Hollywood has done a lot to tarnish the reputation of Jews in popular culture when it comes to Jesus.
Yes, Mel Gibson, I’m looking at you.
It was Hitler who, after seeing the famous passion play acted out in Oberammergau in the 1930s who wrote about the fact that the same Jews who cried out “Hosanna!” when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt turned only a few days later and called for his death. This was a seed, among others, that was used as justification for the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Gibson’s Passion of the Christ offered a similar interpretation as the actors in the passion play at Oberammergau, which used all the same people for both the Triumphal Entry scene and the setting before Pontius Pilate as he allowed the people to choose who to release: Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth.
John Dominic Crossan notes some interesting differences among the gospels, however, that are worth noting. In Mark, the first of the four gospels, the people before Pilate were referred to as “the crowd.” Later gospels embellish this from “the crowd” to “the crowds,” and then “all the people.” Finally, in John – the last of the gospels by some years – the folks calling for Jesus’ death are now “the Jews.”
This isn’t to suggest that the author of John had a vendetta against the Jewish people but rather it reveals a basic human tendency to elaborate a little more on the original story every time it’s told. Crossan suggests, based on his scholarly studies, that “the crowd” referred to in Mark probably consisted of less than a dozen people. And he gives pretty good reasons why.
Consider when Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem happens in the Jewish year. It’s just before Passover, when Jews celebrate their liberation from Egyptian oppression. But think of the irony of trying to celebrate such freedom while living under the suffocating thumb of the Roman Empire. Crossan calls the climate a “tinderbox,” positioned for revolt, and Pilate sees Jesus as just that kind of spark that could trigger the conflagration.
Pontius Pilate may have been a tyrant, but he wasn’t an idiot. How smart would it be of him to allow thousands of dissident Jews to assemble in the middle of town in such a climate? One forceful word from Jesus could lead to chaos. But as was tradition at Passover, he had to present two prisoners and allow one to go free, as an almost farcical demonstration of mercy.
So who was in this probably small, relatively harmless crowd standing below Pilate’s balcony? Crossan notes that Barabbas, though he is often painted as simply a murderer, was actually a political prisoner. He was the equivalent of what we think of now as a terrorist. He had risen up against Roman Imperial rule with force, probably as part of a subversive movement, and was arrested for killing a soldier, politician or the like.
Thinking about Barabbas this way starts to help us see him as a sort of shadow-side character to contrast Jesus. Both were intent on facing down the forces of empire, but Jesus of Nazareth chose nonviolence, while Barabbas opted for the sword. It’s also interesting to note that Barabbas’ full name in scripture is Jesus Barabbas. Not only did they share a name; it’s also worth noting that the translation of Jesus Barabbas’ last name – bar Abbas – means “Son of God.”
So consider this story as a parable. This means that, instead of concerning ourselves with whether the story is historically true in one or more of the gospels, we look for the deeper truth that can be revealed from within the story.
Here we have two saviors of the people, both named Jesus, and both called, in one way or another, “Son of God.” One has chosen blood as his means of redemption; the other depends on nonviolence. And the choice is given to the people there. Do you choose nonviolence or do you choose to continue the bloodshed that has led us to where we are?
The chorus from the crowd could not be more telling. They cry out, “His blood be on us and on our children,’ referring to the culpability they now bear for sending an innocent man to his death. It is blood they ask for, and it is blood they will continue to get.
Was Jesus set up by Pilate? Did he rally Barabbas’ supporters while keeping Jesus’ followers at arm’s length? Surely he was smart enough to realize that, if it came down to a battle of force, the Romans would prevail. But what to do with this radical rebel who would not take up arms, a man innocent of any crime deserving of such a punishment, yet who possessed the power to bring a mighty empire to its knees?
We will never know. But it seems clear enough that this story is much less about implicating Jews for the death of Jesus, and much more a revelation about basic human nature. God gives us a choice to change the world through nonviolent means, yet we continue to call for blood.
The good news (this is a gospel story, after all) is that we’re given the choice again to make every day. So for today, will we lay down our swords and turn them into plowshares, or will we continue to call for the blood of others to be upon our heads and on the heads of our children?
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004.
Christian is the creator and editor of the BANNED QUESTIONS book series, which include BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.