It is better for one man to die

This week my Tuesday night Bible class, The Jewish Context of the Bible was on the Sadducees.  As I will continue to do, I am writing a follow-up blog post to my class where I can get into one particular aspect of the subject that I was unable to get into during the class itself.  My sister says I’d make a good college professor because I prepare way more material than I will actually get to use, so I usually have something left over that I wanted to say but just didn’t get the chance.  But, before I delve into that I wanted to note that I have added links to the audio and my lesson handout on the Audio Lessons page above. You can also find the audio at the Prestoncrest Church of Christ website.

Now, let’s dive in.

In the lecture I mentioned a guy named Annas who founded a high priest dynasty. Annas and his successors/associates were Sadducees (Acts 4:7).  He was high priest for 10 years before being removed by the Romans for executing those convicted of the death penalty under Jewish law because under Roman rule the Jews did not have the power to mette out the death penalty.  However, even after he was removed, he was still very powerful, and used his five sons and son-in-law (Caiaphas) to dominate Jewish politics of the Sanhedrin.  You can see this in John how they arrested Jesus and first brought him to Annas, even though Caiaphas was the high priest  (John 18:12-13).

The Sadducees were far more interested in keeping their power than they were with theological concerns that “got in the way.”  Of particular interest is the extremes they would go to in order to hold onto their power.  The status-quo cannot be upset and had to be maintained.  This was the philosophy of the family of Annas, perfectly stated in the words of Caiaphas in John:

“Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” (John 11:49-52, NIV)

The idea here is that they should put Jesus to death before he starts a riot against Rome, leading to the brutal destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, with millions of people dying.  Their fears were righly placed because this very event would happen in 70 AD.  Caiaphas’ idea that one man should die for the sake of national peace doesn’t sound theological at first, but rather political.  However, the other big religious groups of the day (Pharisees, Zealots, Essenes) all believed that life was sacred, especially that of a fellow Jew.  If everyone’s life is sacred, then putting him to death to prevent what might happen suddenly becomes a moral and even theological quesiton.  This mentality that it is better for one man to die than for everyone to die even makes sense on some levels, but it was completely against the theology of the rabbis.

“…if idolaters said to men: ‘Give us one of you to be killed or we will kill all’, all must be killed rather than surrender an Israelite soul.” (Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, Treatise 1, Chapter 5.6)

Rabbi Maimonides hits the nail on the head as to what everyone else (especially the Pharisees) would have believed during the time of Jesus and it’s easy to see how the Sadducees had the polar opposite opinion.  To the Pharisees, one life is so sacred that everyone must die rather than sacrifice one.  Ironically, Paul, a self-confessed “Pharisee of Pharisees” would later write just the opposite after God’s plan had been fully realized:

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (Romans 5:12,15b, NIV)

Strangely, Caiaphas was exactly right, albeit for the wrong reasons: one man had to die for everyone.

Peace to you,



2 thoughts on “It is better for one man to die

  1. James, in John 8, “teachers of the Law” and some Pharisees come to ask Jesus questions. Would these teachers of the law be Sadducees ? BTW, Sunday morning and Tuesday night are Great !!! Thanks for sharing your insights.

    • “teachers of the law” or “Torah teachers” are probably not Sadducees, unless the encounter happened at the temple. The incident in John 8 is in the temple courts so it is possible that they are Sadducees. However, the writers of the Bible are usually very good about telling us when it’s the Sadducees. If it’s not “Sadducees” then it’s “the chief priests”. A Torah Teacher was someone who knew the Torah by memory but was not necessarily a member of any political party.

      We learn from the writings of the first century that there were three levels of Jewish education. With each level, there were fewer and fewer who made it. During the first level the object was to memorize the Torah (Age 5-12). The second level was to now explain the Torah, not just memorize it, and also study the rest of the Tanakh (Age 12-15). The third level was to follow a rabbi and learn the words of the sages, the secrets of Torah, and how to become a rabbi who also made disciples (Age 15-30). Torah Teachers are most likely men who made it past the first level (and had the Torah memorized), but did not make it to the third level to follow a rabbi. Therefore these men were brilliant thinkers, teachers, and were very wise, but they were not rabbis. They instead had a trade and did that (masonry, fishing, farming, etc), and on Sabbath read and explained the Torah in the absence of a rabbi.

      So these “teachers of the law” or “Torah Teachers” mentioned in John 8 were most likely just well-learned men of the community who were curious as to what the famous rabbi Jesus would say about some particular question in the Torah, and went with the Pharisees to ask. Since almost all Jews in Jerusalem regularly went to the temple, this wouldn’t have been uncommon.



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