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Pilate Released Barabbas. Really??

I received recently the following question, which deals with an issue I had long puzzled over.  It involves the episode in the Gospels where Pilate offers to release a prisoner to the crowds at Passover, hoping they will choose Jesus.  But instead they choose a Jewish insurrectionist and murderer, Barabbas.  Could that have happened?

Here’s the Question and my Response:

 

QUESTION:

Pilate condemns Jesus to execution for treason against Rome. Pilate gives the Jewish crowds the option of releasing Jesus or a Jewish insurgent, Barabbas (15:6–15).   I did a quick search to see if this was an attested practice in the Roman Empire and couldn’t’ find any relevant information.  So, I have two questions:  Do you think this detail is accurate?  Is there any evidence that Roman officials actually freed condemned prisoners at certain local festival times?

 

RESPONSE:

This was an issue I worked on while writing my book Jesus Before the Gospels.  After doing my research I came to a definite conclusion, that I state rather strongly (!).  Here is what I say about the matter there:

***************************************************************************************

Mark’s Gospel indicates that it was Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner guilty of a capital crime to the Jewish crowd in honor of the Passover festival.  He asks if they would like him to release Jesus, but they urge him to release for them Barabbas instead, a man in prison for committing murder during an insurrection.   Pilate appears to feel that his hand is forced, and so he sets Barabbas free but orders Jesus to be crucified (Mark 15:6-15).

This Barabbas episode was firmly set in the early Christian memory of Jesus’ trial – it is found, with variations, in all four of the Gospels (Matthew 27:15-23; Luke 23:17-23; John 18:39-40).   I do not see how it can be historically right, however; it appears to be a distorted memory.

For starters, what evidence is there that Pilate ever released a prisoner to the Jewish crowd because they wanted him to do so, or because he wanted to behave kindly toward them during their festival?   Apart from the Gospels, there is none at all.   In part that is because we do not have a huge number of sources for the governorship of Pilate over Judea, just some highly negative remarks in the writings of a Jewish intellectual of his day, Philo of Alexandria, and a couple of stories in the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus.   These are enough, though, to show us the basic character of Pilate, his attitude to the Jews that he ruled, and his basic approach to Jewish sensitivities.  The short story is that he was a brutal, ruthless ruler with no concerns at all for what the people he governed thought about him or his policies.  He was violent, mean-spirited, and hard-headed.   He used his soldiers as thugs to beat the people into submission, and he ruled Judea with an iron fist.

Is Pilate the sort of person who would kindly accede to the requests of his Jewish subjects in light of their religious sensitivities?   In fact he was just the opposite kind of person.  Not only do we have no record of him releasing prisoners to them once a year, or ever.  Knowing what we know about him, it seems completely implausible.   I should point out that we don’t have any evidence of any Roman governor, anywhere, in any of the provinces, having any such policy.

And thinking about the alleged facts of the case for a second, how could there be such a policy?  Barabbas in this account is not just a murderer, he is an insurrectionist.  If he was involved with an insurrection, that means he engaged in an armed attempt to overthrow Roman rule.   If he murdered during the insurrection, he almost certainly would have murdered a Roman soldier or someone who collaborated with the Romans.   Are we supposed to believe that the ruthless, iron-fisted Pilate would release a dangerous enemy of the state because the Jewish crowd would have liked him to do so?   What did Romans do with insurrectionists?  Did they set them free so they could engage in more armed guerilla warfare?  Would any ruling authority do this?  Of course not.  Would the Romans?  Actually we know what they did with insurrectionists.  They crucified them.

I don’t think the Barabbas episode can be a historical recollection of what really happened.  It’s a distorted memory.  But where did such an incredible story come from?

We need to remember what I stressed earlier, that these accounts of Jesus’ trial repeatedly emphasize that Pilate was the innocent party.  It was those awful Jews who were responsible for Jesus’ death.  For the Christian storytellers, in killing Jesus, the Jews killed their own messiah.  That’s how wicked and foolish they were.  They preferred to kill rather than revere the one God had sent to them.   That is one key to understanding the Barabbas episode.  The Jews preferred a violent, murdering, insurrectionist to the Son of God.

There is even more to it than that.   We have no evidence outside these Gospel accounts that any such person as Barabbas existed.   It is interesting to think about the name of this apparently non-existent person.   In Aramaic, the language of Palestine, the name Bar-abbas literally means “son of the father.”   And so, in a very poignant way, the story of the release of Barabbas is a story about which kind of “son of the father” the Jewish people preferred.  Do they prefer the one who is a political insurgent, who believed that the solution to Israel’s problems was a violent overthrow of the ruling authorities?  Or do they prefer the loving “Son of the Father” who was willing to give his life for others?   In these Christian recollections, the Jewish people preferred the murdering insurrectionist to the self-sacrificing savior.

It is interesting to note that in some manuscripts of Matthew’s account of the Barabbas episode there is an important addition.  In these manuscripts – which may well represent what the Gospel writer originally wrote – Barabbas is actually named “Jesus Barabbas.”  Now the contrast is even more explicit: which kind of Jesus do the Jews want?   Which Jesus, the son of the Father, is to be preferred?   In this account, of course, the Jews are remembered as preferring the wrong one.  But for the Gospel writers that’s because the Jews are always doing the wrong thing and always opposing the true ways of God.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    gavriel  March 17, 2019

    1. Is it possible to establish with certainty that Jesus was seized by the temple authorities and next delivered to Pilate?
    2. If the answer to 1 is yes, do you think the temple authorities intended to have Jesus killed, knowing full well what kind of person Pilate was and what Pilate most likely would do?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      I really don’t know the answer to either one. I used to think the answer to both questions was yes. Then I thought the first was yes and the second was no. Now … I don’t know for sure. My *guess* is that the Jewish authorities reported on a trouble maker to Pilate, especially after having learned that he was calling himself the messiah. That was enough to get Pilate’s attention. Who actually did the arrest? I’m not sure. Did the Jewish leaders want him actually executed? Or just punished and released? I don’t think we have any way of knowing.

