musings from my rich inner world…

Barabbas and the Messiah as Heard by Matthew’s Church (Matthew 27:11-23)

Modern biblical scholars are in general agreement that Matthew’s gospel was written for an audience of early Jesus followers who were primarily of Jewish origin.  Thomas G. Long proposes that Matthew’s audience was struggling with questions of identity as newly formed Jesus people. Wondering whether they should abandon their Jewish faith and heritage, Matthew’s Gospel presented them with a Jesus who is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (Long 2).  With his audience in mind, Matthew constructed his gospel from original Markan and Q source materials and added his own unique content including about 40 quotations and allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures (Davies and Allison I.29).  Many of his innovations, while meaningful to his original audience, were lost on later Gentile Christians and, sadly, often remain hidden to the majority of Christians even today.  Among these passages is the scene in which Jesus is tried before Pilate, Barabbas is released and the people demand the crucifixion of Jesus with the notorious cry, "His blood be on us and on our children!" This haunting scene has been used for centuries to justify anti-Semitic violence perpetrated by Christians.  But how might Matthew’s Jewish church have heard this passage?  [Instructor’s comment: well phrased]

A careful examination of the external structure leading up to this scene, coupled with a review of Matthew’s redactions of his Markan source, suggests that the Jewish Rite of Atonement and the festival of Jubilee are key symbols for understanding the Matthean Passion narrative.  After removing Markan elements that would complicate this interpretation, Matthew writes a new scene which casts Jesus as the goat of immolation in the annual Jewish Rite of Atonement.  His shed blood, far from demanding retribution against the angry mob, becomes the agent of atonement that restores the creation.

Jesus’ interview with Pilate is located within the larger Passion and Resurrection narrative of Matthew’s gospel which begins with Chapter 26 (Boring 124).  Leading up to the scene Jesus has just participated in the Last Supper with his disciples before his subsequent arrest and presentation before Pilate which begins with Chapter 27.  It is during this Last Supper that Jesus announces that the wine present at the meal is the cup of his blood (haima) of the covenant which is poured out for the forgiveness (aphesis) of sin (26:28).  Both word choices are significant.

In Mark’s gospel the word haima appears only three times in contrast to the nine times it appears in Matthew.  While in one instance it is part of an idiomatic expression (16:17), seven of the remaining occurrences deal with blood guilt (23:30, 35; 27:4, 6).  The remaining occurrence, adopted from the Markan source, is found in the covenantal language of the Last Supper.  The two other instances of the word haima (5:25, 29) that appear in the Markan text belong to a scene abbreviated by Matthew, replacing the word haima with the word haimorreō.  In so doing Matthew reserves the noun haima for the theme of bloodguilt and atonement (9:20).

The word aphesis is also significant as it is used in the LXX translation of the Jubilee passage in Leviticus 25 when liberty (Hebrew deror) is declared to all of the inhabitants of the land (Barker 71).[1]   A careful reading of the Jubilee ritual in Leviticus reveals that it takes place on the Day of Atonement every 50 years, thereby explicitly linking the declaration of aphesis with the Ritual of Atonement.  Though there is some question regarding whether the Jubilee was actually ever practiced (Knauth 743), the theme is nonetheless important as a literary device in Mathew’s gospel.

Within the pericope of Jesus’ trial before the governor, Matthew describes three major movements, each of which pivot on the actions of Pilate:

  • Pilate questions Jesus, establishing Jesus’ claim to kingship (v. 11-14)
  • Pilate makes an offer of release of a captive – Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Messiah (v. 15 23)
  • Pilate washes his hands, ordering the flogging and release of Jesus the Messiah to be crucified (v. 24 26)

The first subdivision in Matthew’s scene follows closely with the Markan source narrative.  However, in the subsequent sections there are five items[2]  that have no parallel in the earlier gospel:  the name "Jesus" applied to Barabbas (v. 17), the dream of Pilate’s wife (v. 19), the addition of the Jewish elders as agitators for Barabbas’ release (v. 20), Pilate’s display of washing his hands (v. 24) and the crowd’s insistence that Jesus’ blood be upon them and on their children (v. 25).

The dream follows a Matthean convention for portraying divine intervention which occurs five times in the gospel.  While the first four dreams (1:20; 2:12, 13, 19) all act to safeguard the infant Jesus, in this instance the warning is indistinct and, ultimately, unable to save Jesus’ life.  Its only function appears to be to point out to the key Gentile character in the story the true nature of Jesus.

