Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 3 - #28. The Roman Trial, Part Three: Barabbas, pp 787-820

(detailed summary)


The Roman Trial, Part Three: Barabbas
(Mk 15: 6-11; Mt 27: 15-21; Lk 23: 13-19; Jn 18: 38b-40)


Summary

In Luke we have a scene of transition between Jesus' appearance before Herod and his return before Pilate, dressed in a splendid garment, probably white, symbolizing his innocence; Pilate therefore proposes to release him after the disciplinary measures of the whip. In John, the transition is from the interior of the palace to the outside where the Jews are, and John draws from the same source as Luke to remind us of Jesus' innocence.

Mark, Matthew and John now allude to a custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover. The existence of such an event is problematic. If the existence of Barabbas is not disputed, a bandit who allegedly took part in a riot in Jerusalem, and whose name is a patronymic which means: son of Abba, we cannot say the same of the custom. The initiative to ask for someone's grace comes from the crowd in Mark (v. 8), from the Jewish authorities and the people in Luke (v. 18), and from Pilate himself in John. Research into Greco-Roman or Jewish parallels where there might exist a custom of releasing a prisoner on the occasion of a feast remains fruitless and forces us to conclude that it is probably the creation of the author of an ancient narrative that brought together the antithetical figures of Jesus and Barabbas, one an innocent man who is crucified, the other a rioter who is released.

In Matthew, we also have this revelation of Jesus' innocence in a dream about Pilate's wife. Such a story would come from the same network of popular narratives where God uses extraordinary means to reveal Himself to the Gentiles, who do not have the Scriptures. Here the story serves as an inclusion with the infancy narrative.


  1. Translation
  2. Comment
    1. The Transitional Prefaces (Luke 23: 13-16; John 18: 38b)
      1. Luke 23: 13-16
      2. John 18: 38b
    2. The Custom of Releasing a Prisoner at the Feast (Mark 15: 6; Matthew 27: 15; John 18: 38a)
    3. The Identity of Barabbas (Mark 15: 7; Matthew 27: 16; Luke 23: 19; John 18: 40b)
    4. Pilate's Offer of Release (Mark 15: 8-10; Matthew 27: 17-18; John 18: 39b)
    5. The Message from Pilate's Wife (Matthew 27: 19)
    6. The Choice Made for Barabbas (Mark 5: 11; Matthew 27: 20-21; Luke 23: 18 [Acts 3: 14]; John 18: 40a)
  3. Analysis
    1. Composition of the Scene
    2. Historicity of Barabbas
    3. Historicity of the Paschal Release

  1. Translation

    Words of Mark shared by the other evangelists are underlined. Words in blue indicate what is common to Matthew and Luke, in red words of John shared by other evangelists. Square brackets [] indicate parallels found in another sequence in the New Testament

    Mark 15Matthew 27Luke 23John 18Acts 3
    [4 But Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, "I find nothing guilty in this man".]38b And having said this, again he went out to the Jews and says to them, "I find no case at all against him.
    13 But Pilate, having called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 said to them, "You brought to me this man as leading astray the people; and behold, having investigated him in your presence, I have found nothing in this man (making him) guilty of what you charged against him. 15 Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us; and behold there is nothing worthy of death that has been done by him. 16 Having chastised him (by whipping), therefore, I shall let him go".
    6 But at a/the feast he used to release to them one prisoner whom they requested.15 But at a/the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they willed.[*17 But he had the obligation to release one person to the mat a/the feast]39a "You have a custom that I release to you one person at Passover.
    7 But there was someone called Barabbas imprisoned with the rioters, those who had done killing during the riot.16 But at that time they had a notorious prisoner called [Jesus] Barabbas.
    8 And the crowd, having come up, began to request (that he do) as he used to do for them.
    9 But Pilate answered them, saying, "Do you will that I release to you ’the King of the Jews’?"17 So when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you will that I release to you: [Jesus] Barabbas or Jesus who is called Messiah?"39b So do you desire that I release to you ’the King of the Jews’?"
    10 for he had knowledge that (it was) out of envy/zeal that the chief priests had given him over.18 For he was aware that (it was) out of envy/zeal that they gave him over.
    19 But while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, "Let there be nothing between you and that just man, for many things have I suffered today in a dream because of him".
    11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he should rather release Barabbas to them.20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds that they should request Barabbas, but Jesus they should destroy.18 But all together they shouted out, saying, "Take this fellow but release to us Barabbas", 40a So they yelled back, "Not this fellow but Barabbas".14a [Peter speaking in the Temple precincts to the men of Israel, having mentioned Pilate’s decision to release Jesus, says:] "But you denied the holy and just one, and requested that a man
    19 who was someone thrown into prison because of a certain riot that had taken place in the city and (because of) killing.40b But Barabbas was a bandit.14b who was a killer be granted to you".
    12 But in answer again, Pilate kept saying to them, "What therefore shall I do with him whom you call ’the King of the Jews’?"21 But in answer the governor said to them, "Which of the two do you will that I should release to you?" But they said, "Barabbas".20 But again Pilate cried out in addressing them, wishing to release Jesus.
    13 But they shouted back, "Crucify him.21 But they kept crying out in return saying, "Crucify, crucify him".

