NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
In His dealing with the false accusations made by these religious leaders, our Lord was following the pattern foretold by the prophet Isaiah, “He was treated badly, but he never protested. He said nothing, like a lamb being led away to be killed. He was like a sheep that makes no sound as its wool is being cut off. He never opened his mouth to defend himself.”1 Pilate couldn’t understand Jesus’ silence, but what he didn’t know was that our Lord was on a mission. Therefore, the Master stood silent because He felt the same way His royal ancestor did, “LORD, You are my source of strength, so I have been an example to others.”2
It also fulfilled what was told to another high priest, “Listen, Joshua, you who are the high priest, and listen, you fellow priests seated before him. You are all examples to show what will happen when I bring my special servant. He is called, the Branch.”3 This is quite contrary to what a German philosopher said: “Those who keep silent are almost always lacking in subtlety and refinement of the heart; silence is an objection, to swallow a grievance must necessarily produce a bad temper.”4
Chrysostom follows up on the intent of the questioning: “Do you see what He is asked first? Is this the same charge that they had been continually bringing forward in every circumstance? They could see that Pilate was not ready to take into account subtle matters of Jewish law. So they directed their accusation outwardly to state charges of political disloyalty. They did the same later with the apostles, always charging them with political motivations, always bringing forward some trumped-up idea that they were after worldly power. They were treating Jesus now as if He were a mere man and as if He were under suspicion of treason.… What they were really interested in was finding some charge that would have Him put to death.”5
Verses 13-14: So Pilate said to Him, “Don’t you hear all these charges they are making against you? Why don’t you answer?” But Jesus said nothing, and this really surprised the governor.
Here Christ exemplifies the ultimate in what we find so impossible today, that is: “innocent silence.” Jesus said more by remaining silent than if He would have embarked on a long discourse defending Himself. It is a lesson for us, that when we are unjustly accused, we can stand strong and not give in to the urge of trying to explain the unexplainable. If we do feel any necessity to utter a response, Jesus gives us an example of that too, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
Maximus of Turin gives us his eloquent sermon on our Lord’s unusual silence in the face of these baseless accusations: “It might seem remarkable to you, brothers, that the Lord should be accused by the chief priests before the procurator Pilate and should be silent and that He should not refute their wickedness by His response, since indeed a defense which follows quickly is the only way to refute a persistent accusation. It might seem remarkable, I say, brothers, that the Savior should be accused and should remain silent. Silence is occasionally understood as an affirmation, for when a person does not wish to respond to what is asked of him he appears to confirm what is raised against him. Does the Lord then confirm his accusation by not speaking? Clearly, He does not confirm His accusation by not speaking; rather He despises it by not refuting it. For one who needs no defense does well to keep silent, but let one who fears to be overcome defend himself and one who is afraid of being vanquished hasten to speak. When Christ is condemned, however, He also overcomes, and when He is judged He also vanquishes, as the prophet says: ‘that you should be justified in your words and should vanquish when you are judged.’6 Why was it necessary for Him, therefore, to speak before being judged, when for Him judgment was a complete victory?”7
Verses 15-16: Every year at Passover time the governor would free one prisoner—whichever one the people wanted him to free. At that time there was a man in prison who was known to be a trouble-maker. His name was Bar-Abbas.
Jewish historian Josephus tells us about this custom: “When Albinus heard that Gessius Florus was coming to succeed him, he was desirous to appear to do something that might be grateful to the people of Jerusalem; so he brought out all those prisoners who seemed to him to be most plainly worthy of death and ordered them to be put to death accordingly. But as to those who had been put into prison on some trifling charge, he accepted money for their fines and dismissed them.”8
So apparently, this act by Pilate was sanctioned by Rome as long as those prisoners “who seemed most worthy of death” were not released. This is interesting, since this incident with Lucceius Albinus, the procurator of Judea, took place around 64 AD. Could it be that what happened as a result of this custom allowed Bar-Abbas to be set free? But why would Pilate choose someone, who was not guilty of a capital crime that warranted a death sentence be granted a reprieve in place of someone for whom the death sentence was being asked? Perhaps Pilate didn’t see any reason to condemn Jesus to death and hoped these religious leaders would see it the same way and agree.
There has been some discussion about the name Bar-Abbas. The Aramaic Version reads “Bar-Abba” meaning, “father’s son” which some scholars take to be the equivalent of what we would say today as, the father’s “pet son.” In other words, he was a spoiled brat just like his father. But his name has come down to the English-speaking world as Barabbas. When checking a well-known Jewish Book of Genealogies we find that Bar-Abba was a common name among the Jews, appearing over 47 times, including Jeremiah Bar-Abba, Hiyya Bar Abba, Ammi Bar Abba, Abba Bar Abba, Samuel Bar Abba, Aha Bar Abba, etc.9
There is a humorous story in Jewish tradition about this name. Someone went to the cemetery and was asked who they were looking for. They answered, “I am looking for Abba. They said to him: There are many Abbas here. I want Abba bar Abba, he said. They replied: There are also several Abba bar Abbas here. He then said to them: I want Abba bar Abba the father of Samuel; where is he? They replied: He has gone up to the Academy of the Sky.”10 So it appears that Bar-Abbas was something like a nickname.
In addition, when the Jews translated the Gospels, in the Münster Edition it reads, “Bar Rabba,” which means, “the son of a master.” But we find an interesting play on words in the Complete Jewish Bible, were verse 16 reads, “There was at that time a notorious prisoner being held, named Yeshua Bar-Abba.” With our Lord’s name also being Yeshua, that would make Pilate’s question in verse seven more interesting when put this way: “Pilate asked the crowd, ‘Whom do you want me to set free for you? Yeshua the son of Abba? or Yeshua the Son of God?” But even this would not be enough to persuade them.
1 Isaiah 53:7
2 Psalm 71:7
3 Zechariah 3:8
4 Fredrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: Nietzsche’s Autobiography, The McMillan Co. New York, 1911, p. 19
5 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 86.1
6 Psalm 51:4
7 Maximus of Turin: Sermons 57.1
8 Titus Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus Complete Works, Acheron Press, Bk. 22, Ch. 9:5
9 Book of Lineage by Abraham Zacuto
10 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berakoth, folio 18b