The Barabbas Event Revisited: A Review

“The Release of Barabbas Revisited” by Roger David Aus. Pages 135-170 in “Caught in the Act,” Walking on the Sea, and the Release of Barabbas Revisited. South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism No. 157. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998.

In chapter three of his book “Caught in the Act,” Roger David Aus revisits the Barabbas episode appearing in Mark 15:6-15//Matt 27:15-26//Luke 23:18-25//John 18:39-40. (Aus previously searched for the background to this incident in the Biblical book of Esther in Barabbas and Esther and Other Studies in the Judaic Illumination of Earliest Christianity, South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism No. 54, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992.) The author makes a compelling case for tracing the origins of this enigmatic episode to passages from Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews and Jewish War. The War, as Aus notes, was originally composed in Aramaic, a version now lost. It was recompiled in Greek with the help of King Herod Agrippa II and published 75-79 C.E.  The Antiquities was later composed 93-94 C.E. Both volumes recount numerous events in Israel’s history and serve as our only source for certain events of the second temple period and the Jewish Revolt.

Aus doubts the historicity of the Barabbas episode due mainly to the improbability that the notoriously cruel and insensitive Pilate would ever release a prisoner known to be either a lestes (John 18:40), which Aus translates as “insurrectionist” or “revolutionary,” or a murderer (Mark 15:6; Luke 23:19). He also finds no precedent in any Jewish, Greek or Roman account for the custom of an annual release of a Jewish prisoner on the occasion of a festival, here the Passover. Instead, Aus identifies the inspiration for the Barabbas episode in an insurrection that took place toward the end of the reign of Herod the Great in approximately 4 B.C.E., thirty-four years prior to the date usually assigned to Jesus’s trial and crucifixion.

Josephus’s dual account begins in Antiquities 17.149 and in War 1.648. Herod had installed a golden eagle over one of the gates of the Temple, a violation of Jewish prohibitions regarding the use of graven images. As his death loomed ever closer, two Jewish legal scholars, Judas and Matthias, rallied the people to tear the eagle down and destroy it. Though successful, the perpetrators and their instigators were arrested. Herod conducted a hearing, possibly in Jericho, before the people including the leading men from among them. The citizens begged for clemency and asked that punishment be restricted only to the actual participants and not extended to the populace as they feared might happen. Herod then condemned Matthias “with his companions” (Ant. 17.167 – did these include Judas?) or, according to War 1.655, those that had physically removed the eagle “together with their rabbis,” to be burned alive. The remaining insurrectionists were imprisoned. These were left for Herod’s son, Archelaus, to deal with after his father’s death.

Once that had occurred, and after a suitable period of mourning, Archelaus presented himself to the people seated on a golden throne upon a bēma, or elevated platform (Ant. 17.200-205, War 2.1-13) to hear their pleas. On the eve of the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread, he heard the petitions of the crowd. They asked three things of Archelaus: that he ease their tax burden, free them from certain duties on commodities, and release those that had been imprisoned by Herod including those arrested in the eagle episode. Archelaus granted all three requests. However, the leniency shown by Archelaus came back to haunt him. The people became emboldened and began to gather in large numbers to bewail the executions by Herod of those citizens, including the rabbi Matthias (and Judas?), who had given their lives to preserve the sanctity of the law. As this was Passover the gathering of mourners became extremely large. Alarmed, Archelaus called for military intervention. As might be expected, altercations erupted and by the end of the day, according to Josephus, nearly three thousand Jews were killed.

The horror of such a melee at Passover, Aus suggests, would have remained in Jewish memory for some time to come. It is just this series of events, he proposes, that inspired a Palestinian Jewish Christian author to compose the Barabbas episode. In the gospels, Barabbas is said to have participated in “the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). No such insurrection has been recorded as taking place at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion. No Passover custom of releasing prisoners is known from our sources yet, according to Josephus, Archelaus released prisoners on the eve of Passover. This happened following a demand by the people for the release of the prisoners, a demand later said to have also been made of Pilate. Archelaus addressed the crowds from a bēma as does Pilate (Matt 27:19). The people make three requests of Archelaus; Pilate responds three times to the crowds’ demands to crucify Jesus (Luke 23:22). In all, Aus finds ten points in common between the two episodes.

The name Barabbas, according to Aus, can be traced back to the possible imprisonment of Judas the insurrectionist rabbi who was not specifically said to have been killed with Matthias. Judas was a rabbi or rabban. Perhaps the Jewish Christian chronicler invented a fictitious son of this Judas, called bar rabban, in Greek barabbas, in order to incorporate the earlier events while updating them to reflect the passage of time between the eagle episode and Jesus’s trial.

Why would the Jewish Christian chronicler have made Pilate out to be so concerned with Jewish customs and so reluctant to crucify a purportedly innocent Jew? Aus sees reflections here of events that took place after Jesus’s crucifixion with the arrival of the Roman legate Vitellius during the Passover of 37 C.E. The Syrian legate’s arrival was hailed by the Jews in Jerusalem for Vitellius had dismissed Pilate from his post due to continued atrocities and subsequently sacked Caiaphas as well. He also returned the high priest’s vestments, until then kept under guard by the Romans and only loaned out for use during festivals. Such generosity may have been subsequently transferred to Pilate in the story of Jesus’s trial.

Aus points out that Jewish Christians would not have had any reason to shield unbelieving Jews from blame. After all, those Jews had rejected Jesus’s messiahship – they belonged to the “old” covenant. That, plus Jewish Christians following the revolt against Rome in 66-70 C.E. realized that survival meant distancing themselves from Zealot Jewish fanatics, as typified by “Barabbas,” and leaning more toward Roman accommodation.

In short, Aus provides a compelling theory to account for the mysterious Barabbas episode. The tale itself does not depend on Josephus’s version as it was known to others before he set it down in writing in his two volumes. The Gospel of Mark is generally dated before the publication of Antiquities or War. Its author may have appropriated the eagle event from a source later used by Josephus. Aus notes that the practice of filling gaps in stories such as the Passion where direct knowledge was lacking, was “typical of Palestinian Jewish haggadah” (167). The use of material such as that derived from the eagle event under Herod and the Passover pardon by Archelaus should therefore come as no surprise.

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