he may not have been familiar with the more elementary features of democracy, but because he in person, and the duty that he had to perform, and all that he represented and stood for were so incompatible and out of tune with the "native" and—to him—wholly barbarous ideas and aspirations, and Weltanschauung by and large, of a deplorably "retarded," indigenous folk that to give ear to its uncivilized babble would be so much waste of time and effort. 


It seems, however, that the position was totally different with the high priest and, probably, also with the Sadducean nobility. The high priest could be under no illusion as to the opprobrium that he and his predecessors had earned among the people by craving Roman appointments and purchasing them. He had firsthand intelligence of the wrath and wild fury of the people against the Romans and their garrisons, and I do not think that he could have entertained any hopes that this attitude might change: at any rate, he knew that it was not he who could alter it. 

Our knowledge of individual high priests is not enough to judge whether they collaborated with the Romans, if at all, by inclination rather than out of what they regarded as necessity: we should, I submit, give them the benefit of the doubt and assume, as the Pharisaic scholars apparently did, that in collaborating they acted in good faith in what they believed were the best interests of their people. But the fact remains that his Roman nomination would not advantage the high priest a great deal unless he could reckon with some measure of cooperation from the Sanhedrin and from the public at large. From the internal angle, any resistance of scholars or priests to his authority would necessarily render his appointment nugatory: it would do him little good to be recognized as high priest by the Roman governor if he were not accepted as such by his own Jews. He might, of course, always ask for troops to crush resistance by force; but from recent, and not so recent, experiences he could predict what the outcome would be: not only would the desired moral authority still be to seek, but martyrs would be made in the cause against him, and his last remnant of sympathy and prestige be lost. There is no high priest on record who would—or, for that matter, had to—resort to Roman military aid to render his office workable: the price that he would have to pay would have stultified the whole endeavor.

That he was a Roman nominee, ultimately responsible to the Roman governor and removable by him, must have stimulated rather than diminished the high priest's natural aspiration to manage the internal affairs of the Jews so smoothly and efficiently that there would never be any ground for Roman interference. By relying on him, who, of course, enjoyed some measure of their confidence, the Romans were to be satisfied at all times that the administration of those affairs was in safe and proficient hands. It was a no less instinctive ambition of the high priest to secure for himself, and for the organs under his control, as much power and discretion as possible: negative success in preventing Roman interference must be complemented by positive success in the recognition and reinforcement of the autonomy and jurisdiction of the Jewish authorities. Any failure of his and of those directive organs to uphold internal peace and order and good government might result, if not in peremptory Roman intervention, at least in curtailment of the powers and competences previously enjoyed and exercised; peaceful and proper functioning would prove their capacity and might even tempt the Romans to strengthen their autonomy and enlarge it.


To succeed then, the high priest patently depended on the smooth working of the Sanhedrin and of the temple establishment, that is to say, on the nature and extent of the cooperation which he contrived to enlist from the members of the council and from the priesthood. It must have been vital to him to gain the support and goodwill of anyone with a seat and a voice in the counsels of state, and it was axiomatic for him that his surest technique was to pursue policies which would meet their wishes. As it was, he must by law pursue the policies of the majority, for all decisions had to be passed by its vote; but where its views ran counter to his own inclinations, he would rather yield to it, that being the standard and safest way for men in authority to win popular support and trust. But even where numerical predominance in the Sanhedrin might be Sadducean, the high priest, though himself one by birth and persuasion, and probably or potentially Romanophile, would prefer to side with the Pharisees and let them carry the day, not because he thought that they were necessarily right, but because he knew that they enjoyed the affection and confidence of the great bulk of the population; and the Sadducean votes in the Sanhedrin could, presumably, always be swung by him. Nor would he deviate in the slightest from the traditional temple ritual: not that he would not perhaps have liked at times to humor this or the other Roman caprice, but, as a matter of deliberate internal policy, he would choose to bow to the piety and orthodoxy of most of the priests.

He was thus in the unenviable position of a suitor for the regard and respect of a Jewry which feared, suspected, and somehow despised him. In simple psychology as well as prudent policy, he would go about his task by attempting to enlist, first and foremost, the cooperation of the Pharisaic members of the Sanhedrin; and the best means to that end was to raise their numerical strength and voting power. It was through the Pharisees that he sought to reach the people. Any action or conduct on his part that might estrange the Pharisees would be likely to wreck the over-all policy to which he must have been committed.

