Skip to comments.Choosing Barrabas (How everything you think you know about Pontius Pilate is wrong.)
Posted on 04/07/2004 7:51:44 AM PDT by Arthur McGowan
by James Kiefer
"Not this man, but Barabbas!"
It is often said that Christianity is at its roots anti-Jewish, that it encourages hatred for Jews by teaching that they are responsible for the death of Jesus. Moreover, it is said, this is not just a distortion of the Christian faith by a few misguided fanatics -- it is the teaching of the New Testament itself. In this essay, I should like to examine in what sense, if any, this is so.
Before examining the question of how the Christian Scriptures interpret the events, where they lay the blame for the events connected with the death of Jesus, let us consider how they report the events themselves, their account of what happened, and the role of the Jews in it.
It seems to me that some aspects of the trial of Jesus are often misunderstood, and that it is important to clear up the misunderstandings, both because they cause ill-will between Jews and Christians, and because they keep us as Christians from understanding clearly what the Scriptures have to teach us.
In the gospels, we read that Pilate was willing to release Jesus, but that the crowd shouted, "Crucify him!" and that Pilate gave in rather than risk a riot. From this, many readers infer that the overwhelming majority of Jews hated Jesus because He rebuked them for their sins, and were determined to see Him dead. Occasionally, the moral is drawn that the crowd was not so much consistently malicious as hopelessly fickle, so that the same tongues that shouted, "Hosanna, Son of David! Welcome in the name of the Lord!" on Palm Sunday were ready to shout "Crucify him!" only five days later.
Now, the first thing to be noted is that the Gospels plainly declare that Caiaphas and his associates were determined to kill Jesus, not because he was unpopular, but precisely because he was popular. They were afraid that the people would hail Him as the Messiah, and start an uprising against Rome, which the Romans would crush without mercy, as they had similar uprisings in the past. (John 11:47-50) And so they decided to have Him arrested, but not when there were people about, because of the danger of a riot in His favor. (Matthew 26:5) Hence the usefulness of Judas, who could lead them to Him at a time and place where He was alone and could be seized quietly.
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It is highly probable that they made arrangements with Pilate ahead of time, explaining the situation to him and receiving his assurance that when they brought him the prisoner at the crack of dawn, he would ratify the judgement of the Jewish tribunal immediately and automatically, without re-examining the case, so that the prisoner could be sentenced at daybreak and nailed up within the hour, before the people knew what was happening. The following points favor this theory.
(1) If Pilate had received an advance visit, he might well have told his wife what it was about, and so it would have been natural for her to dream of Jesus and her husband on Thursday night, and to wake in the morning knowing that he had gone to sign an execution order.
(2) The accusers could not enter the courtroom, lest they become ceremonially unclean and unable to celebrate the Passover. This required Pilate to be continually going outside to hear what they had to say, and back in again to confront the prisoner. This is a ridiculous way to conduct court, and presumably court would not ordinarily have met that day at all. That Pilate consented to hear the case under the circumstances suggests prearrangement.
(3) Pilate, having gotten a note from his wife, changed his mind and decided to re-examine the case after all, instead of simply glancing at the warrant and signing it. When he says to the chief priests, "What is the charge against this man?" They answer, "If he were not a criminal, we would not have brought him here." In other words, "Never mind the details, just sign." This is an incredible piece of insolence, explicable only if they were relying on an explicit promise that this case would go through without a snag. Caiaphas had presumably explained that this was a dangerous man, that unless he was dealt with swiftly and without giving his followers a chance to react, there was danger of a major uprising. So here they were, delivering the prisoner at the crack of dawn as arranged, to be sentenced and nailed up before most of the city was stirring. And now Pilate was, for no apparent reason, having second thoughts. No wonder that the accusers feel double-crossed, and that their response betrays their indignation.
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Pilate delays, sending the prisoner to Herod in the hope of not having to make a decision himself. And by the time that Herod sends him back, there is a crowd. They have come to demand the release of the Passover prisoner. Now, few if any have come to demand the release of Jesus. Except for the disciples, who have fled in disarray, and the arresting party, almost no one in Jerusalem knows that Jesus has been arrested. Nor is someone likely to show up who has no particular prisoner in mind that he wants released, but who plans to vote for someone or other when he gets there. In fact, most of the crowd consists of partisans of Barabbas, who have come for the express purpose of getting him released.
