An Enigmatic Mirror
Jesus at the Festival of Sukkot, Part 2: John 7:25-53
Debate about Jesus as the Messiah (7:25-31)
During the dispute about authority (7:10-24), some of the people recognized Jesus as the man who had performed the healing on the Sabbath at the pool of Bethesda (Jn. 5:1-18). The authorities "were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father" (5:18). That is, he was accused of violating Sabbath laws, and of blasphemy, both capital offenses in ancient Judaism. Now, however, this alleged blasphemer was preaching openly and unopposed in the temple (7:26). "Can it be," wondered the crowd, "that the authorities (archontes) really know that this is the Messiah?" (7:26b). The authorities were thus placed in a dilemma. On the one hand, many felt Jesus should be arrested for blasphemy and violation of the Sabbath (7:19, 25, 30, 44). On the other hand, many of the people believed in Jesus (7:31, 43), and a public arrest could lead to disaffection, disorder, or even riots. Yet, to not arrest Jesus was leading some people to think the authorities were thereby tacitly accepting Jesus as the Messiah (7:26).
Chief Priests and Jews
John describes the opponents of Jesus at the temple as the Pharisees, Jews, and chief priests. Pharisees were a school of interpretation of the Torah founded on acceptance of an Oral Torah, and strict interpretation of commandments and purity regulations. They are the spiritual ancestors of Rabbinic Judaism. The term "chief priests" translates a Greek technical term archiereus, which appears in both the New Testament and Josephus. In the singular it usually refers to the High Priest, but in the plural it refers to the ruling faction of leading priests. At the time of Jesus there were several families from whom most of the High Priests were drawn. The office of High Priest rotated frequently within this elite group, so there were often several ex-high priests alive, although only one man officiated in the office at any time. The chief priests were thus the leading aristocracy among Jewish priests. They ran the temple and were a major component of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish senate.
According to biblical tradition, the High Priests after the time of David needed to be descendants from Aaron through the line of Zadok (2 Sam. 20:25, 1 Kgs. 4:2-4). This practice continued from David through 159 B.C.E., after which the high priesthood was usurped by the Hasmonean kings until 36 B.C.E., when the last Hasmonean High Priest, Aristobulus III, was murdered by Herod. Thereafter High Priests were appointed and deposed by the will of the Herodian kings or Roman officials. Rather than serving for life and passing their office hereditarily, Herodian era High Priests generally served only for a year or two. While some may have been descendants of Zadok (possibly Boethus of Egypt and his family), the descent of most is unclear. Both the Essenes and the Sadducees seem to have supported the selection of High Priests only from Zadokite families. The purpose of the nearly annual rotation of High Priests seems to have been to prevent any man from obtaining enough power or influence to rival the authority of the Herodian kings or the Romans.
The implications of this situation in the New Testament are two-fold. First, many people at the time of Jesus believed that the officiating High Priests were illegitimate or were merely collaborating puppets of the Herodian dynasty or the Romans. According to John, Caiaphas, the High Priest during the life of Jesus (Jn. 11:49, 18:13, 24, 28), abused his authority by plotting to execute Jesus, but nonetheless unwittingly uttered a true prophecy because he was High Priest (Jn. 11:49-53). For John, the office of High Priest was sacrosanct even if the holder of that office was corrupt or wicked. Second, because of the frequent rotation, there were often several living High Priests, who formed part of the group of the archiereus/Chief Priests described in the Gospels. The longest ruling Herodian High Priest was Joseph Caiaphas (18-36 C.E.). Although only one High Priest functioned in the office at one time, some were appointed twice. Many of these High Priests were also drawn from a small clique of elite priestly families. For example, during the four decades from 6-43 C.E., six of the nine High Priests were from the family of the High Priest Annas (Jn. 18:13, 24), including his son-in-law Caiaphas.
William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.