There was one fundamental issue on which there certainly was a general consensus among Pharisees and Sadducees—priests and elders and scribes: preservation of the powers of the Sanhedri and prevention of further Roman encroachments upon them.


What these powers actually were is, again, multitudinously controversial. There is no serious doubt as to the autonomy of the council in purely religious matters of the native Jews: the Romans allowed them to exercise their religion and would not normally interfere with the manner of its exercise; their several attempts to do so, particularly with the emperor's image, apparently failed.

"Religious  matters"  included  everything  connected  with   the temple establishment, including the temple police, and, for the purposes of our inquiry, we may postulate that there was no Roman interference with the high priest's command of that constabulary.


But on the question with which we are primarily concerned, that is, the power of the Sanhedrin to try criminal cases and carry out capital punishment, there is no end to disputes among the scholars, ancient and modern. 

In the Gospel According to John, Jews are credited with saying: "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death"  (18:31). It will be shown that this could not, in   fact, have been said by any Jews in authority and that it is, plainly and simply, untrue,38 yet it has been taken as sufficient evidence that the Jews had been deprived by the Romans either of all capital jurisdiction 39 or at least of the power to carry out their capital sentences.40 It is because of this passage in the Gospel of John that much scholarly attention and effort have been devoted to inquiry into the scope and particulars of Sanhedrial criminal jurisdiction. It has, however, already been convincingly pronounced that, as far as Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus is in question, such inquiry is largely irrelevant:41 if the capital jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin was unimpaired, it does not follow that, in this particular case, the council exercised it; and if it had been wholly or partly withdrawn, it would not follow that the council could not have taken some action outside its formal powers or within the limits of the restrictions set upon it. 

We shall, therefore, relinquish the jurisdictional theories42 to the handling of legal historians, and start from the premise that the Sanhedrin had retained all the capital jurisdiction that it had ever possessed under Jewish law, and that there was no jurisdictional obstacle to its proceeding against Jesus for any offense under, and in any manner compatible with, that law. But the fact is that there is not enough historical or other material available—notwithstanding talmudic traditions to the contrary43—to warrant a conclusion that the Sanhedrin had been deprived by the Roman authorities, or by Roman statute, of any part of its jurisdiction under Jewish law.44


While the Great Sanhedrin of Seventy-one was regarded as the ultimate fount of all jurisdiction, civil, criminal, administrative, and advisory, it did not itself exercise civil or criminal jurisdiction except in a very few well-defined cases, as, for instance, when the high priest was criminally indicted.45 General criminal jurisdiction, including that in capital cases, was exercised by the so-called Small Sanhedrin of twenty-three judges.46 Josephus records the establishment of such Small Sanhedrins in five different towns 47 and at the time which concerns us, Small Sanhedrins sat in all major towns throughout Judaea and Galilee.


The Great Sanhedrin was, in essence, a legislative body. In periods of war and enemy occupation it would, of course, like any legislature, be mainly preoccupied with the political issues on which national and religious survival would hinge. Indeed, that such preoccupation, even as a matter of law, came within its purview may be inferred from the rule that no warlike operations might be commenced except by virtue of its resolution.48 And it was a preoccupation all the more reasonable and necessary inasmuch as the Jews, on the one hand, were divided among themselves in questions that touched on Roman and general politics, but, on the other, agreed that, as toward the Romans, it was wiser to present a united front. There were, to be sure, the zealots or underground fighters who deprecated any "diplomatic' relations whatsoever with the enemy: while they mustered recruits and sympathizers from all classes of the population and were certainly countenanced, if not actively encouraged, by the prevailing opinion in the Sanhedrin, the independent policy which they pursued toward the Romans was one with which the Sanhedrin could not very well officially associate itself.

We shall see that if the Great Sanhedrin did meet in the case of Jesus, it did so as the council in charge of political affairs. It was not just a Small Sanhedrin, which could have exercised jurisdiction in a criminal or capital case, but the Great Sanhedrin, which would not exercise such jurisdiction at all even if possibly competent to, if only for the reason that it was much too much taken up at the time with current and pressing political issues.

Respecting general criminal jurisdiction, two further point must be noted. 

