The story of Barabbas, the insurrectionist released by Pontius Pilate in place of Jesus, is a familiar episode in the Gospels. However, biblical scholars and critics have raised doubts about its historical accuracy, pointing to several perceived inconsistencies.
To begin with, critics claim that there is no historical record of such a practice, questioning whether it actually occurred. Furthermore, they argue that Pilate, known for his harsh and cruel character, releasing an insurrectionist seems highly inconsistent. Lastly, some skeptics suggest that the name Barabbas, meaning “son of the father,” might have been invented by the evangelists for symbolic and literary purposes. Let’s look at each of these arguments in turn.
Understanding the Argument from Silence
First, it’s essential to note that critics often employ an argument from silence and are doing so here. This method is used to challenge the historical accuracy of a particular event or narrative by pointing out what historical texts do not explicitly mention. However, arguing from silence can be quite precarious. Our intuition about whether a writer would mention an actual event is not always reliable. To illustrate this, consider some examples that highlight our tendency to overestimate our intuition in this matter.
In 41 AD, Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. Surprisingly, both Jewish historians Josephus and Philo, who extensively documented Jewish history, do not mention this event. The only sources that describe it are the Book of Acts and the writings of Seutonius.
Another example is Marco Polo, the famous explorer who extensively traveled through China. Strangely, he never mentions the Great Wall of China in his accounts.
During the American Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant, who meticulously kept a diary of the war, says nothing about the Emancipation Proclamation.
Grafton’s Chronicles discuss the reign of King John, but there is no mention of the Magna Carta.
Even in a detailed biography of Constantine, written by Eusebius, there is a glaring omission. Eusebius fails to mention the deaths of Constantine’s son Crispus and wife Fausta.
These examples underscore a recurring issue. It’s evident that we must exercise caution and recalibrate our expectations when judging historical records. Dismissing the testimony of one dependable source just because another contemporary source doesn’t reference the same events is overly simplistic.
Prisoners Were Never Released on Passover?
All four Gospels mention Pilate’s custom of releasing prisoners, and contrary to popular belief, this practice is possibly substantiated by historical evidence. The Mishnah, a compilation of Jewish oral law, states that one could “slaughter the Passover lamb” for someone promised to be released from prison at Passover (m. Pesahim 8:6). While it’s unclear who exactly made this promise, whether Jewish or Roman authorities, it is intriguing that the release was specifically for participating in the Passover observance.
Craig Evans tells us that a papyrus from around 85 AD records the Roman governor of Egypt saying, “You were worthy of scourging… but I give you to the crowds.” Pliny the Younger, in the early second century, mentions the release of prisoners based on petitions to proconsuls or lieutenants, which seems plausible as it would be unlikely for someone to set them free without authority (Epistles 10.31).
An inscription from Ephesus describes a proconsul’s decision to release prisoners due to public demands. Livy, writing in the early first century, talks about special dispensations to remove chains from prisoners’ limbs (History of Rome 5.13.8). Josephus recounts that when Governor Albinus was leaving office in 64 AD, he released all prisoners except murderers in hopes of receiving a favor from the people of Jerusalem (Antiquities 20.215).
Furthermore, Archelaus sought to gain favor and secure his late father’s kingdom by complying with the demands to release imprisoned individuals (Antiquities 17.204). Collectively, this evidence suggests that both Roman rulers and at least one Herodian prince occasionally released prisoners. It was primarily a political move to appease the crowds and garner their support.
Additionally, the improbability of asserting such a custom without its existence lends further support to the historicity of the Gospel narratives. Had Pilate not released prisoners during Passover or other holidays, or at least on one occasion, the Evangelists’ claim that he did so could have been easily refuted, potentially causing embarrassment to the early church.
The fact that all four Evangelists report this episode, with the possibility that the Fourth Evangelist did so independently of the three Synoptic Gospels, suggests that this story did not bring about any embarrassment to the early Christian community.
