"Give us Barabbas!", from The Bible and its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, 1910. Courtesy Wikipedia.
In reading the scriptures it must be kept in mind that the primary objective of the authors is not to simply record the events of history as they happened. Rather, their object is to promote their own particular viewpoint or ideas. The different gospel writers arranged the chronology and emphasized or deemphasized certain aspects of the events they wrote about in order to achieve their purposes.
The author of Matthew evidently wrote his gospel in such a way as to demonstrate how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Pentateuch, especially Deuteronomy 18:18 wherein God promises to send his people a new prophet like unto Moses.
It is helpful to examine the account in Matthew 27 in light of this knowledge as we attempt to discern why Matthew chose to include it in his gospel. It's possible that Matthew's inclusion of the Barabbas episode is intended as an allusion to Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) to illustrate how this most sacred of Jewish holy days pointed to the eventual ministry and mission of Jesus.
Leviticus chapter 16 describes the required rituals that are to be performed in observing Yom Kippur, central among them is the designation of the well known scapegoat. Perhaps less well known is that along with the scapegoat another goat was chosen as part of the ritual. Leviticus 16 describes the key elements of the ritual:
|The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt, 1854. Courtesy Wikipedia|
- Two goats were to be chosen and presented at the door of the tabernacle (verse 7).
- Aaron, the high priest, was to cast lots for the goats to designate one "for Yahweh" (aka Jehovah) and one "for Azazel" (verse 8).
- The goat for Yahweh was to be sacrificed as a sin offering and its blood was to be taken into the holy of holies and sprinkled on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat (verses 9,15-16).
- Aaron was then to lay his hands on the head of the goat for Azazel and confess over it all the sins, iniquities and transgressions of the people of Israel and then was to be banished into the wilderness (verses 21-22).
According to the Mishnah (Yoma 4:2) at the time of Jesus the scapegoat was to have a "thread of crimson wool" tied to its head prior to being sent away. Likewise a similar thread was to be placed on the neck of the sacrificial goat before being slaughtered. We will return to this point shortly.
Regarding the account of the prisoner release its interesting to note that early manuscript evidence indicates that Barabbas and Jesus may have shared the same name. The Anchor Bible Dictionary notes the following regarding the name of Barabbas (ABD, Barabbas [person]):
"An interesting variant occurs in Matt 27:16–17, where he is called 'Jesus Barabbas.' While extant manuscript evidence is weak, Origen implies that most manuscripts in his day (ca. A.D. 240) included the full name. Many scholars today accept the full name in Matthew as original and suggest that it was probably omitted by later scribes because of the repugnance of having Jesus Christ’s name being shared by Barabbas (TCGNT 67–8). It is not improbable for Barabbas to have the very common name Jesus. Matthew’s text reads more dramatically with two holders of the same name: 'Which Jesus do you want; the son of Abba, or the self-styled Messiah' (cf. Albright and Mann Matthew AB, 343–4). There is some evidence that the full name 'Jesus Barabbas' also originally appeared in Mark’s gospel (Mann Mark AB, 637)."
Wilkins, M. J. (1992). Barabbas (Person). In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1, p. 607). New York: Doubleday.
Therefore, based on this information about the observance of Yom Kippur and the detail of Barabbas' name it appears as though, as Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra points out in his book entitled The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity, the writer of Matthew may have been alluding to Yom Kippur motifs:
"...Matthew underscores the contrast between the two homonymous men (both called Jesus) and the choice between two similar entities. The people choose between Jesus A and Jesus B, who are very similar in name but extremely different in character. This description agrees with the halakhic ruling regarding the two goats on Yom Kippur. On the one hand the Mishnah demands similarity in look and value, on the other hand the ritual destinations of the two goats are totally different. While one goat is slaughtered and its blood brought into the holy of holies, the other goat is sent from the sanctuary into the desert." (169)
It is also interesting to note that Matthew (in Matthew 27:28) has Jesus' Roman tormentors placing a scarlet robe on him perhaps suggestive of the scarlet thread which was placed on the neck of the sacrificial Yom Kippur goat.
It is also possible that the scarlet robe was instead suggestive of the scarlet thread placed on the head of the scapegoat and that the involvement of the assembled masses in the choice between the two men inverted the Yom Kippur ritual in which God chose between the two goats through the casting of lots. Ben Ezra says the following regarding this idea:
"The people usurp the role of God on Yom Kippur in choosing between the two goats, Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas, who is released in their midst (and consequently pollutes them), and hence as the sacrificial goat, the wrong goat, Jesus of Nazareth, whose blood spilled at the wrong place, also pollutes them. Matthew mocks the temple ritual, and the people disregard the atonement in Jesus." (170-1)
In conclusion, it seems reasonable to suppose that Matthew did indeed intend an allusion to the rituals of Yom Kippur in his account of the prisoner release found in chapter 27 of his gospel and seems to support the words of Amulek found in Alma 34:14 where he says:
"And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal."