If the Gospels make historical goofs, then it’s hard to call them reliable documents. Skeptics have been quick to point out that the Gospel writers make several factual errors, and an example of that is Luke and John’s confusion regarding the high priesthood.
Tradition tells us that Luke was a traveling companion of Paul and used apostles for sources. Surely he should’ve known better. And John was supposedly a Jew and an eyewitness. A local should’ve probably had a solid idea about how the high priesthood works.
Let’s start with Luke.
Two High Priests?
Luke 3 sets the stage for John the Baptist, and this is where he seems to get confused. Luke 3:2 reads: “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
The problem here is that anyone who knows about the history of the Jews would understand that there was only one high priest at a time. There is zero tradition of there ever being two high priests serving at once. Annas served as high priest from 6 to 15 AD before being deposed.
Luke seems to continue this confusion into Acts 4:5-6. “On the next day, their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.” So what’s going on here?
The real power behind the priesthood
Annas may have been deposed by Pilate’s predecessor, but he still played puppet-master through his sons. Caiaphas was officially the high priest when Jesus was crucified. Importantly, he was also Annas’ son-in-law. A total of five of Annas’ sons ended up serving as high priest, Caiaphas was the fourth of the five. (Josephus, Antiquities 20.198)
Jewish Law said that a high priest is to serve for life, but the Romans seemed to replace them as often as Larry King changes out wives. (My apologies for the Boomer humor.)
Now you might say that doesn’t justify Luke calling Annas the high priest. But Josephus does suggest that former high priest could keep the title, sort of like retired US presidents. (Antiquities 20.204) Josephus himself even uses the same language elsewhere, saying: “And both Jonathan and Ananias, the high priests.” (Jewish War 2.12.6)
Suddenly Luke doesn’t seem so uninformed. The Jews put up the Romans interfering, but perhaps they still referred to Annas as the one God really had chosen. Or at least he was the one they knew was the real string-puller.
Did John think high priests only served a year at a time?
Let’s set the scene here. Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead. The priests were freaking out, and John 11:49 introduces us to Caiaphas. John says he was “high priest that year.” He repeats this assertion twice more in John 11:51 and in John 18:13. So here we have a Jew ignorant of the fact that the high priesthood is for life, something that the writer of Hebrews gets right. (Num 35:25, 28, Heb 7:24.)
But we’ve already seen that the Romans change out high priests like churches change out youth pastors. (OK, sorry for the second lame attempt at humor here.) And John already shows that he’s familiar with Jewish opinions, Scriptures, customs, and topography. For example:
- He casually mentions the Jewish low-estimate of woman. (John 4:27)
- The hostility between Jews and Samaritans (John 4:9)
- The importance attached to religious schools. (John 7:15)
- The disparagement of “the dispersion.” (John 7:35)
- That the sabbath is overruled by the requirements of circumcision. (John 7:22)
- Entering a Gentile court pollutes a Jew ceremonially. (John 18:28)
- He alludes to the Law and the prophets, directly and indirectly, multiple times.
- He knew Jesus had to travel downhill from Cana to reach Capernaum. (John 2:1, 11-12)
- The temple was under construction for 46 years. (John 2:20)
- The location of the Pool of Siloam (John 9:11) and Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) in Jerusalem.
- That the view from Jacob’s well would have included Mt. Gerazim (John 4:20) and fields of corn. (John 4:35)
Many more examples like this can be given. (See this post for more.) The point is John knew his stuff, and the fact he can provide these details after the destruction of Jerusalem suggests he wasn’t some Greek guy making things up on the fly.
So what John mean by “That year”?
I think it’s more probable that John knew that the high priest no longer served for life due to Rome’s constant interference. It’s more likely that John means “the memorable year” Jesus was executed, Caiaphas was the high priest.
John uses this kind of terminology a lot in his Gospel. He refers to Jesus’ ‘hour’ and ‘time’ repeatedly. (John 2:4, 7:6, 8, 30, 8:20.)
Also, there’s a good chance John was being a little cheeky here. Rome could depose of priests at will. Deposed priests like Annas would still meddle in the affairs of the city. (John 18:13) And only the high priests who played ball with Rome would rule as long as someone like Caiaphas.
As a loyal Jew, John knew that the high priesthood was corrupt. It was appointed by Rome, not God, no longer lasted for life, and had become some sort of thing that was handed down through nepotism and not a divine appointment. (Hebrews 5:4) So his him writing “that year” is a jab to the state of affairs at the time.
Luke and John vindicated
Luke’s usage of “high priests” is consistent with Josephus’ use. And Josephus helps us to understand why the Jews would talk like this. John knows his stuff, gets the high priest’s name right and his language isn’t out of line with the way he talks elsewhere. He could be taking a shot at the priesthood that would be consistent with a loyal Jew’s attitude at the time. There’s no reason to say Luke and John were clueless here.
Sources and recommended resources:
- Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 2, Craig Keener
- The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Craig Keener
- Alleged Historical Errors in the Gospels (Luke & John) by Tim McGrew
- The Gospel According to John, BF Westcott
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.