Monthly Archives: May 2012

Barabbas or Jesus?

Standing on the steps of the Praetorium with Jesus beside him and a crowd before him Pilate continues his taunting of the Jewish religious leaders. He has already determined Jesus has done nothing wrong. He has also probably decided Jesus is a lunatic. He has concluded the Chief Priest and his mob have delivered Jesus to him out of “envy” meaning they saw him as a threat to their power and control over the people. Pilate had Rome behind him. These conquered people had nothing but their traditions, rituals, ceremonies and feasts. It was Passover and even Pilate knew the significance of this feast. I image Pilate standing before the mob feeling disgust and revulsion toward all of them. He never cared about Jesus. He never cared about the High Priest or any in the mob.

Who was in the mob gathered before Pilate? Many in the mob were considered the religious leaders, teachers and lawyers (specializing in God’s written Law given to Moses in the Tanakh) of Judea. Other’s had been attracted to the proceedings out of morbid curiosity. They knew, having seen it before, what it meant for Pilate to stand where he was standing. Jesus was popular but there were not many, if there were any, in the crowd who approved of the man. “Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus” [Matthew 27:20 ESV]. Then, not many of them may have known the full extent of Barabbas’ crimes, either, even though he was “notorious.” Many in the crowd had been present since the early morning hours before sunrise, and had been in the courtyard of the High Priest. Most had been in the mob which arrested Jesus. If there were any in the crowd who sided with Jesus they were easily quieted and moved away.

Who knew of the notoriety of Barabbas and the influence of Jesus? Who knew of the criminal activities of Barabbas and the lawful activities of Jesus? Most of the mob did not know the backgrounds of either man facing Rome’s condemnation. Pilate knew, for he had examined Jesus. And the High Priest knew, for he, too had examined Jesus. Under Roman law Jesus was innocent and Barabbas was guilty. Under Mosaic Law Jesus was innocent and Barabbas was guilty. Pilate asks, probably with a smirk and a devious twinkle in his eye, “which of the two do you want me to release for you” [Matthew 27:21 ESV]? Here begins a quick exchange of questions about the innocence of Jesus and the answers of the crowd demanding his death. None of the questions are abnormal. All of them are asked in a way which reveals the hypocritical hearts and minds of the Chief Priest and the crowd he controls. When Pilate asked the question the response of the mob was not for the man declared innocent but for the man declared guilty.

They said, ‘Barabbas'” [Matthew 27:21 ESV].

Immediately Pilate asks the next question. “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ” [Matthew 27.22 ESV]? Pilate’s question reveals his contempt for the religious leaders and the people they govern. He calls Jesus “the Christ” or “Messiah.” In Mark’s document the word’s Pilate uses are slightly different. “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews” [Mark 15:12 ESV]? Mark’s perspective is not contradictory nor does it change the depth of hypocrisy shown by both Pilate and the mob. Jesus has already declared himself a king, whose kingdom is not of this world, to Pilate. Listening to this declaration suggested to Pilate Jesus is a lunatic. His advisors had probably told him the religious traditions of the people so he is aware of their desire to see “prophesy” fulfilled by the coming of a godly king who would throw off the shackles of the conquering nation. In this case, the conquering empire is Rome. Pilate ridicules the people by asking them if they want him to murder someone who is supposed to be their deliverer.

“They all said, ‘Let him be crucified'” [Matthew 27.22 ESV]!

Pilate is no longer talking to the High Priest or the religious leaders who want Jesus dead. He is watching the mob standing before him and watching those same people goad the crowd into responding to his questions. They are not thinking, have not seen the evidence, and cannot make a rationale decision about anything which has happened. Mobs don’t think; they follow the lead of those around who follow the lead of those in control. They simply pick up the chant, or rant, of those who are the loudest and most forceful. His next question has already been answered. Why he asks a mob this question only encourages them to respond emotionally. They have already shouted they want Jesus crucified. Pilate asks “why, what evil has he done” [Matthew 27:23 ESV]? Luke’s documents tells us this question is the third time Pilate has asked the people what they want and reiterates he has found nothing in the man deserving death. A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him” [Luke 23:22 ESV]. Jesus has done no evil. He has broken no law. Pilate thinks he is crazy. Insane is no reason to crucify anyone. But, this is exactly what the High Priest who is controlling the crowd wants. Pilate against suggest he punish Jesus. They don’t want him punished. They want him dead.

