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Unmasking Inauthenticity: The Controversial Act of Caiaphas Tearing His Priestly Robe, by Dr. Terry Harman

Updated: Mar 30

"Caiaphas Tearing the High Priest Robes"
"Caiaphas Tearing the High Priest Robes" used by permission of GoodSeed.org.

My Roles as the Antagonist

For many years, I have been fortunate to be involved in theatrical productions, television spots, and recently the filming of "The Great I Am" produced and directed by Bruce Marchiano. Interestingly, I've never played the role of a "pretty boy." More often, I am cast as the villain and chief antagonist. I think it is a beard thing. One of my most meaningful characters is Caiaphas, in the biblical adaptation of Jesus of Nazareth produced by Refuge Productions. Two of my infamous lines are:


"It would be better for one man to die than the whole nation to perish."


"Do not write Jesus was the King of the Jews but he claimed to be the King of the Jews."


In building my backstory of Caiaphas, I attempt to understand his objective, intentions, and tactics to trap Jesus. I researched the garments, and the duties of the High Priest, religious culture, language, and the known political tensions between the Romans and the Jews. This blog will offer my insights into the character of Caiaphas and what it means when the High Priest "tears his robes."


The Backstory of Caiaphas

Joseph Caiaphas, a Sadducee, served as the Jewish high priest in the Temple of Jerusalem, presiding over the Sanhedrin during Jesus' interrogation and judgment by the religious court. Years ago, when I served as a chaplain alongside the Jewish chaplain, we discussed this very scene as I prepared for the role. The Rabbi questioned the accuracy of the timing of Jesus' hearing before the Sanhedrin because it was during the Passover season and a trial that appears to be held at night would not have taken place.


I agreed under normal circumstances he may be correct. However, the exigent circumstances of the Jesus movement may have overridden protocol. In addition, Caiaphas held his position as High Priest under dubious circumstances. According to the divine mandate, only descendants of Aaron were allowed to be high priests. This was not the case with Caiaphas, and political corruption was involved in his appointment.


The Illegitamite Appointment

"Caiaphas" is a nickname, probably originally borne by the progenitor of the family and then used as the family name. The most obvious meaning in Aramaic of the name Caiaphas ('the jelly or crust that forms on boiled meat') may well be the actual meaning, comparable with some other derogatory nicknames of the period." (1)


It remains uncertain whether either Caiaphas or Annas belonged to the Levites, and there is speculation that they acquired their positions through purchase or political manipulation by the Romans. Consequently, both were considered illegitimate, lacking the proper appointment, and anointing for priestly service in the Lord's temple.


In their entry on Caiaphas in the Jewish Encyclopedia, Richard Gottheil and Samuel Krauss offer the following insights. "Luke iii. 2 speaks of two high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. The mention of the two at one and the same time has been a great stumbling-block to the commentators. John made a curious error (xi. 49, xviii. 13) in speaking of Caiaphas as the high priest "in that year," as if he interchanged every year with Annas. It appears that even while Caiaphas performed the duties of the office, the power of the high priest lay in the hands of Annas." (3)


I disagree with the "curious error" position because they appointed Caiaphas as the High Priest. They ousted Annas from his official seat as the High Priest. However, Annas does appear to work his agenda behind the scenes, as he no doubt used every opportunity to persuade Caiaphas to see things his way.

 

The Balancing Act of Caiaphas

The high priest's responsibilities encompassed supervising daily sacrifices, offerings, and rituals at the temple. His most significant duty occurred on the Day of Atonement, where he acted as the mediator between God and the entire nation by entering the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice before the Ark of the Covenant. (2) Jewish and Christian scholars suggest the Ark of the Covenant was absent from the Holy of Holies and may have been relocated for safekeeping.


As a Roman-appointed high priest, Caiaphas operated under the direct authority of Roman governors, serving at the pleasure of Quirinius and Gratus during his tenure. Roman governors had the authority to appoint high priests, and they could exert control by confiscating the golden garments symbolizing the high priest's office, thereby stripping him of religious and political influence. (4)


During Quirinius's rule, authorities mandated Mary and Joseph to return to Bethlehem for the census (Luke 2:1-7), and under the rule of Gratus, there were frequent changes in high priest appointments. Annas continued to influence religious leaders and Rome, ensuring Caiaphas' prolonged leadership through emeritus power, skilled diplomacy, and probable bribery. Caiaphas outlasted the usual term of three years or fewer. He was the high priest for eighteen years (A.D. 18-36), the longest reign of any high priest in during the New Testament period.


