Gospel of John: Bar Abbas


The chiasm outlined by Jo-Ann A. Brant has a classic seven-point structure.

A Exterior: John 18:29-32, Jesus is brought to Pilate with a demand for execution; Pilate refuses

     B Interior: John 18:33-38, Pilate asks about Jesus’s royal claim

          C Exterior: John 18:38-40, Pilate finds Jesus innocent, but the temple elite choose Barabbas

               D Interior: John 19:1-3, Soldiers scourge and scorn Jesus

          C’ Exterior John 19:4-8, Pilate finds Jesus innocent, but temple elite charge capital crime

      B’ Interior John 19:9-11, Pilate asks about Jesus’s origins

A’ Exterior John 19:12-15, Temple elite demand Jesus’s execution; Pilate agrees

After the interlude in Herod’s court, Jesus was sent to the Praetorium, to once again be seen by Procurator Pontius Pilate. Some historians have placed the Praetorium on the temple mount, adjacent to Fort Antonia. However, archaeological evidence strongly suggests the Seat of Judgment was in the center of Herod’s royal residence in Jerusalem.

Putting together all four gospels, it seems Pilate had independently gone to Herod’s palace, observed the events in Herod’s meeting hall, and taken himself to the judge’s seat ahead of Jesus’s arrival, in time to receive a message from his wife concerning the prisoner.

Today will begin the other side of the arc of the third line in Brant’s chiasm.


Herod had initially invited Pilate to sit with Herodias and himself on the royal dais, but Pilate had declined. A military man, he found it tactically advantageous to observe a room from a less visible vantage point. A carved chair was added to the area reserved for dignitaries and members of Herod’s royal court, and the prefect stationed himself behind several of the more diminutive members of Herod’s entourage, arranging his cloak to display its luxuriant color and fabric to best advantage.

Having carefully located a line of exit, positioned his personal guards along the wall of columns behind him, with instructions to make way for him when arose, and sent his servants on to the Praetorium’s judgment hall to assure its proper appointments, Pilate settled himself and awaited Jesus’s arrival.

Whatever it was he had hoped for, what ensued was a sour disappointment. The Idumean, with all his artifice, could not coax even a sound from the Galilean savant. Even as the soldiers produced a worn royal cloak to make sport of their captive, Pilate was surreptitiously slipping out of his chair and in one smooth movement stepping through the way made by his guard.

Ever watchful, Annas quietly gripped Caiaphas’s elbow, who startled, looked down in confusion at his father-in-law, then followed the point of Annas’s low-held hand. The procurator was moving. Turning his head slightly, Pilate caught the eye of them both and motioned they should follow him. Amidst the laughter and jeering, the hoots from gallery and dais, the commotion of onlookers entertained by grotesque comedy, Annas, Caiaphas, and the elders who had accompanied them jostled their way through the crowd. They were to the Praetorium bound.

Pilate had already entered the judgment hall, acknowledged with approval the royal vestments, the banners, the placement for his armed men, the area reserved for prisoners to be brought forward, and the areas set aside for both advisors and spectators. Just as he seated himself, the chief priests entered with their small company of religious rulers. Pilate indicated they should approach the judge’s dais.

You brought this person to me as one perverting the people and turning them away, but you saw I myself who investigated him in your presence—not even one thing did I discover in this person to cause your accusations against him.

Annas’s face reddened and Caiaphas had begun to open his mouth in rebuttal. The elders, their tongues loosened in Herod’s hall, were already trying to shout above the prefect’s steady voice. Pilate raised his left hand with a sharp and violent movement, palm outward, Stop! While with his right he jerked a motion toward the dais, immediately rousing his guard to approach.

Suddenly silenced, the temple elite turned their heads to look at the guard, then back to Pilate’s steady and clearly aggravated expression.

Indeed, and Pilate thrust his hand in the direction of Herod’s court, neither Herod, for he sent him to us! And -not one thing- deserving death has he been engaged in.

Caiaphas’s hands were tightly balled together in front of him, as he held them close to his chest. Annas’s teeth were audibly grinding, the elders were in various stages of low, guttural expostulations, their jaws clenched, when a servant from the procurator’s household appeared from behind the dais, through the private door to the judge’s inner chamber. Pilate signaled a curt summons, and the servant delivered a barely audible message from the governor’s wife.

Sir, the man swallowed, catching his breath, from the mistress. She sends word to your honor not to have anything to do with the innocent man. The lady relays great suffering she has had in a dream concerning this man.

As the servant spoke in his hoarse and breathless whisper, Pilate’s eyes swiveled to the coterie of darkly seething men before him, in their torn priestly robes. By this point he had realized their underlying issue lay in professional envy. These religious hypocrites did not like Jesus’s popularity and his seemingly genuine spiritual authority, and his quite evident pull with the people. They were intent on stamping out their competition, and they thought to use him to do their filthy little errand.

Now this.

His wife had apparently been given a prophetic dream early that morning that had deeply disturbed her. Pilate, as any Roman would, put great stock in this sort of thing. It was clearly guidance from the gods. And Pilate himself trusted his wife, who was a spiritual woman, of high breeding, excellent character, an honorable patrician whom he respected, as did his whole house.

The prefect had in any case grown increasingly uneasy with the idea of executing Jesus. He looked up as people had begun to press into the courtyard. They were there for the traditional Passover release of one prisoner, the prisoner of their choice. As the chief priests and elders turned to see the court fill, an idea began to form in Pilate’s mind.

He had already received an official request of the people to free Bar Abbas this year, a known Hebrew zealot and terrorist who had committed murder in the last uprising against the Romans. Having no tolerance for insurrection, Pilate had Bar Abbas immediately imprisoned, indicted on sedition, and slated for the cross. Perhaps Bar Abbas’s notoriety as an enemy of the state, a violent criminal, would provide an opportunity to free Jesus.

The procurator waved the servant away once his message was delivered, then turned to lock eyes with Caiaphas, whom he had personally appointed as high priest. This man was to be his creature, if only he could separate him from Annas’s wily cunning. In carefully measured tones, Pilate explained his proposition, now, it is your custom with the intent for one among you to be forgiven and released, set at liberty during the Passover. Thus, are you all minded that I release the King of the Judeans?

Pilate had framed it as a question. But his face and his voice made the answer he expected clear. He would enable them to climb out of the hole they had dug for themselves, attempting—scheming—to put an innocent man to death, and their own king at that.

Pilate watched as beads of sweat formed under the high priest’s head covering, one drop after another beginning to slide down the sides of his face. Annas could stand it no longer, as the procurator’s eyes drilled holes into the younger man’s face. No! Not! This! Man! Annas punctuated each word with a finger jab toward the area where the prisoners were kept.

Then Annas turned toward the people, who had quieted at the sound of his angry voice. Not this man, he goaded them to chant. Give us Bar Abbas! Caiaphas—who had found his courage—joined with them, the chief priests punching the air with both fists, the elders throwing their hands toward the swaying mass of people, Bar A-bbas, Bar A-bbas, the hypnotic rhythm frothed them into a frenzy.

Pilate stood and shouted over the fray, Which of the two do you all want me to pardon and set free to you? Bar Abbas? Pilate bit out his name with a sneer of contempt, or Jesus who is called Christ? The comparison was obvious: Did they still want to free a villainous murderer, or would they take the nobler option of freeing this gentle holy man who had been falsely accused?

 He watched incredulously as the people surged forward toward his dais. Bar Abbas!


[Story taken from Luke 23:13-15, 19; Matthew 27:15-21; Mark 15:6-8; John 18:39-40]

[Barabbas | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]

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