- Since in all four Gospels, the capital offense displayed on Jesus’ cross was “king of the Jews” (with diverse wordings), it is not surprising that all four Gospels depict Pilate asking Jesus about this. Jesus’ kingdom-driven ministry is likely the historical context in the background of all the passion accounts.
- The role, composition, and size of the “crowd” are very unclear. Is this a fairly small group of perhaps two dozen people as suggested by Mark 15:8 or the much larger assembly implied by Luke’s “all the people” (23:13)? Is it likely that a very large crowd would have assembled at Pilate’s Jerusalem residence (probably the Palace built for Herod the Great) before 9 a.m. (Mk 15:25) after the first night of Passover or “early” (Jn 18:28) on the “Day of Preparation” (Jn 19:31) for the Passover which would begin at sunset?
- These questions about the crowd are linked with the puzzling Barabbas episode:
- Matthew and Luke are dependent on the Marcan account. John is independent of the Synoptic tradition, and his presentation is the briefest.
- The name “Bar-abbas” means “son of the Father,” a suitable nickname for Jesus of Nazareth.
- The descriptions of Barabbas’ crime vary: “imprisoned with the rioters” (Mk 15:7); “a bandit [lestes]” (Jn 18:40); “a notorious prisoner” (Mt 27:16); “a man who had been thrown into prison for a riot started in the city, and for murder” (Lk 23:19).
- John calls the Passover release of a prisoner a Jewish custom (18:39); Mark and Matthew call it Pilate’s personal custom (Mk 15:6; Mt 27:15). But there is little evidence for any such custom in Roman dominated lands.
- Matthew, in some textual traditions, holds that Barabbas’ personal name was Jesus (27:16 or 17 or both). The Matthean crowd is thus confronted with a choice between “Jesus, King of the Jews” or “Jesus, son of the Father.” This strongly suggests that theological rather than historical concerns are at work.
- Raymond E. Brown offers what might be the best historical explanation of these riddles (The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave [New York: Doubleday. 1994], pp. 818-820, excerpts):
- The conclusion from this study of Roman and Jewish amnesty/pardon parallels is that there is no good analogy supporting the historical likelihood of the custom in Judea of regularly releasing a prisoner at a/the feast (of Passover) as described in three Gospels. Already in the early 3rd century Origen betrayed surprise at such a custom. Luke’s omission of the custom, even though he knew Mark, has been thought to represent an earlier skepticism. (In Acts 25:16 Luke betrays knowledge of a contrary Roman custom; for the prefect Festus asserts that it is not the custom of the Romans to give up a prisoner before proper legal procedures.) Can one reconcile the possible non-historicity of the Passover privilege with the existence of a historical Barabbas who was released from prison by Pilate (all four Gospels)?
The following outline could be reconstructed on the basis of the Gospel reports: A man with the name Barabbas was arrested in a roundup after a riot that had caused some deaths in Jerusalem. Eventually he was released by Pilate when a feast brought the governor to Jerusalem to supervise public order. Presumably this took place at the same time that Jesus was crucified, or not far from it, or at another Passover.
In any case, this release struck Christians as ironic: The same legal issue was involved, sedition against the authority of the emperor. Although they knew Jesus was innocent, he was found guilty by Pilate, while Barabbas was let go. ([Note that in] Mark 15:7, that verse never states that Barabbas rioted or killed. Even if the evangelist judged Barabbas guilty, in a pre-Marcan stage, closer to the original story, Barabbas’ guilt may not have been established - a fact that would have allowed Pilate to release him.) The storytelling tendency to contrast the released Barabbas and the crucified Jesus by bringing them together at the same moment before Pilate’s “justice” would have been enhanced if both had the same personal name, Jesus.
The real import of the Barabbas motif is on another level, namely the truth that the evangelists wished to convey about the death of Jesus. For them the conviction of the innocent Jesus had a negative side, the choice of evil. The story of Barabbas with a basis in fact was dramatized to convey that truth.
- If the release of Barabbas was not simultaneous with the proceedings against Jesus of Nazareth, then the dramatic picture of a large insistent crowd becomes less likely. The most plausible picture is a group of priests or Temple staff. A smaller group would also be consistent with a desire by Jesus’ foes not to trigger a Passover riot by a public debate over his fate.
- The question of whether Caiaphas the high priest or Pilate the Roman prefect was the principle actor against Jesus cannot be conclusively settled. The issue is complicated by extra-biblical evidence that Pilate was not usually an indecisive leader and that he was capable of using massive force, but he also could make pragmatic decisions not to be overly provocative. The fact that Pilate effectively appointed Caiaphas and that he served as high priest during the entire time of Pilate’s prefecture shows that the two had an enduring working relationship. For different reasons, both wanted to quell the potential for Passover violence in Jerusalem. Jesus’ continuous words and deeds about the coming of God’s Kingdom would have therefore been alarming, and the disturbance caused by him in the Temple shortly after his arrival in the city (Mk 11:15-19 and parallels) would have exacerbated this concern.
- Some person(s) had to make the decision whether simply to assassinate Jesus “under mysterious circumstances” or to make a public example of him. Once safely in custody, the swift, public torture of “the king of the Jews” would warn potentially insurgent pilgrims to think twice. This would seem to be more of a Roman calculation than a Temple one and suggests some historical plausibility to the Lucan charges against Jesus (23:2).
- Jesus is flogged as part of the typical Roman crucifixion process. John’s narrative is shaped here by his polemical and theological concerns.