The Historical Context for Pilate’s Release of Barabbas

by Max Andrews

Matthew 27.15-23

Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the people any one prisoner whom they wanted.  16At that time they were holding a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.  17So when the people gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”  18For he knew that because of envy they had handed Him over.  19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.”  20But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death.  21But the governor said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.”  22Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Crucify Him!”  23And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they kept shouting all the more, saying, “Crucify Him!”

The Matthean passage is Pilate’s offer to exchange Barabbas for Jesus.  This historical background information given for this passage of Scripture was extremely helpful in understanding the context of the situation.  Though, admittedly, there are no extrabiblical references to a release of prisoners at a festival time, there is an account of a release of prisoners.

Pilate’s action to offer one criminal for another [accused criminal] was not unprecedented.  Josephus [in Antiquities 20.9.3 §§208-210; 20.9.5 §215] gives an account of the release of prisoners.  Pilate’s motivation seems to have been more political rather than sympathetic to Jesus.  Pilate was only trying to appease the crowds for he has already dealt with rebellious Jews in the beginning of his governorship [Josephus, Jewish War 2.9.2-4 §§169-177, Antiquities 18.3.1 §§55-59].  In light of the context of political and social tensions, the historical background information sheds light on why Pilate even cared about the situation.  Pilate could have done radical actions at the wave of a hand such as not even listen to the Jews about Jesus or he could have listen and immediately sentenced him to death.  Trying to offer appeasement to the Jews [in light of what seems to be a sympathetic approach to Jesus, but not wholeheartedly] he gives them an option to release a prisoner of Rome back to the Jews.  Hoping that this may dilute or solve the situation, the Jews chose Barabbas.  The information provided helps give background to Pilate’s political situation.

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