Years ago I heard a sermon in which the preacher spoke of how the crowd chose Barabbas over Jesus, and reminded us that Barabbas was a murderer, and that it was as if the crowd had a choice between Jesus and George Sidney Sitts (a then famous multiple murderer -- today he would have said Ted Bundy). But surely this misses the point. Barabbas was condemned for murder and insurrection. In the eyes of those who favored armed resistance to Rome, he was a freedom fighter -- less a Ted Bundy than a Nelson Mandela, or, if you like, a Joe Hill.
An English writer, Dorothy L Sayers, in THE MAN BORN TO BE KING, suggests an Irish parallel. Suppose that in the days before Irish Home Rule, during "the troubles," you are an Irishman in Dublin, and it is St. Patrick's Day. Suppose (for the sake of illustration) that it is the custom that every year on that day, the English Governor-General must release a prisoner selected by the Dublin crowd. This year, good old Paddy Murphy is in jail, sentenced to be hanged, because he blew up a bridge that a British troop train was crossing. So we are all going down to Government House this morning to shout, "Free Paddy Murphy! Free Paddy Murphy!" Here we are now, at the back of the crowd, almost a block away from the balcony on which the Governor-General (may his bones rot!) has just made his appearance. A great roar has gone up from the crowd. "Free Paddy Murphy!" On the balcony, the Governor-General (may his bones rot!) is waving his arms and trying to get the crowd to quiet down so that he can speak. People are quieting down a little, expecting him to announce the freeing of Paddy Murphy. But no, he is saying something to the effect that he has another prisoner in mind that he would rather free instead. Now the crowd is really roaring, and we are shouting along with everyone else. The nerve of the fellow! The rule is that he has to free the man that WE pick, and does he think that he can take the choice away from us and set someone else free instead? If he can get away with that, we might as well not have the St. Patrick's Day Amnesty at all. But in fact he is not going to get away with it. If he tries, we'll see to it that he has a riot on his hands. All together now, boys. "Free Paddy Murphy! Free Paddy Murphy!" Fine. The Governor-General has backed down. I knew he would. He doesn't want a riot on his record. So Paddy Murphy is free and the other fellow is to be hanged. Who was the other fellow? I didn't quite catch his name, and it really doesn't matter. I suppose it is a shame that he's got to hang, but it was him or Paddy, and what counts is that Paddy got off, and that we showed the Governor-General (may his bones rot!) that we know our rights and that he can't bluff us out of them.
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All this, of course, takes Pilate completely off balance. He has managed the whole thing badly. When the case first came to him, he could have ordered the prisoner released on the spot. Instead, he has the brain-wave about passing the buck to Herod. When Herod simply sends the prisoner back, the crowd has assembled by this time. Knowing (if he was in Jerusalem the previous Sunday he could not help knowing) that Jesus was extremely popular with the people, he assumes that he can talk the crowd into choosing Jesus for the Passover Amnesty. When this blows up in his face, he has effectively tied his own hands. By offering the crowd a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, he has said, "We have here two prisoners, both condemned to death." Having said that, he cannot turn around and say, "I was just kidding about Jesus of Nazareth. Of course he is innocent and I never intended to sentence him to anything." To do that would be to acknowledge to the crowd that he had tried to cheat them, had tried to get them to waste their vote on a man who did not need it. Pilate has already convicted the prisoner and passed sentence without noticing it, and there is no way out.
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What is the practical application of these considerations? What do they do for our practice, as opposed to our historical curiosity?
First, they guide us in making statements about the Crucifixion and the role of the Jews therein that meet the tests of truthfulness, fairness, and good will. Christian statements on the subject have not always done so, and it is important that they should.
Second, they guide us in our own thinking about the Passion of Our Lord. It is easy to think of history and conflict in terms of good men and bad men. Why did Nero persecute the Christians? Because he was a bad man. Period. Why did Caiaphas want Jesus dead? Because Caiaphas was a wicked man. And of course this means that we would never behave like Nero, or Caiaphas, or Pilate, or Herod (either Herod Antipas or his father Herod the Great at Bethlehem a generation earlier). We may cut a few corners every now and then, but sheer wickedness for its own sake is not our style.
In fact it is not as simple as that. Let us look at the record:
So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, "What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish." (John 11:47-50)
There you have Caiaphas' motives plainly set forth, and they are defensible and in some respects praiseworthy. Many times in Caiaphas' lifetime men had risen up and incited the Jewish people to strike a blow for national independence. Some of them had claimed to be the Messiah. Some had performed, or were believed by many to have performed, miracles. All had ended in disaster, with severe repressions by the Romans. Caiaphas had every reason to fear that with the next uprising all traces of Jewish liberty would be stamped out. Certainly he had grounds for arguing that it was better to kill one potential leader of a rebellion than let him survive to lead thousands to their deaths. A general who will not sacrifice one man to save a battalion has no business in uniform.
