The Rulers of Jesus’ Time

Both Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas were important men, respected and feared. Pi­late was the Roman prefect in Judea, Caiaphas the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple. Both were accomplished men who had risen far in their chosen fields. They had to deal often with one another, negotiating a fragile peace and maintaining a difficult order in the land it was their lot to share. Each man seems to have had a measure of respect for the other and his people — oddly mixed with a measure of contempt.

This article is from the Catholic Viewer’s Guide to AD: The Bible Continues (airs Sundays at 9/8c). Read more of this fascinating history in Ministers and Martyrs.

The law dictated that the high priest, once ordained, should hold office for the remainder of his life. But during the dynasty of the Herods — and even their predecessors — the office of high priesthood had become a reward for political loyalty. King Herod the Great, who reigned when Jesus was born, installed and removed high priests at will, and some he murdered. By the time of Jesus’ adulthood, the office went exclusively to candidates whom the ruling powers considered to be reliable.

A high priest should have been honored and should have wielded influence, but many religious Jews now viewed the office with contempt.

As the Romans took greater control of the region, they established a large military presence there and assigned a prefect to govern the people. The fifth man to hold that office was Pontius Pilate. Pilate could be brutal. He showed little sensitivity to Jewish customs, and it was he who made the fateful decision to move the Roman army from its pagan outpost to Jerusalem. With the army came images — on shields and banners — of Caesar and of the Roman gods. The very presence of such idols was considered pollution. Pilate had profaned the holy city. Pious Jews protested, but Pilate refused to budge, as any concession could be perceived as an insult to Caesar. Pilate also seized money from the Temple treasury in order to fund important public works. (Pi-late’s offenses against the Jews are detailed in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3-4.)

Although the Temple officials raised pro­tests at all the appropriate moments, they did not present a serious threat to Pilate or to Rome. History and Herod had schooled the priests in the art of compromise. They had the support of the aristocratic landholders and merchants. They knew how to protect the upper class’s common interests through shrewd cooperation.

When Jesus foretold the Temple’s destruction, He seemed threatening to Jeru-salem’s priests. Annas, Caiaphas, and their family probably saw themselves — with their diplomatic prudence and political savvy — as Jerusalem’s only hope for survival.

Herod had removed and even massacred priests. What was to keep Rome from doing the same if the place began to appear unstable? And then what would happen to Jerusalem?

To the ears of the high-priestly family, the Apostles’ language sounded subversive. It seemed to subvert not only the sacred order, but also the civic order, because the priests in Jerusalem were mediators not only between God and the Chosen People, but also between the Chosen People and their earthly rulers, the Romans.

image: Zvonimir Atletic / Shutterstock.com

Editor’s note: This article is the fifth part in a 12-part series exploring the Catholic background behind NBC’s A.D. The Bible Continues (watch on Sundays at 9/8c). Check back each Friday for a new entry. As well, you can get The Catholic Viewers Guide for A.D. as well as Ministers and Martyrs, or order both as a set to save 25%.

Mike Aquilina

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Mike Aquilina is the award-winning author of more than forty books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion. His works have been translated into many languages. He has hosted nine television series and several documentary films and is a frequent guest on Catholic radio.

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  • noelfitz

    I am grateful for this excellent article. It clarifies issues. Was Pilate a governor, a prefect or a procurator? This article clearly shows his title was ‘prefect’.
    Similarly I was confused about High Priests. Were there two? Was the title for life? Was the title given to Annas or Caiaphas? Again the issue is clarified here. Caiaphas was the High Priest.

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