Jonathan Annas

© 2007 Dr. Barbara Thiering

"And they came, bringing to him (Jesus) a paralytic carried by four men. ...They removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the stretcher on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw the faith (pistis) of them, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven". Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning..." It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2: 3-7).

The "paralytic" was Jonathan Annas, the second son of Ananus the Elder, who had been appointed high priest by the Romans in 6 AD. All five sons of this Sadducee family served for short periods as high priests in the 1st century AD. Jonathan did not become high priest until 37 AD, but in the gospel period he was an active member of the Twelve Apostles because he followed Sadducee policy in promoting Gentiles.

In the story he was being carried on a palanquin, and he was called a "paralytic" - one who could not walk - as a joke. Like all the Sadducee high priests, he accepted the definition that he was an incarnation of God. Such an idea was prevalent among hellenised Jews in the Diaspora, through Roman political influence. Philo of Alexandria wrote that Jews thought of the high priest as "a being whose nature is midway between man and God, less than God, superior to man" (Philo, On Dreams, 2, 188-189). Jonathan took this definition very seriously. When he visited ordinary villagers, he first went to the roof of the house to offer the noon prayer under the open sky, then he was let down on his palanquin, where he remained lying because he was too holy to touch the unclean ground where ordinary mortals walked. From there he dispensed absolutions and promotions ("healings"), advised by the local bishop who stood next to him.

On this occasion, Jesus was the local bishop. Opponents nearby believed that only "God" - Jonathan - could forgive sins, giving absolution. But Jesus turned to Jonathan and said "Son, your sins are forgiven", applying the formula of absolution to him! That was sacrilege. Priests could not sin, they were much too holy.

Jesus was on the same political side as Jonathan, both of them practicing co-operation with Rome, reaching pagans by evangelism rather than taking up arms. But Jesus could not endure Jonathan's haughty priestliness, his assumption of absolute authority. It was probably Jesus who made the joke about the paralytic.

The tension between Jonathan and Jesus became one of the factors in the crucifixion. Jonathan was the Abba, the abbot, whom Jesus was bound to obey as his deputy. Foreseeing the crucifixion once Pilate had been alerted by the traitor Judas, and knowing that Jesus was not physically robust, Jonathan ordered him to drink a cup - of poison. Immediate suicide would shorten the days or weeks of agony on the cross that crucifixion entailed. Jesus, in either despair or in hope of help, re-affirmed his obedience to him, "Not my will, but yours be done" (Mark 14:36). At 3 pm on Good Friday Jonathan, under the guise of compassion, arranged for the drink of poison to be sent up to Jesus'lips (Mark 15:36). Jesus, now in deep depression, chose to drink it. After he had been revived in the cave by medicines administered by Simon Magus, Jonathan received him back into the celibate community, claiming that he had only been trying to spare him suffering. "God raised him up" (Acts 2:24).

In March 37 AD Jonathan Annas became high priest in the Jerusalem temple. It was known, from dispatches from Rome, that the youthful Caligula would succeed the ailing emperor Tiberius, and that Agrippa Herod who had been educated with Caligula in Rome would then be able to fulfil his ambition of restoring the Herodian monarchy. The pro-Roman attitude of Sadducees was now necessary in Judea, so Jonathan succeeded the nationalist Pharisee Caiaphas.

When, however, the news of Tiberius' death and Agrippa's rise reached Judea in October 37 AD, internal pressures ensured that Jonathan was removed and replaced by his brother Theophilus Annas, a more respected pro-Roman Sadducee. Jonathan was now using the name Stephen, meaning "crown", for the Annas priests combined functions of both the priest and king. He is presented positively in Acts 6-7 because of the Sadducee influence on the further promotion of Gentiles at this time. But his choice of Gentiles was not popular, and at the time of being removed from office he was excommunicated, "put to death". His "martyrdom" is to be understood in pesher terms. He survived for many more years, still capable of interfering, pompous behavior.

In 57 AD he encountered a personal kind of enmity. Felix, the Roman governor of Judea appointed in 52 AD, had formed family ties within the court of Agrippa II by marrying his younger sister Drusilla. Felix often exceeded his duties by undue involvement in local factions. Jonathan Annas, still attempting to exercise political influence, opposed him with some reason, and was accused by Felix of interfering in government.

The empire was now under Nero (54-68 AD). Felix had been appointed by his predecessor Claudius, and within the court and family of Agrippa II, which included Christians, had reason to object to Nero's tyranny. The emperor was also opposed very strongly by the Sicarii, Jewish militants who carried curved daggers under their garments and when they mixed with crowds pressed up close against enemies and stabbed them. They were members of the Therapeuts who had become aggressive again under Nero. In Acts 21:38 Paul was mistakenly accused of being one of the Sicarii, and there was some reason for the association, for he was subsequently put to death by Nero. Paul was also a longstanding enemy of Jonathan Annas, having been present at his excommunication as Stephen (Acts 7:58-60, Acts 8:1).

In December 57 AD in Judea, Felix sent a message to Apollos to bring together his band of Sicarii. Felix paid a bribe to a trusted friend of Jonathan Annas to ensure that Jonathan was in a certain place in Jerusalem at a certain time, and the Sicarii were brought to the place to attack him. In Josephus' words:

"Certain of these brigands (called Sicarii in Josephus' other account in Josephus, War 2, 254-257) went up to the city as if they intended to worship God. With daggers concealed under their clothes, they mingled with the people about Jonathan and assassinated him ...The murder remained unpunished." (Josephus, Antiquities 20, 163-165).

Josephus, who shows no knowledge of the internal affairs of the mission, took it that the reason for the murder was that Felix bore a grudge against Jonathan "because of his frequent admonition to improve the administration of the affairs of Judea. For Jonathan feared that he himself might incur the censure of the multitude in that he had requested Caesar (Claudius) to dispatch Felix as procurator of Judea." It is possible that there was a better reason, that Jonathan, not as well informed as the ascetics about the changes in Rome, had stuck rigidly to his pro-Roman attitudes and may even have been informing on the court of Agrippa II.

The theme of conflict with the priestly Jonathan Annas runs right through the gospels and Acts. As indicated by the pesher of the episode on Malta in Acts 28:1-6, Jesus was accused of complicity in the assassination, and Paul took the blame, being later executed by Nero on that charge. There was, then, an ecclesiastical as well as a political setting for the history. Or perhaps they are both the same.


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