Joseph ben Caiaphas (Greek: Καϊάφας [Kaiaphas], sometimes spelled Caiphas or Kaipha in English) was the Jewish high priest at the time of Jesus. The origins of his name are not known. According to Josephus, Caiaphas was appointed by Gratus, Roman governor of Judea, and removed by the Syrian legate Vitellius at the end of Pilate's tenure as governor (Antiquities 18:35, 95). If so, Caiaphas was high priest from 18 C.E. to 36 C.E., including the entire governorship of Pontius Pilate (26–36).

Aside from noting Caiaphas's appointment as high priest and his removal from that position, Josephus provides no information about Caiaphas's tenure, his relationship with Pilate, or any events in which he might have participated. Another first-century trace of Caiaphas may be the ossuary that bears the name of Joseph, son of Caiaphas, on two of its sides, written in Aramaic (yhwsp br qyp'); it was found in 1990 during an excavation in the Peace Forest in southern Jerusalem (Reich).

The most detailed sources are in the New Testament, which has nine references to Caiaphas by name. The gospel of Matthew states that a group of Jewish leaders, the chief priests and elders, assembled in Caiaphas's house where they took the decision to kill Jesus (Matt 26:3–5). Caiaphas presided over the session of the chief priests and council at which testimony against Jesus was given. Upon hearing Jesus proclaim that “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt 26:64), the high priest tore his clothes and declared Jesus to have blasphemed, after which he handed him over to Pilate (26:65–66; 27:2). The author may have based his account on Mark's gospel, which has a similar account but does not mention Caiaphas by name (Mark 14:43—15:1). The gospel of Luke is silent on the high priest's involvement in these events and merely includes his name in the verse that establishes the historical context for the narrative as a whole (Luke 3:1–2). In the gospel of John, which names him five times, Caiaphas articulates a political reason for pursing Jesus' death—preventing the destruction of the nation The Fourth Gospel, however, does not assign the high priest any role whatsoever in the events leading to Jesus' crucifixion (11:49–52). While Jesus does spend his last evening in the custody of Caiaphas (John 18:24, 28) he is not interrogated by the high priest but by Annas, Caiaphas's father-in-law and predecessor as high priest (John 18:19–23). No source places him at Jesus' trial before Pilate, or at the crucifixion. The book of Acts includes Caiaphas among a list of authorities who interrogate the apostles Peter and John after Jesus' death, but Caiaphas is not singled out for any particular role (Acts 4:14–15).

From other sources it is known that there was one high priest at a time, who was responsible for overseeing the sacrificial cult in the Jerusalem Temple. He, and only he, was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, and then only on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), to atone and ask forgiveness for the sins of the people. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is likely that Caiaphas carried out these cultic functions, and adhered well enough to the necessary rules governing his position (Bond).

The gospels do not provide a strong basis for reconstructing his role, if any, in the events leading to Jesus' death. Confusions abound. John refers to Caiaphas as the high priest “that year” (John 11:49, 51), implying a short tenure, and Luke refers to the “high priesthood [singular] of Annas and Caiaphas” (Luke 3:2). These references, along with Mark's complete omission of the name, suggest that the evangelists, writing after the Temple's destruction in 70 C.E., may have known very little about Caiaphas or the high priesthood (Winter).

Most scholars follow the fourth gospel in viewing Caiaphas as the mediator between Judea and Rome, and the mastermind behind the plot against Jesus. Some view him as a bully who ran roughshod over the Jews in order to gain favor with Pilate (Blinzler), others, as a pragmatic politician who saw Jesus as a threat to the Temple and high priesthood (Meier), or who simply wanted to ensure order in Judea (Sanders, Fredriksen).

Caiaphas has had a lengthy afterlife in Christian legend and exegesis, passion plays, art, fiction and film. Viewed as the archenemy of Jesus, he is often portrayed in stereotypically anti-Semitic ways. In visual representation, from art (e.g., “Christ before Caiaphas,” engraving, Alfred Dürer, 1512) to film (DeMille's 1927 silent movie The King of Kings) he is often grotesquely obese and wears the medieval “Jew hat” (Mellinkoff). The most nuanced portrayal is in Sholem Asch's 1939 novel, The Nazarene, in which Caiaphas defends Jesus against his scheming father-in-law Annas.

[See also Pontius Pilate and Priests and Priesthood.]

Bibliography

  • Asch, Sholem. The Nazarene. Translated by Maurice Samuel. New York: Putnam, 1939.
  • Blinzler, Josef. The Trial of Jesus. Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1959.
  • Bond, Helen K. Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus? Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2004.
  • Fredriksen, Paula. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. New York: Knopf, 1999.
  • Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
  • Mellinkoff, Ruth. Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages. Berkeley,: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Reich, Ronny. “Ossuary Inscriptions of the Caiaphas Family from Jerusalem.” In Ancient Jerusalem Revealed. Expanded Edition, ed. Hillel Geva, 223–225. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2000.
  • Reinhartz, Adele. Caiaphas the High Priest in History and Imagination, Personalities of the New Testament. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010.
  • Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. New York: Penguin, 1996.
  • VanderKam, James C. From Joshua to Caiaphas: High Priests after the Exile. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
  • Winter, Paul. On the Trial of Jesus. 2d. ed. Berlin, New York,: De Gruyter, 1974.
  • Wright, N. T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Adele Reinhartz