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Pilate and Barabbas

I have received a number of interesting responses to my comments about Pontius Pilate, the Romans’ use of crucifixion, and the likelihood that, as a rule, Romans did not allow decent burials for the victims but left them to scavenging birds and animals — helpless, defenseless, and in agony. A couple of people have suggested that since Pilate had the custom of releasing a prisoner to the crowds during the Passover, this would show a basic interest in placating the crowds and might suggest that he would indeed be willing to observe Jewish custom and law by removing the bodies and allowing for proper burial. This account of Pilate’s willingness is, of course, in all the Gospels (Matthew and Luke have picked it up from Mark) (it is not in the fragment of the Gospel of Peter that we have).

I appreciate this comment, and I realize that there was something going on in the back of my mind that I should have put up front even before I started talking about Pilate not caring twit about Jewish custom and law. That is that I think the story of him releasing a prisoner is completely apocryphal, and the Gospel narrative about Barabbas being preferred by the crowds is not historical, but legendary.

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  1. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  October 23, 2012

    Might not the policy of releasing a prisoner have some basis in fact even if the selection of Barabbas in particular didn’t actually happen ? It could be argued that Pilate wasn’t completely insensitive to local sentiment. He already was in trouble for the Temple shield issue, the people having gone over his head to the Legate of Syria, apparently resulting in some chastising. Later he also gets into hot water over the appropriation of the Temple treasury for the aqueduct project (hot water – get it?) when again the people complain to Pilate’s boss. Politicians being what they are, I’m not sure the occasional gesture can be ruled out based solely on Pilate’s propensity for brutality.

  2. Avatar
    Zainab  October 23, 2012

    I have a solution to this problem, one you won’t like 🙂

  3. Avatar
    glucab86  October 23, 2012

    There are other legendary stories with hidden and symbolic meaning like this one in the Gospel of Mark? The more I read, the more i’m inclined to see all the details of the Markan passion narrative as pure redactional mith (apart the fact of the crucifixion and the role of Judas and Pontius Pilate).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 23, 2012

      You should read John Dominic Crossan’s books (e.g., Who Killed Jesus). He agrees with you!

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 23, 2012

    Wow! How interesting. I agree that Pilate would have been unlikely to have released a terrorist. Still, the common theme of Gospel authors just making things up persists. I really, really struggle with why in the world the Gospel authors would make up so much stuff about such an important subject (Jesus) and with why some ancient authors somewhere wouldn’t be trying to get the history straight. This seems quite odd to me. Surely, the Gospel authors knew they were making up stuff. Did they think this was okay? Or were they just writing fiction knowingly and then this fiction got interpreted wrongly by later readers as being non-fiction? Or is there some other way of understanding this? To me this seems to be a central question.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 23, 2012

      My sense is that things just get made up in the retelling of stories over time. Any public figure has all sorts of false stories with invented figures made up about him/her. Think Barack Obama — and this is in an age when we can fact-check! In the ancient world, when stories were told over decades, in different parts of the world in different languages for different reasons by people who could not check the facts and probably didn’t think to — well, lots of things got invented.

  5. Avatar
    donmax  October 23, 2012

    I’d like to pick up on your closing statement that “the anti-Jewish telling of the tale is rooted not in historical recollection….” What you say here is also true of many, many others instances and scenes throughout the Bible.
    Have you ever considered writing a running commentary of the four gospels? One that separates historical recollection from creative invention? And which do you think outweighs the other??

    My view is that if you left out the inventions, the four volumes would add up to less than one.

    Also, do you think of yourself as more of a bible scholar or a historian?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 23, 2012

      No — never thought about it! It would be a huge undertaking. I guess I don’t think of myself as one or the other but as both, a historian who engages in biblical studies (but also in post-biblical periods).

  6. Avatar
    samchahal  October 23, 2012

    im adding the below here as i mistakenly added it in an earlier post

    yes sorry 1 Corinthians 15 , its just that Paul seems to know these people as he says “some have fallen asleep”.

    This seems to be an event that Paul has heard perhaps over and over again and perhaps was witnessed by some of his closest converts.

    It may not be in the Gospels because most of Paul’s mission was solitary and a lot of the Gospel narrative is inspired by oral traditions outside of Pauline mission?