The reference to the elders is part of a larger theme of strife between the Matthean community and their Jewish compatriots who do not view Jesus as the Messiah.  By naming the elders as agitators together with the chief priests, Matthew’s account engages in polemic against the leaders of the local synagogues who have cast the early Jesus followers out of their midst. Throughout Matthew’s gospel the separation between the Matthean community and other Jews is highlighted by the use of the phrase "their synagogues" (4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 12:9; 13:54) with one specific reference to flogging (10:17) that will resonate in the flogging of Jesus at the end of this pericope (27:23).

The remaining Matthean additions allude to an event of great significance to Matthew’s Jewish audience.  Leviticus 16 describes the ritual of atonement performed annually on Yom Kippur, which required the presentation of two male goats as a sin offering on behalf of the people of Israel.  Though not completed until around 200 CE, the Mishnah includes instructions requiring that the two goats be identical (m. Yoma 6:1).  As we will see in a moment, this tradition may have already been known to the Matthean community.  After the high priest used two special lots to designate one goat for Yahweh and one goat for Azazel (traditionally translated "scapegoat"), the Yahweh goat was then slaughtered and offered up as a sin offering on behalf of the people.  The blood of the immolated goat was sprinkled about the Holy of Holies and the outer areas of the altar to restore Shalom.  Once the blood had been sprinkled, the Azazel goat was presented live before Yahweh to make atonement over it.  The sins of the people were ceremonially transferred to the creature and then he was released into the desert.

With the Ritual of Atonement as a backdrop, the Matthean introduction of "Jesus Barabbas" (as opposed to simply "Barabbas" in Mark) takes on a new meaning.  Based on Matthew’s penchant for names that have special meaning (1:21; 15:17), it is reasonable to assume that his redaction of the Markan text may also be significant (Allison 510).  While in the Markan text Barabbas is a rebel who has committed murder during a recent insurrection (15:7), the Jesus Barabbas of Matthew is simply a notable prisoner.[3]   Pilate presents the crowd with two candidates for release:  both named Jesus, both of some noteworthiness, one known as "son of his father" (the meaning of Barabbas) and the other the Son of his Father.  As is the established custom (27:15), one will be released while the other will be killed.  Though the literary setting for the Passion narrative is Passover, the themes of the Day of Atonement are clearly represented.

Pilate tries to release Jesus the Messiah, presumably heeding the oracle of his wife’s dream.  However, in the end he is unsuccessful, giving in to the crowds for fear of a riot.  Instead, he washes his hands and announces that he is innocent of Jesus’ blood (v. 24).  Here again, Matthew inserts a new scene not reported in his Markan source which alludes to the Hebrew Scriptures.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9 outlines a ritual for absolving the land of Israel of bloodguilt in the event of a murder by an unknown assailant.  On first examination it would appear that this ritual does not apply to the case at hand.  The Deuteronomist describes a situation in which a man is found slain in a field between towns and the identity of the murderer is unknown.  However, in the Matthean narrative it appears that Pilate, the chief priests and elders (v. 20) and the crowd (v. 25) are all in some way accountable for the death of Jesus.  Perhaps Matthew’s Jewish audience, hearing of Pilate’s actions would remember the echo of the elders’ words:  "Our hands did not shed this blood, nor were we witnesses to it" (De 21:8).  Moreover, Long suggests that this would have brought to mind for these Torah-observant Jews the rest of the prayer which they might recite:  "Absolve, O LORD, your people Israel, whom you redeemed; do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain in the midst of your people Israel" (313).  The Deuteronomic passage ends with the assurance of pardon:  "Then they will be absolved of bloodguilt" (21:9).

Matthew’s final addition to this portion of the narrative also revolves around the double entendre of bloodguilt and blessing.  On first reading, the surface level meaning of the cry of the crowd appears clear:  "His blood be on us and on our children!"  The crowd (ochlos) of 27:15, 20 has morphed into "all the people (laos)," demanding the death of Jesus.  The use of the word laos is also of particular importance.  Matthew begins with the promise that Jesus will save his people (laos) from their sins (1:21).  In that verse, as in 13 other uses of the word in Matthew’s gospel, the word laos refers specifically to the Jewish people.  With this particular usage pattern in mind, Matthew appears to indicate that the Jewish people as a whole have brought the bloodguilt for Jesus upon themselves.  It is doubtful that Matthew gave any thought to how his words might be interpreted by Christians for centuries to come.  More likely, the evangelist was using a plot device within his literary setting that would augment the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus in explaining the destruction of the Temple and the routing of Jerusalem that occurred in 70 CE.