Do we ever reason like this, concentrating so on the Big Picture that we neglect the immediate issues of right and wrong that are before us? Perhaps not. Most of us are not in a position to be faced with policy decisions on a large scale. Very well then, let us look at the crowd. If they had assembled that morning out of sheer malice and wickedness, because they had heard that a completely innocent man was on trial and they wanted to make sure that he was convicted, then their actions would have no lesson for us. But in fact they were there for the perfectly legitimate purpose of getting a Freedom Fighter out of the clutches of the occupation troops. Intent on their purpose, they did not stop to think when Pilate put forward an alternative. They simply thrust it aside and demanded what they had come to demand, seeing in Pilate's suggestion only a distraction from the business at hand. Are we ever like that? Do we ever pursue a goal with a single-mindedness that keeps us from stopping to consider who might get hurt in the process? If so, then let us remember Our Lord's words: "What you have done to the least of these, you have done to Me."
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We have seen how the Holy Scriptures narrate the events leading up to the Crucifixion. Now, what do they say about blame for the events?
On two occasions, Peter, addressing Jewish audiences, speaks of them as involved in the killing of Jesus.
"Men of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works which God did through him in your midst, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." (Acts 2:22f, abridged)
"Men of Israel, the God of our fathers glorified his child Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him." (Acts 3:12f, abridged)
However, when Paul is addressing a synagogue audience in Pisidian Antioch, he says:
"Brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you that fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him or understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning him. Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed." (Acts 13:26-28)
The distinction is clear. Peter is addressing crowds in Jerusalem, the first address less than two months after the Crucifixion, and the second shortly thereafter. It is probable that both audiences included persons who had been present when Jesus was condemned. But Paul, addressing Jews outside Jerusalem, says, not "You killed him," but "They of Jerusalem killed him." There is no suggestion in the New Testament that "the Jews" as a body were responsible for the Crucifixion. The most that can be argued is that the writers think that "they of Jerusalem" were responsible.
Now Christians have been accustomed to view the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD as a punishment for the Crucifixion. And in support of this, we have Christ's own words as he wept over the city (Luke 19:41-44 and Matthew 23;37-39). What are we to make of this?
I reply that a historian who refused to put any religious interpretation at all on his data would nevertheless have good grounds for connecting the crowd's choice of Barabbas over Jesus with the fall of the city a generation later. The people were offered a choice between two leaders, one offering spiritual renewal and the other offering political and military action aimed at national independence. They chose the latter. Given the strength of Rome, and Rome's willingness to use that strength, the choice was suicidal. A purely secular historian might have listened to the crowd that day and said, "Now I know that the sack of this city by the Romans is inevitable." A Jewish friend to whom I made this point asked, "But why do you blame the Jews of that day for aspiring to political freedom and national independence? In what other people would such a goal be considered anything but admirable?" I said: "One answer would be that the Jews had a calling not to be like the other nations, and that therefore what is allowed to other peoples might not be allowed to them (1 Sam 8:7,19f). It is not that political aspirations are wrong in themselves, but that they cannot take first place with those called to serve God. But in fact, I remind you that our hypothetical historian is carefully steering clear of religious and moral judgements. He is not saying that it is wrong for the Jews to fight Rome for their independence. He is only saying that if they do, they are bound to lose -- which they did."
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So, when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but that a riot was about to begin, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children." (Matthew 27:24f)
Here we have the people solemnly cursing themselves. But one thing is missing -- a voice thundering from heaven, "So be it!" It is written: "How can I curse whom God has not cursed?" (Numbers 23:8) A curse, even on oneself, is powerless if God does not ratify it. Jesus, as He was being crucified, said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Does anyone suppose that His words carried less weight with the Father than theirs did?
(I regret to say that I have heard one person argue that this prayer was spoken only on behalf of the Roman soldiers, not on behalf of the Jewish rulers, since they knew what they were doing. This contradicts the words of Peter (Acts 3:17): "Brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.")
On the other hand, the fact remains that Matthew has preserved for us the words of the crowd. Since he clearly did not preserve every word spoken that day, it appears that he thought these words significant. What then is their meaning?
There are no grounds for applying them to the Jewish people as such. The application must be either narrower, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem at that time and to their immediate offspring, the next generation; or else broader, to all the peoples of the earth.
