“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). Each of the four canonical Gospels report that there was a chance that Jesus of Nazareth might have been released, and not sent to his death on the cross; and that Barabbas was released in his place.
Is this factual reporting? Did this actually happen in real historical time? Or was it a fable, a myth, a story “made up” in the telling? Barabbas appears in all four Gospels (Matt 27:15–26; Mark 15:6–15; Luke 23:13–25; John 18:39–40). What are we to make of him?
Certainly the actual death of Jesus was an event that happened in real historical time. Although some critics have disputed this, the evidence is clear that Jesus did exist, and that he did actually die. The year 33 is the year that is normally identified as the year of his death. See https://www.patheos.com/blogs/keithgiles/2022/04/did-jesus-even-exist/
In thinking about this story, there are a number of elements to consider. The name Barabbas is the first of these. It is an Aramaic name, combining two nouns: bar, meaning son, and abba, meaning father. So he is “the son of the father”—a name replete with symbolism, especially when he is placed alongside Jesus of Nazareth, son of God.
Indeed, the third century writer, Origen, in his Commentary on Matthew (ch 27, para 17), indicates that he had access to versions of Matthew’s Gospel that identified Barabbas as “Jesus Barabbas”. This strengthens the symbolic power of this figure and suggests that he might have functioned as an “alternative Jesus”, a literary device, to invite the reader to see the choice available to the crowd, and by extension, to consider their own choice in relation to Jesus: a kind of ancient altar call, “whom do you choose: Jesus, son of the father, or Jesus, the Son of God?”
Some interpreters suggest that perhaps there might be an allusion to the Israelite ritual of the scapegoat, in which one sacrificial goat is released whilst another bears the weight of sin as an atoning substitute (Lev 16:8-10; 23:27–32). In the Gospels, one son is released on behalf of the people; but this person is not the true “son of the [F]ather”; rather, the true son of God is forced to his death, which is later interpreted as a death that does carry the weight of Israel’s sin, in the manner of the scapegoat. It’s an ironic, dramatic depiction of the scapegoat process. Perhaps.
The status of Barabbas is a second factor to consider. Mark describes him as “a man [who] was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). The word used to describe this “insurrection”, stasis, has the sense of a violent uprising. A word from the same root is used to describe those in prison with Barabbas—“rebels”.
The word stasis had long been used to describe the civil wars that broke out within the Greek city-states, often because of economic inequalities, social conflicts, and class struggle. Barabbas, it would seem, had been implicated in such an uprising; he was imprisoned with others (rebels) who had taken part in such an uprising, and he had committed murder in the course of this insurrection.
Matthew describes him, more succinctly, as “a notorious prisoner” (Matt 27:16); the word used here, desmion, has a less dramatic force, for it is the usual term for a prisoner, with no sense of political agitation attached (for instance, it is applied to Paul when he is in prison at Acts 16:25, 27; 23:8; 25:14, 27; 28:17; Phlmn 1:1, 9; Eph 3:1; 4:1; 2 Tim 1:8). Matthew has reduced the tension and removed the dimension of political agitation in his version.
John is similarly succinct, describing Barabbas as “a bandit” (John 18:40). However, the word used here, lēstēs, is loaded with political weight. It can refer to a robber, or a bandit; or it can have a more focussed sense of a rebel, a revolutionary. The former meaning is conveyed by the word in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30, 36) and in the words of denunciation that Jesus speaks to the money changers and buyers and sellers in the temple forecourt (Mark 11:17; Matt 21:13; Luke 19:46). Such people are robbers who steal by surprise attack or by their unscrupulous practices.
It is, however, the more political sense of the word lēstēs that is more clearly in view in John’s narrative. Josephus, writing his account of the war that took place between the Romans and the Jews in 66–74 CE, uses this word forty two times; most of these instances describe either men who lay in wait beside the roadside to rob passing travellers (like in the familiar parable), or, more often, individuals who took part in the counter-insurgency against the Romans.
Their actions are violent and threatening; such men would work in groups, attack individuals (often in a crowd, which gave a protective cover to the perpetrator), acting with brutal violence. A number of times, in the reports of Josephus, these are violent actions undertaken for political purposes, by members of the group known collectively as the Zealots. The political overtones of the word are strong.
In such company, then, we find Barabbas (John 18:40) and, by implication, Jesus; certainly, the inscription that is placed over Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:26; Matt 27:37; Luke 23:38; John 19:19) refers to him as “King of the Jews”, a political attribution without doubt. Even when (as John reports) the chief priests questioned this wording, Pilate insisted: “what I have written, I have written” (John 19:20–22).