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      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  March 19, 2019

        Dr Ehrman – curious what led you to change your mind on (or at least loosen your conviction in) the historicity of the arrest by the temple authorities? Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 20, 2019

          I’ve just wondered (a) if it’s plausible: don’t Romans normally arrest troublemakers on their own? and (b) if the story might have been inspired by hatred of “the Jews” by early Christian story tellers who wanted to blame *them* instead of the Romans.

          1
          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  March 20, 2019

            Got it, thank you!

          • Avatar
            Iskander Robertson  March 20, 2019

            When you say “on their own” could that mean they could send their own infiltrators to infiltrate movement and takeout the leader?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 22, 2019

            Do you mean the Romans? Yes, I suppose that could happen. But I mean if the Roman authorities had heard there is a trouble maker, they would just send their soldiers to arrest him.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  April 12, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        Question 1: Is there good evidence whether the Temple authorities had their own security forces (with detainment authority)?

        Question 2: Do you think the apostles’ presence at Jesus’s arrest is likely historical?

        Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  April 13, 2019

          1. Apparently so. There is a documented warning about penalties for non-Jews entering into a part of the temple for Jews only, for example, and presumbably there was an enforcement agency. 2. Yup. My sense is that they were together most of the time.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  April 13, 2019

            Fantastic, thank you!

  2. Avatar
    ajh22  March 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, could this story of Barabbas be an allegory representing Yom Kippur, thus making Jesus the ultimate sacrificial lamb? (This in my opinion is one of many examples that support the theory that the gospels are religious literature and are not meant to be historical)

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      Yes, it’s part of that motif, brought out even more strongly in the Gospel of John.

      2
      • Avatar
        ajh22  March 18, 2019

        If this story is fiction and used as allegory, then how can we be sure that most of or all of the gospel stories are not fiction/allegory? Also, what do you think of Randel Helms’ book Gospel Fictions if you’ve read it? Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2019

          We have to evaluate each story individually, carefully, looking at all the historical criteria to help us decide what is probalby historical and what not.

          Yup, read it many years ago and rather liked it. Not sure what I’d make of it today!

          2
      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  May 5, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        Combining:
        (a) The ex-ante implausibility that a Roman governor had a custom of releasing a to-be-executed prisoner (at a crowd’s request);
        (b) The extant Yom Kippur tradition within ancient Judaism, based on atonement for sins in Leviticus, of sacrificing one goat and releasing another goat (Leviticus itself is open-ended about the release; although it appears that, in practice, this second goat was “released” over the side of a cliff…); and
        (c) Mark’s numerous mistakes/errors around the facts on the ground in first century Palestine (geography, Herodian names, Temple’s state post-destruction, etc.):

        In this light, it does seem highly suggestive that the Barabbas story had its origins in the kernel of the Yom Kippur tradition, which was then garbled/transmogrified by oral tradition into the release of an alternate prisoner (and transmitted as such by Mark, who clearly had a tin ear).

        Reasoning via conditional probabilities: it seems drastically more likely that someone would come up with a “release” story given (a) the existence of the Yom Kippur tradition (especially against the backdrop of a concurrent sacrifice for the atonement of sins – Jesus), than (b) without an extant tradition of the scapegoat (i.e., invented whole-cloth). And once received, that it would be codified by Mark, since he pretty consistently botched his 1st century Palestine facts.

        Said differently, the Yom Kippur Leviticus story seems very fertile soil in which to grow a Barabbas release story, and without it (YK), it’s hard to explain why a story would arise precisely in the form that it did. And Mark is the right vessel to allow it through (either unchecked or edited into what we have received in his gospel).

        Does this seem to hang together?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 6, 2019

          Yes, at first glance that seems plausible to me. I wouldn’t say it was based on any first century practices of the Day of Atonement; but to argue it’s based on Leviticus is an interesting option. Still, isn’t the big problem that the animal *released* is the one who carries the sins? (see Lev. 16:21-22) That would be Barabbas!

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  May 6, 2019

            Thanks much!

            Completely agree on the point within the argument in which the potential fatal flaw resides – but with two quick caveats, which would seem to help neutralize the issue (on which I’d love your reaction):

            (a) Per a literal read of Leviticus, both goats were “for a sin offering” (Lev. 16:5) in some sense: one was killed for the lord (Lev. 16:9; Jesus…), the other was said *literally in the text* (by setting this off I’m meaning to distinguish this from either (i) the actual YK practice as well as (ii) the 1st century Palestine/Jewish understanding of the allegory within the YK ritual/text) to be released carrying the sins of the people on its head (here perhaps the “normal” sins of the people spiced with the people’s choice to request the killing the innocent messiah Jesus; seems thus that Barabbas could easily slot into that second goat-shaped hole), and
            (b) Not to overly rely on Mark’s tin ear regarding (many) things 1st century Palestine, but stipulating for sake of argument that there were a flaw that arises by lumping Barabbas into the “sin offering” concept in verse 5, that kind of *understanding* error (versus the literal words on the face of the Leviticus text in verses 21-22) seems exactly the kind of thing Mark would screw up without noticing (of a piece with his fact pattern). That said, it’s not entirely clear that Barabbas being *part* of the sin offering actually undoes it (as long as he isn’t the *whole* sin offering by himself, which he isn’t) – I’m still chewing on that…

            Does this make sense, or am I now off myself wandering in the wilderness of Azazel?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 7, 2019

            How do you know what first-century Jewish practices and allegorical interpretations were?

