The following is adapted from the glossary and reference guide for The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived, paired down just to the main characters. (The original, longer guide also defines key places and events.)
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Alexander. See Simon (of Cyrene).
Annas. The patriarchal former high priest who presided over the initial hearing of Jesus (John 18:12-24; see also Luke 3:2). His official rule was from AD 6 to 15, and he was succeeded by his son-in-law Joseph Caiaphas. While the Romans were the ones who appointed and deposed high priests, the Jews considered the position to last for life. The power of Annas’s Sadducee family is seen in the fact that his successors after Caiaphas included five of his sons. He died in AD 35, two years after Jesus’s execution. His headquarters may have been a two-story palatial mansion on the eastern slope of the Upper City (the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem), just southwest of the Temple Mount.
Barabbas. A prisoner released by Pilate as a Passover custom. Bar-abbas is an Aramaic patronymic meaning “son of the father,” and an early scribal tradition identifies his name as “Jesus Barabbas”—which would add to the irony of his release instead of Jesus the son of the eternal Father. All of our information about Barabbas comes from the Gospel accounts. He is characterized as a notorious revolutionary (Matt. 27:16), guilty of murder and plunder during an insurrection in Jerusalem (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19, 25; John 18:40). He may have had supporters in the crowd (see Mark 15:18), and the two thieves on the cross may have been arrested for similar crimes.
Battalion. At full strength this would be six hundred Roman soldiers (also known as a “cohort”), one-tenth the size of a “legion.” They gathered before Jesus at Pilate‘s headquarters (Matt. 27:27; Mark 15:16).
Beloved Disciple. The apostle John’s self-designation in his Gospel, which identifies the author (21:24-25; see also 21:20) as an eyewitness to Jesus’s Last Supper in the upper room (13:23), his crucifixion (19:35), and the empty tomb (20:8).
Caiaphas, Joseph. A son-in-law of Annas and the acting high priest who presided over Jesus’s Jewish trial. A Sadducee, he ruled nineteen years (AD 18 to 36), longer than any other high priest in the first century (high priests were often deposed after a year in office). It was Caiaphas who offered a political prediction during the plot to kill Jesus that John interprets with deeper theological meaning and irony (John 11:49-52; see also 18:14). The Caiaphas Ossuary (bone box), which may well be authentic, was discovered in South Jerusalem in 1990. Now another ossuary has been found of Caiaphas’s granddaughter, with Caiaphas spelled the same slightly unusual way in Hebrew.
Centurion. A skilled Roman officer in command of a century (up to one hundred, but usually between sixty and eighty soldiers). After the crucifixion and the earthquake, the centurion at Golgotha praised God, acknowledged Jesus’s innocence, and confessed Jesus as the Son of God (Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47); he also confirmed to Pilate that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44-45).
Cleopas. One of two disciples of Jesus who encountered the risen Messiah on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Cleopas was likely with either his wife or a friend.
Greeks. God-fearing Gentiles (including, but not limited to, actual Greeks). They had come to Jerusalem to worship at the Jewish festival.
Herod Antipas. One of Herod the Great’s four sons, he was a ruler in Galilee and Perea who inherited part of his father’s kingdom upon his death in 4 BC. He reigned for forty-two years, from 4 BC to AD 39. He was known as “Herod the Tetrarch” [i.e., ruler of a quarter].
High Priest. A powerful position usually held by Sadducees. Appointed by the Roman governor, the high priest served as president of the Sanhedrin, collected taxes, supervised the temple, and represented Jewish interests before Rome.