    *That is probably a copyist's addition to make Luke correspond to Mark/Matthew

  2. Comment

    This episode about Barabbas is minimal in Mark. Matthew introduces two scenes, the dream of Pilate's wife about the innocence of Jesus and Pilate's question about the choice between Jesus and Barabbas. In Luke we have a transition scene after the interrogation before Herod where Pilate claims that he finds nothing guilty in Jesus, a transition that plays the same role as the dream of Pilate's wife. John, for his part, offers us the shortest account where Pilate finds no motive against Jesus and Barabbas is mentioned only at the end, but with great dramatic force.

    1. The Transitional Prefaces (Luke 23: 13-16; John 18: 38b)

      1. Luke 23: 13-16

        Jesus returns from Herod's house dressed in a splendid garment. It was at this time that Pilate summoned the chief priests, the rulers and the people. The verb "to summon" (sygkalein) does not in itself have a judicial function. Among those who are summoned are the rulers (archontes). In Luke, these rulers appoint all or part of the chief priests, the temple rulers, the elders and the scribes, in short, the entire Sanhedrin. But "the people" are also there. This is surprising, because Luke has repeatedly presented the people as favorable to Jesus, protecting him from the authorities (19:47-48; 20:6, 19:45; 21:38; 22:2), while he is on the cross, not expressing any hostility. What does this mean? Luke is not always consistent. Elsewhere, he will not hesitate to present the people, the crowds, and the multitudes, all equivalent terms in his own language, as hostile to Jesus (Acts 2, 22-23; 3, 12-15; 10, 39; 13, 27-28).

        In v. 14 we find a very Lucan vocabulary: "said to them" (eipen pros), "and behold" (kai idou), "in (yur) presence" (enōpion), "to lead astray" (apostrephein), a synonym for "to mislead" (23:2: diastrephein) and "stir up" (23:5: anaseiein), "having investigated" (anakrinein) used in Paul's trials in the Acts of the Apostles. The fact that Pilate repeats the accusation against Jesus, and mentions having made an investigation, all of this gives a certain solemnity to his verdict of innocence.

        In v. 15, Pilate reminds us that Herod came to the same conclusion ("but neither did Herod"). The meaning of Herod's referral of Jesus to Pilate has been the subject of much discussion among biblical scholars, some of whom see it as a request for further investigation. This is forgetting the meaning of the splendid garment with which Herod clothed Jesus: a garment probably white, a symbol of innocence. They also discussed the meaning of "us" in: "for he sent him back to us". This "us" is not a royal plural, but refers to Pilate and the Jewish accusers. V. 15 ends with Pilate's reiteration of Jesus' innocence, a central statement for Luke. The scene ends with a compromise proposal, that of a disciplinary measure with a whip (not to be confused with scourging); Luke, as is his custom, greatly reduces the harshness of Mark's scenes with a minor beating.