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  May 7, 2019

            [Reply to your last Q about epistemic access to 1st century practices and allegories]

            Great question, and I most assuredly do not – and that is why I’m intending to set them aside in point (a). And wrt point (b), not to put forward a self-sealing argument (at lest I’m trying not to), but the prong where the Barabbas understanding is an error, it would seemingly fit into the Markan mistake milieu; and if it’s not an error per se and that Jesus is the sacrifice and Barabbas is the released goat, then the question becomes whether having two goats/people is a problem or not. I still don’t have an intuition there as yet…

            Thanks for your wisdom and patience as I wrestle out loud with this…

    • fefferdan
      fefferdan  March 19, 2019

      Not Yom Kippur, though, but Pesach. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement not Passover. No feast, but fasting!Unless you are referring to the scapegoat, rather than the paschal lamb. And by Jesus’ time there was no scapegoat either, but a bull was sacrificed.

      1
  3. Avatar
    flshrP  March 17, 2019

    I think you’re right about Barabbas and Pilate. The most famous insurrection in Roman history, that of Spartacus, occurred in 73-71 BCE, about 100 years before the trial of Jesus. That event was sufficiently recent and notorious to have been a cautionary tale for any Roman official responsible for controlling a conquered population. No leniency for insurrection or sedition ever. Crucifixion was the automatic sentence. Hundreds of those earlier insurrectionists were crucified along the Appian Way. Given what we know about Pilate, your conclusion is the most probable. The Barabbas story is complete fantasy.

    1
  4. Avatar
    AstaKask  March 17, 2019

    I read that this was the Yom Kippur ceremony in symbolic form. One goat was released into the desert, taking the people’s sins with them (this is Barabbas, and the sin of the people is insurrection against God). The other goat was sacrificed as atonement (this is Jesus Christ). Is that not true? Have I been living a lie?

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      I’m not sure about your personal life…. But yes, that may be behind the story — and it is brought out with particular clarity in John’s account.

      3
  5. Avatar
    Seeker1952  March 17, 2019

    I don’t disagree–and the anti-Semitic point if the story is quite clear–but it does seem like a pretty elaborate story to simply be created out of nothing. Are there analogous stories–say from the Hebrew Bible–that it could have been based on? Or are there other clearly non-historical New Testament stories of comparable elaborateness?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      Oh yes, plenty of stories in the early Christian tradition are very elaborate but almost certainly not historical. Think, at the very beginning, of the journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth in Luke’s birth narrative; or the visit of the wise men in Matthew’s; or … it’s a long list!

      4
      • Avatar
        brandon284  June 20, 2019

        Why do you think neither of those elements in the story are unhistorical, Dr. Ehrman?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 23, 2019

          I”ve posted several times on this issue: search for “Bethlehem” and you’ll find the posts. This is the kind of thing I talk about at length in various of my books, e.g., Jesus Interrupted and Jesus Before the Gospels. Hope these help!

  6. Avatar
    JohnKesler  March 17, 2019

    “This Barabbas episode was firmly set in the early Christian memory of Jesus’ trial – it is found, with variations, in all four of the Gospels (Matthew 27:15-23; Luke 23:17-23; John 18:39-40). I do not see how it can be historically right, however; it appears to be a distorted memory.”

    Since you don’t think that John knew the Synoptic Gospels, John’s account of the custom to release a prisoner means that the custom is multiply attested (assuming that Mark is the source for Matthew and Luke). How could John and Mark independently arrive at the same “distorted memory,” whose source you later say is the desire to blame the Jews for Jesus’ murder? It seems like a big coincidence that two writers independent of one another decided to invent a custom to release a prisoner as the vehicle to blame the Jews.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      Because the story was in wide circulation for years, decades, before either Mark or John heard it. Not a coincidence at all — it goes back to an oral tradition.

      3
      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  March 18, 2019

        This seems to render moot, then, the criterion of multiple attestation, because if one can retreat to common oral tradition to explain similarities between putative independent sources, of what value is the criterion?

        3
        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2019

          None of the criteria is decisive in and of itself. Each case has to be looked at individually in light of *all* the evidence. It’s not simply a matter of seeing whether a tradition is found in more than one independent source and then concluding that it therefore must have happened. Multiple attestation is a slice, not the whole pie.

          2
  7. Avatar
    JohnKesler  March 17, 2019

    ” In Aramaic, the language of Palestine, the name Bar-abbas literally means ‘son of the father.'”

    Does it mean “son of THE father” or “son of father”? Is the definite article present?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      Often the article in English is provided for ancient languages even when not present there. The *name* would not use a definite article (think: “Christ” is the name; “the Christ” is a title)

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  March 18, 2019

        The “Christ” comparison seems to beg the question that an article *should* precede “Barabbas.” How was it decided that the definite, rather than indefinite, article should precede Barabbas’ name? Or that any article should precede it at all?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2019

          There is no indefinite article in Greek. Sometimes names have the (definite) article and sometimes not. Depends on the context.