Jesus of Nazareth. Also called “The Christ” (Messiah). Jesus was born of a young virgin in the town of Bethlehem, perhaps in October of 6 or 5 BC. After his mother, Mary, and his adoptive father, Joseph, fled to Egypt on account of the murderous designs of Herod the Great, the family relocated to the town of Nazareth in lower Galilee, where Joseph served as a carpenter. Apart from a brief account of Jesus’s interaction with the rulers of Jerusalem when he was twelve years old (probably in AD 7 or 8), we hear no further details about the life of Jesus until the beginning of his public ministry, which likely began in late AD 29 and continued until his death on Friday, April 3, AD 33. Jesus’s relatively brief public ministry began with his baptism and wilderness temptations, continued with his authoritative teaching and miracle-working power, and culminated in his atoning death at the hands of the Romans and Jews, followed by his resurrection and ascension.
Joanna. Among the first women to discover the empty tomb (Luke 24:10), she was the wife of Chuza, the household manager or steward of King Herod Antipas. She was a follower of Jesus and helped to provide financially for Jesus’s ministry, along with Susanna and many others (Luke 8:3).
Joseph of Arimathea. A Pharisee who was a secret disciple but feared what fellow Jews would think of him if they knew his allegiance (John 19:38). He was wealthy (see Matt. 27:57), was a respected member of the Sanhedrin who did not agree with the Council’s treatment of Jesus (see Luke 23:50-51), and was originally from the Jewish town of Arimathea (Luke 23:50). Joseph requested possession of Jesus’s body from Pilate and was granted permission to bury him in a newly hewn rock tomb that he owned near a garden and near Golgotha ( John 19:41).
Judas Iscariot. One of Jesus’s twelve original disciples, he served as the treasurer, was known to steal money from their collective moneybag (John 12:6), and was the son of Simon Iscariot. He betrayed Jesus with a kiss for the price of thirty pieces of silver [perhaps equivalent to about four months of pay for a skilled laborer], and then hung himself after Jesus was condemned to die (Matt. 27:1-10; see also Acts 1:18-19).
Legion. A Roman army unit composed of nine cohorts and one first cohort (5,120 legionaries plus a large number of camp followers, servants, and slaves). Including the auxiliaries, it could contain as many as six thousand fighting men. Jesus reminded Peter that his Father could send more than twelve legions of angels (i.e., over 60,000) to intervene for him (Matt. 26:53).
Malchus. A bondservant of the high priest Caiaphas. His right ear was cut off by Peter and immediately healed by Jesus during the arrest (John 18:10; see also Matt. 26:51; Mark 14:47). One of Malchus’s relatives, a fellow bondservant of the high priest, questioned Peter about his relationship with Jesus (John 18:26).
Mary Magdalene. A Galilean woman probably from the town of Magdala (on the west bank of the Sea of Galilee). Jesus delivered her from seven demons (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9). She became a follower of Jesus (Matt. 27:57), a witness to the crucifixion and burial (Matt. 27:61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; John 19:25), and was among the women who went to the tomb on Sunday (Mark 16:1; John 20:1). She was the first person to see Jesus alive (Mark 16:9) and told the other disciples (Luke 24:10; John 20:18).
Mary (mother of Jesus). She gave birth to Jesus while still a virgin, raised him, was present at his execution and burial, and witnessed his resurrection life. From the cross Jesus entrusted his widowed mother to John’s care, and she went to live in his home (John 19:25-27)—perhaps because Mary’s other sons were not yet believers ( John 7:5; see also Matt. 13:57; Mark 3:21, 31; 6:4). Mary’s other sons were named James (author of the biblical book of James), Joseph/Joses, Simon, Judas/Jude (author of the biblical book of Jude) (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:2-3; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:4-5; Gal. 1:19). She also had at least two daughters (Mark 6:3).
Mary (mother of James and Joses/Joseph). A witness of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection appearances. Her sons were named James the Younger (hence her husband must have been named James) and Joses/Joseph. See Matt. 27:61; 27:56; Mark 15:40, 47. The fact that two Marys in the story have sons with the same names ( James and Joseph/ Joses) shows the commonality of certain surnames in first-century Galilee. The name Mary, in particular, was exceedingly common in first-century Palestine, hence the need to distinguish between different Marys in the Gospels, whether by way of their hometown (Mary Magdalene) or in association with their husband (Mary of Clopas) or sons (Mary mother of James and Joses).