      2. John 18: 38b

        The scene is very short in John. Pilate avoids Jesus' questioning of the truth by going back to the Jews (the nation and the chief priests) who are already gathered, without having been summoned. He appears as an intermediary, but an intermediary who is not willing to listen to Jesus about the truth, nor to the Jews to satisfy their request. His assertion of Jesus' innocence is similar to that found in Luke: the two evangelists draw independently on a source that recurs three times in the passion narrative.

    2. The Custom of Releasing a Prisoner at the Feast (Mark 15: 6; Matthew 27: 15; John 18: 38a)

      If it is Pilate who summons the chief priests and the rulers and the people in Luke, in John the Jews are already gathered, in Matthew they have gathered (synagein) as in an official process, and in Mark the crowd "having come up" (15:8), as when one goes up to Jerusalem, perhaps a reference to the place of the praetorium on the western hill, in front of the royal palace. It is in this context that Mark explicitly and Matthew implicitly mentions the custom of releasing a prisoner at a feast. John also mentions it. As for Luke, it is in 23:17 that he does so, but a majority of biblical scholars reject this verse as an insertion of a copyist, because it is absent from the best versions such as P75 and the codices Vaticanus, Alexandrinus and Sahidic.

      Let us examine this custom. There are points of agreement and disagreement.

      1. While Mark/Matthew (and Luke) speak of a feast, without specifying it, John specifies that it is Passover. However, the last time the three evangelists used the word feast (Mk 14: 1-2; Mt 26:2.5; Lk 22:1), it was the Passover. Therefore, we must conclude that we are referring to the feast par excellence, the Passover.

      2. Mark writes: "used to release", an imperfect expression of a habit, Matthew has rather: "was accustomed to release", while John uses the name "a custom"; in Luke, one would have a certain hardening with : "he had the obligation".

      3. Mark (and Luke) presents this custom as coming from Pilate, and Matthew from the governor (who is actually Pilate). John, on the other hand, makes it a custom of the Jews.

      4. There is agreement on the content of this custom: releasing a person or a prisoner.

      5. In Mark and Matthew, it is the crowd, made up of the people of Jerusalem, who choose the prisoner, under the pressure of the chief priests. In John, the chief priests are part of the group that chooses.

      In short, there is agreement on all the points of this custom, except for the source of this custom (Pilate or a Jewish custom).

    3. The Identity of Barabbas (Mark 15: 7; Matthew 27: 16; Luke 23: 19; John 18: 40b)

      All four Gospels agree that the Romans had a prisoner called Barabbas in custody. However, opinions differ on the reasons for his arrest. John speaks simply of a brigand or bandit (lētēs). The other Gospels do not use this term for Barabbas, but for those who will be crucified with Jesus. On the other hand, Mark, speaking of the mobsters imprisoned with him, seems to prepare us for the crucifixion scene where they will be associated with Jesus. And Mark (7) and Luke (19) tell us about a riot (statis), and according to Luke, that would have taken place in Jerusalem. Again, according to these two evangelists, a murder was committed.

      Mark's purpose is to contrast the crucifixion of an innocent man with a man guilty of rioting. Likewise, for Luke, Barabbas is guilty of riot and murder (see also Acts 3:14 where he describes him as a murderer). If Matthew makes no reference to the riot, it is probably due to the fact that, writing after the Jewish revolt of the year 70, he wants to avoid Jesus being associated with a political insurrection.

      One may ask: why did he choose the name of the rioter Barabbas, and not the name of those who were to be crucified with Jesus? One possible answer is that Barabbas would have been the most notable of these troublemakers. Note that Barabbas (Bar = son in Aramaic, therefore son of Abba) is a surname, i.e. the father's name used to distinguish him from all those who bear the same name. The surname is sometimes used alone to name someone, e.g. Bartimaeus (son of Timaeus) in Mk 10:46. Or, the proper name can be combined with the surname: Simon Barjona (Simon, son of Jonah) in Mt 16:17. What then is the proper name of Barabbas? According to Matthew (16-17) it is Jesus. On the one hand, it would be difficult to understand a scribe giving Barabbas the proper name of Jesus, and on the other hand, it is understandable that some copyists have omitted this name after the intervention of Origen (beginning of the 3rd century), finding it unacceptable that this murderer has the same name as the saviour of the world.

