Max Young was right to explore the figure of Barabbas more closely – and he is surely correct to conclude that this shadowy man has but a short moment in the glare – playing a crucial but, for him, entirely unintended role in the Passion of Christ, before retreating back into the recesses of the forgotten past.
This scene with Barabbas figures strongly in a new book, Pontius Pilate: Deciphering Memory by Aldo Schiavone*, a distinguished commentator on imperial Roman law. According to this interpretation, the appearance of Barabbas is part of an off-the-cuff attempt by the Roman prefect to set Jesus free (John’s Gospel makes this general intention quite clear: 19:12). Given a choice between Jesus (still without a charge against him) and Barabbas, the already-condemned subversive of Roman authority, the Sanhedrin would surely not free the latter for fear of insulting Rome.
But Pontius Pilate underestimates the Sanhedrin’s hostility to Jesus because of the claim that he was the Son of God, a view that would not have exercised the average Roman officer one way or another. Barabbas is chosen for release on religious grounds, despite the evident lack of political logic.
But Schiavone’s case is that Pilate was not an average Roman. Perhaps he needed to be special to play his part in what is arguably the most portentous meeting in human history. ‘Where are you from?’, Pilate asks. Clearly, ‘Nazareth’ is not the answer he is looking for or needs. The argument of this book, based on a very close and entertaining reading, mostly of the account in John’s Gospel, is that Pilate is shown to have reached a remarkable awareness of the extraordinary person before him.
As the exchange of questions and answers proceeds after the release of Barabbas, Pilate ‘put all the pieces together into a single picture, fully grasped the prisoner’s attitude, and became persuaded not to oppose his design’. In sum, Pilate came to acknowledge the end that Jesus, following his Father’s will, wanted to achieve.
The man who facilitates this is not deserving of the conventional reputation for being weak, vacillating, pushed and pulled by a crowd of the Sanhedrin, translators and hangers-on. This brief summary does insufficient credit to the subtlety and power of the story that Schiavone perceives but two points after the events can be recalled usefully.
The first is that Pilate – none other – forcefully insists on the three-language sign to be raised over Jesus on the cross saying ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’. Pilate almost certainly did not know fully what that implied but the internationalist and evangelising display of the title illuminates the serious nature of Pilate’s understanding.
Secondly, when the Nicene Creed was revised at the end of the 4th century to produce the version we use, Pontius Pilate is brought back into the text without any blame being attached to him. It is as though the truth lying behind John’s text was more fully appreciated by the early Fathers than in Christianity’s subsequent centuries.
Jesus and Pilate: as Schiavone puts it, ‘Those names had to go together, as on that morning when everything unfolded. Forever’.
*New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017 (ISBN 9781631492358).
Peter has a copy to lend for anybody interested.