Based on these observations, it would appear that a Jewish audience, familiar with the material of the Torah, would be equipped to hear a very different tale from the one normally assumed by those unfamiliar with the Jewish traditions.  There is no reason to think that Matthew, a Jewish author, would have any reason to imply to his Jewish readers that the Jewish people would be damned for eternity over the bloodguilt associated with Jesus’ death.  It is, after all, Matthew’s gospel which twice places the words of God from Amos in Jesus’ mouth:  "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (9:13; 12:7).  [Instructor’s comment: This is tough: 28:11-15 suggests something’s up]  Matthew’s proclamation that Jesus would save his people, coupled with the promise alluded to in Deuteronomy that absolution of bloodguilt is possible, appear to follow the ancient pattern of the Prophets who mete out condemnation, but then follow up with promises of God’s faithfulness and mercy.  However, this pattern of prophetic condemnation and then comfort, has also been lost on Gentile audiences over time.  The allusions to Jewish tradition threaded throughout this passage bring to mind the Day of Atonement ritual which restores the broken creation, a prayer of absolution for the shedding of innocent blood, and ironically enough, a people that though blind to the true identity of Jesus as the Messiah who has come to save them (Mt 1:1, 21), call out for Jesus’ blood to be upon them.  While it appears "the people" are accepting bloodguilt, the Matthean audience, prepared by the words of the Last Supper, understand that the Jubilee is being fulfilled – the blood that is shed for many will bring about aphesis, liberating the captives from sin.

[1]  While only small allusions to aphesis are used in Matthew’s text, the Lukan text will pick up this theme explicitly when Jesus reads from Isaiah in the synagogue (Lk 4:18).
[2]  Davies and Allison note only three items:  the name "Jesus," the dram of Pilate’s wife, and the hand washing (III.578).
[3]  While the NRSV translates episēmos as "notorious," this introduces a connotation that the word does not support (Maclean 325).  Although Bauer’s lexicon adds a secondary meaning of "notorious" (Danker 378), Maclean argues that there is nothing in the text to explicitly warrant this connotation, claiming that the Markan passage colors the perception of modern English translators of Matthew (325).

Appendix:  Translation, Textual Analysis and Structural Analysis

Translation (New Revised Standard Version)

27:11 ¶ Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You say so."*

27:12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer

27:13 Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?"

27:14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

27:15 ¶ Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted.

27:16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas.

27:17 So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?"

27:18 For he realized that it was out of jealousy* that they had handed him over.

27:19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him."

27:20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed.

27:21 The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas."

27:22 Pilate said to them, "Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?"* All of them said, "Let him be crucified!"

27:23 Then he asked, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!"

27:24 ¶ So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves."

27:25 Then the people as a whole answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!"

27:26 So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.


27:11 Anchor, NRS, KJV indicate that Jesus responds by saying these are Pilate’s own words.  NASB states, "It is as you say," suggesting that Jesus agrees with Pilate’s statement.  (The NASB translation is also supported by the NIV translation, "Yes, it is as you say.")  Allison points out that though the statement appears ambiguous it is actually a bold claim – Pilate has named Jesus as King and Jesus has not denied it (509).  Thus, the various translations point to the same thing, whether implicitly or explicitly.

27:17, 22 Anchor and NRSV read "Messiah," while the KJV and NASB read "Christ."  Christos is the Greek translation of for the Hebrew mashiach.  They are interchangeable.

27:18 Anchor reads "spite."  NRS reads "jealous," while KJV and NASB read "envy."  Greek word is phthonos, which means envy or jealousy.  The English word "spite" adds other connotations that are not supported by the Greek.

27:19 Greek phrase dikaios ekeino.  Anchor reads "Righteous One."  NRS reads "innocent man."  KJV reads "just man."  NASB reads "righteous man."  Dikaios literally translates as "correct" or "righteous."  Some translators support the use of the word "innocent," however, this interpretation is disputed (Danker 246-247).  Ekeino is the demonstrative, masculine, dative singular pronoun form of ekeinos (that one).  The grammatical gender justifies the use of "man," as the NRS has rendered it.

27:24, 25 Greek word haima is translated as "death" and then "guilt" in the Anchor.  However, the NRS, KJV and NASB translate the word consistently as "blood," which is its literal meaning.  The dynamic translation tends to obscure the recurrence of the word which carries important themes of both bloodguilt and atonement within Matthew’s narrative.  For this reason, the preferred translation should be "blood."

