After the return of the Jews from Babylon, religious and political life centered on the temple. And temple activities centered on the high priest. The people revered him, for he was the only one who could atone for the sins of the people. Even his death had the power to do that. Upon the death of the high priest, all Israelites who had committed unintentional murder were freed from the "cities of refuge" where they had been confined. Only the high priest could wear all eight parts of the magnificent priestly vestments. According to legend, the vestments themselves had mystical powers and could atone for serious sins,
The high priest entered the temple Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. He carried incense into the empty chamber to pray for the people. Legend tells of the high priest hearing heavenly voices in the Holy of Holies and having visions as he stood in the dark room. His ritual was so crucial that even the slightest error in performing it could result in his death.
In addition to being the chief intermediary between God and man, the high priest also headed the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious-political Supreme Court or Parliament. This dual power made the high priest the most influential person in Jewish life. To protect this power from becoming abused in political negotiations, Jewish law established the Office as a hereditary one, given for life, to be kept within the family of Zadok, the chief priest under David and Solomon,
The power wielded by the high priest naturally made his office the center of much intrigue. From 175 B. C, on, the office was sold to the highest bidder, and the Zadokite line came to an end. During the years of Jewish independence, the Hasmonean family provided both kings and high priests for the Jewish nation,
When Herod the Great and Rome deposed the Hasmoneans, the last members of the line of high priests that had any semblance of claim to hereditary office were killed. Herod and his Roman successors appointed and deposed high priests at will, knowing that through this office they held the keys to control the Jews. The individual they appointed belonged to one of a limited number of priestly families; thus they avoided making a complete mockery of the office. And the priests showed their willingness to cooporate with Roman wishes. Annas, and his son-in-law Caiaphas, were two such men.
Annas, sometimes called Ananos, son of Seth, was mad high priest in A. D. 6 and deposed in A. D. 15. In the Gospels, however, he is still referred to as the high priest at the time of JesusŐ trial. This could be for one of several reasons. Although the Romans appointed and deposed high priests at will, the Jews still thought of the high priesthood as a lifetime office. During the time of the New Testament, the title of "high priest" was normally given to the male members of families from which high priests were drawn, as well as to the high priest who was actually in office at the time.
Although Annas was high priest for only nine years, he exerted extraordinary influence on the office for the next few decades. Five of his sons became high priests, in addition to Caiaphas, his son-in-law. Annas, however, continued to be the power behind the scenes, regardless of which member of his family actually held the office. At the trial of Jesus, Annas held all informal interrogation prior to the more formal hearing held by Caiaphas. Luke 3.2 refers to Annas and Caiaphas both serving as high priests. This probably reflects the influence still wielded by Annas as well as the Jewish tendency to consider the person to be high priest for his life.
Caiaphas, also known as Joseph, held the position from A .D. 18 to 36, when he was deposed by Vitellius, the Roman governor of Syria. He was high priest during the ministry and trial of Jesus, as well as during the persecution of the early Christian church described in the book of Acts.