Presumed guilty

In John 17, Jesus prays to his Father on behalf of the disciples. “For their sakes I sanctify myself” he says (vs. 19, NRSV), looking toward the cross upon which he will offer his life for the sins of the people. The prayer recalls the role of the high priest; for that reason, John 17 is known by many as the “High Priestly Prayer.” Indeed, Jesus’ role as our high priest is a key theme of the book of Hebrews (e.g., 4:14-16).

Jesus prays, and shortly thereafter, is arrested in the garden, bound, and led away, to be interrogated by none other than … the high priest. Two of them, in fact. It’s just one more of the many ironic details in John’s gospel.

John’s narration has led to much confusion, because he mentions both Annas and Caiaphas (Annas’ son-in-law) and seems to refer to both as the high priest. We know historically that there would only have been one high priest at a time; it was considered a lifetime appointment and often passed through family lines. How could both men be the high priest?

Different suggestions have been made. Perhaps the most reasonable one begins by noting that the Romans could manipulate the appointment. Caiaphas was clearly a political animal, and may have been Rome’s preference; if so, it’s likely that many people still considered Annas to be the “real” high priest, no matter what Rome said. Whatever the case, Annas still had clout, for John tells us that Jesus was dragged before him first, perhaps to his home:

Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. (John 18:19-24, NRSV)

We don’t know exactly what Annas was after. What did he want to know about the disciples? Jesus’ response seems cagey and evasive, as if still trying to keep his followers out of trouble. He deflects the question about his teaching, as if to say, If you’re looking for some secret revolutionary doctrine I’ve been feeding my disciples, forget it. There isn’t any. If you want to know what I teach, just ask around. And Jesus is not likely to have seen any point in giving Annas a “greatest hits” summary of his teaching.

But New Testament scholar Leon Morris adds another dimension to the scenario. Annas’ interrogation of Jesus was probably meant as an informal one; the official interrogation (as described in the other gospels) would be under Caiaphas. But even so, Annas’ behavior was irregular, not following the proper procedures.

As the accused, Jesus was supposed to be presumed innocent. It was Annas’ responsibility to produce and question witnesses who could speak to what Jesus had said and done (we can see this in how the other gospels describe Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas). His questions to Jesus, in other words, were out of line, and Jesus was pointing out the illegality of it all: There are plenty of witnesses out there, so why aren’t they here? 

That interpretation also makes sense of why Jesus got his face slapped for being so cheeky. It’s always risky to speak truth to power, particularly when accusing people of bending the rules to suit their own purposes. The humiliating blow was but one more glaring injustice heaped upon a growing pile.

John, however, actually seems more interested in what’s going on outside, in the high priest’s courtyard.  More on that in the next post.