Reducto Ad Caiaphas

There is a logical fallacy [1] of contemporary relevance known as the reducto ad hitlerum, in which that which leads to advocating a course of action undertaken or supported by Adolf Hitler is viewed as completely unjust and unacceptable.  This particular logical fallacy has been turned, as is common in such fashion, into various stories that seek to trick a person into endorsing Hitler by giving a selective comparison between him, FDR, and Winston Churchill that focus on FDR’s marital infidelity and Churchill’s excessive drinking.  In such a way, by omitting the worst about Hitler and by telling the worst about his contemporaries, people can be led to believe that Hitler was a better leader than others because the full context is not provided for.  Be that as it may, Hitler did enough that was descipable that few people relish supporting something openly when it is pointed out that this position was shared by the German Fuhrer.

A similar, albeit far less familiar, logical fallacy relates to one of the most noted villains in the Gospels, the corrupt high priest Caiaphas.  The particularly cynical advice of this corrupt elite was so notable that John mentions it twice in his Gospel account.  In John 11:49-50, we read:  “And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.”  While John then puts a prophetic application on this that the high priest for that year (a rather biting reference to the Roman tendency to change high priests often, and to the lack of legitimacy of the high priests of the late Second Temple period as a whole), Caiaphas’ prophecy was unintentional in that his goal was to get rid of a troublesome threat to his power and those of his cronies.  This particular statement is important enough to be referred to later on in John 18:12-14, which reads:  “Then the detachment of troops and the captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound Him.  And they led Him away to Annas first, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas who was high priest that year.  Now it was Caiphas who advised the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.”  Here we see the reference to Caiaphas’ previous statement, as if any serious reader or listener to the Bible would forget who Caiaphas was.

Those who take the scriptures seriously will see the scorn given to Caiaphas’ argument, and to the fact that it was only viewed as legitimate when reinterpreted from his cynical and utilitarian perspective and changed to a more prophetic and godly one, will find much to reflect on given the approach that the Bible takes to this statement.  Some people may be tempted to engage in a reducto ad Caiaphas and to claim that the argument to expedience is one that is illegitimate under any circumstances because the Bible looks so badly at Caiphas (and at Pontius Pilate, who makes the same sort of argument himself when condemning a Man he knew to be entirely innocent to death merely to appease a crowd of Jewish elites after extracting a blasphemous statement from them that they had no king but Caesar).  Yet this would be a fallacy as well, and one that is worth reflecting upon given the fact that the Bible as a far more nuanced view of ethics than is often understood be the case.

In particular, even if the Bible takes a dim view of corrupt claims to expedience, the Bible speaks much more highly of prudential morality.  One need only cite a few examples of this to indicate the frequency in which the godly engaged in behavior that many contemporary believers would not find blameless.  David feigned madness when threatened with death in Gath while escaping the continual harassment of Saul.  Rehab deceived the king of Jericho about the whereabouts of the that lodged with her.  Even the prophets were not exempt from this tendency, for Elisha led the Syrian troops that had been sent to stop his intelligence gathering efforts into Samaria where the Israelite king wondered aloud if he was to kill the troops, only to be told to feed them and send them on their way (see 2 Kings 6:8-23 for this more unfamiliar story).  Clearly the obligation to tell the truth was not quite as ironclad as certain moral absolutists would like to claim, for nowhere in any of these stories is any censure given to the people involved for behaving cleverly.  Indeed, the cleverness of the people involved is likely one of the reasons why these stories were remembered and recorded for our example.

What was it that made Caiphas’ and Pilate’s attempts to evade responsibility so blameworthy without bringing disrepute to any concern for prudential matters?  For one, both were corrupt in their general behavior.  They did not adopt prudential morality or clever misdirection in order to serve God or save the lives of others, but rather to preserve their own position and to free themselves from the need to address a morally complicated situation.  This suggests that it is not merely moral acts that we must consider but also the context of them.  We must consider the moral context of those who truth or evasion is being practiced with—God expects and requires our candor, but heathen rulers are under no such obligation to get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  The sort of clever deception that the Bible praises in certain circumstances is a demonstration that we are not to view Caipahas’ argument of expedience as being entirely unacceptable in all circumstances—God may decide to save us from trouble, but He may expect us to use our own God-given good sense as well to the best of our abilities.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reducto Ad Caiaphas

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Bible Jesus Read | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: An Act Of Moral Imagination | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Category Error: A Case Study In Bad Logic | Edge Induced Cohesion

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