THE HIGH PRIESTS WHO CONDEMNED YESHUA
The gospels describe the High Priests who conspired against Yeshua as corrupt, ungodly men. Some people think that this characterization is inaccurate and unfair, but the only other historical accounts we have--the Talmud and Josephus--are in complete agreement with the description in the gospels. These High Priests are everywhere described as brutal and greedy men. By the time of the Great Revolt of 66-70 A.D., there was widespread dissatisfaction in Israel with the character and conduct of these High Priestly families. The Talmud speaks of how these particular High Priests robbed the common priests of what was due to them, and disregarded all appeals to restrain themselves.
For example, the Talmud records that the skins of the animals sacrificed at the Temple were traditionally divided among all the priests who served. These high priests violently took all the skins for themselves, depriving the common priests of a significant part of their livelihood. Attempts were made to reason with them:
"...Yet the chief priests still seized (them) [i.e., the skins of the sacrifices] by force...Abba Saul b. Bothnith said in the Name of Abba Joseph b. Hanin: 'Woe is me because of the house of Boethus; woe is me because of their staves! [The Soncino edition footnote adds: "with which they beat the people."] Woe is me because of the house of Kathros; woe is me because of their pens! [The footnote adds: "with which they wrote their evil decrees."] woe is me because of the house of Ishmael the son of Phabi; woe is me because of their fists! For they are High Priests and their sons are Temple treasurers and their sons-in-law are trustees and their servants beat the people with staves!
"Our Rabbis taught: Four cries did the Temple Court cry out. The first: 'Depart hence, ye children of Eli,' for they defiled the Temple of the Lord..."1
In calling these High Priests and their families the 'children of Eli,' the Rabbis meant that these High Priests had the same character and behavior as the sons of Eli. Eli was the High Priest when the prophet Samuel, who later anointed Saul and then David as Israel's kings, was a boy. The Bible says, "Now the sons of Eli were worthless men; they did not know the Lord."2 They robbed the people of their sacrifices, and "they lay with the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting."3 In judgment for the sins of Eli's sons, the Lord enabled the Philistines to defeat Israel in battle, capture the Ark of the Covenant, and kill Eli's sons. The Rabbis taught that these High Priestly families, who were just like the sons of Eli, defiled the Temple of the Lord, and were to be blamed, at least partially, for the destruction of Jerusalem in the Great Revolt.
Josephus remarks: "As for the high priest Ananias, he increased in glory every day, and this to a great degree...for he was a great hoarder up of money...he also had servants who were very wicked, who joined themselves to the boldest sort of the people, and went to the thrashing-floors, and took away the tithes that belonged to the priests by violence, and did not refrain from beating such as would not give these tithes to them. So the other high priests acted in the like manner, as did those his servants, without any one being able to prohibit them; so that (some of the) priests, that of old were wont to be supported with those tithes, died for want of food...
"A sedition arose between the high priests, with regard to one another; for they got together bodies of the people, and frequently came from reproaches to throwing of stones at each other; but Ananias was too hard for the rest, by his riches,--which enabled him to gain those that were the most ready to receive. Costabarus, also, and Saulus, did themselves get together a multitude of wicked wretches...but still they used violence with the people weaker than themselves. And from that time it principally came to pass, that our city was greatly disordered, and that all things grew worse and worse among us."4
The particular Annas, or Ananias, to whom Josephus refers is not the same as the one depicted in the gospels. He is of the same family, only a generation later. The leaders of this family were ungodly, greedy, violent men. This High Priestly family enriched themselves through their commerce in the Temple. "This (Temple) market was what in Rabbinic writings is styled 'the bazaars of the sons of Annas' (Chanuyoth beney Chanan), the sons of that High- Priest Annas, who is so infamous in New Testament history...From the unrighteousness of the traffic carried on in these Bazaars, and the greed of the owners, the 'Temple-market' was at the time most unpopular. This appears, not only from the conduct and words of the patriarch Simeon [the grandson of Hillel, cf. Ker.i.7] and of Baba ben Buta (as above quoted) [Jerus. Chag.78a], but from the fact that popular indignation, three years before the destruction of Jerusalem, swept away the Bazaars of the family of Annas, and this, as expressly stated, on account of the sinful greed which characterized their dealings."5
The high priestly families joined with the Roman rulers in intrigue and murder, sometimes even in the Temple itself. Josephus says that, "this seems to me to have been the reason why God, out of hatred for their wickedness, turned away from our city; and, because He deemed the Temple to be no longer sufficiently pure for Him to inhabit, brought the Romans upon us and threw a fire upon the city to purify it, and He inflicted slavery upon us, our wives and children; for He wished to make us wiser by these calamities."6 The Rabbis and Josephus characterized these High Priests as brutal, greedy, and power-hungry. That is the way they are portrayed in the gospels. There is no evidence to the contrary. There are no other contemporary accounts, and there is no historical basis for assuming that the accounts we have are biased or in error.
The gospels describes these High Priests exactly as they were. They sought to murder anyone who threatened their power, their position, or the wealth that these brought them. What they had done to others, they also did to Yeshua. In their trial of Yeshua, they violated the Law of God and the rules of the Sanhedrin. They didn't care about God, and they didn't care about men. They cared only about themselves.
These corrupt High Priests did not represent the people. They did not try to. They simply tried to manipulate the people for their own advantage. These corrupt High Priests were not representative of the Jews of the time. The people, in great numbers, gladly listened to the teaching of Yeshua, and glorified God for the miracles He performed. All the disciples of Yeshua were Jewish. All the apostles and those who evangelized the gentiles were Jewish. Nor were all the first century Jewish religious leaders from the same corrupt mold as the High Priests. There were some who sought only to know and serve the God of Israel. There were some who rejected and condemned the character and behavior of those who sought only wealth and power.
To follow corrupt, ungodly men in their condemnation of Yeshua would be a great error. The people of their own time didn't trust them. Why should anyone today?
Jewish people today should have the wisdom and the courage to investigate for themselves the greatest Jew who ever lived. Is He the Messiah or not? The gospels present eyewitness accounts. After the death of Yeshua, multitudes of Jews began to believe in Him. Even "a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith."7 They believed that Yeshua was the holy, righteous King of Israel. In Jerusalem alone there were tens of thousands of first century Jews who believed in Yeshua. 8
They recognized the voice of God in His words. They saw the kingdom and power of God in His life. They found the fulfillment of what the prophets had proclaimed in His death and resurrection. In Yeshua, they found the hope of Israel.
Long ago, Jeremiah delivered God's message to Israel: "You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart."9 Yeshua said simply, "Seek and you will find."10
1. Pesachim 57a, Pp.284-285, The Babylonian Talmud, "translated into English with Notes, Glossary and Indices under the Editorship of Rabbi Dr I. Epstein," Soncino Press, London
2. 1 Sam.2:12
3. 1 Sam.2:22
4. Flavius Josephus, "Antiquities of the Jews," XX,9, 2-4, The Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA., 1985, P.424
5.Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Anson D.F. Randolph and Company, New York, 1883, Vol.I, Pp.371-372, citing Siphre on Dt.sec.105, end, ed. Friedmann, p.95a; Jer. Peah i.6
6. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.8.5-6
7. Acts 6:7
8. Acts 21:20
10. Mt. 7:7
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