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.