    I buy Your theory that the “first” `witnesses to the “risen Christ” experienced visions which were subjective to them ie Peter knew Jesus well so he “heard” him and so on… However , i am still intrigued at this verse in 1 Corinthians 15 as it seems like a historical reported event,

    500 people see the same vision at the same time ?

    is there any evidence of such things in your opinion?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 26, 2012

      Yes, mulitple people can see the same vision at one time; I don’t know of any evidence to suggest that Paul knew any of the 500 personally. Since no one else mentions their existence, it is a veyr curious comment!

  7. Avatar
    Peter  October 23, 2012


    Do you think the reports in the gospels that two thieves were crucified with Jesus should be filed under “absolutely no way of knowing from a historical perspective”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2012

      Well, there doesn’t seem to be any “mileage” to be gained by saying Jesus was crucified with two others, so I’m not sure what the argument against their being there would be. So I’m inclined to think the tradition is historical, unless someone has some reason to argue otherwise.

      • Avatar
        ecbrown88  November 6, 2012

        But the idea of exactly two thieves was probably an editorial decision, allowing for one to reject jesus and the other to accept him. Handy there were no other opinions or votes — could have led to a theological morass!

        This could also be a rationale for them being invented entirely. I wonder if daily crucifixions were commonplace (a la “Life of Brian”) or relatively infrequent?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 6, 2012

          The problem is that in the earliest account (Mark’s) *both* of the others mock Jesus; so the tradition wasn’t made up to have the good cop-bad cop (well good-criminal/bad-criminal) set up. And yes, crucifixions were common. Sometimes they were en mass.

  8. Avatar
    JoeWallack  October 24, 2012

    “But I think the original text [Matthew] almost certainly gave him the full name, Jesus Barabbas).”

    Professor Ehrman, I think that “Jesus Barabbas” is more likely to be original to “Matthew” than “Barabbas” but I would not say “almost certainly” since the extant evidence is a long way from what would be certain evidence. Since “Mark” is the base for “Matthew”, “Matthew’s” “Jesus Barabbas” is evidence that it was in “Mark”. “Mark” was problematic to the early orthodox Church because it discredited supposed historical witness and lacked a resurrection sighting. So it has much less early extant manuscript. On rare occasion “Matthew” appears to outdo “Mark’s” irony, such as John the Baptist threatening to cut down people and than John being cut down. My question to you here is are you aware of any other evidence that “Jesus Barabbas” is original to “Mark”?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2012

      No, I’m not aware of any evidence at all that Mark had “Jesus Barabbas.” Quite the contrary!

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  October 24, 2012

    Thanks. Actually, after thinking about it some, I had reached the same conclusion that you describe namely that people just changed and exaggerated stories over time and then the Gospel authors wrote down these stories as they came to them probably thinking they were true. I am not as certain that these authors or their sources intentionally made up stories or changed them just to support theological positions. Most of the changes may have occurred as a natural outcome of oral transmission. Actually, it may be remarkable that the Gospels are as similar as they seem to be considering there were no printing presses, no fact-checkers, etc.

  10. Avatar
    Zainab  October 25, 2012

    What if, just what IF there was ONLY ONE Jesus at the Trial (IF there was one), and that JESUS was Jesus the Christ (Messiah) and that Jesus was RELEASED! What IF? 🙂

  11. Avatar
    bobnaumann  October 25, 2012

    I was under the impression that there was a lot of political unrest around Jerusalem in those days
    leading up to the rebellion around 70 CE and that Pilate’s job depended on keeping the lid on things,
    I can see how he might be accommodating to the demands of the fired up Jews.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2012

      A lot of the unrest was precisely because Pilate refused to take the Jews’ sensitivities into account (same is true for later governors, leading to the rebellion)

  12. Avatar
    toddfrederick  October 26, 2012

    Regarding the events described in all four canonical gospels, I read in many different books what is considered to be authentic, and what is added, legend, contradictory, simply false, fiction and so on. It is often difficult to distinguish what is fact and what is fiction, while avoiding becoming a mythicist as you describe in your book “Did Jesus Exist?”

    I would be interested in knowing what you think is totally authentic in the Gospels, taken as a whole. Even just a topical list would be a good start.