Why Would Pilate Release a Criminal Like Barabbas?
Barabbas, likely an insurrectionist, doesn’t present a historical problem, as we can find similar instances in Roman history. Plutarch, in “The Life of Julius Caesar,” recounts how Caesar’s soldiers mutinied, killing two praetors, demonstrating the occurrence of such events. Following this mutiny, Caesar addressed the soldiers as “citizens,” generously rewarding them with a thousand drachmas and land in Italy. (The Life of Julius Ceasar 51.2)
Additionally, in his life account, Josephus provides detailed accounts of his successful appeals to Caesar Titus, where he managed to spare companions and acquaintances. He even convinced Titus to pardon three individuals who had already been condemned to crucifixion, even though they were already on crosses. These individuals were associated with the Jewish war and insurrection, and some had their sentences reversed. Josephus’s ability to persuade Titus demonstrates the plausibility of Pilate’s decision to release Barabbas to pacify the Jewish crowd. It’s conceivable that Pilate no longer considered Barabbas a threat and opted to set him free for political reasons. (Life of Flavius Josephus, 75)
Remember, Pilate faced a challenging situation. The Jewish authorities demanded Jesus’ crucifixion, and they hinted at complaining to Caesar, something they had done previously regarding Pilate’s actions. However, even a Roman governor might not hesitate to release a man he believed to be guilty just to appease the locals. The Gospel accounts provide a narrative consistent with human behavior.
Was Barabbas Just a Symbol?
Lastly, some skeptics raise questions about the name Barabbas, which means “son of the father.” They draw parallels between this name and a Mosaic Law ritual in Leviticus 16, where one lamb is sacrificed and another set free. Richard Carrier suggests that the uncommon name Barabbas, signifying a son of a father, symbolically aligns with Jesus being the Son of God the Father, creating a deliberate symbolic connection. Carrier proposes that both Barabbas and Jesus were symbolically “lambs” of a similar nature.
It’s important to remember that this kind of parallel-o-mania, where parallels are constructed based on names, does not serve as evidence against the historical authenticity of an event. The crucifixion of Jesus took place during Passover, and while this event carries profound symbolic significance, its historical authenticity is firmly established. Discovering symbolism does not necessarily imply historical inaccuracy or invention.
Just for fun, let’s play around with an approach skeptics sometimes use to challenge the historical accuracy of biblical stories. Consider Martha, a key figure in the New Testament, renowned for her role when Jesus visited her home in Luke 10:38-42. In this imaginary scenario, someone might claim that Luke chose the name “Martha,” often associated with “lady” or “mistress,” deliberately to craft a character embodying traditional female roles and domesticity. They might argue that Martha, always portrayed as busy serving and dealing with practical matters, was an invention by Luke to emphasize the significance of women in the early Christian community.
They might even suggest that Martha represents a notion that women shouldn’t challenge men while they’re preoccupied with spiritual matters and should emulate the quiet and undistracted submission of Mary. But surely this idea is far-fetched. Building arguments based primarily on names doesn’t constitute strong evidence for the claim that Luke fabricated the character of Martha.
But let’s have some more fun. The story of Matthew’s calling in the Gospel of Matthew might be reinterpreted as purely symbolic, considering the meaning of his name. In this version, Matthew, whose name signifies a “gift of God,” symbolizes the concept that Jesus’s teachings are a divine gift to humanity. His transition from a tax collector to a follower of Jesus represents the idea that accepting this “gift” leads to a profound transformation in one’s life, akin to the transition from collecting worldly taxes to amassing spiritual riches. The potential for creating more such parodies remains almost endless.
Challenging the historical accuracy of the Barabbas story using the argument from silence is weak. Evidence of the custom of clemency by Roman rulers and the absence of documented embarrassment in the early church suggest that the Barabbas story is likely historically accurate. Dismissing a story based on finding symbolism in names isn’t a sound historical approach. We should approach the Gospels as early sources without assuming their guilt until proven innocent.
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.