      What does the surname Barabbas refer to? It could refer to Bar-Rabban, as long as one accepts the double "rr" as in some manuscripts. Rabban is an honorary title given to an eminent teacher or to the head of the Sanhedrin, a title constructed from the word "rabbi". However, this interpretation cannot be accepted because, on the one hand, there is no evidence that this title was in use in the first century, and on the other hand, the best manuscripts have only one "r" in the name. Therefore, the most likely interpretation is that Barabbas means: son of Abba. In the Gemara section of the Talmud (around 200-400 AD), there are many people with the name Barabbas, and in particular Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, a figure of the Tannaitic period, before 200 AD. Similarly, this name was found in a burial dated before the year 70 at Giv'at ha-Mivtar.

    4. Pilate's Offer of Release (Mark 15: 8-10; Matthew 27: 17-18; John 18: 39b)

      The initiative to ask for someone's grace comes from the crowd in Mark (v. 8), from the Jewish authorities and the people in Luke (v. 18), and from Pilate himself in John, as he is looking for a way out. Mark does not tell us whether the crowd had a candidate in mind when they went up to Jerusalem to express their request, but the fact remains that his phrase is a bit strange, literally: "to request as he used to do for them"; one must mentally translate: "to request (that he do) as he used to do for them". Matthew's sentence (v. 17) where Pilate asks to choose between Jesus and Barabbas is less bizarre, but his "Pilate said to them" poses a grammatical problem, because "them" does not refer to the above (the Romans), but to v. 15 (the crowd). But in both Mark and Matthew, the crowd does not seem to have made up its mind in advance about who is to be released, and so must be persuaded by the chief priests.

      In Mark and John, Pilate refers to Jesus as "King of the Jews". It cannot be assumed that Pilate knew Jesus well, and in John Jesus claimed that his kingdom was not political. But Pilate merely repeats the accusation of the Jews and the object of the trial. Matthew is different since it is the title "Messiah" (christos) that is put forward, a title that was not used in the Roman trial, but rather in the Jewish trial. For Matthew, behind the political trial is a religious trial.

      Mark 15:10 and Mt 27:18 bring us into the mind of Pilate, the first one writing that he "had knowledge" (ginōskein) that it was out of envy that Jesus had been handed over, the second one writing that he "was aware" (ēdein). But the evangelists do not tell us how Pilate knew or was aware of this. In Mark, the fact that envy is the business of the chief priests gives the impression that Pilate hopes that the crowd, for its part, will show more honesty. But this was without counting on their power of influence.

      Phthonos covers a wide spectrum of violent aversions to goodness, even to the point of murder (Wisdom 2:24: "It is by the envy of the devil that death entered the world: they experience it, those who belong to him"). Let us note that in the Bible the words envy and zeal are very close, and that the Greek word for zeal (zēlos), is sometimes translated as jealousy: "They entrust each year to one man the power and dominion over all their empire: all obey this one man without there being envy (phthonos) or jealousy (zēlos) among them" (1 Maccabees 8:16). It was zeal for the Law that made Paul a persecutor of Christians (Phil 3:6). In our scene with the chief priests, it is probably the two facets of phthonos that are at stake: they were envious of Jesus' hold on the crowds and zealous for this Law which was shaken by Jesus' threats on the temple and his blasphemy. And if Mark puts forward the impact of phthonos on Jesus, he is probably sending a message to his Christian community that also seems to be threatened by phthonos, according to Paul's letters, describing internal conflicts driven by different understandings of the Gospel (see Phil 1:15; 1 Tim 6:4; Titus 3:3).

    5. The Message from Pilate's Wife (Matthew 27: 19)

      On the grounds of envy, Matthew adds another to motivate Jesus' liberation: a message from Pilate's wife about Jesus' innocence. This verse bears the mark of Matthew's vocabulary: "sitting on" (kathēmenou), "righteous" (dikaios), "today" (sēmeron), used 8 times in Matthew, compared to 1 in Mark, "in a dream" which only appears in Matthew.

