The Passion of…Barabbas?

The springtime buds of Easter usually include a temporary bloom of articles and blog posts about the events of Passion Week. Television programs and movies recreate the story in dramatic fashion. And, despite the overwhelming number of retellings and analyses, I would like to add one of my own, from a somewhat different point of view.

Readers may find my reconstruction of the motivations behind the events surrounding the arrest, trial, and execution of Jesus to be somewhat speculative. But my hope is that it will stretch your minds as we imagine what took place during that fateful week. Before I begin my reconstruction of events, I want to lay out, from a historical perspective, which events from the gospel stories I consider historically likely and which I do not. These decisions are based on historical criteria that are well-established in New Testament research (the definitions for each appear at the end of this blog post).

It is a near certainty that Jesus was crucified (criterion of multiple attestation). Equally historical is the prefecture of Pontius Pilate (c. m. a.). He was ultimately responsible for sentencing Jesus to death. Likewise, Caiaphas was surely the sitting high priest (c. m. a.). I consider it probable that Jesus was crucified around one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem since those were the only times Pilate would normally be present; otherwise he resided at Caesarea on the coast. I think it incredible, however, that Jesus was crucified either on the day of Passover (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) or even the day before (John) (criterion of contextual credibility). Pilate was shrewd as well as brutal. It is inconceivable that he would risk provoking a riot among the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Jewish pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem by ordering a bloody execution of a number of Jewish men on a nationalistic, high holy day. If Jesus was crucified around the time of Passover, it is more likely that Pilate waited to do so until after the week-long Feast of Unleavened Bread when the pilgrims would be departing and he himself was preparing to leave Jerusalem.

I consider it quite likely that a disciple of Jesus was involved in the conspiracy that led to Jesus’s arrest (criterion of dissimilarity). I also consider it likely that Peter, who was possibly detained for resisting the arresting party, was nevertheless released after feigning ignorance of Jesus (c. o. d.). It is highly unlikely that any convocation of the Sanhedrin occurred or that Jesus received any hearing before them of the type described in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (c. c. c.). The description of what happened in these gospels violates everything we know about the Sanhedrin and how it operated. Even the high priest would have been sequestered away for weeks to assure his ritual purity to be able to properly officiate at the Passover sacrifices. Caiaphas would hardly have risked coming into contact with a “blasphemer” (Mark 14:64; Matthew 26:65) as the gospels indicate. I do, however, consider likely some involvement by the high priest and some of other the chief priests in the plot to arrest Jesus (c. m. a.). Some scholars object to this notion but my reasons for accepting a modicum of involvement will become clear as we proceed. It also seems likely that Jesus was crucified along with some other Jews (c. m. a.) – how many is irrelevant although I consider the total number of three victims to be symbolic. Finally, although the evidence can go either way, I do consider the presence of the criminal (from the Roman point of view) Barabbas to be historical. Let’s consider that in more detail.

The various historical criteria I have been using can support either accepting or rejecting the Barabbas story. Both Mark and John, considered independent sources by most scholars, feature the episode in which the authorities request that Barabbas, already in custody, be released (c. m. a.). Matthew 27:15 and John 18:39 even agree that there was a preexisting custom of releasing a prisoner “during the [Passover] feast” (c. m. a.). However, there is no evidence anywhere outside these two gospels that any Roman prefect ever released prisoners based on voice votes of the people or their representatives (c. c. c.). The gospels do not agree on what Barabbas had done though the descriptors they use (Matthew = “notorious;” Mark/Luke = “murderer, insurrectionist;” John = “revolutionary”) are not mutually exclusive. And, surprisingly, the gospels do not agree as to whether Barabbas was actually released (Matthew/Mark = yes; Luke/John = indeterminate). Finally, it is uncertain whether the man we are referring to was actually named “Barabbas” which literally means “son of the father/teacher.” This man clearly had another name. Only a few ancient manuscripts of Matthew give his name as Jesus Barabbas (Matt. 27:16). Mark (Matthew’s source) does not know this additional name nor do Luke or John. Bottom line: we cannot be sure. In any event, for the purpose of my narrative reconstruction below, I will accept that there was someone being held prisoner who, as I will suggest, may have actually been the true raison d’etre for the events that went down that week.

Historically, it seems likely that the chief priests in Jerusalem were aware of who Jesus of Nazareth was. The gospels overwhelmingly point to a growing antagonism between Jesus and the Temple authorities. These same authorities made trouble for Jesus’s followers after his death according to Acts. But it doesn’t seem as if Jesus’s behavior rose to the level of inspiring political revolution or insurrection. We can be confident of this because Pilate is not depicted as being otherwise aware of Jesus before the priests bring him to Pilate’s attention. Also, if Jesus was considered an insurrectionist planning a rebellion, others in Jesus’s entourage would have been arrested that night on the Mount of Olives. Instead, Jesus’s followers (with the possible exception of the sword-wielding Peter) were allowed to escape. My assessment is that Jesus was a problem for the chief priests due to his message which reflected negatively on them and was getting a broad hearing among the people.

