For Jews, one of the most disturbing passages in the New Testament is the one in which the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem is offered a choice between two prisoners slated for execution by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. This episode is found in similar form in all four of the “Gospels” that are included in the Christian scriptures. Scholarship generally regards the Gospel according to Mark as the earliest and most credible witness to the events and as the one that is lacking many of the overtly anti-Jewish elements that crept into the other accounts; unfortunately, however, most of the problematic elements are already found in Mark’s Gospel.
This tradition speaks of a custom that allowed “the people” to select a prisoner to be released in honour of the festival, which in this context refers Passover. At the time of Jesus’s arrest, there was another prisoner named Barabbas [i.e., bar Abba] who had been arrested for his involvement in acts of rebellion against Rome. The Jewish crowd approached Pilate asking him to pardon Barabbas in keeping with the tradition. Thereupon Pilate offered them a choice between Barabbas and “the King of the Jews,” as they mockingly dubbed Jesus of Nazareth. The people insisted that the one they wanted pardoned was indeed Barabbas, and that Jesus should be crucified. In order to placate the crowd—while acknowledging that Jesus had not committed any real crime—Pilate, with a show of reluctance and his famous washing his hands of the matter, released Barabbas and turned Jesus over for flogging and crucifixion.
The later Gospels are even more outspoken about presenting the Jewish role in a diabolical light. Mark situates Barabbas “in prison with the insurrectionists,” though he himself is not explicitly identified as one of those insurrectionists; but other traditions state more explicitly that he was a murderer. Whereas for Mark the mob is being manipulated by the leaders of the priesthood (who were especially threatened by Jesus’s disruptions of the Jerusalem Temple), later texts place the responsibility more directly on the collective shoulders of the malicious populace who are crying out together—not so much to set Barabbas free as to crucify the blameless Jesus.
The story’s dire implications are spelled out most clearly in an alarming addition that is found only in the Gospel according to Matthew, in which Pilate’s ostensible concerns about executing the innocent Jesus are answered by “all the Jews” with the words: “His blood is on us and on our children!” That declaration has inspired innumerable pogroms over the centuries.
Anyone who attempts to reconstruct the precise details of the event will quickly be confronted with an overwhelming profusion of questions and obscurities about the supposed “Passover pardon.” Was the practice of granting pardons on special occasions a standard one in the Roman empire, or was it peculiar to Judea? Indeed, was it originally a local Jewish custom that was subsequently adopted by the occupying régime? (One tradition portrays it as Pilate’s own initiative, without reference to a prior custom.) Was the pardon invoked only on Passover, as in this instance, or on other festivals as well? Was the privilege limited, as in the New Testament account, to a choice between two specified prisoners, or did the populace get to propose their own candidates? Was Barabbas currently facing trial, or had he already been sentenced by the court—and for what crime exactly?
For more than a century, the overwhelming approach of historical scholarship has been to dismiss the story as an utter fabrication, one that was intended to divert the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion from the Romans to the Jews, and to distance Jesus from the stigma (whether or not it was true) of being an anti-Roman insurgent, the charge for which he was ultimately crucified.
A key factor behind this skeptical assessment of the passage’s veracity is the absence of any tangible evidence of similar practices either in Palestine or in any other province of the Roman empire. Indeed, scholars scoured the legal and narrative records of Rome, Greece, Babylonia, Egypt, Assyria and beyond in order to locate examples of rulers who released prisoners, if only temporarily, on holy days or other celebrations. Although they found some precedents for lenient bending of the laws on festive occasions, such a policy was deemed to be unthinkable for the obdurate colonial administration of rebellious Judea or the notoriously inflexible Pontius Pilate.
So if the story is not true, then how did it arise in the first place? While some have been satisfied to read it as a purely fictional outgrowth of the animosities between rabbinic Judaism and the nascent “Jesus movement,” others have proposed more elaborate theories as to its origins. A thesis that enjoyed some popularity at one time argued that the passage was actually a conflation of two versions of the same story. Since there are manuscripts in which Barabbas is endowed with a first name of “Jesus” (that is, Joshua), it was suggested that it was initially referring to the same Jesus of Nazareth—”bar abba” translates as “son of the Father”—but that later narrators mistakenly understood that there were two distinct prisoners named Jesus, and accordingly they manufactured the legend in which the Jewish mob was allowed to choose between them. An alternative explanation conjectured that the story evolved out of Pilate’s asking somebody to identify two different Jesuses who were being brought before him for trial at the same time. I find none of this particularly persuasive.
There is in fact one rabbinic source that does refer incidentally to releases from prison on the eve of Passover. In the Mishnah this scenario is grouped together with cases of people who find themselves in situations (such as periods of mourning or ritual impurity) where they are temporarily prevented from participating in the slaughter of the Passover sacrifice, but will become eligible to eat it in the evening. Rabbi Yoḥanan in the Talmud discussed the different applications of this rule if the release is promised by a non-Jewish authority (who cannot be trusted to keep the promise) or by a Jewish court (who always uphold their commitments). It has therefore been suggested that the pre-holiday pardon was instituted by the (often unpopular) Hasmonean rulers in order to ingratiate themselves among the populace, after which it came to be regarded as a right that could even be demanded from foreign rulers.
Now, the Mishnah is hardly an obscure text and it was long accessible to New Testament scholars. And yet the passage appears to have been systematically ignored in the discussions of the Barabbas episode until as recently as 1985. When it was eventually put on the table for consideration, the general response was to insist that it was irrelevant to the topic at hand as long as it does not explicitly speak of an official administrative policy of releasing a single prisoner. To my mind (as in the talmudic rules of evidence), this kind of indirect report carries even greater weight than explicit statements that are more likely to be consciously tailored to make a point.
It is hard to dispute the view that the verbal exchange between Pilate and the Jewish mob—with or without the part about their accepting the guilt for Jesus’s blood—is nothing more than a malicious fiction. Indeed, this would apply to any description of a large crowd—especially Jewish crowd!—conducting conversations in a unified, coherent voice (although such conversations were a beloved literary convention of ancient historians).
As to the specific matter of the “Passover pardon,” I do not find it intrinsically implausible; and methinks that the haste of so many Christian scholars to dismiss the story, and to turn a blind eye to supporting evidence, derives largely from the fact that they saw it as an embarrassment and were alarmed by the suffering it has caused to Jews over the ages.
Whether or not this is sound historical scholarship, it is undoubtedly preferable to the older tradition of baseless vilification. As a community we can feel some gratification for being liberated from the ancient slanders that so often darkened the celebration of our festival of freedom.