          • Avatar
            JohnKesler  March 19, 2019

            You said previously, with my emphasis: “Often the article in English is provided for ancient languages even when not present there.” Why should an article, in English, precede Barabbas’ name, other than that doing so makes for an interesting contrast with Jesus? Or is this the sole reason?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 20, 2019

            The article would never be used in English before a name. Only in Greek.

  8. Avatar
    rdrstarbase@gmail.com  March 17, 2019

    It’s amazing that Bart can draw such an iron clad conclusion (about Barabbas) with so little historical evidence. Even though I read his books and appreciate his views, it makes me question some of his other conclusions about more important matters.

    2
    • Avatar
      godspell  March 21, 2019

      There’s zero evidence any insurrectionary in Palestine was ever released, let alone because a crowd of Jews asked for it. (That’s not even a good system in theory–a mob gathered outside a building isn’t a representative sampling of the populace).

      We don’t have to assume anything, but without any evidence other than stories written down a lifetime later, of events we can be damned sure none of Jesus’ followers would have witnessed (because they wouldn’t have survived the witnessing), it seems foolish to assume we have a good account of what did happen.

      I don’t believe Jesus was crucified because the crowd asked for Barabbas. That is, in essence, a way of blaming the Jews, instead of the Romans. Obviously there was a group within the Jewish leadership who wanted him out of the way, but most Jews didn’t even know he existed, and were not consulted as to whether he should live or not. Neither were most Romans. It was a handful of men in Jerusalem, Jews and Romans, who decided the safest option was to get him out of the way. And this decision would have in no way rested on whether they let someone else go.

      It’s symbolic, but we don’t have enough context to understand exactly what is being symbolized. We can guess, and Bart’s guess is more educated than the average, is all.

  9. Avatar
    dennislk1  March 17, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    As always, an excellent explanation of how you reached your conclusion!

    Off topic question: Which modern translation of the Bible (I think you mentioned NIV at some point) do you feel does the best job (is your favorite) in terms of staying as true as possible to the original meaning of the Greek manuscripts (as you understand them)?

    Thank you,

    Dennis Keister

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      My preferred translation is the New Revised Standard Version, which I especially like in an annotated edition, such as the HarperCollins Study Bible.

      6
  10. Avatar
    godspell  March 17, 2019

    Maybe somebody was pardoned at around the same time Jesus was crucified, and was some kind of criminal, maybe with some connections to Jewish nationalism, but hadn’t really engaged in insurrectionary activity, or killed any Romans.

    Maybe he had some pull, somebody put a word in for him, and really, that’s not hard to believe. We know that very often, in our own time, innocent people get condemned for minor (or even nonexistent) offenses, and guilty people go scot-free. Justice is never all that consistent, in any society. You can’t talk about what does or doesn’t make sense, because so much of what happens in real-life makes no sense at all until you go into the fine details of how the system works–which we will never have in this case.

    So they took a real story and shaped it to have a suitable moral, when the real moral is “Get a good lawyer (or whatever the equivalent was in Roman times), and for the love of God, don’t represent yourself” Nobody could remember his name, so they made one up, for the reasons you describe.

    Make sense that they’d say he was a zealot, because most Jews saw the Messiah as someone who would violently overthrow Roman rule. Jesus clearly had no intention of doing that. The desire to emphasize this difference in how they saw the Messiah (and to make Pilate more sympathetic) would grow all the stronger after the great insurrection that led to so much death and destruction. They wanted the Romans to understand they had no part in this–and so they increasingly distanced themselves from both Judaism and Jews.

    And the roots of one of history’s great tragedies came into being.

  11. Avatar
    Matt2239  March 17, 2019

    About 40 years later, Rome had to entirely, completely crush the Jewish rebellion in Judea and destroy the temple. We have objective proof, in addition to the Dead Sea Scrolls, that Jews were looking for a messiah who would lead an uprising. In contrast, Jesus of Nazareth told Pilate, “my kingdom is not of this world” — in addition to saying “render unto Caesar,” go the extra mile, and “turn the other cheek.” The crowd certainly had no use for that.

    • Rick
      Rick  March 20, 2019

      I used to read Prof Ellis Rivkin on Jewish history. According to Rivkin “render unto Ceaser” was nothing clever dreamed up by Jesus. Rather, it was the one thing the three divisions of 1st Century Judaism agreed onbecause it was the foundation of the Jews special deal with Rome. That is the Jews would pay the tax but not recognize Ceaser as a God.

      As an appovolyptic, would Jesus have said my kingdom is not of this world?

      • Bart
        Bart  March 22, 2019

        That statement is only in the Gospel of John, and given its non- or rather anti-apocalyptic tone, it seems not to be something Jesus would have said.

  12. Avatar
    Pattylt  March 17, 2019

    Do you give any credence to the theory that it is a complete fabrication and retelling of the two goats of Yom Kippur? Two perfect goats are brought to the temple where one is released into the wilderness and the other sacrificed for the sins of the people? The parallelism is striking. Thoughts or problems?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      Yes, it may be tied to that; the connection is especially clear in the version found in John.

  13. Avatar
    Pegill7  March 17, 2019

    While I agree with what you say, just to play the Devil’s Advocate for a moment, might not the belief that Barabbas was an insurrectionist appeal to the Jews since they hated the Romans and their oppressive rule–to them he would be a hero. Of course, that is all more the reason that Pilate would not have released him.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      Yes, that’s part of the point. Jews prefer an insurrectionist to the true Son of God.

    • Avatar
      turbopro  March 19, 2019

      >> the Jews … hated the Romans and their oppressive rule …

      If I may please: but did the Jews hate the Romans?

