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Caiaphas with Christ
Caiaphas with Christ

Question for Holy Thursday: And the high priest tore his garments…

At the beginning of the year I started on a Bible reading plan using the Verbum phone app. I haven’t been keeping up like I should so I’m only 15% of the way through the Bible. Still, since I’ve never read the whole thing, I’ll claim it as a win. A couple of weeks ago I read this passage:

“The priest who is chief among his brethren, upon whose head the anointing oil is poured, and who has been consecrated to wear the garments, shall not let the hair of his head hang loose, nor rend his clothes…” Lev 21:10

Last night while we were watching The Passion of the Christ I noticed that the high priest tore his garment when Jesus told him who He was:

And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” 63 And the high priest tore his garments, and said, “Why do we still need witnesses?” Mk 14:62-63

Having read the Old Testament law concerning the high priest so recently, I was struck by the significance of this act, something that I hadn’t ever given thought to before so I went looking for commentary about the action.

I found one commentary on a Protestant site that claimed that the prohibition only applied to funerals so it wasn’t anything strange in this case. After reading the whole chapter, I don’t see that this prohibition is linked to funerals at all.

I also found another commentary that said the Church Fathers saw the rending of the high priest’s garment as the end of the Jewish priesthood. From St. Bede:

“the drama of Caiaphas tearing his vestments signifies the termination of the Old Covenant priesthood. In contrast, the seamless vestment of Jesus is not torn but remains intact (Jn 19:23-24), signifying that the new priesthood of Christ will endure forever (Heb 7:23-24).”

This seems like a reasonable interpretation to me. The high priest asks Christ who He is and Jesus tells him directly that “I AM”. Not only does the high priest reject the Messiah, he violates the law of God specific to the high priest in order to do it. I also did find commentary that said that Caiaphas didn’t violate the law because it referred only to his temple vestments which he probably wasn’t wearing at the time of Christ’s trial.

I’ve also heard that the Jewish priesthood ended with the destruction of the temple forty years after Christ’s death. What do you think? It doesn’t seem like there is a definitive statement from the Church one way or the other.

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