Who was high priest at the time of Jesus, what did he do, and when and how did he die?
Annas and Caiaphas are two high priests mentioned during Jesus’ public ministry (Luke 3:2). In that period of history, high priests were installed and removed by Roman rulers. The position of High Priest was basically given to the highest bidder.
The appointment to High Priest was for sale and money was paid to Rome to be appointed to the position as was the case with Annas. Caiaphas was Annas son in law.
“And led him away to Annas first; for he was father in law to Caiaphas, which was the high priest that same year.” John 18:13
While it is not recorded in the Bible, the tradition is that the Romans had deposed Annas and made Caiaphas the high priest.
So, officially, Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas, was high priest during Jesus’ ministry, but Annas, the former high priest, still held significant sway and was still called a high priest (John 18:13).
The High Priest was a corrupt position, it was customary for people to purchase a dove on the street and brig it into the synagogue as a sacrifice. The priest would examine the dove only to find a blemish on the bird and reject it as an offering, its at this point the priest would point out the doves that already in the synagogue that were acceptable as sacrifices, but these doves cost $10–$15 dollars rather than (.20) twenty cents, which is why Jesus was angry and drove out the money changers from the synagogue.
They were taking advantage of the people and turned something holy into a monetary exercise. Annas owned this business in the synagogues and Jesus actions sparked what would become a personal grudge for Annas about Jesus.
“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.” Matthew 21:1–13
When Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, He was brought before Annas to be questioned (John 18:13; 19–23). Annas sent Him to Caiaphas (John 18:24). The Sanhedrin was also involved in this questioning (Matthew 26:57). Jesus was led away from Caiaphas’ house to stand before Pilate (John 18:28), who then sent Jesus to Herod (Luke 23:6–7), who returned Him to Pilate (Luke 23:11).
Pilate did not want to condemn Jesus, he spoke with Jesus privately in order to learn His side John 18:33–40
Pilate eventually condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion, after declaring Him innocent three times (John 18:38; 19:4, 6).
Jesus’ trial before Annas and Caiaphas was marked by false testimony and conflicting reports of what Jesus had done and said (Mark 14:56). Pilate in an attempt to free Jesus, ordered Jesus scourged with 39 lashes using a cat of nine tails. 40 represents judgment while 39 means mercy, judgement was to be tempered with mercy, therefore the standard sentence was 39 lashes.
When the centurions flogged a man, it was tradition that while the man was beaten with the cat of nine tails, the prisoner would confess their crimes. As a result of the confessions, each lash was given with less force as long as the prisoner continued to confess their crimes until the last lash, which at that point would be gently laid on the back.
In most cases, even with milder and milder strokes of the lash, the man would die from blood loss. In the case of Jesus, He did not say a word throughout the ordeal. When He was brought back to Pliate, the prefect knew that Jesus had not uttered a word signifying His innocence. “Jesus remained silent and gave no answer” (verse 61).
Caiaphas began to despair of finding enough evidence to put Jesus to death, but then he asked Him directly, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (verse 61). Jesus answered, “I am. . . . And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (verse 62). At this, Caiaphas tore his clothes, decreed Jesus to be a blasphemer, and turned Him over to a mob who beat Him (verses 63–65).
Annas and Caiaphas are also mentioned in Acts 4:6 when Peter and John were questioned before the Jewish rulers: “Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family.” Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter responded boldly. He gave credit to Jesus Christ of Nazareth for the healing of a lame man (Acts 3:1–10; 4:9–10), reminded the rulers that they had crucified Jesus, and proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 4:10). Peter also declared that salvation is found in no one but Jesus (Acts 4:12).
The Jewish authorities were astonished by the disciples’ demeanor, particularly given that they were ordinary men, and recognized the disciples had been with Jesus. The rulers had been “greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 4:2) and wanted to halt the spread of the movement. So, despite the obvious work of God, they charged Peter and John to stop teaching in Jesus’ name.
The disciples refused. The rulers threatened them further, but could not punish them “because all the people were praising God for what had happened. For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old” Acts 4:21–22
Significantly, Caiaphas had unwittingly prophesied regarding Jesus’ death. When the Sanhedrin was plotting to kill Jesus, Caiaphas “spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one” (John 11:49–51; cf. John 18:14).
What is known about Caiaphas and Annas is principally found in the Biblical accounts and the writings of Josephus. Outside of their interactions with Jesus, little else is known about these priest. Annas, his father-in-law (John 18:13), had been high-priest from A.D. 6 to 15. According to Josephus, Caiaphas was appointed high priest in AD 18 by the Roman prefect who preceded Pontius Pilate, Valerius Gratus. The death of these two priest is unknown.