      As far as I recall, from my go-to historical resource, “The Life of Brian”:

      Reg (of the People’s Front of Judea): “Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health: what have the Romans ever done for us?!”

      –> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ozEZxOsanY

      1
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        mwbaugh  March 21, 2019

        The Jews seem to have hated the Romans more than most client stats did. IIRC, Judea was such a trouble spot that it needed a garrison. The Romans seldom placed garrisons in the nations they ruled; only if they needed that to preserve the peace. Judea was also known for political assassinations. There were Jewish extremists known for suicide knifing attacks on Roman officials. The Romans called them sicarii (dagger men) because of their technique. There were several violent Jewish uprisings against the Romans that were handled brutally.

        Plus, (and I have this on good authority) the Jews incurred Pilate’s hatred by their constant mocking of his speech impediment (he couldn’t pronounce the sound “R”).

        1
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          Eric  March 25, 2019

          And they snickered at his friend Biggus’ full name, too.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 26, 2019

            Now *that’s* a scene that could never be filmed in our day! It’s culturally very interesting how the offensive parts of the film when it came out are really not so much any more, and the parts that the vast majority of people didn’t think were offensive at the time shock viewers today. (I’m not referring to his name — which was offensive at the time — but the mockery of speech impediments — which for the general population then was not)

            1
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    anthonygale  March 17, 2019

    If the main sources on Pilate are Jewish, might they be inclined to portray him in a negative light? Is Pilate portrayed as worse than other governors? I’m not asking because I think the Barabbas story is likely true, just wondering if the negative portrayal is what you’d expect and should be taken with a grain of salt.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      Yes, there were lots of other extremely harsh governors. They too wouldn’t be releasing insurrectionists!

  15. Avatar
    Stephen  March 17, 2019

    In the story of Barabbas do you detect any implied commentary on he part of the author of Mark about the first Jewish Revolt?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      It’s sometimes been read that way, to suggest that the Jewish people love insurrectionists.

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    crt112@gmail.com  March 17, 2019

    I’m confused. I thought your theory is that in Mark Pilate is seen as the ultimate authority respoinsible for Jesus’ death – but responsibility is shifted more towards the Jews in Matthew then Luke then John, until Pilate bears no responsibility at all. But this article suggests that Mark was exonerating Pilate right from the start.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      Yes, my view is that this is there at the get-go, and it gets considerably heightened over time. In Mark Pilate yields to the crowds. IN the later Gospels he is more and more and more resistant.

  17. Avatar
    brenmcg  March 18, 2019

    The idea that this is an invention to show the Jews choosing an insurrectionist of the true messiah works best if *Jesus* Barabbas was the original form.

    This also works best in Matthew’s presentation where the choice is given as 27:17 “who should I release, Jesus he of Barabbas or Jesus he who is called the Messiah. For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus to him.” Here Matthew’s Pilate is saying Jesus’s only crime is being called the Messiah which makes the chief priests jealous.

    Mark has instead “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews? asked Pilate knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him”. The “envy” line however no longer makes sense in Mark’s form.

    Isn’t this good evidence for Matthew being first? Mark’s editing out of ‘Jesus’ Barabbas in his gospel matching later scribes editing it out of Matthew’s.

    1
    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      It’s usually understood that Matthew is making explicit a possible implicit meaning of Mark, a common editorial move.

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        brenmcg  March 20, 2019

        But mark’s not being implicit – the chief priests are explicitly jealous of jesus being king of the jews. Claiming to be king of the jews would be a crime though and jesus couldnt have been said to have been handed over out of jealousy.

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    • Robert
      Robert  March 20, 2019

      There is a good reasons for Matthew to heighten the parallel in his account (typical emulation) as well as a good reason for a later, pious scribe to object to or be confused by Barabbas being given the name Jesus, which would not apply so well to Mark. Furthermore, Mark’s account does make sense. Pilate refers to Jesus as the king of the Jews to anger the high priests whom he knew were already jealous of Jesus.

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        brenmcg  March 24, 2019

        Mark’s difference to Matthew is in the same direction as later pious scribes copying matthew. This points towards Mark being later.

        The line “for he knew it was out of envy they handed him over” follows on neatly for Matthew. In Mark the reading must be forced. Claiming to be king of the jews is insurrectionist and the chief priests wouldnt be handing him over purely out of jealousy.
        For Matthew its clear Pilate and Rome have no problem with jesus claiming to be the messiah only the chief priests do.
        Forced readings point towards secondary editions.

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      godspell  March 24, 2019

      No, still not seeing it.

      I don’t think Mark would have seen Barabbas as an anti-Jesus, per se. It’s interesting to me that he says Barabbas was imprisoned with insurrectionists who had murdered–not that Barabbas himself was guilty of such crimes. (Using the NRSV translation).

      The authorities would have scooped up a lot of people after a rebellion (round up the usual suspects, or just anybody who looks suspicious), and many if not most are going to be guiltless, or at least not guilty of capital offenses.

      So no, makes no sense Pilate would release somebody who was known to be guilty of a physical rebellion against Rome, no matter who asked. But suppose Barabbas’ guilt was more ambiguous? And Jesus’, of course, was likewise hard to pin down, since he’d done nothing but talk and turn over a few tables.

      So you have two people whose case could go either way–Pilate will lose no sleep over crucifying both, but neither is he particularly concerned about repercussions if one goes free. There’s no real evidence against either.

      This feels like a real story that got re-interpreted by later generations. And Mark’s account feels closer to the original story (as is usually the case with him).