One is that no Sanhedrin could ever have exercised any jurisdiction at all save in accordance with Jewish law: it could take cognizance only of offenses known to and defined in that law and could adopt only such criminal procedures as that law allowed. And the other is that, with the advent of Rome, there was established in Judaea a second—the Roman—criminal jurisdiction, which means that the Jewish courts no longer monopolized it. 

The two points are closely interconnected, because what actually transpired was that the Jewish courts exercised exclusive criminal jurisdiction in respect of acts which were offenses only against Jewish law, and the Roman governor's court exercised exclusive criminal jurisdiction in respect of acts which were offenses only against Roman law. 

For example:

The offense of desecrating the Sabbath, or of idolatry, either an offense solely by Jewish law, would be within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Jewish courts, and the Roman governor would never claim jurisdiction over it; he could not, because Roman law did not regard either act as a criminal offense. 

On the other hand, sedition against the Roman government, or contempt of the Roman emperor, would be an offense within the exclusive jurisdiction of the governor; Jewish law did not regard such acts as criminal offenses, and no Jewish court would ever have punished anybody for what, from the Jewish viewpoint, must have been regarded as harmless or even laudable.


Some difficulty may have arisen in conflict situations, in which an offense was common to Roman and Jewish law. 

Murder and  robbery, for instance, were offenses punishable under both sys-tems, and the Roman governor and the Jewish courts might each have claimed jurisdiction. Conflicts such as these may have been solved according to the identity of the accused: we know from the story of Paul that a Roman citizen could demand trial by a Roman court for any offense which was not one purely of Jewish law (Acts 23:27-29). Conversely, a non-Roman native would presumably have been entitled to trial by a Jewish court, even if the offense charged was recognized as such in Roman law also. It is, however, not unlikely that the Roman governor could in such a case require the surrender of the accused to him, and it is probable that on his part he would never surrender to native Jewish courts an offender already in his own custody, for instance, a robber caught by Roman troops in flagrante delicto. All power being virtually concentrated in his hands, he could dictate to the Jewish courts when to exercise jurisdiction in any such case and when not.


It would come to this, then: the Small Sanhedrin could try any Jew for any offence under Jewish law, and sentence him to death, and carry out the death penalty, and the Roman governor would not interfere in any way, for all that he had the physical and political power to. On the other hand, we must assume that the Romans would not carry out the capital sentence of a Jewish or other non-Roman court, but only put to judicial death offenders tried and convicted by a Roman court for offences against Roman law.

Legal assumptions and considerations of this kind have encountered marked impatience, mainly from certain theologians: it is all very well to argue the law, they would say, when you talk of people who may reasonably be assumed to abide by it; but the people with whom we are here concerned are criminals, corrupt high priests, "unrighteous scribes," and unscrupulous elders, accustomed and determined to break every ordinance for the attainment of their ugly purpose, and the law would be as relevant in their regard as it would be to clinch that a thief could not have stolen because it was unlawful to. The same priests and elders who would, without the flicker of an eyelash, suborn Judas with thirty silver coins to betray his master (Matt. 26:15) would never be deterred from using any illegal means, bribery not excepted, to get the Roman governor to do their bidding, or from contravening and disregarding their own statutes and procedures.

Several "authorities" are instanced for the proposition that the priests and elders of the Jews at the time were not much better than common criminals.


First, of course, there are Jesus' own diatribes against the scribes and Pharisees; and to these we will revert in the next chapter. Then a report in Josephus that "high priests went so far in their boldness and wickedness that they did not even recoil from sending their slaves to the threshing-floors and have them take away the tithes due to the priests, with the result that the poorer priests starved to death."49 But this was in a period thirty years after ours; and the high priests mentioned were not even Roman appointees but nominees of King Agrippa. The situation in Judaea in the year 60 was entirely different from what it had been under the governorship of Pilate. Furthermore, this passage in Josephus has with good reason been interpreted as misrepresenting action taken by pro-Roman high priests and a sacerdotal aristocracy, backed by the king, against lower orders of the priesthood which had joined forces with the zealots. Seen in this light, the seizure of the tithes was no common larceny, but, however morally unjustified, a disciplinary measure; and the strife between the factions was no quarrel of rival gangsters, but the fresh outbreak of an inveterate dispute between violent and nonviolent resisters to Rome, or between resisters and collaborators.50 The dispute was as old as the Roman conquest, but it had apparently not exploded grievously until about the year 60; and, as events have shown, it led to disastrous consequences, once it burst the bounds of domestic altercation and the outwardly united front could hold no longer. Indeed, once internal feuding was allowed to erupt tumultuously, it was only natural that the less inhibited elements, of whatever partisanship, should give free rein to their maleficent inclinations, a phenomenon common to all civil commotions.51