Why was Barabbas in prison? If the labels “murderer” and “insurrectionist” are valid descriptions then he, rather than Jesus, actually fomented a rebellion. Barabbas was in Roman custody – the Romans, not the Jews, arrested him. He awaited sentencing by Pilate as soon as Pilate was in Jerusalem again. That indicates that whatever rebellion Barabbas instigated occurred in the months following the previous Festival of Tabernacles (Sukkoth – September/October). That would have been the last time Pilate was in Jerusalem. He was now back for The Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread celebrated in March/April. Our primary source of information about Jewish rebellions in the first century, Josephus, mentions no insurrection during this time period. Intriguingly, there is a reference in Luke to some “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1) which may imply some insurrectionist behavior during a Jewish festival. But it appears from the quote that Pilate had already dealt out the punishments for that incident. It is possible that Barabbas was the last participant to be seized, after Pilate had already left for Caesarea in the fall.

Summing up, we have a Jewish insurrectionist and possible murderer in the holding tank at the Fortress Antonia in Jerusalem awaiting Pilate’s judgment. Now, note who the gospels say requested Barabbas’s release: chief priests/elders/the crowds (Matthew); experts in the law/the whole Sanhedrin/chief priests/crowd (Mark); chief priests, the rulers, the people (Luke); Jewish leaders (John). The common thread among them is the Jewish (Jerusalem) leadership (John does not mention the crowd). It is contextually incredible that crowds of Torah-observant Jews attending the highest holy festival in the calendar came together to demand the death of one of their own, a Galilean hardly any of them ever heard of let alone personally knew. It seems possible, maybe even likely, that a group of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem conspired to get Barabbas released by offering Jesus in his place.

It is not incredible that these authorities had to sell Pilate on the “danger” posed by Jesus. Perhaps some of the charges reported in the gospels were actually used by the accusers trying to convince Pilate that Jesus was a real threat: claiming to be a king (Matt. 27:11/Mark 15:12/Luke 23:2/John 18:33, 19:12), subverting the nation, forbidding the payment of tribute to Rome, inciting riot, misleading the people (Luke 23:2, 5, 14), and self-identifying as a divine man (Son of God – John 19:7). Regardless of the facticity of these charges, they seem to all boil down to a claim, either by Jesus, his followers, or both, that he was the messiah. This title carried the meaning of a royal personage, a descendant of King David and heir to the vacant throne. This claim would likely be perceived as a direct challenge to Rome which alone reserved the right to make or unmake kings in the empire. To proclaim oneself a king was de facto an act of political insurrection.

Pilate is characterized in all four gospels as being somewhat or wholly reluctant to crucify Jesus. There may be a hint of truth to this though not because Pilate felt kindly toward Jesus or recognized that Jesus was a righteous man and the Jews were falsely accusing him. It may be that he had to be convinced that having Jesus in his clutches was better than having Barabbas: “We’ll give you this Jesus who challenges the very authority of Rome if you’ll give us back Barabbas, a local instigator whose efforts came to naught.” Why would they want Barabbas released? Any number of reasons might behind their plot. Maybe because, to them, Barabbas was an inoffensive Jew (not like Jesus). Perhaps they secretly supported his cause. Maybe Barabbas was related to a member of the ruling aristocracy.  Who knows?

In any event, the evidence does not run against such a view. There is much about the passion week story that we simply don’t know (and, I think, neither did the gospel writers). The authors of the gospels filled in gaps in their knowledge of the historical events with prophecies and other scriptural citations to extend the story and make the entire affair seem divinely ordained. There is also evidence that they rewrote historical events from other times and places and included these in their passion story. Yet there are historical data here. What part of the story is historical and what part the result of authorial license and editorial activity is had to evaluate today. Many plausible reconstructions abound. Mine is one that highlights a number of intriguing people and possibilities.

Definitions of historical criteria:

Multiple (independent) attestation: the occurrence of a bit of evidence in more than one (independent) source. The crucifixion of Jesus is mentioned by Paul, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of John and other, non-canonical sources. Those are considered independent sources – they do not rely upon one another for their information. That results in a high level of historical probability. Adding the Gospel of Matthew does not result in an additional, independent source because, according to most scholars, Matthew was dependent on Mark for the composition of his gospel.

Contextual credibility: Evidence must fit the context of the times and the cultural situation as we understand it. It is contextually incredible, for example, that Pilate would violate the requirements of his position, endangering himself, his troops, and creating a possible war by ordering a crucifixion on a high holy day. His job, given to him by the emperor, was to keep the peace and collect the tribute.

Dissimilarity: This is evidence that the author of a source would prefer not to mention because it was embarrassing or ran contrary to his overall message. Because the author used it anyway suggests it was historical and too well known to omit. It is unlikely, for example, that a gospel author would invent a story that one of Jesus’s closest followers betrayed him.

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