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        brenmcg  March 25, 2019

        The point of the blog post was that the story is unlikely to be historical and more likely to be an allegory for a Jewish rejection of the real Messiah.
        In Matthew’s version Barabbas is just a notorious prisoner rather than Mark’s insurrectionist. If the Barabbas story is historical Matthew’s notorious prisoner is more likely to be released by Pilate than Mark’s insurrectionist.
        If the story is an allegorical then Matthew’s version of a choice between Jesus he of Barabbas and Jesus he who is called the Messiah is more likely to be the original. Matthew’s is the only version which presents it as a choice of two options.
        Regardless of whether its historical or allegorical the line “For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus to him.” works better in Matthew’s version than Mark’s (Jesus being the Messiah is the chief priests concern not Rome’s).
        Also by removing Barabbas from the choice presented by Matthew’s Pilate Mark’s version has the Barabbas character introduced a few lines too early. Like Luke’s version the introduction to Barabbas is only needed when the crowd call for his release. Mark’s placement of the introduction indicates he’s following Matthew here.

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          godspell  March 26, 2019

          What interests me about Mark’s Barabbas is that he’s NOT identified as an insurrectionist, except by association–there is no explicit statement that he was involved in violent actions.

          There is no reason to assume everybody the Romans arrested after that incident was guilty. Barabbas (whatever his real name was) could have been guilty of nothing more than being in the same tavern some real insurrectionists were meeting in.

          The Romans are not going to be that careful (modern governments putting down major civil disorders are often equally careless), and there is no concept then of the presumption of innocence–quite the contrary. If you can afford an attorney, tough luck, because you still don’t get one.

          Matthew’s Barabbas is very clearly guilty of capital crimes–notoriously so–why? Because the story has gone from an ironic twist to show that people don’t understand who Jesus is (so they are easily manipulated by the chief priests) to a condemnation of the bloody-minded hypocritical behavior of the Jewish leaders and their hangers-on, who would normally care nothing for some criminal’s fate.

          Maybe nothing like this happened at all. I think the tradition of releasing a prisoner the people ask for is dubious, though prisoners would sometimes have been released for this reason or that (true in any system). It’s quite possible that some people facing crucifixion were released that day, some memory of this survived, and took on various forms in recollection.

          I see no evidence Matthew’s story is older–it’s much more embellished. How do you explain he has Pilate’s wife telling him to have no part in Jesus’ blood? That’s clearly an embellishment (shades of Caesar’s wife), and it’s not in Mark.

          The more embellished story is going to be the later one. Mark wasn’t editing Matthew. Matthew was actively rewriting and adding to Mark in response to an antipathy to unconverted Jews that Mark does not feel–that became more accentuated as time went on, particularly after the great Jewish rebellion.

          Did it occur to you that Matthew might be afraid of saying Barabbas was suspected of insurrection and a Roman governor willingly released him–and that’s why the accusations against him are left vague?

          That would indicate later authorship.

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            brenmcg  March 27, 2019

            I think the greek of Mark 15;7 is understood as Barabbas being in prison with his *fellow* insurrectionists. The insurrectionists who committed murder as a group in the uprising, Barabbas being one of them.

            “How do you explain he has Pilate’s wife telling him to have no part in Jesus’ blood? That’s clearly an embellishment (shades of Caesar’s wife), and it’s not in Mark.”
            Yes embellishment tends to point to secondary versions but as a whole Mark’s stories tend to display more embellishment.
            The Pilate’s wife incident is part of Matthew’s theme of responsibility for jesus’s execution. Whether Mark has removed this theme from Matthew or Matthew has embellished Mark is difficult to be objective about. What’s easier to be objective about is the line “For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus to him”. Both Matthew and Mark have it but it only belong in Matthew.

            “Did it occur to you that Matthew might be afraid of saying Barabbas was suspected of insurrection and a Roman governor willingly released him–and that’s why the accusations against him are left vague?”
            Well no because Mark Luke and John have Barabbas as an insurrectionist; if we are to use this to order the gospels we’d need to place Matthew either before all three or after all three. Otherwise its an unhelpful observation.

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            godspell  March 29, 2019

            The implication–that Mark intends to make–is that Barabbas was an insurrectionist–but the wording suggests the evidence to that effect was flimsy and perhaps entirely circumstantial. Truthfully, there would have been very little information available to any of the gospel writers about this man, if he existed at all. So they have a lot of leeway in how they tell the story, and each tells it differently.

            Mark’s Barabbas may not be guilty of anything much, which would explain why he was released. Matthew’s Barabbas is clearly guilty of many foul crimes, being a ‘notorious’ prisoner–but his crimes are not specified, because Matthew is writing shortly after the great insurrection, and is perhaps wary of suggesting that the Romans would have let such a man go.

            The story of Pilate’s wife, which is found nowhere but in Matthew, is clearly his own embellishment, drawn perhaps from the legends of Calpurnia warning Caesar about her prophetic dream relating to his assassination, or similar legends. (It’s not like Christians were the only ones who mythologized real history).

            I think it’s pretty clear that he finds Mark’s version of the story unsatisfactory for Matthew’s purposes. Barabbas needs to be very clearly a horrible undeserving person–in Mark, all we know of him is that he’s in prison with some people who committed insurrection and murder, but we don’t know he did anything like that. Matthew doesn’t want to get into the insurrection angle, because it’s right after a much worse insurrection.

            It’s pretty strong evidence that Matthew came later.

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            brenmcg  April 1, 2019

            Mark’s barabbas is a prisoner with his *fellow” insurrectionists – so he’s guilty of insurrection along with them.
            Matthew’s barabbas is a *noted* or *well-known* prisoner which is why pilate picks him to show to the crowd – theyll know who he is.
            So I dont think your idea of Mark’s barabbas not being guilt but Matthew’s is holds up.

