Is Pontius Pilate’s Custom of Releasing Prisoners Historical?: The Barabbas Episode

As one of the seven governors of Judea between 6 and 41 CE, Pontius Pilate was charged with maintaining law and order in the province. It is little surprise then that the Gospels contain many references and episodes regarding Pilate. 

Of relevance to this article is the Gospel narrative of Pilate’s “custom” of releasing a prisoner guilty of a capital crime to a Jewish crowd in honor of the Passover festival. In this case, the choice for the Jewish crowd is between Jesus and Barabbas, the latter of whom was a Jewish insurrectionist. The story (henceforth: Barabbas episode) is mentioned in all four Gospels: Mark 15:6-15, Matt. 27:15-26, Luke 23:18-24, and John 18:40. Perhaps let us consider Mark’s version since his is the earliest Gospel account, 

Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did. “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (15:6-15, emphasis added)

Skepticism Regarding the Barabbas Episode

The Barabbas episode is a well-known story in the Jesus Passion narrative. But it has, however, been debated as to matters of its historicity and viewed with suspicion on several grounds. The following arguments are usually provided:

Beyond the Gospels there is no mention of this event in primary sources for Pilate. There are a few sources attesting to Pilate’s governorship over Judea. For instance, from Philo of Alexandria (C. BCE 20-50 CE) and Josephus Flavius (c. 37-100 CE), historians have enough information to learn about Pilate’s character and his attitude towards the Jews over whom he ruled. Neither indicates the custom central to the Barabbas episode. 

Based on what Philo’s and Josephus’s sources tell us of Pilate, the critic argues that Pilate would never have released a murderous insurrectionist against Rome, let alone this be a custom. Rather, Pilate was brutal and ruthless, and would use his soldiers to beat people into submission. This perspective finds support. According to Philo, Pilate “was a man of inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition…” Philo continues,

“Pilate most of all, for he was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behaviour, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity” (1).

Josephus also shows Pilate to be a violent individual. Although Pilate has mercy in this account, he was quite willing to massacre Jews,

(2.172) On the ensuing day Pilate took his seat on his tribunal in the great stadium and summoning the multitude, with the apparent intention of answering them, gave the arranged signal to his armed soldiers to surround the Jews. (173) Finding themselves in a ring of troops, three deep, the Jews were struck dumb at this unexpected sight. Pilate, after threatening to cut them down, if they refused to admit Caesar’s images, signalled to the soldiers to draw their swords. (174) Thereupon the Jews, as by concerted action, flung themselves in a body on the ground, extended their necks, and exclaimed that they were ready rather to die than to transgress the Law. Overcome with astonishment at such intense religious zeal, Pilate gave orders for the immediate removal of the standards from Jerusalem (emphasis added) (2).

A little later in Josephus, we learn that some other Jews were not so lucky to escape Pilate’s wrath,

(2.175) On a later occasion he provoked a fresh uproar by expending upon the construction of an aqueduct the sacred treasure known as Corbonas; the water was brought from a distance of 400 furlongs. Indignant at this proceeding, the populace formed a ring round the tribunal of Pilate, then on a visit to Jerusalem, and besieged him with angry clamour. (176) He, foreseeing the tumult, had interspersed among the crowd a troop of his soldiers, armed but disguised in civilian dress, with orders not to use their swords, but to beat any rioters with cudgels. He now from his tribunal gave the agreed signal. (177) Large numbers of the Jews perished, some from the blows which they received, others trodden to death by their companions in the ensuing flight. Cowed by the fate of the victims, the multitude was reduced to silence (emphasis added) (3).

Taken together, added with the Gospel testimony that Pilate had Jesus flogged (Mark 15:15; Matthew 27:26; John 19:1) and then crucified, Pilate was a brutal man who would do much to put the interests of the Empire first. A man of such power and disposition would unlikely release a Jewish insurrectionist in the place of Jesus to placate the religious sensibilities of the Jewish crowd. 

The Barabbas episode must immediately strike the reader as peculiar because Pilate had military might at the tip of his fingers, which raises the question as to why would he be overwhelmed by a small crowd of Jewish civilians into releasing a prisoner condemned to death for insurrection against the Empire?

This allegedly makes no sense as “the majority of scholars regard the Pilate of Mark’s gospel as a weakling, convinced of Jesus’ innocence, vainly engaging in successive attempts to release him but forced to go along with the wishes of the chief priests and the crowd” (4). According to S. G. F. Brandon (1907-1971), “Pilate must have been not only incredibly weak, but also unbelievably stupid” (5).

Moreover, for Pilate to release an insurrectionist would likely bring the Empire down on himself, which Pilate certainly would not have wanted. More reasonable is that Pilate would have made quick work of a violent insurrectionist like Barabbas. Pilate would not take kindly to a violent Jew attempting an armed overthrow of the Empire. 