      Matthew introduces us into a dramatic setting with the mention that Pilate sits "in court" (bēma), about to pass a sentence of life or death. All this triggered the imagination of the readers, which was expressed in many ways.

      1. Who was that woman? The Church Fathers and Christian apocryphal writings identified her with Claudia Procla, a noble and holy woman. For Origen (beginning 3rd c.), this scene presents the beginning of her conversion. She ended up appearing in the list of saints in some Orthodox churches.

      2. Is it possible that Pilate's wife came with him to Jerusalem? In the time of Augustus (born in 63 BC, died in 14 AD), according to Suetonius, it was not possible for governors to bring their wives to their assigned posts. But, according to Tacitus, Emperor Tiberius (born in 42 BC, died in 37 AD) changed this, in particular by allowing his adopted son, Germanicus, to bring his wife Agrippina to Germany and the eastern provinces.

      3. Does she embody Old Testament symbolism? For Augustine, in trying to convince her husband to make a decision leading to life, she is the antithesis of Eve who induced Adam to make a decision leading to death (De tempore, Sermo 150).

      4. How did she find out about Jesus so that she could dream about him? After almost three years of ministry, would Jesus' reputation have reached her? Would Pilate have had time to tell her?

      5. How did she know Jesus was a righteous man?

      All these questions and the answers we have tried to give them are for the most part far from Matthew's way of thinking. Here, the emphasis is on the innocence of Jesus, which developed in the symbolism and imagination of popular circles through episodes specific to Matthew, such as that of Judas and the innocent blood, or that of the washing of Pilate's hands. It should be remembered that Matthew accustomed us to the role of dreams in divine revelation (see the dreams of Joseph in the infancy narratives, and the revelation to the Magi through the star). This revelation to Pilate's wife comes from the same network of popular narratives where God uses extraordinary means to reveal Himself to the Gentiles, who do not have the Scriptures. Here we have a form of inclusion with the infancy narratives.

      But why would God reveal Himself to Pilate's wife and not to Pilate himself? Just as the account of the magi could appear normal in the context of the biblical account of the magi Balaam (Num 22-24) and the visit of the Armenian king Tiridates in Nero's time, so the fact that noble Roman women were favorable to Judaism in Nero's time (see Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.20.2, #560) provides a context which gives some plausibility to the attitude of Pilate's wife. And there was among the Gentiles a certain openness to the Gospel message, especially among women, which Matthew likes to acknowledge.

      What was the impact of the intervention of Pilate's wife? Probably it was his gesture of washing his hands, disassociating himself from the innocent blood (27:24-25). In the same vein, her suffering in the dream would come from the fact that she shares the anguish of the innocent blood shed.

    6. The Choice Made for Barabbas (Mark 5: 11; Matthew 27: 20-21; Luke 23: 18 [Acts 3: 14]; John 18: 40a)

      Let's start with Acts 3:14. According to Luke, Pilate had decided to release Jesus, but the men of Israel preferred instead to claim the favor of a murderer. If we associate this passage with Luke, we get two main approaches in the decision for or against Jesus, that of Luke/John and that of Mark/Matthew.

      1. Luke/John approach

        The high priests are part of the people or group of Jews who express their choice without needing to be persuaded. The antagonism against Jesus is virulent, especially in Lk 23:18 which uses the rare adverb pamplēthei (all together) to express unanimity. And the shouting crowd (anakrazein) recalls the cry of the demon-possessed (4:33; 8:28). Finally, the use of the imperative "Take this fellow!" accentuates the choice of the crowd which forces Pilate to review his strategy of releasing Jesus; they want anyone but Jesus.

        In Jn 18:40, the expression "they yelled back" does not imply that the Jews cried out a second time, but that they responded to Pilate's proposal to release Jesus. As in Luke, the proposal to release Jesus is rejected at first, and only afterwards is Barabbas chosen. Barabbas was chosen over the king of the Jews, a bandit, a violent man.

