Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday meditation

In the Gospels we read about Pilate’s decision to give the crowd a choice: Jesus or Barabbas.
Of course, the Gospels reveal Jesus as the Son of God. What many people don’t know is that Barabbas’ name likely means the same thing: bar (son of), abbas (~ “abba,” father). Some ancient versions of Matthew 27 even identify him as Jesus Barabbas, although whether this is a reliable reading is debated. What I want to do here is draw out the profound contrast between these two figures and the implications a post-70 audience would have seen in the decision.

All four Gospels tell us that the Romans had a prisoner in custody at the time of Jesus’ condemnation named Barabbas. In Matthew 27:16 we learn that Barabbas was “a notorious (episēmos) prisoner.”[1] What was he notorious for? John describes him with a Greek word lēstēs (John 18:40), which had a broad range of meaning. It could be translated ‘robber,’ ‘bandit,’ or ‘murderer.’ Another possibility, however, is ‘revolutionary.’ Mark and Luke report that he was involved in some sort of riot or insurrection in which he had committed murder (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19).

It is not clear what this riot entailed—there is no explicit mention of Barabbas killing Roman soldiers. Yet, given the fact that he is held by the Romans, this might be implied. In fact, in a post-70 milieu it is almost impossible to imagine that it could have been read otherwise.

Moreover, it seems at least possible that the narrative of the choice of the two prisoners in John’s Gospel is described against the backdrop of the Jewish revolt. Indeed, ‘revolutionaries’ were in large part responsible for the eventual destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. Reading the Gospel in a post-70 context, it is almost impossible to imagine that readers would not have made the connection between the ‘revolutionary’ Barabbas and the zealot movement that ended up resulting in the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem.

In fact, John’s Gospel cues us into Jerusalem’s fate in chapter 12. The chief priests complain about Jesus’ ministry, saying, “If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (12:48). The implication is clear: if people believe Jesus is the messiah, the true Davidic king of Israel, the Romans will see that as a political threat and attack us.

These expectations about Jesus’ kingship appear later in John 18. Pilate’s main concern about Jesus is his possible royal identity: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might no be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not of this world” (John 18:36).

The zealots thought that they would usher in the eschatological reign of God through force - through a violent revolt. Jesus believed he was ushering in the eschatological age through his death (see Brant Pitre's new book on that; also go here for more discussion).

There is a contrast here in chapter 18 that would have been especially stark in a post-70 reading of this story. On one hand, Jesus poses no threat of revolution. His followers are not about to launch a violent revolt to save him—his kingdom is not of this world.[2] On the other, Barabbas is a violent man—a man somehow connected with a riot or rebellion.

The choice is between a murderer, a man involved in some sort of insurrection—a “son of Abba”—and Jesus, a man who poses no violent threat, who is the true Son of God. Here’s the choice the people are presented with: a revolutionary-type hope or the hope Jesus brings for a kingdom not of this world. A false son of God who comes in violence—who takes matters into his own hands—or the true Son, who offers his life to save his people.

The people make their decision—“Barabbas!” The die was cast. Jerusalem’s fate, in a sense, was secured.

Of course, underlying the whole story is a theological point: Jesus dies so a sinner can go free.

We too have a choice—do we put our faith in political action in this world or in the true King of Kings who gives us an example of suffering for the world’s reconciliation. The cross does seem to be a scandal. As Miroslav Volf writes, the cross seems to stabilize the power of the evil in the world; it appears that it has won. Yet, it is precisely in the scandal that we have hope—the hope of the resurrection.

As Paul writes,

“For the word of cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

[1] Interestingly Josephus describes John Gischala, a leader of a band of militant bandits, with the same word (War 2.21.1 #585).
[2] Jesus’ description of the kingdom as not “of” this world should not be read to mean that Jesus somehow denied the possibility that the kingdom is somehow “in” the world. After all, Jesus tells the disciples that though they are “in” the world, they are not of it (cf. John 15:19). Similarly the kingdom seems to be somehow present “in” the world, though not “of” it.

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