Further, the critic argues that there is no evidence of any Roman governor in any of the provinces who had such a custom and policy. 

Responses to Skepticism and Discussion 

A few responses are offered by defenders of the historicity of the Barabbas episode.

First, they argue that Pilate was capable of mercy and refer to Josephus as proof of this. As the extract above indicated, Josephus tells us that the Jews refused to “admit Caesar’s images”, which motivated Pilate to signal his “soldiers to draw their swords” to eliminate them. But at that moment, the Jews flung themselves to the ground “extended their necks, and exclaimed that they were ready rather to die than to transgress the Law”. Evidently, Pilate was impressed by this “intense religious zeal” and did not have these Jews slaughtered. So, if Pilate showed mercy here, why not with Barabbas in the Barabbas episode?

A possible response is that Pilate would not have shown such mercy to an insurrectionist who not only committed murder but also attempted to violently overthrow the Empire. Such criminals would be crucified. Perhaps an insurrectionist cannot be likened to Jews refusing to honor Caesar’s images. These Jews upon whom Pilate had mercy had no role in violence or ever attempted to overthrow the Empire. Further, Jews were an exception in that they were allowed religious autonomy, which could explain Pilate’s mercy on this occasion.

Second, critics of the Barabbas episode supposedly do not take the Gospels seriously enough as historical sources as they do Philo and Josephus for information about Pilate. The Gospels should be seen as equally contributive to an understanding of Pilate. In response, one might say that critics and historians do take the Gospels seriously but this need not indicate that they accept everything within them as historical, especially when apologetic motifs come into play.

Brandon and Hyam Maccoby (1924–2004) maintained that Mark inserted the prisoner-release custom into the trial of Jesus for apologetic purposes (6). Maccoby argued that after the commencement of the Jewish War against Rome in 66 CE and the siege and capture of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, Mark interpolated a custom of privilegium paschale and the Barabbas episode into his Gospel as a means to deflect the blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews and to detach and dissociate the Christians (originally a Jewish sect) from the Jews in their hour of defeat. 

Several scholars agree. According to classicist Michael Grant (1914- 2004), “The evangelists, notably Matthew … are still manifestly concerned to put all the blame on the Jews – a theme which this story of Barabbas may well have been specifically invented to drive home” (7). Francis Wright Beare (1902-1986), an Anglican priest and Professor of New Testament Studies, views the Barabbas episode as a part of,

“… the Christian programme of laying the whole guilt [for the Crucifixion] on the Jews, and absolving the Romans, so far as that could be done… The cry of verse 25, whereby the Jews of the time invoke upon themselves and upon their children the whole guilt for the death of Jesus, is of course nothing but hostile invention… [it is] appalling for a Christian to think of how much suffering has been inflicted upon Jews throughout the ages, partly as a result of this completely fictitious scene” (8).

Theologian Dennis Nineham (1921-2016) asserted that “most commentators think we should allow for some idealization in St Mark’s account, arising out of the Christian desire to exculpate the Romans and put responsibility on the Jews” (9).

Third, that the custom of releasing a prisoner finds no attestation beyond the Gospels is said to be an argument from silence: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. 

A response is that one should expect to find such evidence of these supposed “customs”. Here custom indicates a repeated practice; consider Mark’s references suggesting Pilate’s releasing of a prisoner being a regular “custom at the festival to release a prisoner” and that “The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did” (emphasis added); according to New Testament scholar Helen Blond, “Mark’s account implies that the amnesty was a custom which either Pilate had introduced himself or had inherited from his predecessors and seen no reason to discontinue” (10).

Yet such a custom is not attested in various independent sources from which historians learn about the Empire and its punishment of criminals. This absence of evidence charge is weakened and the story becomes suspicious, and especially so when it is combined with other factors in the Gospels, such as the apologetic motives, as well as the unlikeness of a governor like Pilate releasing an insurrectionist against the Empire.

But what about evidence in the ancient world of prisoners being released? Robert L. Merritt (11) cites evidence from the ancient world of prisoners being released: in Greece during certain religious festivals (although released only temporarily for the period of the festival), Babylonia where the king removed the servile or penal condition from slaves, and the Assyrian king’s release of a prisoner during Arahsamna on two days (the 16th and 26th of November). 

