The House of Annas and corruption in the time of Jesus

On many occasions in human history, leaders in public, or even religious office, succumbed to the temptation of money while in office, plundering the land or nations they ruled.

Jul 29, 2022

By Anil Netto

On many occasions in human history, leaders in public, or even religious office, succumbed to the temptation of money while in office, plundering the land or nations they ruled.

People in Malaysia, like many other places, are familiar with politicians and other leaders abusing their power to enrich themselves fabulously.

The Temple high-priesthood during the 1st Century AD, when Jesus lived, was no different. Was it really corrupt? And if so, what did Jesus think of corruption?

The Gospels do not speak explicitly about corruption, but if we read them carefully in the light of what was going on, gleaned from other later texts, we can pull aside the cobwebs of history. For instance, look at the passage about how Jesus condemns those who “devour widows’ houses” (Mark 12:40).

King Herod had earlier ‘imported’ several priestly families from the Jewish diaspora like Babylon and Egypt to displace the previous high priest oligarchy from the earlier Hasmonean dynasty. At one point, he even made his second wife Mariamne’s brother, Aristobulos, who was not even 18 years old, a high priest!

As a result, the high priests were beholden to the rulers, and later to the Roman prefects, for their positions. Some believe the high priests even got their positions based on what they could do for the rulers — or more precisely, how much they could pay off the rulers — a sort of “you help me, I help you”!

Although there were four main priestly families that sometimes intermarried, the house of Annas stood out. Annas was High Priest from 6-15AD and he built one of the most powerful families in the land.

Annas was the mafia don of the high priests or, ‘emeritus’ high priest. In fact, five of his sons, a grandson and even a son-in-law (Caiaphas, in office from 18 to 36AD) served as high priests for much of the period – apart from a gap of less than 20 years - leading up to the destruction of the Temple in 70AD.

Nepotism ran rife in the running of the Temple, which held and controlled immense wealth. The high priests would often place their sons or relatives in key positions in the Temple hierarchy such as Temple treasurer and Temple supervisor or captain. The families received handsome dowries and were decked in fine linen and expensive jewellery. Widows in these high priestly families received generous pensions straight out of the Temple treasury.

Such was the influence of Annas, then in his fifties, that Jesus was first brought to him for a cursory interrogation — before being taken to the sham (and illegal) night trial presided over by Annas’ son-in-law, Caiaphas (about eight or nine years younger than Annas).

Both of them were probably Sadducees, part of the wealthy, landed aristocratic class who did not believe in the resurrection. High Priest Caiaphas probably had a long and cosy relationship with the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. Hints of this can be seen when on several occasions, Pilate upset ordinary Jewish sensitivities, they rose in public protest against the Roman prefect — but Caiaphas was conspicuous in his silence.

Annas’ influence remained long after he was deposed as High Priest in 15AD when he was only in his thirties that Luke refers to both Annas and Caiaphas as high priests.

Some believe that Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man refers to the house of Annas — the “rich man” being Caiaphas and the “five brothers” being Annas’ five sons who were also high priests at various other times.
Indeed, the historian Josephus referred to Annas as the “great hoarder up of money”.
Annas, or his sons, probably owned or had rights to the stalls or booths that were set up at the Mount of Olives catering to the pilgrims. They also had monopoly rights to the stalls in the Temple premises (probably at the Court of the Gentiles) known as the “bazaars of the sons of Annas”.
Thus, the high priestly families profiteered from the exchange of secular currencies to Temple currency (shekels), probably getting a cut from the money changers’ profits.
The stalls also charged stiff prices for the sale of animals — pigeons and other livestock. (Pilgrims could bring their own animals for sacrifice, but these were subject to a rigorous inspection for defects.)
The animals, even the cheaper pigeons, were sometimes sold at extortionate prices, at times over ten times the usual price.
We know this because, on one occasion, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel managed to slash the price for a pair of doves from one golden denar to a quarter of a silver denar, by simply reducing the number of doves or pigeons a poor woman was required to offer. (Mishnah, Kerithoth ch.1.7).

No wonder John the Baptist lashed out at the “brood of vipers”, lovers of luxury, lording over the people.

The following condemnation of the high priests’ families is from Section 57A of the Pesachim, which discusses Passover-related topics. The Pesachim is part of the Mishnah (the first major collection of Jewish oral traditions) and of the Talmud.

Woe is me due to the High Priests of the house of Baitos, woe is me due to their clubs. Woe is me due to the High Priests of the house of ?anin [Annas]; woe is me due to their whispers and the rumours they spread. Woe is me due to the High Priests of the house of Katros; woe is me due to their pens that they use to write lies. Woe is me due to the servants of the High Priests of the house of Yishmael ben Piakhi; woe is me due to their fists. The power of these households stemmed from the fact that the fathers were High Priests, and their sons were the Temple treasurers, and their sons-in-law were Temple overseers [amarkalin]. And their servants strike the people with clubs, and otherwise act inappropriately. — Translated by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel (Steinsaltz),

No wonder Jesus was furious when he sized up what was going on in the Temple, especially how the Temple authorities were fleecing and burdening the people, many of them humble, devoted peasants, in so many ways.

When Jesus struck out at the money changers and traders, the ‘frontliners’ in the Temple, it was a direct hit at Annas and Caiaphas’ cosy money-making racket. And that was why, from that point, they wanted Jesus put down for good.

So, what would Jesus say about the corruption in today’s world that has burdened the people and contributed to immense suffering?

(Anil Netto is a freelance writer and activist based in Penang. He believes we are all called to build the kingdom of God in this world.)

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