“But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified'” [Matthew 27:23 ESV]!

Having already abandoned any pretext of being the decision maker in this case Pilate tries to absolve himself of the murder he is going to sanction. “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves'” [Matthew 27:24 ESV]. Here is the man who makes up truth to fit his circumstance. He is the authority, the magistrate, the governor of the people. He is the one responsible for enforcing the law, for executing those who deserve death and freeing those who have done nothing wrong. His true nature comes to the surface in this single, damning statement. He is not going to stop the mob. “Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified” [Matthew 27:26 ESV]. No matter what anyone thinks Pilate is responsible for letting a notorious criminal go free and condemning to a horrible, agonizing death a man who is innocent. No matter what Pilate says about letting them murder Jesus he must still provide the Roman guards and executioners. They do not murder Jesus themselves. He not only sanctions Jesus’ murder but provides the means for him to die.

Matthew gives us a statement which is completely in keeping with any decision made by a mob. They are willing to take responsibility for the death of Jesus. Not only will they take responsibility but they will impose responsibility upon their families and children and whole nation. Guilt cannot be reasonably shifted to anyone who has not committed the crime. Ancient cultures, Israel included, did punish the children and families for the crimes of the father or leader. Even God shows how the rebellious and unrighteous acts of a leader impacts those led. For these people to ascribe guilt to those yet born is the height of unthinking arrogance and irresponsibility. “And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children;” [Matthew 27:25 ESV]! All the people in this circumstance are those in the mob controlled by the High Priest, not all of the territory of Judea. Like all which has transpired to this point their statement is inspired, not by reasoned thinking and righteous feeling but crazed and out of control emotion.

And Pilate thinks Jesus is insane.

Barabbas and Claudia Porcus

After Herod returns Jesus to Pilate, the Governor is faced with the same dilemma. What is he supposed to do with this man hated by the Jewish religious leaders? Jesus said nothing to Herod. None of the accusations levied against Jesus were substantive and were, in fact, manufactured lies developed to excuse their anger and wish for Jesus’ death. Herod and his troop ridiculed Jesus but did not condemn him. Even they saw there was nothing the man had done worthy of condemnation. After Herod returned Jesus to Pilate the Governor called the High Priest and his mob back into Roman court.

“You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. I will therefore punish and release him.” [Luke 23:14-16 ESV]

Pilate is concise in his pronouncements. You brought Jesus to me and charged him with “misleading the people.” Here, the word “misleading” means to turn away or pervert. Jesus was accused of turning the Jewish people away from the Religious leader’s interpretation and implementation of the Law of God and perverting their thinking toward the tradition and leadership of those accusing him. Pilate says nothing about taxes or Jesus’ royalty. He cares nothing about anyone who thinks they are a king and would try to influence people to not pay their taxes. Jesus had done neither. Had he advocated these positions Pilate would have already crushed him.

Pilate continues by stating the obvious. Jesus is not guilty of any crime. He and Herod, after examining Jesus have determined the accused has done nothing deserving death. Pilate moves from being a Governor disciplinarian to a parent disciplinarian. Since the High Priest and his mob can do nothing to stop Jesus Pilate takes over. He treats them, the Jewish leaders of a nation he despises, as children having a squabble with their friends and siblings. Jesus has done nothing wrong but Pilate is willing to “punish” Jesus just to put an end the fiasco playing out before him. Pilate uses the word chastise which is used for training a child, disciplining for instruction and meant to teach the child to not do what they have been doing. He offers to spank Jesus and then let him go.

Matthew’s documents speaks of two things happening which are unverifiable. However, there is no reason to question the veracity of the historical facts given in any of the four documents we are examining. First, he tells us about a custom. There are no other documents or sources which verify this custom, tells us who first implemented it or why it was done. Perhaps Pilate began doing this as a public relations measure to gain a better reputation among the people he was charged to govern. He hated them as much as they hated him. Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted” [Matthew 27:15 ESV]. Rome was known as a harsh conqueror in order to keep the peace. They would take prisoner any they thought usurping their authority. Again, Pilate did not think Jesus was a threat. During the feast, we do not know which feasts except Passover, the Governor was accustomed to release a prisoner. He would speak to the people gathered before him and actually give them what they wanted.

