The prophesy of Caiaphas

So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to kill him.

(John 11:47-53)

So the band of soldiers, the tribune, and the Jewish guards seized Jesus, bound him, and brought him to Annas first. He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. It was Caiaphas who had counseled the Jews that it was better that one man should die rather than the people.

(John 18:12-14)

I’m sure Caiaphas didn’t know he was prophesying. He probably was proud of the courage of his convictions, but he wasn’t feeling supernatural. A pragmatic and savvy career politician, he was juggling a social system that was always on the brink of disaster.

As long as the Jews payed their taxes, the Romans gave them some cultural leeway, not because of respect, but because crushing rebellions is expensive. So the Jews could get away with some insolence, but how much exactly wasn’t defined all that well.  But if they got too cocky the Romans would come and take both their land and their nation. In fact, thirty years later they did. Add to that, that Roman governor Pilate was a lousy diplomat, triggering several skirmishes in that gray area during his tenure.

On the other hand, the Jews would mostly limit their opposition to bitching without action. But the oppression needed to be vague enough or else they would call principle and fight to death rather than live as slaves. And there were radical Zealots around, trying to incite them to do precisely that.

As long as nobody stepped over anyones invisible lines, that system could remain relatively stable.

Caiaphas was an expert at navigating that kind of situation and doing so was the air he breathed. Having married into the Annas clan (basically the Hebrew Kennedys)  he was High Priest for an epic 19 years. As a Sadducee he didn’t believe in an eternal life, so he focused on this one. And that meant coming up with pragmatic solutions. Abstract philosophy wouldn’t help solving the crisis at hand. This guy really knew the importance of realism in politics

Someone claiming to speak with divine authority and rapidly gathering followers looks dangerous in that context. And the Sanhedrin understood that. And they went along with Caiaphas’s proposal. But they did need a shove to come up with the simple solution of killing the guy. And Caiaphas had a good consequentialist justification. Just shut up and compare, one dead is better than many dead after a lost war. Better that one man should die rather than the people.

And he knew how to do it without rocking the boat. Of course the Romans had to be induced to do the killing, because otherwise it would look like a challenge to their authority. So there better be some charges Pilate will convict on.  A perceived power conflict will do the trick. But average Jews need to want him dead too, or else it might trigger a revolt. So the Sanhedrin should better find some blasphemy to convict him on. Caiaphas can arrange both.

But still there is more to his words than he understood. Jesus did die for the people in a way Caiaphas didn’t understand. So the highest earthly authority of the old covenant ends up unwittingly prefiguring the new one.

But there is a large difference between Caiaphas idea of the sacrifice and the real thing.  Jesus is not really a criminal.  And Jesus is submitting rather than being a pure object of the decision. Most importantly, Jesus is not just any man and actually can die for the people. Caiaphas is doing evil so that good may come from it. Jesus suffers evil to win the decisive victory against it.

In the end Jesus’s dying for the people saves the world and conquers Rome while the social system Caiaphas is trying to stabilize explodes within a generation. But that is still far out.  For the moment, the difference is in Caiaphas being comfortable doing the evil his sinful life context seems to enforce. The office of the High Priest receives the grace to announce what will happen. But, Caiaphas being evil, it comes through in a grotesque parody. On Caiaphas’s own side of the fence, the truth is subtly shifted into evil. He embraces the sin Jesus is beating.

But this is not his self-image. He thinks he is optimizing the consequences. The crisis at hand just doesn’t leave room for abstract principles.

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