Was Caiaphas a Descendant of Aaron?

I received a question recently about whether or not Caiaphas, the high priest who presided at the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, was actually qualified to be a priest. More specifically, was he of the line of priests who were descended from Aaron and thus able to serve as a priest? The question is relevant for two reasons. The first is that good genealogical records for the priests of the 1st century have not been preserved. The second is that the office of high priest became politicized in the Maccabean period, and by the time of the New Testament the position of high priest was treated like a political appointment. According to Josephus, Herod the Great appointed no less than six high priests.
Caiaphas himself was appointed by the Roman procurator Valerius Gratus. Josephus describes Valerius Gratus as follows: “This man deprived Ananus of the high priesthood, and appointed Ismael, the son of Phabi, to be high priest. He also deprived him in a little time, and ordained Eleazar, the son of Ananus, who had been high priest before, to be high priest: which office, when he had held for a year, Gratus deprived him of it, and gave the high priesthood to Simon, the son of Camithus; and, when he had possessed that dignity no more than a year, Joseph Caiaphas was made his successor. When Gratus had done those things, he went back to Rome, after he had stayed in Judea eleven years, and Pontius Pilate came as his successor” (Antiquities of the Jews, 18:34-35).  Knowing that the office was treated this way naturally raises the question of whether Caiaphas was even of the priestly line. A recent archaeological discovery appears to answer that question.
In the summer of 2011, authorities recovered an ossuary that had been looted from a tomb in the Elah Valley, the same valley in which David fought Goliath. Ossuaries were boxes carved from a block of limestone, intended to hold the bones of the deceased in a rock-cut tomb. They were used for Jewish burials in the Holy Land for about a century, around the time of Christ. Ossuaries were constructed to be large enough to hold the longest bone in the body, the femur.
This particular ossuary was decorated with six-petaled rosettes on the front, a common decoration of the period that was created with a simple compass. The ossuary was topped with a simple stone slab, which had been recently broken. The most interesting thing about this ossuary, however, was the inscription it bore along the upper edge of the front face.

Inscription along the top edge of the Miriam ossuary.

This inscription identifies the woman to whom this ossuary belonged as Miriam, daughter of Yeshuah (or Joshua, or Jesus), son of Caiaphas. This makes her a grand-daughter of Caiaphas. What is most interesting, though, is that the family is identified as coming from the priestly course of Ma’aziah. Ma’aziah was the 24th and final priestly family appointed by David for service in the temple (1 Chr 24:18). A full genealogy is not given in the inscription (a list from the time of David to the time of Jesus would have included 40-50 names!), but it is clear that Caiaphas was recognized in his day as having the lineage that was necessary to serve as a priest. If you are interested in reading more about this ossuary, it has been published in the Israel Exploration Journal here.
Incidentally, the ossuary of Caiaphas himself was discovered in 1990 in a tomb just to the south of Jerusalem. It is one of the most ornately and beautifully carved ossuaries ever discovered, fitting for a high priest. An inscription on the left end, and a matching inscription on the back, identify the owner as “Joseph bar Caiaphas.” The NT only identifies this high priest as Caiaphas (Matt 26:3; John 11:49), but Josephus informs us that he went by both the name Caiaphas and by the name Joseph (Antiquities of the Jews, 18:95).

Ossuary of the high priest Caiaphas, now in the Israel Museum.


