15.04.08 Mk. 15:11; Jn. 18:40; Lk. 23:18-19; Mt. 27:20-21
CROWD DEMANDS BARABBAS
Mk. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd so that he would release Barabbas to them instead.
Jn. 40 They shouted back, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a revolutionary.
Lk. 18 Then they all cried out together, “Take this man away! Release Barabbas to us!” 19 (He had been thrown into prison for a rebellion that had taken place in the city, and for murder.)
Mt. 20 The chief priests and the elders, however, persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to execute Jesus. 21 The governor asked them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?”
“Barabbas!” they answered.
“Then they all cried out together.” Unfortunately, throughout most of church history, the prevailing opinion has been that all the Jewish people cried out against Jesus. Really? This demands some serious thought! Were those whom Jesus healed and raised from the dead now demanding that Pilate crucify Him? At this point only the Sadducees and possibly the elders and scribes were before Pilate. Luke 19:47-48 states that the chief priests were unable to stop Jesus because all the people were very attentive to Him. On another occasion all the people listened to him gladly (Mk. 12:37).
If there was a change in public sentiment, it is not recorded in the Bible. The only reason the trials were held at night was Jesus was extremely popular and a day trial would certainly have caused a riot. Why would the rejoicing crowds who witnessed Jesus perform dozens, if not hundreds of healings and raise Lazarus from the dead, suddenly want to see Him crucified? As is explained below, the term all refers only to the small crowd that was before Pilate, not to every Jew in the land.
15.04.08.Q1 Does the word “all” mean the entire Jewish community; every Jew in the land?
Those who believe that the word “all” refers to every Jew in the land may have difficulty explaining why, in John 8:30, so many put “their faith in Him” but only twenty-nine verses later the same group wanted to stone Him. If this were the case, then a major event that caused the change in public opinion was never recorded in biblical, Jewish, or secular history – and that is highly unlikely.
Yet, later, in Matthew 27:22, the gospel writer said, “They all answered.” Throughout church history, this phrase has often been used to condemn all the Jews because of a single word: all. Even today, many well-meaning Christians believe all the Jews of Israel condemned Jesus to die. One must ask what had occurred between the time Jesus rode into Jerusalem when everyone praised Him and anticipated He would deliver them from the brutal Romans, and now, when He was standing before Pilate. What could possibly have caused the radical transformation of public opinion, which escaped not only the gospels but also all of the extra-biblical Jewish writings? The answer is – absolutely nothing! If anything had occurred that would have changed public opinion, the gospel writers would certainly have written about it. Clearly not all the Jews were against Jesus, but only all those Jews who stood before Pilate.
Consider this train of thought: Did His mother Mary condemn her Son? She was Jewish. How about the disciples? They were also Jewish. What about the hundreds of people He healed and the thousands He fed? And why would all of them have condemned Him to the cross? The common opinion that all the Jews of Israel condemned Jesus is obviously not well thought out. The thousands who loved Him were busy with their Passover observances and were probably wondering if He would make an announcement at the temple about being the messiah. They certainly would never have believed He would be tried illegally at night. Yet the very purpose of the night trials was to keep the public ignorant until Jesus was convicted. Therefore, those who responded to Pilate were not the same people who praised Jesus when He entered Jerusalem.
That raises the obvious question: Who were all the people who demanded the death of Jesus? It was Caiaphas and his small group of temple power brokers who were willing to go to any length to insure that Jesus would not overthrow their positions as the religious establishment.
Because this is an important point, extra detail is hereby given. The word all does not always mean exclusively every person, but the definition can include a majority of people who are at a specific place at a specific time. Even though most of the New Testament was written in Greek, the writers were Jews who thought and expressed their ideas like other Jewish people. In Hebrew, the word kol, meaning all does not always mean every single entity or person, but rather, the majority.
A biblical example of the use of all in this sense is found in the account of Saul when he fought the Amalekites. In a battle recorded in 1 Samuel 15:7-8, 20, Saul “totally destroyed with a sword” all the Amalekites, yet later they appeared again in 1 Samuel 27:8, 30:1,18, in 2 Samuel 8:12, and in 1 Chronicles 4:43. Did the Scripture writers make a mistake when they said Saul totally destroyed all the Amalekites? No. Saul killed all the Amalekites who were on the battlefield, but not the entire people group. Ironically, eventually one of them killed Saul (2 Sam. 1:8-10). Incidentally, Scripture centuries later recorded that the evil Haman was an Agagite (Esther 3:1) but Josephus said he was part of a clan within the larger tribe of Amalekites.
To modern readers, the gospel writers seem to have been a bit loose with the word all. Matthew (26:56) and Mark (14:50), both said that all the disciples fled when Jesus was crucified. Yet among the last words of Jesus were His instruction to Mary, His mother, who would live out the rest of her life under the care of John. Both stood before Jesus as He died upon the cross. So clearly, the word all means a vast majority, and not every single person. The gospel writers were not loose with their vocabulary; they just had a broader definition to it.
Another thought to consider is this: the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 speaks of those who are “in” Jesus as He is “in” God the Father. But that prayer would not make any sense if all the Jews were shouting for His crucifixion. Without question, that prayer would be considerably different.