Pilate plays with the High Priest and the mob gathering around him. He considers Jesus a lunatic and sees how incensed he has made the religious leaders, which (I think) amuses him. He knows why the High Priest has brought Jesus to him. They were not squabbling children but grown men who hated Jesus influence of the people they were supposed to lead. For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up” [Matthew 27:18 ESV]. They were jealous of Jesus’ power. He didn’t care about them, their power, nor Jesus or his power over the people. He was tired of the squabble but continued to play with them. He offers to release a notorious prisoner named Barabbas who caused great turmoil and truly lead people to fight against Rome and disrupt Pilate’s world. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” [Matthew 27:16-17 ESV]

What a set up. Do you want to see what the Jewish leaders really think? Not just about Jesus, but God’s law, their authority, their interpretation of God’s law and the traditions they held, the people they were supposed to serve, their own consciences and moral integrity, and every other area of the thinking of their hearts. Pilate, moved by God, gave them a choice and their decision revealed exactly who they are. We will see their decision in the next post.

But, there is another incident which bears examining. Pilate’s wife tried to tell him to do the right thing. “Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream” [Matthew 27:19 ESV]. Matthew is the only document which relates this story. In the cultural literature there are no other stories where the wife of a leader warns her husband about anything because of a dream. More likely, by her own description, she had a nightmare. Pilate had been called out early and came, probably directly from bed. He may have known why and who was being brought before him, but there is little reason to suggest his wife knew. Her name was Claudia Porcula. Her warning was simple. Have nothing to do with this man. This can be taken in two ways. Either, because she calls him “righteous” which means “innocent” she was encouraging her husband to let him go or she was saying don’t make a judgment at all.

We do not know if she knew anything about Jesus. She probably did but had no opportunity to see him or listen to his words. She did know her husband and probably offered advice to him, though in private, often. That we know of her dream, or nightmare, was unusual. Women in this century, in the Roman Empire, had no voice in any activity or decision. Whether Jewish or Greek or Barbarian, women were not considered citizens, could not hold office, had not rank, never helped in the political decision making process, and were to keep quiet. However, the four documents of evidence of the life of Christ have many instances where woman play prominent roles. It is not unusual for these documents to elevate the position of woman. This is not true for any of the other cultural documents. Matthew including this incident lends relevance to his writing. This incident is so unusual, so out of the norm for historical writing, knowing it happened lends credence and support to the historical veracity of Pilate’s judgment and actions toward the Jewish religious leaders and Jesus.

Is there anything about the experiences of Jesus, Pilate, Herod, Pilate’s wife, Barabbas, the Jewish leaders and their mob which seem out of the ordinary?

Before Herod

“I find no guilt in this man” [Luke 23:4 ESV].

Pilate declares Jesus innocent. He is not an enemy of Rome. In a court where justice rules this declaration would have ended the trial. Even the kangaroo court and summary judgment declared in the courtyard of the High Priest could not over rule the governor’s decision. However, Pilate is no more just than the High Priest. Instead of looking for a way to remove Jesus from the world he is looking for a way to remove himself from the religious circus playing out before him. From telling them to judge Jesus according to their own law to the next discovery tells us Pilate wants nothing to do with this man. Pilate doesn’t care about Jesus. He thinks he is a lunatic. But the crowds, made up of priests and temple guards, insists Pilate do something to stop this man from speaking against them. “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place” [Luke 23:5 ESV]. They want him dead.

This crowd was vehement in their declaration and desire to have Jesus murdered by Rome. To them, the crime against Rome is secondary, a flimsy excuse to bring Jesus before Pilate. Jesus gave the people who they were supposed to lead reason to not listen to them, their God ordained religious leaders. This is because Jesus says they have forgotten God and are misleading the people, like a blind person leading another person who is blind. He is speaking this message throughout the land. Finally, Pilate hears Jesus has been in Galilee, discovers the man is a Galilean, from Nazareth, and finds a way to get himself out of having to make a decision. “When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time” [Luke 23:6-7 ESV].

Nothing happens by coincidence. There is no such thing as luck. There is God who orchestrates circumstance without overriding the personalities of those involved. Those who are acting wanted to act the way they were because their actions reveal who they are. This is a leap in theological thought which will be borne out as we continue to examine the circumstances and experiences of Christ and those he met and influenced.

