It was one of the most important discoveries in the history of modern archaeology, yet — paradoxically — it was one of the least heralded. In 1990, archaeologists found the remains of Caiaphas, the high priest whom the Gospels name as the prime mover in the conspiracy to kill Jesus of Nazareth. 

caiaphas
The different spelling of Caiaphas is a wordkey to a puzzle. Shutterstock photo

Here was the actual tomb of one of the main players in the Passion narrative, a physical link to events that changed the course of history. Many other widely publicized finds have turned out to be misidentified or simply frauds, but this one held up under scrutiny. There is no serious doubt that the ossuary found in 1990 really did hold the bones of Caiaphas. 

The scratchy inscription on the side of the ossuary, however, was perhaps the most exciting discovery. It gives us Caiaphas’s name in two different spellings. It may seem surprising, but until 1990 no one knew how to spell Caiaphas’s name in Aramaic, the language both he and Jesus spoke. That long-lost spelling may be a clue to one of the most important puzzles in Christian history: What kind of movement did Jesus of Nazareth really intend to found? 

How to Spell “Caiaphas”

When we say “Caiaphas,” we’re using an English transliteration of a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic pronunciation of a Hebrew name. (A transliteration is an approximation of the sound, rather than the meaning, of the original language.) 

The everyday language of first-century Palestine was Aramaic, a language related to the Hebrew of the Old Testament in something like the same way English is related to German. But the New Testament is written in Greek. Since Josephus also wrote in Greek, the Greek spelling of Caiaphas’s name was as close as we could get to the original until 1990. The ossuary of Caiaphas, however, gives us the Aramaic spelling. In fact, it gives us two spellings: a longer form and a shorter form. Now we know how Caiaphas’s name actually sounded when the people around him spoke it. 

The longer form of the name, which we can transliterate as “Qayafa,” sounded something like “KAY-a-fa.” Ronnie Reich, an archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, derives the name Qayafa from a word meaning, among other things, a stake or post that holds up a vine. Reich guesses that the name came from some ancestor whose occupation was tending vineyards. 

The shorter form, “Qefa” (“KAY-fa”), has a wide range of meanings and an even richer range of associations in scripture. In Gesenius’s Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament, the word “qefa” is defined as “to contract oneself, to draw together” or “to curdle, to coagulate as milk.” A number of related words follow in the lexicon, all of which express the idea of cutting off, destruction, ending, or dying. 

Both forms of the name go back to the same Semitic root, “kayafim,” the plural of “kayafa.” (Note that the letters we transliterate as Q and K are different, but pronounced the same or almost the same in first-century Aramaic.) In Hebrew, the word means “place of refuge” or “dwelling-place.” Gesenius defines the same word in Aramaic as “cross-beam”; used as a verb, “to connect” or “join together.” 

All these meanings have deep and resonant associations in the Hebrew Scriptures, and anyone who was at all familiar with those Scriptures would have made at least some of those associations. 

Greek to Us

Every good speaker depends on more than just the meanings of words to make his point. Gestures, expressions, tone of voice, volume — all these things convey meaning, and in some ways convey it more directly than words alone can do. 

Wordplay is an essential tool for masterful speakers. When Simon recognized Jesus as the Messiah, for example, Jesus replied, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The name “Peter” comes from the Greek word for “rock.” 

Here the wordplay is partially preserved, because the name has been translated into a Greek equivalent along with the rest of the saying. 

Most of Jesus’ wordplay, however, is lost in translation: Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the Gospels are preserved in Greek. We have the meanings of the words, but not the sounds of the words. If we want to understand the whole meaning of what Jesus, the master speaker, was telling us, we have to reconstruct some of the sounds as well. 

“Peter” is the name the Gospels use for Simon. It’s a Greek translation of the Aramaic name Jesus gave him. But Paul always refers to him as “Cephas” — a transliteration, rather than a translation, of the Aramaic name. “Cephas,” of course, is our English transliteration of Paul’s Greek transliteration. We pronounce it “SEE-fas.” In Greek, the name sounded more like “KAY-fas.” But that S on the end is just there to make the name feel more at home as a Greek nominative. The Aramaic original would have sounded more like “KAY-fa.” Simon’s new name Kay-fa sounded exactly like the name of the famous and powerful Qay-fa. 

That Jesus was making a direct and emphatic comparison between Peter and Caiaphas is also supported by rules of grammar and syntax that govern the Aramaic and Hebrew Languages. However foreign to us, those rules were intimately familiar to the listeners to whom Jesus was speaking. We cannot see the comparison in the translated versions of the Gospels we read any more than we can hear the pun Jesus made when he renamed Simon with what sounded like the then high priest’s very well known name. Like the archeologists who explored the tomb of Caiaphas and discovered his name carved in the stone bone box, we need to investigate further. Beneath the surface of the sounds and meanings of the words of a language there are the rules of grammar and syntax. 

