(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Tuesdays.)
Because he could find no fault with the man many were calling the Christ, Pontius Pilate decided to offer the growing mob a choice. It was Pilate’s custom and right to offer the people one prisoner sentenced to death clemency, as a demonstration of Rome’s benevolence. He gave the rabble a choice between two men sharing the same name. One was Jesus Barabbas, an insurrectionist. The other was Jesus of Nazareth who was purported to heal the sick. Pilate offered freedom for one and death for the other. The people shouted. The people chose freedom for the one that inspired them, the one that could lead them; Christ went to his death.
This is the story of Barabbas paraphrased from the Gospel of Matthew. Over the Lenten season, I came across these events in Bible study. Traditionally, anti-semites have used this the tale has been used to propagate their hatred using the crowd’s choice of a criminal over Christ. But the story isn’t meant to convey blame, it’s meant to indicate our nature. The telling is about a choice, but not a choice between individuals, rather a choice between peace and violence; and mankind choose an insurrectionist over a healer.
Barabbas was a criminal whose crime against Rome and men warranted death. The manner with which the two Gospels refer to him indicate he was arrested for either inciting or being part of a riot against Roman authority. Biblical scholar Robert Eisenman noted that the manner to which Barabbas was referred to was reserved for revolutionaries. His name also tells us he was a Jew: Jesus meaning “salvation” and Barabbas meaning “son of the father.” So it begins to emerge that there is not just one potential savior in this story but two.
Christian tradition has demonized Pilate to the same level as Judas. Ironic considering the portrayal of Pilate’s attempt to avoid the weight of judging someone he considered blameless. Either because his wife’s warning or because speaking with Christ made clear that the accused was no threat to Rome, Pilate attempted two times to defer judgement. When the Jewish religious leaders brought Jesus before Pilate the first time, Pilate looked him over and sent him to Herod to be dealt with. When Jesus returned, he realized he would have to deal with this situation seeing a threat of violent protest in his courtyard. His strategy: maintain order by sating the crowd with a gift.
Author and Pastor Adam Hamilton called it “a choice between two saviors.” It must have seemed like an easy decision in Pilate’s mind as to who they would choose. Between the two, the crowd would surely cry for the freedom of the man they cheered for as a king as he entered the city just days before, throwing palm fronds at his feet. The choice between a criminal and a religious teacher.
Some say the Sanhedrin stacked the deck, that the crowd that day was organized. That the Pharisees rounded up their followers and those who had grievance against Christ to fill that courtyard. Men like the money changers that were driven from the temple or those with means who were told the meek would inherit the earth. But that’s too convenient an explanation and attempts to deflect the message. It ignores the nature of a mob which grows of it’s own accord and tends toward violence.
The story of Barabbas is an indictment of mankind’s nature. It shows that we are not just foolish, but violent by desire. More than just a telling of events, the story is a parable in itself. When faced with two potential saviors we chose not the man of peace, but the man of violence.