    Thank you.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 27, 2012

      Ah, that would take an entire book! In fact, I’ve written a book about it (as have so many others!) To see my views, and why I hold them, check out my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. It is devoted entirely to your question.

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  October 27, 2012

        Thank you…I’m finishing up “Did Jesus Exist” and will put your suggestion next on my reading list.

        • Avatar
          Scott F  November 2, 2012

          I just read that book on my Nook. I highly recommend it! Also read Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene if you get a chance.

  13. Avatar
    DominickG  November 22, 2012


    I am a mythicist but I enjoy reading your work, largely because you are so moderate in your tone.
    Discussions are much more pleasant if they are civil.
    I agree with the scholarly opinion that Mark was the first canonical Gospel that was written. Consequently, as a mythicist, I put huge importance on Mark, for much of what he wrote, I believe, was copied and adapted by the later Gospel authors.
    Of course, to defend the mythicist position, I need to give an interpretation of Mark’s Gospel that does not require an historical Jesus and that interpretation must include an explanation for the story of Barabbas.

    You will no doubt know much of this already. Nevertheless, here it is.

    Alexandria was the home of the Jewish philosopher Philo, who interpreted Old Testament scripture in the light of
    Greek philosophy.

    Aristotle wrote:

    There are three things which make men good and virtuous; these are nature, habit, rational principle…… we learn some things by habit and some by instruction.
    [Aristotle: Politics]

    Philo wrote:

    There are three different modes by which we proceed towards the most excellent end, namely, instruction, nature, and practice. There are also three persons, the oldest of the wise men who in the account given to us by Moses derive three names from these modes……………….

    …. for the first, who is named Abraham, is a symbol of that virtue which is derived from instruction; the intermediate Isaac is an emblem of natural virtue; the third, Jacob, of that virtue which is devoted to and derived from practice.

    … “For,” says God, “this is my everlasting name: I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,”

    [Philo: On Abraham]

    The author of Mark’s Gospel echoes this statement:

    “Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!””
    [Mark 12:24-27]

    I believe the author of Mark’s gospel lived in Alexandria. Certainly, the Coptic church associates the apostle with the city and there were a number of significant historical events that occurred in Alexandria, including in 38 CE, during the reign of Caligula, a pogrom against the Alexandrian Jews, an event that commenced with the mocking of a man lacking his senses who was named Carabbas.

    About the governor of Alexandria, Flaccus, Philo relates:

    “he would have done right if he had apprehended the maniac and put him in prison”
    [Philo: Against Flaccus]

    However, Flaccus did not imprison Carabbas. Instead, he was taken by the mob to the Gymnasium, where he was dressed as a king and mocked. Philo relates that the mob:

    “setting him up there on high that he might be seen by everybody, flattened out a leaf of papyrus and put it on his head instead of a diadem, and clothed the rest of his body with a common door mat instead of a cloak, and instead of a scepter they put in his hand a small stick of the native papyrus which they found lying by the way side and gave to him; and when, like actors in theatrical spectacles, he had received all the insignia of royal authority, and had been dressed and adorned like a king, the young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him instead of spear-bearers, in imitation of the body-guards of the king, and then others came up, some as if to salute him, and others making as though they wished to plead their causes before him, and others pretending to wish to consult with him about the affairs of the state.
    Then from the multitude of those who were standing around there arose a wonderful shout of men calling out Maris; and this is the name by which it is said that they call the kings among the Syrians”

    [Philo: Against Flaccus]

    Unlike the other Gospels, in Mark’s gospel, Barabbas is not described as being notorious nor of being a bandit nor of being an insurrectionist. He is simply described as being in prison WITH the rebels who had committed murder during the uprising:

    In Mark’s account, immediately after the release of Barabbas, Jesus is taken by the soldiers to the Praetorium where he is dressed as a king and mocked:

    They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him.

    [Mark 15:17-19]

    There are no details on the uprising mentioned in Mark’s gospel but to my mind it alludes to the uprising in Alexandria in 38 CE and the central role in that played by Carabbas, described by Philo as that:

    Certain madman …… afflicted not with a wild, savage, and dangerous madness (for that comes on in fits without being expected either by the patient or by bystanders), but with an intermittent and more gentle kind

    [Philo: Against Flaccus]

    I truly believe that in Mark’s Gospel, Barabbas refers to the Carabbas, the embodiment of the “God of Isaac”. It seems just too much of a coincidence therwise.