An Aramaic or Hebrew speaker uses the hard K sound, represented in writing by the letter Kaph, to make a comparison to something or for emphasis. Kaph is used as a prefix meaning “like” to make a comparison. A Hebrew writer or speaker would say, for example, “like an ephah” by pre-fixing the letter kaph to the word ephah and the word caiaphah would result. An ephah in Hebrew is a fundamental standard of measure, a measuring bowl. The Hebrew word “ephah” means a particular measure for grain. Sometimes kaph is added to achieve the effect of saying something is a veritable something or other in the same way. That is, using the caiapha exemplar, the conjunction could also mean a veritable ephah. 

Kaph is also used to draw a direct comparison between two things represented by two words in a phrase that both begin with that same hard K sound. In the case of the renaming of Simon, beneath the surface of the sounds that provide an apparent pun, Jesus makes a direct and explicit comparison between Peter and Caiaphas, between Kay-fa and Qay-fa. He does so emphatically in accordance with the right rules of grammar. Jesus said to Simon, you are Peter (sounded Kay-fa) and on this rock (sounded Kay-fa) I will build my assembly. To the audience of this spoken phrase the two words heard as Kay-fa had multiple meanings as already explained. One of the combinations of meanings would be Kay-fa as Peter and Kay-fa as Caiaphas. That combination of the multiplicity of probable meanings conveyed by Jesus’ compact phrase would intrinsically and properly support the direct comparison between Peter and Caiaphas. 

Now we can see that there could easily have been more to Jesus’ wordplay than what came through in the Greek. If Jesus was making a specific comparison to Caiaphas, then he was not just giving Simon a vague promise that whatever assembly he founded would be built on him in some indefinable way. He was promising that Peter would have the same place in the new order that Caiaphas held when Jesus spoke. 

Caiaphas was the nominal head of the Jewish religion, but he really served as the vicar of Annas. We should expect, then, that Peter would be the visible head of the new assembly, just as Caiaphas was the visible head of the old; but there would be an invisible mover who was really the head, for whom Peter would always act.
 

Transferring the Keys

Simon had only just identified Jesus as the Messiah. Would Jesus’ followers really understand that Jesus meant to strip Caiaphas of his divine privileges and hand them over to Simon? 

Jesus took no chances. He made sure he was understood by describing exactly what authority Peter would have: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 

Those words alone describe the authority Jesus intended to give Peter with some precision. But the disciples would not have heard those words alone. They would have remembered the keys in the prophet Isaiah — a passage that they would have recognized immediately as appropriate to this situation: “I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” 

The prophecy in Isaiah refers to Shebna, the unjust steward or prime minister in the kingdom of Judah, who — by divine judgment — will be stripped of his privileges and replaced with Eliakim. The keys of the kingdom will be taken from one and given to the other. 

When Jesus used exactly the same image to describe the power he was giving to Peter, the disciples who heard him might well have put all those things together. Just as the unjust steward was removed to make way for Eliakim, so the unjust Caiaphas was removed to make way for Peter, the rock on whom the Church would be built. Caiaphas’ prophetic voice would be cut off — an idea that we already saw was intimately associated with his name — and the divine ordination transferred to Peter. 

The discovery of Caiapha Ossuary provides us with the actual name of the High Priest called Caiaphas in the New Testament. The pronunciation of the name as spelled out on the ossuary is identical to the Hebrew word for rock, among others. When the passage of Scripture recording the renaming of Simon by Jesus is considered in light of the spelling and sounding of the name Caiapha, together with the grammatical effects of the repeated use of Kaph, there is a depth of possible implicit and explicit meaning that begs our attention and exploration. 

By considering the various primary and secondary meanings of the words used in the passage we are studying, and then by digging beneath the surface by means of etymology, syntax and grammar, we discover a word-key to a treasure trove carved in stone on the ossuary of the high priest. The same high priest who had once unknowingly prophesied when he said that it was better that one man die than an entire nation. Our Lord said he would build his Church on Kay-fa. We must explore the depths of probable meaning as best we can to restore our understanding of just what Jesus meant when he spoke the words he did. The Church would be built on Rock, on a “cross-beam,” on a High Priest, on a man who is like a post holding up a vine, on a man who is like a standard of measure, on a man who is like God, on God, on a shared high priesthood, and more. TP

Mr. Guy and Alycia, his wife of 25 years, have eight children. An attorney, he is a graduate of Brown University and Syracuse University College of Law, he served the City of Syracuse as an elected and appointed official in the capacities of City Councilor and Corporation Counsel. He was a Senior Attorney with the U.S. Department of HUD from 2005 to 2010. He is an inventor and entrepreneur with numerous patents issued and pending in the fields of communication and natural dental prosthetics. Rick has founded www.Cathlex.com.