Busted (2): Was Luke Wrong About the Jewish High Priest(s)?

Busted 1In this article, we tackle an alleged error in the Gospel of Luke that some critics use to paint Luke as an unreliable historian.  Let’s take a look at the offending verse, Luke 3:2 (English Standard Version):  “…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

So, what is the alleged mistake?  Let’s have the 19th century reverend-turned-anti-Christian radical, Robert Taylor, tell us:  “Any person being acquainted with the history and polity of the Jews, must have known that there never was but one high priest at a time,…”1

Taylor’s point is that Luke got a basic fact wrong when he said two high priests were serving simultaneously, because in reality, only one high priest could serve at a time.  The implication is that if Luke got that wrong, then he must have gotten a lot of other things wrong, too.

This is an old allegation but, like a bad infection, it keeps coming back.  Let’s see if we can knock it down…again.  In the end, we’ll see that it’s Taylor, not Luke, who should have been more “acquainted with the history and polity of the Jews.”

The Role of High Priest

Before going further, it would be helpful to understand what the role of high priest was.  A simple check of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is sufficient to provide some context, telling us that the high priest was:

…in Judaism, the chief religious functionary in the Temple of Jerusalem…The high priest had overall charge of Temple finances and administration, and in the early period of the Second Temple he collected taxes and maintained order as the recognized political head of the nation…The office, first conferred on Aaron by his brother Moses, was normally hereditary and for life. In the 2nd century BC, however, bribery led to several reappointments, and the last of the high priests were appointed by government officials or chosen by lot. According to tradition, 18 high priests served in Solomon’s Temple (c. 960–586 BC) and 60 in the Second Temple (516 BC–AD 70). Since that time, there has been no Jewish high priest, for national sacrifice was permanently interrupted with the destruction of the Second Temple.2

Remember that the period with which we are concerned is the late Second Temple-period, specifically the years between 25 and 33 A.D.  Any cursory review of Jewish history will show that, on the surface, Taylor is right.  There should have been only one high priest at a time.  Was there something strange going on during the years in question?  Yes, there was.

Gratus, The Jerk?

During the time to which Luke 3:2 refers, the Roman governor (prefect) in charge of Judea was Pontius Pilate.  He was also in charge when Jesus was crucified.  Before Pilate, the prefect was Valerius Gratus, who served in that role from 15 to 26 A.D.  Gratus, it appears, was a bit of a jerk.

Gratus, as the Jewish people’s Roman overlord, seemed to take great pleasure in appointing a high priest for them, then deposing and replacing him…repeatedly.  Josephus, the great Jewish historian, tells us that

[Caesar] sent Valerius Gratus to be procurator of Judea…This man deprived Ananus [Annas] of the high priesthood, and appointed Ismael, the son of Phabi, to be high priest. He also deprived him in a little time, and ordained Eleazar, the son of Ananus, who had been high priest before, to be high priest; which office, when he had held for a year, Gratus deprived him of it, and gave the high priesthood to Simon, the son of Camithus; and when he had possessed that dignity no longer than a year, Joseph Caiaphas was made his successor. When Gratus had done these things, he went back to Rome, after he had tarried in Judea eleven years, when Pontius Pilate came as his successor.3

So, by the time with which we are concerned came around, Annas, the ritually selected high priest, had been deposed by the Romans from his sacred office (in 15 A.D.) and had been replaced by a steady string of Gratus’ appointees.  Imagine how galling this had to have been not only for Annas, but also for the Jewish people.  It was bad enough that they were being ruled by the Romans, now the role of high priest—which the Jewish people were supposed to select for themselves—was being arbitrarily toyed with by the Roman meddler, Gratus.

Two High Priests, After All

Annas, however, was a very shrewd and influential man.  After his removal from office, he was able to ensure that, at one time or another, each of his five sons,4 as well as his son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphas, were appointed to the role of high priest.  In fact, one member or another of Annas’ immediate family served in the role of high priest all the way into the 60’s A.D.

Annas and Caiaphas by James Tissot

Annas and Caiaphas by James Tissot

Basically speaking, Annas was the patriarch of a long line of high priests.  At the time referred to by Luke, Annas was viewed by many Jews as the “legitimate” high priest, while his son-in-law, Caiaphas, was seen as the Roman-appointed high priest, in his position just to keep the Romans happy.  Annas was the power behind the office, while Caiaphas was the puppet.

What all this means is that there were, during this strange time, two high priests:  The “official” Roman-appointed one, and the “legitimate” one whom the Jews truly recognized.

Support for the notion of two high priests comes from other early sources, as well.  Caiaphas was in the office of high priest when Jesus’ trial and execution took place.  In the Gospel of John 18:12-13 (ESV), it says:  “So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him. First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year.”

Obviously, the Temple guards, who “reported” to the high priest, viewed Annas as the primary authority.  They took Jesus to him before taking him to Caiaphas.

Josephus also refers to two simultaneous high priests in The Jewish War: “…but he sent two others of those that were of the greatest power among them, and both Jonathan and Ananias, the high priests…to Caesar…”5

Given what we’ve learned, it seems apparent that, as Dr. Tim McGrew puts it, “The Jews apparently accommodated Roman interference by speaking of both the current Roman appointee and the original ritually appointed Jewish priest as ‘high priests.’”6

Apparently, Robert Taylor’s understanding of the “history and polity of the Jews” wasn’t as great as he thought it was.  Luke, on the other hand, comes out pretty well, and shows a more nuanced understanding of the true situation.


  1. Taylor, Robert, The Diegesis, 3rd ed. (1845), p. 126.
  2. “High Priest – Judaism.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, online edition, accessed 27 April 2015: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/265328/high-priest
  3. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 2.2
  4. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews,9.1
  5. Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.12.6
  6. McGrew, Timothy (Professor and Director of Graduate Teaching, Western Michigan University), Alleged Historical Errors in the Gospels: Luke and John, Presentation to St. Michael Lutheran Church, MI, 11 June 2012, slide 30, accessed 28 April 2015: http://www.apologetics315.com/2012/06/alleged-historical-errors-in-gospels.html