Mary (sister of Martha and Lazarus). Jesus’s friend from Bethany who hosted Jesus during the last week of his earthly life in the home she shared with her siblings Lazarus and Martha (Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-2; 12:1-8). She anointed Jesus’s head with oil (Matt. 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8; but not Luke 7:36-50, which features another, earlier anointing of Jesus by a “sinful woman”).
Mary (wife of Clopas). A Galilean witness of Jesus’s crucifixion, she may be identified as Jesus’s “mother’s sister” (John 19:25)—though see discussion under Salome below. According to Hegesippus, as quoted by the historian Eusebius, Clopas was the brother of Joseph of Nazareth (Hist. Eccl. 3.11; 3.32.6; 4.22.4). If so, Mary and Clopas were Jesus’s aunt and uncle. Their son Simeon ( Jesus’s cousin) became a leader of the Jerusalem church succeeding James the brother of Jesus.
Nicodemus. A Galilean Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin who had a substantial conversation at night with Jesus on the new birth ( John 3:1-15), pled with his fellow Jewish leaders for fairness regarding Jesus ( John 7:50), and brought a substantial aromatic mixture of spices to preserve the corpse of Jesus ( John 19:35).
Pilate, Pontius. A Roman citizen, a member of the equestrian (middle) class, and the Roman governor of Judea and Roman prefect under Emperor Tiberius. He ruled from AD 26 to 36. He ruled over all non-Roman citizens in Judea and Samaria. His headquarters and residence were in Caesarea Maritima, about 68 miles (110 km) northwest of Jerusalem. Pilate was in Jerusalem for Passover in AD 33, staying in his Jerusalem headquarters, the former palace of Herod the Great.
Rufus. See Simon (of Cyrene).
Salome. One of Jesus’s female followers in Galilee, she witnessed the crucifixion and went to the tomb on Sunday (Mark 15:40; 16:1). The parallel passage in Matthew 27:56 makes it likely that she is the mother of the sons of Zebedee (i.e., James and John). Interpreters differ on the number of women represented in the Greek construction in John 19:25 (“his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene”). If “his mother’s sister” is a separate woman, the reference is likely to Salome (which would make James and John the cousins of Jesus). However, it seems slightly more likely that Mary the wife of Clopas is Mary’s sister (or sister-in-law). See the discussion under Mary (wife of Clopas).
Sanhedrin. Or “Council.” Headquartered in Jerusalem and comprised of both Pharisees and Sadducees, this was the highest ecclesiastical court of the Jews and the highest national body in charge of Jewish affairs. At full strength it may have had seventy elders, but twenty-three members present were sufficient for a quorum. The president of the Council at the time of Jesus’s arrest was Caiaphas the high priest.
Simon (of Cyrene). An African man, likely a Jew, from Cyrene (a region in North Africa with a large Jewish population) who carried Jesus’s cross to the site of the crucifixion on Golgotha. Simon and his sons Alexander and Rufus were likely traveling to Jerusalem for Passover. The mention of his sons’ names may indicate that they were believers in the early church.
Simon Peter. Spokesman for the Twelve (e.g., John 6:68-69), paired with the “beloved disciple” in the second half of John’s Gospel (e.g., 21:15-23), who denied Jesus three times prior to the crucifixion (18:15-18, 25- 27) but was subsequently reinstated into service by Jesus (21:15-19).
Twelve, the. Jesus’s twelve core disciples (Matt. 10:1-4 pars.):
- Simon Peter and Andrew (brothers),
- James and John (brothers, sons of Zebedee),
- Bartholomew (Nathanael),
- Matthew (Levi),
- James (son of Alphaeus),
- Thaddaeus (Judas the son of James),
- Simon (the Zealot), and
- Judas Iscariot (son of Simon).