The Roman historian Titus Livy (59 BCE – 17 CE) reports that when the eight-day celebration of the Lectisternium or Draping of Couches, a propitiatory ceremony at which a sacrificial meal was offered to gods and goddesses, was held for the first time in Rome in 399 BCE, prisoners were released on condition that they return to prison at the end of the festival. Prisoners were released at the Athenian festival of Dionysus, as well as at Greek festivals and rites primarily concerned with phenomena of nature and the renewal of vegetation, such as at the Thesmophoria. Merritt’s conclusion is that,

“… the possibility that the Babylonian, Assyrian, and Greek (and seemingly also Roman and perhaps other) customs of releasing a prisoner or prisoners at the time of certain religious and other festivals and occasions were known in the world of the Gospel writers and provided a setting that paved the way for reciting the details of the trial of Jesus at the time of the Passover in a manner that fulfilled their apologetic need to exculpate the Romans and put responsibility for the crucifixion on the Jews… Mark’s use of a custom of reprieve of a prisoner at the Passover echoed the known customs of prisoner releases at festivals in the ancient world and thus lent an aura of authenticity to the episode wherein Barabbas is depicted as the beneficiary of such a reprieve” (12).

But this raises questions. One might wonder if Merritt seeing in the Barabbas episode an “aura of authenticity” based on the cited evidence from other periods and locales in the ancient world where prisoners or slaves were released is warranted in the Gospel case. After all, granting that Mark’s author was aware of this “custom of reprieve”, does this imply historical accuracy and authenticity in Mark’s account? 

This is an important question because the apologetic motif needs consideration. Even though Mark might have been aware of this custom of reprieve, does this warrant a conclusion that he could not have invented the Barabbas episode? In addition, these cases would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. It cannot be assumed that because there is evidence of a reprieve in other locations in the ancient world that it supports the historicity of an allegedly similar theme and episode in the Gospels.

Further, how would theology factor into this? According to Christian Gers-Uphaus, “theological issues have influenced his [John’s] depiction of Jesus and of Pilate” (13). But although an important question, one must be careful not to rule out historicity in a historical narrative just because the narrated events have been theologized. Theology and historicity need not always be mutually exclusive, which a defender of the Barabbas episode would rightly point out.

It is not unreasonable to believe that certain apologetic interests of the Gospel authors can render doubt regarding the historical accuracy of a few events they narrate. The critic could argue that the Barabbas episode is one such event. Another apologetically inspired event often pointed out as probably unhistorical is the guard at the tomb narrative in Matthew’s Gospel given that it served as an apologetic counter to early claims that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus from the tomb. 

Finally, is Merritt’s conclusion that the notion of the prisoner reprieve was known to Mark take into account the ruthlessness of Pilate and the charge of murder and insurrection against the criminal Barabbas? Merritt unfortunately did not entertain this question, which might be a lost opportunity to have strengthened his case for the historicity of the Barabbas episode.

References

1. Blond, Helen. 2004. “Pilate in Philo”. In Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation, edited by Helen Blond, 24-48. p. 25-26.

2. Blond, Helen. 2004. “Pilate in Josephus”. Ibid, 45-93. p. 53.

3. Blond, Helen. 2004. “Pilate in Josephus”. Ibid, 45-93. p. 53.

4. Blond, Helen. 2004. “Pilate in Mark’s Gospel”. Ibid, 94-119. p. 103.

5. Brandon, S. G. F. 1967. Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity. Manchester University Press. p. 261-262.

6. Brandon, S. G. F. 1967. Ibid. p. 258-265; Maccoby, Hyam. 1973. Revolution in Judaea. Taplinger Publishing Company. Chapters 16 and 17. 

7. Grant, Michael. 1977. Jesus: An Historian’s View of the Gospels. Weidenfeld and Nicholson. p. 165.

8. Beare, Francis W. 1981. The Gospel according to Matthew. Harper & Row. p. 528-231.

9. Quoted by Blond, Helen. 2004. “Pilate in Mark’s Gospel”. Ibid, 94-119. p. 104. 

10. Blond, Helen. 2004. “Pilate in Mark’s Gospel”. Ibid, 94-119. p. 109.

11. Merritt, Robert L. 1985. “Jesus Barabbas and the Paschal Pardon”. Journal of Biblical Literature 104(1):57-68. 

12. Merritt, Robert L. 1985. Ibid. p. 67-68.

13. Gers-Uphaus, Christian. 2020. “The Figure of Pontius Pilate in Josephus Compared with Philo and the Gospel of John”. Religions 11(65):1-24. p. 19.

One comment

  1. This is one of the most egregious writing devices in all scripture: to find a way to get the Jews to be the people culpable for the execution of Jesus which, clearly they were not. There has never been such a tradition in all of Roam history and, even more outlandish is the idea that Pilate – of all Roman Procurators – would ever release a known murderer of Romans! This is a man that had his own soldiers flogged sometime to death for even slight offenses as falling asleep on watch. Furthermore it is interesting that Barabbas – Jesus Barabbas to be specific – would have a name that translates to Jesus Son of the Father. What are the chances?

    This whole story stinks to high heaven and has the blood of generations of Jews over the two millennia murdered, executed, slaughtered over the death of Jesus!

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