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Did John Err? — John 18.13

On three occasions in the book of John, the apostle mentions that Caiaphas “was high priest that year” (John 18.13; cf. John 11.49, 51). 


What does the phrase “that year” mean?


Skeptics think it reveals the author’s belief either that Jewish high priests served in annual terms or that Caiaphas was the high priest only for a year. If either is the case, then John was mistaken.


First, before the Babylonian exile, Jewish high priests typically served for life (cf. Num. 35.25, 28; Josh. 20.6) — or perhaps until they retired. 


However, after the exile — when the Jewish nation became subservient to foreign powers — many high priests were deposed and replaced, often in rapid succession. Still, they did not serve in annual terms. 


Second, Caiaphas himself was high priest for eighteen years, from 18-36 A.D. (Kerr, p. 538; cf. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.4.3). His father-in-law Annas had been deposed by the Roman procurator Valerius Gratus in 15 A.D. (Josephus, Antiquities 18.2.2). However, Annas still retained the title (as well as certain high-priestly responsibilities), which accounts for why the Bible describes both Annas and Caiaphas as “high priests” (Lk. 3.2; cf. Acts 4.6). 


Since high priests did not serve on a year-by-year basis, and since Caiaphas himself was high priest for many years, skeptics allege the author must not have been familiar either with Jewish customs or with history. Either way, the Bible could not be inerrant. 


However, “that year” does not mean what skeptics wish it to mean. Rather, it

“simply means that he was high priest in that fateful year of Jesus’ crucifixion” (Bruce, p. 47). 

Therefore, no discrepancy in the biblical account can be substantiated. Despite the charges leveled against it, the Bible remains the flawless production of God’s infallible mind. 


Resources
Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981. 

Kerr, C. M. “Caiaphas,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. I., James Orr (ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986. 

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