40 Problems: Prison Break at Passover?

So for my next Easter-related challenge, the challenger takes issue with the story of how the Romans would give the Jews under their rule a “Get out of jail free” card to play at Passover every year. Did the Romans actually do this? It doesn’t seem very “Roman” of them.

The four gospels state that the Roman governor over Judea, Pontius Pilate, was obligated during the Passover to commute one prisoner’s death sentence and to have him released based on the acclamation of those attending the ceremony. There are no Roman records suggesting that such a custom existed. Further, the implication of such a practice would be absurd. It would mean that the Jews could plan for someone to perform a heinous crime just before the Passover and then have that perpetrator released.

This fictional story was first added to Mark’s gospel and then copied by the writers of the subsequent gospels. The author of Mark used this tale, perhaps inspired by a similar story in Homer’s “The Odyssey” to shift blame for the crucifixion away from the Romans and toward the Jews. It is likely that Barabbas (translated as “son of the father”), the name of the criminal allegedly chosen by the crowd for release, was actually a nickname used for Jesus. So, in effect, the crowd was actually demanding the release of Jesus, finding that his arrest was unwarranted. When the author of Mark was confronted with the folklore that the Jews were asking for the release of Barabbas, he simply made Barabbas into a separate individual and then concocted the myth of the prisoner release tradition.

First off, the challenger overstates his case. He says that Pilate was obligated to release a prisoner, but that was not the case. The Gospel accounts say it was Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner during the Passover festival. That means he chose to do this himself and was under no obligation.

get-out-of-jail-free-cardAnd while we don’t have an extra-biblical record of this specific custom, we do have other historical records that show this type of political maneuvering was common in the Roman Empire. Governors would perform various kinds of acts, like releasing prisoners to the people under their rule for example, to gain political favor. It’s no different from career politicians today.

Pilate very well knew that the Jews didn’t like being under Roman rule. We know it too. As I covered last week, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday of that week, the crowds were ecstatic. Because of the way Jesus’ entered the city, they thought the Messiah had finally come to free them and establish once again their own kingdom on Earth. They couldn’t wait to be rid of the Romans!

Therefore, it’s entirely reasonable to say that Pilate established this prisoner release custom in coordination with a major Jewish holiday in order to score political points with those he was ruling over and quell any kind of rebellion or revolt.

jesus-or-barabbasBeing an oppressed people under the Romans, Jews likely felt that the Romans would unfairly imprison their people from time to time and would thus take this occasion to release one of those prisoners to enact some kind of justice.

As for the challenger’s claim that this practice was made up in order to blame Jesus’ crucifixion on the Jews and absolve the Romans, he will need to give reasons for how he knows that. None of the evidence we have for biblical accuracy or that time period supports his assertion.


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