Controversies of the Paschal Pardon and Barabbas
Last week I mentioned that while doing some research I came across some controversy about Barabbas and the Paschal Pardon. Some scholars and skeptics have debated a few different issues of perceived inconsistencies and misconceptions. Honestly, I had never even heard of some of the criticisms. So that you won’t be surprised like I was when you hear them, I’ll give you a brief overview of what some of the debate has been about.
Was the Paschal Pardon fabricated by the apostles?
First, some critics argue the validity and truth of the Paschal Pardon. Some contend that it was made up and was not an actual custom. Their argument stems from the fact that the custom has not been mentioned in any historical documents outside the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John). Their claim that there is no evidence of a Paschal Pardon aside from the Bible is accurate. Nowhere else is this exact practice mentioned besides the Bible.
However, scholars speculate several plausible theories explaining this perceived discrepancy. Some explanations include similar customs in Roman history, Hasmonean customs, and possibly even ancient Jewish/Talmudical customs.   According to these sources there were several events in history where pardons were offered to prisoners at festival times.
Furthermore, the Bible itself has been proven a valid historical document. Therefore, simply dismissing information because it only appears in scripture is fallacy. Even non-Christian historians recognize the validity of the Bible as a historical document. In her book, Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side, Natasha Crain explains in detail why we can trust the Bible as a historically accurate document. I highly recommend her book to learn more (and teach others) about why we can trust the Bible.
Is the Paschal Pardon inconsistent with Roman authority?
Secondly, critics insist that the story of Barabbas and the Paschal Pardon lack credibility from a Roman standpoint. Skeptics claim that it would have been illegal for Pilate to allow a Paschal Pardon and that it’s beyond the scope of his authority. It’s argued that there were no known instances of any Roman officer pardoning anyone who had already been convicted of a crime. The laws of the day forbade governors to reverse decisions. Only Caesar had the right to revoke sentences, and even then, this practice was done sparingly.
However, in my research I found that Richard Wellington Husband proved the validity that these Paschal Pardons actually could reasonably occur. They were not a fabrication as some skeptics claim. Quite frankly, there was some good logic and a simple explanation behind the reason for this legitimacy.
A good explanation for how Pilate could have reasonably offered a Paschal Pardon
In his article Husband states,
“Obviously the situation of Barabbas at the time of the trial of Jesus was that he had been accused of a crime, and was now in prison awaiting the hearing of his case. Matthew calls him merely a “notable prisoner,” but the word [“δέσμιος“] means only “one who is bound,” and need not at all signify imprisonment as the result of a legal conviction.”
He goes on to note that the other gospels use the same verbs (for both Barabbas and Jesus) to denote being bound or legally confined, NOT convicted. The idea was that the prisoners were being kept under guard until their trial occurred.
Based on the crimes that Barabbas was accused of committing (insurrection and murder), the Roman penalty would have been death, not a prison sentence. Husband says then,
“Barabbas was not in prison, therefore, as a punishment for his crime…It could not be the case that Barabbas had already been convicted, and was now awaiting punishment, for Pilate would then have lost the power to release him. Nor did the Romans allow an interval between conviction and execution, according to a ruling quoted by Theodosius from Gratianus…It is also to be noticed that Pilate did not pronounce sentence upon Jesus until after the choice between the two prisoners had been made. If he had already pronounced sentence, he could not have released Jesus without exceeding his legal powers.”
These types of criminals, according to Roman law, would have been put to death immediately after conviction. Therefore, we can presume that Jesus and Barabbas had not been “convicted” yet, since they were still alive when Pilate offered a Paschal Pardon. Based on these facts, we can conclude that Pilate was, in fact, NOT acting beyond his jurisdiction.
Were Jesus and Barabbas the same person?
Additionally, there appeared to be some controversy dealing with the name of Barabbas. Apparently a small number of the ancient manuscripts include “Jesus Barabbas” as his name in Matthew 27:16-17. Due to the similarity in names (and of the meaning of Barabbas—“son of the father” due to Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God), some argue that Jesus and Barabbas were one in the same person. Skeptics have stated that this is one man with two titles.
Since there in not consistency in the manuscripts, there is no way of being certain if the name “Jesus” was actually part of his name. Some believe this was a mistranslation or scribe error. However, there are a few textual scholars who believe that “Jesus” very well could have been a part of Barabbas’ name, and scribes may have removed it out of reverence. It is also believed that it may have been removed to make it consistent with the other gospels who do not mention the name “Jesus Barabbas”.
Biblical scholars note that this cannot be one in the same man, an individual bearing two titles. Instead they insist that it must be two separate men: one notorious criminal and one innocent man being accused by the Jewish priests. Barabbas was charged with insurrection (a violent uprising or revolt against government or authority), murder, and robbery (see Matthew 27:16, Mark 15:7, Luke 23:19, John 18:40). No one ever accused Jesus of violent revolt, robbery, or murder. These two separate men were on trial for two separate allegations.
Take Some Practical Steps When You Encounter Controversies or Perceived Discrepancies:
- Do your research! As I stated last week, Christians need to be critical thinkers too. We don’t have to take things at face value. Skeptics and critics are going to come at us with their arsenal of “facts and evidence”. We need to do the same.
- Educate yourself on WHY you believe what you do. I’ve listed some excellent resources (books, websites, etc.) that have helped me learn more and educate myself in this post here. It’s also important to get your information from credible sources when you research. Sometimes just a google search, helpful as they are, won’t always provide you with accurate information. Conduct research in books, academic journals, reliable periodicals, and encyclopedias (NOTE: Wikipedia is NOT an encyclopedia! It has good information, but always double check it.).
- Don’t ever be afraid to search for the truth. The Berean Jews did when Paul and Silas taught them, and Paul praised them for it. He said by searching further, they gained a deeper belief and faith.
“And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. As a result, many Jews believed, as did many of the prominent Greek women and men.” Acts 17:11-12 (NLT)
- Know that you can trust that the Bible is God’s infallible word and can be trusted as a final authority. Skeptics won’t necessarily see this as the case. So, that’s why it’s a good idea to gather evidence and facts outside of the Bible. However, be assured that as a Christian, God fully intended for the Bible to be your ultimate guide and source. Always go back to it. Always trust it.
I never ceased to be amazed at some of the conspiracy theories that critics come up with to dismiss the Christian faith. It’s probably not going to stop anytime in the near future either. So we must press on and always be prepared to give a defense for our faith!
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” 1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)
Have you had conversations about the controversies of the Paschal Pardon and Barabbas? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below.
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- Chavel, Charles B. “The Releasing of a Prisoner on the Eve of Passover in Ancient Jerusalem.” Journal of Biblical Literature 60.3 (1941): 273-278. Print. ↑
- Harris, Rev. Sam. “Release Barabbas! Did the Gospel Writers Make That Up?” John Ankerberg Show. Ankerberg Theological Research Institute, 15 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2017. ↑
- Crain, Natasha. “”Conversations About the Bible” Chapters 25-29.” Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side: 40 Conversations to Help Them Build a Lasting Faith. Eugene: Harvest House, 2016. 148-75. Print. ↑
- Husband, Richard Wellington. “The Pardoning of Prisoners by Pilate.” The American Journal of Theology 21.1 (1917): 110-116. Print. ↑
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