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Jesus or Barabbas? Jesus is Sentenced to Die (Mark 15:6-15)

Analysis and Commentary

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Barabbas is Set Free

Barabbas is Set Free

    6 Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired. 7 And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.
    8 And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them. 9 But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews? 10 For he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy.
    11 But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them. 12 And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews? 13 And they cried out again, Crucify him.
    14 Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him. 15 And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.
    Compare: Matthew 27:15-31; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:38-19:16

Jesus vs. Barabbas

The historically inaccurate image of an indecisive Pilate is continued when he offers to release either Jesus or Barabbas to the crowds of Jews. Pilate is depicted as almost desperate to find an excuse to let Jesus go, but the blood lust of the Jews forces him to execute an innocent man.

Was there a custom whereby the Romans would release a condemned prisoner on the occasion of a holy feast day? No, there is absolutely no evidence that any such custom existed. While it certainly sounds like it would be nice to believe in, it would also be contrary to typically harsh Roman practices.

They simply would not have let thieves, murders, or political dissidents go on account of an odd Jewish festival. Even if such a practice existed, however, there is no way that Pilate would consent to allow Barabbas go over Jesus — Barabbas is specifically described has having participated in insurrection, a political crime. No one who tried to overthrow Roman rule was allowed to live. Jesus, even if he did claim to be King of the Jews, hadn’t done anything overt or violent yet.

Why did Mark make up this custom? Probably for the same reason that he made up the image of crowds of Jews calling out for Jesus to be crucified: it allows him to shift the blame for Jesus’ death away from the Roman authorities and onto the shoulders of the Jews. Mark’s community of Jewish Christians lived outside Palestine and under Roman rule. They would have been watched, and had the authorities found them developing a religious sect after a man executed by Romans for being a political revolutionary, they would have cracked down even harder.

Some have tried to excuse the author’s shifting of blame to the Jews by arguing that there was a theological rather than political motive here: Barabbas was supposed to be seen as a violent revolutionary whom the Jews preferred to the more peaceful policies of Jesus. Such a preference is plausible, to be sure, but the aforementioned absence of this custom makes the entire rationalization implausible. Besides, arguing that the Jews preferred violence and ended up dying by the sword because they chose the sword isn’t exactly a positive depiction of Jews.

It’s likely that Mark’s invention of Barabbas extended to creating an ironic name as well: Bar-abbas literally means “son of the father.” A false “son of the father” was chosen by the Jews to be released to them while the true “son of the father” was delivered to the Romans for crucifixion. Some early manuscripts of Matthew even give Barabbas a surname: Jesus. This, however, may have simply been a copyist's error because the Greek words for “to you” (“release to you Barabbas”) could have looked like an abbreviation for the name Jesus.

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