            The story of Pilate’s wife may be embellishment which would generally indicate secondary edition but as a whole Mark’s stories tend to be more embellished. In this case the line “for he knew it was out of envy … ” coupled with the early introduction of barabbas in mark, is stronger evidence for Matthew’s priority than for Mark’s.

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            godspell  April 1, 2019

            Bren, I went to bible hub, and didn’t find one translation that used the phrase ‘fellow insurrectionists.’ Do you read ancient Greek? I sure as hell don’t.

            Most translations I found are a mite ambiguous; a few say Barabbas was personally guilty of insurrection and murder, but I look at Wikipedia (Wikipedia pages relating to scholarly topics are usually pretty well sourced) and it says Mark and Luke say he was involved in a riot. The implication they make is that the riot was related to Jewish nationalism, but of course none of the gospel authors would really have known.

            After a riot, lots of people would get arrested for just being in the vicinity of said riot, or knowing people connected to it. This is not to say Barabbas was innocent–or even that he existed at all. But it is undeniable that many were arrested after such incidents, and some would have been released, for a variety of reasons. The notion that Pilate (or his subordinates) never let anyone go is as nonsensical as the notion that he was a kind and merciful man forced to kill Jesus by those bloodthirsty Jews.

            So let’s not worry about the innocence of Barabbas, which nobody at the time of the gospels being written would have had reliable info about–let’s look at the difference between Mark and Matthew.

            Matthew’s account is heavily embellished (including a story about Pilate’s wife nobody else has), and makes no reference to anyone but Barabbas–he is a ‘notorious prisoner’, known to be guilty of terrible crimes, his guilt is not the least bit ambiguous, but no specifics are provided as to what he did.

            This would indicate that perhaps Matthew was writing shortly after the much larger bloodier Jewish uprising (whatever Barabbas was involved in was little more than a civil disturbance, a fairly commonplace event during Passover), and he’s afraid to make any direct reference to that. He’s not making any friends among Roman pagans by saying Pilate let a murdering revolutionary go instead of the Prince of Peace. Mark was writing in quieter times, and was not concerned with Barabbas’ guilt or innocence, but with nobody understanding who Jesus really is. Barabbas isn’t important to him, but Matthew wants everyone to understand that the Jewish leaders intentionally had a criminal pardoned so Jesus would die.

            As to Mark’s ’embellishments’, well I assume all accounts are embellished to some extent, because stories grow with the telling, but Mark’s gospel is shorter than Matthew’s, you yourself say he ‘edited’ Matthew, so your claims that his gospel is more embellished don’t hold up to scrutiny. And he doesn’t make up a psychic wife for Pilate.

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            brenmcg  April 5, 2019

            Biblehub has it as “a compound if sun and derivative of statis, a fellow insurrectionist” kjv translates as them thar made insurrection with him. Matthews barabbas is “well-known” or “noted”. “Notorious” is just interpretation. The guilt of Matthews barabbas is the most ambiguous of the 4 gospels. Whether or not historical story was an innocent barabbas is impossible to say. Better instead to focus on pilates words and the early introduction of barabbas which give good indications of marks editing.

            Matthews gospel has more stories than marks but of the ones they share
            Marks are generally the more embellished. Matthews gospel being longer than marks is often given as evidence for markan priority but thats very surface level. Better to compare the actual stories they share for evidence of editing

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            godspell  April 5, 2019

            This may take more than one post to clear up. I ask for your patience (and Bart’s).

            The internet, useful as it surely can be, is not the answer to all questions. I have an unfair advantage, in that I work in a university library, and can (when properly motivated, and not too busy) make use of our rather large collection of biblical scholarship. Including a book containing three articles by Roger David Aus, the last of which is entitled “The Release of Barabbas Revisited,” which in my opinion comes up with a credible potential explanation for why the Barabbas story is in all four gospels, and why it is not remotely based on anything that happened at the time Jesus was crucified, but is rather drawn from an earlier event.

            It’s an involved argument (thankfully well-written and not over-laden with scholar-ese, so within my limited power to comprehend).

            Essentially, Aus is saying that when Mark wrote this part of his gospel, he was editing an earlier manuscript (see? you weren’t entirely wrong!), but not Matthew or Luke–a passion narrative we no longer have, by a Palestinian Jewish Christian, that was popular among literate Christians then, but is now lost, and composed in Aramaic. (a language we can reasonably assume Mark knew, since he includes Aramaic phrases in his own gospel, and explains their meaning to his readers).

            (Aus, like most scholars, believes Mark wrote the earliest surviving gospel, but drew upon earlier written sources as part of his research preparatory to writing it.)

            My first objective was to try and clarify the language Mark uses regarding Barabbas. Aus is very clear that Mark is the most ambiguous about Barabbas’ guilt, and “at least here in Mark it is not expressly stated that Barabbas himself committed murder(s).” Luke does state this clearly. John (the least historical of the gospels) refers to him in language that could be read either as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘bandit.’ Matthew refers to him as a ‘prominent prisoner’, which Aus suggests is because the original source (which Matthew might also have read) was related to a prominent Jew involved in a much earlier uprising, but not himself a murderer.