      2. Mark/Matthew approach

        The crowd only becomes hostile after they've been aroused by the high priests. Mark does not explicitly say that they asked for Barabbas to be released, but it must be assumed ("But the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he should rather release Barabbas to them", v. 11). Matthew adds the elders to the high priests and accentuates their manipulation ("persuaded the crowds", v. 20). And he goes even further than Mark: not only is it requested that Barabbas be released, but also that Jesus be destroyed (v. 20).

      There remains one remarkable point among the four evangelists: none of them provides an explanation as to why the people opted for Barabbas, a far from desirable figure, and why not a single voice was raised in favor of Jesus. Pilate could only give in to such massive opposition to Jesus.

  3. Analysis

    1. Composition of the Scene

      Matthew depends on Mark, whom he supplements with elements of popular tradition about the personal name (Jesus) of Barabbas and the dream of Pilate's wife. Luke 23: 13-16 is a Lucan composition, where he takes up a tradition about the innocence of Jesus, which John also knows, and combines it with a transition scene after the trial of Herod. For the rest he follows Mark, which he changes in 23: 18-19. John knows the source on Jesus' innocence used by Luke, and his very short scene around Barabbas resembles that of Mark, but he probably relies on an independent source, as we have seen for the whole passion story. In short, the sequence about Barabbas and the privilege of releasing a prisoner would fall within a pre-Gospel tradition.

      Some biblical scholars have claimed to be able to reconstruct the pre-Marcan source from Mark's account, in particular by isolating the Barabbas sequence from the passion narrative. All this is pure conjecture, and often introduces more problems than it solves. And John's version confirms that the pre-evangelical tradition contained the Barabbas sequence. What is clear is that Mark wrote the introduction which constitutes 15:6-7, a kind of preface to the scene of the choice between Jesus and Barabbas. As for the rest, his rewriting of the tradition is such that it becomes undetectable.

    2. Historicity of Barabbas

      At the outset, a remark must be made: if Jesus is barely mentioned in a very small paragraph by the Jewish historian Josephus, it is understandable that a small local riot does not appear in any historical chronicle.

      So let us ask the question: Did Barabbas exist? The question is complicated by the fact that his personal name would have been Jesus, the same as the Nazarene. One can imagine the perplexity of Pilate confronted with two Jesus. Then some biblical scholars have imagined that Pilate expected to free the Nazarene, only to experience the surprise that the other one, Barabbas, was claimed. Other biblical scholars have constructed a scenario based on the name Barabbas, son of the Father. The two Jesus would designate the same person, the one called: King of the Jews, the other son of the Father, the two sides of his identity. Pilate would have released the religious accusation (son of the Father), to keep only the political accusation (king of the Jews).

      Such a scenario does not hold water. First of all, since the sequence about Barabbas belongs to a pre-Gospel tradition, it must be assumed that Jesus would have been given the name "Son of the Father" by the year 60 at the latest. Moreover, nowhere in the passion narrative is the accusation about the "Son of the Father" mentioned. And in the earliest Gospel traditions Jesus does not often speak of God as his Father, or of himself as "the son" and "the son of God", and never as "son of the Father". So it is highly unlikely that around 30 AD "Barabbas" became a title of Jesus. If it had, it would have given the Jews an argument to eliminate him. And in Luke the crowd is mostly sympathetic to Jesus, yet the evangelist nevertheless portrays Barabbas as a different person, a murderer.

      Other biblical scholars have tried to identify Barabbas with a figure from Alexandria, Egypt, spoken of by Josephus (Flaccus, 6, #36-39), called Karabas, a lunatic who had been disguised as a king to mock him, on the occasion of the unwelcome visit of the Jewish king Herod Agrippa I, around 38 AD. The objection to this scenario is simple: in the Barabbas sequence there is no mocking session, and it is unlikely that an event in Alexandria in 38 AD would have been so confusing around 65 or 70 AD that Karabas would have become Barabbas.

      Finally, biblical scholars would have looked in the Old Testament for the source of the figure of Barabbas. Thus, the latter would be taken from the midrash of Esther 2:18-23, but assuming that the reference to the feast and the remission of taxes is equivalent to the gesture of releasing a prisoner in Barabbas' account, without mentioning that these accounts date from the 4th to the 9th c. AD. All this is very fanciful.