Textual analysis

UBS4 indicates that in 27:16, 17 the word Iesous (Jesus) is found in early texts, but is omitted in later manuscripts (109), leaving difficulty in claiming without doubt that this is part of the text.  In his commentary on Matthew in NOAB, J. Andrew Overman indicates that the later omissions may have been to avoid confusion or because the name had come to be regarded as sacred (52).  The latter interpretation is supported by Eugene Boring’s assessment that it is more likely that pious scribes omitted the word in later versions than for this to have been added later (486).

Further, in 27:24 UBS4 indicates that the text is almost certain as tou haimatos toutou ("the blood of this one (m. sg.)").  However, some sources read tou haimatos tou dikaiou toutou ("the blood of this righteous one") or haimatos toutou tou dikaiou ("this righteous blood").  One text reads haimaos tou dikaiou ("the blood of the righteous").  Theologically what appears to be at stake is a claim that Pilate recognized Jesus as righteous rather than the simpler statement of finding no guilt.  In Matthew 23:34-35 Jesus has described the flogging and crucifixion of various prophets, wise men and teachers sent from God, referencing the righteous blood of martyrs from Abel to Zechariah.  The introduction of dikaios in 27:24 may be an allusion to the earlier passage and an attempt to harmonize their content.

Structural analysis

This pericope falls into the final movement of Matthew’s gospel comprising the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus.  Chapter 27 begins with the binding of Jesus and his transport to Pilate.  The story is interrupted by the account of the death of Judas and then resumes with a change of scene at verse 11 where Jesus appears before Pilate.  Another change of scene occurs at the end of the pericope as Jesus moves into the praetorium to be mocked by Roman soldiers before moving on to the Crucifixion.  With the conclusion of the pericope explicit connections are made between Jesus’ earlier words about flogging and crucifixion of God’s representatives in 23:34 and the scene in 27:36 where Jesus is flogged and handed over for crucifixion. 

Works Cited

Aland, Barbara, et al., The Greek New Testament. 4th. Nordlingen, Germany: C. H. Beck, 1983.

Allison, Dale C., ed. Matthew: a shorter commentary. New York: T & T Clark, 2004.

Barker, Margaret. Temple Theology: an introduction. London: SPCK, 2004.

Boring, M. Eugene. "The Gospel of Matthew: introduction, commentary, and reflections." New Interpreters Bible. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. 8. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996. 12 vols. 87-505.

Danker, Frederick William, ed. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Davies, W. D. and Dale C. Allison. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. III vols. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1997.

Knauth, Robin J. DeWitt. "Jubilee, Year of." Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Ed. David Noel Freedman. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000. 743.

Long, Thomas G. Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.

Maclean, Jennifer K Berneson. "Barabbas, the scapegoat ritual, and the development of the passion narrative." Harvard Theological Review 100.3 (2007): 309-334.

Overman, J. Andrew. "Matthew." New Oxford Annotated Bible. Ed. Michael D. Coogan. 3rd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 7-55 New Testament.

Assignment Instructions

Interpretive Essay –  Stage Three: Final Draft.

This is a typed, double-spaced assignment of six to eight (6-8) pages, or 1,500 to 2,000 words, plus an appendix that includes your translation, text critical and lexical notes, and structural analysis, due Monday, 21 April.  The Interpretive Essay should include:

1. Context, Form, and Structure:  An assessment of the context, form, and structure of the assigned passage.  This section should be concise, emphasizing the most important results of the Stage One study and continuing findings.

2. Detailed Comments:  Brief notes that explicate significant problems, particularly key words or concepts and text or translation issues.  Where appropriate, redactional analysis is required.

3. Interpretation: This is the major body of the essay.  An argument concerning the text’s meaning (redactional, literary, rhetorical, social, religious, theological, etc.) in one of its ancient contexts (e.g., the career of Jesus, the text’s intended audience, the text’s likely author, the text’s history of composition).  You must:

  • advance a specific claim (perhaps two or three, but with a common focus),
  • explain why you believe your conclusions to be persuasive,
  • demonstrate (and name) the use of standard methods of biblical interpretation, and
  • engage other interpreters along the way.

4. Comment:   Contemporary reflection, only a paragraph or two.

Instructor’s Comments

I’m not going to post this essay on Moodle – it would set too high a standard.

Truly exceptional work with tight, detailed argumentation and a significant thesis.

The argument overlooks another pattern.  The "blood… upon"pattern in Leviticus points to guilt and punishment.  See Jeremiah 26:15; Ezekiel 16:3; 18:13; 33:4-5

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