            Luke and John were probably not familiar with this lost narrative, but the story of Barabbas was popular among Christians when the four gospels were written, so all include it. (continued next post)

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            godspell  April 5, 2019

            (continuing from previous post)

            This is the scholar whose work I’m (badly) explaining here.

            https://sites.google.com/site/rogeraus/

            So to continue, Aus thinks that this unknown Palestinian Jewish Christian, writing in Aramaic, not long after the crucifixion, did what many writers in the Haggadic tradition did, and ignore conventional chronology. In this case, to take an earlier incident involving the Herodians’ conflict with the Temple authorities in Jerusalem, from about 4AD, and put it into the passion story, as a way of filling one of these gaps, and expressing his anger at his fellow Jews for failing to recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah.

            Christians knew almost nothing about Jesus’ trial, if you even want to call it that. None of them were present for it, no official Roman account was ever published, because why would it be? The story they had was incomplete and unsatisfying, from a devotional standpoint, or even from the standpoint of good storytelling, without which a new religion has a hard time getting noticed. They looked for ways to fill the gaps, and give the threadbare narrative what they considered a proper meaning. They were writing about historical events, but not from the perspective of historians. (None of this should be news to any reader of Bart Ehrman.)

            Herod the Great’s son, Archelaus, is related by Josephus to have released two men taken prisoner by his late (and largely unlamented) father, in response to demands made by the populace of Jerusalem. These men had removed the figure of a golden eagle Herod had placed over the Temple, and hacked it to pieces, seeing its presence as blasphemous.

            Aus finds many parallels between this story and the later stories of Barabbas. Archelaus released these men in part because he needed to make peace with his countrymen, after having killed 3,000 of them who had risen up in revolt against his family.

            Aus believes this explains why we have no record of any significant uprising from around the time Jesus was crucified. It was in fact an earlier uprising, only indirectly against Roman rule. It would have been well-remembered among Jewish Christians at the time Mark’s original source was written. Gentile converts would have been less likely to understand the reference being made–or to understand the non-chronological tradition the original author was writing in, where events taking place at different times can be made to resonate together. (cont.)

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            godspell  April 5, 2019

            Obviously neither of us is an expert here. You would have told me if you knew Greek. I respect your devotion to this cause of yours, that we both know is not going to change the scholarly consensus that Mark came first. I wouldn’t be much of an Irishman if I didn’t appreciate a good bit of contumely.

            However, you are somewhat careless with regards to your use of the word ’embellishment.’ All embellishments are not created equal.

            Mark likes to explain why the people he’s writing about did something–not adding to the story, so much as fleshing it out–his explanations may differ from those of other gospel authors, they may come from sources he’s using, or be his own opinion, but when you take away these interpretations, and compare them to Matthew and Luke, it’s pretty clear they’re drawing for the most part on his version of the story.

            That is on a different order from doing what Matthew does in this story, which is to give Pilate a wife who has a prophetic dream, who is not mentioned in any of the other accounts, and who wouldn’t have been mentioned in the source Mark drew upon to write his version of the Barabbas incident. This is a pagan story, equivalent to Calpurnia warning Caesar of her prophetic dream.

            Matthew is bothered by the poor motivation Pilate has for wanting to free Jesus. In the original story this all hypothetically came from it makes sense, because Archelaus had a somewhat tenuous grip on power, and needed to conciliate the populace in Jerusalem who wanted these men freed for an act of symbolic rebellion against his father, Herod the Great.

            Pilate was in no such danger. So why would this notoriously ruthless pagan governor behave this way? Because pagans have a superstitious belief in prophetic dreams. Matthew writing a story pagan converts to Christianity would understand, and not at all concerned with what Jews thought of it.

            This embellishment does change the story. Doesn’t prove Matthew invented it (he would have had other sources as well). But why would Mark edit it out, if he’s just copying Matthew? Mark likes to write about why people do things. The reason is that he never read Matthew, never heard of this story, because he was writing at a time when the Matthew gospel did not exist. Q.E.D.

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            brenmcg  April 8, 2019

            hi godspell – I thought it would be easier to reply with a forum post if you’re interested – thanks
            https://ehrmanblog.org/forum/the-new-testament-gospels/barabbas-and-jesus/#p7614

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    Alexandre Ferreira  March 18, 2019

    There a strange thing in that biblical narrative which has intrigue me: there was no a prisioner on jail who could be competing agains Jesus for your own freedom? The roman would risk putting an insurgent in freedom?

    Good morning from Brazil. I’m very glad for opportunity that I have of read and learn with your written, Drº Ehrman.

    Thanks so much.

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    RonaldTaska  March 18, 2019

    This is a very convincing argument. For those new to the blog, I strongly recommend Ehrman’s “Jesus Before the Gospels” which is one of my favorite Ehrman books. I got sidetracked a bit at the first of this book because I struggled with “my” definition of “memories,” which was far too narrow, but I get it now. “Memories” include, not only individual memories, but also “stories” or “traditions” that got passed down and changed and embellished before they were finally written down. So, sure individual memories of Jesus got changed, but so did the stories and traditions about Jesus for decades before they were written down. I found this to be very important and it is well documented in Ehrman’s book. I especially like the anthropological evidence in the book documenting how stories get changed in various cultures. How could it be otherwise, especially in “oral” cultures without magazines, books, newspapers, etc ?

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    nbraith1975  March 18, 2019

    Bart – Do you believe without its collusion with Rome (It’s emperors) that Christianity would have probably not gotten off the ground?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 18, 2019

      That’s the very subject I address in my book Triumph of Christianity, where I argue at some length that Christianity would probalby have taken over the Empire even if Constantine had not converted (contrary to what I used to think!). But I think the reasons/evidence are overwhelming (they are not ones I came up with myself!!)

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