Caiaphas, instrumental in maintaining peace among the Jews and preserving Judea as part of the Pax Romana, owed his political position to his ability to keep the region stable.


Consequently, he viewed the unrest caused by Jesus as a religious and political threat. Fearing the loss of influence, financial repercussions, and the removal from the priesthood, Caiaphas sought to suppress what he perceived as a rebellion by Jesus' followers.

 

The Tearing of the Robes

Matthew offers an inside look at the trial of Jesus. Matthew does not reveal how he knows this information, but it is insightful. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall listening to these proceedings.



And the high priest stood up and said, "Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?" But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." 


Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” Matthew 26:59-68 ESV


The Implications for Tearing the Robes

To understand the significance of Caiaphas tearing his Meil or blue robe, we must first comprehend the importance of the High Priest's vestments in Jewish religious practices. The Meil, a blue robe adorned with pomegranates and golden bells along its hem, was an essential piece of the sacred garments (Exodus 28) worn by the High Priest.


This distinctive garment was a visual way of symbolizing the position, office, authority, and holiness conferred upon the High Priest while performing his sacred rituals on behalf of the people. Likewise, all of the other garments worn by the High Priest were equally important in the service of his duties.


"And the priest that is highest among his brethren, upon whose head the anointing oil is poured, and that is consecrated to put on the garments, shall not let the hair of his head go loose, nor rend his clothes" (Leviticus 21:10 JPS 1917)


"If the garments were soiled, stained, or ripped, the priests may not conduct the service while wearing them - and if they did, the service would be invalid" (5)


From the text, it is evident that Caiaphas is acting in his official capacity when Jesus is brought before him for interrogation. Therefore, Caiaphas would have worn his official attire of the office of the High Priest. Wearing his priestly garments, if Caiaphas tore his blue robe, he would have immediately invalidated his sacred service until the blue robe could be replaced.


It has been suggested that Caiaphas ripped his clothing

as a gesture that he was grieving the loss of his authority or position

of High Priest because he knew that Jesus was the true High Priest.


More than One High Priest?

Some have suggested that Caiaphas knew only one high priest could be performing duties. Now he feared his reign was ending and Jesus' reign as High Priest was beginning. So he ripped his garments as do Jews today, as a visual sign of grief at the death of a loved one. I suggest there is more underneath the surface of this rip than just a grieving religious figure.


By the way, there was always a replacement high priest ready in case the presiding high priest died or was found unfit for duty. This would ensure the Temple services would continue in the event of an emergency. Rabbi Jeremy Rosen offers these insights on the Talmud tractate Yoma 12. (6)


The role of the high priest on Yom Kippur was so crucial that, as we learned in the mishnah on the first page of this tractate, there was always a substitute on hand. Disqualifications of the high priest could take the form of sudden sickness, ritual impurity, death — or theological dispute. During the Second Temple period, deep conflicts between the Sadducees and the Pharisees meant that both parties often had to negotiate a settlement for the high priest to continue functioning on behalf of all Jews regardless of their affiliation. Political rivalry within the priesthood itself often led to personal objections to the appointee from competing factions. There were occasions when the high priest would refuse to accede to compromises or to placate his opponents and would have to be replaced for these reasons too. So today’s scenario is not entirely unbelievable: What would happen if a high priest was removed, a substitute was appointed and ready to proceed, but then the original high priest was reinstated to his post because the reasons for his suspension were resolved? The sages agree that the original high priest was returned to service. But the status of the substitute is a more difficult question.


So What's Eating Caiaphas?

It is possible that Caiaphas ripped his clothing in an uncontrolled outburst of disbelief when Caiaphas believed Jesus affirmed; he was the Christ and The Son of God? This was blasphemy in the ears of the High Priest. I am suspicious of Caiaphas' motive behind tearing the blue robe or any other garment during the judging of Jesus.


