Jesus, the Insurrectionist?

There are three elements within Luke 23 that I have always understood independently, but never put together as a coherent whole until today.

In 23:2, Luke narrates Jesus’ appearance before Pilate wherein the Jewish leaders claim, “We found this one misleading our nation and forbidding us to pay our taxes to Caesar and saying that he is Christ, a king.”

Never mind the blatant falsity of their statement since Jesus had explicitly stated that they should render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s, the Jewish leaders claim two specific activities that would have created significant eyebrow raising for the Roman authorities:

  1. denying Caesar’s right to his tribute
  2. and claiming to be the rightful heir to the Davidic throne.

Combine these things with the claim that he was misleading the nation over which Pilate governed a part of meant certain trouble. Jesus, according to the Jewish leadership, was an insurrectionist in an historically unstable subject-nation.

Pilate, being unconvinced of Jesus’ guilt sent him off to Herod, only to have Herod send him back. After all the shuffling back and forth, Pilate convenes a meeting with the chief priests and rulers of the people and declares that both he and Herod have found no cause for imprisonment much less crucifixion.

And yet, the people remain unsatisfied with Pilate’s ruling, requesting he release Barabbas and not Jesus. Luke provides the identity of Barabbas in the relative clause of v.19: “[Barabbas], who was thrown in prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.”

When I hear this passage preached, often much is made of the fact that Barabbas is identified as a murderer and little of his activities as an insurrectionist. While his murderous act(s) are a part of Luke’s description, it seems to be contextually tied to his insurrection.

My point?

The chief priests and the rulers accused Jesus of inciting insurrection against Roman rule and are, at the same time, protesting Pilate to release a known insurrectionist.

Luke further compounds the ridiculousness of their hypocrisy by depicting the chief priests and rulers as threatening insurrection themselves. Notice how Luke recounts the event in 23:18–25:

  • “they all cried out together, ‘Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas’ “
  • “they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ “
  • “they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed.”

In sum, the chief priests and rulers accuse Jesus of insurrection, demand Pilate to free a known insurrectionist, and are successful because they threaten him with insurrection.

Luke seems to present the narrative in such a way that minimizes Pilate’s participation in the whole affair by detailing three pronouncements of Jesus’ innocence and maximizing the ironic actions of the Jewish religious leaders. I noticed something similar in Matthew where he rarely refers to Pilate by his name but instead calls him ἡγεμών (governor).

I’m sure several studies exist that explore Pilate’s complicity in Jesus’ crucifixion as well as the Gospel writers’ presentation of his involvement towards specific ends, so these are likely not new observations. Just some initial impressions as I translate my way through the NT.

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4 Responses to Jesus, the Insurrectionist?

  1. Dave Black says:

    I suppose the Greek could also be rendered “for an insurrection that happened in the city.” There seems to be little indication that Barabbas actually started the revolt. Was his murderous act part of that insurrection? Or unrelated? Luke leaves us with little information to help us to tease all this out!

  2. jacobcerone says:

    I simply defaulted to the ESV and NET translation for γενομένην (happened/began). It seems as if that translation might indicate that Barabbas himself was responsible for starting the revolt. I think I like your translation a bit better.

    Regarding his murderous act, I noticed right before publishing that the two details are linked by καί (διὰ στάσιν τινὰ γενομένην ἐν τῇ πόλει καὶ φόνον), which leaves the question open. I considered changing it to lessen the certainty of the conclusion, but thought Nolland’s comments on the verse gave me enough cover: “Luke does not mention fellow prisoners from the uprising, whereas Mark does so. In their absence, Barabbas becomes more directly linked to the rioting and murder.”

    Even so, the details we are given about Barabbas before, during, and after the event in all the Gospels is scant, and leaves much to the imagination.

  3. Mike Skinner says:

    Wright has pointed out before that historically, Jesus “literally” dies for the sins of his people. He is innocent of the charge of insurrection, while Barabbas (and many of the Israelites) are guilty.

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