The trial of Jesus, which Christians commemorate during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, provides an instance in which history confirms the existence of figures mentioned in connection with a New Testament story. In this case, the two people documented by history are Jesus' judges, the Jewish high priest Joseph Caiaphas and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.
Trial of Jesus Told Through His Judges
Professor Douglas O. Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law School includes the trial of Jesus of his website "Famous Trials." Linder notes that including Jesus' trial is an unusual choice because it involves determining how much of the gospel accounts can be found factually accurate. Nonetheless, Linder says, there can be no doubt that the trial of Jesus has had enormous historical influence on civilization for the past 2,000 years. Linder cites Caiaphas and Pilate as key figures in the trial of Jesus.
Caiaphas served as high priest from A.D. 18 to 37 – a long tenure that historians surmise indicated he worked well with Roman authorities, including 10 years during which he served with Pilate. Caiaphas is mentioned in three of the four gospels – Matthew, Luke and John – as the high priest who ordered Jesus' arrest and was in charge of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court.
According to John 18:13, Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, also mentioned in biblical accounts of the trial of Jesus. Annas was the head of a family that held control of the high priesthood throughout most of the first century. In 1990, archaeologists discovered the family tombs of Annas and Caiaphas in Jerusalem's Upper City where the elite lived. They confirmed by in situ inspection that the graves were consistent with the time of Jesus, according to Jonathan L. Reed, author of The Harper Collins Visual Guide to the New Testament. Hence Caiaphas has been confirmed as a real person and as an integral part of the religious and political power structure during Jesus' time.
The High Priest Served as the Jews' Liaison
In addition to administering the Temple in Jerusalem, the high priest served as the primary liaison between the Jews and Roman authorities, according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Because of this function, Roman leaders had been known to demand that high priests arrest Jews who were deemed to be agitators or revolutionaries.
Consequently, cooperation (if not outright collusion) between Caiaphas and Pilate is quite plausible regarding the arrest and trial of Jesus around A.D. 30. After all, biblical accounts say that Jesus preached for three years that Jews' religious allegiance should be given to their God, not to Roman Caesars who claimed to be divine. To deny the divinity of Caesar was to deny the authority of Rome – cause enough for a political charge of treason, to say nothing of references to Jesus as a divine messiah, a blasphemy to the Jewish religious establishment. Thus it would have been natural for Caiaphas to turn Jesus over to Pilate after Jesus' trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court.
Historians Criticized Pontius Pilate
Were it not for his role in the trial of Jesus, the contemporary world might have known little of the Roman prefect named Pontius Pilate, who governed Judea, a sub-province of Syria, about A.D. 26-37. However sharply the New Testament depicts Pilate, the Jewish historian Josephus, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, and the Roman historian Tacitus are even harsher in their criticism of this Roman leader. Writing in A.D. 41, Philo condemned Pilate for "briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injustices, constantly repeated executions without trial, and ceaseless and grievous cruelty."
While Philo probably exaggerated, Pilate's 10-year rule definitely was marked by frequent clashes with his Jewish subjects, often over his attempts to command Jewish conformity to Roman state religion. According to Josephus, one attempt by Pilate to introduce effigies of Caesar into the Jerusalem Temple resulted in such a protest that outraged Jews made clear they'd risk being martyred by the Romans rather than submit. Pilate relented, apparently fearing an all-out rebellion that would have reflected badly on his administrative record.