Those who were before Pilate were, at most, a few hundred accusers from the temple leadership. This is supported in the New Testament (Acts 2:23, 36; 1 Thess. 2:14-15) and the Babylonian Talmud. However, the clearest support for this is from Josephus, who stated that,
Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.3.3 (64)
The term “principal men” clearly refers to the Jewish leaders of the temple elite – namely the Sadducees and the family of Caiaphas. Josephus made a point of saying that only a few selected leaders were responsible for the crucifixion, not all the Jews. In addition, Luke made a point to record that Joseph of Arimathea was a believer and, although he was member of the Sanhedrin, he did not agree to the plan and action to execute Jesus (Lk. 23:50-51). So clearly, not all members of the high court wanted Jesus dead. Furthermore, if anyone would have understood the times and the environment of this major religious event, it would have been Josephus. Concerning Jesus, he added that,
Those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.3.3 (64)
Finally, in His high priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus prayed for Himself (vv. 1-5), then for His disciples (vv. 6-19), and finally for all believers (vv. 20-26). Noteworthy, is the fact that He does not forgive them because they did not commit the sin of demanding that He be crucified – they are “in Him.” They were unaware that the religious leaders tried Jesus in an illegal system of trials until the sun rose and He was on His way to the cross. Then it was too late.
Another example of where a term that appears to be all exclusive, but isn’t, is the word destroy as found in Acts 13:19. The context of the passage is that Paul is speaking to the men of Israel and gave them a summary of their history. In verse 19 Paul said that God destroyed the seven nations of Canaan and gave the land to the people of Israel as an inheritance. The term destroyed can mean that every man, woman, and child was killed, which obviously never happened. In fact, when Jesus multiplied bread and seven baskets of bread were left over, that was symbolic that He is the Provider for the Gentile people. Clearly the word the apostle used was never intended to convey complete annihilation of the various Gentile tribes.
“‘Barabbas,’ they answered.” The Jewish leaders responded to Pilate’s offer by demanding the release of Barabbas to insure the death of Jesus. It was Barabbas who was a notorious criminal (Mt. 27:16), robber (Jn. 18:40), murderer (Lk. 23:19), and, worst of all, an insurrectionist (Mk. 15:7). These qualities were typical of the Zealots of the day, who fought against the Romans whenever possible. However, the word for “robber” in John 18:40 would be better translated as “rebel.” According to Roman law, rebels were crucified whereas robbers were imprisoned or scourged but never crucified. The Romans crushed insurrections without care for the loss of innocent life.
Herein is another amazing irony: It was Barabbas (Heb. Bar-Abbas) whose name meant son of the father, or son of the master. The Jews chose a counterfeit son of the father instead of the true Son of the Father. Barabbas was released while Jesus, who was innocent, who raised the dead, and who is the true Son of the Father, died for the sins of Barabbas and everyone else. Furthermore, the early Syrian and Armenian gospel manuscripts record his name as Jesus Barabbas. Barabbas is a metaphor for the crucifixion experience. If those early transcripts are true, then the obvious question is why the name “Jesus” was dropped for the biblical record? The theory is that because the common name of Jesus became so highly honored, no church father desired it to be associated with one who was a killer and Zealot, and therefore, it was dropped. Barabbas was guilty of being anti-Roman in a manner similar to what Jesus was accused of, yet Jesus willingly and peacefully died on the cross that was prepared for the “son of the father.”
Since every male child is a “son of the father,” there is the obvious question of who would give their son such a name. The answer lies in the Jewish culture. In ancient times the local rabbi was seen as the spiritual father and, out of kindness and respect, he was at times called “Father.” This would have been evidenced by the letter “s” at the end of the name, “Barabbas.” Therefore, there is a high probability that Barabbas was the son of a rabbi – a rebellious young man, who brought much shame to his father by,
- Not following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a rabbi, and
- Rebelling against the religious system, and
- By becoming a freedom-fighting Zealot.
Simply said, Barabbas was a son who rebelled against his father and the religious code. In later years, the Zealots started two rebellions of phenomenal significance:
- The conflict that resulted in the Roman destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, and
- The insurrection led by Simon bar Kokhba that caused all Jews and Christians to be exiled from Jerusalem in A.D. 135. The city was destroyed both times.
Finally, Barabbas most certainly looked upon Jesus as the one who saved his life. However, he was just as guilty as were the other two rebels (sometimes called thieves) who were crucified with Jesus. The probability is almost certain that Barabbas and the two thieves had previously fought the Romans together. Romans often executed entire groups of rebels at the same time. Therefore, Barabbas not only saw the one who saved his life, but also his two friends die for the same sins for which he was guilty.
. Stern, Restoring the Jewishness. 26-27.
. Josephus, Antiquities 11:6.2-3.
. Lightfoot, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. 3:417-18.
. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a; see 18.03.03.
. The King James Version and Holman Christian Standard Bible use the word destroy. Some other translations use the word overthrew which is a better term.
. Deut. 7:1; Jos. 19:51.
. See 10.01.25 Mk. 8:1-10; Mt. 15:29-39.
. Stimpson, A Book about the Book. 70.
. Farrar, Life of Christ. 427; Kalland, “Abba.” 1:6-7; Rees, “Barabbas.” 1:429.
. Gilbrant, “Luke.” 673; Barclay, “John.” 2:249; Smith, Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew. 320-21.