The Gospel of John tells us that when Jesus was betrayed: “.… They bound him and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year” (John 18:12-13). The apostle John apparently knew some of the high priest’s family and was able to provide this detail not found in the other Gospels.
Annas (also called Ananus and Ananias) himself was an interesting character. Serving as High Priest for ten years, from AD 6–15, this man was the patriarch of a dynasty of priests. Immensely powerful, when he was deposed by the Roman procurator Gratus, Annas maintained a high degree of power through arranging the appointment of his five sons (Eleazar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Matthias, Ananus) and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, to succeed him.
The Jewish High Priest normally served for life (Numbers 35:25, 28), so the rapid-fire changes in succession after Annas suggest that he may have worked to ensure that he kept control of things as the real power behind the temple hierarchy. This maintaining power while technically deposed would explain why Annas was able to continue as head of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 4:6), and perhaps explains why, when Jesus was arrested, he was first taken not to “Caiaphas, the high priest that year,” but to Annas. In fact, so real was Annas’ behind-the-scenes power that Luke records the word of God came to John the Baptist “during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (Luke 3:2).
In his Gospel, the apostle John gives us another bit of information relative to the dealings of the chief priests. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave, John tells us that “… a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him” (John 12:9).
Again, John may have learned this perhaps because of his contacts in the high priestly households; but it is clear that this was a very real plot to get rid of not only Jesus himself, but also Lazarus as evidence of Christ’s miracle. Although Annas is not mentioned by name, it is inconceivable that such a plot would have been made without the knowledge of the chief priest and his sons – though it was more likely instigated by them as the “chief priests.” To understand the significance of this background, we must look at one of Jesus’ parables given at that time.
In his parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus told his listeners: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus …” (Luke 16:19-20). The parable continues to say that when he died, in the afterlife, the rich man implored the patriarch Abraham “… I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (vss. 27-28).
Notice that although the NIV says “to my family,” the Greek actually says “to my father's house” (as translated in the ESV and almost all other versions). When Abraham replies that “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them,” the rich man responds “No, father Abraham …but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent” (vss. 9-30). To this Abraham states conclusively: “… If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (vs. 31).
The cast of characters in this parable are unmistakable. Although “Lazarus” is not specified to be the Lazarus of Bethany Christ raised from the dead, the New Testament does not speak of any other Lazarus; had it been a different individual, John would surely have identified him as he does in other instances when multiple people shared the same name.
The “rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen” is surely the high priest Caiaphas whose robes were exactly as described. Conclusively, the rich man has a father and five brothers. In the close families of ancient Palestine, “brothers” could mean blood bothers or brothers-in-law. So the identity of these individuals is clear – they are none other than Caiaphas (the rich man), Annas (the father) and his five sons (the brothers-in-law). If this were not the case, there would have been no reason for Jesus to include five brothers in the parable – the rich man could just have pleaded for his family.
For Jesus’ original hearers it was doubtless clear that his parable made the point that just as the rich man’s father and brothers would not believe even after the return of the Lazarus of the parable from the dead, so the actual high priestly family had not believed when the real Lazarus had indeed been raised. Understood this way, the story of Lazarus and the rich man is paralleled by a number of other parables in which Jesus used actual historical situations of his day (see our free e-book on the parables for other examples).
There is also perhaps a small practical lesson we can take from this understanding of Jesus’ parable: the unfailing discretion of Jesus. Although the characters of his parable may have been recognizable to his audience, Jesus did not go as far as identifying them by name. This fits the pattern we see throughout the New Testament in which Jesus never identifies and condemns individuals by name, only as groups – the Pharisees, scribes, tax collectors, or whatever. Although he could have publicly accused and discredited specific individuals on many occasions, Christ did not do so in his human life. In our own time – a time of heightened political invective – this is an example for every Christian to consider.