It is generally understood that when Barabbas was released from prison, he was not required to return after the Passover festival. Why believe this was the case? Perhaps a more modest temporary release of a prisoner makes better sense of the poor external attestation of such a practice (historicity of the paschal pardon discussed here: Is the story of Barabbas possibly fabricated?).

  1. Permanently releasing (presumably any, given that Barabbas was a murderous insurrectionist) a prisoner at crowd request seems implausible.
  2. A temporary release at crowd request provides accountability. If the released prisoner acts up, everyone would know the Romans will punish both the prisoner and people at-large harshly.

Given public support for Jesus on Palm Sunday, perhaps Pilate thinks he can play the masses against the Jewish leaders. Mark stresses that the Jewish leadership plotted to convict Jesus in secret, and there is no popular support for Jesus's conviction (Mark 14:1-2, 48-49).

If the masses show support for Jesus, the Jewish leaders will have a hard time disposing of him. The Romans would be reluctant to crucify a popular figure who broke no Roman law, and the masses would rebel against the Jewish leaders for instigating a judicial murder against their beloved teacher.

Some uses of the word "release" (ἀπέλυεν and related forms) seem to connote finality, but I don't know if that's necessarily the case (https://biblehub.com/greek/630.htm).

3 Answers 3


Matthew 27:

15Now it was the governor’s custom at the feast to release to the crowd a prisoner of their choosing. 16At that time they were holding a notorious prisoner named Barabbas. 17So when the crowd had assembled, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.

19While Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him this message: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered terribly in a dream today because of Him.”

Pilate's wife thought Jesus was innocent. Pilate knew that the Jews falsely accused Jesus out of envy. Pilate called Jesus the anointed Christ.

Did Pilate just want to release Jesus temporarily?

I don't think so. Pilate knew Jesus was innocent.

24 When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but that instead a riot was breaking out, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “You bear the responsibility.”

Pilate was consistent in this. Later,

John 19:19 Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. 21The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”

22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

If you get into the mind of Pilate, it is clear: Pilate wanted to release Jesus permanently. If you shift your focus to Barabbas, you may develop doubts about this permanency of release.

  • Pilate wanted to release Jesus permanently, but I wonder if the tradition of releasing a prisoner at the passover was really only the temporary release of a prisoner. Using this tradition, perhaps Pilate wanted the crowds to select Jesus as the temporarily released prisoner. From there, he could then permanently release Jesus, gaining favor in the eyes of the crowds and making it more difficult for the Jewish leaders to force his hand into executing Jesus. In this sequence of events, the Jewish leaders would have had no support for orchestrating a judicial murder of Jesus.
    – nobody77
    Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 2:55
  • Sure. That's possible.
    – user35953
    Commented Mar 10, 2021 at 14:19

There's a lot of symbolism going on, I don't think anyone knows the full extent of it. Consider a few things tho : Letting a prisoner go was associated with the scape goat. Historically they say there was never a law about letting a prisoner go, it's likely just patterned after the scape goat.

Also, consider all Paul's scripture about being crucified with Christ. Kill the old man so the new man can live. Think about what was really going on with Pilate then.. He was saying "this is an innocent man, I find him guilty of nothing", which in turn can be applied to how he feels about himself, because we all (symbolically) are crucified with Christ. He was saying, "im innocent ( Which he eventuality said verbatim) I'm guilty of nothing" do you get what I mean? We're all symbolically crucified with Christ so it was as if he was sentencing himself. Pilate was not known for being a good reasonable man, it doesn't really fit reality for him to be reasonable about Jesus. He was, in essence saying, "I find no reason to kill my old man/sin nature because I'm guilty of nothing. Innocent"

Continuing with the spiritual/ symbolism...when we kill our old man we then are born again, resurrecting Christ. Paul says, "nevertheless not I but Christ who lives".

Except Pilate didn't care about crucifying Christ, tho he allowed it, announcing that he's innocent of having Christ's blood on him. And he released Barabbas to live. I don't know..is that like symbolically not caring about crucifying your old nature and letting your treacherous old nature live instead?


How I would see it if I were in Pilate's position:

  • The locals have brought some guy in, with the intention that I have him put to death. Their case against him is nothing I care about at all; their internal political squabbles have helped us stay in power, but I don't have a dog in the fight.
  • Therefore, the easiest thing for me to do is to stay out of the matter altogether. I pack the guy off to our puppet ruler, hoping that he'll tell the guys behind this business to go pound sand.
  • And now he's back again. I'll make it clear that I could not care less about their case against him.
  • Oh, it's time to release a prisoner? We've got Barabbas, but he's a genuine threat, and I'd rather release this itinerant preacher who's not bothering us at all.
  • Ugh, the local leaders have gotten the crowd behind Barabbas. Makes sense, really, since Barabbas has actually done more than walk about preaching, but still, a guy who's whacked a few people needs to be in the cell and the guy who hasn't needs to be let go.
  • Did he really say he was a king? For Jupiter's sake, got to settle this bit.
  • He did, but his kingdom's in another world, whatever that means. I can work with this.
  • By the Styx, now someone's going to send a delegation to Caesar, claiming that I let a usurper loose. That business about his kingdom not being of this world is not going to make it into that report.
  • Okay, okay, we'll let Barabbas go. We can always kill him later. Sorry, Jesus, whoever you are, but it's my neck now.
  • But I want to make it clear that I'm only going along with it because it's what they're asking for. Fetch me a basin of water.

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