    Kind Regards


  14. Avatar
    kidron  November 30, 2012

    I think that Bishop Spong has a reasonable explanation for the origins of the story of Barabbas

    The story can be understood if one recognizes that the gospel writers were mining Jewish history to compose their stories.   As I posted in another thread, there is strong evidence within the gospel stories themselves to suggest that Jesus was NOT crucified at the Feast of Passover but rather at the Feast of Tabernacles   The gospel writers were intent on comparing the death of Jesus with the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb during the Passover.   Indeed John in his gospel conveniently shifts the crucifixion to the time BEFORE Passover, so that Jesus dies on the cross at exactly the same time that the lambs were being killed in the Temple.

    The story of Barabbas is a similar telling of the story of a Jewish holiday, that of Yom Kippur.  This festival celebrated repentance and God’s forgiveness.  This celebration is told in the Old Testament.   It was the time that the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies to pray for forgiveness for the collective sins of the nation.   In the original telling there were two animals involved in this ritual.   The first was a lamb without blemish which was killed and  its blood sprinkled on the people.  This blood atoned for their individual sins.   The second animal was a goat.  The High Priest laid his hands on the head of the goat and transferred the collective guilt of the nation on to it.   Then the goat was set free and it carried the sins of the nation into the desert.   This is where we get the idea of a ‘scapegoat’.

    In this extension of the story of the crucifixion, Jesus of Nazareth was the ‘lamb with out blemish’ who died for the individual sins.   Jesus Barabbas was an invented person to simulate the goat set free to carry the sins of the nation.

    In summary, Barabbas never existed but was an invention of the gospel writers to tie the Jewish history with the story of their hero, Jesus of Nazareth.   Their reasoning was that he died so that his blood would atone for sin just as their historical lamb was killed in those many years ago when the children of Israel wandered in the Sinai desert.  Barabbas was the goat set free.

  15. Avatar
    Peter  January 16, 2014


    I’m sure I’ve missed something….

    If the account of Barabbas in the Synoptics (which you’ve done a very good job of showing is not historical) is also mentioned in John (which you say was written without reference to the Synoptics)…..well, you see what I mean…?

    I thought John was written without knowledge of the Synoptics?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 16, 2014

      Yes, if someone — like me — thinks the Barabbas story was “made up” then it was not made up by the author of Mark, probably. More likely it was a story in wide circulation that different communities “spun” in their own way; it would have been available, then, to both the author of Mark and the author of John.

      • Avatar
        Peter  January 18, 2014


        But if that was the case, it would mean that the story was in circulation for at least a number of years before Mark wrote his gospel (at the time of or shortly after “The Great Revolt”), wouldn’t it? And, if so, how could the story have been intended to serve as an observation of the negative consequences of the Revolt?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  January 19, 2014

          Yes, I think it was around before Mark. It *may* have been a comment on the revolt; but my sense is that it is rather a comment on the entire idea that the way to salvation is by military action.

          • Avatar
            Peter  January 19, 2014

            Ok; fair enough. I thought you meant in your original post , which was excellent, that the story was related to the Revolt.

            Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  16. John4
    John4  July 17, 2015

    A very helpful post, Bart. Thank you so much. 🙂

    I’m curious, though, about what we can really know about Pilate. Wikipedia (my source of all knowledge, lol) tells me that “The sources for Pilate’s life are an inscription known as the Pilate Stone, which confirms his historicity and establishes his title as prefect; a brief mention by Tacitus; Philo of Alexandria; Josephus; the four canonical gospels; the Gospel of Nicodemus; the Gospel of Marcion; and other apocryphal works.” A bit of googling gives me the impression that Philo and Josephus may be almost as challenging as the gospel accounts to those interested in understanding the historical Pilate. Could you recommend a book or article that explains what these sources can and can’t tell us about Pilate?

    Many many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  July 18, 2015

      You might start with the book by Helen Bond on Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation

      • John4
        John4  July 19, 2015

        Perfect. Bond’s monograph, amazingly, is even available on kindle. Such a world we live in! 🙂

        Many thanks, Bart.

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