Jewish Religious Leaders

After 6AD, Jewish religious leaders were appointed by the Romans. As a result, it is difficult to separate their religious and administrative roles.

The High Priests were both secular and religious leaders of the Jewish community. There was sometimes more than one ‘high priest’ or ‘chief priest’ (Greek, ‘archiereus’ meaning ‘arch-priest’). Annas and Caiaphas, for example, are both mentioned in the gospels (see Luke 3:2 & Matthew 26:14). Annas was appointed high priest in 6AD, and Caiaphas was appointed from 15 to 36AD.

Between 6 and 41AD, high priests were appointed directly by the Roman procurator (governor), and worked hand-in-hand with the ruling Roman authorities. They were responsible for the upkeep of the Jewish Temple and for maintaining good order among the Jewish community. The high priest’s role was roughly equivalent to that of both the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The high priests were only allowed to excercise their office with the approval of the Romans, and their ceremonial vestments and symbols of authority were stored in the Antonia Fortress, guarded by the Romans.


The Pavement from the Antonia Fortress

Part of the Pavement at the Antonia Fortress, Jerusalem


The Captain of the Temple Guard was second-in-command to the High Priest. He was in charge of the armed temple guard who maintained law and order under the authority of the high priests. His role was a cross between Deputy Mayor and a local Police Chief.

The Jewish Council (the ‘Sanhedrin’) was also both a religious and political assembly. It enforced the religious laws regulating Jewish worship, and legislated on day-to-day affairs in Jerusalem and throughout Judaea. Prominent members of the council in Jesus’s day included Nicodemus (see John 3:1), Joseph of Arimathea (see Mark 15:43 & John 19:38-39) and Gamaliel (who was Paul’s religious tutor) (see Acts 5:34 & 22:3).

Rabbis were Jewish religious teachers who taught and discussed interpretations of the Jewish law in the courtyards of the Temple (see Luke 2:46). Jesus was regarded as a Jewish rabbi (‘teacher’) by most of his followers (see Mark 10:1, 17, 35 & 51). The teaching of most rabbis reflected one of the three main religious schools of thought – Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes.


2nd century Jewish synagogue at Sardis

2nd century Jewish synagogue at Sardis


Pharisees were the radical thinkers of their day, moving on beyond the written Law of Moses and re-interpreting ‘traditional’ Judaism. They believed not only in the immortality of the soul (the ongoing life of an individual after death), but also in the transmigration of souls (‘re-incarnation’). They rigorously observed the Jewish religious laws, and had added many additional requirements and restrictions. The only religious fast required by the Jewish law, for example, was on the Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 16:29), but the Pharisees fasted twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays (see Mark 2:18-20). Jesus criticised the Pharisees for their hypocrisy and for their ability to twist the original intention of the Jewish law (see Matthew 15:1-20).

Sadducees, on the other hand, were extremely conservative in their religious views. They believed only in the written Law of Moses (the ‘Torah’ contained in the first five books of the Jewish Scriptures) and rejected any later ‘customs’ or oral traditions. So they did not believe in any form of life after death, and were in continuous conflict with the Pharisees, whose ‘new’ interpretations and additions to the law they vehemently opposed (see Acts 23:7-8). Jesus disagreed with the Sadducees because they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead (see Matthew 22:23-33).

Essenes held the most extreme religious views. Following their ascetic beliefs, they formed a monastic community where all the initiates pooled their belongings (compare the early Christians – see Acts 4:32) and lived apart from the rest of Jewish society in the Judaean Desert at Qumran, near Jericho. The ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ (discovered in 1949 and now on display at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem) was the library of Jewish religious texts owned by this desert community. They were probably hidden in the caves at Qumran at the outbreak of the Romano-Jewish War in 66AD.


Judaean desert at Qumran

Judaean desert at Qumran


In Jesus’s time, the Pharisees were the rising religious leaders of their day, with a radical approach to re-interpreting and codifying the minutiae of the Jewish law, but the more conservative and traditional Sadducees still held the high priesthood.

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