      The simplest is to accept that a man with the surname "son of Abba" and the personal name of Jesus was arrested during a riot in Jerusalem and then spared by Pilate.

    3. Historicity of the Paschal Release

      In all Roman legal procedure, where would clemency lie? According to the description in the Gospels, one would be dealing with venia, often due to extenuating circumstances (see Seneca, De clementia, 2.7.1). But, according to Mark/Matthew, this clemency would be a custom of the Roman governor. According to John, it would be a Jewish custom. Can we find parallels in Roman or Jewish customs?

      1. Greco-Roman Parallels

        1. Amnesties during special celebrations

          We know a few of them:
          • The Roman lectisternia: on this feast of thanksgiving, celebrated after great distress and beginning in 399 BC, a number of prisoners were freed.
          • At the Greek festivals of Thesmophoria or Pananthenae or Kronia, prisoners were also released.

          But these were mass amnesties, not of particular individuals, and therefore cannot shed light on the case highlighted by the Gospels.

        2. Common Practices of Imperial Officers

          We have a few examples:

          • Pline (Epistles 10.31-32) reports the case of proconsuls and legates who have released criminals
          • The Papyrus Florentine tells of an incident in Egypt in the year 85 when Septimius Vegetus released to the crowd a prisoner guilty of putting an honest family in prison and deserving of flogging.
          • Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, 20.9.5: #215) reports that the procurator Albinius, knowing the imminent arrival of his successor, Florus, freed people with minor crimes to make a name for himself.

        3. A special Roman concession to the Jews as a safety valve

          Some biblical scholars have given the following examples:

          • 1 Maccabees 9: 70-72 and 10: 23 presents a release of prisoners of war by the Syrians to obtain a peace agreement with the Maccabees.
          • Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, 14.10: #185-265) gives us a long list of imperial and local Roman concessions to the Jews, beginning with those of Julius Caesar.

        Again, this is a far cry from the case of a specific release on the occasion of a feast. And one is entitled to ask the question: could a Roman governor afford to engage in a custom where an assassin would be released during a recent riot in a very volatile province?

      2. Jewish Parallels

        The biblical scholars looked for testimonies in the Jewish world where there would be a release of prisoners.

        • One referred to the rite of forgiveness of šigū, of Babylonian origin, where the king freed prisoners according to the calendar of the year. But the Jewish mentality was different as evidenced by Numbers 33:31 ("You shall not take a ransom for the life of a murderer who is liable to death; for he must die") or Hebrews 10:28 ("Does anyone reject the Law of Moses? Ruthlessly he is put to death upon the testimony of two or three witnesses").

        • Josephus (The Jewish War, 2.2.5: #28) writes that Archelaus is said to have freed prisoners whom his father had imprisoned for serious crimes.

        • The Mishna, Pesaḥim 8, 6, discusses whether a prisoner who has been promised release can attend Passover. Note that this is simply a promise.

      One conclusion is obvious: there is no parallel to the scene of forgiveness/amnesty presented to us by three evangelists (with the exception of Luke) where prisoners are regularly released on the occasion of a feast (Passover). How, then, can this situation be reconciled with the affirmation of Barabbas' existence? It is possible that the evangelists wrongly assumed that an isolated incident such as the release of Barabbas was an established custom. Historically, one can imagine that Barabbas was arrested in a round-up during a riot in Jerusalem where people were killed. He was eventually released when Pilate came to Jerusalem to ensure public order. This coming of Pilate may have coincided with the arrest of Jesus, or at a very early date, or at another Passover festival. The release of one and the condemnation of the other may have seemed very ironic, for it contained the same charge: sedition against the authority of the emperor. Even though Pilate acknowledged Jesus' innocence, he nevertheless had him crucified while he released the other. To contrast the two characters in the story, the narrator would have tended not only to make their presence before Pilate coincide at the same time, but also to give them the same first name: Jesus.

Next chapter: The Roman Trial, Part Four: Condemnation of Jesus

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