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Barabbas, the Scapegoat Ritual, and the Development of the Passion Narrative

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 July 2007

Jennifer K. Berenson Maclean
Roanoke College


The story of Barabbas's release by Pilate appears in all four canonical gospels (Mark 15:6–15; Matt 27:15–26; Luke 23:18–25; John 18:39–40). Although the accounts differ in some details, a fairly consistent plot line emerges: The crowd before Pilate, allowed to choose one prisoner for release, demands the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus. There are, however, a number of puzzling aspects to this deceptively simple story, the most significant of which is the contention of the authors that there existed a custom of the governor releasing a prisoner at the Passover festival. According to Mark and Matthew, this was a Roman custom (Mark 15:6; Matt 27:15); according to John, a Jewish custom (John 18:39). Yet, no evidence for such a custom in Judea has been found. Even more tellingly, Luke's omission of such a custom, as well as his statement in Acts 25:16, shows that he thought such a custom unbelievable. This custom is also considered by some to be at odds with the portrait of Pilate gathered from Jewish literature. Roger Aus states the case most strongly: “[Pilate] never would have allowed himself to be subject to the whims of a crowd, especially an uncontrollable one which bordered on a riot.” For these reasons many scholars have concluded that while a Barabbas may have been released by Pilate, the story as we have it in the gospels is a literary creation.

© 2007 Cambridge University Press

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I wish to thank the anonymous reviewers at HTR for their constructive criticisms, which helped me sharpen my argument.