Caiaphas, the high priest, wants to have Jesus killed to avoid Roman retaliation on the Jews
Here we have the Johannine author making quite explicit the issue of Jewish fear of their Roman imperial overlords. Up until this point, John’s Gospel does not appear to make any obvious or coded statements about Roman oppression at all. The Gospel was traditionally understood as expressing conflict between Christianity and Judaism, that might indicate church and synagogue debates at the time when it was written, but this theory was later challenged by certain scholars preferring to understand the Gospel as an example of Greco-Roman rhetoric seeking to nurture the faith of Christians by exonerating Jesus and condemning Jesus’s accusers (for the older view, see J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology, and for the more recent theory, Andrew Lincoln, Truth on Trial). Either way, the conflict between the Jewish leaders and Jesus is in this passage placed within the context of Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the Jewish people.
Immediately prior to this passage, Jesus has raised a man named Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44), and rather than discussing the reactions of his family to this, or indeed the reaction of the resurrected Lazarus himself, the author moves straight to how such displays of power by Jesus are being perceived in Jerusalem (see Jo-Ann Brant, John, p. 177). Evidently, some of the individuals who have witnessed Jesus performing this wondrous act have reported it to the Pharisees, and in response the Pharisees and chief priests have called a council to discuss Jesus, because he is gaining a reputation for performing signs such as this, and, it seems, beginning to attract a following amongst the Jewish people. It is perhaps noteworthy here, as Andreas Köstenberger (John, p. 350) points out, that the Pharisees are initially opposed to the taking up of arms against Rome in the revolt of 70 CE, which did of course lead to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (see Josephus, Jewish War II.17.3-5). E. P. Sanders (Judaism: Practice and Belief, p. 338-407) has argued that the two parties in Jerusalem that are named here, the Pharisees and the chief priests were in conflict with each other during the late Second Temple period, and so the Johannine author could be merging the time of the historical Jesus, when the priests were the chief authorities in Jerusalem, with his own post-70 CE audience, by which point the Pharisees’ heirs probably played an important role in the leadership of the Temple after its destruction. Alternatively, however, it could just be that he is unaware of exactly who it is that would have made up the Sanhedrin. Either way, the Jewish authorities are worried that his following will become so significant that it might be viewed as an insurgency among the Jewish people against the Romans, who it is feared will react perhaps by destroying the Jerusalem Temple and quashing the Jewish people.
The “place” (literally just τόπος) of verse 48 is probably best understood in this context as the Jerusalem Temple (see Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel According to John, p. 408), and “our people” (ἔθνος) of course as the Jewish people. Jo-Ann Brant argues that aside from any concern about the Romans, the Johannine author might also intend this passage to highlight that Jesus is problematic for authority figures more generally, with the Jewish authorities evidencing this through their anxiety (see Jo-Ann Brant, John, p. 177). For the post-70 CE audience of John’s Gospel, the fears expressed here are all the more ironic given that they will be realised when Titus and his soldiers do destroy the Jerusalem Temple. For the Johannine author, whose broader focus in the Gospel emphasises that God’s people are not dependent on the existence of the temple and its leadership structure, but rather will be expanded through belief in Jesus, this passage makes a poignant point. Caiaphas’s remark that it is better for one man to die than for the rest to suffer recalls John 10:11, where Jesus has taught that the good shepherd must be willing to lay down his life to protect his sheep. When Jesus states this, whom the Gospel will show is more than willing to die for his people, the sentiment affords him a great amount of admiration; however, coming from the mouth of an individual who wishes to kill Jesus, the statement is conspiratorial, and highlights the betrayal of Jesus by the Jewish people. Jo-Ann Brant relates this to the practice of peoples conquered by the Romans being given the opportunity to give up their king to die in order to be incorporated peacefully into the empire (see Livy, History of Rome 29.3) (Jo-Ann Brant, John, p. 178). There is a key difference, however, in that Jesus is not the accepted king of the Jewish people – the authorities wishing to give him over to the Romans in order to maintain peace do not believe that he is their Messianic king, and indeed, that Jesus has supposedly identified himself as the “King of the Jews” becomes a central feature of his trial before the Roman governor (see John 18:28-19:22). An alternative interpretation is that Caiaphas effectively prophesises the meaning of Jesus’s death without actually being aware of it, thereby adding further proof to the validity of the Gospel’s claim; Caiaphas unknowingly states the significance of Jesus as the sacrifice who dies to save all of humanity.
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