What was the purpose of the release of the prisoner to the Jews?
What was done to the person that was released to them?
You have raised a wonderful question. I truly like to think about Barabbas. He is a wonderful character with tremendous importance to the crucifixion story; importance I think is often overlooked or mischaracterized.
(As a note I might mention some atheists and agnostics are so uncomfortable with Barabbas they seem to need to question his existence. But then, some of them are so caught up in the vain philosophies of men, they are not even sure they exist! I always wonder why if they are unsure of their own existence they are even bothering to pose questions?)
There are some key points I think must be considered.
1. This at the time of Pilate was already a custom.
a. Therefore the practice of a release of a prisoner predates Pilate.
b. The practice had to have the approval of the Emperor. Such power was not left to the governor's sole discretion.
c. Pilate chose to use it hoping to free the Lord, who was innocent, plainly a contrast with a guilty man by Roman law.
2. The practice of a prisoner release had to have value to both Romans and Jews to be effective.
a. The value to the Romans would be to curry favor with the Jews by making them seem more benign and at least marginally respectful of their religion.
b. The value to the Jews might exist in its symbology. The release of a prisoner might seem very much like the ritual release of the scapegoat.
Note: The offered prisoner to be released was of the Roman's choosing. The backfire is a reminder of their control over the Jewish religion including selection of the High Priest.
3. Barabbas was among other things an insurrectionist.
Not only did he irritate the Romans, he increased the problems the Jews had to endure. Contrast with Christ who did only good and seemed a threat only to the power of the spiritual leaders heavily influenced by the Sadducees, the liberals of their day.
a. Mark and Luke refer to Barabbas as one involved in a stasis, a riot. Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19. Matthew refers to Barabbas only as a "notorious prisoner." Matthew 27:16. Some scholars posit Barabbas was a member of the sicarii, a militant Jewish movement that sought to overthrow the Roman occupiers of their land by force, noting that Mark15:7 mentions that he had committed murder in an insurrection.
b. Barabbas released, he would be free to go wherever he chose out from Jerusalem. What became of him after he was set free we do not know. Similar to the fate of a scapegoat.
Now a bit more you did not ask. This will preach.
There is a symbology of words here in the name Barabbas. It is Aramaic Bar-abbâ, "son of the father." Whether his dad's name was Abbas (father-abba a bit like saying daddy) or whether this was an adopted title meaning he was like his father I do not know. Abba has was a personal name found in a first century burial at Giv'at ja-Mivtar and Abba as a personal name is in the Gemara section of the Talmud, dating from 200-400. This would mean that Barabbas was the son of one named Abba.
His individual name was also Jesus, according to Anastasius, bishop of Antioch, and to Chrysostom, and I have no reason to doubt that. It was a common name corresponding with the Old Testament Joshua, and the name meaning adds to the impact of the account.
So the crowd (ochlos) was offered a choice between Jesus the Son of Man/Son of God who did no wrong, and Jesus the son of his father who was a wicked man, and they chose the wicked man according to the Gospels of Matthew 27:16, Mark 15:7, Luke 23:18 - 19, and John 18:40.
The account of Barabbas has been used to justify anti-Semitism, but rather it should be used as an indictment of false religious leaders, who had plainly set up the situation with the crowd being influenced by their minions. It would be wrong to assume there were no Gentiles in the crowd that day. However, it should be seen as more reason for the blindness that came upon the Jewish people that allowed for the Gospel to be spread to the Gentiles. But as Paul points out in his epistle to the Romans the church as the wild vine grafted in should be concerned with and respectful of the natural vine’s well being…
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