Another much-quoted authority for the alleged criminality of the high priests is what has been called "a popular squib preserved in the Talmud" said to be aimed "against the principal high priestly families who between them were looting and ruining the nation."52 The "squib" laments the clubs and fists, the pens and whispers, with which the high priests named in it, and their henchmen, maltreat the people.53 Not only certain of the priestly names recorded, but also the names of the narrators, suggest that the tirades, too, belong to a subsequent period. The tale is told by Abba Yossei ben Hanan, who lived about the year 80, and Abba Shaul ben Botnit, who taught twenty years before him; and of the high priests named, most were appointed after Jesus' death.54 Indeed, the "squib" tallies well with Josephus' later reports of high-priestly highhandedness and the force used against the zealots on their behalf; it is not impossible that the narrators were the zealots and had themselves ached from the clubs and rods of pro-Roman factionists. The talmudic context tends to show that what was really at issue were the causes given for the destruction of the temple and the ultimate overthrow of Judaea: it was this misbehavior by those succeeding high priests and their clans that brought divine wrath down upon the temple, for the "squib" is instantly followed by a saying that it was destroyed because they "loved money and hated each other."55

It is not our intention to embark on apologetics of Kaiaphas: we know little of him, and he may conceivably have deserved a better testimonial than the "squib" implies. Considering the disdain in which the Roman appointed and all high priests thereafter were held by the people, no factual conclusions ought to be drawn against them from their disparagement in a popular lampoon; and in the absence of any circumstantial data to rebut it, I think that even high priests should be entitled to the benefit of the presumption of innocence.


Finally, there is the suggestion that, as in all countries under enemy occupation, at all periods of history, so in Judaea at that time, there were traitors and collaborators who served Rome's interests, though occupying high office in the local administration. 

It is said, in their justification, that unless they agreed to act as informers, they jeopardized their lives, and to save themselves, they had to sacrifice others.56 But there is not a scrap of evidence for the charge that Kaiaphas was a traitor of that kind, or that any of the Jews said to have played a part in the Passion story were agents of Rome; there is, indeed, some indication to the contrary in the Gospel reports (cf. John 11:48), and neither there nor anywhere else any hint of treasonable Jewish activity.57 

Knowing what we do of the prevailing spirit of the Jewish rank and file, the ever greater popularity of the zealots, and the role assumed by Pharisaic scholars in the leadership or organization of armed up risings,58 it is, I submit, unthinkable that informers and quislings —be they even high priests—would have been let live in continuing treachery. They might not have been lynched, but they would be conscious that their fate was at the mercy of enraged and implacable zealot coreligionists, and rather than perish shamefully as contemptible turncoats, they would, we may guess, prefer to run the risk of Roman disfavor. We know that if an "unofficed" individual betrayed a fellow Jew, he would not ordinarily be able to live on. There is the illuminating example of Judas, who is said to have hanged himself after betrayal of his master (Matt. 27:5): had he not taken his own life, or not been lynched by an infuriated populace, he would still have suffered a violent and ignominious death (Acts 1:18), soon to be known "unto all dwellers of Jerusalem" (1:19).

We do not know, and shall not maintain, that Kaiaphas was a man of strong character or personal integrity. But neither shall we assume that he was devoid of common honesty and decency, or prompted in action and decision by criminal or insincere urgings.59 

Rather we shall place him and those who acted with him in the perspective of their political circumambience, and take it for granted that—from deliberate prudence as from natural instincts of self-preservation—they conducted themselves in such manner as they thought best in the Jewish national and religious interest. We have seen what this interest was in the eyes of the high priest on the one hand and of the Pharisees on the other, and how, notwithstanding fundamental doctrinal differences, the two could, and would, act in concord inside the Great Sanhedrin, more particularly where Jewish national or religious concerns, and Jewish autonomy, had to be defended and upheld against the Roman governor. 


Applying the standards of the reasonably circumspect politician and of the reasonably fair judge, it ought not be too difficult for us to reconstruct the state of things in which the high priest and the Sanhedrin, and Jesus, confronted each other. But before we come to that confrontation, we must look upon Jesus.