Indeed, those crucified alongside Jesus are described with the same term for the political insurgents described by Josephus, lēstēs, in two Gospel accounts: “with him they crucified two bandits (lēstas), one on his right and one on his left” (Mark 15:27; so also Matt 27:38, repeated at 27:44). Luke modifies his description of these two (Luke 23:23:33, 39; they are kakourgoi (literally, those who do wrong). Nevertheless, the NRSV and NIV both render this as “criminals”.
In fact, Jesus had already opened the door to a politicised interpretation of his mission, when he was approached by Temple soldiers in the garden, kissed in betrayal by Judas, and handed over to be taken to the authorities. Seeing the soldiers arrive, he said, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit (lēstēn) ? (Mark 14:48; the same word is also used at Matt 26:55; Luke 22:52). Jesus had already indicated that he knew that the Roman and Jewish authorities were perceiving that he was a political agitator.
(On this line of interpretation, from the Palm Sunday story, see https://johntsquires.com/2022/04/06/the-politics-of-jesus-as-he-enters-jerusalem-luke-19-palm-sunday-year-c/ and the links to other blogs given there)
Luke intensifies the negative portrayal of Barabbas, alongside of the way that he strengthens the innocence of Jesus. He depicts Barabbas as “a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder” (Luke 23:19, repeated in 25). The word translated as insurrection is the Greek term stasis, already noted above as referring to a political uprising. Barabbas, in this account, is clearly a political agitator, prepared to commit murder in the course of his violent activism.
Luke provides this description in the context of the accusation that the chief priests made to Pilate against Jesus, that “he stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place” (23:5), and the later indication by Pilate, that they had presented him as “one who was perverting the people” (23:14). This sounds clearly political; Jesus was being accused of being an activist, an agitator, at the very least.
Both times that this claim is raised, Pilate declares Jesus innocent; yet the same declaration is never made in relation to Barabbas. Luke’s apologetic intent is to lessen the blame placed on the Romans for the the death of Jesus, and to divert attention towards the Jews, as the prime instigator of this action against Jesus. This is yet another indication of political intent in the way that Jesus is perceived.
Did this incident involving Barabbas actually take place? The historical implausibility of this incident is a third important factor. The fact is that there is no evidence of such a custom in other ancient sources. Certainly, some conservative scholars have searched carefully and drawn from other texts incidents that they claim provide an analogy to the Barabbas incident.
An incident retold by Josephus is cited to indicate that the liberation of a prisoner did once take place (Antiquities 20.9.3); but this one-off occurrence did not reflect an annual custom. There are far too many dissimilarities to the Gospel narrative. It fails to support the Barabbas story. Another incident recounted by Livy (History of Rome 5.13) does tell of a temporary release of prisoners from their manacles; but this was done, under difficult conditions, in an attempt to appease the gods, to bring a change in the weather. It’s quite different from the Barabbas situation.
A third alleged parallel, from Roman law, is in the Papyrus Florentinus (61, 59ff). However, the prisoner who is released in this scene, after pleas from the crowd, had not yet been declared guilty (as Barabbas had), and it was not at a Jewish festival or even a Roman feast day (as Barabbas was). The parallels are feeble. There is also a complex argument mounted in relation to a single phrase in the tractate of the Mishnah dealing with Passover (Pesahim 8:6), but the parallels claimed and the way in which the text needs to be treated both mitigate against there being any relevance to the Barabbas story.
So I think that the ways that these incidents are claimed to provide a demonstration of the existence of a Paschal pardon such as the Gospels report are not at all clear. The more such scholars trawl the evidence and mount their arguments to say that this could really have happened, the more I recall the famous words, “methinks they doth protest too much” (adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet).
There is a clear political improbability to the account found in all four Gospels. Pilate was a ferocious and fearless leader whose strength of character is made clear by the numerous times that, according to Josephus, he sent in his troops to quell an uprising, to scatter a crowd, to squash a rebellion.
American scholar Bart Ehrman writes that Pilate “was a brutal, ruthless ruler with no concerns at all for what the people he governed thought about him or his policies. He was violent, mean-spirited, and hardheaded. He used his soldiers as thugs to beat the people into submission, and he ruled Judea with an iron fist.” (See https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rationaldoubt/2019/05/pilate-released-barabbas-really/)
Pilate would not have been cowed by the crowd in Jerusalem for Passover; had he wanted to act, he would simply have ordered his troops to attack, scatter the crowd, and disperse the built-up tension. The Gospel accounts of Pilate, across all four narratives, are improbable; the apologetic purpose (to show the Romans in a better light, to avoid being seen as an agitator or rebel, and to place the blame on the Jewish authorities) becomes clear, when we read in this way. We need to bear all of this in mind, as we read and listen to the familiar narrative this Easter, and each Easter.