Why am I suspicious of the intentions of Caiaphas? We see that Caiaphas may not have been in the Levitical order and the bloodline of Aaron, the first High Priest. History indicates Caiaphas was a political appointment to his office as accommodation by the Romans. The Ark of the Covenant was not in the Holy of Holies. This leads me to believe Caiaphas was illegitimate from the start. Therefore, regardless of what he wore, regardless of what ritual he performed, or the hearings he oversaw, nothing was valid.


Why tear the garments?

My suspicion is it he did it as a dramatic display or for show before the Sanhedrin. Pure and simple - stage play before his peers. Adapting a line spoken by Prince Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, in Act 3, Scene 2 of the play, Hamlet. 


"methinks the Caiaphas doth protest too much."


Your Days are Numbered

I presume Caiaphas and Annas also knew the Jesus movement was out of their control and Rome would be demanding answers and possibly installing someone else in the office of High Priest. We see the display of outrage when Pilate and the chief priests are together. Pilate wants to present the sign of the charges against Jesus of Nazareth in a way that states Jesus was in fact, the King of the Jews. The religious leadership is furious that this message would make its way to public display.


"And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was Jesus of Nazareth The King Of The Jews. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews. Pilate answered, What I have written I have written." (John 19:19-22 KJV)


"Sign above the cross with the charges against Jesus, King of the Jews."
"Sign above the cross with the charges against Jesus, King of the Jews." photo by Terry Harman © 2021

Walking in Caiaphas' Sandals

Caiaphas is a complicated figure in history. Walk in his sandals for a moment. You have manipulated your way to the highest office in Israel. You are the man at the head of the Temple. Compromise, manipulation, and political savvy are just part of who you are. You know the system and the system knows you. More importantly, Rome knows you are your high need to be perceived as the man who controls the streets, the Temple, and the Jewish people.


If you fail at any one of these tasks, you risk possibly being dethroned by your own people and Rome for certain. Jesus is not just another rebel rouser creating a stir in the streets. People are listening to his words and speak of his miracles. In your mind, Jesus is drawing the people away from the Temple and you are losing influence. You must act and act quickly. Too many people see Jesus as authentic, and you are less than authentic.


Closing Thoughts

I receive emails from my readers. You share your joys and frustrations with me. I appreciate your confidence. You search for authentic leaders. Many of you are fortunate and may be spoiled. You have the good fortune to be in a congregation that is spiritually healthy. Others are not as fortunate as you are.


There is a problem with inauthenticity today. The problem is not limited to the business world. People are searching for a community that is spiritually authentic. They yearn for an environment that is real. Something they can plug into and be part of a mission that is bigger than themselves. Something that changes lives and improves neighborhoods.


Please know if this is what you are searching for, it is out there. Do not give up your search. But be prepared for pushback when you encounter the nonauthentic! If you walk in integrity with a pure heart, you may be perceived as the one with the problem. You are in good company. Jesus was not well received by the inauthentic.


Sources

1 Bauckham, Richard. The Caiaphas Family.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, online

publication January 1, 2012. Accessed December 10, 2023.

 

2 Gottheil, Richard, and Samuel Krauss. "CAIAPHAS or CAIPHAS, JOSEPH." Jewish    Encyclopedia,

1906. Accessed January 5, 2014. URL: CAIAPHAS - JewishEncyclopedia.com

 

3 Gniwisch, Leibel. "The High Priest in Jewish Tradition." Chabad.org. Accessed June 11, 2022.

URL: The High Priest in Jewish Tradition - Chabad.org.

 

4 Caiaphas, Joseph (jewishvirtuallibrary.org), accessed on June 11, 2022.


5 Priestly Garments - Temple Institute, accessed on June 9, 2023.



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My friend and faithful reader from Tennessee noticed an error in my blog. I repeated a short paragraph two times. I appreciate the feedback. Sometimes in transferring my draft from Word to the web I cut and paste too quickly. Steve and I have been friends for decades. We can be honest with each other in a way that is seldom found in friendships. I tell him, "If I could sing like you, I'd stop writing and start singing everywhere." Needless to say, I won't be singing anywhere anytime soon. I cannot hold a tune, note or whatever you call it. Thanks Steve.

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