15.04.07 Mk. 15:6-10 (See also Mt. 27:15-18; Jn. 18:39)
JESUS OR BARABBAS
6 At the festival it was Pilate’s custom to release for the people a prisoner they requested. 7 There was one named Barabbas, who was in prison with rebels who had committed murder during the rebellion. 8 The crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do for them as was his custom. 9 So Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release the King of the Jews for you?” 10 For he knew it was because of envy that the chief priests had handed Him over.
Unfortunately, Pilate failed to realize that these Jews were not the same people who waved palm branches and sang “Hosanna” when Jesus entered the city on a donkey. Since it was the Roman custom in some areas to release a convicted prisoner at Passover (Jn. 18:39) to appease the Jews, he thought this would be a good time to release Jesus. It is difficult to understand why he thought that he could have released Jesus to the very same Jews who were trying to kill Him. Yet, that was his attempt. The irony is that Jesus had not yet been convicted and, therefore, Pilate broke from the Roman custom in an attempt to appease them.
Some writers have said this Roman custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover was unique to Jerusalem. But history seems to indicate otherwise.
- In Egypt there was a parallel custom where a prefect said to a prisoner, “You deserve to be scourged for the crimes you have committed, but I grant you to the crowd.” This may have been an annual event that had its own name – the privilegium paschale was not limited to Jerusalem historically.
- Centuries earlier, Jehoiachin, King of Judah, was freed by Amel-Marduk (Evil-Merodach) in 561 B.C. after Nebuchadnezzar died and Amel-Marduk ascended to the throne (2 Kgs. 25:27-30; Jer. 52:31-34).
- Convicted prisoners were released at times of religious significance in Assyria and Babylon.
- In Greece, prisoners were released at the six-day Athenian Festival of Dionysus, known as the Greater Dionysia.
Therefore, while the custom of releasing a prisoner was not accepted by most Roman governors, many living within their provinces were aware of it. Clearly this was an attempt by Pilate to appease the Sadducean crowd.
. Cited by Stein, R. Jesus the Messiah. 232.
. Merritt. “Jesus Barabbas.” 67.
. “Dionysia.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 8:283.