by John Reiss
CGG Weekly, May 1, 2020
"There is no safety for honest men but by believing all possible evil of evil men."
The evangelist Luke writes in Luke 3:1-2: "Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, . . . while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness."
We know what happened at the end of this story: Pilate condemned Jesus Christ to crucifixion on Passover day in AD 31. But how much do we know about the people who conspired to put Him to death, Annas and Caiaphas, who were high priests at the time?
These two men were Sadducees. The Sadducees did not leave any written records themselves, but The Jewish Encyclopedia summarizes their views and principles:
The Sadducees represented the powerful and wealthy, and their interests focused on the here and now. They tended to be astute politicians.
They conducted their lives to enrich themselves and protect their positions of power.
The Sadducees considered only the five books of Moses to be authoritative. In rejecting the prophets, they did not believe in a resurrection (Acts 23:8). The same verse says they did not believe in angels or demons either.
They judged harshly; mercy does not seem to have part of their character. Unlike the Pharisees, who maintained that the Oral Law provided for a correct interpretation of God's Word, the Sadducees believed only in the written law and a literal interpretation of it. For instance, instead of seeing "an eye for an eye" as a principle of comparative compensation, the Sadducees held that it meant a literal removal of the offender's eye.
The New Standard International Encyclopedia says that the word Sadducee implies the meaning of "to be righteous," and suggests that they took their name from Zadok, the high priest during David's time, from whom all succeeding high priests claim their descent. Conversely, a legend posits that they took their name from another Zadok who followed Antigonus of Socho. Antigonus taught his disciples to serve God without thought of reward. Instead of recognizing this teaching as a moral principle, Zadok believed that it refuted the ideas of resurrection and life after death, wrongly concluding that people should seek to live luxuriously in the present.
The most powerful Sadducee in the first century was Annas, also known as Ananus or Ananias. In Hebrew, his name was Hananiah, meaning "the grace of Yahweh." Because of his descent from Aaron, he was considered a legitimate high priest. He was born around 22 or 23 BC and lived until approximately AD 40, though the actual date of his death is unrecorded. Quirinius appointed him to the position of high priest in AD 6, which he filled until AD 15 when Valerius Gratus deposed him for executing lawbreakers for religious infractions, a practice Rome had forbidden. Evidently, he had a young Sabbath-breaker stoned.
Accumulating impressive power at an early age, Annas used it well. Five of his sons, a grandson, and most famously, his son-in-law, Caiaphas, were also elevated to the high priesthood. His son, Eleazar, succeeded him (AD 16-17); then Caiaphas (AD 18-36); four other sons, Jonathan (AD 36-37, 44), Theophilus (AD 37-41), Matthias (AD 43), and Annas II (AD 63); and a grandson, Matthias ben Theophilus (AD 65-66). Historian Alfred Edersheim writes in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (I, 263) that the Talmud describes the high priests of the time "in terrible language. . . . [The House of Annas] is included in the woes pronounced on the corrupt leaders of the priesthood," whose presence defiled the Sanctuary.
Several nineteenth-century commentators speculated that the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) refers to the House of Annas, implying their guilt in conspiring to kill Jesus' friend, Lazarus. In the parable, the rich man dressed in purple and fine linen (see Exodus 28:1-8) represents Caiaphas, and the "five brothers" were Annas' sons who followed him in the high priestly office.
Although the Roman authorities appointed others to the high priesthood, the Jewish people considered Annas to be the high priest by divine law. Thus, he held authority over spiritual matters. He may also have been the richest man in Judea, controlling all Temple trade, that is, the moneychangers and their ilk. He also maintained his political influence as a kind of "boss of bosses." That the soldiers who arrested Jesus brought Him to Annas' palace first and then to Caiaphas attests to this fact (John 18:13).
Annas sought to use his office to protect his power and influence while enriching his family. The House of Annas amassed a fortune by selling at outrageous prices things that faithful pilgrims needed for their sacrifices, including sheep, wine, and oil at the infamous "booths of the sons of Annas" on the Mount of Olives. They also owned market stalls in the Court of the Gentiles, and with this monopoly, they could extort high prices from the faithful. The depth of this family's corruption was notorious, including the huge profits they made from exchanging foreign monies into Temple coins for the required Temple tax.
The House of Annas even took advantage of women. When a woman gave birth, the law required her to give an offering at the Temple, usually a sheep, but if poor, she could bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons, as a burnt offering and a sin offering (Leviticus 12:6-8). The House of Annas raised the cost of these birds to where poor women could not afford it, perhaps over twelve times the previous value.
Matthew 21:12-13 relates the story of Jesus' and the moneychangers:
Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers, and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, ‘It is written, ‛My House shall be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it a den of thieves."
When Jesus entered the Temple and overthrew the moneychangers' tables, He caused a real financial hit to Annas and his family. The holy days, when a few million pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem, were their most lucrative times. Jesus' actions shut down their operations for a few days, cutting severely into their bottom line. After He overturned the tables, the scribes and the chief priests sought to destroy Him (Mark 11:18). As one commentator, E.G. Lewis, states, "He raised their ire by striking at the source of their wealth and like a typical Mafia chieftain, Annas responded with violence."
Joseph Ernest Renan, a French expert of ancient Middle Eastern languages and civilizations, writes in his Life of Jesus, "Annas was the principal actor in the terrible drama, and far more than Caiaphas, far more than Pilate, ought to bear the weight of the maledictions of mankind" (p. 231). As the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states in its article on Annas, "Caiaphas, indeed, as actual high priest, was the nominal head of the Sanhedrin which condemned Jesus, but the aged Annas was the ruling spirit."
Such was the official religious authority in Judea during the life of Jesus and the early years of God's church.