Herod Antipas is the son of Herod the Great who was truly a mad man. In his desire to stay in control he murdered his wife, murdered many great and wise men and even murdered baby boys under the age of two when he heard Jesus had been born in Bethlehem. He was deeply religious and wanted to be remembered after his death. He was remembered as someone who hurt people not as one who helped them. After Herod’s death his kingdom, even though ruled by Rome, was split and Herod Antipas was give a fourth, ruling Galilee while his brothers ruled other areas. Herod Antipas was every bit his father’s son but more deeply rooted in pleasure. Herod Antipas liked his entertainment and coveted the adoration of the people under him.

Herod Antipas arrested John, known as the Baptizer, Jesus’ cousin, kept him in prison but could not bring himself to murder John, because he feared the people who held John in high esteem. He seized John, who rebuked him because of the adultery he committed with his brother’s wife, something which a leader of the Jewish people should not have done. But, Herod cared nothing for the customs and traditions of the Jewish people other than what he could get from them for his own pleasure. He finally did have John murdered and the circumstances give a more complete picture of this man ruled by pleasure.

But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. [Matthew 14:6-11 ESV]

He had no scruples of conscience, hesitating only based upon what others thought of him. In some way, he and Pilate were similar, though he was the career politician and Pilate had been appointed by Rome.

Herod’s interest in Jesus was purely for entertainment value. He had been hearing about Jesus since he had murdered John. He even entertained the though Jesus was John raised from the dead. “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him” [Matthew 14:1-2 ESV]. Finally, he would meet the man who performed miracles and did wonders. He could see him and laugh and clap and point and ask him to do more.

What was Herod’s interrogation like? What sort of questions did he ask?

Here is a cup of water. Can you turn it into wine? Make and ax head float? Here, give my servant leprosy then heal him. Can you do that? What am I thinking? Can you turn this rock into bread? Can you tell me what’s under this robe? How many hairs do I have on my head? How many beads in this jar? How much money in my treasury? I have a boil, can you heal it? What’s my servant thinking? Can you not make the sun stand still? Or go backwards? Make the shadow go backwards? Here’s a dead sheep. Can you raise it from the dead and give it life again? Can you make this table float in the air? Let’s roll dice. Make each roll come up the same number. Make it dark in here. Aren’t you good for anything? Make them deaf and mute so they cannot speak or hear. Those people, the one’s accusing you.

When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer” [Luke 23:8-9 ESV].

Jesus answered nothing. Is Jesus’ silence unnatural? He is standing before a man who wouldn’t listen to him even if he spoke. Before them both is a crowd of men who accuse him of wrongdoing but cannot give any evidence of what he has done wrong. Jesus will not be tricked into answering their lies nor will he enter their trap. He does not beg for his life. He will not entertain Herod. He will not defend himself because he has done nothing wrong. His silence is not abnormal or out of character. His silence does acknowledge his submission, but not to Herod, or Pilate, or the religious leaders who want him dead. His silence is submission to God.

Because Jesus will not entertain them Herod and his soldiers begin to mock him. Is this not what those who rule by emotion do? When they do not get their way, when their unreasonable expectations are not met, do they not revile and hold in contempt those who refuse to be controlled by them? People who think they are in control use their words to belittle those who would dare to be against them. Herod’s actions toward Jesus are those of an immature and spoiled man. Before this, he and Pilate were adversaries. Pilate probably held Herod in contempt, as he viewed all who were not true Romans. But now they had something in common. Now they had both met and tried Jesus, come to the same conclusion, and been silently rebuked by the man, which stung their pride.

And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other. [Luke 23:11-12 ESV].

Is there anything about this incident which sounds mythical or unrealistic? Is there any reason, not excuse, to not believe Herod acted the way he did, or that he and Pilate became friends? Or that Jesus would stand silent before Herod? There is nothing within this account which would suggest what happened did not happen. Jesus was examined by both Pilate and Herod, and though mocked by Herod and treated as a lunatic by Pilate neither man found any reason to condemn him to death. Jesus did nothing wrong. There was no human reason for him to be brought to trial. There was no human reason for him to be murdered.