The crowd shouts for Barabbas.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 April 2020

Mark 15.6-11, Matthew 27.15-21, Luke 23.17-25, John 18.39-40.

We actually have nothing in the Roman records about this custom the Roman governors had of releasing a prisoner every Passover. Doesn’t mean they didn’t do it; just means they kept it off the books. Which is understandable. Fleshly people tend to think of mercy and forgiveness as weakness, not strength; of compassion and generosity as something that other people will take advantage of, not benevolence. “If you give a mouse a cookie” and all that.

Anyway we have four historical records which indicate the Romans totally did free a prisoner every Passover: The gospels. Apparently Pontius Pilate had on hand an guy named Jesus bar Avvá, who’d been arrested during “the riot.” We don’t know which riot, and Christians like to speculate it was one of the more famous ones, but it had to have been fairly recent: Romans didn’t keep people in prison for long. They either held them for trial, flogged and released them, or crucified them.

Pontius wanted to free Jesus. But, probably ’cause Jesus is totally guilty of calling himself Messiah, Pontius didn’t wanna free him on his own authority. It might get back to Caesar Tiberius that he freed a self-proclaimed king. So he wanted an excuse, or to pass the buck to Herod. Likely that’s why he went with the whole free-a-convict-for-Passover thing: “Hey, why not Jesus?”

Well because they didn’t want Jesus; or at least that was the sentiment of the crowd the head priests brought in. Pontius gave them the option of Jesus the Nazarene, or Jesus bar Avvá. They went with bar-Avvá.

Mark 15.6-11 KWL
6 During the feast Pilatus would release one prisoner to them; whomever they asked.
7 There was one called bar-Avvá among the insurrectionists, imprisoned during the riot for committing murder.
8 Rising up, the crowd began to ask, as usual, for Pilatus to do for them.
9 In reply Pilatus told them, “You want me to free for you ‘the Judean king’?”
10 —knowing the head priests turned Jesus in out of envy.
11 The head priests incited the crowd to instead ask that bar-Avvá might be released to them.
Matthew 27.15-21 KWL
15 During the feast the prefect was accustomed to release one prisoner to them; whomever they wanted.
16 He then had a famous prisoner, called Jesus bar Avvá.
17 So Pilatus told the people who’d gathered for him, “Whom do you want me to release to you?—Jesus bar Avvá, or Jesus called Messiah?”
18 —knowing the head priests turned Jesus in out of envy.
19 (As he was sitting on the dais, his wife sent him a message:
“Keep away from that righteous man, for I saw many things in a dream about him.”)
20 The head priests and elders convinced the crowd to ask for bar-Avvá, and for Jesus’s destruction.
21 In reply the prefect told them, “Whom of the two do you want me to release to you?” They said, “Bar-Avvá.”
Luke 23.17-25 KWL
17 [He had to release one prisoner to them during the feast.]
18 The Judeans shouted out together, “Take this man away and release bar-Avvá to us!”
19 Bar-Avvá was thrown into prison because of a certain riot in the city, and murder.
20 Pilatus addressed them again, wanting to release Jesus,
21 and the crowd shouted back, saying, “Crucify! Crucify him!”
22 Pilatus told them thrice, “Why? Did this man do evil?
Nothing worth death was done by him. So I will punish and release him.”
23 The crowd insisted with loud voices, calling for Jesus to be crucified, and their voices prevailed.
24 Pilatus sentenced Jesus to have done as the crowd requested.
25 He released the one they requested, who was thrown into prison for riot and murder,
and Jesus was surrendered to the people’s will.
John 18.39-40 KWL
39 It’s your custom that one prisoner might be released to you on Passover,
so do you want me to release to you ‘the Judean king’?”
40 So they shouted again, saying, “Not him, but bar-Avvá!” (Bar-Avvá was a looter.)

Who’s bar-Avvá?

The gospels don’t give us much on who bar-Avvá is, mainly because they don’t really care.

The word in our bibles is Βαραββᾶς/Varavvás (KJV “Barabbas”), which is a transliteration of the Aramaic בַּר אַבה/bar Avvá, “son of Avvá.” Yes, Avvá was a proper Hebrew name back then, but loads of Christians like to make much of the fact the word also means “father,” and therefore “bar-Avvá” literally means “son of a father.” And hey, isn’t Jesus’s dad our heavenly Father? What an interesting contrast! But nah, it’s not all that interesting.

In some copies of Matthew, bar-Avvá’s given name is Jesus. Mt 16.18 NIV True, “Jesus” isn’t in the earliest copies of Matthew, and the earliest reference is the Codex Vaticanus, written in the early 300s. The reason it was probably dropped from those early copies is because the New Testament copyists tried to avoid referring to anybody other than Christ Jesus as “Jesus.” But tradition preserved bar-Avvá’s given name—and again there’s that interesting contrast between the two Jesuses. One’s a murderer; the other offers to save everyone from death. Jn 3.16

Bar-Avvá was arrested during a recent riot, for murder Mk 15.7 and looting. Jn 18.40 He was imprisoned among the insurrectionists, and that’s led various people to jump to the conclusion he was an insurrectionist; possibly one of the nativists who called themselves “Canaanites,” Mk 3.18, Mt 10.4 KJV or in Greek ζηλωτής/zilotís, “Zealots,” Lk 6.15, Ac 1.13 who wanted the Romans gone, and were willing to kill to get it. Bar-Avvá did commit murder after all; maybe he murdered a Roman.

But likely not. Pontius wouldn’t have suggested his name, or even considered him a possibility, if bar-Avvá murdered a Roman. He’d have been crucified the same day. More likely bar-Avvá took advantage of a riot and confusion to murder someone, and probably someone prominent, which is why he was now famous. Or maybe he was already prominent—a celebrity’s kid, or otherwise had prominent connections, which might explain why the Romans hadn’t yet crucified him.

Of course the Jesus movies like to depict him as a hardened criminal, a highwayman and bandit, a tough guy who was thrilled the crowd was shouting for him instead of that pacifist Nazarene sissy. Or maybe he took a look at Jesus and was magically struck with conviction—“why, this man is clearly innocent, even though I’ve never met him before and someone beat the tar out of him and all my cultural biases should be telling me the universe is punishing him”—or however the screenwriters like to play with the character. Me, I’m more interested in historical accuracy. Human nature dictates bar-Avvá really didn’t wanna get crucified, and didn’t care who took his place so long that he got to live. Beyond this story, we never hear of him again.

Jesus’s suffering.

Now of course Jesus didn’t wanna get crucified either. But he had accepted his coming death as an inevitability. The chance he might be pardoned, only existed in Pontius’s mind—and in the worries of the senators who wanted Jesus dead. Didn’t exist in Jesus’s. So really all this free-a-convict-for-Passover thingy did was delay the inevitable.

But you know Satan would’ve used it as a temptation: “Look, there’s a chance you might get freed! You won’t have to go through crucifixion! You’ll only get off with a flogging; shouldn’t that be enough?” Assuming the devil understood Jesus was trying to achieve atonement though his death; I don’t know what it knew or didn’t know, but it’s a good bet the devil wanted to frustrate anything Jesus was up to, or at least prolong the misery. If Jesus was determined to die, may as well dangle the possibility he might not.

And no, it’s not fun to hear a crowd reject you in favor of a really undeserving, truly bad guy. No matter the situation.