(1) As we have already noted, they are applicable to the sack of Jerusalem, and it is largely the crowd front of Pilate's hall, and their children, who would bear the brunt of that sack when it came a generation later.
(2) On the other hand, they are applicable to the whole human race. In the Law of Moses, we find that blood is taken as a symbol of guilt. To say that A's blood is on B is to say that B bears the responsibility and the guilt for the death of A. But blood is also taken as a sign of purification. When a leper is declared to be well again, and clean of his former disease, he is smeared and sprinkled with blood (Le 14:6,7,17). When the covenant is ratified at Sinai between God and the people of Israel, they are sprinkled with blood (Ex 24:8). When a priest is consecrated to the service of the Lord, he is smeared and sprinkled with blood (Ex 29:20f; Le 8:23f,30) In like manner the blood of Christ is on every member of the human race, either for guilt and condemnation, or for cleansing, consecration, and incorporation into the covenant.
May God grant it to each of us to receive it for the latter!
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We already endured 8 years of crocodile tears!
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STOP BY AND BUMP THE FUNDRAISER THREAD--
"Pontius Pilate" by Paul L. Maier, 1995
[currently OOP.You can pick up a used copy at Barnes&Noble on-line for about $5.]
This book is excellent. It is more along the line of "I,Claudius" then some syrupy 1950's Sunday-School type book. In addition to being an powerful writer, the author really knows both his theology and his ancient history.
Like Bush supporters after McCain-Feingold?
Thanks for the post..
Since I am unaware of anyone claiming that Bush is the Messiah, no, it is not the same thing.
12. When Peter saw this, he said to them: "Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?
13. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go.
14. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.
15. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.
16. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name and the faith that comes through him that has given this complete healing to him, as you can all see.
17. "Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.
18. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer.
27. Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest.
28. "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name," he said. "Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood."
29. Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men!
30. The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead--whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.
31. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.
32. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."
33. When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. (*)
51. "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!
52. Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him--
53. You who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."
54. When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
55. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
56. "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
57. At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,
58. dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
60. Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep. (*)
22. Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.
23. After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him,
24. but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. (*)
He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. (*)
34. Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism
35. but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.
36. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.
37. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached--
38. how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
39. "We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree,
40. but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.
6. Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead."
7. When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided.
8. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.)
9. There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. "We find nothing wrong with this man," they said. "What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?"
10. The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.
11. The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, "Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome."
12. The next morning the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul.
13. More than forty men were involved in this plot.
14. They went to the chief priests and elders and said, "We have taken a solemn oath not to eat anything until we have killed Paul.
15. Now then, you and the Sanhedrin petition the commander to bring him before you on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about his case. We are ready to kill him before he gets here."
16. But when the son of Paul's sister heard of this plot, he went into the barracks and told Paul.
17. Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, "Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him."
18. So he took him to the commander. The centurion said, "Paul, the prisoner, sent for me and asked me to bring this young man to you because he has something to tell you."
19. The commander took the young man by the hand, drew him aside and asked, "What is it you want to tell me?"
20. He said: "The Jews have agreed to ask you to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin tomorrow on the pretext of wanting more accurate information about him.
21. Don't give in to them, because more than forty of them are waiting in ambush for him. They have taken an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him. They are ready now, waiting for your consent to their request." (*)
1. Three days after arriving in the province, Festus went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem,
2. where the chief priests and Jewish leaders appeared before him and presented the charges against Paul.
3. They urgently requested Festus, as a favor to them, to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem, for they were preparing an ambush to kill him along the way. (*)
10. Paul answered: "I am now standing before Caesar's court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well.
11. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!" (*)
That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. (*)
1 Thessalonians 2:14-16
14. For you, brothers, became imitators of God's churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews,
15. who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men
16. in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
(*Why kill Paul?? He sure wasn't the one to which the 'people' looked to to 'overthrow' Rome...)
Second: It is absolutely necessary to distinguish "the Jews" who directly participated in the death of Jesus, "the Jews" who lived in Jerusalem at the time, and "the Jews" who are alive today. The failure to make this distinction, and to read Scripture with this distinction in mind, is both stupid and wicked.
'Convenience' is not EXACTLY the word I'd come up with to describe what a translations function would be. I'm sure that many foreign people, on that first Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection, who heard mere Galilean's speaking in THEIR native tongue, would tend to disagree with you.
18. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
19. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20. and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
"...and be sure you make them learn Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek so that the subtle points won't be missed."
And, "Oh! You know that Septiguent (SP) thing? Get rid of it. Don't be quoting from it when you set out to write an account of Me."