    1. Thanks for checking that out. Did caiphus disqualify himself when he tore his own tunic?

      • Good question. Leviticus 21:10 prohibits the high priest from uncovering his head (or having disheveled hair [NET], or letting his hair hang loose [ESV]) or tearing his garments. Matthew 26:65 states that Caiaphas tore his clothes in response to Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. So two observations on this. 1) It is not clear from the Leviticus passage whether this was a blanket prohibition, or whether it applied only to the high priest when he was dressed in his priestly garments and ministering in the temple; it is also not clear how Caiaphas would have been dressed during the night of the trial of Jesus. In Acts 23:1-5, Paul was in a similar situation and seemed unable to tell who was the high priest (Ananias at that time), perhaps indicating he was not dressed in his high priestly garments. 2) Caiaphas committed a number of other, more serious violations, such as accusing the Messiah of blasphemy and condemning an innocent man to death (Mark 14:64). Tearing his clothes would have been a relatively minor offense by comparison, but perhaps it had some significance. Tearing one’s garments was a standard form of showing grief or outrage (cf. Acts 14:14; 16:22), so it reflected his emotional state quite well. If it didn’t disqualify him from the position of high priest, a number of other violations should have. On another hand, he didn’t enjoy the position for long— he was removed from office by Lucius Vitellius in AD 37.

    2. Thank you for sharing this. It is awesome when the word of God is found to be true by discovering the past. Psalm 85:11 says truth shall spring out of the earth.

    3. If Caiaphas wasn’t of the tribe of Levi then couldn’t enter the Holy of Holies with the Ark of the Covenant present of he would surely die. Do you think that this why the curtain was torn to show the people that God wasn’t there, but on the cross.

      • Avatar for Kris Udd Greg perlongo : January 24, 2023 at 7:10 am

        The ark hadn’t been in the temple for hundreds of years by this time. I would recommend a study in the temple service to get a better understanding of which curtain was torn. Jesus is our high priest and we are a preistly generation.contrary to what we have been taught as Christians only Jesus can enter into the holy of holies . we are now as priest allowed to enter the holy place where the Mannorah is, the light, the table of show bread, taste of the word for it is good( Jesus is the word and the bread of life and the light if the world.) and the alter of incense, the prayers of the saints. Thats as far as the preist could go.ONLY the high priest could enter the holy of holies and Jesus is our high priest. Remember Jesus words, No man can come to father but by me. The temple service was the natural physical way to enter in his presence. The father dwelt in the midst of his people. Once scattered spiritually our bodies are the temple and our heart is where YHVH dwells and jesus is our intercesser. explaining the spiritual way we enter into the Father’s presence today. By Jesus and him only.

      • I have always taken the tearing of the temple curtain at the moment of Messiah’s death to mean that the way to God which had been closed by sin was again open by Yeshua’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.

      • Avatar for Kris Udd Pieter Grobler : April 11, 2024 at 1:51 am

        The Holy of Holies would have been empty in the time of Caiaphas as the original Ark of the Covenant had gone missing at the time of the Babylonian exile and has not been seen since. So, and this is my personal opinion, when the Curtain was rent in two at the crucifixion two things became apparent 1] The division betwen man and God was bridged (removed) through the death of Jesus and 2] The system of Judaism as espoused by the Pharisees was in fact bankrupt, empty of true value.

    4. Avatar for Kris Udd Jennifer Bynum Mason : January 25, 2024 at 11:56 pm

      If Caiaphas was appointed as Rome’s political pawn, a hater of God and the Messiah. Why was he admitted into the holy of holies without God immediately judging him?

      • Its a good question. I would note a couple of things. 1) We don’t have any actual record of Caiaphas entering the Holy of Holies. We might expect that he would have in order to fulfill the priestly duties once a year, but keep in mind that the ark of the covenant was critical to that process, but the ark was not there. That begs the question of whether there was any reason why the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, and what the ceremony would have been since there was no mercy seat on which to sprinkle blood. 2) The temple had been defiled before, even by pagans, and they were not struck down either. The army of Nebuchadnezzar had completely destroyed the temple built by Solomon in the early 6th century BC, which is the ultimate desecration. In the 2nd century BC, Antiochus Epiphanes slaughtered a pig on the altar before the temple, sprinkling pig blood on the people and forcing the priest to eat its flesh. In 63 BC, the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem and even entered the Holy of Holies, which he reported to be empty. This does not answer the question of why God allowed evil men to become high priests, but it does indicate that Caiaphas was hardly unique in this respect.

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